Some good journalism that connects history of Egypt and the Arab world to the present
Nasser Time Line
As a filmmaker working on a film about a complicated historical subject, I find it useful to make a timeline. This is a cleaned-up version of my working timeline for “Nasser’s Republic.” It doesn’t claim to be comprehensive – just relevant to my project.
BUILDING A MODERN EGYPTIAN NATION WITHIN THE FRAMEWORK OF OCCUPATION: 1805-1956
THIS IS THE CENTRAL PROJECT AND THE OVER-ARCHING CONSTRAINT THAT AFFECTED EVERYTHING ELSE – INCLUDING THE MENTAL AND EMOTIONAL FORMATION OF GAMAL ABDEL NASSER’S GENERATION.
THE OTTOMAN EMPIRE: 1805-1882
WHAT IN THIS PERIOD BEFORE NASSER’S BIRTH WAS MOST RELEVANT TO THE WORLD HE INHERITED?
1820’s Cotton cultivation begins in Egypt
Mohamed Ali Pasha, ruling Egypt nominally in the service of the Ottoman Empire, embarks on an enormous modernization project, building infrastructure, developing education, and restructuring agricultural production for export. In 1822, cotton cultivation begins in the Nile Delta with seed from the Sudan.
1859-1869 Construction of the modern Suez Canal.
Initiated by the French diplomat Ferdinand De Lesseps and dug by Egyptian forced labor, a new canal in Egypt between the Mediterranean and the Red Sea shortens the journey between the North Atlantic and Indian Oceans by approximately 4,300 miles. That, combined with the construction of the North American transcontinental railway, will transform the world economy. The Suez Canal Company has a 99-year-lease on the Canal itself, the primary shareholders being France, England, and Egypt. But the canal greatly exceeds its anticipated construction costs, throwing the Khedive of Egypt into debt and thereby solidifying British control. Over the next 75 years, Egypt’s cotton will supply Britain’s mills.
BRITISH COLONIALISM AND EGYPTIAN NATIONALISM: 1882-1956
These co-dependent conditions, each defining and defined by the other, shaped Nasser’s psychology from his childhood on – including his intuitive sense of what it means to be a man.
British forces occupy Egypt. With this occupation, British control of Egypt begins. In 1899, Britain claims control of the Sudan, considered by Egyptians to belong to Egypt.
On January 15 Gamal Abdel Nasser is born in Alexandria to a lower middle-class family. His father is an employee of the Egyptian post office.
The Egyptian Revolution
Led by the nationalist Wafd organization, soon to become a political party, Egyptians of all walks of life resist British control. Although the revolution is put down by the British, its nationalist agenda provides a political, emotional, and intellectual road map for the rising generation to which Gamal Abdel Nasser belongs.
1923-1936: The reign of King Fuad
In response to Egyptian demands, the British end Egypt’s status as a protectorate, declaring it a constitutional monarchy. But Britain retains control: the new Egyptian constitution establishes a multi-party parliamentary system with power carefully balanced between the Egyptian Parliament and Egypt’s King. Britain controls the Canal Zone, the Sudan, Egypt’s military, the protection of foreigners within Egypt, and the Egyptian police. British forces continue to be stationed in Egypt.
Hassan al-Banna, a schoolteacher, founds the Muslim Brotherhood in an assertion that the Islam properly practiced offers the best response to the 1919 Revolution.
1936-1952: The reign of King Farouk
In 1936 King Fuad dies and his 16-year-old son Farouk inherits the throne.
Attempts to readjust the Anglo-Egyptian relationship, with the rise of ultra-nationalist parties in Egypt and massive demonstrations against the British on one side, and Britain’s determination to keep control over the Suez Canal on the other.
In 1935, Gamal Abdel Nasser, now in high school, organizes a mass protest in Cairo. It turns violent; two of his friends are killed by police gunfire; Nasser is struck by a police baton and spends the night in jail. He begins preparing himself for leadership, reading voraciously, everything from biographies of Churchill and Ataturk to the prose of Tawfiq al-Hakim.
The new Anglo-Egyptian Treaty of 1936 calls for the withdrawal of British forces to the Suez Canal, but requires that Egypt be allied to Britain in case of war. The Treaty leaves Britain in control of the Egyptian army and responsible for Egypt’s defense. Britain reforms Egypt’s military academies.
