June 15, 2015

1954. The Rise of Gamal Abdel Nasser

Nasser Fights the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt
Bill Downs with then-Prime Minister Gamal Abdel Nasser for an interview in Cairo in 1954
Bill Downs interviewed Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser in late 1954. In a memo to CBS management, Downs gave his impressions of Nasser and Egypt, noting the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood, the revolutionary government's economic reforms, and the future of the country. Below the letter is the list of the original questions Downs drafted months earlier for the interview.
December 2, 1954

TO: Sig Mickelson, Ed Murrow, Ed Morgan

FROM: Bill Downs, CBS Rome
This is intended as a rundown of impressions, observations, and news I picked up during my recent twelve days in Egypt. I talked with US Embassy officials, resident newsmen and, of course, had the two and a half hours with Prime Minister Nasser during the lengthy filming of the interview (which I hope someone has seen by this time.) I also traveled in the desert some sixty miles north of Cairo on the western edge of the delta to look over their model reclamation project and over to the Suez Canal zone to talk with the British concerning their evacuation.

My impressions are limited to government spokesmen and, of course, I did not get to any members of the Moslem Brotherhood who form the biggest question mark in the new regime. I gather that there is little point in getting the spot interviews with the fellahin, since their ignorance and superstition are now augmented by fear of the police. Anyway, they are still mainly interested only in the next meal, and their policies are based on that one important fact.

My impression of the young men who are now running Egypt is that they are an extremely confident group of army officers dedicated to furthering the country into the twentieth century, but also nervous concerning the Moslem Brotherhood and its threat to them and the future of their national program. They have been shocked at the revelations concerning the Brotherhood plot to seize control of the country. It was extremely well-organized and involved fanatical cadres assembled along military lines assigned to assassinate the Revolutionary Command Council, take over, and bomb and burn government buildings and installations with carefully hidden caches of arms, ammunition, and explosives in every major city of the country.

At least a thousand leaders of this counterrevolution have been incarcerated and will go on trial. The bumf has it that upwards of four thousand conspirators and suspects have been arrested and jailed.

The plot was so well designed that some government officials suspect that professional revolutionaries might have had a hand—the main basis for the claims that the Communists are collaborating with the Brotherhood. Another obstacle in assessing the danger is that no one, not even Nasser, is exactly sure how large the secret organization is, the state of its discipline, the extent of its fanaticism, or the loyalty of its membership to the Moslem cause. It has been stated at various times by various officials that the Brotherhood membership ranges from 100,000 to 250,000 or 400,000.

When I saw him, Nasser appeared to be extremely careless of his personal safety. We met in the offices of the Presidency of the Council of Ministers, a building across the street from the old Parliament in which he does much of his work. The Colonel laughed when he pointed out that Army troops had been placed around the Revolutionary Command Council headquarters around his own billets and the presidential palace.

But someone forgot about the Office of the Council Presidency. It was discovered that, across the street in an apartment building, the Brotherhood had staked out an observation post. They intended to move in and take the entire cabinet including the Prime Minister with some fifty troops dressed in military police uniforms. The plot didn't come off, but they found the uniforms. At the time, only two policemen were at the gate.

Still, the nervousness was evident, particularly when I asked him about rumors that his wife and four children had been threatened. What disturbs all of the Nasser regime is that they keep turning up belts of gelignite designed to be worn around the waist. The idea is that a fanatical member of the group will put on this explosive and at some propitious moment advance smiling to fact the Prime Minister, and then touch off the stuff—blowing the assassin and the assassinated to perdition. There is no way to address such fanaticism, and the leaders of the Brotherhood have money and the mosques behind them.

In a way, Egypt's is the strongest revolution in years. It had all the traditional aspects when Farouk was kicked out. The aristocracy fled, hangers-on were jailed, property was confiscated, and all the rest. Yet throughout it all it has been comparatively free of blood, and one of the features of this regime is the intentness to avoid bloodshed wherever possible. The speculation is that, in the current reason trials, there will be few, if any, death sentences. The handling of the problem of General Naguib is typical of the attitude.

As I wrote to you earlier on the Egyptian situation, General Naguib is a sincere Egyptian patriot, but now he is apparently not willing to go along with even the present mild RCC dictatorship. This was evident when they kicked him upstairs last spring and made him president. However, the General's personal popularity is tremendous—something like MacArthur's—and it was not politically expedient to move against him at that time. The unsuccessful attempt to assassinate Nasser provided the excuse, and apparently the Nasser boys are going to get away with it.

In my interview with Nasser I submitted the questions beforehand. His English is not very good, and they answers were prepared for him. One of my questions read: "Since the recent attempt on your life, the world has been wondering as to the future place of General Naguib in Egypt. Also, what effect does your government's banishment of the Moslem Brotherhood have on your relations with the other Arab countries?"

