Egypt at 100

Heba Taha explores the drastic political transformations of the Egyptian state 100 years since independence

February 28, 2022 · 15 min read
Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser waves to a crowd in Mansoura, 1960

In 1919, a peasant-led revolt broke out in Egypt demanding an end to British occupation. In the aftermath of this widespread mobilisation, the country gained a nominal independence from 28 February 1922. While technically recognising Egyptian independence, the new arrangement was another mechanism of British control. From 1922 until 1952, Egypt remained a monarchy and was led by the pro-British members of the Muhammad Ali dynasty. Under the premise of protecting the Suez Canal, British troops would remain in Egypt into the 1950s.

Since its transformation into a republic in a bloodless 1952 coup by the nationalist Free Officers, Egypt’s role in regional and international politics has undergone significant changes. It went from being the ideological and political leader of the pan-Arab movement and a main player in the Non-Aligned Movement of developing states into becoming a staunch ally of the United States and Israel. Many people in the region, and perhaps even the world, looked to Egypt in the 1950s and 1960s as a place for radical alternatives – a hope that has since largely dissipated.

The main constant throughout Egyptian history since 1952 has been the dominant role played by the military. While it has changed in tandem with other political transformations and developments, the country has remained, above all, an officers’ republic. Starting from 1952 right up to the present, the Egyptian military has played a central role in shaping political and economic life. Some argue that even before independence, the Egyptian nation state was deeply associated with a strong army. While current possibilities of resistance may seem dim, it is worth remembering that there have been persistent historical efforts to challenge the military’s dominance of everyday life, including labour, democratic and feminist movements.

The Nasserist era

One of the Free Officers who helped transform Egypt into a republic in 1952 was Gamal Abdel Nasser, who ruled the country as president until his death in 1970. Nasser is often still remembered around the Arab world as an icon of Arab power and a champion of Palestinian solidarity. Domestically, he is widely – and inaccurately – remembered as a communist. In fact, along with the rest of the nationalist army cadres, he was resolutely anti-communist. Under Nasser, the military violently intervened to quash workers’ movements and his government imprisoned communists and even sentenced people to death for alleged communist activity. His legacy as a supposed communist is a result of his implementation of a land redistribution policy, which was limited in scope and not necessarily motivated by social justice, as well as the nationalisation of strategic industries and the expansion of the public sector, which included education, subsidised commodities and other social benefits.

Nostalgia for the Nasserist era tends to focus on its foreign policy orientation. Nasser’s rule was defined by anti-colonialism and anti-imperialism. In addition to advocating pan-Arabism, he was a leader in the Non-Aligned Movement, which sought independence from both the west and eastern blocs. He forged new ties with decolonising states and founded the Afro-Asian People’s Solidarity Organisation. During this period, Cairo was a space for anti-imperialist activity – a sentiment that continues to resonate among the people.

The military championed the principle of anti-colonialism, depicting itself as the defender of the people against foreign intervention. This was often legitimised by external aggression, such as the 1956 invasions against Egypt by France, the UK and Israel, as well as the Six-Day War in 1967, which virtually destroyed the Egyptian air force. The country’s inability to repel the Israeli invasion inspired introspection on the Arab nationalist project and on Egypt’s role in international politics, but surprisingly not on the role of the military.

The legacy of the Nasserist era remains embedded in Egyptian institutions and structures. Despite radical shifts in Egyptian identity over the years, a surprising number of continuities can be traced back to this period, including centralisation and military rule, as well as a certain machismo attached to the latter. Not only have these traits persisted but they have embedded themselves within new dynamics and a new language. The current Egyptian president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi was able to reactivate the cult persona of the military leader after 2013. Many aspects of the military-led post-colonial state remain in place but have been adjusted to align with the changing realities of globalisation and neoliberalism. Somehow, the language of Third World anti-colonialism has been made compatible with capitalism and imperialism, and throughout these changes the military has remained in the driver’s seat.

Sadat and Mubarak

When Nasser died, his vice president Anwar al-Sadat, another military figure, became president. Sadat pursued a radically different foreign policy to that of Nasser. He is remembered for the war in October 1973, which is memorialised in Egypt as a military victory, usually based on exclusively emphasising the first phases of the war in which Egypt made significant military gains and crossed the Suez Canal. The war eventually led Israel to the negotiating table, and Egypt and Israel signed the Camp David Accords in 1978, creating a tenuous peace. After the peace treaty, Israel returned the Sinai Peninsula to Egypt, which it had occupied in 1967. This has been labelled a cold peace because despite diplomatic and military relations, close cultural or socioeconomic ties never materialised – in distinction to the rapidly evolving relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates today, for example.

