The Real Battle Is in Egypt

Raza Naeem

A revolution that was thirty years in the making, which divided the army, toppling a discredited and corrupt regime, which despite regular rigged elections, was little more than a dictatorship and one of the West’s lynchpins in preserving its strategic interests in the Middle East; and when the overthrow came, in the dead of night, was cheered by millions whose support had made it possible.  

The Egyptian revolution, described above, occurred on July 23, 1952, when a group of nationalist military officers – communists, Islamists and neutralists among them – overthrew the regime of King Farouk and inaugurated a series of similar popular uprisings across the Arab world in the 1950s, lasting until the end of the 1960s with the emergence of Muammar Qadhafi in Libya in September 1969. Surely, the historic importance of this event and the contrast will not be lost on the Arab revolutionaries of the present who earlier this year overthrew the despotic regime of Hosni Mubarak, which had similarly lasted for three decades, as they celebrate and commemorate the 1952 revolution while confronting the challenges of the post-Mubarak order, dominated largely by the military, as it did post-1952.

Yet a contrast of the 2011 uprising with the 1952 Revolution is not only instructive but even vital, not just for the victorious insurrectionists in Tunis and Cairo, but across the Arab world. The 1952 revolution in Egypt, approaching its sixtieth anniversary year in 2012, barely merits such a description even in standard textbooks and histories of the subject, which see it as little more than a military coup. Unlike the 2011 uprising, it was led by nationalist military officers and not by the Egyptian masses; popular mobilisations from below came much later following the overthrow of King Farouk and the consolidation of the revolutionary order. The aims of the revolution were to end the occupation of Egypt by British troops – which were still in control of the Suez Canal despite granting formal independence to the country in 1922 – destroying the power of the landlords and the monarchy as well as ending the corruption of political life in the country under the rule of the Wafd Party, not different from the rule of Mubarak’s National Democratic Party, despite the former’s anti-colonial origins.

Gamal Abdul Nasser, who soon established himself as the charismatic leader of the revolution, was remarkably in tune with the hearts and minds of the Arab masses; he had a vision not just for Egypt but for the entire Arab world: a vision of Arab unity which would reverse centuries of colonial dominance of the Arab world as well as the humiliation of the nakba – the dispossession of Palestine by Israel in 1948. As a first step, he nationalised the Suez Canal in 1956, a move wildly applauded throughout not just the Arab world, but across continents. The former colonial powers in the region – Britain and France – as well as the new expansionist power, Israel – were determined to punish this act of intransigence by an Arab leader. How could they behave otherwise, especially since they had not bothered asking for permission from Washington? Only the word regime change had not been invented at that time. So they organised an air raid to topple Nasser; the raid not only failed but enhanced Nasser’s control over Egypt and his prestige across the Arab world. Not only that, but in a sequence reminiscent of the current wave of Arab intifadas in Tunis, Cairo and across the Arab world, the (Nasserist) infection spread: first to Baghdad where in 1958 radical nationalist and communist army officers overthrew the hated Hashemite monarch; then to Sana’a in North Yemen where radical army officers ousted another Arab primitive in 1962; and even in Damascus, radical Baathists (though mercifully not of the Assad variety) came to power in 1966 promising to turn Syria into the Cuba of the Middle East. A year later, the unthinkable happened: a Marxist guerrilla group drove out the last vestiges of British control from south Arabia to proclaim a People’s Democratic Republic of (South) Yemen, a first in the Arab world. Then, in 1969, first in Sudan, and then in Libya, radical army officers came to power; in the first instance with the support of the Sudanese Communist Party (one of the largest in the Arab world) and in the second, dismantling both the monarchy and the Wheelus airbase, the largest American base in the Arab world. The revolutionary upheavals were given further succour by the triumph of the Algerian Revolution led by the socialist FLN in 1962 against brutal French colonial control after a debilitating war. The Egyptian Revolution put in place a highly egalitarian socio-economic programme which broke the power of the landlords, nationalised basic industries thus providing free education, health, housing and employment to the ordinary Egyptian and despite its ill-conceived absorption of the Egyptian Communist Party and a top-down military model, was participatory to a large extent. Furthermore, it did not shy away from giving support to other liberation struggles, be it the Palestinians or fellow revolutionaries in Yemen and Algeria, fighting the forces of colonialism and reaction. After Egypt’s union with Baathist Syria in 1958, there was a real opportunity to unite with republican Iraq for the formation of a great Arab superpower with material bases in Egypt’s Nasser, Syria’s communists and Iraq’s oil, but that attempt was put paid to by foolish internal differences, something which would be regretted for years later given the tragic events that were to follow. The revolutionary Egyptian regime remained a thorn in the side of Western imperialism – now led by the United States – and the conservative order in the Middle East, led by Zionist Israel and Wahabi Saudi Arabia. Both the latter would return to haunt the region with a vengeance – helped by the former – after the catastrophic defeat of the Arab-Israeli war of 1967. Nasser survived the defeat but the revolution did not outlast his own death in 1970; the absence of a capable successor and the authoritarian model instituted thereby ensured that the revolution died with the great man. As Egypt passed on to the hands of lesser men and the legacy of Egypt’s revolution was repudiated first by Anwar Sadat and more thoroughly by Hosni Mubarak, the impact of the retreat was felt everywhere. As the heirs of Nasser found the power of Israel and Saudi Arabia too tempting to reject, the regimes in Baghdad and Damascus degenerated into family dictatorships which massacred communists and Islamists alike; the regime in Sana’a became a tribalistic cabal buttressed by Saudi hegemony, while in Aden feuding communists could be said to paint a similarly dismal picture; while in Sudan and Libya, the revolutionary leaders flirted with Islamism, no doubt the flavour of the month. With the implosion of the Soviet Union and the rise of a unipolar world, many of these dictators, no doubt seeking to be on the ‘right’ side of history, made their peace with their former nemesis and were accepted into Washington’s fold. The tragic occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq did nothing to undo the oppression and economic misery these dictators unleashed on their subjects. Here again, Egypt led by example: having made an unpopular peace with Israel and opened up the economy to neo-liberal infitahpar excellence, it was rewarded with massive military aid by the United States making it the second largest such recipient (second only to Israel), while the Saudis poured generously to its favoured beneficiaries – the Muslim Brotherhood – now that the ungodly Nasser was no more. But amidst all this pottage, no serious alternative to the status quo in Cairo was really permitted by Washington and Riyadh, as Mubarak became indispensable, too, to Israel as a valued adjunct in the occupation of the Palestinians in Gaza.

