It Is Not 1954Posted: July 13, 2013
The current standoff between the Egyptian Army and the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) is evoking tempting comparison with the last such confrontation in 1954. But the temptation should be resisted as superficial, for four fundamental reasons:
1- The Army is not the same as 1954. The army of 1954 was a much smaller body, dominated by charismatic officers such as Gamal Abdel Nasser, who was itching to sideline his commander General Mohammed Naguib. The army also lacked a doctrine, which it does have now, and one that is largely Western-oriented, built with decades of American assistance. The army also lacked advanced weapons in 1954, and in many ways was closer to a small militia. Today’s Egyptian army would be crippled without a constant supply of American spare parts and other less tangible assistance. The US is unlikely to allow full scale suppression of the MB and still retain close relationship with the army. The army also has far more considerable economic interests which it will not want to risk in a protracted confrontation with the MB.
2- The Brotherhood is not the same as 1954. The MB of 1954 was a far wilder affair. It was less than a dozen years since it assassinated a Prime Minister and sent armed gangs to fight the nascent Jewish state in Palestine. Today’s MB is grayer, more scarred, richer and has tasted power, and the pain of its loss. It will find it difficult to fight the army without losing much of the support it has built among Egyptians. One of Morsi’s singular mistakes was appointing a member of the Gama’a Islamiya (GI) as governor of Luxor, incurring the wrath of most Egyptians who remember the terrorist acts of the GI in the 1990’s, even though it has since abandoned violence. The MB also sees itself more as a regional and even global actor, with much of its financing depending on smooth operation of its business sectors. If it were to be declared a terrorist organization by the major Western powers its finances will be irreparably damaged.
3- Egypt is not the same as 1954. The Egypt of 1954 stood idly while the Revolutionary Command Council (RCC), which morphed into the Nasser presidency, arrested a good number of the MB and even executed a few of its members. Today’s Egypt is far more mobilized, and although polarized, will likely reject wholesale suppression of any group. Political mobilization in 1954 was still along nationalist lines, the result of 30 years of Wafd politics and the presence of the British in the Suez Canal. This gave the army an advantage over the MB. In Egypt of 2013 mobilization is largely along pro and anti Islamist lines, making the army think twice before initiating a wholesale purge of the MB.
4- The world is not the same as 1954. In the 1954 the world was largely a spectator in the fight between the army and the MB. Even the US, which viewed the MB as potential allies against communism, and even hosted them to a meeting with Eisenhower, stayed out of the fray, and instead kept solid intelligence contacts with Nasser. The US today is concerned about the Muslim world in ways un-imagined in 1954. It will not want to see a brutal suppression in Egypt that will back fire on the West. Europe will say “me too”. Even other rising powers, such as China, will wince at such suppression. Other regional powers have also risen since 1954, especially Turkey and some Gulf countries. These countries will try to moderate any crackdown on the MB.
Having stated the four reasons why 2013 is not 1954, let me state one reason that might negate all of the above. The strong hostility that certain sectors of the Egyptian society now have toward the MB, especially after one year of their rule. Some, otherwise sensible people talk of how “Tienanmen Square led to China’s economic rise”. It is a frightening prospect for Egypt, and one that we hope will not take hold.