1936-1939: Arab Revolt in Palestine
The Revolt asserts the Palestinian nationalist agenda calling for an end to the British Mandate which supports the establishment of a “Jewish National Home.” In Palestine. Egyptians see this uprising as a mirror of their own nationalist struggles. Gamal Abdel Nasser and some of his friends help train Muslim Brotherhood fighters heading for Palestine in support of the revolt.
In 1937, Nasser gains entrance to the Egyptian Military Academy, where he is trained by British officers in military strategy and tactics. There he meets Anwar Sadat, Abdel Hakim Amer and others who become life-long associates. Over the next years Nasser maintains a link to the Academy, serving as a popular instructor there.
1939-1945: The Second World War. Britain fights for its life.
King Farouk surrounds himself with anti-British, pro-German politicians.
On Feb.4, British troops surround Abdeen Palace, and the British Ambassador threatens King Farouk with forced abdication if he does not appoint a pro-British cabinet. Farouk complies. Egyptian nationalists are deeply humiliated. Gamal Abdel Nasser and his close associates in the military begin to think about how they can resist the British in order to strengthen the king.
Gamal Abdel Nasser marries Tahia Kazem. The first of their five children, Hoda Abdel Nasser, is born two years later. It is a mutually happy marriage, lasting until Nasser’s death.
1945: Post-war: reconfiguration of the international order
Formation of the League of Arab States, a regional organization with a focus on developing Arab regional power. The League is centered in Cairo, thus asserting Egypt’s primacy over Iraq, its key rival for Arab leadership.
1947: U.N. Resolution for the Partition of Palestine.
1948: Palestine War
On May 15, the state of Israel formally came into being. It is invaded by Egypt, Jordan, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon, all of them founding members of the League of Arab States.
Around 720,000 Palestinians are expelled from the homes or flee to the West Bank or Gaza, under Egyptian control, as well as to Jordan, Lebanon and Syria. Gamal Abdel Nasser’s brigade is besieged in al-Faluja in Gaza; they hold out until the armistice. The war is a turning point in Nasser’s thinking.
In Cairo, attacks on Jews lead about 20,000 Egyptian Jews (25%) to leave Egypt.
1949: Arab-Israeli Armistice.
Feb. 12: Hassan al-Banna, founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, is murdered by Farouk’s Secret Service. Thousands of Muslim Brothers are placed in detention, as are Communists. The paramilitary wing of the Brotherhood becomes virtually autonomous.
Nasser distances himself from the Muslim Brotherhood.
Feb. 24: The Israel-Egypt Armistice Agreement is signed. The Faluja Brigade returns to Cairo. Nasser and a small group of young officers establish their highly secret Association of Free Officers. Their objective is no longer to strengthen King Farouk, whom they now see as an obstruction to a definitive end to British control. As military officers, they regard themselves as Egyptian patriots above civilian politics.
1950-52: Within Egypt, increasing instability
In early 1950, Egypt’s last free elections bring in a vociferously nationalist government under the Wafd, which in 1951 unilaterally abrogates the Anglo-Egyptian Treaty of 1936.
By 1952, Egypt’s economy is at an impasse. 2 thousand families own large agricultural estates of 200 feddans or more. 1.6 million families – 60% of rural population – are landless.
1952-1954: An old government is brought down. A new government takes shape.
On January 25, British soldiers near the Suez Canal round up Egyptians whom they suspect of sedition, killing 41 Egyptians.
On January 26, in response, the Burning of Cairo; mass demonstrations during which a mob torches hundreds of buildings associated with the British and European elite. Martial law is declared.
Over the next 6 months, 3 Prime Ministers are appointed and quickly replaced. Egyptians believe that King Farouk’s government is no longer able to function.
The July 23 Revolution
Learning that King Farouk’s secret police may be about to arrest them, Gamal Abdel Nasser decides to move against the king during the night of July 23. The American Ambassador brokers a deal between the Free Officers and King Farouk: the British will not intervene as long as King Farouk is assured safe passage out of Egypt. The July 23 coup is basically bloodless. The next morning Egyptians wake up to the voice of Anwar Sadat announcing that the Free Officers have taken over in order to “cleanse the nation of tyrants” and “restore constitutional life.” They present General Mohamed Naguib, a well-known and beloved war-hero, as their leader. The Free Officers rename themselves the Revolutionary Command Council (RCC). They ask a former Prime Minister to form an all-civilian government, with the RCC in a supervisory role, essentially taking over the functions of the King.
