As a boy, Muhammad Naguib liked to play with tin soldiers. That was in Khartoum, Sudan, where he was born in 1901. His father, an officer in the army of Farouk I, king of Egypt and the Sudan, hoped his son would choose a civilian profession. The younger Naguib studied languages in order to become an interpreter; he knew English, French, German and Italian and eventually also began to learn Hebrew. He also began to study law but did not complete his studies because he was more attracted to military life. He stood out as an officer with strong political views, and - even though he was close to Farouk - he refused to kiss the king's hand, as was customary. But the king respected him.
In 1948 Naguib took part in the Egyptian invasion of Israel during its War of Independence. Right after the war he joined the Free Officers movement, and a year later was promoted to the rank of major general. The leader of that movement was Gamal Abdel Nasser. Nasser was not only younger than Naguib by 18 years but also more radical: He aspired to see the end of Mandatory Britain's influence in Egypt and the overthrow of Farouk. He proposed that Naguib become head of the Free Officers to lend the movement a degree of respectability.
A tangle of intrigues, combined with the fear that Farouk would dismantle the Free Officers, hastened the military putsch instigated by Naguib and his colleagues in July 1952, after which the king was compelled to abdicate.
In his memoirs, Naguib relates how he had still wanted to bid farewell to Farouk before the monarch departed Egypt aboard the royal yacht. But Naguib was late and by the time he got to the harbor, the king was already at sea. Naguib took a boat, zoomed off to the yacht and went up on deck, but did not know what to say. Farouk too kept silent. Finally they parted. "I can't say his deposing brought me joy," wrote Naguib.
A few months later, the officers annulled the monarchy and declared Egypt a republic. In June 1953, Naguib became its first president.
That was the first "Egyptian spring" - though that term wasn't in use 60 years ago. Israeli officials followed the Egyptian revolution with a glimmer of hope. An armistice with Cairo had been signed in February 1949, and Israel would have been pleased had it been possible to turn it into a peace accord, assuming there was no toughening of its conditions. So long as Farouk had been on the throne, however, there was not much chance of that happening.
Naguib and his officers were considered pro-American. The new president also did not come out with many anti-Israeli declarations, and he even visited the Great Synagogue in Cairo.
In Jerusalem the assessment was that the new Egyptian government's apparent aspiration to get closer to the United States might also allow for a real peace agreement with Israel. Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion congratulated the new government in Cairo from the Knesset podium and offered to embark on negotiations. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs shared the premier's views: Both Ben-Gurion and Foreign Minister Moshe Sharett transmitted reports in this sprit to the Egyptian capital.
In the following months, there were semi-official contacts between Israeli diplomats and Egyptian liaison officials, among them associates of Naguib. Most of these talks took place in Paris and New York.
"It is clear to everyone that Naguib is interested in dispelling the tension that prevails between Israel and Egypt," reported Israel's ambassador to the UN Gideon Rafael to Foreign Minister Sharett. One of Israel's contacts, Ahmed Abboud, a businessman and the director of the Suez Canal Company, even spoke with Naguib himself.
The first secretary at the Israeli Embassy in Paris, Shmuel Divon, reported to his superiors: "According to Abboud, Naguib has agreed that it is necessary to try to eliminate the conflict and he is seriously interested in the problem ... He noted as an example that a ship with food for Israel had gone through the canal a while ago and the Egyptians ignored it." Divon added to Abboud that if Egypt adopted a "wise policy" toward Israel, Israel might purchase its products.
At the end of November 1952, an account of a conversation between the ambassadors of Egypt and Turkey in London fell into Israel's hands. The Egyptian envoy informed his Turkish colleague that Cairo's conditions for a peace agreement with Israel were, first of all, creation of a "land corridor" connecting Egypt and other Arab countries, obviously passing through Israel but not necessarily under Egyptian sovereignty, and, second, resettlement of the Palestinian refugees in the Arab countries, on condition the necessary funding be found for this; it was not essential that Israel be the one to underwrite the project.
For a moment it seemed as though the negotiations could begin, but within a few days an amendment arrived from Cairo: The intention was that the "corridor," along the Eilat coastline, be annexed to Egypt and that resettlement of the refugees in the Arab countries would not mean that Israel was relieved of the obligation to absorb some of them in its own territory.
Under those conditions, Jerusalem preferred not to have peace.
Shortly thereafter Naguib's status began to get shaky; meanwhile, Nasser's star was rising. In Jerusalem they assessed that Naguib's political difficulties were preventing him from getting closer to Israel.
"The regime is not based on the people but rather on gangs, and one gang is afraid of the other," observed Ben-Gurion.
In the meantime Naguib tried to sabotage the reparations negotiations between Israel and Germany. The "Egyptian spring" turned out to have been an illusion.
Naguib's rule did not last long. Nasser accused him of harboring sympathy for the Muslim Brotherhood and of having dictatorial aspirations. In February 1954 he was deposed. He received generous retirement conditions and died in 1984. In Cairo there is a metro station that bears his name.