on the World Today
THE emergence of a committee of young army officers as leaders of the new “third force” in Egypt confirms the hopeful trend toward the moderate komalist pattern of revolution in the Middle East. The possibility of such a trend was evident in Syria three years ago when the first of a series of army coups initiated the present liberal dictatorship there. The development of a similar movement in Egypt, under the leadership of the Palestinian war hero, General Mohammed Naguib, sets an even more forceful example among the Arab states.
The goals of the revolutionists in these states conform to long-recognized needs and aspirations of the peoples of the area: land reform, decentralization of government, purge of corruption from the bureaucracy, tax reform, and public education. But the methods of the reformers challenge the familiar Western stereotypes about “democracy” which have been applied so unthinkingly to the newly independent states of the Middle East.
It has been clear for some time to sympathetic observers that the parliamentary systems hastily adopted from the West, and in many respects alien to Moslem concepts, have generally operated only in the interests of the landholding class. By their control of the parliamentary mechanism this class effectively preserved a vestigial feudal system and prevented all social change.
In Egypt the current revolution stems directly from the army’s defeal in 1949 in Palestine. From that bitter experience and the subsequent scandals connected with the profits made in defective war matériel, to which many front-line officers attribute their defeat, there developed a well-organized resistance against the palace and the Wafd government.
Unmistakable signs of discontent have been increasingly apparent for the last three years in the army. But former King Farouk chose to ignore them and to favor the less competent and often corrupt palace favorites in the high command. The final showdown came in July when a young officer’ junta forced the king’s abdication. Subsequent moves against the Wafd and all minor political parties showed that this junta has welllaid plans to clean up Egyptian political life.
In dealing with the Wafd, General Naguib realized that he had to convince its fervent supporters among the Egyptian peasantry that its nationalistic and progressive goals have been betrayed by the cupidity of the party’s present leadership. Naguib did this by making a highly successful speaking tour of the Delta towns where Wafd power had been greatest.
From the demonstrations which accompanied this effort the military leadership gained the necessary public support to carry its purge order out even against the aged leader of the party, Mustafa Nahas, whose incompetent government had failed to solve any of the country’s urgent economic and social problems and had brought it perilously close to anarchy during the riots of last January in Cairo.
The success of the present military regime will depend upon the extent to which it is able to bring down living costs, provide employment in new industry, improve health conditions, and increase the food supply for some of the poorest people in the world. A recent five-year study made by the Rockefeller Foundation at the request of the Egyptian government showed that the fellaheen have a standard of living below that of the peasants of India and China studied by the Foundation under similar circumstances. The most promising aspect of General Naguib’s program is that it is directed at improving the standard of living of the Egyptian peasant.
Egypt’s land reform
The most immediate political test ahead of the regime will come in January, 1953, when a new decree goes into effect taxing at five times the present rate landholdings in excess of 200 acres. The idea back of this drastic measure is to persuade large landholders to sell to smallholders directly without waiting for the government to take over the land and redistribute it. Land which is retained will be taken over gradually and compensation paid in 3 per cent government bonds during the next five years.
A corollary program will encourage former landlords to invest in industry, and presumably there may be tax inducements offered to speed up development of local industries. Meanwhile the Egyptian Company Law of 1947, which limited foreigners to a 49 per cent interest in Egyptian companies, has been amended to allow them 51 per cent participation, and General Naguib has made it plain that Egypt will now welcome foreign investment on this basis. From all this it appears that the technical advisers have educated the military leaders in the realities of Egyptian economic life, which has been until now wholly and precariously dependent on the cotton crop.
The real importance of the proposed land reform program in Egypt lies in its potential political effects. For it is the political power which the large landowners have exercised over the village and the government which Egypt’s New Dealers are determined to break.
