In a bold move, Nasser, on July 26, 1956, nationalised the Canal and turned it into a huge income earner for Egypt. For this and other perceived aggressive acts of the Egyptian government, France, Britain and Israel formed an alliance to invade Egypt, seize the Canal and Cairo, and overthrow the Nasser government.


Revolution came to Egypt in the Free Officers uniform of Abdel Gamal Nasser, reversal in the turncoat of Anwar Sadat’s crass opportunism and its betrayal in the garb of Hosni Mubarak’s autocracy. The threesome ruled Egypt for fifty-five years all together. Nasser, for fourteen tumultuous years from 1956, during which the country underwent fundamental socio-cultural changes, withstood an invasion by the combined French, British and Israeli military, and it was an era that ended with an heart attack that killed him. Sadat, who was in power for eleven years from 1970, started with the threat to continue the Nasser legacy of anti-imperialism and fight for social justice in the Palestine but ended with his betrayal of the revolution and his movie-like assassination.

Mubarak ruled from 1981 for three decades, before a bloody popular revolt hurled him from power into prison. His death this Tuesday, February 26, brings to a close the revolutionary era in Egypt, which began with the July 22-26, 1952 “Free Officers” coup that overthrew King Farouk. The Officers Movement founded by Nasser and headed by General Muhammad Naguib, blamed the monarchy for the country’s grinding poverty and poor performance in the 1948 Arab-Israeli War.

Political parties and the Muslim Brotherhood organisation were banned and replaced with the Liberation Rally party. In November 1954, the revolution consumed its head, General Naguib, who was dismissed from office and placed under house arrest. The country had no president until 1956 when Nasser stepped in and the era of Nasserism began, with Nasserites not just taking over the levers of power in Egypt but in some other countries.

In 1958, the Free Officers Movement overthrew the Iraqi government. Next was their overthrow of the Syrian government in 1963 and the 1969 Libyan coup d’état led by Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, which overthrew King Idris I.

In defining the Egyptian revolution, Nasser said: “There is no longer a way out of our present situation except by forging a road toward our objective, violently and by force, over a sea of blood and under a horizon blazing with fire.”

But soon, he began to reverse Nasser’s anti-imperialist policies, made Egypt a stooge of the United States, repressed civil society, ran an inept economic system and in the name of peace, traded away Palestinian and Arab rights. Sadat, in 1978, signed the Camp David Accords with Israel. For this, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace.


On the Palestinian Question, he argued: “Our path to Palestine will not be covered with a red carpet or with yellow sand. Our path to Palestine will be covered with blood… In order that we may liberate Palestine, the Arab nations must unite, the Arab armies must unite, and a unified plan of action must be established.”

In the quest to develop Egypt, Nasser told the developed world: “We’re a sentimental people. We like a few kind words better than millions of dollars given in a humiliating way.”

Egypt needed funds for development, to tackle mass poverty and fund fundamental projects like the construction of the Aswan High Dam, but the Europeans continued to dominate and exploit its economy, including control of the Suez Canal. In a bold move, Nasser, on July 26, 1956, nationalised the Canal and turned it into a huge income earner for Egypt. For this and other perceived aggressive acts of the Egyptian government, France, Britain and Israel formed an alliance to invade Egypt, seize the Canal and Cairo, and overthrow the Nasser government.

On October 29, 1956, Israel began the invasion and two days later, the two other countries, under the pretext of defending the Canal, made amphibious landings and air strikes. However, most countries, including the United Nations, condemned the invasion and under pressure, the aggression ceased and the invasion was abandoned. The Nasser government thereafter took full control of the Canal and used the revenue from it to build the Dam, which was completed in January 1968.

The government carried out extensive land reforms and played pivotal roles in building the Non-Aligned Movement. Perhaps Nasser’s greatest challenge was the Six-Day War in which Israel destroyed the bulk of the Egyptian Airforce, whose aircrafts were virtual sitting ducks on the ground. Over 3,000 Egyptian soldiers were also killed and the Israelis captured swaths of Palestinian, Egyptian and Syrian territories.

A fighter pilot, he became vice president in 1975. As president, Mubarak denied Egyptians basic rights like those to assembly, free speech and subjected them to detention without trial. He named no vice president until the dying days of his regime, when he appointed spy chief, Omar Suleiman to fill the position.


This defeat and endless internal squabbles in the Arab world must have put a lot of strain on Nasser, who had a heart attack and died on September 29, 1970.

Anwar al-Sadat was one of the earliest students of the military school created in 1936 in Egypt. On graduation, he met  Nasser at his posting and they developed a long lasting friendship. Both were members of the young officers movement who wanted to decolonise their country. Sadat was jailed twice for his political activities and after his second term in prison, he left the army and went into private business. While he was in prison, the Free Officers Movement had grown fast, and on  July 23, 1952, it overthrew the monarchy. Sadat joined the new government as information minister. When Nasser passed away, Sadat replaced him. He displayed flashes of the Nasser revolutionary and daring spirit, which saw him carry out the October 6, 1973 attack on Israel, retaking some of the occupied lands.

But soon, he began to reverse Nasser’s anti-imperialist policies, made Egypt a stooge of the United States, repressed civil society, ran an inept economic system and in the name of peace, traded away Palestinian and Arab rights. Sadat, in 1978, signed the Camp David Accords with Israel. For this, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace. Simultaneously, he abolished basic rights, including that to protest. He also tried to play the religious card by imposing Sharia on the country. But that did not save him from being assassinated by alleged Islamic fundamentalists.

Mubarak was standing next to Sadat when the assassins rained bullets on the latter. He survived, just as he survived six other assassination attempts, including one on June 26, 1995 in Addis Ababa, when he arrived for the African Union Summit. That was the last time Mubarak attended any African meeting. A fighter pilot, he became vice president in 1975. As president, Mubarak denied Egyptians basic rights like those to assembly, free speech and subjected them to detention without trial. He named no vice president until the dying days of his regime, when he appointed spy chief, Omar Suleiman to fill the position. That was on January 29, 2011. Thirteen days later, Suleiman announced Mubarak’s resignation, following mass street protests, and power was turned over to the military. Mubarak was subsequently tried and given a life sentence in prison. In March 2017, he was freed from prison, aged 88. Today, Egypt has settled into a familiar pattern of dictatorship, intolerance, subservience to foreign powers, repression and decay.

Owei Lakemfa, a former secretary general of African workers, is a human rights activist, journalist and author.