Egypt’s presidential history: Military’s tight grip on power

by @EhabZ January 29, 2014 3:49PM ET

Abdel Fattah El Sisi’s candidacy follows the country’s tradition since 1952

Egypt in Turmoil
A street vendor offers cards of Egypt’s army chief Gen. Abdel Fattah El Sisi during celebrations of the third anniversary of Egypt’s uprising, Jan. 25, 2014.
Amr Abdallah Dalsh/Reuters

Egypt's military remains the most powerful entity in the country despite secrecy surrounding its budget, its generals, and its businesses, which many believe make up more than a third of the country's economy. Consolidation of power and industry by the armed forces goes as far back as the country’s first presidency in 1952, and Egyptian law prevents any real oversight of the military. 

The revolution that forced King Farouk into exile that year placed the military in power on civilian rule — one leader after another — until the 2011 popular uprising that overthrew Hosni Mubarak. With presidential elections approaching, the chief of the Egyptian armed forces, Abdel Fattah El Sisi — who removed Mohamed Morsi, the country’s first freely elected, nonmilitary president after one year — has announced his candidacy. The election of a military leader reverses efforts of the 2011 revolution, which among other demands, called for more oversight over the budgets and leaders of the armed forces. Here, a history of Egypt’s presidents:

1953: Muhammed Naguib


Presidency: June 18, 1953 – Nov. 14, 1954

Muhammed Naguib’s military career began in 1918. Making his way up the ranks, Naguib was promoted to major-general in 1949 after serving in Palestine in the 1948 Arab-Israeli War.

Naguib, along with a secret group of disgruntled officers (Free Officers Movement) led a coup d'état against King Farouk in 1952 and declared Egypt a republic for the first time. When Naguib became president on June 18, 1953, he simultaneously held the title of prime minister and chairman of Revolution Command Council (RCC) — the newly formed political body deciding Egypt’s affairs. The RCC was mostly made up of military personnel. His presidency marked the start of military control over civilian affairs, which continues till today.

Naguib eventually resigned as president one year later after losing a power struggle to a younger officer, Gamal Abdel Nasser. Naguib was immediately placed under house arrest by Nasser for 18 years.

1954: Gamal Abdel Nasser


Presidency: Nov. 14, 1954 – Sept. 28, 1970

Gamal Abdel Nasser joined the military in 1938 and, like Muhammed Naguib, fought in the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. As deputy commander, Nasser was famously known for his resilience in the war for securing the Palestinian village of al-Faluja while withstanding Israeli bombardment. He was highly critical of Egypt’s unpreparedness in battles with Israel. After combat, Nasser became a founding member of the Free Officers Movement and helped seat Naguib as the country’s first president following the coup against King Farouk.

Nasser then forced Naguib to resign and took over as the country’s leader on Nov. 14, 1954. Nasser won Egypt's first presidential elections in 1956 by 99.9 percent of the votes. He was the only candidate on the ballot. Nasser served 16 years as Egypt’s president until he died while in office on Sept. 28, 1970. In presidential elections in 1958 and 1965, Nasser — again running unopposed — won 100 percent of the votes cast.

One month before he assumed office on Oct. 26, 1954, Nasser was giving a speech in Alexandria, celebrating British withdrawal from Egypt, when a member of the Muslim Brotherhood attempted to assassinate him. Nasser survived and swiftly banned the Brotherhood and imprisoned thousands of its members. The Brotherhood’s struggle with the nations' military leaders continues today. Nasser also eliminated Egypt's short-lived multi-party system as he consolidated power and marginalized the opposition.

Nasser’s pan-Arab push made him one of the most popular Arab leaders of modern times. His legacy includes nationalizing the British and French controlled Suez Canal on July 26, 1956; building close ties with the Soviet Union; creating the United Arab Republic, which united Egypt with Syria in 1958 until Syria seceeded in 1961; and the loss to Israel in 1967 which cost Egypt the Sinai and control over Gaza.

1970: Anwar Sadat

Harry Koundakjian/AP

Presidency: Oct. 15, 1970 – Oct. 6, 1981

Anwar Sadat joined the military in 1938 where he met Gamal Abdel Nasser and would become one of the founding members of the Free Officers Movement. Sadat, vice president at the time of Nasser’s death, assumed the role of the country's leader.

