A decade ago, on the anniversary of the 1952 Revolution, Egypt Today looked back at how Gamal Abdel Nasser’s promises and ideals set lofty new goals for a nation and asked if anything remained of Nasser’s vision.
We all cried when Hussein Riyadh, playing the poor gardener in Rodda Qalbi (Give Me My Heart Back, 1958), lost his temporary paralysis the moment he heard the news: The Revolution had started. After all, his paralysis was the result of a stroke brought on by the Pasha firing him; how dare the gardener’s riff-raff son harbor feelings toward the Pasha’s daughter, Inji? Ali, the son, who later becomes an army officer, vows to avenge his father. And then the Revolution takes place and differences between Inji and Ali melt. Previously separated a legacy of class conflict dating back centuries, the Revolution allows them to be together.
Rodda Qalbi, based on a novel by Youssef El-Sibaii (himself a Free Officer), was the quintessential post-Revolution story. The Revolution’s propaganda machine wanted the masses to know why the events leading up to July 1952 had to happen. The corrupt imperialist regime represented by King Farouk and his court, as El-Sibaii’s story portrays it, simply had to go for modern Egypt to be reborn, for Inji and Ali to be together.
But fast forward 55 years and many analysts argue that modern Egypt is still stuck in the metaphorical birth canal. The 0.5 per- cent ruling elite has been replaced by a 5 percent ruling class. The poor are still getting poorer, the rich are still rich, and one cannot imagine the modern Inji, a graduate of international schools and universities and daughter of a successful business leader, marrying the modern Ali, a graduate of state schools and universities who would probably be today the son of a microbus driver.
More than five decades after the uprising, it is hard not to wonder about the social, political and historical forces that shaped the events of the day. And so profound has the Revolution’s impact been that the event seems in retrospect to have been both inevitable and, to many, inevitably doomed to have been overtaken by the tide of events that followed.
Come the Revolution
Dr. Raouf Abbass, the noted historian and president of the Egyptian Society for Historical Studies, believes that Egypt, 55 years ago, was at just the historical moment when change was inevitable.
“In the lives of nations, moments come when the existing political regime is completely helpless in the face of the demands of internal and international politics,” says the Ain Shams professor emeritus. “A deadlock takes place, which is then broken by some catalyst, which then opens new horizons. This catalyst is called a revolution, be it a people’s revolution, like that of 1919, a military coup, like the Revolution of 1952, or as a result of the efforts of a national unity front representing all factions including the military, like the Revolution of 1881, which they name the Orabi Revolution.”
The 1952 Revolution, according to Abbass, can only be understood within this context. “We have to look back at the Revolution of 1919 and what it was able, or unable, to achieve. Nineteen fifty-two came to fulfill the demands which ignited 1919, namely national liberation, independence, social justice, so on. The regime, based on the constitution of 1923, failed to accomplish this.
“Regarding independence, for example, they agreed to embark on negotiations with the British,” he says. “The British, acting like the Israelis do with Palestinians, were ready with the rock against which all the demonstrations were crushed. They talked about Sudan, about the difficulty of leaving because the Suez Canal was the main artery connecting them with their empire, etc. Social justice was absent because of foreign hegemony over the Egyptian economy. The ruling class, economically speaking, had their inter- ests with the occupying forces, and thus tried to reach a kind of compromise.”
Following the Second World War, the scope of the crisis both broadened and heightened. “Public movements, some organized and some unorganized, started spurting up. The biggest crisis was the demonstration of January 25, on the day preceding the Cairo Fire. I joined this demonstration as a primary school student, which ended at Abdeen Square [in front of the royal palace]. We shouted slogans against the king, like, ‘Ila Ankara Yabn el-Mara [To Ankara, Son of a Whore],’ and so on. We called for the king to leave, reminding him that his family is not Egyptian. January 26 was, of course, the end of the tragedy.” On January 26, 1952, what has since become known
as Black Saturday, rioters railing against foreign hege- mony and what they saw as a colluding bourgeoisie ran amok. Fires were started in the capital’s Downtown area, in the process burning down a number of luxurious buildings considered popular haunts among expats, including the Shepheard Hotel.
