Shades of Egypt’s past are coloring the country’s current political scene.
With massive popular backing, on July 3, 2013, the Egyptian army ousted President Mohamed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood candidate who won free and fair presidential elections only a year earlier.
The event was broadly reminiscent of events that took place some sixty years earlier, on July 23, 1952, when the Egyptian army ousted King Farouk and took over the reigns of government.
Now, as then, people have debated whether the military’s actions constitute a coup. Sweeping analyses about Egyptians’ capacity for democracy, as well as the political polarizations in the country, have also made headlines. However, less attention has been given to the historical context, which shapes and informs the wider consequences of Morsi’s ouster.
While the masses that poured onto Egypt’s streets between June 30 and July 3, cling to what they perceive as a popular victory against an autocratic president, Morsi’s supporters continue to demand the reinstatement of their legitimate leader. In the three weeks since his ouster, countless Brotherhood officials have been detained on dubious charges, while Morsi himself remains under military guard.
On Wednesday, July 24, Abdel Fattah el-Sissi, current Defense Minister and army head, called on the Egyptian public to support the military’s efforts to stamp out “terrorist” violence in the country in a speech understood as signaling a coming crackdown against the Brotherhood.
With recent pundits drawing comparisons between Egypt’s beloved, past military ruler and president, Gamal Abdel Nasser, and Sissi, the military is conducting itself in ways that are undeniably similar to the post-1952 era.
As it did shortly after coming to power in the mid-1950s, the Egyptian military appears intent on consolidating its power and disbanding the Brotherhood organization. Then as now, it has taken these actions through carefully controlled street support, and under the thinly veiled guise of civil rule.
These parallels suggest a disturbing future for Egypt – one in which democracy continues to take a back seat to military rule.
Revolutions Past and Present
In the lead up to the July 1952 events, Egypt witnessed several years of popular mobilization, protests, and grassroots initiatives. These developments were not simply aimed against the British occupation, which dated back to 1882, but also challenged the rampant inequality and corruption in the country.
The country’s defeat during the 1948 Arab-Israeli war revealed pervasive corruption in Egypt. The defeat came partially as a result of defective and dated weaponry imported by officials who benefited financially from these arms deals. Since these weapons led to the death of Egyptian soldiers, the public, as well as elements within the army, decided something needed to be done.
In October 1951, the Wafd Party, abrogated the Anglo-Egyptian treaty of 1936, which gave British control over the country. Wafd, which was founded by Egyptian statesman, Saad Zaghloul, was a nationalist liberal party and one of the country’s most influential political entities in the 1920s and 30s.
Wafd oversaw the establishment of the 1923 constitution, which moved Egypt toward a constitutional monarchy. Through the monarchy, the party was able to achieve its foundational goals of ending British occupation, and terminating Egypt’s status as a British protectorate. Ultimately, however, under the auspices of the Anglo-Egyptian treaty, British influence in the country remained strong thanks to collusion between the British government and the Egyptian monarchy.
In response, to Wafd’s decision to abrogate the treaty, exuberant Egyptians took to the streets to demand an end to British occupation once and for all.
Workers held strikes across the country, including in the British controlled Suez Canal. Protesters also targeted the symbols of foreign privilege and exploitation that dominated Cairo at the time, like the Shepherd Hotel in downtown Cairo and Chicorel, a prominent department store frequented by the Egyptian elite.
The British occupation was viewed not only as an affront to Egyptian sovereignty, but also detrimental to its economic development. For decades, cotton trade with Britain dominated Egypt’s economy through the country’s semi-feudal political structure.
After parts of Cairo were burnt by rioters in 1952, and political instability increased, popular discontent against the monarchy and its subservience to the British reached a tipping point.
The Free Officers emerged at the forefront of the opposition movement. The group had already begun organizing against the monarchy, in the aftermath of the 1948 War.
Unlike the Wafd and the other existing political forces in the country, the Free Officers, whose leading members came from the Egyptian middle class, were not associated with the Egyptian elite, which enabled the group to adopt a populist discourse based on social equality and national dignity.
With its ability to control certain state institutions via the army, the Free Officers was the only organized force capable of filling the political vacuum.
Because street protests were largely unorganized and leaderless, the officers were able to act before King Farouk could crack down on the movement. While the Free Officers made Mohamed Naguib, a well-known war hero, its figurehead, Gamal Abdel Nasser was effectively in power.
Only a few years later, in 1954, Naguib was sidelined and Nasser became president.
The Egyptian leader quickly developed into an iconic figure in the region. His defiance of western colonial powers coupled with populist speeches drew in millions across the Middle East.
The Nasser government also pursued a slew of popular economic, social, and political changes in Egypt, including land redistribution, nationalization of the Suez Canal and other foreign owned companies, the establishment of a public education and healthcare system, and the construction of the Aswan High Dam.
Music and media from the period memorialize Nasser’s accomplishments. Narratives about the former president refer to 1952 as the ‘People’s Revolution’ and depict the period as a time when ‘Egyptian people finally had a say’ in the country.
In reality, however, the ‘people’ were merely props in Nasser’s political game. While support for Nasser was certainly real, the idea of popular agency was little more than government propaganda.
Despite his immense popularity, charisma, and oratory gifts, there is no denying that Nasser turned Egypt into a military state.
Just months after the 1952 takeover, as it promised a new era of dignity for ‘ordinary’ Egyptian, Nasser’s regime crushed a worker’s strike in Kafr ElDawwar, arresting nine union leaders and sentencing two to death.
Nasser’s attitude toward Egypt’s labor movement was ‘the workers don’t ask, we give.’ Even though strikers claimed to be acting in support of the revolution, the government refused to tolerate the prospect of popular mobilization.
