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Egypt in a stage of unawareness

By Fahmi Huwaidi

The current consensus among the majority of Egyptians, with a loss of confidence in the present and growing concern for the future, brings to mind pivotal scenes in the modern history of Egypt, at the end of the monarchy and in the aftermath of the June 1967 defeat.

Following the return of King Farouk from his trip abroad in the summer of 1950 the opposition leaders sent him what was said to be one of the clearest messages he had ever received as king. The letter spoke about having "in the king's entourage people who do not deserve this honour, ill-behaved advisors surrounding an ill-advised king". It pointed out that "the parliamentary system has become mere ink on paper", warning that "the people's endurance [no matter how long it might take] will come to an end. We are much concerned that the country will be plunged into turmoil that will tear it apart and cause it to slide into financial, political and moral bankruptcy."


Those words were not chosen at random. The thunder clouds rolling across the political horizon were too obvious to be ignored by the political figures of the time. It was not long before the Cairo Fire broke out on 25 and 26 January, 1952, during which the true nature of the political system in Egypt was revealed and everybody became aware of its acute helplessness as well as its inability to control the situation in the country.

In his book on the history of the Egyptian ministries, Dr Younan Labib – an Egyptian journalist and historian described the regime as "spinning out of control". He said that the following six months were more like a moribund phase during which four ministries were formed and remained mired in their performance and none of them managed to fulfil their promises. The Ali Pasha ministry was preoccupied with the issues of liberation and national unity, but it did not last more than a month. The ministry of Naguib Al-Hilali Pasha gave priority to combating corruption but was confronted with corruption at the highest levels of government. Some spoke about a financial deal Aboud Pasha had made with the king, which allowed the monarch to get rid of Aboud's cabinet within four months of its formation. It was replaced by Hussein Sirri Pasha's government which raised the slogan of economic reform, but it did not last for more than twenty days after which Sirri Pasha was forced to resign due to the crisis of the dissolution of the officers' club board of directors, which marked the beginning of the army's July revolution. To maintain control of an increasingly chaotic system Al-Hilali Pasha was asked to form another cabinet on 22 July 1952. However, the revolution broke out just eighteen hours after the new cabinet was formed and declared, whereupon Egypt entered a new phase in its history.

Just as the 1952 Cairo Fire was an indication of the inability of the monarchy to control the ruling system in Egypt, the June 1967 defeat was a declaration of the regime's "nakedness" apparent to all, as it failed its test in the military encounter with Israel. The Egyptians' confidence in the Nasser regime was shaken like that of King Farouk was 15 years earlier. The Six Day War became known as the "setback" (An-Naksah).

President Nasser sought to contain the situation and absorb the impact of the trauma by offering to step down, put some leaders of the armed forces on trial for neglecting their duty and rebuilding the armed forces in a way that enabled them to fight a war of attrition against Israel a few months after the '67 defeat. Nasser then delivered what was known as the statement of March 30, 1968 in an attempt to get the internal political system back on track. His death in 1970 did not allow him to complete the task of restoring public confidence in the regime.

The state of unawareness that prevailed in Egypt in the aftermath of the Cairo fire in January 1952 and following the June 1967 defeat is the same state of uncertainty that hangs over Egypt today; the Egyptians have no confidence in their country. Confusion over the future grows daily. It is not an exaggeration to say that if the genuine political opposition was to send a message to the political leadership in Cairo today, it could use the very same words used by the opposition leaders in their 1950 message to King Farouk.

If historians testified that the monarch was unable to run the country in the early fifties, the same conclusion can be made about today's government. The government's track record in recent years speaks for itself: the bread crisis, water pollution and the collapse of the education, health and transport services; add the spectacular failure in dealing with pollution in Cairo, the rubbish problem and flooding; incidents of sectarian strife and wasting the country's wealth; prohibitively high prices and high rates of unemployment; and the frightening deficit in the balance of payments and rocketing loan and debt indicators. All of this is a heady mix which demonstrates incredible ineptitude on the part of the Mubarak regime.

