From Nasser to Tantawi: The Myth of ‘Sixty Years of Oppression’

While making pious new friends at home, Nasser’s successors also radically overhauled Egypt’s foreign relations. (Photo: Reem Abou-El-Fadl)

By: Reem Abou-El-Fadl

Published Monday, October 24, 2011

This is the revolution’s understanding of religions: love, fraternity, equality. With equality we can create a strong homeland that knows no sectarianism, only patriotism… We as a government, and I as president, carry responsibility for everyone in this country, whatever their religion, whatever their origins...

These were the words of President Gamal Abdel Nasser at the dedication ceremony of the St. Mark Cathedral at Abbasiya on 25 June 1968. Nasser personally supervised its construction, offering Pope Kyrillos VI access to state contractors, and funds from the public works budget to build it. It is a landmark in Coptic architecture, the largest cathedral in Africa and the Middle East. And it was beneath its high domed ceilings that cries of grief rang out at the funerals of Egypt’s latest martyrs earlier this month, their violent deaths the responsibility of a very different military leadership. At least 25 were killed after military police opened fire on a demonstration which had gathered at the Maspero state television building to protest the burning of a Coptic church in Aswan.

Nasser’s speech came almost two decades after Egypt’s Free Officers Movement staged a coup to overthrow a defunct monarchy, launching the July Revolution of 1952. Sixty years later, many have connected the July Revolution with this year’s popular uprising in Egypt, which brought down another failed regime, and launched the January Revolution of 2011. Some draw parallels between the emphases of both on ‘dignity, freedom, and social justice.' Others vehemently blame the Free Officers for the legacy of military rule that empowered Mubarak and now the ruling military council. This has reinvigorated refrains of ‘60 years of oppression’, heard often in recent months.

Yet today’s generals are protecting an entirely different set of interests from those important to the Free Officers. They have presided over months of delay in the trials of Mubarak and his aides, and have stalled and bargained with the revolutionary forces over every aspect of constitutional and electoral reform. They have thrown over 8,000 people in military prisons, and have even turned their tanks and guns on peaceful demonstrators at Maspero. The generals’ statements in support of the January Revolution can no longer conceal their connections with the old regime and their return to the worst of its tactics.

Certainly, the Free Officers Movement brought the army to power and ruled a one-party state with its own share of political prisoners. But both partisans and detractors of the July Revolution also agree on its orientation towards Egypt’s millions of poor at home, and towards pan-Arabism and liberation movements abroad. Phasing in land reform, improved labor conditions, free education and healthcare, Nasser argued that the road to democracy had to begin with freedom from poverty and colonialism. Today, six decades on, Egypt’s ruling military council is part of a coalition with big business, Islamist organizations, and politicians from the Mubarak era, while abroad, it is only American interests that count. How did this change occur?

What is often forgotten in rooting all of Egypt’s contemporary ills to the July Revolution is the systematic undoing of most of its economic, social, and foreign policy programs soon after Nasser’s death.

Sadat’s Makeover: The ‘Open Door’ Policy

Egypt’s military elite today is the product of the infitah (openness) economic liberalization policies and the Israeli peace treaty of the 1970s. Both of these are the legacies of President Anwar Sadat, preserved and entrenched by Hosni Mubarak. As Camp David came into effect, Egypt was rewarded with massive financial assistance from Washington, surpassed only by Israel’s allowance over the years. The largest portion went straight into army coffers, whose budget was kept secret. The army grew into part of a formidable military-industrial complex, and later became fully complicit in the crony capitalism of Mubarak Inc.

Today’s military council criminalized the right to strike as early as March, and is openly disdainful of workers’ grievances, while the government continues to dodge demands to fix a reasonable minimum and maximum wage. Until a cabinet reshuffle in July, prompted by renewed popular protests, the council had even retained the last Minister of Finance appointed by Mubarak, Samir Radwan. The state media broadcast misinformation about ‘sectoral’ strikes and their purported harm to Egypt’s ‘production wheel,' while faithfully replaying footage of General Tantawi mingling with employees at a chemicals factory. The military council propagates the myth that it guaranteed the success of the January Revolution. But it is increasingly clear that the generals helped maneuver Mubarak out in order to contain the competition coming from his son Gamal and his business associates in the ruling party, all with non-military backgrounds, all with similar ambitions.