On grounds of productive efficiency a case can be made for not breaking up the large estates and for merely taxing them more strictly, as former Premier Aly Maher wanted to do. But the catch in this, from the revolutionaries’ point of view, was that it left Egypt at the mercy of the same, class which has run it so badly for so long. It was on this crucial issue that General Naguib broke with Aly Maher in September and took over the premiership.
Egypt’s new strong man
The purging of political parties of their corrupt elements has left some very large gaps in political leadership. General Naguib has incarcerated all potential opposition leaders. The Wafd appears finally to have been effectively split, with the younger, more progressive elements now in charge.
A significant military order has put offenses against the land reform law within the jurisdiction of military instead of civil courts, and the first victim of this summary justice has been sent to jail. It seems likely that in order to maintain its momentum and to accomplish any of the really urgent economic and social surgery needed to forestall anarchy, this revolution will have to continue to follow the Kemalist pattern of direct and forceful action.
The hazards which threaten such a course should be recognized by all who watch Egypt’s new strong man hopefully as a symbol of reintegration in the Arab world. There is the obvious threat of personal danger to him from any number of disaffected elements. Admittedly Naguib is the spokesman for an executive committee of the army and there are seconds to carry on. But he has displayed political gifts rare among military men and he would be difficult to replace in the affections of the people.
There is the danger that extremist factions will attempt to swing the present government away from its moderate course. Here the fundamentalist influence of the Moslem Brotherhood cannot be discounted; nor can the threat of Communism in Egypt, if the present middle-class effort goes wrong.
The reorganization of agriculture into smaller units and the training of peasants to work within a coöperative framework will require skilled leadership and time. The prevalence of endemic diseases will plague the most zealous reform efforts in the villages, as will the long habit of inertia. There is also the need of financing food imports during the years it will take to reclaim arable land along the Nile.
There are already encouraging signs that, in dealing with the West, General Naguib will look ahead rather than backward. His chief interest admittedly will be in securing arms and aid in building up a modern defense force. While there will remain many snags to real agreement with Britain over protection of the Suez Canal, it is encouraging to note that this issue seems no longer to be indissolubly tied to the Sudan question. Similarly, in dealing with the Sudan, Naguib has shown a practical disposition to put first things first, such as the agreement with the Sudan on sharing and making better use of the Nile waters.
Arab resentment against Israel
The reappearance of a well-consolidated Arab-Asian bloc at the currenl session of the IN General Assembly and their demands Vis-àvis the Western powers demonstrate clearly the prevailing attiude among Arab leaders toward the West, It is plain that the Palestine issue is far from settled in I heir minds and that it will be used to embarrass the United States on many occasions.
Whatever resolutions ami protests on ibis issue are debated u| ibis session. it should be realized thal there are eorlain basic demands which the UN has previously recognized as valid and which must be answered if (he Arab altitude toward Israel is to change.
These demands are for compensation, even on a token settle, for the 880.000 dispossessed Arab refugees, and for at least some reetideations of the eastern border between Israel and Jordan.
For example, the fart, that the I farm hinds of some 80.000 residents of border villages are now cut off from their houses in Jordan, depriving them of all sources of livelihood and making them economic if not actual refugees, loads to continuing border trouble. Some adjustments here in territory which Israel look by conquest, and where it would not be costly to Israel, would go far to relieve local tension on both sides of the armistice line.
Israel’s gesture in unfreezing part of the bank balances ol Arab refugees in Palesiine banks will prcsumablv help to counter Arab resentment over the reparations now to come to Israel from the Bonn government. Put a greater recognition on Israel’s part of the psychological necessity of furl her compensatory efforts, along the lines of existing UN resolutions, will have to precede any real peacemaking in Palestine.
Meanwhile the fact that mass immigration to Israel has ceased should relieve Arab anxieties about immediate Israeli need (or expansion. In actual fact, expansion remains a political issue within Israel. There, even its enthusiastic protagonists must balance the advantages of j further conquest against the disadvantages of violating both UN undertakings and the status quo explicitly guaranteed by the United States. Britain, and France.