Why you should care
Because bribes always end badly.
In the center of Cairo stands a 614-foot-tall tower. The concrete structure is the tallest building in North Africa and cuts an imposing presence over the city’s low skyline. But it also represents an American government bribe gone wrong — an architectural middle finger to a meddling CIA.
Late one night in the office of deposed King Farouk, Egyptian military leader and soon-to-be president Gamal Abdel Nasser met with U.S. intelligence officer Kermit Roosevelt, the grandson of former President Teddy Roosevelt. The meeting marked the start of an American effort to replace Britain as Egypt’s banker and weapons supplier in exchange for political stability and guarantees that Nasser wouldn’t support Algeria’s uprising, work with the Soviets or oppose Israel.
Tune in Tuesday at 11/10C for PBS’ new late-night series Point Taken to see OZY co-founder Carlos Watson moderate a spirited debate on U.S. policy in the Middle East.
Nasser, still in his early 30s, listened to Roosevelt’s proposition in silence, never taking his gaze off the Harvard graduate. He didn’t even flinch when Roosevelt said he would arrange for a significant monetary transaction to Nasser personally “for purchasing presidential security accoutrements,” wrote former CIA officer Miles Copeland, who chronicled Nasser’s story in The Game of Nations. Roosevelt “allegedly gave Nasser’s confidante Hassan al Tohami a suitcase stacked with small bills amounting to 1 million U.S. dollars,” Copeland noted, though it has been reported that the tower cost closer to $6 million.
But Nasser, a rabble-rouser from a Cairo slum, was intent on keeping Egypt independent and recoiled at the presumption that he could be bought. Unflinching, he “stood up, walked round the desk and shook Roosevelt’s hand,” according to Inside British Intelligence: 100 Years of MI5 and MI6 by Gordon Thomas, who claims to have had the story later recalled to him by Nasser. “I said that one day he would have a monument in his honor in Cairo,” Nasser allegedly said.
Cue the Cairo Tower, built to evoke a pharaonic lotus plant and featuring open latticework, which was soon nicknamed el-wa’ef rusfel in Arabic, or “Roosevelt’s erection.” It became a symbol of defiance by Nasser against foreign intervention, and a way to publicly rebuke and embarrass the U.S. government. “To put it bluntly, Nasser wanted to be the ra’is [Arabic for president] in the region, not a Western-led coalition,” says Owen Sirrs, a former senior intelligence officer for the Defense Intelligence Agency in Washington and the author of The Egyptian Intelligence Service: A History of the Mukhabarat, 1910-2009. “As Nasser’s power increased, his ambitions grew. He viewed himself not only as an Egyptian leader but as an Arab one as well,” he adds.
When construction got underway in 1954, it coincided with a souring relationship between the U.S. and Egypt. Nasser didn’t get the $200 million-plus he wanted to build a hydroelectric power station in Aswan — known as the High Dam — partly because of his opposition to Israel. The U.S. refused to finance the dam or sell weapons to Egypt; in retaliation, Nasser bought his weapons from America’s archenemy, the USSR — a big step on Nasser’s road to perceived independence.
“The only trouble,” Sirrs says, “was that Egypt cut loose from the West only to get increasingly snared by the [Soviets].” The irony was that as American influence declined, Soviet influence grew, and Nasser was constantly surrounded by Egyptian colleagues who were eager to accept Soviet aid.
Nasser’s charisma, his willingness to use colloquial Arabic to reach not just Egypt’s poorest, but also the region’s Arabs, hid a frightening reality. As Samer Soliman spelled out in his book, The Autumn of Dictatorship, there seemed to be an unwritten contract between the state and society that effectively extended services to the population — education, health, jobs — in exchange for the curtailing of political rights. That became a major problem when Nasser ran out of resources to keep up with Egypt’s fast-growing population. Worse still, his mukhabarat, Arabic for “secret service,” was “one of the most dreaded in the region,” says Sirrs.
It became a symbol of defiance by Nasser against foreign intervention, and a way to publicly rebuke and embarrass the U.S. government.
Despite Nasser’s shortcomings, his ability to stand up to foreign powers has garnered him a lasting popularity that vastly outweighs that of Egypt’s current leader, President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. “Nasser was much better in deflecting the scent,” says Joshua Stacher, associate professor of political science at Kent State University. “Sisi wants to be Nasser, but he has [Anwar] Sadat’s views,” he says, referring to the third Egyptian president, who opened the country to private investment and actively engaged in a peace treaty with Israel.
The Cairo Tower, restored between 2004 and 2009, now features a revolving restaurant on its top floor, with all signs of Roosevelt’s controversial investment long gone. Apart, that is, from a fatwa declared against it in the 1990s for its alleged propensity to excite Egyptian women.