2013/1952

The removal of President Morsi and the subsequent crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood has invited comparisons with 1954,  a year that convulsed Egypt with violence and conspiracies. I argued last July that the comparison maybe deeply flawed. Events subsequent to that post may render this judgement inaccurate, although in unexpected ways. The progress of events in Egypt since last August invites a different comparison; to 1952.

The July 23 1952 coup was a transformative moment in Egyptian history.  Yet for a variety of reasons the history of that event remains both examined and elusive. Nasser was determined to control the narrative of that time and present the “revolution” in the hoary language of heroic propaganda. Most of the Free Officers, all young men except for their leader General Muhammad Naguib, remained largely silent about the events for the subsequent half century. Naguib was silenced through house arrest, Nasser and Sadat died suddenly in office with no chance to write reflective or honest memoirs, even if they wished. Other prominent figures fared badly as well. Abdel Hakim Amer committed suicide after the 1967 debacle. The man who created the “intelligence state”, Zakaria Mohy el Din, kept his silence till his recent death. His surviving cousin, Khalid, wrote a sensational memoir of suspect accuracy.

There are a number of excellent histories of 1952 by both Egyptian and non-Egyptian historians. They all have to fight the headwind of accumulated propaganda. In the Nasser-inspired hagiography, Egypt woke up on that summer day to realize that it has been made free and was now entering a brand new era. In fact, that was not the case. To listen to those who experienced those events as average citizens, the true significance of 1952 dawned slowly on them.  The progress of events was rapid enough to be sure, but it was a few more years before most Egyptians saw that day as a rupture in their history.

The regime that the 1952 coup put in place resembled nothing that Egypt experienced before, yet it became a template for much of the Arab speaking world, and beyond. After the demise of the Egyptian monarchy, the oldest and most venerable in the region, a few more fell, but eventually the fever broke and no other monarchies have fallen to date. The 1952 coup was both the natural child and inevitable assassin of the age that produced it, the century between the 1850s and 1950s when the Ottoman empire, already in decline, slowly gave up authority over its provinces to the West.

As one watches the events in Egypt in the past few weeks there is a sense that these events may well augur an entirely different age. Some have argued that the July 3 events were a counter-revolution, but it is hard to believe that the decaying state that ended with Mubarak’s departure will be recreated in whole. Others see the inevitable return of the Muslim Brotherhood to relevance and power, but there is nothing convincing in their actions as future political actors. Then there is the sense that Egyptians have a lower level of discomfort over public violence which will lead to wide ramifications, including a demand for return of law and order.  And we can’t be sure if the new age will be better or worse.

The post-1952 Egypt was remade by two forces. First was the failure of the political elite to stand up to the Free Officers, and specifically Nasser, as well as the collusion of some in the subsequent course of events. Second was the fact that the outside world, already weary from World War II, radically altered its expectations and policies toward a newly emerging Egypt. The Suez crisis marked the moment when the British lion, once feared in Egypt, tried to muster one last roar only to let out a squeal. There is something akin to that at the moment, both with regards to the failure of the political class and the incoherence of the outside actors.

The Egypt emerging from July 2013 is an odd and disconcerting place. It is hard to shake the feeling that the familiar names from just a few years ago, Mubarak, Morsi, and others, will all seem quaintly irrelevant in a country that will be less recognizable to those who knew it for the past few decades.

— Maged Atiya



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