2011 was a epochal year for Egypt. At the conclusion of that year it is worthwhile to reflect on another epochal year, 1954, in the hope that its wrongs will not be repeated. Egypt is still suffering the wrongs of 1954. It can not stand a repeat. So what were these wrongs?
1- Tossing out Muhammad Neguib.
2- Suppressing the Muslim Brotherhood.
3- The “Lavon Affair”.
4- Granting the Sudan full independence.
Tossing out Muhammad Neguib. The 1952 coup and the removal of the Monarchy can be viewed as revolutionary moments, with their own logic and internal coherence. But tossing out President Muhammad Neguib, and the manner in which it was done, started a habit of ad-hoc illegality that still haunts the Egyptian political scene to this day. Neguib was duly elected and with a fixed term. He was arbitrarily removed by officers who conspired against him. They suspected, perhaps correctly, that he meant to bring back the liberal parliamentary system and bring in the Muslim Brotherhood from the cold. The officers would have to go back to the barracks, a much smaller theater for ambitious men like Nasser. As damaging as the attempt to remove him was (and it almost failed when a legion of unionists supported him. There is a moving black and white photograph of a union delegation visiting him in support at his house, with Neguib in stripped Pajamas), even more damaging was the success of the maneuver. Nasser learned the lesson of how rocky the top spot can be unless all ambitious officers are removed. The Military was plagued from that point on with leaders chosen for loyalty rather than competence. Even after the 1967 war made it clear that the Military needs competent leaders it was still customary to remove any capable officer with false pretexts (ref. Sadat’s treatment of Shazli). The pathetic crew currently at the top of the Egyptian Military are a testimony to nearly six decades of punishing competence. It was critical for the nascent republic that transitions occur regularly and transparently. The removal of Neguib killed off such a possibility. The next 3 presidents were all removed from office by death, assassination and mass revolution. Economic and social stability will be regained, nor prosperity achieved, unless this track record is reversed.
Suppressing the Muslim Brotherhood. The alleged reason for the suppression of the Brotherhood was the “attempt” on Nasser’s life and the discovery of a “plot” to seize control of the country by force. The Brotherhood did have a militia, the Tanzimat, and it certainly was possible that such plots were hatched. However, the proper course was to bring charges in the judicial realm, not apply draconian security measures without any accountability. These measures, precisely because they succeeded, became the norm. Egypt has been living under martial law pretty much for six decades. the national security state became a cancer within the country, unaccountable, paranoid and prone to ham-fisted repression. Today’s Egypt still bears these scars. There is a large “security” apparatus that remains unaccountable which arose precisely to achieve such ends. It found further usefulness and power in the “Lavon affair”.
The Lavon Affair. This was a botched (and hare-brained) destabilization operation by Israel. As bad as the plot was, Nasser’s response to it was even more damaging to Egypt. Had Israel succeeded, perhaps a few buildings would have burned down but nothing much more of consequence would have occurred. Nasser instead used the plot to whip up a toxic brew of paranoia and xenophobia which costed Egypt dearly in creative and economic activity. The first targets were Egyptian Jews, who then left in droves. But subsequent waves of similar paranoia affected others as well, Levantines, Armenians, European expatriates, even upper class Copts, who, of course, were as Egyptian as anyone can claim to be. Nasser knew how to exploit the Egyptian “Khawaga” complex to the hilt. It worked for him, but it robbed the country of a great deal of its cultural and economic force. These same tactics are used today against any one who dares to question the Military. Talk of “hidden hands”, “third countries” and other dark forces abounds. Perhaps worse, it has been taken up by many political and cultural forces to justify a narrowing of horizons and diminution of tolerance. It is difficult to walk the streets of Cairo without a sense of sadness at places, once vibrant, now merely a testament to lost vitality. Nasser and Israel have, throughout the fifties and sixties, helped each other to the detriment of Egypt.
Granting the Sudan full independence. This may seem paradoxical at first, since self-determination is an article of faith these days. The problem is that it was not clear that this was self-determination. A free referendum was never undertaken, precisely because the result was not easily known. The Sudan contained many social elements, and had it remained in an autonomous union with Egypt it would have altered the Egyptian and Sudanese political landscape to the betterment of both. The motives were also murky on the Egyptian side, as Nasser perceived that Neguib had strong support in the Sudan. The subsequent fate of the Sudan after “independence” was poor indeed. Nasser lorded over many of its leaders, especially regarding the issue of the High Dam and the resulting flooding of Nubia. Many Sudanese opted to stay in Egypt proper, and suffered subsequent discrimination, which also extended to Nubians. The Sudanese governance was poor at best, alternating between military and narrowly religious governments that never allowed the country to reach its full potential. These governments cultivated social tensions that led to multiple disasters, from the horrors of Darfur to the loss of Southern Sudan. A well-governed Egyptian-Sudanese confederation would have been better for Egypt, drawing it away from the messy and catastrophic Arab politics, and for the Sudan, allowing it to utilize its natural resources to prosper. It would also have forced Egypt to deal closely with Africa in a constructive way, most likely to the benefit of both African countries and Egypt/Sudan. Instead of economic and cultural involvement, Egypt dealt with Africa from a political and revolutionary vantage to the harm of both. Ghana or Kenya would have been both much richer if Nkruma or Kenyatta had not engaged in the empty theater of the “revolution” that Nasser excelled at. On a different plane, the arbitrary decision regarding the Sudan presaged a foreign policy for Egypt made arbitrarily and recklessly by one or few men without planning or thorough vetting. The fruits of these policies would ripen in the decades to come.
Almost all the disasters that befell Egypt in the subsequent decades started with these four decisions made in 1954. All indications are that the strongest political forces have yet to face 1954 and reverse its errors. Perhaps the Muslim Brotherhood is attuned to that year, one of catastrophic sadness for them. Perhaps the Army leadership sub-consciously assumes its power will continue in the manner that started in 1954. But that does not mean that any party is really committed to reversing its grievous errors.