Egypt used to be good at revolutions. When Gamal Abdel Nasser’s Free Officers overthrew the monarchy in July 1952, hardly a shot was fired in anger, and jubilant crowds took to the streets of Cairo chanting ‘Long live the revolution’.
Even the deposed King Farouq seemed to agree that Nasser had done the right thing. As the doleful monarch prepared to sail off into exile aboard the royal yacht Mahroussa from Alexandria, to the resounding echo of a 21-gun salute, Farouq cryptically remarked to General Muhammad Naguib, the head of the Egyptian armed forces, ‘You’ve done what I always intended to do myself.’
The creation of the Egyptian republic was not entirely without suffering. The Black Saturday riots in Cairo that had taken place the previous January claimed the lives of 50 Egyptians and 17 foreigners — including nine Britons.
Precisely who was responsible for orchestrating the attacks remains a heated topic to this day. Some claim it was an MI6 plot hatched by the British and the king to thwart a planned Communist takeover of the country. The nationalists accused the Muslim Brothers (the forerunners of today’s Brotherhood) and Communists of seeking to discredit the monarchy.
Whatever the truth, the outcome was that the king never fully recovered his authority, with the result that his overthrow was widely celebrated by the Egyptian people, who sought a more equal distribution of the country’s wealth, and the removal of the governing elite that had concentrated far too much power and wealth into relatively few hands.
Sounds familiar? Well, when you look back to the original protests in Tahrir Square two years ago that led to the removal of President Hosni Mubarak (a career military officer steeped in the Free Officers’ ideology), the fundamental demand made by the protestors was for a radical improvement in their economic circumstances.
One of the great misconceptions of the recent wave of Arab uprisings (even the BBC has stopped calling it the Arab Spring) is that they have been driven by a political, pro-democracy agenda, when in fact the primary driving force behind the majority of the anti-government protests has been economic necessity. This is particularly true in Egypt where the country is facing an unprecedented ‘youth bulge’, with some 60 per cent of the population below the age of 30, many of them facing long-term unemployment.
Jobs, cars, disposable income and a home of their own are what inspired the majority of those who launched Egypt’s latest round of revolutionary fervour, particularly when they saw they saw Gamal Mubarak, the pampered son of their former president (and named after the founder of Egypt’s original revolution) positioning himself to inherit his father’s cleptocratic administration.
But, thanks to the Muslim Brotherhood, all they got was Sharia law, religious persecution in the form of a number of well–organised attacks on Christian churches, and an increasingly intolerant government that believed curbing the rights of women was more important than sorting out the country’s basket-case economy.
The Muslim Brotherhood would have been better advised to take a leaf out of the Free Officers’ handbook for staging the perfect Egyptian revolution. Back in the 1950s Nasser and Co understood the importance of satisfying the demand of ordinary Egyptians for access to the country’s wealth, and the radical land-reform programme implemented by Nasser in the wake of the 1952 revolution certainly gave that impression, even though only a fraction of Egypt’s farming population actually benefited from the measures.
But in politics, appearances count for everything, and Nasser’s defenestration of the Egyptian aristocracy and the landed elite was a populist exercise that helped to cement the nationalist revolution for decades to come. The Muslim Brotherhood’s abject failure, on the other hand, to address the basic concerns of the people in the wake of Egypt’s second revolutionary phase has culminated in the removal of the country’s first democratically elected president, Mohammed Morsi.
Where the country goes from here is hard to predict, particularly after last weekend’s violent scenes in the centre of Cairo in which scores of Muslim Brotherhood supporters are reported to have been killed during clashes with the military. But in seeking to understand the dynamics that underpin the current crisis, it is important to bear in mind the legacy of Nasser’s revolutionaries, and their innate belief that it is their noble duty to protect their country from any perceived threat.
Egypt is a very different country today than it was at the time of the 1952 revolution, not least because of the growing influence of Islamist-dominated parties such as the Muslim Brotherhood. But while modern Egypt has a more Islamic, as opposed to Islamist, outlook, particularly in the impoverished rural districts, it has not (yet) lost its belief in tolerance and inclusivity, traditions that were threatened during the Morsi era.
Indeed, the Morsi government’s attempts to hijack the demands of ordinary Egyptians for change to implement its Islamist agenda is symptomatic of the contempt Islamist ideologues have shown for the more practical aspirations of anti-government protestors throughout the Arab world. In Tunisia, birthplace of the Arab uprisings, the people wanted a more representative government than the corrupt clique around President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. But while they have succeeded in establishing democratic government, their hopes of creating a more liberal regime are under threat from Islamist fanatics who last week were accused of murdering Mohammed Brahmi, head of the nationalist Movement of the People party, the second high profile secular politician to be killed this year.
Neighbouring Libya’s prospects of rebuilding a functioning state from the ruins of the Gaddafi era have foundered because of the uncompromising attitude of Islamist militants, who were held responsible for last week’s murder of Abdelsalam al-Mosmary, a fierce critic of Libya’s Muslim Brotherhood, who was shot dead as he left a Benghazi mosque.
But the most egregious example of Islamist infiltration concerns the Syrian rebels, where the murder of a senior rebel commander in the Free Syrian Army by al-Qa’eda-linked jihadis has sparked a civil war within a civil war, with the FSA vowing to eliminate rival al-Qa’eda factions from the rebel movement. As a result the sacrifices of the thousands of opposition activists who have died trying to remove the Ba’athist dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad may well have been in vain.
Certainly, now that Western politicians have finally woken up the reality of the dangerous undercurrents swirling beneath the legitimate grievances of the Arab peoples, they might be inclined to temper their criticism of countries like Bahrain, where attempts to introduce limited democratic reforms have been undermined by the antics of Islamist agitators.
For Egypt, though, the challenge it faces in the wake of the violent confrontations between the military and the Muslim Brotherhood is to find a way to reconcile the country’s more Islamic character with the popular demand for wholesale economic reform.
Nor is this an unrealistic proposition. In Turkey, another Muslim country with a restless military, a moderate Islamist government has managed to provide double digit economic growth, while at the same time consolidating its Islamic heritage. As the Muslim Brotherhood and its Islamist allies are clearly not up to the challenge in Egypt, it will fall to Nasser’s heirs to do the job for them.
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Con Coughlin is the Telegraph’s defence editor. His Churchill’s First War: Young Winston and the Fight Against the Taleban has just been published by Macmillan.
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