While ruling its own ancient empires for millennia, Egypt became a prize in modern times that rarely had its own independence. Centuries of rule by the Ottomans ended with occupation by the French under Napoleon in 1798. Muhammad Ali seized power upon the departure of the French, creating a sultanate with British backing still nominally under the banner of the Ottomans. European influence continued and increased as the French-constructed Suez Canal was completed in 1869, making Egypt a nexus of world commerce. Britain began a new occupation of Egypt in 1882, though growing opposition from the populace caused them to establish a sultanate under Hussein Kamel in 1914. In 1922, the British ended Egypt’s protectorate status, though British troops remained, and Fuad I declared himself king.
After the Second World War, the empires of Europe were exhausted, and a new era of Post-Colonialism came upon regions of the world that had been ruled for years by faraway governments. Egypt was particularly eager to rid itself of British involvement and a royal family whose government was considered impossibly corrupt. Soviet and American propaganda contributed to the feelings of the Egyptians, who had already begun to form a society known as the Free Officers aimed at ending dominance by elites and establishing democracy. They came under command of Gamal Abdel Nasser, who coordinated and recruited key men within the military and bureaucracy. Defeat in the 1948 war with Israel firmly set the nation against the British-friendly royals, and action began to overthrow King Farouk I.
In 1952, resistance fighters known as the fedayeen attacked British points of strength, particularly at the Suez Canal, where violent measures and strikes had been carried out for years. The British pursued a group of fedayeen to a police station in Ismailia, where the police refused to cooperate with British demanding the attackers be turned over. A firefight ensued, and fifty Egyptian police were killed along with a hundred wounded. Free Officers instigated riots that became the internationally notorious Cairo Fires. King Farouk ended the government and attempted to install a series of prime ministers who could alleviate the turmoil, but the end had come. General Muhammad Naguib, the face of the Free Officers Movement, announced a coup as Nasser’s allies took control of communication and transport hubs. The king fled to Italy, and the government was placed in the hands of the Revolutionary Command Council with Naguib as chairman and Nasser as vice-chairman.
The RCC quickly began reforms on land ownership, ending the power of former royals. Land reform seized property from anyone white as well as anyone Jewish, Greek, or Coptic. Naguib envisioned a fast transition to civilian government, but other RCC members such as Nasser were more comfortable with military rule during the turbulent times as political parties (which became banned) could challenge their control. Nasser began to chafe under Naguib’s conservatism and expanded his own powers. Naguib gradually became a puppet holding executive offices and was forced to carry out RCC mandates despite his own voice being ignored. Finally Naguib began to call for support from the banned political parties, such as the Muslim Brotherhood and the Wafd, who had served as a liberalizing faction in the past decades.
Nasser responded by having his allies in the military arrest Naguib in February of 1954. Following the announcement, however, protests rose up from the people so much that Naguib was released and reinstated. Even as Naguib came back into his position, Nasser moved to make himself prime minister and strip the office of commander of the army from Naguib, whom Nasser accused of aspiring to become dictator. Defying the majority of RCC opinion, Naguib determined to denounce Nasser publically and called for immediate elections to a constitutional convention, riding the wave of anti-Nasser sentiment from his unlawful arrest.
Much of the army was still loyal to Nasser, but Naguib had been an influential commander and, using what was left of his command, relieved many of Nasser’s allies. The populace reaffirmed his demand for elections with demonstrations, and Nasser could not muster enough support to stop the movement. Having cut out much of Nasser’s support, Naguib reappointed Nasser as a representative to Europe to push for British withdrawal from the Suez Canal. Nasser refused to leave Egypt and determined to continue RCC government while Naguib pressed for elections with his own staff. Fighting ensued and spread to become the Egyptian Civil War. Nasser’s forces held the north while Naguib, half-Sudanese himself, controlled the south. Britain and France eagerly moved to aid Naguib, while Nasser, who eventually sought to nationalize the Suez Canal, gained aid from the Soviet bloc. The war dragged on to a standstill, much as had been seen in Korea between the American-aided south and Chinese-aided north. Sinai and the Suez Canal were occupied by Israel, whose armies devastated any forces sent by Nasser to retake it.
In 1956, UN resolutions affirmed the separation of Egypt into the Egyptian Republic and the Sudan and the UN-takeover of the canal as international territory, which was demanded by US President Eisenhower. Ideas of pan-Arabism had been shattered along with the Arab League, and instead the Cold War carved up the region into clear Soviet-leaning and West-leaning nations. Revolutions were suppressed by dominant parties while funding from economic patron countries allowed for development within the nations and pacification of despondent peoples. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, much of the foreign political influence diminished while the price of oil remained low through the 1990s and early 2000s. Global development increased demand for oil, creating a new era of wealth for the region.
In reality, Naguib did not oust Nasser and lost the power struggle in 1954 when Nasser declared himself prime minister and removed Naguib from Commander of the Armed Forces. After a new constitution was readied in 1956, Nasser won the election to the presidency that June and began the Suez Crisis as he successfully nationalized the canal. His victory over the West solidified his rule, and Nasser inspired many other coups throughout the region. Nasser’s ideals of modernization, socialization, and pan-Arabism increased, even forming the short-lived United Arab Republic with Syria. Ultimately, however, the Six Day War with Israel would lead to Nasser’s resignation in 1967, although his followers’ dominance in Egypt would continue until 2011, heralding the Arab Spring.