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Egypt's Revolution and the Lessons for Today

21 Jul 2017
By Dr Bob Bowker

Sixty-five years on, there are still lessons for contemporary Egypt arising from the removal of the monarchy and the rise to power of Gamal Abdel Nasser.

The post-war Arab nationalist order—that emerged in the key Arab capitals of Cairo, Damascus and Baghdad—came of age with the rise of Gamal Adel Nasser following the overthrow of the Egyptian monarchy on 23 July 1952. It was a modest beginning to a new order. In contrast to the lynching in 1958 of the Iraqi Hashemites and their pro-British consigliere, Nuri al-Said, King Farouk and his family sailed comfortably into exile in the royal yacht on 26 July. A 21-gun salute was fired in his honour.

The excesses of Farouk’s lifestyle, his distance from those he ruled (he was unable even to sign in correct Arabic on his abdication paperwork) and the corruption of his regime were not the issues which caused his fall. Egypt’s humiliation by Israel in 1948 was largely due to Israel’s military superiority, Farouk’s ineptitude and the disunity of the Arab camp, but the Egyptian king’s rule remained intact.

The driving force for systemic change was a profound sense on the part of Nasser and his co-conspirators that the time had arrived for a new political order that provided Egyptians with a sense of dignity.

In practical terms, that meant the removal of the British presence from its remaining military base on the Suez Canal and the redistribution of wealth from the overwhelmingly expatriate elements of the population (Greek, Italian, Jewish and British) aligned materially and politically with the Egyptian monarchy. It meant being willing to engage in military confrontations with Israel when incidents around Gaza morphed into cycles of violence.

An austere rule

Nasser and his fellow officers were authoritarian. Freedom was envisaged in a national sense, but not in terms of individual political empowerment or rights. The latter notions would have neither accorded with the wider social and political culture of Egypt at that time, nor with the determination of the reforming regime to be an effective instrument of change.

Politically, Nasser succeeded to a degree that would be unimaginable today. His personal lifestyle was austere. His demeanour—humble but confident, and strongly assertive of national sovereignty in the face of external pressures—was perfectly attuned to popular expectations. He loved making speeches. He was entertaining and had celebrities lend their talents. Arguably the greatest singer the Arab world has ever known—Umm Kulthoum—added lustre to the period, if not the cause, merely by performing.

Nasser saw off the British military presence in 1954. He survived an assassination attempt by the Muslim Brotherhood, which he proceeded to neuter, but which he did not seek to destroy. By March 1955, the British and Americans had begun to look around for means of being rid of him but he emerged unscathed and enhanced from an attempt by the British and French to overthrow him militarily following his nationalisation of the Suez Canal in 1956.

Nasser removed the expatriate presence from Egypt, forever. He delivered reforms, initially, that were long overdue, including land reform. He launched the state-sponsored industrialisation of the economy. His rule saw the beginning of mass education, including free tertiary education, with guaranteed employment for university graduates.

Costly mistakes

The errors and miscalculations—and the structural weaknesses of Nasser’s approach—took longer to become evident. He was deeply suspicious (and rightly so) of Western efforts to construct regional security arrangements designed primarily to constrain the Soviet Union but which also threatened Egyptian dominance of the Arab camp. The United States, Britain and France refused to supply arms to Egypt so long as conflict with Israel continued.

By both promoting and riding a tide of anti-Western sentiment across the region, Nasser’s foreign policy options shrank as the mythology he created around his persona and his Arab agenda expanded.

Extolling Arab unity—to popular acclaim but to the chagrin of other Arab leaders—Nasser was manoeuvred by Syrian political factions into a union with that country which ended in rancour on all sides. He then became embroiled in a costly and unwinnable contest in Yemen against the Saudis. Those failures were followed by Nasser’s miscalculation of the consequences of posturing against Israel, culminating in the catastrophic Arab military defeat of 1967.

More than any other individual, Nasser was responsible for the beginning of an era of malady from which the Arab world has yet fully to recover.

At home, Nasser set in place expectations of a social safety net and a level of state involvement in economic activity that Egypt could not sustain. The bureaucracy grew without adding commensurate value to the national effort. Attempts of his successor, Anwar Sadat, to open the economy to the private sector and military cronies entrenched corruption. Riots in 1977 against proposed further economic reforms powerfully influenced the Egyptian security apparatus against necessary movement in that direction.

Ongoing troubles

Sadat’s efforts to counter the political threat from Nasserist elements within the ruling elite and universities by opening space for Islamist forces—and then later cracking down on them—led ultimately to his assassination. Under Mubarak, Egypt stagnated. Its problems accumulated, growing more intractable and complex while the evidence of political and economic dysfunction mounted.

Under the monarchy, Egypt had set its benchmarks of cultural achievement by Mediterranean standards (although it stopped short of endorsing the unsettling influence of avant-garde Western artistic trends). The lifestyle and world view of its elite rarely extended beyond the comforts of Garden City in Cairo, with summer sojourns in Alexandria.

Under Nasser, with its direction shaped by an altogether less sophisticated and very different elite, Egypt turned toward an introspective and defensive cultural and political identity, framed around ill-defined notions of secular Arabism.

Cultural decline—exacerbated by threats from Islamist forces and government indifference in response—was masked by the influence of Egyptian movies and singers on Arab popular culture. But Egyptians effectively lost their capacity to grow through cultural achievement. Not only Egypt but the Arab world was the poorer as a consequence.

Nasser and subsequent leaders eschewed reference to Egypt’s Coptic presence and the contribution of Copts to Egypt’s economic and cultural achievements. And the government never clearly defined its relationship to Islam.

Consequently, as poisonous interpretations of Islam spread across the Muslim world, with notable inputs from Egyptian political dissidents, the traditional eminence of al-Azhar University as a source of theologically sophisticated Islamic jurisprudence was undermined. Meanwhile, the Copts struggled to see a place for themselves in a social environment increasingly dominated by Islamist discourse. Those Copts who remained (and, to Australia’s lasting benefit, many did not) became increasingly removed, both politically and socially, from the business of government, lacking effective protection from a security apparatus in which they remained significantly under-represented.

The point of this discussion, so far as the outlook for Egypt is concerned, is to remind us that there is an enormous gap between the removal of an authoritarian regime, such as the Egyptian monarchy in 1952, and the creation of a viable progressive alternative. The processes involved are quite different, and the consequences of the former for the latter are very difficult to predict.

Egypt and Egyptians face a very different situation to that which Nasser sought to change 65 years ago. The experience of Egypt after 1952 suggests, however, that no matter how popular and well-intended the efforts of any individual authoritarian leader, the absence of a pacted transition process is more likely than not to weaken the institutional basis of government.

Ultimately, the polarisation between those Egyptians who define themselves and their lifestyle according to their religious convictions and those who refuse to do so poses significant risks to the capacity of Egyptians to realise their full potential. And it is upon the unleashing of that potential in positive directions that Egypt’s future depends.

In Egypt, as Pink Floyd would say, the child of Nasser’s imagination is grown, and the dream is gone. It is for President Sisi to build something that learns from that experience, and does not to seek to replicate it.

Dr Bob Bowker was Australian ambassador to Egypt from 2005-2008. He is currently a visiting fellow at the Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies at the Australian National University. He will be giving a presentation on ‘The Prospects of Syria’ at AIIA NSW on July 25 at 18:00. 

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.