Following the fire, Abbass says, “The regime crumbled completely, and did not have anything else to offer. It was like a clinically dead person who was connected to life-support. If the life-support was turned off, he would die. Here, July 23 was inevitable. It had to happen because the alternative would have been total chaos.”
Goals and Ends
Abdallah El-Sinnawi, editor-in-chief of the Nasserite Party newspaper Al-Araby, explains that before the revolution, a number of political groups and currents existed, such as the Marxists, the Muslim Brothers and the Wafdist Youths who had branched off from the Wafd, the most popular party at the time, and who dreamt of social justice.
“Then the Revolution came, and it tried to justify its existence. It adopted a number of values, most importantly the idea of Arab unity, coalitions, social justice and socialism. The social trend, the Revolution’s bias towards the deprived classes, was clear from the beginning. This was important because society was ruled by 0.5 percent of the population. There was no true democracy, as most Egyptians prior to the revolution were kept out of the political equation. The idea of social mobility was out of the question. People did not share in the national resources. Of course, the revolution depended greatly on the idea of mobilization, in order to realize its revolutionary goals,” explains El-Sinnawi.
Dr. Abdel Ghaffar Shokr, the vice-president of the Arab and African Research Center, defines three major characteristics of the revolution, foremost among them the rejection of foreign hegemony, be it political or economic. “Beginning with its rejection of the existence of military bases on its lands, Egypt wanted its political and economic decisions to be dictated by Egyptian circumstances and by the needs of Egyptian society. This was one of its most important characteristics,” he says.
The second characteristic was its bias toward the poor. “It paid attention to the poor and working classes, which was evident in the agricultural reform laws which changed the very nature of social relationship in the rural Egypt,” says Shokr. “Very early on, in 1953, there was a law preventing the arbitrary dismissal of workers, followed by a series of laws that gave workers the right to participate in running the public sector establishments, and also gave them a cut of the profits.”
The third was a mechanism the government utilized to bring about political and economic independence — a policy of independent economic and social development. “It had a three-year policy for industrialization, and a complete primary and secondary plan for social development,” Shokr says.
Another important goal, he adds, was bringing to the forefront a discussion of Egypt’s regional role. “The July revolution believed in the existence of common interests and goals between the Egyptian people and the peoples of the Arab nations. It also believed that national security demanded an active relationship with Arab nations, which would ultimately lead to Arab unity.”
The policies of the era, which included a pledge to provide services such as education, healthcare and jobs for graduates, strengthened the middle classes. “The middle class is the intellectual class, it generates ideas and dictates the direction of public opinion via its professionals, intellectuals, etc,” Shokr says. “This class was formed in Egypt following the reforms of Ismail Pasha, and has played a very important role in the Egyptian struggle toward better conditions, be they economic, political, nationalistic or democratic.”
To many Egyptians, President Gamal Abdel Nasser and the Revolution are one and the same. With his charismatic aura, fiery speeches and ability to move millions, the beloved leader is considered the key figure in the coup d’etat.
“Abdel-Nasser was the product of his era, of the era following World War Two and the division of the world into two camps, a Western camp and a Communist camp,” says El-Sinnawi. “Together with his comrades of the Non-Aligned Movement — Nehru, Tito, Sukarno — and the leaders of the African liberation movements, Nasser trod a new path that would preserve the independence and the interests of the newly liberated countries. He supported liberation movements all around the world, including Latin America. Hugo Chavez, for example, calls himself a Nasserite. Of course, he is as hated by the West as Abdel-Nasser. Castro and Guevara, as they fought on the mountains of the Sierra, were inspired by the Suez War [the Tripartite War of 1956]. He was a phenomenon born of the times, one of the last great men. During his time, there was Mao Tse Tong, Nehru, Castro, Eisenhower — all of whom represented ideas and inspired people around the world.”