In early September the Prime Minister resigns; The program the RCC is advocating is too radical for the conservative civilians in his cabinet. A few days later, the RCC issues Land Reform legislation, taking about 5% of agricultural land away from the owners of the great estates and giving it to the peasants who farm it. Though a small number of peasants are actually affected, the message is clear, and the RCC wins the loyalty of the peasantry. The Americans are in favor of this law, as a hedge against communism.
In November, the RCC sends its first mission to the US in search of arms. The results are and will continue to be unsuccessful; Eisenhower does not want the U.S. to participate in an arms race between the Arabs and the Israelis.
1953: The RCC entrenches itself.
In January, the RCC dissolves all Egyptian political parties and associations, confiscates their assets, and imprisons some of their leaders. In their stead, the RCC inaugurates the first of a series of government-run mass organizations and announces a three-year transitional period under military dictatorship.
In June, the RCC abolishes the Monarchy and establishes a Republic, formalizing direct military rule. General Naguib is the President and Prime Minister. Gamal Abdel Nasser is the deputy Prime Minister and the Interior Minister. Nasser’s right-hand man, Abdel Hakim Amer, is the Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces though he has little military experience.
On July 4, Voice of the Arabs radio broadcasts for the first time. Nasser will devote considerable resources to its expansion, and over the next years it will broadcast his voice and agenda throughout the Arab-speaking world. Nasser supports Algeria’s struggle against French Occupation.
1954: Nasser secures control of the government
In January the Muslim Brotherhood organizes large-scale student and labor protests rejecting the RCCs efforts to negotiate with the British for their withdrawal and advocating instead outright war against the British garrisons in the Canal Zone as well as maintenance of Egyptian control of the Sudan. In response, the RCC imprisons 400 Muslim Brothers including the Supreme Guide.
In February and March, the anti-RCC front continues to precipitate serious disturbances, calling for a restoration of civilian rule. Within the RCC itself, there is a struggle for power between those allied with Mohamed Naguib, who proposes a return to a civilian rule, and those aligned with Gamal Abdel Nasser, who proposes to implement their revolutionary agenda through military rule. Each faction has its allies on the street; the Muslim Brotherhood, the Communists, and the student associations are for Naguib. The largest workers’ unions, the peasants, and the military support Nasser. Nasser outmaneuvers Naguib, and by the end of March, Nasser is in full control and assumes the functions of President and Prime Minister.
Oct 26: Gamal Abdel Nasser delivers a speech announcing the Anglo-Egyptian Agreement he has signed providing for the withdrawal of all British troops from the Suez Canal but giving up Egyptian control of the Sudan. While he is speaking, a member of the paramilitary wing of the Muslim Brotherhood attempts to assassinate him. The public at large rallies to Nasser. The Egyptian state arrests 4,000 members of the Brotherhood, many of whom are tortured.
Nasser introduces himself to the Egyptian public through the publication of his pamphlet The Philosophy of the Revolution.
1955- 1956: Nasser mounts the tiger of Cold War politics and gets rid of the British.
Nasser seeks loans from the United States to help him build a High Dam at Aswan. He sees this ambitious project as key to Egypt’s modernization.
February: Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, Turkey and the United Kingdom sign the Baghdad Pact, a project of the U.S. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles. The pact’s primary purpose is to set up a barrier against possible expansion into the Middle East by the Soviet Union. Nasser refuses to join it; he does not want to be beholden to either superpower in the Cold War, and certainly not to Britain. “Third world” nations seeking autonomy and at the same time needing funds for development begin to explore the possibility of Non-Alignment: neutrality in the Cold War.
February 28: Operation Black Arrow, turning point in Israeli-Egyptian relations
Israeli forces kill 31 Egyptians, most of them soldiers, in Gaza. Egypt and Israel move toward war. Israel decides that Nasser must be removed. To maintain credibility, Nasser now really needs arms.
April: Anthony Eden becomes Prime Minister of England.