The Global Transparency Initiative (GTI) ranks Egypt in 19th place out of 19 countries in the Middle East and North Africa, and 111th among 180 states around the world using the corruption indicators for the year 2009. The GTI concluded that corruption is rampant in Egypt and that severe restrictions should be placed on the appointment of businessmen to public office.

In view of all of this, it is not surprising that discontent and anger are common across Egyptian society and that more and more people are resorting to strikes and picketing outside the Egyptian parliament. It is true that the strikers and pickets simply demand better living conditions. However, we should always bear in mind that these are the very same people who used to contain their anger and swallow their discontent; the harsh conditions in which they live are now unbearable.

The use of new technology such as the internet and social network sites like Facebook reveals a new spark in the way that the people are dealing with the whole situation. The most common uniting factor is their rejection of the status quo. This was made clear by the crowds of supporters who welcomed Muhammad El-Baradei back to Cairo. Their support was not only for him as an independent figure from outside the traditional political system but also to express their rejection of the dominance of the National Party and its confiscation of the present and the future.

There is no doubt President Mubarak's illness and the rumours concerning the nature of this illness and when he will be able – if he will be able – to return to public life prompt concerns about the future and possible alternative leaders.

No matter how true these rumours turn out to be, they have left the issue of Egypt's political future open to speculation, confusion and anxiety. This is especially true in the light of the upcoming elections which will define some aspects of what the future holds.

In 1967 the project to have military confrontation with Israel led to defeat. Today, the project of peace with the Zionist state has also been defeated, which means that Israel has won on both battlefields. However, if we look back we will conclude that the situation was much better forty years ago. At the time "challenge the enemy" was a major characteristic of the Egyptian position. Today, challenge has been replaced by "moderation", a euphemism for submission and compliance not only with the demands of Israel but also in relation to internal factors in Egypt.

It is worth noting that the 1967 strategic vision was not blurred. The stance towards the US-backed Israeli enemy was straightforward: "what was taken by force can only be restored by force". Similarly, the Arab world was not divided. The solidarity expressed by the 1967 Khartoum Resolution best remembered for the adoption of the "Three NOs" regarding Israel formulated the Arab states' consensus on three basic points:

1. No peace with Israel
2. No recognition of Israel
3. No negotiations with Israel

What is equally important is recognition that the 1967 military defeat was followed by strenuous efforts to rebuild the Egyptian Armed Forces; they crossed the Suez Canal just six years later, in October 1973. It is clear however that the political peace settlement with Israel did nothing to get Arabs out of their stagnant situation.

It is also clear that the defeat has been underestimated and its elements have not been dealt with seriously despite the threat it presents to Egyptian and Arab national security. This can only be explained by the fact that the whole issue is no longer a priority or a necessity for Egypt's strategy. Also, the preoccupation with internal affairs has blurred the vision, presenting Egyptians with an extremely complicated dilemma.

The state has lost control of the situation both in internal and foreign affairs whereby it has lost the ability to act positively. At the same time it is slamming the door on any initiative offering a viable alternative to the status quo that might be successful in fulfilling the task. The only option the state has to offer is to preserve the status quo with the slogan: defend the status quo, resist change.

Thus, any alternative initiative is doomed to failure; attempts to free the country from the grip of the ruling party are thwarted. Leaders and members of the Muslim Brotherhood are being arrested almost on a weekly basis through which a warning is delivered to the whole population. The way the state dealt with Dr. Muhammad El-Baradei sends a similar message: the well-planned campaign to defame him in government and the media has been complemented by the dirty tricks of the security forces.

In addition to preventing viable alternatives from emerging, the ruling party has been highlighting its "achievements", portraying a transformation from totalitarianism to a "post-pharaonic" era. The Mubarak regime wants us to believe that no party can be more creative and successful than the ruling National Democratic Party and that the status quo is our "fate", with Egypt, its people, its land and its River Nile turned into an "endowment" in the name of the party.

This, again, takes us back to the 1950s and that paragraph in the letter sent by Egyptian opposition leaders to King Farouk: "the people's endurance [no matter how long it might take] will come to an end." Some people never learn from the past.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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