On the economic side, Sadat implemented neoliberal policies, in consultation with international financial institutions such as the International Monetary Fund. Subsequent leaders have kept Egypt on the same path, and waves of privatisation and deregulation allowed a small group of people to amass exorbitant wealth during this period. This economic orientation also entailed military alignment with the US, which has secured Egypt military aid.

Under Nasser, the military violently intervened to quash workers’ movements and his government imprisoned communists

Subsidies and the welfare state that was put in place during Nasser’s rule were slowly rolled back during this period, although not without resistance. A spontaneous uprising took place in January 1977 over the removal of subsidies from food. The uprising came to be known as the ‘bread riots’, and they revealed the extent of the fragility of Sadat’s rule. They led to the reinstatement of the subsidies, against the advice of global economists. Sadat was assassinated in 1981, but his successor, Hosni Mubarak, maintained a similar political orientation.

Mubarak escalated Egyptian collaboration with Israel by imposing a blockade on the Gaza Strip in 2007, though he often turned a blind eye to the construction of an underground tunnel network that would become crucial for life in Gaza. This signalled a continuation of Sadat’s realignment regarding Egyptian-Israeli relations and symbolised the departure from Nasserist foreign policy. Egypt’s role had changed from being a defender of the Palestinian people in the Nasserist era to that of a close collaborator with Israel against the Palestinian people, confining people in an open-air prison in Gaza.

Although protests were rare during the Mubarak era, they nevertheless took place. Examples include protests in solidarity with the Palestinians, workers’ movements against neoliberal economic changes and grassroots activism demanding political rights and an end to corruption. These different issues coalesced in the uprising in 2011 as part of the Arab Spring, under the slogan, ‘Bread, freedom, social justice.’ After Mubarak’s removal, Egypt was ruled by the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) until the country’s first – and only – democratic elections were held. Despite the euphoria that accompanied the uprising, it did not dislodge the military’s deep entrenchment in Egyptian politics. This does not mean that there were no alternative possibilities or that the outcome of a coup was predetermined. Despite the counter-revolution, it is important to consider these failures as lessons for the future and to imagine alternative ways in which this concentration of power may eventually be dismantled.

Civilian rule and military coup

Following the Arab Spring, Egypt was ruled by Muhammad Mursi for one year. Mursi, from the Muslim Brotherhood, was ousted in a military coup by Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in 2013. The Muslim Brotherhood was established in 1928 in Egypt and has been subjected to extensive state violence throughout Egyptian history. While the group is often depicted as an international network, as many similar groups emerged around the Middle East and North Africa, its orientation has typically been inwards, and despite varying forms of state repression over the years, it remained the most organised political force after the revolution, winning the country’s first democratic elections in 2012.

Mursi is widely considered in Egypt as having failed at governing the country, though one should also remember that he was, to a large degree, made to fail. The close scrutiny to which the Muslim Brotherhood was held – and the inability to behave with impunity – defined his one-year rule. Lacking the kind of power that the military in Egypt has always possessed, the era of Brotherhood rule meant that genuine political participation and opposition was possible.

Protestors in Tahrir Square on 9 February 2011, two days before the resignation of President Hosni Mubarak (Credit: Jonathan Rashad)

Yet Mursi’s rule, brief as it was, did not actually represent a radical change. It kept intact many of the previous alliances and structures, despite western concerns over the treaty with Israel. While there was a lax policy towards tunnels in Gaza, Mursi’s government occasionally flooded them with sewage – a continuation of Mubarak’s carrot-and-stick approach to the Gaza Strip.

The military described its coup in 2013 as an act of saving the country from Islamist – and even terrorist – rule. Violence in the Sinai Peninsula by jihadi groups was intentionally linked to the Muslim Brotherhood. Much of the language of the post-9/11 world, including the US discourse of a ‘war on terror’, was recycled and transformed into an acute threat, enabling the bloodiest massacre in modern Egyptian history in August 2013 by the military against Mursi supporters who had congregated to protest against the coup. Despite multiple protests in the immediate aftermath of the coup, as well as some who started advocating a ‘third way’ (neither the Brotherhood nor the military), it was made possible by the fact that the Brotherhood was depicted as a unique threat. Left-leaning and liberal political actors either aligned with the coup or did nothing. There was an acquiescence to the return of authoritarianism, though this ‘consent’ was also obtained using a variety of coercive means, including restrictions on protests and the press. After crushed dreams, some activists have even embraced a wilful amnesia of this period.

