Does history repeat itself in Egypt?

Comparisons between the democracy crisis of 1954 and now are explored by prominent Egyptian intellectuals.

Gamal Nasser
Can the clash between Nasser and the Muslim Brotherhood in the 1950s teach any lessons to Egypt's rulers today? [GALLO/GETTY]
The recent designation of the Muslim Brotherhood movement as a terrorist organisation by the Egyptian interim government, following the bombing of a police headquarters in Mansoura city, north of Cairo, mark a dramatic shift in the political conflict taking place in the country since the ouster of former President Mohammed Morsi on July 3. Among the most pressing questions now is; whether we are  witnessing a re-run of 1954 events. Afterall, the historical model of March 1954 – better known in the annals of history as the democracy crisis-  maintains a stronghold on the imagination of political actors in Egypt, although almost 60 years have elapsed since then.

Unfortunately, such a model does not help to open the doors for the future. Instead, it seals the fate of a society, in dire need of political creativity to transcend its present, by plunging it in an endless, irreconcilable, and even bloody hostility between its competing, if not warring, parties. The task will be to construct such a model – as a first step in an attempt to discard the historical model of 1954 and look beyond it to the future – by tracing its emergence and evolution in the writings of some leading Egyptian intellectuals.

It is noteworthy that every writer will paint this historical model with the colour of his/her ideological orientation, and accordingly, will view the present moment in that light. Nonetheless, the selected articles not only reinvent the historical model of 1954, but also, and most importantly, reveal remarkable awareness of the notion of the historical model and its theoretical problems and political implications.

Deja vu?

Perhaps, nowhere is the recalling of the 1954 model better demonstrated than in the opening phrase of Tarek al-Bishry’s article [Ar] written as early as March 17, 2011, “How similar today is to yesterday.” Al-Bishry pictures the events of March 1954 as a conflict between two faces of the 1952 revolution, the democratic and the autocratic. By undoing the democratic decisions of the 5th and 25th of March 1954, the latter won the former.

For al-Bishry, fear of democracy and lack of confidence in the collective will, explains the failure of building a democracy. He also enshrouded the 1954 model in a sense of urgency of the opportunity-offering moment, whose choices will stay with Egypt for the next 57 years. The wisdom learnt from suffering is that all Nasserite state-building efforts, socialist policies, and independent foreign policies were lost at the hands of his two successors, Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak, due to the absence of democratic institutions, and the consolidation of autocratic rule.

In this light, the present moment of the 2011 revolution will be read as offering only one political demand or opportunity, namely, the consolidation of democratic rule in the face of authoritarianism. Thus, the transitional period should build democratic institutions based on free choice and public representation. Otherwise, if the foundations of autocracy were to be laid down again, not only will the revolution be aborted, but also dictatorship will thrive for a very long period, again.

Revolution vs coup d’etat

The 1954 model appears vividly also in an early article written by Galal Amin on March 19, 2011, yet in another ideological colour. The new focus of the 1954 model, according to Amin, is that the 1952 revolution was not actually a “revolution”, but a coup d’etat, because it does not meet the criteria he sets for a revolution, which are movement of masses on the streets and demands for fundamental changes.

However, the situation featured sweeping public support for the coup as well as the drastic social, economic, and political changes which were made by the military authority. The wisdom learnt here is, what started as a movement or a coup d’etat ended up as a real revolution. Viewing the present from this angle, the 2011 events constitute a real revolution, for there was an unprecedented popular uprising, as well as demands for drastic social, economic, and political changes.

But the slow, and at times, partial, or even fake, meeting of revolutionary demands on the side of the military authority threatens to reverse the whole situation. The 1954 model for change, that Amin celebrates, produces a sense of worry at the present moment, for what started as a real revolution can end up as a coup d’etat with no change except in the upper echelons of power.

No parallels  

A year later in 2012, the 1954 model seemed to have taken root outside intellectual circles and dominated the reasoning of political players, with the military authority and the Muslim Brotherhood exchanging symbolic strikes from the memory of the old-time clash between Nasser and the Brotherhood. Against this background, Mustafa Kamel el-Sayyid wrote an article on April 2, 2012, which explored new aspects of the 1954 model as it became more consolidated in the political imagination.

Though he presented no detailed description of the model’s new focus, ie, the clash between the military and the Brotherhood, he spelt unequivocally, the learnt wisdom that there will be no winners in this conflict. By this token, he traced the relations between the military authority and the Muslim Brotherhood in the brief period following the 2011 revolution, in order to ask whether we are re-living the clashes of 1954. El-Sayyid, however, stretched the distance between the present moment and the year 1954, confirming the non-validity of the 1954 model as a guide for present political action, since Egypt has changed and the world around us has changed.

Neither the military authority nor the Brotherhood can afford to use the same old tactics of 1954 with each other; both would lose as before.

He even added a new element to the present that might not have existed in the past. It is the ‘wise’ third party of liberal political forces, backed by revolutionary youth groups, which is able to mediate a reconciliation between the military and the Brotherhood, and thus put Egypt on a safe path. 

Historical continuity

 Nowhere is the awareness of the notion of a historical model, not just its present application, better explained than in an article written by Samir Morkous on April 9, 2012. Morkous categorically refuses the cloning of 1954 in the present under the pretext that the same inputs will have to lead to the same results.

History, according to him, is recalled for understanding and learning its lessons, but it definitely does not repeat itself, for its context as much as its actors cannot remain unchanged. The main goal, Morkous argued, is much more complicated than re-living a historical conflict, because it is about understanding the nature of the present moment.

Having put aside the 1954 model, he maps the distance between the present and the past with the aid of what he called the manifestations of the July 1952 state. These are: dismantling the old bourgeoisie, instituting an oligarchic system, launching privatisation programmes, and politicising religious symbols. The wisdom learnt from the past-present dichotomy is that the actors are not the same, even if they bear the same names. Neither the military nor the Brotherhood is their older selves like before.

In this way, Morkous views the uniqueness of the present moment of the 2011 revolution as a revolt against the legacy of the successive manifestations of the July 1952 state, against an absence of political freedoms, corrupt bureaucracy, superstitious religious culture, social backwardness, and dependent economic forces. With the all-out politicisation initiated by the 2011 revolution, the boundaries are totally blurred between youthful revolutionary acts and daily frictions between citizens. Morkous concluded that the everydayness of protests in various walks of life makes other revolutionary waves a constant possibility.

He maintains that there is still historical continuity, rather than similarity, between the past and the present by virtue of four structural elements. These are: a widening class gap, rising religious ideology, diversified political forces and a politicised army.

Mohamed Soffar is a Professor of Political Theory and the Director of Civilizations Dialogue Center at Cairo University.