Egyptian Revolutions

Egypt, which is the largest Arab nation-state, has never been a free country. Invariably, the country has had the misfortune of being ruled by a Pharaoh, governor or a dictator. In ancient times, Julius Caesar and Mark Antony entered into alliances with its queen Cleopatra in order to further Roman interests. In modern times, America has come to occupy the position which Rome once did. Given America’s one-sided foreign policy in the Middle East  (which favours Israel and discriminates against the Arabs), keeping Egypt in chains under a dictatorship is what suits “the west” the most. In return for a subservient Egypt disgracefully governed by someone such as Hosni Mubarak, Washington is also able to manipulate its influence in the Arab world to safeguard the interests of its Israeli proxy. Were Egypt free and on the offensive (not necessarily in the military sense) against Israel, then the house of cards upon which America’s hegemony in the Middle East rests would surely fall.

The idea that Egypt has perpetually been a nation in chains is notionally repudiated by certain events in her history during the period 23 July 1952 – 28 September 1970. Equally, one can predate the Revolution to 15 January 1918 as this is the date on which Gamal Abdel Nasser was born.

Like Yasir Arafat, Saddam Hussein and Hafiz al-Assad, Nasser had a close relationship with his mother. In his book Nasser: The Last Arab, eminent Palestinian journalist Said Aburish explains that Nasser “adored his mother but had an uneasy relationship with his father.” But unlike Saddam etc Nasser was a very great leader. In 1937 at the young age of 19 Nasser applied to join the army. Fifteen years later he was the de facto head of the Egyptian state.

Aburish credits the CIA with having full knowledge of the situation when Nasser (along with his friends in the army such as General Muhammad Naguib, Major Abdel Hakim Amer, Lieutenant Colonel Anwar El-Sadat, Major Khalid Mohieddin, Wing Commander Abd al-Latif al-Boghdadi, Lieutenant Colonel Zakaria Mohieddin and others) staged a coup d’état (known in history as the “Free Officers Revolution”) to abolish King Farouk’s constitutional monarchy and established the modern Egyptian republic.

In order to understand Nasser the following short paragraph from Aburish works quite brilliantly:

“Nasser was pro-American, anti-Communist, against the corrupt monarchy and pashas, and opposed to political Islamic movements. But his admiration for America did not limit or diminish him. Unlike Arab leaders at the time or later, he did not depend on America to exist. His natural, instinctive need to respond to the wishes of his people came ahead of all else, and made him popular.”

Non Aligned Movement

Nasser was a secular Arab. He fought the Israelis in 1948 and was injured. He was decorated for his bravery. The Arab world’s infatuation with the Free Officers and the expansion of their movement is just one of the main features of Nasser’s rule. Other ‘achievements’ such as the Aswan Dam and the enlargement of the Egyptian Army (procured by Nasser’s “Czechoslovakia arms deal”) are Nasser’s enduring legacy to his countrymen. The Arabs have loved very few men as they loved Gamal Abdel Nasser. The Arab street waited for his speeches which he delivered to the Arab nation through his Voice of the Arabs radio station.

The fact that towering personalities such as India’s charismatic Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru (“Joe”) endorsed Nasser as an anti-imperialist ally only made his popularity rise further. The two men, along with other figures such as Marshall Tito of Yugoslavia, represented the “non-aligned” world which, at least in theory, sided neither with the Warsaw Pact nor the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation.

After removing Neguib from the president’s position in 1954, Nasser consolidated his hold on power and moved to defy Britain’s domination of Egypt, and perhaps the world, by nationalising the Suez Canal in 1956. Putatively, the Anglo-Egyptian Treaty of 1936 had accorded Britain rights to maintain the Suez Canal until 1968. Egypt, which had repudiated the treaty in 1951, was under pressure not to bow to British influence as the Suez Canal was Egypt’s sovereign territory and the Anglo-Egyptian Treaty of 1936 was between The Suez Canal Company (registered in Egypt) and the Egyptian state. The company was subject to Egyptian law and since the treaty was not between two states international law did not apply. As a sovereign nation Egypt relied on the legal rights she enjoyed under the Constantinople Convention of 1888 to nationalise the Suez Canal and despite America’s suggestion that the matter should be decided in the ICJ, Britain (by then a defunct imperial power) decided to oppose Nasser in his reclamation of his country’s sovereign territory. Virtually the whole world, with the exception of Israel, Britain and France, sided with Nasser who used the Suez crisis to restore Arab glory and humiliate European imperialism. And the fact that a mere Egyptian colonel could rise to power and defy western interests and commit to curing the ills of the Arab world intoxicated the Arabs with their historic conquests in Europe and Asia. The Arabs finally had a leader who they could believe in, who was not corrupt and whose agenda was to provide for the poor.