April 18-24: Bandung Conference of Non-Aligned Nations in Indonesia.
Nasser attends, his first trip outside of Egypt. Nehru of India and Tito of Yugoslavia become important counsellors. Having failed to obtain arms from the U.S., Nasser asks Zhou Enlai to intercede with the Russians to supply arms to Egypt. The concept of non-alignment as a power in world politics begins to emerge.
September: Nasser announces the Egyptian-Czechoslovak Arms Deal.
The USSR will supply Egypt with modern Soviet weaponry through Czechoslovakia, giving the Russians their first foothold in the Middle East.
By November, the British Evacuation from Suez is nearly complete.
Asserting Egypt’s Sovereignty within a Cold War Framework: 1956-1970
Ever major international event was weighed through its effect on the balance of power between the super-powers. This situation was not part of Nasser’s psychological formation – though he confronted it as soon as he stepped out on the world stage.
1956: Egypt for the Egyptians
Nationalism was Nasser’s instinctive response: it was his window on the world.
January: A new constitution gives Egyptian women the right to vote and to run for office.
Egypt extends diplomatic recognition to Communist China.
U.S. Secretary of State Dulles authorizes the French to send more and better planes to Israel. Nasser then obtains better planes from Russia. The US and Britain step up anti-Nasser propaganda. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles reneges on a proposed loan to Egypt to build the High Dam in Aswan. This is Nasser’s signature project. He won’t let it die.
June 23: Gamal Abdel Nasser elected President of Egypt
In an uncontested election, 99.95% mark their ballots in Nasser’s favor, confirming him in the office he has unofficially held since 1954.
July 26: Egypt nationalizes the Suez Canal
Nasser announces his decision to nationalize the Canal in order to use its revenues to help fund the High Dam. Egyptians are fully behind him. The move prompts an immediate international crisis. Over the next months, Egyptians are able to keep the Canal running smoothly. Nasser estimates that the United Nations Security Council can defuse the crisis.
In October, Britain, France and Israel, each with their own reasons for wanting to destroy Nasser, meet in secret in Sevres, France, and agree to plan to invade Suez and topple Nasser’s regime..
October 23-November 10: USSR invades Hungary
The Soviet Union crushes the Hungarian Independence Movement.
October 29-November 8: Suez War
As agreed at Sevres, Israel invades Suez, Britain then demands the withdrawal of Israeli as well as Egyptian troops from Suez, the Israel agree, but as predicted, Nasser, unaware of collusion, refuses; a few days later, France and Britain attack and occupy the Suez area. The Egyptian air force and army are quickly taken out of action, while Egyptians prepare for guerilla war amidst an intense surge of pro-Egyptian sentiment throughout the Arab world. In Moscow, Khrushchev threatens military action in support of Egypt if the French and British don’t withdraw. There is a widely perceived danger of a third world or even nuclear war.
In Washington, Eisenhower is furious. The actions of his two closest allies, Britain and France, have drawn the world’s attention away from the Soviet invasion of Hungary and put the West in the wrong in public opinion. Eisenhower forces a French and British withdrawal via the United Nations. Anthony Eden’s career is finished. Nasser’s career is ascendant. Egypt’s failure on the battlefield is suddenly irrelevant, and the Egyptians fail to investigate it.
Post- war “Egyptianization” picks up pace.
Post-Suez, a flowering of Egyptian arts and culture; a spirit of optimism.
The Egyptian government promulgates vilifying propaganda against those now considered “non-Egyptian”: Egyptian Jews, and those Egyptians of Syrian, Greek, Italian or Armenian extraction. Legislation against ‘foreign enemies.” Nationalization of “foreign” businesses.
Nasser embraces Arab Nationalism: 1957-1967
For Nasser, the evolution from Egyptian to Arab nationalism – from the commitment to national autonomy to regional strength – is a logical response to Cold War pressures.
Syria is threatened with civil war in a tripartite split between the Communists, the Baath party, and rival nationalist officers. Turkey and other Baghdad Pact powers are also threatening Syria.
Saudi Arabia has tightened its ties with the United States.