Although Nasser is now dead, the journalist believes his ideas live on. “I believe the defeated leader will live longer and greater than the victorious leader Salah El-Din. Salah El-Din has lived in the Arab memory for a thousand years as the liberator of Jerusalem, but I believe the defeated leader will live much longer. He embodied a dream that is much bigger than the liberation of Jerusalem: the dream of historical liberation, of Arab unity, of social justice. His era was the greatest era for social transformation,
for the empowerment of the poor. What happened in Nasser’s era was unprecedented in Egyptian history. Even his opponents, when they speak about his faults, adopt a language that is closer to loving blame,” El-Sinnawi says.
Nasser has lived on in our minds and hearts, but has the revolution lived on? Does it need to? The answer, Abbass states emphatically, is “No” on both counts.
“Beginning with the time of Sadat until today, every time the re- gime feels it is in a crisis, it remembers the July Revolution and talks about it, as if this regime is the extension of the July Revolution. No revolution is supposed to live for half a century. A revolution is a tool for change. It changes an old regime and builds a new one in its place. The moment it accomplishes this, a country moves on to a new era. This new regime will either speak for a certain class, if it is a social revolution, or for a group of social forces and the elites of this group who have a vision regarding the rebuilding. At this point, the revolution ends. A new regime is born, depending on a strong constitution for its legitimacy,” says Abbass.
El-Sinnawi agrees: “President Sadat kept talking about moving from the revolutionary legitimacy to the constitutional legitimacy. This never took place. Persisting to operate under revolutionary legitimacy is ridiculous. Revolutions are not meant to be everlasting. The main morals and ideas of a revolution, like the French revolution, for example, live on, but then a strong constitution is writ- ten to maintain the social and political gains of this revolution. Another example is the American Revolution and its declaration of civil and political rights. Societies grow, but they preserve the experiences that they have paid for in blood and sweat.”
As a tool for change, Abbass identifies the deposition of the corrupt regime as the main aim of the movement. “But after that it did not have a specific program. Its program was born out of trial and error. It succeeded greatly in social and economic development, but like a three-legged stool, you need that third leg if it is to continue standing. This third leg, political development, was missing. It overlooked the creation of a democratic system that paved the way for true public participation in the political process, and which boasted real plurality.
“The idea of listening to the opposition was not adopted, and, in fact, was pushed out of the picture completely,” Abbass continues. “The state was run with a security concept. Yes, it was an era of confrontation, and we were engaged in a war against colonialism and against Israel. We were in a state of emergency, so we blocked the door in the face of the existence of that third leg.”
Even the revolution’s most vocal supporters are aware of a number of fatal flaws that detracted from its utopian dreams. In addition to its totalitarian tendencies, Shokr believes the first factor that led to its breakdown was the defeat of 1967.
“This was the number one cause of the breakdown,” he claims. “But the second cause was the development pattern the government of the time chose to adopt. They did not formulate a complete industrialization plan, for example, that would have ultimately led to the manufacturing of the tools of production. They would build a factory for assembling car parts in agreement with a major international manufacturer. The economic system they followed carried the seeds of its own crisis.”
Like El-Sinnawi, Shokr is quick to point out the lack of a vision for political development. “The social forces, themselves the target of all the development policies, were not given any political freedom, which in turn led to the weakening of labor and professional unions, or agricultural co-ops,” explains Shokr. “As a result, after the open-door policies, these groups which were the most affected were too weak to stand up for their rights.”
Last but not least of the things that went wrong was the un- timely death of Abdel-Nasser. “He was a historic leader who had total control of different government organizations. His death sent the country into chaos, and with the ascension of Sadat, a new wing came to power, made up of powerful landowners who had previously been stripped of their lands like Sayyed Marei, and rich contractors represented by Osman Ahmed Osman,” Shokr says.
