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Cairo Tower and the CIA

Sunday, December 11, 2011


One of the most prominent monuments in the heart of Cairo is the Cairo Tower. It was built over a span of 5 years from 1956-1961, with the employment of more than 500 Egyptian workers. Its cost ran as much as 6 million Egyptian pounds (or $3 million in 1961 dollar amount). Once completed, it became one of the tallest buildings in the world, measuring at 187 meters. It was the tallest building in Egypt for 50 years, and in Africa until 1971. It was architected by Naoum Chebib. He has chosen a structure that resembles a lotus plant, which is a popular symbol of Ancient Egypt. Its foundation was made of granite brought in from Aswan, just as the Ancient Egyptians have done to built the Pyramids of Giza thousands of years earlier. The tower itself was build of reinforced concrete and designed to be earthquake proof.

The funding for the tower came from an unexpected source: the CIA. In the mid-1950s, Egypt has been financially and militarily supporting the Algerian uprising against their French occupiers. The French took a hostile posture against Egypt, since by its estimates, Egypt`s material support for the Algerian independence movement was the single most important element in sustaining it. As a means of mediating between the two countries, the CIA decided to “donate” a large sum of funds, not to Egypt, but to Gamal Abdel Nasser`s (the Egyptian president of the time) personal funds. These funds were meant to persuade Nasser to discontinue his support of the Algerian independence movement. Nasser accepted the funds, did not stop his support for the Algerians, and donated the money to the city to start construction of the Cairo Tower. This was not exactly what the CIA expected Nasser to do with the money.

There are some questions regarding this version of the origins of the Cairo Tower. First, why would Nasser divert such a large sum of money towards the construction of the tower when there were more pressing matters at hand? Such pressing matters included modernizing the armed forces for protect the country from a possible military attack from Israel, construction of the Aswan High Dam to provide electricity to millions of Egyptians, construction of factories to help modernize the country`s infrastructure which has neglected during the last decade of the British occupation. One popular answer is that when Hassan al-Tohamy returned from the United States with a suitcase full of money (the $3 million), Nasser felt personally insulted. He built the tower as a message to the United States that he cannot be bought out.

Although this narration is appealing to supporters of Nasser, as it shows a strong display of personal pride and dignity, there is also another explanation that has recently surfaced. The other explanation suggests that the tower was built for national security, not national pride. Al-Tohamy was not an ordinary diplomat sent to the United States on a routine mission. He went to the United States in 1954 to meet with CIA officials to help establish the Egyptian General Intelligence Services (GIS). This involved training courses by the CIA in both the United States and Egypt. He came back to Egypt to start a new intelligence division, called the “Anti-Communism Division”, a precursor to the GIS. The name of the division surely must have satisfied his American counterparts. Shortly afterwards during that same year, President Nasser announced plans for the construction of the Cairo Tower, although actual construction would have to wait another two years. The tower would also serve as a state of the art communication tower for the newly formed intelligence agency. The CIA would assist with the equipment and training needed for covert communications and wiretapping. What is interesting is that al-Tohamy`s office was isolated from the rest of the intelligence offices by the fact that he resided on the first floor of the tower, even as it was being constructed. Unofficially, Nasser was using al-Tohamy`s division to spy and record the telephone conversations of his own Revolutionary Council, ministers, and other important officials throughout the country. In 1961, Nasser discovered that his own telephone conversations were also being recorded. Nasser effectively deported al-Tohamy from Egypt by assigning him as a permanent representative to the International Atomic Agency (IAEA) in Austria. It is still unclear why al-Tohamy was recording the President`s telephone conversations. Was he secretly working for the CIA, or was he secretly plotting against Nasser in collaboration with other officers? What is interesting is that he returned to Egypt in 1968 and became a central figure responsible for the transition of power from Nasser to Sadat, as well as in preparing Sadat`s visit to Israel in 1977.

Although much mystery still surrounds the beginnings of the Cairo Tower, there are a few facts that are certain. The United States “donated” $3 million US dollars to Nasser, which he ultimately used in construction of the Tower. The money was brought in from the United States in cash by Hassan Al-Tohamy in 1954 in his personal briefcase. The Cairo Tower is visited by millions of Cairenes and foreigner annually. It is truly a spectacular monument in the heart of Cairo and a symbol of national pride for most Egyptians.


  • [1] Wawro, G. Quicksand: America`s Pursuit of Power in the Middle East, Penguin Press: New York, 2010.
  • [2] Makroum, H.. “I was the Deputy Head of Intelligence”, Dar El-Maaref: Cairo, Egypt, 1995.

  • Keywords: Cairo, Egypt, Cairo Tower

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