1958: Pan-Arabism and Arab unrest
In January, Syria’s president, Shukri al-Quwatli, comes to Cairo with a radical proposal: to save Syria from civil war and a take-over by the Communist Party, Syria must unify with Egypt, becoming one nation. Nasser, a proponent of Arab regional power, agrees although he realizes that the ground work has not been laid. His conditions: the Syrian army must be kept out of politics, and Syria, like Egypt, must abolish all political parties. Egyptian Communists oppose the proposed union, as do the Russians.
February: The United Arab Republic is formed, now the largest republic in the Middle East. The UAR is run from Cairo; Syrians don’t have much to say about it.
Nasser arrests many Communists in Syria and Egypt, causing a rift with Khrushchev.
In May, civil war in Lebanon.
In July, the Iraqi monarchy falls in a bloody coup by military officers who set up a republic on the Nasserist model.
In December, in spite of tensions, Egypt finalizes arrangements with the Soviet Union for a loan of 400 million rubles ($100 million) for the first stage of work on the High Dam at Aswan.
Nasser is diagnosed with diabetes and suffers extreme pain in his legs.
Jan/Feb: tensions between Cairo and Moscow increase. The United States, realizing this, steps up food aid to Egypt in an effort to court Nasser.
1960: Inauguration of a social and economic revolution
On January 9, Nasser personally inaugurates the beginning of full-scale work on the High Dam at Aswan, with Russian funding and technical support now fully committed.
In April, Nasser visits India and Pakistan.
“July laws” nationalize major economic sectors: banks, insurance companies, real estate corporations and heavy industry.
Next round of Land Reform; family holdings now limited to 100 feddans.
The Egyptian Press is nationalized.
Now only light industry and “non-exploiting professions” remain fully in private hands.
Sept 24-Oct 2: Nasser speaks at the United Nations, advocating anti-colonialism.
1961: Challenges and setbacks
January: John F. Kennedy assumes the presidency of the United States. Nasser is struck by his progressive rhetoric. Kennedy in turn hopes to involve Nasser in a search for a settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict. The two correspond.
September & October: Dissolution of the union with Syria and its fallout in Egypt
A coup by a group of disaffected military officers and businessmen in Syria breaks up the union with Egypt. The coup has been underwritten by King Saud of Saudi Arabia and King Hussein of Jordan. This is an enormous set-back to Nasser’s Pan-Arab agenda.
In Egypt, “reactionary capitalists” are sequestered and arrested. 12,000 people lose their political rights. The secret police become more visible and aggressive.
Work on the High Dam in the south along with desert reclamation in the north demands an enormous labor force of unskilled workers. These come largely from among those who customarily find work as temporary laborers in agriculture, attracted by the higher wages paid by these national projects. As a result, agricultural production, still Egypt’s main export, suffers.
November: major failure in the cotton crop. Rice production drops as well.
1962: Kennedy’s Arab-Israeli peace initiative fails.
On July 21, Egypt fires its first test missile, constructed with the aid of German engineers. Kennedy writes to Nasser concerned that Nasser is developing nuclear warheads. He is also worried at the pace of the Middle East arms race, though the United States is now arming Israel.
Autumn: Egypt enters the Civil War in Yemen.
In Yemen, the Royalists, backed by Saudi Arabia and Britain, are fighting a group of army officers who want to establish a Nasserist Republic in Yemen. They seek military aid from Nasser. Believing that this war can be quickly won and will allow him to revive his Pan-Arab agenda, Nasser agrees to support of the Republican forces and over the next years gets drawn in ever more deeply in Yemen’s civil war. Yemen becomes Egypt’s Vietnam.
In February, a group of Pan-Arabists in Iraq led by Abdul Salam Arif depose and execute the President, their former revolutionary colleague, the Iraqi nationalist Abdel Karim Qasim.
November 22: President Kennedy is assassinated. Lyndon Johnson becomes President.
U.S.-Egyptian relations, already on a downward slide, worsen rapidly as Johnson asserts a pro-Israel stance.
May: Completion of the first, critical phase of the High Dam
Nasser hosts Premier Nikita Khrushchev of the Soviet Union along with President Ahmed Ben Bella of Algeria and President Arif of Iraq in Aswan. Khrushchev and Nasser press the red button setting off a massive explosion that reroutes the Nile River into the massive, man-made Lake Nasser which will provide water and power for the modernization of Egypt. In the process, 45 Nubian villages along with their land and ancient sites are submerged.