Sadat ran in two presidential elections — unopposed — winning more than 90 percent of the vote in 1970 and 99.9 percent in 1976.

Sadat dedicated much of his presidency to a "corrective revolution" — reversing Nasser’s pan-Arabism; breaking ties with the Soviets; forging trust with the United States; and opening Egypt’s economy to private investment. Sadat reversed Nasser’s clampdown on Islamists by releasing them from prison. In return, they became a significant pillar in his power base. 

War and peace with Israel defined Sadat’s presidency. On Oct. 6, 1973, Egypt and Syria stunned Israel with surprise offensives to recapture land occupied during the 1967 war. A military standstill eventually ended with a cease-fire brokered by the United States, the Soviet Union and the U.N. Security Council.

In 1977, Sadat became the first Arab leader to make an official visit to Israel where he addressed Knesset on his plan for peace. The next year, Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin signed the Camp David Accords at the White House, ahead of signing a peace treaty in 1979 that ended hostilities between the two nations and returned control of the Sinai to Egypt.

A major element in the peace deal was a U.S. promise to aid and modernize Egypt's military. Since 1979, Egypt has received more than $1 billion annually from the U.S., making its military one of the strongest in Africa and the Middle East, and untouchable within the country. 

The rest of the Arab world excoriated Sadat for making peace with Israel without solving the twin problems of the Palestinian conflict and Israeli occupation of the Golan Heights in Syria.

Sadat’s defining moment eventually led to his death. On Oct. 6, 1981, soldiers loyal to Egypt’s Islamic Jihad, who were angry about the peace treaty with Israel, assassinated Sadat during an annual parade. Eleven others were killed in the assault including a Cuban ambassador and general from Oman.

Vice President Hosni Mubarak succeeds Sadat as president.

1981: Hosni Mubarak


Presidency: Oct. 14, 1981 – Feb. 11, 2011

Like his predecessors, Hosni Mubarak’s path to the presidency began with a career in the military. Mubarak, however, was the first Egyptian president who had not belonged to the Free Officers Movement that pushed King Farouk into exile.

In 1950, Mubarak became a pilot officer in the air force and later received training in Russia. During his decades-long air force career, Mubarak served in many roles including lecturer, commander and chief of staff. In 1974, one year before becoming Anwar Sadat’s vice president, Mubarak was promoted to air marshal — one of the highest ranks in the force.

After being injured in the attack that killed Sadat, Mubarak assumed the role as Egypt's president. For five elections and almost 30 years, Mubarak was untouchable as Egypt's ruler.

A 1967 emergency law that suspended constitutional rights by prohbiting protests and non-government approved political parties remained in effect throughout Mubarak's presidency. It gave the country's police forces wide-ranging powers to detain individuals without a trial.

Mubarak supressed the Muslim Brotherhood. Thousands of their members, especially top leaders, were imprisoned. While banned from politics, the Brotherhood, however, remained resilient by focusing efforts on social, civil and charity work.

Within Mubarak's reign, the military continued its consolidation of Egypt's industries ranging from real estate to agriculture, all while 40 percent of the population lived on less than $2 a day in 2011, according to the World Bank.

Mubarak's presidency ended on Feb. 11, 2011, after 18 days of crippling protests by crowds demanding his resignation. Egypt's Supreme Council of Armed Forces became the caretaker of the country's civilian affairs until 2012 presidential elections, giving the military complete power over the country. 

2012: Mohamed Morsi

Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Presidency: June 30, 2012 – July 3, 2013

Mohamed Morsi, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, was the first freely-elected president and the only one without a military background.

Following the 2011 revolutionary movement that toppled Hosni Mubarak, Morsi faced off against Ahmed Shafik. Morsi won by 52 percent, but his victory was short-lived. 

On the first anniversary of Morsi's presidency, millions of Egyptians took to the streets — angry over the government's Islamist policies — calling for Morsi to resign. Millions of others rallied in support of the president, but the Supreme Council of Armed Forces acted swiftly, removing Morsi on July, 3 2013 from his post and detaining him on charges of killing opponents protesting outside his palace. 

After just one year of civilian rule, the military is back in full control of the country. 


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