El-Sinnawi too highlights a number of faults that characterized the coup. “The arrests were exaggerated; so was the punishment of political opponents. Bigger social steps had to be taken. They needed to be ready for war, especially after 1956, which was a lethal mistake. There had to be a true study of the reasons that caused the failure of the Syrian-Egyptian union. There were mistakes, and these mistakes made it possible for colonialist conspiracies to resurface, and to bring us to the situation we are in today,” he says.
But though he agrees the Revolution carried the seeds of its own undoing, El-Sinnawi maintains that great revolutions are not judged by piling all their good accomplishments in one stack, and all their faults in another, and then weighing them against each other. “Revolutions are judged by their influence on the history of their country, region and surroundings, by their effect on human history, and by the new ideas they have generated, the visions, the dreams. The French revolution, although bloody, influenced all the bourgeoisie revolutions that came after it. Just listen to the music Beethoven dedicated to Bonaparte,” he reasons.
The July revolution, admittedly, was an era that saw all forms of art flourishing in Egypt. It was the era of Abdel Halim, Omm Kolthoum, Mohamed Abdel Wahab, Salah Abu Seif, Souad Hosni and Salah Jahin, to name only a few of the pioneers of Egyptian arts.
A Lost Legacy
With all its inherent shortcomings, it wasn’t long before the dream began to crumble. The decline started, ac- cording to El-Sinnawi, in the wake of the 1973 war. “Starting with the open-door policies, the government began to marginalize the poor, so there was a wide return to poverty. The revolution fought the idea of poverty, striving toward greater development. Now there is growth, but no development. What has happened is that the power of the president has remained all encompassing, but it was emptied of its revolutionary qualities, and of its liberation projects. We are now witnessing totalitarianism that is completely attached to the American policies in the region, which coincide with the Israeli policies. The poor are left outside the area of political decision-making, and we are returning to a time that is worse than the time preceding the revolution.”
Shokr agrees: “The [revolution’s] regime was an authoritarian one where democracy and opposition were absent. The current regime … has squandered all the revolution’s gains, but is holding on to the authoritarianism. The absence of democracy is the only existing legacy of the revolution. As for the bias towards the poor, you can see the neo-liberalist policies and the transfer to the market economy, which prove that the poor are no longer accounted for. The economy is now based on privatization, and all social policies that supported the poor are being re-thought, such as health insurance and social insurance. The government is moving from being a provider of support and services to merely an organizer of economic relationships in society. The poor can no longer find any support from the government.”
This despite the fact that they make up the bulk of the nation’s population. “Half of the Egyptian people live in poverty, according to UN and World Bank reports, which indicate that the average Egyptian makes less than $1 per day and is unable to secure his basic needs,” says Shokr. “More than 10 million Egyptians live in shantytowns at the peripheries of cities, and are deprived of healthy living conditions and healthy homes.”
As for the middle class, the true dynamo of peaceful change? That seems to be disappearing — and fast. “The middle class is in a real cri- sis. It is still there, but most of it has moved down to the lower classes,” outlines Shokr. “According to academic standards, these are middle classes living the conditions of the lower classes. Unemployment in this class is unprecedented, and it is no longer able to play its classic role, which it played prior to and during the revolution.”
As flawed as it may have been, the Revolution did manage to restore social justice of sorts, explains Shokr. For once, it seemed there was hope for peasants and workers. “People gained some rights, but now these rights are taken away from them,” he notes. “This only deepens the crisis of the workers, and of the peasants, of the middle classes and of the intelligentsia. This anguish is stored, and could then appear as strong movements. Until last year, we did not think the workers were capable of demonstrat- ing. The law states that if workers want to strike, they have to ask the permission of their syndicate, which then convenes and sends a letter to the owner asking his permission, giving him a two-week notice. But suddenly we found tens of strikes in viola- tion of this law, and the government was able to do nothing. It had to submit to their demands.”