Nasser struck the first part of the question, but the answer had been supplied by his staff. I used it as coming from a government source, or at least I hope to use it by the time you get this. The unused answer was:

"General Naguib was prepared to listen to false promises made by subversive and extremist elements under the illusion that they would invest him with full power. While we are advancing toward real democracy, Naguib wanted to become an absolute dictator.  Unfortunately, he did not realize that they intended to utilize him to serve their end and then get rid of him."

As to the second part of the question, which you may by now have seen, Nasser replied that "the suppression of the Moslem Brethren and the Communists in Egypt will serve the security and stability not only of Egypt, but throughout the world." I suspect the Communist angle was inserted for American consumption. However, it is typical of the conciliatory attitude of this "revolution" that Naguib has now been given the use of two automobiles and a pension which I hear adds up to about eight hundred dollars a month.

The RCC is being attacked on two fronts by its friendly critics. One group says that it should make up its mind to be a revolutionary dictatorship—since it is a dictatorship anyway—and move in on its opposition, attack frontally the superstitions and customs the Moslem religion imposes which impede progress, and take over industries and businesses which refuse to cooperate and get along with the job of modernizing the economy.

The other group, comprised mostly of the wealthy and established families, are shocked by the RCC's treatment of and the charges against General Naguib. They admit that the facts of life about Farouk and Co. and generally applaud the agreement with the British on Suez, but they cannot believe that Naguib was a conspirator in the Moslem Brotherhood plot as charged.

Neither does the RCC, apparently, as per the Prime Minister's reply above. But they felt Naguib had to be removed from their government so they could operate freely. They are conscious of the fact that Naguib is still alive and a symbol of the opposition, but they choose to do nothing about it—yet.

The "revolution" can yet become bloody. But the present policy it to avoid bloodshed and attempt to build up confidence in the regime to promote foreign investment, increase tourism, and most of all un-scare domestic capital to risk new industry and business in the country. This, I believe, is the key to the present policy. If it doesn't work, or if the Brethren make an all-out attempt to take over the country, then watch out.

What you have then is a group of young military men all under forty who are determined to make something of their country, but are on the surface a little embarrassed about how to do it. Many have been educated in British schools and have inherited something of the British attitude of "not being beastly." Nasser continually speaks of the time which will come when "we can have real democracy in Egypt." One gets the impression that he is embarrassed by his dictatorial powers and wants to get rid of them.

To this end, the RCC is about to set up an Advisory Council which will act as a kind of parliament advising the government. They hope to draw in the best brains in the country from all phases of national life. The problem is to make the country secure so that anyone accepting such a position will not automatically become an assassin's' target.

However, the revolution is there even though the RCC is treading carefully and slowly. The speak with pride of "getting rid of the British," and one of their big agricultural projects that I visited, the "Liberation district" some sixty miles north of Cairo, reflects what has become a rote kind of dislike for the British. The new villages in this reclamation are being named after heroes who died in the running fight with the English troops preceding the Suez agreement.

There is also a national pride arising. On any project underway where it applies the officials take care to point out that "this is an entirely Egyptian effort." Nasser talked in terms of "the uneven distribution of wealth that prevailed before the revolution" and said the revolution "is responsible for overturning a system which made for the wide differentiation between classes and the feudal system of trade industry and agriculture in which a privileged few enrich themselves at the expense of those who have only their own labor to sell."

The RCC claims that land reform—the law which specifies that no person can own more than two hundred acres—has been eminently successful. The monarchist estates seized and cut up amount to a small portion of the country, but officials claim that the psychological effect on the population has been tremendous. For the first time in centuries, if ever, someone has concerned himself with the plight of the fellah. He has worked under slave conditions for hundreds of years with no hope of improvement for himself and his family. The mere fact of making it possible for such a man to own land is a tremendously important political factor in the new Egypt. I gathered that this revolution will be extended to industry where eventually there might be such things as labor unions, child labor laws, and industrially sponsored social benefit schemes. At present, such things are unheard of an hardly contemplatable in that primitive society.

The RCC's big project right now is harnessing the Nile, incidentally something comparable to the building of the pyramids. The aim is to not only make more acreage tillable—and they can increase there agriculture about 1/5th by 1.5 million acres—but the idea also is to industrialists.

Toward this end the RCC is electrifying the Aswan Dam, which will be accomplished in 1959 and produce something like 345,000 kilowatt hours. But the big project now awaiting an international study and some financing from the World Bank and other sources is the "High Dam" cutting across a narrow pass some four miles south of Aswan and which will be four times the size of our Hoover Dam, producing the largest artificial lake in the world. This project, if it comes off, might be said to be the true revolution in Egypt.

The High Dam is now being studied by international experts, and the Cairo government is applying to the World Bank for financing as well as seeking loans elsewhere. It will be an electrification project as well as one controlling the annual floods of the Nile. Economic planning experts have already laid out the places for future industry to build its iron and steel plants, nitrate, and fertilizer industries and others. The High Dam will produce ten billion kilowatt hours per year, enough to supply these industries and also to give power to Cairo.

