Egypt's Sixty Years of Misery
by Daniel Pipes
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This week marks 60 years since Egypt's self-proclaimed Free Officers overthrew the constitutional monarchy of King Farouq – and the first anniversary when one can imagine the demise of the military despotism that so long has wounded the country. Sadly, its most likely replacement will bring on an even worse rule.
The era of monarchy had plenty of faults, from iniquitous income levels to violent movements (foremost among them, the Muslim Brotherhood) but it was an era of modernization, of a growing economy, and of increasing influence in the world. Industry had begun, women threw off their face coverings, and Egyptian soft power had a wide impact in Arabic-speaking countries. Tarek Osman recalls this time in his excellent Egypt on the Brink: From Nasser to Mubarak (Yale) as "liberal, glamorous, cosmopolitan."
The dreary rule of generals and colonels began on July 23, 1952, led by the ambitious Gamal Abdul Nasser (r. 1954-70). The grandiose Anwar el-Sadat (r. 1970-81) followed him, then the pompous Husni Mubarak (r. 1981-2011). Nasser, much the worst of the trio, danced to the demons of anti-capitalist resentment and anti-imperialist frustration; his rule saw crippling confiscation of private property and inane foreign adventures (with Syria, against Israel, in Yemen), incurring costs the country still pays.
The regime specialized in deception. The junta donned mufti even as the military's reach extended over the economy, the security services, the legislature, and the judiciary. Unity with Syria masked bitter hostility. Ostentatious rivalry with Islamists hid a squalid competition over spoils. Peace with Israel disguised continued warfare through other means.
During the long, painful, and regressive reign of the army boots, Egypt moved backward according to every meaningful index, from standard of living to diplomatic clout, even as the population quadrupled from 20 to 83 million and Islamist ideology flourished. Egypt and South Korea, Osman notes, were on a socio-economic par in 1952; now, Egypt has fallen far behind. He writes how "society did not progress" under the soldiers' rule but, to the contrary, "on many fronts, it actually regressed." He discerns since 1952 "an overarching feeling of an irreparable sense of damage, a national defeat." From football games to poetry, one senses that defeatism.
On approaching his 30th year in power, Pharaoh Mubarak decided, in a paroxysm of hubris, to sideline his military colleagues. He aspired to steal yet more money, even if that meant denying the officers their share, and (under pressure of his wife) sought to have, not another military officer but his son, the banker Gamal, succeed him as president.
The outraged general officers bided their time. In early 2011, when brave, secular, and modern young people in Tahrir Square announced their impatience with tyranny, the junta exploited them to push Mubarak from office. Liberals thought they won, but they served merely as a tool and pretext for the military to be rid of its despised master. Having served their purpose, liberals were shunted aside as officers and Islamists competed for loot.
Which brings us to the present: The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces still runs the country, the Muslim Brotherhood wants to push it aside. Which of these unworthy, autocratic forces will win? SCAF has, in my view, an 80 percent chance of holding power, meaning that Islamists will prevail only if they display enough talent. SCAF cleverly sidelined the Muslim Brotherhood's most charismatic and capable leader, Khairat al-Shater on dubious technical grounds (his imprisonment by the Mubarak regime). That left the much less competent Mohamed Morsi as the brotherhood's standard-bearer and the country's new president. His first few weeks have shown him to be a mumbler and bumbler with no aptitude for waging political battle even against the incompetents who staff SCAF.
As Egyptians endure the 60th anniversary of the military's power grab, they have little to look forward to. If more July 23rd celebrations likely await them, at least they are not suffering through the first anniversary of Islamist rule. Better domination by greedy soldiers than by Islamist ideologues.
But Egyptians and their supporters abroad can aspire to better. The liberals who rallied in Tahrir Square remain the country's only hope and the West's only allies; they deserve support. However remote they are from the corridors of power, their rise uniquely offers an antidote to sixty years of tyranny and decline.
July 24, 2012 addendum: A couple of thoughts on the Time magazine covers illustrating this article.
(1) The Sphinx and one or more pyramids feature in the first three covers, implying that until the 1970s, the irrelevant allusion to ancient Egypt helped Americans understand the modern country. Most striking is the Nasser cover, where his face and that of the Sphinx are paralleled, as though nothing has changed over the millennia. Only when Anwar el-Sadat graced Time's cover in 1978 did the editors finally dispense with this unreliable crutch.
(2) Nasser appeared five other times on the cover of Time: Sep. 26, 1955, Aug. 27, 1956, July 28, 1958, May 16, 1969, and finally, right after his death, on Oct. 12, 1970 - all these times without the Sphinx or pyramids. That's when Egypt still counted.
(3) Despite Husni Mubarak having ruled as long as Naguib, Nasser, and Sadat combined, he never had his own cover - another indication of Egypt's diminished status.
Dec. 10, 2012 update: Mohamed Morsi, the new president of Egypt, has made the cover of Time along with the dubious assertion that he is "the most important man in the Middle East" (Erdoğan of Turkey and Khamene'i of Iran are both way more important).
Dec. 6, 2013 update: Time editors choose the real person of the year, but they also let readers vote and Egyptian strongman Abdul Fattah al-Sisi topped the 2013 poll with more than 440,000 votes. (Incidentally, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey came in second.) His supporters came up with mock covers for him. Here is one of them:
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