Published — Wednesday 28 November 2012
Last update 28 November 2012 12:57 am
The timing of Hosni Mubarak’s demise was virtually unpredictable but conditions existed in Egypt that led to the massive demonstrations, which rocked the country during the months of January and February 2011. Steven Cook analyzes the reasons behind the Egyptians’ anger, deep resentment and frustration. His quest for answers takes him back to the origins of the military rule in 1952 when a group of officers, known as the Free Officers took the reins of power from King Farouk.
The announcement of the military coup was made by Anwar El Sadat on July 23, 1952 at 7:30 a.m. in the studio of Egyptian Broadcasting. In his brief speech, he assured the Egyptian people that the entire army had become capable of operating in the national interest and under the rule of the constitution apart from any interests of its own.
This communiqué however did not mention any political plan for the future of Egypt. The Free Officers were not motivated by a grand project or a vision for the country, they were essentially driven by the shame and anger they felt for their defeat in Palestine as well as the fear of being arrested.
“Still they had no programs, no means, and no framework of thought to turn abstract notions about reforms into a reality.
Essentially they made up as they went along. The officers’ distinct lack of a guiding ideology combined with the unintended consequences of their intervention and the hard realities of Egyptian politics produced something quite different from the reform the Free Officers claimed they wanted. Indeed, instead of a renewed parliamentary system, the Officers oversaw the development of an authoritarian political order that endured, albeit in modified form, until early 2011” says Steven Cook.
Nasser quickly rose from the ranks of the Free Officers and went on to build a regime emulated in Tunisia, Libya, Syria, Iraq and Algeria. His forte was certainly not his military prowess sadly proven by Egypt’s humiliating defeat by Israel in 1967 but his ability to arouse a crowd’s feeling, his sense of leadership and his canny ability to use conspiracy and opportunism.
Nasser and the other officers set up institutions and implemented laws, rules and decrees that essentially preserved their power, prestige and privileges and that of their allies, at the expense of society. However, the regime’s lack of a vision for Egypt as well as an absence of ideological convictions created the seeds for a permanent conflict between the defenders of the military rule and their opponents which culminated in January 2011.
Two events undoubtedly strengthened Nasser’s grip on the power: An assassination attempt on his life, and the nationalization of the Suez Canal on July 26, 1956. However, 11 years later, the man who regaled audiences throughout the Arab world with his fiery nationalistic speeches broadcasted on Egypt’s “Sawt Al-Arab” (“Voice of the Arabs”), had to announce his country’s humiliating and crushing defeat. Nasser’s decision to close the Strait of Tiran was the direct cause of the war. Why did Nasser persist in closing the Strait of Tiran when the Israelis had clearly said they would go to war if the Egyptians shut down the waterway to Israeli and Israeli-bound shipping?
“…inadequate planning, substandard leadership on the battlefield, and an inability to leverage its superiority in hardware both in terms of raw numbers and technology plagued the Egyptians and led to their ignominious defeat” says Cook.
When Nasser died on Sept. 28, 1969, there was an outpouring of grief for a leader who had achieved an iconic status although Egypt remained “largely poor, authoritarian and dependant on a global power”. Sadat succeeded Nasser and in his speech to the National Assembly he acknowledged that he considered it an order for him “to pursue the path of Gamal Abdel Nasser”.
Besides the implementation of “infitah”, a new set of reforms to boost growth based on the private sector and foreign investment, Sadat his known for the heroic Crossing of the Canal on the Oct. 6, 1973. The ability of Egyptian forces to push the Israelis from the Canal Zone healed the wounds caused by the 1967 defeat and threatened Israel’s arrogant intransigence. This led to the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty and to an increasing number of political challenges which culminated with the amendment of the constitution and the introduction of the law for the Protection of the Internal Front and Social Peace which criminalized opposition to the government.
Furthermore, Sadat had failed in his promise of prosperity and democracy and the Peace with Israel was perceived as a betrayal. To silence the opposition, the government organized a massive crackdown and more than 1,500 people were arrested. Opposition publications were banned and mosques were placed under the direct supervision of the government. At the time of his assassination on Oct. 6, 1981, the fundamental nature of the military rule was more contested than ever.
A week after Sadat’s death, Mubarak was elected to power with a massive “yes” by 98.4 percent of the Egyptians who went to the polls. During the 1980s’ and mid 1990s’ Mubarak faced great economic challenges. Although he did make some important changes such as the introduction of the value-added sales tax and the sale of some three hundred state-owned companies, they were too few. However, the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in August 1990 provided Egypt with a much needed windfall. Egypt was rewarded for its participation in the Gulf War. The United States and Arab creditors wrote off or canceled $20 billion of Egyptian debt. The benefits of debt relief helped pave the way for future economic growth. In the late Mubarak period, the private sector accounted for more than 70 percent of all economic activity and Egypt became an international destination. In 2008, 12.8 million tourists visited Egypt.
“Yet the Egypt of high-end shopping centers, gated communities, private jets, and alleged progressive political change was a reality that only a privileged few actually enjoyed. To the vast majority, the plenty available at a place like City Stars is unattainable on wages that average a mere $2,000 a year, not to mention those 16 million Egyptians who live on about $2 a day,” says Steven Cook.
Economic reforms overlooked by the dream team of 2004 with Mahmoud Mohieddin, Rashid Mohammed Rashid, Yousef Boutros Ghali, and Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif, had benefitted the regime’s cronies and Egypt’s investors but little else.
Although Egypt experienced an unprecedented growth in the second half of the 2000s, the cost of living soared. Stability, the catchword of Mubarak’s rule, “produced an environment conducive to instability” remarks Cook as the opposition intensified its activity and “lacking legitimacy, the defenders of the regime no longer actually seemed to care whether they enjoyed widespread public support. Rather the leadership was solely interested in appealing to the military, security services, regime-affiliated intellectuals, certain members of the pres, the bureaucracy, and big business”.
The lack of concern of the regime culminated on the eve of Jan. 25, 2011 when Senior police officers were celebrating a day of rest in their honor in the Semiramis Intercontinental Hotel while a few meters away, tens of thousands of Egyptians who despised the police were demanding that Hosni Mubarak resign and join the former Tunisian president, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.
Two events helped the opposition in an unexpected way. First the faculty and dean of Cairo University’s school of law released a statement supporting the demonstrators and all of their demands. Second, Wael Ghonim who instigated the Jan. 25 Police Day demonstrations that marked the beginning of Egypt’s uprising, was released from detention. That same evening, he gave a moving interview which affected large segments of the Egyptian population. The demonstrations grew in Tahrir Square and in other cities. Finally, Mubarak resigned on Feb. 11, 2011, paving the way for Egypt’s first free elections.
“Although among the vast majority, there is great hope that Egyptians can construct a new political system and rebuild their society peacefully, that is unlikely as long as the underlying and antecedent debates about Egypt and what it stands for remain unresolved… For now, one thing is clear: The struggle for Egypt continues” concludes Steven Cook.