Charting the Future
With rising prices and growing religious conservatism, even the government is now admitting that it must take action to quickly ensure the poorest of the poor feel the benefits of its economic liberalization policy. “There is total despair regarding the future,” says El-Sinnawi. “The increase in the levels of unemployment and the shantytowns as opposed to the resorts people are living in. Social mobility based on education, competence or talent no longer exists. Wealth is passed on and is growing, and poverty is passed on and is growing, too. We are not talking about capitalism at work transparently. Public opinion has no say in things. We are witnessing the marriage of power and money. Things are worse than they were before the revolution.”
The most worrying factor remains the absence of a strong middle class. “Before ‘52, we had a growing bourgeoisie that had not accomplished much, but which existed since the beginning of the modern state built by Mohamed Ali,” El-Sinnawi says. “Today, the ruling class has grown, constituting about five to seven or eight percent of the population, but the rest are just poor and crushed downtrodden classes with no chances. Before the Revolution, most of the Egyptians were outside history. But the Revolution gave them something back. Since then, most of their rights, their very humanity, have been stripped away. In a third-world country, education and health should be provided by the government. Peasants, workers, the poor, are all going back to a worse spot.”
Even the political atmosphere was better before 1952, Abbass points out. “Some political movements existed and proved them- selves at the time. The liberal parties had nothing to offer, but the Marxists, the Muslim Brothers, and the fascist Masr El-Fatah were active and had followers.”
Today, El-Sinnawi alleges, we are living in a time of political de-cay. “Society is losing confidence in itself and in its future and in its ability to manage the country. The only cure is amputation. We will not be able to move toward any real progress unless we go through real political and constitutional reform. I am starting to feel scared of these words, because the government uses them to submit us to more injustice and miserable conditions. The idea of political participation has been crushed, but the only hope to go forward is to change the current political regime. This can either take place through peaceful means, which is what we strive for, or through a violent act similar to the 1952 Revolution. But nobody knows what the future will bring; we are all waiting for the say of fate. The political elite certainly hope for the former solution, but is currently unable to enforce its agenda for peaceful democratic change. The political movements are too weak to stand up for democracy.”
Abbass sees no chance for positive change in light of the current crisis. “All revolutions begin as revolts of the hungry. The French revolution started this way, and so did the Russian revolution before the Bolshevists took over. For the hungry, anyone with a piece of bread in his hands is the enemy, not just the capitalists. Something bad could come out of such an uprising. A new dictatorial regime could take over, and replay the same politics of subjugation to the US policies, giving the people small, aspirin-like reforms to keep them quiet.”
The Islamists, Abbass continues, seem to be the strongest force around capable of channeling a possible uprising. “I have been talking about this for a long time. It is time to establish a national unity front made up of all political groups. The Free Officers were a national unity front, they just happened to be in the military. All groups and factions were represented within them. Such a front will agree to a nationalistic program, acting like a bulldozer to remove the debris resulting from the collapse of the old regime.”
Shokr, on the other hand, believes that what is happening today is a natural stage of decline, which will be followed by an era of renaissance. “Based on my study of the history of humanity, I have seen societies decline and then embark on development. Egypt is no different. The era we live in now is similar to the era of 1914 to 1919, an era in which all political groups had lost hope in the pos- sibility of change. In 1907, a number of active parties were formed, in addition to labor unions, co-ops and newspapers. By 1911, these began to weaken, and then the First World War took place and Britain declared Egypt a protectorate. They got rid of all the political opposition, but in 1919 a revolution took place. The same happened during the 1930s, but after 1945 nationalist groups became active again.”
In the case of a new political and social renaissance, will the values of the 1952 Revolution still be viable?
Shokr believes they will be. “The Revolution’s policies are still good enough to pull Egypt out of its crisis. There is a need for such policies, for real social, political and economic development. We do not have to repeat July’s mistakes; history is there to teach us. We must consider the poor classes again, help them to become responsible for themselves through a good health and social insurance program. We need to add democratic development, and a renewed, strong role in the Arab region, which will help Egypt’s national security.
“If people support such policies through free elections, they may just work.”
This article first appeared in the January 2008 edition of Egypt Today magazine. The article was written by Manal el-Jesri