The Internal Islamist Alliance

Alongside the economic turn-around of the 1970s, Sadat and his military elite forged a strong alliance with Islamist groups in Egypt, in stark contrast to the secular style of rule under Nasser. Sadat pumped funds into particular groups specifically to counter Nasser’s supporters, as well as the left, while repressing any which would not fall into line. One of these factions eventually killed Sadat, and Mubarak reigned in the rest, but superficial religious discourse continued to be fostered in state media, and Islamist groups kept their place in public debate. It is telling that while millions of Egyptians, Muslim, and Christian demonstrated and prayed together in January, most of the organized Islamist ‘opposition’ were absent. Matters are coming full circle today, as the military council appears to be encouraging the Muslim Brothers once more, in a bid to neutralize the liberal and left-leaning forces of the new revolution. And the Brothers’ leadership, despite imprisonment at the hands of successive military rulers, have rushed to prove their loyalty to the new authorities. Some analysts explain this in terms of caution and insecurity; others see a recurrent opportunism.

Several times since January, Islamist voices have criticized the democracy movement’s challenge to the military council. In the March referendum, they counselled a ‘yes’ vote that preserved the status quo. In July, just as the latest military communiqué targeted the April 6 Movement, members of al-Gama‘a al-Islamiyya vowed to ‘purge Tahrir’ of its ‘loose’ and ‘disrespectful’ youth. The Muslim Brothers, as well as al-Gama’a and the Salafis, have stayed away from Tahrir’s “million” marches – which have rallied around the revolution’s original, consensual demands – and instead organized their own demonstrations calling for religious rule. Any tussles between the Islamists and the generals have stayed within the realm of debates on the electoral law.

Egypt’s military rulers appear to be returning the blessing. Hours of state television airtime are today devoted to Islamist politicians of all stripes who seem immune from official criticism. After churches were attacked at Imbaba in May and Aswan in October, the iron hand of the military council – seen crushing multiple demonstrations since January – did not come down on the perpetrators. In September, when Christian schoolgirls in Minya were sent home from school for not covering their hair, this was not declared a matter of national concern. There has been an eerie silence from prominent Islamist quarters on these issues. With important exceptions such as Noha el-Zeiny, this silence was deafening after last week’s vicious attack on Christian and Muslim demonstrators at Maspero.

From Pan-Arabism to ‘Egypt First’

While making pious new friends at home, Nasser’s successors also radically overhauled Egypt’s foreign relations. In the early 1970s, Sadat sought refuge in total US allegiance, freezing ties with the Soviet Union and Egypt’s fellow non-aligned states, before negotiating a peace treaty with Israel. These moves overturned all the foreign policy tenets of the July Revolution, which had championed autonomy, Arab solidarity, and positive neutralism. Sadat’s policy isolated Egypt among the Arabs, and even when Mubarak rehabilitated these ties, Egypt never recovered its leading role. It was overtaken by regional rivals such as Saudi Arabia, while its role and influence in Africa also receded. The current January 25 Revolution reintroduced a strong Arab dimension. Its demonstrators invoked their inspiration from Tunisia, their determination to liberate Palestine, and expressed solidarity with all sister movements for democracy in the Arab world.

Yet the ruling generals seem aloof from this, and more inclined to reassure and take the lead from the conservative monarchies of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the Emirates, while receiving regular nods from Washington. For months this year, it was understood that the generals had succumbed to heavy pressure from Saudi not to try Mubarak. Many also believe that US pressure reigned in the regional activism of the new Foreign Minister Nabil el-Arabi. After his decision to permanently open the Rafah crossing in March, passage through it became heavily constrained yet again, and el-Arabi was re-posted to head the Arab League in May.

The military council’s own stances reveal an Egyptian chauvinism reminiscent of the Sadat and Mubarak eras. In July, General Hassan al-Ruwaini denounced well-known Egyptian-Palestinian poet Tamim al-Barghouti as a meddling foreigner, in a tone also reminiscent of former Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit’s wanton dismissal of the Palestinians, Lebanese Shia, and Algerians on different occasions. These positions highlight a stark difference between the army that built a revolution in 1952 – albeit top-down – and earned respect across the Arab world, and the army that is trying to contain a revolution, or rather foil it, in 2011.

The ‘60 years of oppression’ mantra then, seems to reflect a rather selective reading. Indeed, the effaced priorities of July 1952 were among those upheld, alongside the call for democracy, in January 2011: rejection of foreign interference and dependency, and the promotion of social justice and equality. Further comparisons are also possible. Today both the army and the Muslim Brotherhood are run by an old guard who appear out of touch with younger generations. Both younger officers and the Muslim Brothers Youth famously broke ranks to participate in this year’s January Revolution. It was also disgruntled younger officers who plotted the coup of July 1952, six decades ago this summer. This is perhaps the aspect of the July Revolution that is most thought-provoking when considering the fortunes of the democracy movement today.

Reem Abou-El-Fadl is a Junior Research Fellow in Middle East Politics at Oxford University, UK.

The views expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect al-Akhbar's editorial policy.

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