In 1942, during World War II, Germany’s Adolf Hitler's Nazi forces, in alliance with Italy’s Fascist leader, Benito Mussolini, already in control of countries in North Africa, were heading eastwards, across the Libyan desert, towards Egypt.
The German forces, led by General Erwin Rommel, the “Desert Fox,” were trying to quickly reach the Suez Canal to cut off the supply lines of the Allied forces, especially the British, to the Horn of Africa, India and South Asia.
During the summer of that year, Rommel’s forces reached just a day's distance from Cairo, where Egypt’s King Farouk and his British allies were mobilizing their forces. Rommel was also only a week away from Palestine, where there were nearly half a million Jews (prior to the establishment of Israel); in Tunisia, Rommel had rounded thousands of Jews, sent some of them to Europe, killed some and enslaved others.
This book is by Gershom Gorenberg, an American-born Israeli journalist, who defined himself as “a left-wing, skeptical Orthodox Zionist Jew.” He authored “The Accidental Empire: Israel and the Birth of the Settlements,” and “The End of Days: Fundamentalism and the Struggle for the Temple Mount.”
In this book about the networks of competing spies in the Middle East during World War II, he, early on, addressed those who would wonder why he chose such a subject. He wrote that he was having lunch in Jerusalem with a friend whose father was a British spy in Palestine, and that when the British sensed that German forces were approaching, they advised his father to send his mother away to South Africa.
Out of curiosity, he embarked on studying the subject of spies during World War II, spending years searching for documents and interviewing people. He traveled to Britain, the US, France, Cairo, and other countries – and didn’t miss El Alamein, seat of the decisive battle in which the German forces were defeated.
These are a few of the book’s chapters: Curtain Rising: Last Train from Cairo; The Seductive Curves of the Dunes; Next King of the Nile; Sandstorm; The Lady Who Spied on Spies; Spies, Everywhere; El-Alamein; and Unknown Soldiers.
The most Arabic country that the book mentioned is Egypt, describing its precarious position since it had, for decades before the war, resisted the military and political British presence, and, for a while, flirted with the idea of supporting Germany and Italy.
"Smoke rose from the grand British embassy facing the Nile…. In Cairo heat, privates fed bonfires with all the papers that must not fall into enemy hands – cables from London, lists of arms, reports radioed in cipher from the battle fields, maps, and codebooks ... (Meantime) there were Egyptians writing slogans and banners welcoming the German forces ... Among the peasants, it was said that ‘after the German occupation, there would be a general and free distribution of agricultural implements,’”
Egypt’s King Farouk (22 years-old) “was dithering about what to do if the Germans occupied Egypt … whether to leave with the retreating British, and lose his throne in the event of a final German victory, or to stay and lose his throne in the event of a final British victory.”
British documents revealed the bewilderment of the king – he might welcome the Germans and cooperate with them. But, would the British execute him if they would return to Egypt?
In a letter sent by Miles Lampson, the British ambassador in Egypt, to the British Foreign Office in London, he wrote that the king told him that he was with them, either victorious or defeated. However, the ambassador asked, "Do we, really, trust this boy king?" (Although Farouk was severing diplomatic relations with Germany).
Farouk did not flee, but others did, and one of them was the "aristocrat" Ahmed Hassanein, his advisor, and before him, his father King Fuad’s advisor, Hassanein, headed towards Oasis Al-Kufra and Jabal Al-Owainat (on the Egyptian-Sudanese-Libyan border). But he took advantage of his escape, and gathered new information about the region, because, before the war, he had visited it and wrote books about fossils there that belong to millions of years ago. (He was famously the lover of Queen Nazli, the mother of King Farouk.)
Perhaps because Farouk had not yielded much to the British, the book said he was a "beloved king." One of the reasons was that he was "the first Egyptian king from the dynasty of Muhammad Ali Pasha who was able to deliver an official speech in Arabic, the language of his homeland (his father, King Fuad, could not do that, because his mother tongue was Turkish).
In addition to Farouk and Hassanein being unsure about whom to support, the British or the Germans, the book wrote about other similar personalities, mainly Ali Maher and Mustafa Al-Nahhas.
According to British documents, because Maher was an anti-British prime minister, the British suspected that he was a secret ally with the Germans.
The British ambassador wrote a letter to the king, ordering him to dismiss Maher (also, General Aziz Al-Masri, Commander-in-Chief of the Egyptian Armed Forces, for the same reason).
On the other hand, Prime Minister Al-Nahhas was supportive of the British. However, the king, as usual, bargained with the British to choose a less liberal prime minister, Hassan Sabri. The king said that Al-Nahhas had "Bolshevik (Communist) tendencies."
Thus, for years, the king oscillated between Maher the "Nazi" (Britain's enemy), and Al-Nahhas the "Communist" (Britain's friend), and other prime ministers and leaders with different ideological affiliations.
Egypt’s dilemma between the two European powers was reflected in the relatively free newspapers. On one side, some reported on an old friendship between the king and the German leader Adolf Hitler, with photos of a Mercedes-Benz that was a gift from Hitler, and, on the other side, there were pro-Britain reports with photos of Prime Minister Winston Churchill.
All came to an end in 1942, in the Battle of El-Alamein, on the border between Egypt and Libya, where British forces that were led by General Bernard Montgomery defeated the German forces of Rommel.
While that saved the king from choosing between the British or the Germans, it increased the British pressure on him.
In fact, after the British victory at El-Alamein, the British ambassador proposed to the British Foreign Office in London to dismiss the king, but the Office decided to continue supporting the king on the condition that he appoint Al-Nahhas as a prime-minister.
Another round of the difficult relations between the two sides.
Ten years after El-Alamein, a group of revolutionary army officers toppled the king, ending about 150 years of his royal dynasty, and, later, ordered the British out of Egypt, ending 70 years of control.
Author: Gershom Gorenberg
Publisher: Public Affairs
Print Length: 482 pages
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