The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

This isn't 1952, but Egyptian democrats should still be wary

A despised autocrat is forced to abdicate, a military junta takes power, jubilation in the streets of Cairo -- maybe we've seen it all before, 60 years ago, and it didn't work out so well.

"Whereas some predicted as recently as Thursday that Egypt was moving forward, with the rise of the Military Command Council, Egypt seems to have reverted to 1952," writes Jon Alterman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in the Washington Post. He argues that the military's coup will take away the protest movement's momentum, and allow the forces of the status quo to control the transitional process.

There is certainly a danger that the military will attempt to pull a Leopard, creating the illusion of change so that things stay the same -- and reports that the military is warning against strikes are frighteningly reminiscent of the Free Officers' brutal crackdown on workers in Kafr al-Dewar in August of 1952. However, there are also a number of key differences between the situation now and the situation sixty years ago, which I think will make it very difficult for the military to simply ditch Mubarak and keep the system in place.

1) The military did not depose Mubarak on its own initiative, but because a mass protest movement had made the country ungovernable. Senior officers presumably also had to worry about mutinies in the ranks if the situation continued to disintegrate. While there was widespread opposition to the Free Officers in 1952-56, there is no equivalent to today's network of youth and other opposition groups, with a more or less unified set of demands, who were able to bring the country to a halt and could do so again.

2) The Free Officers cast themselves as the opponents not just of the king, but of the entire Egyptian political order -- including several political parties which had held power at various points. In 1952, it was still possible to see one-party rule as a viable alternative to a bickering, corrupt, ineffectual parliamentary system. Thus, when the Officers started to ban parties, it could be seen as a natural extension of their revolutionary goals, rather than a betrayal of them. Egypt's Supreme Council today however has one mandate, and one mandate only: introduce genuine democracy. It has acknowledged that mandate by pledging to return Egypt to civilian rule, and by offering elections in six months.

3) The corruption and ineffectualness of Egypt's governments were only one cause of the pre-1952 discontent. Many Egyptians felt just as strongly about restoring national sovereignty by expelling the British from the Canal Zone, and about the inequitable distribution of land in the countryside. Thus, the Nasser government could call itself a "revolution" by pressuring the British to withdraw and by promising land reform, without necessarily delivering better governance. In contrast, the Supreme Council does not have any quick and dirty means of gaining itself legitimacy, other than following through on its pledges to relinquish power.

This is not to say that there is no danger of the military perpetuating its rule. Nostalgia for dictatorship can set in awfully fast, particularly if there is a sense of economic instability (caused, say, by widespread strikes) or a spike in crime (caused, say, by the demoralization and delegitimization of the police force). Egyptian democrats have a difficult task ahead, keeping the pressure on the military without stirring up longing for a more stable if stagnant autocracy. This time, however, they have the power of a revolution behind them, rather than have it as a weapon that could be used against them.