The Political Marshal of Egypt

Whether Mohamed Hassanein Heikal is preparing Field Marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s electoral program, as published by privately owned daily newspaper Youm7, or whether he is maintaining his position as an expert who never withholds advice as he has previously mentioned, there is one question that preoccupies me in both cases. Did Heikal recount to Sisi the details of his conversation with renowned British military commander Bernard Montgomery when the latter visited Egypt on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the famous Alamein Battle? Back then, Heikal met with Montgomery and they had a long conversation.

Montgomery, who had the title of field marshal, expressed his astonishment at the granting of Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces Abdel Hakeem Amer the same title on a political basis, without any military achievements that would entitle him to the promotion. This astonishment was recounted by Heikal, who quoted Montgomery’s own words.

Heikal recounted the incident in his engaging book, “Revisiting History.” On page 180 of the Shorouk Publishing House edition, he wrote that Montgomery described Marshal Abdel Hakeem Amer as a political figure. “There is absolutely no need for a political marshal. Marshals claim their titles for leading troops in the field, and not because of anything else,” Montgomery said, according to Heikal. And this is how Heikal responded:

“I interrupted him saying: ‘I may differ with you, however, why don’t you ask him when you meet him?’ So he said: ‘Can I really ask him that question when I meet him and would the question anger him?’ I said laughing, ‘I don’t know.”’

Mr. Heikal didn’t recount afterwards whether Montgomery asked this contentious question or not.

In his conversation with Heikal, Montgomery did not only raise the issue of granting Marshal Amer a military title without the necessary military accomplishments, he went straight to the heart of what he saw as a problem in Egypt, namely the relationship between military men and civilians.

He started his conversation by recounting a disagreement he once had with British Prime Minister Winston Churchill — one of the most important British politicians of all times — during World War II. Montgomery told Heikal that Churchill had sent him an angry message during the outbreak of a battle with the German army under the command of Marshal Erwin Romel, asking him to mount an offensive and not be confined to defensive tactics. Montgomery answered him back with a message that he dictated to his chief of staff, General Francis de Guingand, and it read: “I urge the prime minister to attend to his position and to leave me to my area of expertise.”

Montgomery asked his deputy General Guingand, who was accompanying him in Egypt and was at the meeting with Heikal, to testify to his account. Montgomery added, “I don’t like it when politicians turn into generals and I also don’t like it when generals turn into politicians.”

Heikal recounts his reaction as follows: “Suddenly, as I gave him all my attention, Montgomery crossed all barriers and asked me: ‘Why do generals in your country turn into politicians?’ I tried to stall for time by asking him, ‘which generals?’ He said quickly — ‘Nasser and his colleagues.’ I said, ‘Nasser is not a general and his last military title was colonel.’ He continued his attack and said, ‘Ok, let me amend the question — ‘Why do colonels turn into politicians?’ I said, ‘Ok, let me tell you the story in detail.’ I went on to explain to him the situation in Egypt, its development, the conditions surrounding the [1952] revolution, how those who orchestrated it were a group of young men from the army who undertook this action in their capacity as patriotic youth and not army officers. Their main mission was to usurp military command, so that the king would not use the Armed Forces against the people. The Armed Forces were under the service of the popular revolution, in order to safeguard its objectives. Then I explained the circumstances of the Third World in general, and the role played by the army here, which is the only institution capable of sustaining itself during times of crisis.”

Montgomery didn’t find Heikal’s explanation convincing, so he told him: “You didn’t manage to convince me.” And this was Heikal’s surprising response as he wrote it:

“I am not trying to convince you. How can I convince you of something I am not convinced of? I was explaining to you the situation. I wasn’t trying to set a norm. In fact, I am not a proponent of military intervention in politics. I don’t want generals to become politicians as much as you don’t want politicians to become generals. But, we are facing a phenomenon in Egypt and the whole Third World that requires an explanation. When I explain, I don’t use that as an excuse. I said: ‘At any rate, you will meet President Nasser and I suggest you ask him the same question yourself.’

Montgomery said: ‘You don’t think the question will anger him.’ I said: ‘I don’t think so.”’

Unfortunately, Mr. Heikal ended the chapter on his conversation with Montgomery without telling us whether he asked Nasser the question or not. And if so, what Nasser’s reaction was.

I wonder whether Mr. Heikal would answer our critical questions today, such as: “Is he still not a proponent of military intervention in politics and does he remain convinced that granting military titles for political reasons is a mistake? And, if he had viewed the intervention of Nasser and his military colleagues in 1952 as justified to prevent the king from clashing with the people, what is the excuse now for the military commander to move from the position as protector of the people to that of ruler?

The people have generally been fully appreciative of the Armed Forces thus far, but the military’s intervention in politics could deepen political rifts in society, freezing democratic development and returning Egypt back to repressive times; a move that is supported by state media, its resources and its intellectuals.

Until Mr. Heikal responds to these questions himself, if he wants to, I am left to conclude that Montgomery’s fears have come true and that the officers’ intervention in politics has left Egypt defeated. I don’t need to remind you of the “naksa,” which took place only one month after Montgomery’s visit, which was in May 1967. Only the policies of Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser and Marshal Abdel Hakeem Amer are to be blamed.

May God protect Egypt.

This article was banned from publishing in privately owned daily newspaper Al-Shorouk.

This article has been translated from Arabic. You can read the original article here.



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