Was it a military coup or a popular uprising? The serious efforts that Egypt’s new leaders, both military and political, are investing in the question of how the overthrow of Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi should be defined brought me back to the late Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s famous work, Egypt’s Liberation: The Philosophy of the Revolution, which he published in 1955. Egypt has followed along the path set for it by the Free Officers over half a century ago, in 1952, when they planned and launched their coup. Here and there a side road or a detour was paved to help cope with the changes brought by time, but the ideological infrastructure of that path remains the same: The army stands above everything else.
Army officers who kept their senior positions after the fall of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak are now the most significant power in Egypt. In every modern state, the army is subject to the authority of the civilian leadership. Egypt, however, continues to follow the path first paved by Gamal Abdel Nasser and the presidents who succeeded him, the late President Anwar Sadat and Mubarak. They rose from the army and followed the same path. In the land of the Nile, the officers’ caste wields the ultimate power. They have the supreme authority to determine what is good and what is bad. They decide what the right path is to ensure Egypt’s military and political future.
Three years after the revolution, Nasser wrote a book containing his ideas about it. These insights could undoubtedly have been written today. “Were we in the army not obliged to do what we did on July 23, 1952? … The revolution of July 23 effectively fulfilled a great aspiration that throbbed in the heart of the Egyptian nation ever since it began, in the modern era, to be its own master and determine its own destiny.” The explanation given for the officers’ coup then was exactly the same as the explanation being given today: It fulfilled the will of the people. The fact that there were no demonstrations in Tahrir Square or outside the palace of the deposed King Farouk did not cause Nasser to express misgivings about his version of events or about the legitimacy of the path he chose.
“Why was the army successful in accomplishing this revolution?” he asks, and goes on to expand on the question. “The military mindset on which I was raised assigns just one responsibility to the army: to die along the borders of the homeland. If so, then why was our army compelled to act within the capital, instead of on the borders? … In the past, we were the ‘terror and the scourge’ with which the despotic ruler intruded upon the equanimity of the people. Now the time has come to turn that scourge against the despot and intrude upon his sense of equanimity. … We felt with every fiber of our being that this task was our burden to bear, and that if we did not fulfill it, it would be as if we turned down a sacred task that Providence itself has imposed upon us.”
After King Farouk was deposed in 1952, and again after Morsi was deposed in these very days, the senior military officers responsible for the political change are making every effort to convince the world that they were just a tool, acting in the service of the people and in their defense. The reason behind the current effort is the fear that Egypt could lose American military aid, which amounts to about $1.5 billion. Their concerns were different after the Officers’ Revolt. Then it was a matter of security, rather than the economy. The officers who planned and implemented the coup attempted to convince the West in general and the US in particular that the removal of King Farouk would have no impact on their interests in the Middle East, so that there was no reason to send a military force to the region.
Geoffrey Aronson wrote in Al-Monitor that in contrast to the Obama administration’s reluctant response to the Egyptian military’s intervention, the US “played a far more direct, leading and successful role in sorting Egyptian affairs.” The new government that the officers established was even received with a modicum of enthusiasm by the administration because the Americans hoped they would install a secular government along the Turkish model. But what was good for Turkey for almost a century did not work in Egypt. Islam and the Muslim Brotherhood were and continue to be the major component of the rift dividing Egyptian society then and now.
Even then, more than half a century ago, Egypt was divided and torn apart by factionalism. Nasser devoted a large part of his Philosophy of the Revolution to the army’s desire to prevent a civil war between Egypt’s hawkish factions. He wrote, “If I had been asked back then to identify the dream that I was striving to achieve, I would immediately answer: to hear just one Egyptian say a good word about another Egyptian and to feel that at least one Egyptian opened up his heart, which was previously sealed, so that he could forgive, absolve and love his Egyptian brothers.”
On Oct. 26, 1954, one year before Nasser’s book was published, Mahmoud Abd al-Latif, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, tried to assassinate Nasser. In response, Nasser ordered the army to arrest all of the movement’s active members. More than 4,000 people were arrested, among them prominent Muslim Brotherhood ideologist Sayyid Qutb, who was executed in 1966, along with dozens of his followers. Tensions were high. Egypt was on the brink of a civil war and the threat still continues to loom like a storm cloud over the nation.
Will the July 4 revolution pave a new, democratic path in the Land of the Nile, or are the events taking place there today simply the continuation of a cyclical struggle between the military and the Muslim Brotherhood? Did Egypt devise a new interpretation of democracy, in which the people use massive demonstrations to overthrow a leader who broke his promises? That is what many of Egypt’s young people are claiming enthusiastically. Is it a practical path to follow? Will it hold up, instead of deteriorating into a complete loss of control and chaos? Those are very difficult, fateful questions, but it seems to me that the answer lies mainly in the ability of the new leadership to improve the economic and social situation faced by the country’s civilian population. If the country stops trampling on human rights, most Egyptians will feel they benefited from this revolution, regardless of how it will be defined in the pages of history.
In his Philosophy of the Revolution, Nasser clarifies the coup’s objectives in a manner that reflects the exact same feelings of those people who instigated the current political struggle in Egypt. “What do we want to achieve and what is the way to achieve it? … In order to ensure our nation’s future, we have turned to various thinkers representing different classes and schools of thought, and we said to them, ‘Give this country a constitution that will protect its values.’ As a result, a committee was established to formulate a constitution. In order to guarantee our economic future, we told them: ‘Ensure that this land is profitable, and that each person will have bread to eat.’ … The task imposed upon us obligates us to concentrate and unite these forces, for the sake of Egypt’s future and a strong and free nation.”
Sixty years have passed since then. That issue of rewriting the Constitution was the flame that set off the revolution of July 4. Not only has Egypt yet to ensure that each person will have bread to eat, but the shortage in staples has only got worse. Former Egyptian Trade Minister Bassam Ouda, one of Morsi’s deposed ministers, told Reuters this week that, “The amount of wheat Egypt has in storage is enough to last less than two months.” With a population of 85 million, Egypt is the number one importer of wheat in the world. If it has no money, it will have no bread. Nevertheless, one thing has changed in Egypt since then. The demonstrators have learned to distinguish between hollow slogans and reality and the fulfillment of promises. This is a significant step in achieving “a strong and free Egypt.”
Shlomi Eldar is a contributing writer for Al-Monitor’s Israel Pulse. For the past two decades, he has covered the Palestinian Authority and especially the Gaza Strip for Israel’s Channels 1 and 10, and has reported on the emergence of Hamas. In 2007, he was awarded the Sokolov Prize, Israel’s most important media award, for this work.