Independent trade unions and strikes were not permitted after that point. Nasser eventually subsumed the labor movement under the umbrella of the state-controlled Egyptian Federation of Trade Unions. Until today, the federation remains under government control. In fact, almost all trade unions in Egypt announced support of the Sissi’s recent call to protest ‘against terrorism.’
That Nasser reflected and attempted to address the frustrations and hopes of many Egyptians is indisputable. At the same time, the political system he created had grave repercussions for the country.
While attempting to promote Egypt’s economy and build up the country’s productive capacities through a program of industrialization, the Nasser era saw the rise of a new class of exploitative elites among the ranks of army officers.
Egypt’s old semi-feudal system was replaced with a state-capitalist one in which a handful of cronies, mostly members of the army, loyal to Nasser controlled the country’s economy. Moreover, the state’s authoritarian nature, which was governed through perpetual emergency law, meant that Nasser’s power was unchecked, and political pluralism virtually nonexistent.
Initially, Nasser’s relationship with the Brotherhood was weak, but positive. Although upon coming to power the Free Officers did not associate with any of Egypt’s then-existing political movements, its members spanned the political spectrum, from leftists to Islamists. In its early days, right after Farouk’s ouster, the new government even included ministers from the Brotherhood.
However, as the Brotherhood attempted to increase its influence, Nasser’s patience began running out. The Brotherhood initially tried to establish footings within the new regime through negotiations with Nasser, and demanded prominent ministerial positions. Nasser’s vision of a socialist, secular Egypt under the ideology of pan-Arab nationalism could not, however, be reconciled with the Brotherhood’s dogma.
Nasser was ultimately unwilling to compromise the trajectory of his regime by accommodating the Brotherhood. In 1953, he outlawed all political parties, which signaled the beginning of the end for the Brotherhood’s participation in the Nasser regime.
After a failed assassination attempt against Nasser in Alexandria, the country’s media repeatedly played up the Brotherhood’s alleged interest in taking over government. The assassination attempt, which was allegedly perpetrated by Brotherhood agents, gave Nasser the justification he needed to crack down on the group once and for all.
In 1954, the Nasser government outlawed the Brotherhood, and detained, tortured, and executed hundreds of Brotherhood members throughout the next decade.
Then and Now
Over the last few decades, both the Brotherhood and military have experienced important changes.
The Egyptian military was not as economically or politically entrenched in 1952 as it is today. Things began to shift that year and crystallized in the wake of the 1979 Egypt-Israel peace treaty.
Thanks to the treaty, the Egyptian military has since been bolstered by a hefty $1.6 billion in annual aid from the United States to maintain stability within the region.
This aid ushered in a new era for Egypt’s military state, in which the army took a more backstage approach to politics and where the ‘deep state’ controlled the country’s affairs from behind the scene.
Since 1952, the army’s power and budget has been unchecked. Currently, the military is estimated to control approximately 40 percent of the Egyptian economy.
For its part, the Brotherhood has also developed from an anti-colonial resistance movement, committing acts of violence, into one of the largest social and political institutions in the country that is staffed by prominent businessmen and has long renounced violence.
For decades, even while acting underground, the group remained the most prominent extra-governmental organization. Through grassroots mobilization and social welfare, the Brotherhood was able to grow and maintain a solid support base in many of Egypt’s rural areas and southern regions—places where official Egyptian welfare policies often fell short.
With the onset of political liberalization in 2005, the Brotherhood won a majority of seats in parliament, an outcome that led to the Mubarak government’s decision to rig the next round of parliamentary elections in November 2010.
Despite cosmetic attempts to include the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt’s political fabric since the death of President Anwar Sadat, the Brotherhood and military have always reflected a varying degree of rivalry and tension.
The differences are both ideological and economic. As a group that is fiscally conservative and dominated by prominent businessmen, the Brotherhood may threaten the economic interests of the army and Mubarak-era businessmen. After years of seeing the Brotherhood as a menace, it has also been difficult for members of the army and police to start viewing the group as a legitimate political party instead of a band of detained, outlawed agitators.
As the sixty-first anniversary of the July 23rd ‘Revolution’ has come and gone, the trajectory of the Egypt’s recent revolutionary moment has cast a shadow over the prospects for meaningful structural change and national reconciliation in Egypt.
To mark last year’s anniversary of Free Officers rise to power, Morsi recalled the era with disdain, citing the setbacks to democracy witnessed during the period.
This past May Day, Morsi switched gears and discussed the need to ‘finish what Nasser started’ in the way of industrialization. This contrived attempt at establishing continuity with the Nasser regime earned Morsi disdained from many.
If the army was unwilling to yield power in 1954, in the nascent stages of its regime, the stakes are even higher today. The Brotherhood’s fate hangs in the balance as well, as a conclusive defeat may spell the end of the organization as a whole.
Between the systematic massacre of 51 Brotherhood supporters in front of the Republican Guard building on July 8, 2013, and the shuttering of various Brotherhood affiliated television channels after Morsi’s ouster, the army seems intent on completing what Nasser began in 1954.
As a calm, collected, and sharp-looking Abdel Fattah el-Sissi addressed the country in the wake of recent discontent and chaos, the cult of personality that surrounded Nasser and buttressed his authoritarian rule seems to be reconstituting itself under the Defense Minister. Pictures are even circulating around the Internet showing a young Sissi saluting the iconic Egyptian leader.
While events unfolding in the next days and weeks will ultimately determine if Sissi becomes a modern day Nasser, and whether the Brotherhood is able to weather the storm, the lingering legacy of Egypt’s 1952 ‘Revolution’ does not bode well for the trajectory of the country’s current revolutionary moment.