The year of Islamist rule has been all but erased from national narratives and official history. The story told by the military is that it saved Egypt from Islamism and terrorism – a relationship the world already seemed conditioned to accept. It was not necessary to explain how or why the democratic leaders of the country became terrorists overnight. It was simply accepted. The coup d’état, in this context, becomes a heroic act of rescuing the country, in the ultimate strongman narrative.

The dynamics put in place by the coup have had to be constantly reinforced. Currently, there are still tens of thousands of political prisoners in the country, with estimates suggesting up to 60,000. The inauguration of a new prison complex in 2021 – complete with its own anthem – suggests a new level of dystopia. Meanwhile, the facilities of the prison, many people remarked wryly, were more elaborate than those of most schools – an important reminder that critique cannot be silenced altogether.

National development and the future

The military’s national development plans seem to be based on a model of replacement. Many of the country’s big cities have seen the emergence of a ‘new’ city nearby – with little investment in the existing ones. Similarly, new roads have emerged, built by the military, and bypassing poor areas – which may themselves have no paved roads. The newly-built infrastructure reinforces the wealth gap, creating dynamics of segregation and seeking to conceal, rather than address, poverty. Many have highlighted the ‘Dubai model’ that the government has aggressively pursued, noting that this vision excludes the population as a whole. ‘The problem with this country is the people,’ claims an often-repeated mantra that blames the populace for the state’s shortcomings. In authoritarian visions of the country’s future, the people are either redundant or an obstacle. Similar clichés include the claim that the Egyptian people need a man – a strong man more specifically – to discipline them into greatness.

The current administration has slashed subsidies further than ever. Their removal has been applied to basic necessities (ranging from food to electricity), and prices have increased dramatically over the past decade. These policies have continued despite small bursts of protest, such as over the increased subway fare in 2018, which faced violent crackdowns. As in many parts of the world, the Egyptian president has highlighted financial responsibility and austerity as a moral virtue. In a recent speech announcing that subsidies will no longer cover children, he lamented a ‘culture’ whereby many Egyptians expect ‘to have children and someone else to feed them’.

Egypt’s role changed from being a defender of the Palestinian people in the Nasserist era to that of a close collaborator with Israel, confining people in an open-air prison in Gaza

Since the military’s return to power in 2013, there has been an emphasis on mega-projects – of which new cities are just one example – which are used by supporters to claim that the government is actively engaged in building, developing and enhancing the country. Examples include the new administrative capital, the expansion of the Suez Canal and the building of a nuclear power plant on the northern coast – all projects deemed unnecessary save for the purpose of vanity.

The military has legal control over the great bulk of land in Egypt that can be used for strategic sectors such as agriculture, tourism, and urban development. A consistently vibrant industry has been real estate. Numerous billboards crowding Egyptian highways advertise gated communities exclusively in English. ‘Indulge in the luxury and serenity of Cairo’s most prestigious development,’ writes real estate developer Emaar Misr. ‘Uptown Cairo brings you world-class living and sophistication with remarkable golf views and [a] backdrop of the glittering city lights.’ These private places tend to emphasise individuality, luxury, and a variety of other markers of wealth. They are built alongside informal structures such as slums, as well as rent-controlled apartments that are in the process of being phased out.

The military has assembled a massive economic empire, which includes building petrol stations, running hotels and fish farms, and selling consumer products such as pasta. It has simultaneously sought control over strategic sectors such as the media, while also increasingly funding projects in the cultural sphere that glorify the military. The relationship between the military and the private sector is not entirely symbiotic though. Under Sisi, the military has clashed with and undercut the private sector, but they have also aligned and intersected extensively. The obsession with mega-projects can also be understood as building, or fulfilling, the techno-nationalist inclinations of the post-colonial state – or, as described by one spokesperson, ‘building dreams’.

Despite the shrinking political space, people have continued to search for new tools of resistance, online and offline. One example is the grassroots feminist movement that has crystallised in Egypt over the past few years, forcing on the country conversations that have been long overdue. Feminists have highlighted issues ranging from sexual assault and rape to broader dynamics of patriarchy. This is not to say that feminists were inactive during the 2011-2013 period but rather that they have continued to push for new forms of critique—despite the unwelcoming or even hostile environment dominating Egyptian politics and depicting women rights’ activists as outcasts. The movement is hardly monolithic, containing liberal, Marxist and other orientations, which have all challenged the apolitical state feminism. But if we are to understand and dismantle the underlying militarism that continues to re-embed itself within Egyptian politics, a critical feminist perspective is only the first step.

Heba Taha is assistant professor of political science at the American University in Cairo

This article first appeared in issue #235, ‘Educate, agitate, organise’. Subscribe today to get your copy and support fearless, independent media

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