…and the yearning for democracy
No other political or social movement in the modern Middle East has stirred as much attention as Egypt’s 23 July 1952 Revolution. Egypt along with other countries of the region had undergone major changes since Mohamed Ali Pasha set into motion the modernisation process in the early 19th century. However, because of the period in which it was born, the 23 Revolution was endowed with unprecedented capacities to radiate and assert its sway. It was a period of transition, from colonialist hegemony to national liberation and from the traditional Islamic regional bond to the Arab nationalist bond (even if this would eventually yield to the Islamic fundamentalist trend).
Because of Egypt’s central and strategic position, a turning point for it would necessarily mark a turning point for the rest of the region and beyond. Advances in modern communications worked to hasten the pace and broaden the scope of the transformation. Radio, in particular, proved a powerful instrument for change, all the more so as the substance that was being transmitted across the airwaves was more than propaganda; it was a stream of new ideas, stances and values that sprang from a spirit that fired the hearts and minds of the Arab people.
If the 1952 Revolution was aided by such concrete circumstances and conditions, we cannot ignore the fact that it also had the advantage of the remarkable character of its leader. President Gamal Abdel-Nasser was endowed with a powerful personality and an extraordinary charisma, even if his glow would fade somewhat following the 1967 defeat.
A revolution of this scale and impact must inevitably stir controversy and widely divergent assessments. In fact, it should come as little surprise that the assessments are so divergent as to be mutually contradictory and that the differences of opinion are as radical as the very changes the revolution brought about. We find, therefore, that people tend to be either ardently for the revolution or passionately against, with very few in the cool or lukewarm middle ground. But what is quite surprising is that this polarisation of opinion remains sharp and fierce after nearly six decades. It does not stand to reason that so many who fought the historiographical or ideological battles over this revolution for so long would remain so staunchly convinced that it was either the ultimate good or a grand mistake. Such vehement absolutism might be understandable up to a point, but not after all this time. Still, there finally appear to be signs of some moderation in both quarters.
In the pro-revolution camp we find a few who have begun to contemplate the revolution’s record in democracy with a more open mind. They now acknowledge that the revolution has not attained its sixth objective, which is to establish a proper democratic government, but they have not gone so far as to link some aspects of the failure of democratic transformation to repercussions from the revolution’s tendency to stamp out all sources of political initiative in society. Meanwhile, some exponents of the anti- revolution camp have begun to consider the circumstances that led to the revolution with a more objective frame of mind and have acknowledged that the revolution was a socio-political imperative derived from the need of the Egyptian people to complete the process of the national democratic revolution that had begun with the Orabi uprising and that expressed itself more profoundly in the 1919 Revolution. By the end of the 1940s, it had become clear that the road forward lay in eliminating the contradiction between a political order that had sunk into stagnation and the social ferment that had been steadily increasing since the end of World War II. Yet, while the members of the anti-revolution camp now see this, they have yet to give the revolution its full and fair due, and to admit that, on the whole, it was a step forward, in spite of all the mistakes that hampered its ability to fulfil the tasks of the Egyptian people’s national struggle.
The 1952 Revolution was not disconnected from the history of the struggle for democracy in Egypt; it was an integral episode in this struggle which has yet to reach its ends of fortifying national independence, building a free democratic order and realising social justice. Therefore, 58 years down the line, we should regard the 1952 Revolution, whether in respect to what it has failed to achieve or what it did achieve and then lost, as part of the greater continuum of a historical drive that may have waned for a while but nevertheless persevered in a series of successive links. Because of this flow, in which the present interacts with the past, it was only natural that the 1952 Revolution would espouse many of the principles, demands and aims of the previous period, especially of the decade that preceded the revolution.
However, the greater historical drive I refer to has its roots in the constitutional struggle that emerged in the 1870s and that had its first culmination in the revolution that erupted towards the end of that decade. The movement brought together all national forces, even if their relative weight and their roles varied, as would be expected. Before the 1952 Revolution, the movement had its primary base in the conventional socio-political forces represented by the Wafd Party, the unrivalled majority party until 1952. However, it also included radical forces, most notably the Muslim Brotherhood, the Misr Al-Fatah (Young Egypt) movement which established itself as the Socialist Party of Egypt in 1949, the National Party, and Marxist and leftwing socialist organisations. In addition, there was an avant-garde wing of the Wafd that served as a link between conventional and radical forces and which advocated the enlightened liberalism that had been forsaken by some of the upper class Wafd establishment.