Egypt now has about 70,000 troops in Yemen. The war presents a serious drain on Egypt’s now highly centralized economy. Egypt and Saudi Arabia try to end their proxy war, but fighting drags on.
Nasser has built “a school a day” throughout Egypt.
From 1952-1966, the number of Egyptian primary school students has doubled. Just under half of them are girls. Women begin to have white collar jobs.
Egypt now has 4 major secular universities. Nasser modernizes Al-Azhar, the ancient and world-famous Islamic university.
1967-1970 Nasser is forced to reexamine his Cold War strategy.
Egyptians question what decisions taken by Nasser’s regime in the previous years lead to Egypt’s rapid and devastating defeat in the 1967 war with Israel. Nasser participates in this re-examination. It continues until today.
1967: The Cold War becomes hot
March-April: Escalating skirmishes between Syria and Israel threaten Syria’s sovereignty.
As putative leader of the Arab world, Nasser cannot ignore this. He orders part of the Egyptian army to move into Sinai to deter Israel from attacking Syria.
May: tensions escalate as Nasser replaces UN forces in Sinai with Egyptians blocking the Straits of Tiran to Israeli ships. Israel takes these moves as a threat to their nation. Egyptians and Israelis prepare for war. U.S. President Lyndon Johnson, mired in Vietnam, does not defuse the crisis, nor do the Soviets come to Nasser’s aid this time. Egyptian media assure the population that in case of conflict, Egypt will be victorious.
June 5: The Israelis attack.
Egypt is taken by surprise and within the first 6 hours is defeated. Nasser accuses the U.S. of collusion, breaks off diplomatic relations with the U.S. and orders all Americans out of Egypt.
June 11: Cease fire.
Unlike the Suez War of 1956, Egypt’s defeat of 1967 is not followed by credible threats and diplomacy between the Superpowers leading to a restoration of Egyptian territory.
Israel now occupies the Egyptian territory of Gaza and Sinai, as well as the West Bank, causing a massive outflow of Palestinian Refugees to Lebanon and Jordan and a destabilization of those countries..
1967-1970: The cost of defeat
There is a final rupture between Nasser and Abdel Hakim Amer, his Commander in Chief and close friend, ending in Amer’s death.
The defeat, completely unexpected in Egypt, shakes public confidence, not only in the Egyptian military, but the entire social and political system that Nasser has established.
State censorship loosens: public criticism and debate about Egypt’s future course.
August/September: In Khartoum, Nasser and Saudi King Faisal finalize an end to the Yemen War. Saudi Arabia pledges $250 million to rebuild Egypt. Tito also helps rearm Egypt.
1968: Reclaiming and reframing the Revolution.
Nasser moves to clean up poor organization and nepotism in the military.
The Egyptian state puts leading military officers on trial. The public believes that the resulting sentences are too mild.
Resumption of student activism, quiescent since the 1954 struggle for power; big student demonstrations, aggressively repressed by the state.
March 30 Declaration: Nasser announces a new program for free elections within the national party. Over the next months, these reforms do not materialize.
August 19-20: Warsaw Pact forces occupy Czechoslovakia.
Nasser reacts mildly to the invasion, which distresses his old friend Tito. But Nasser responds, “I cannot be completely non-aligned. No nation which is partly occupied can be completely independent.”
1969: War of Attrition
Re-armed by the Soviet Union, Nasser steps up limited attacks on Israel focused on the Sinai; he wants to force diplomatic engagement by the Superpowers.
Sept 11: Nasser has his first heart attack.
Summer: Nasser accepts the peace plan with Israel proposed by U.S. Secretary of State William P. Rogers. Israel rejects it.
Black September: Refugee Palestinian militias, led by the Palestine Liberation Organization under Yasir Arafat, wage a civil war in Jordan to bring down the monarchy. Nasser is called to Cairo from his vacation to negotiate a cease-fire between Arafat and King Hussein of Jordan.
September 28: Gamal Abdel Nasser dies.
A few hours after the signing of the cease-fire agreement, Nasser suffers a major heart-attack and does not recover.
Anwar Sadat, Nasser’s Vice President, assumes power and continues to recalibrate Egypt’s domestic and foreign policy, now aligning Egypt with the United States.