In staging the nationalisation of the Suez Canal Nasser was every bit the showman. His plan to “occupy” the Suez Canal Company’s office was a well guarded secret. Nasser and his college friend Colonel Mohamed Younis (who served in the engineering corps) planned to storm the company’s offices after Nasser concluded a fiery speech on the Voice of the Arabs about Izza wa Karama (“Glory and Dignity”) on 26 July 1956 – the fourth anniversary of King Farouk’s abdication. The plan which the Egyptians executed that day was that when Nasser mentioned the name of Ferdinand-Marie de Lessops – a French engineer who came to represent imperialism and oppression – Younis and his men would act in small teams to carry out detailed orders and secure the Suez Canal’s main towns of Port Said, Suez and Ismailia.

When the question of “Egyptian skills” to run operations linked to the Suez Canal was mooted in the western media the overwhelming British and French response was to consider the Egyptians incompetent Arabs. Yet Younis and his men proved to be equal to the task and the Egyptians raised their game to the Europeans’ surprise.

Said Aburish explains that when Britain and France attempted to “paralyze traffic in the canal” by withdrawing the services of the company’s European employees, Mohamed Younis procured the aid of West German, Greek and Russian crews “who refused to follow their governments”. Traffic in the canal increased in comparison to the company’s days and Egypt, which had come to view itself as a vanquished nation after Turkish and European domination, simultaneously defied (and to a very great extent defeated) the two great colonial powers of Britain and France.

The Arab street cheered and neighbouring “rulers” serving imperialism such as Iraq’s venal Nuri Said shuddered with fear and disbelief. (Nuri Said begged his western masters to “hit him [Nasser] now and to hit him hard”.) The Americans and the Soviets showed the world that they were the new superpowers not Britain and France and Nasser, in his element, made the most of his position by trying to extract concessions from everyone. When Britain, France and Israel finally invaded on 29 October 1956 the result for Egypt was the loss of the Sinai peninsula. But despite these losses the Suez Canal remained Egyptian. After the ceasefire on 6 November 1956 the UN recognised the canal as Egyptian. Nasser did not “win” the Suez War but it was through the war that Egypt’s people, and those of other Arab countries, were able to feel proud of their Arab culture for the first time in centuries. Moreover, British Prime Minister Anthony Eden cited health reasons and resigned on 10 January 1957. The true reason, of course, was Suez and the absolute beating Eden had taken from Nasser over the war.

In 1967 the Israelis invaded Egypt and Syria. Dawn raids by Israel’s air force destroyed most of the Arabs’ strategic military. The war lasted six days and is known as such in Arab and European narratives. I will refrain from setting out a full summary of the Six Day War. Nasser lost the war. He resigned from office as he believed that he had let the Arab nation down. He nominated his friend Zakaria Mohieddine for Egypt’s presidency and resigned via a dramatic televised speech on 10 June 1967. The veteran Palestinian journalist Aburish has explained that Nasser was able to convert the Arab setback (or al naxa) into a limited victory. Losing the 1967 war came as a shock to the Arabs. Nasser aplogised to the Arabs for letting them down. It was pure “theatre”: a true Nasser moment. Enthused by Nasser’s theatrics Egyptians poured into the street (as they have against Mubarak) to ask “Al Raees” to reclaim the president’s office and cancel his resignation. “We are your soldiers Gamal” was heard all across much of the Arab world and Nasser who was every bit the opportunist binned his resignation to retake the presidency within a day of the demonstrations. Yet again the Arab street was not only sympathetic with Nasser, the Arabs also understood that Nasser’s secularism, his opposition to imperialism and his pan-Arabism were inextricably linked to the restoration of their “glory”.

However, it must be noted that despite his theatrical politics which allowed him to compound his popularity on the Arab street, Nasser remained a brutal dictator. After losing the 1967 war with Israel, Nasser truncated the judiciary when they passed lenient sentences on Egyptian officers who had underperformed. Cashiered officers who were found to be weak in the field were retried if their sentences were not extreme enough. Such oppression, however, was not imposed on his beloved friend Abdul Hakim Amer (who was, according to Aburish, the core of the problem in Egypt’s military). Amer had advocated a first strike against Israel but Nasser had considered the idea unfeasible.

In Suez Amer had misinformed Nasser on the state of the battlefield. In the UAR experiment Amer had again let him down. Nasser, like all dictators, buttressed his position by turning a blind eye to people such as Amer. (The one who “I [Nasser] loved most”.)