The 1952 Revolution did indeed champion the most important principles that the Egyptian national movement fought for, such as independence and the destruction of some of the pillars of the old order that prevented the reconstruction of society on new foundations. Yet, even if the circumstances were such that its leaders had to shelve the democratic principles of the national struggle, the price that Egypt has paid for this is enormous and the cumulative repercussions obstructed the completion of the tasks that it and the 1919 Revolution before it had set for themselves. It was an immense historical error not only to separate but also to create an antithesis between these two revolutions. Not only is it impossible to properly understand the history of the democratic national struggle without perceiving their interconnection, it is impossible to assess the future of this struggle without proceeding from them as two successive integrally bound links, in spite of the differences between them.
The 1952 Revolution was an elitist military movement that enjoyed massive popular support. Much of this support was due to its leader, Nasser, who had the ability to rally the people around him, a quality shared by his predecessor, Saad Zaghloul, who led the 1919 Revolution, which was a rare example of a truly grassroots revolution, which began as student demonstrations and quickly expanded to embrace most sectors of society. However, in 1919 the people were active participants alongside their leader in the uprising and the subsequent stages of the struggle that was carried out in other forms and with other means. This was not the case in 1952, which was carried out in secret by a relatively small handful of officers and which was then characterised by a certain remoteness between the leader and the masses created by the security and military agencies. One imagines that if that distance had not existed and if there had been closer contact between Nasser and the masses, political life in Egypt would be much different today.
There is another fundamental difference between Egypt’s two great 20th century revolutions. It has to do with priorities. The 1919 Revolution sought to liberate the nation from a gruelling British colonial occupation and it sought to liberate the people from oppression by a Turkish-British-indigenous (Egyptian) upper class. The slogan, “Independence and a constitution” epitomised the character of this revolution that has bequeathed inspiring lessons on the democratic national struggle. The 1952 Revolution primarily aimed to liberate the lower and middle classes from decades of exploitation. It also sought to complete the process of national liberation, calling for the evacuation of British forces from the Suez Canal zone, preparatory to confronting the Zionist entity that had begun to take root in the centre of the Arab world several decades earlier and that had officially declared statehood four years before the revolution.
The 1919 Revolution ushered in a new phase in Egypt’s history of the democratic national struggle. It was a phase characterised by greater force, drive and confidence and it laid the basis for further cumulative progress as a movement. However, this did not carry over into the process of building a sustainable democracy, which was heavily obstructed by the occupation authorities and the monarchy. In like manner, the 1952 Revolution achieved a reasonable amount of progress in social justice, but it failed to furnish the necessary protection to sustain this progress. The failure lies in the fact that it excluded the beneficiaries of the social justice measures from actively participating in the management of their own affairs, which ultimately deprived them of the wherewithal to fight the forces that had been waiting for the appropriate circumstances to undermine the social justice measures and push back the gains that had been won for the lower and middle classes. The leaders of the 1952 Revolution, therefore, can not be absolved from blame for the rapid rollback in social justice that began in the mid-1970s and that allowed for a growing class rift unlike any experienced in modern Egyptian history.
The gap in the distribution of wealth is glaring and distressing in view of the generally poor social conscience of the well to do. But more disturbing yet are recent World Bank figures on poverty levels in Egypt. Although the level of extreme poverty (whereby individuals are unable to obtain essential food supplies) is still low, the prevalence of severe poverty (whereby individuals are unable to meet their basis needs) has risen to 20 per cent. In addition, the prevalence of borderline poverty has risen. This, together with the Zionist entity’s mounting belligerency and arrogance, which are an affront to our national dignity, means that neither of Egypt’s two revolutions has fully achieved its objectives.
Clearly, then, as we look back on the triumphant days of the 1952 Revolution we must contemplate how to work towards the fulfilment of the democratic struggle, which was an aim of this revolution and its predecessor. The first step forward, in this regard, is to present the Egyptian people with a clear and detailed programme for a national social and democratic drive and then to reach out to the people in a way that inspires them to carry it through, with their active participation, as was the case in the 1919 Revolution, and with their enthusiastic support, as was the case with the 1952 Revolution. The Egyptians of the first half of the 20th century loved Saad Zaghloul. The Egyptians of the second half of that century loved Nasser. Today, Egyptians of the 21st century should continue to cherish what these two leaders stood for and carry on the struggle to safeguard their country’s independence, to reinstate social justice, and to realise democratic rights and freedoms.