Behind all of this is a sincere desire to raise the standard of living for the fellahin, and one way to do this is to industrialize and get the people out of the villages and plots and into factories. With this in view, the Revolutionary planners are attempting to lure foreign firms to establish spare-parts and machine tool industries there. There are also plans for rubber, sugar beet, Jute, and paper industries. A survey is underway to study the existing Egyptian industry with a view towards expansion and allying into the national economy as a whole.

Exactly what socioeconomic pattern the new Egypt will take is not yet clear. There has been no seizure of business or industry, but Egyptian risk capital is still mightily scared and is in hiding. It may be that the government itself will have to institute the new industries unless foreign companies come in. I think the RCC would prefer capitalists to do the job, but if they do not, then the government will probably move in.

The RCC is particularly proud of its record of social betterment. A slum-clearing program is underway in major cities. In the past two and a half years the government has built some 230 schools as opposed to only seven built by the former regime in the same period immediately preceding. Over two hundred million dollars has been earmarked for such projects since the RCC came to power.

In the land distribution and land reclamation programs the system being set up is quasi-socialistic. People given land are usually organized into settlements similar to the Israeli system. Each new farmer has the right to buy and own a few acres of land of his own as well as his house, but he must raise the crops assigned to him and work on the larger acreage owned by the settlement. His children will attend the village nursery and school. His marketing will be done for him on a cooperative basis. He must buy his bread from the village bakery. He must not be allowed to keep his animals in the house, as is the tradition. He must learn and observe the rudimentary rules of hygiene. And in some cases he will wear the distinctive uniform of his village, perhaps dark trousers with blue shirts. These projects are intended to build up a generation of modern Egyptians and to get away from the traditional nightgown on the street.

In the field of foreign policy, there seems to be an almost deliberate attempt to ignore Israel. One gets the idea that the Egyptians wish somehow the whole mess would go away. Nasser's reply to questions about the "little war" to the north is automatic. He says Israel must first abide by the 1947-48 decisions of the United Nations. Any recognition of the Israeli state would be a fait accompli and thus impair the effectiveness of the UN and establish a precedent wherein conquest by arms is to be recognized. However, one gets the impression that the RCC would like a face-saving solution. One feeler put out concerns giving assurance of communication between Egypt and the other Arab states now cut in two by the Jewish occupation of the Negev.

But the most fascinating phase of Egyptian foreign policy now underway concerns the Moslem Brotherhood vis-à-vis the other Arab states to the north. The Brotherhood is strong in each of the governments of Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq, and Egypt's banishment of the Brotherhood is bound to be considered an affront. How deeply this will affect the relations between the countries remain to be seen, but it's significant that many Egyptians with Brotherhood connections have received asylum in these countries.

This is about all of it. I apologize for the length—but you can always read this stuff in the can.

Regards,

Bill

SUGGESTED QUESTIONS FOR CBS TELEVISION - RADIO INTERIEW WITH LT. COL. GAMAL ABDEL NASSER

The purpose of this interview is not to create controversy but rather to project the views and personality of Lt. Col. Nasser. In other words we hope to educate and produce understanding. Because of the problems of lightings and in order to produce an atmosphere of informality, we would appreciate it if our camera could set up in a garden or some place outside where Lt. Col. Nasser and Bill Downs could talk, Downs asking the questions and receiving the Colonel's replies. Informatively, the question and answer technique is preferred since the soundtrack of the film also is utilized on the coast-to-coast facilities of the CBS Radio Network. It is understood that Lt. Col. Nasser can rephrase, eliminate, or add to the following list of questions, all of which are mere suggestions as to the course of the interview.
1. Colonel Nasser, the Egyptian Revolution will soon be two years old. How do you visualize the future development of the revolution? What phases does the Revolutionary Council see before it? In other words, what has yet to happen before you can turn over the revolution intact to the people? Where does General Naguib fit into this picture?
2. What are the outstanding domestic problems now facing your government? Economic, political, educational, or what?

3. The world has been watching with intense interest the Anglo-Egyptian struggle over Suez. Have there been any recent positive developments? What is your next step if a satisfactory solution is not found?

4. Another major foreign policy problem facing your government is the question of Israel. If I remember correctly, you listed your revolutionary goals "the restoration of the honor of Egyptian arms." Can this be done without reengagement with the Zionist army? What do you regard as the minimum terms for the settlement of the Israeli-Arab dispute? Do you regard the US Middle Eastern policy as recently set down by Undersecretary of State [sic] Byroade as furthering peace in this dispute?

5. What do you see as Egypt's role in the Moslem world? In the Arab world?

6. In the current worldwide East-West Cold War, do you believe that Egypt can remain neutral? Do you regard Soviet Russia as a potential ally or a potential threat to the Middle East?

7. There are persistent reports of increased Communist activity in the Middle East, particularly among the poor and working classes. Do you regard this as a threat to the Egyptian Revolution or to the stability of the Middle East? What is your domestic policy toward Communism?

8. There is admitted suspicion of United States policy and motives in this part of the world. Why is this, and what can be done about it?