Nasser’s Egypt has been the keystone of the secular state in the Middle East. In comparison with Turkey, Egypt’s army has been less involved in politics and Nasser symbolises Egypt’s short-lived “freedom” from western domination and Islamic extremism.

The difference is that Kemal Ataturk wanted to forge a Turkish nation out of the Ottoman Empire – Lord Kinross described this as Kemal amputating the rotting limbs to save the torso – whereas Gamal Abdel Nasser’s dream was to have a large Arab federation of states all of which were secular and all of whom repudiated imperialism (the torso alone would not do for Nasser). The problem was that other Arabs in Syria and Iraq who shared Nasser’s “Free Officers” ideology did not ubiquitously consider him to be a father figure.

The extreme schism with Iraqi strongman Abdel Karim Kassem, who had eliminated Iraq’s royal family in a 1958 coup, is a significant example of Nasser’s considerable treachery. Nasser and the CIA worked to depose Kassem and achieved just that in 1963. Aburish explains that in 1956 Kassem had sought Nasser’s help to depose Iraq’s King Faisal but Nasser cold-shouldered the Iraqi. According to Aburish, Kassem worked night and day to run Iraq, slept in an army cot next to his office and donated his monthly pay to help Iraqi orphans. When Kassem was sentenced to death he did not say anything in response. After being machine gunned Kassem’s body was shown on the television and Aburish has clarified that it was a particularly brutal and bloody affair even by Iraqi standards. Nasser made many other mistakes. His war in Yemen (1962-1970) sapped Egyptian resources and detracted his attention from focusing on real business (such as Israel).

America’s support for Saudi Arabian Wahhabism stemmed from the superpower’s desire to contain Nasserism (which was massively in ascendancy during the 1960s – 1970s). Half a century later, and subsequent to the war on terrorism, this untenable foreign policy objective seems to be in reverse gear. Now, with the past decade borne in mind, America must support “Nasserism” and eliminate “Wahhabism”. The murder of secular Arab ideology by the Americans in the Middle East was a disgraceful foreign policy objective. But now that the chickens have come home to roost it is palpable that America is at pains to keep Mubarak’s “secular state” intact. If Egypt falls to the Islamists then the situation of the state of Israel will be rather precarious.

When Nasser died on 28 September 1970 more than five million people thronged the streets of Cairo to honour his funeral. For Palestinians like Aburish, whose view that Arafat sold the Palestinians down the river is no secret, Nasser remains the greatest Arab leader: in fact “the last Arab”. Aburish said that “my generation was orphaned when Nasser died.” Frenchman André Malraux likened Nasser to Egypt’s Napoleon. American diplomat William R Polk described Nasser as “the John F Kennedy of the Arab World”. Even Israel’s Ben-Gourion expressed “a great respect for Nasser.”

Following Sadat’s ascent to power Egypt was economically liberalised under the policy of al-infitah. With the doors to capitalism open the Sadat regime broke its pledge to the people. Following Nasser’s death Egyptian leaders such as Sadat and Mubarak relied on their military honours to remain in power. But unlike Nasser they have not understood the problems of the average Arab or Egyptian. After Camp David in 1978 Sadat also signed the Egyptian-Israeli Peace Treaty on 26 March 1979 in Washington. On 6 October 1981 Khalid Islambouli gunned down Sadat during a military parade commemorating Egypt’s Operation Badr in the 1973 Yom Kippur or October War between the Arabs and the Israelis.

In his book Egypt on the Brink: From Nasser to Mubarak Tarek Osman has made some very prescient observations in relation to why the Nasserist dream has died in Egypt. Foremost, argues Osman, the failure is one where the Egyptian state has opted to dispense with the Nasserist belief of connecting with Egypt’s people. All that has now been lost. When Mubarak was inaugurated Sadat’s widow advised him to “take hold of the country.” Middle East analysts expected Mubarak to “distance himself from the 1970s alliance of money and power, and to amend the regime’s relationship with the people” because “he [Mubarak] was considered a fresh face neither an insider of Sadat’s clique nor implicated in any of al-infatah’s scandalous corruption cases.”

However, recent protests have exhibited that Egypt loathes Mubarak. He is more corrupt than any other Egyptian leader. For Osman, Mubarak’s Egypt “championed the notion that economic, rather than political, reform was the priority and that change could be disruptive, unless the country’s economic foundations were strong and solid.” Despite limited success Egypt’s economic success is dismal and the World Bank’s directors have predicted that “economic reform in Egypt would take at least a generation to show results. And even in the best case scenario, Egypt is only five to ten years into this process.” Egypt’s immediate economic predicament could not be worse and unemployment in the 24-54 year age group, “the core of the country’s workforce”, stands at a staggering 21 per cent. Housing is a massive problem and inflation in the 1990s and 2000s has always been in double digits. Osman explains that “The World Food Programme estimated that the cost of living for the average Egyptian household had risen more than 75 per cent between the mid-1990s and the mid-2000s.”

