The Cairo Fire, also known as Black Saturday, was a series of riots that took place on January 26, 1952, marked by the burning and looting of some 750 buildings and the country’s Opera House in downtown Cairo. It was triggered by the killing of 50 Egyptian auxiliary policemen by British occupation troops a day earlier. The spontaneous anti-British protests that followed these deaths were quickly seized upon by organized elements in the crowd, who burned and ransacked large sectors of Cairo amidst the unexplained absence of security forces. King Farouk appointed a series of short-lived cabinets but they failed to restore public confidence. As a result, instability over the next six months helped pave the way for the Free Officers coup on July 23, 1952. That in turn resulted in Farouk’s forced abdication and the abolition of the monarchy a year later.
Norman Getsinger was Regional Security Officer in Cairo from 1951 to 1953. This interview was conducted in 2000.
“There were a number of Brits burned alive”
GETSINGER: The incident that I wanted to tell you about was on January 27, 1952. That was the day Cairo burned. Sheppard’s hotel went down. The other security officers were away on inspections. I was the security officer in the embassy at the time. The chief of police warned me that there was going to be rioting. I told the ambassador and we got all the embassy staff out of the embassy, and back home. We got them out in the morning. Well, the rioting did take place. It got worse and worse. That was the day when the mobs were led through the streets by trucks, and in the trucks were containers of gasoline. The night before, they had gone through the city and put X’s on the doors of the places that were to be burned. This was the day when the British were coming out of their club, I think it is called the Jockey’s Club, and thrown back into the burning building by the mob. There were a number of Brits burned alive. My bride was on the roof of our honeymoon apartment in Gazira Island, across the Nile. Of course, our communications were cut. But, she could hear the shots and see the smoke billowing up in the city from her place on the building across the Nile.
The chief of police said the problem was that the king would not call in the army, and the police were not going to be able to contain that mob. I told the ambassador. The ambassador said, “Well, we have to get to the king and have him call in the army, because otherwise, the whole city will go.” There were going to be mass murders. All communication had been broken between the embassy and the palace. The ambassador told me if I would get a jeep or two of the police, who would lead the ambassador across the city, then he would go to the palace, through the mob, and get the king to call in the army. We did that. We got a couple jeep loads of police, and the flags were unfurled on the embassy limousine. The gate was open and Ambassador Caffery drove through the burning city, through the mob, to the palace, got a hold of Farouk, and told him that unless he called in the army, the city was gone, and his reign was over.
“We began to burn classified material on the roof of the embassy”
The king told the ambassador that he could not call in the army because his intelligence had told him that the army officers were planning a coup against him, and if he brought in the army, they would never leave. Caffery told the King that if he would call in the Army, he would use the power, the might, the majesty of the United States to make sure the military would withdraw and would support its contingency rules. So, the king got on the golden phone and called out to the Army, which was out beyond the airport, and called in the Army. The ambassador returned to the burning city with the American flag flying on his limousine, to the embassy. We shut the embassy gates. The Marines pulled out their side arms, and we began to burn classified material on the roof of the embassy. It was top-secret stuff that was being burned in the incinerator, because the first elements of the mob were coming down, through the alleyway, between the British embassy, across the street, and the American embassy. They were actually scaling the walls of the embassy. There I was with half dozen marines, and we were going to have to be prepared to defend the embassy. Just at the point where the first members of the mob were crossing over the wall, the first elements of the Army, the squad cars of the Army, came through and scattered the mob, and we were saved. Of all the experiences I had in the Foreign Service that was one of the most remarkable, that our ambassador could do that.
Q: What was the cause of this riot?
GETSINGER: Cairo was in terrible shape in those days, because there was a lot of agitation about the British control of the Suez Canal. This was part of the build-up that finally led to the surrender of the canal by the British and French. There were a number of conflicts between Egyptian police and the British in Ismailia, and all through the canals. There had been several riots. It was to get the king to put the pressure on the Brits to line up with the nationalist forces. It said that Egypt should control its own canal. The rioting was so bad, and the uneasiness was so bad in the city, that my wedding had originally been planned in the Catholic Church in Cairo. It had to be moved to the little Catholic church on Gazira Island, which is separated from the main city of Cairo, by a couple of bridges. It could be defended by the police and kept calm. So, I was married on the island in the Nile, instead of downtown in Cairo.