Given these abysmal conditions, it was no surprise when the despot was finally overthrown by a popular uprising, first in Tunis – tragically helped by the self-immolation of an unemployed graduate – and then in Cairo. The primacy of geography isn’t important but what is, is the fact that unlike the upheavals of the 1950s and 1960s, it was the Arab people themselves who were involved in the mobilisations and the victorious uprisings; and spontaneously, without the kind of organisation which was evident in the former. And it did not stop in Cairo, but spread across the Arab world, shaking sultan and colonel alike. The momentum was heaviest in tiny Bahrain, Libya, Syria and Yemen. In Bahrain, the Wahabi royals were rescued from the ignominy of having a democratic non-confessional state on the Saudi border by the intervention of fellow Wahabis from Riyadh; in Libya, the US intervened directly to prevent another organic uprising from reaching Tripoli, with the result that the rag-tag army of would be ‘rebels’ composed mostly of exiled Libyan businessmen and rogue generals is now totally in thrall to imperialist motives, not excluding oil; in Syria, the family dictatorship of the Assad dynasty is under threat from a serious uprising, which to its credit has rejected foreign intervention outright; while in Yemen, the dictator Saleh has not returned from Riyadh since being seriously injured in the uprising against him: he would no doubt be receiving valuable advice there from fellow-dictator- in- exile, the Tunisian Ben Ali. Even the reactionary Saudi state was not spared from the wrath of its rebellious would-be women drivers. But where would the Saudi royals seek refuge when their own benighted population revolts against them in a more serious uprising? So far they have managed to calm their local population by million dollar handouts, as well as spreading the cash around in Bahrain, Yemen and even in Egypt (where it has gone to the military which is in charge). The roles of the US and Saudi Arabia in aiding the forces of counter-revolution are not dissimilar to what happened in the wake of the 1958 Iraqi revolution, when US Marines landed in Beirut to inoculate the corrupt strongman Camille Chamoun against popular secular-nationalist currents; and later with the help of the British, they did the same for the Israeli-American protectorate in Jordan.     

In the wake of the uprising in Cairo, the military took over from Mubarak, both because of the prestige it enjoys among the masses owing to its revolutionary history and because Washington did not want a more revolutionary alternative in the absence of a pliant client. However the Egyptian military is no longer the revolutionary outfit it was in the 1950s; Sadat’s pro-Israeli volte face ensured that it regularly receives the bulk of US aid as a valuable ally of Washington. So far, the people have been pressurising the military regime with strikes and protests on a daily basis, despite the postponement of elections. Whatever the outcome of the elections in November, what the country desperately needs is a new constitution which would guarantee basic freedoms of education, health, housing and employment as well as renegotiate the humiliating terms of the ‘peace treaty’ with Israel, something anathema to Tel Aviv and Washington. In that, the old Nasserist state set up in 1952 could well serve as a model minus the overbearing role of the military which eventually bled the revolution to death.

Egypt has historically been at the forefront of the Arab world for reasons of antiquity, its population size (largest in the Arab world) and a pioneering role in nationalist movements against colonialism; it continued to play that role under Nasser until the decisions of his successors led it to irrelevance in that world for some four decades. Now with the successful revolt of the Egyptian people, the country’s ruling elite – primarily the military – can no longer ignore the needs and hopes of a people who are anxious to remake history in their own image, a promise unfulfilled by the revolutionaries of old when the old order was overthrown in 1952. As the great Syrian poet Adonis wrote in his epic poem An Introduction to the History of the Petty Kings – fittingly dedicated to Nasser despite being written after the great defeat of 1967 and the death of the great man:

A time between ashes and roses is coming

When everything shall be extinguished

When everything shall begin

Nasser clearly realised this when as a young cadet in Egypt’s military academy, he was advised by Colonel Abdul Aziz, ‘The real battle is in Egypt’. Now in 2011, the real battle is still in Egypt, even as the ashes precede the roses.    

The writer is a long-time Pakistani communist activist of the Communist Mazdoor Kissan Party (CMKP) from Lahore teaching Political Economy and Middle Eastern History and is completing a book on the legacy of revolutionary Yemen post-Saleh. He can be reached at:

Click here to return to the September 2011 index.