After looting Egypt for three decades Mubarak and his investment banker son Gamal are worth $70 billion. Osman characterises Gamal Mubarak and his capitalist cronies as a “new power base” which “was modern, Western oriented and in tune with the age. Its leading members were educated at top Western universities … [who] represented an impressive façade.” Osman defines the dilemma for the capitalist elite in the following way:

Liberal capitalism in Egypt lacks legitimacy. As a political force, this current remains a confined, detached, elitist movement. Unlike Islam or Arab nationalism, it does not have any constituency on the Egyptian street. Its leader, Gamal Mubarak, embodies that legitimacy dilemma. He comes across as being at least as confident and sharp as any of his economic and financial lieutenants; his work at the NDP shows leadership skills and a rigorous work ethic; and his ability to subvert internal party opponents and to crystallize a solid power elite around him all reveal determination, intelligence and political resolve. Yet he remains a top-down figure, and it will be very difficult for him to gain a mandate from the people … [t]he legitimacy problem is compounded by the fact that most Egyptians of the lower and middle classes have a major trust problem regarding the country’s rich and political elite. A key ingredient in this is a pervasive feeling that successive waves of ‘enrichment’ have been the result of fraud, sleaze, and the suspect fusion of political authority and economic interests. This trust issue has been aggravated by numerous cases of extreme profiteering and abuse of power … Egypt’s liberal capitalism is plagued by profligacy as well as corruption. Egypt has always been a country of severe inequality, but the 2000s took that phenomenon to new extremes.

The above serves as a damning indictment of what Mubarak has done to Egypt during his 30 years in power. Unlike Nasser’s children who live in Egypt as citizens and who get by in life without armed guards Sadat and Mubarak’s families use heavy security to “protect” themselves. In support of her father’s 1967 failure Nasser’s daughter Huda has said that “there were no secrets in what my father did; what he did in public and what he did privately were one and the same thing.”

Egypt might be a fabled tourist destination but owing to its economic disparity Egyptians are eager to flee their homeland. Now, since Egypt’s leaders no longer “do the same thing” in public and private the country is endemically corrupt. Osman reports that in 2006, 8 million Egyptians (10 per cent of the total population) participated in the American green card lottery; Egyptians were in the top five nationalities within the Canadian points based immigration system; and the Egyptian Organisation for Human Rights estimates that at least half a million Egyptians have illegally entered Europe since the turn of the century.

Since 1970 Egypt’s population has also nearly doubled and now stands at eighty million. Poverty is endemic. Cairo’s City of the Dead is a ready example of the type of place where the elite would be considered worthy of public execution. The City is home to four million abjectly poor Cairenes who have no doubt been demonstrating against the Mubarak regime. After three long decades it is very hard to keep any dictatorship going.

But the key question is who will replace Mubarak?

One theory has it that the past three decades have failed to produce the type of political culture which can support civilian rule. Such observers argue that if the armed forces and the liberal capitalists retract their support for Mubarak then an Islamic state will prevail in Egypt.

And it is also arguable that given the radical nature in which the Islamists have reformed their politics over the past two decades, perhaps their government might well bear fruit for the Egyptians. Mohammed Ali Pasha’s successors lost their opportunity to create a real state for the Egyptians in their quest to build a “Paris on the Nile”. However, Nasser’s politics firmly rested on the motto “by the people, for the people”. Was Gamal Abdel Nasser really the Last Arab or will another Gamal rise to rescue Egypt in her hour of need?

If Abdel Nasser dies then everyone of you is Abdel Nasser … Each of you is Gamal Abdel Nasser. Gamal Abdel Nasser is of you and from you and he is willing to sacrifice his life for the nation.

(Speaking immediately after surviving an assassination attempt by the Muslim Brotherhood on 26 October 1954.)

In writing the above the author would like to acknowledge his academic debts to all his friends who teach at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.

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  • masuma hasan  On February 9, 2011 at 9:40 am

    Read it with admiration and interest. How well and succinctly you write. Nasser was a great hero of third world nationalists and anti monarchists in my own youth. The bold steps he took to free Egypt of western imperialism showed the way to other states struggling to get rid of their domination. To the question you pose, one can only hope that another Nasser will rise to save Egypt in her hour of need.

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