CBS's Ned Calmer and this reporter (for Newsweek) arrived in Cairo Jan. 25, 1952, acting on a tip picked up in Tunis, that something "big" would soon take place in Cairo.
Next day, Cairo erupted in what became known as "Black Saturday" and the "Big Cairo Fire." It was huge. Some 300 buildings were torched, including the old Shepherd's Hotel where we were staying.
Martial law was decreed throughout Egypt. Losses to fire included 30 major companies and banks (including Barclays), 310 stores, 117 residential units, 92 bars, 73 coffee shops, 13 hotels, 40 movie theaters, either automobile showrooms, 10 weapons stores and 16 clubs.
Casualties were comparatively light -- 26 killed and 552 injured.
It was the handiwork of the banned Muslim Brotherhood. The plan was to create maximum chaos as a way of forcing a degenerate King Farouk and a weak coalition government to bow to the "religious saviors."
Three weeks before the big fire, Muslim Brotherhood terrorists torched three Christian churches in the Suez Canal zone, under British control until 1956. The Egyptians blamed the British, always reluctant to take on the Muslim Brotherhood.
The terrorists assigned to torch buildings were well-prepared. A jeep with four men pulled up in front of the gleaming modern Air France building. Alerted about what was already being set ablaze in other parts of Cairo, the French Ai France manager was hovering near the front door of his building with a bundle of dollars.
He noticed the arsonists were consulting a list and then looking up at the building. He raced down the steps and asked them in Arabic how much they had been paid to set fire to his building. Ten Egyptian pounds, they replied. He gave them each 50 and they drove off mission unaccomplished. It was one of the few modern buildings spared from the Big Cairo Fire.
The Turf Club, where King Farouk dropped in occasionally for a game of bridge, was also leveled. Fire engines were in desperate short supply, and many buildings burned to the ground.
By noon that day, we had made the rounds of several major fires and decided to walk back to the Shepherd's Hotel to write a story for Newsweek's Sunday deadline (moved eventually to Saturday for Monday publication).
By the time we got to the Shepherd's, it had been leveled almost to the ground by the fire. No typewriter, no clothes. Pandemonium in all directions. All communications with the outside world had been shut down. Ned Calmer and I then moved to the Semiramis Hotel on the Nile to figure out our next move.
Finally linked up with Newsweek's regular Middle Eastern correspondent, Sam Souki. My plan was to get a suit from anywhere that hadn't been torched, a tarboosh (truncated cone shaped cap with a tassel, also known as a fez), a dark suit, and an impressive Packard limo from the hotel.
I decided my best bet was to get to the Suez Canal zone and file from Tel el Kebir, a huge British base 110 kilometers northeast of Cairo and 75 south of Port Said. Partly hidden by a wide open Arabic newspaper I was pretending to read, an unlit cigar firmly clenched in my mouth, we drove off.
Ned Calmer suggested I would be stopped and turned back at the first roadblock on the way out of Cairo.
Comfortably ensconced in the back of my Packard, I peered around the paper to see why we weren't moving. I could see a few Egyptian soldiers in a small cluster, oblivious to what must have looked like an official car. We were waved on.
There was one more roadblock before speeding to the British Canal Zone. At the first British roadblock, a young British officer asked me who I was and when I replied "Newsweek's chief European correspondent based in Paris," he cast a skeptical look at my tarboosh and asked me to step out of the limo.
My passport didn't say I was a foreign correspondent and my SHAPE press credentials out of Paris were six months out of date.
Mercifully, there was a dog-eared copy of Newsweek in the officers' mess and a check of the masthead cleared me. My story about the Muslim Brotherhood's "Big Cairo Fire" was the only one that got out of Cairo that weekend.
More surprising is that the Muslim Brotherhood's Big Cairo fire circa 1952, didn't rate a mention in all the background stories about the current Cairo fires -- done by the same organization that is now cast as the misunderstood innocents who won an election fair and square only to be deprived of the spoils by a supreme commander, Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.
Sisi was born in 1954, two years after Black Saturday in Cairo. But he knows that a Muslim Brotherhood government would be neither democratic nor enlightened. He has told visitors the Brotherhood would set Egypt back to the dark ages. The business community agrees.
Sisi also knows it was the Muslim Brotherhood upheaval in January 1952 that triggered seven months later the Free Officers military coup July 23 led by Gamal Abdel Nasser who abolished a totally corrupt monarchy and dispatched King Farouk on his yacht to exile on the French Riviera. And when Nasser died of heart disease Sept. 13, 1970, his deputy Anwar Sadat became president until assassins (Brotherhooders) gunned him down Oct. 6, 1981.
Sadat's successor, President Hosni Mubarak, was arrested in 2011, after almost 30 years in power. The Muslim Brotherhood was part of the group of Islamist extremists that advocated a trial -- and the death sentence. Mubarak may soon be a free.
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