For Egypt's Revolutionaries, History Offers Discouraging Lessons

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Throughout modern history, the country has glimpsed opportunities for liberal democracy only fleetingly

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An Egyptian man adjusts a billboard with pictures of former President Gamal Abdel Nasser's in Cairo July 23, 2002. Reuters

CAIRO, Egypt -- Old ways die hard.

It only requires a quick glance at the new Egyptian junta -- as most of the country's citizens see it -- to understand how the military rulers see their inviolable position. On its Facebook page, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces issues terse directives. Egyptian citizens post comments by the tens of the thousands, but there's never any response. The military's high-handed public outreach is similarly one-sided. One general appears on television to read the same directives, stony-faced, to a camera. And every now and again, the military stages public "dialogues," which come across, intentionally or not, as patronizing lectures.

How does the military view its future in Egypt? What internal dynamics are shaping the military's political strategy, which could in large part determine whether February's revolution is a success? Within the officer corps, there are diverse views as to how much power the Egyptian army should wield, and how much it should yield to elected civilians.

It can be difficult to get answers to these questions from the military, perhaps in part because they themselves don't yet know. So I've turned to reading history, hoping to find answers there, and was struck once again by the tight congruity between present-day Egypt and the critical points it has experienced over the last century and a half. During much of that time, Egypt has politically lain fallow, either because of self-induced paralysis as during Hosni Mubarak's rule or long periods of colonial subjugation, as during the era of the British-orchestrated Veiled Protectorate.

The times of wide-open transition, when anything seemed possible, have been few and far between. Egyptian colonels revolted against British rule and were crushed in 1882. After World War One, there was a flash when liberal government appeared a distinct possibility, but again, Britain and the Egyptian royal family conspired against it. Arguably, the last time before the present day when Egypt entertained the possibility of representative rule was in 1952, when Gamal Abdel Nasser's Free Officers deposed the king and promised a prosperous, democratic "Egypt for Egyptians."

Historian Afaf Lutfi Al-Sayyid Marsot, in her short History of Egypt: From the Arab Conquest to the Present tells a depressing tale of the nearly constant "alienation of the population of Egypt from their rulers." Her capsule recounting of Nasser's rise to power and disastrous rule carry an unmistakable warning for Egyptians today, especially those who trust the military's probity or competence.

On July 23, 1952, Nasser and his co-conspirators deposed the loathed monarchy and pledged to rid Egypt of domestic corruption and British control. They promised a three-year transition period, Marsot writes, by the end of which Egypt would enjoy a parliamentary democracy vastly improved from the days of British and Egyptian royal machinations. Under the guise of modernization and land reform, Nasser dismantled the old political and economic elites, putting his own loyalists in positions of power.

The officers ... had assumed the political parties would soon pull themselves together and collaborate to build a new Egypt. Whether it was disappointment at the backbiting that arose between the parties, as Nasser claimed, that caused disillusion with a liberal form of government, or whether the officers found the lure of power too strong to resist, they soon decided to take an active role in the administration of the country. Officers became instant bureaucrats and cabinet ministers, and had to learn the ropes through experience, sometimes with disastrous results. Meanwhile the experienced politicians were arrested, imprisoned and later forbidden to participate in any political activity.

By then, no institution or individual was powerful enough to resist Nasser's illiberal military dictatorship, which continued the abusive authoritarian practices of Egypt's previous, despised rulers.

Today's Egypt boasts no charismatic leaders like Nasser and few institutions of any note beyond the army and the Muslim Brotherhood. The parallel, of course, is inexact, but its lessons ought to be studied and remembered.

Josh Stacher and Jason Brownlee make a similarly gloomy case in this academic newsletter that, so far, there's more continuity than change in Egypt today -- meaning, the links to an authoritarian, military-chaperoned kleptocratic state have been able to withstand calls for substantive reform.

The echoes of history are not lost on Egyptians. At a recent meeting of the Center for Socialist Studies, young leftists debated the best strategy to undermine a second wave of military rule. Nasser nostalgia distorted public opinion of the Egyptian military, several speakers argued, and activists would need to work assiduously to spread skepticism about the pitfalls of army rule.

The Center operates like a small think tank, but its membership -- largely comprised of Marxist journalists -- hopes to establish a Workers Democratic Party. One of them, Ibrahim AlSahary, said the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces was cleverly using the old tricks of Egypt's ruling class to scare the public into supporting them: publishing false statistics to suggest Egypt was on the verge of economic collapse, fomenting a crime epidemic by keeping police off the streets, and selectively repressing public criticism of the junta's record.

"Only a tiny number of counter-revolutionaries are benefitting from military rule," said AlSahary, wearing a muted green polo shirt and blue jeans. "We need to reach the millions who are dreaming of change." He said he believes that class warfare between officers and enlisted men will ultimately hobble Egypt's military rulers and open the way for civil rule -- and he thinks socialists can foment that division.

Ibrahim's discursive flights of oratory, tailored more for a parliamentary chamber than the austere meeting room near Giza Square, made it difficult for other attendees to be heard. But another journalist, Bisan Kassab, managed few words.

"Most people don't believe in class warfare," she said, underscoring the problem that has plagued Egyptian reformers since the 19th Century. "We need to talk about things people care about, in language people can understand. People will only want to end the army's role if they think the army is doing something wrong."

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Thanassis Cambanis, a columnist at The Boston Globe and a regular contributor to The New York Times, is writing a book about Egypt's revolutionaries. He is a fellow at The Century Foundation, teaches at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs, and blogs at thanassiscambanis.com. He is also the author of A Privilege to Die: Inside Hezbollah's Legions and Their Endless War Against Israel.

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