THE REVOLUTION AND ITS LEGACY
Egypt's government tries to get an unwilling people to celebrate 50 years of
less than glorious revolution
THE country is not in the mood for fun. Its economy and politics are stalled,
with strife in the surrounding region stunting hopes of relief anytime soon.
Even so, the Egyptian government has lumbered into action with pageantry,
parades and speeches to mark the 50th anniversary of the July 23rd coup that
toppled King Farouk--and which inspired copycat revolutions across the Arab
The fanfare is meant to boost national pride. But it seems instead to have
added to the unease of a country that has grown unhappy with both itself and
the outside world. A striking number of Egyptians, especially among those who
are old enough to remember, draw parallels between the country's present ills
and those that sparked the revolution. These include wide disparities in
income, unemployment, corruption, a political elite that appears out of touch,
frustration over Egypt's seeming weakness in international affairs, and a
general sense of drift.
"It just makes me ask, what went wrong?" says a cigarette vendor in central
Cairo. He was commenting on the jaunty old newsreel footage showing on the tiny
television set he has installed in his kiosk.
Of course, plenty of Egyptians take rightful pride in the achievements of the
revolution. Republican governments have added 20 years to the average life
span. They have brought roads, electricity and schools to every village. Nobody
denies that the revolution saw off the last British occupation forces,
nationalised the Suez Canal, dammed the unruly Nile, and launched massive
programmes to reclaim the desert for farming.
But the army officers who seized power on July 23rd, 1952 also ended a 30-year
experiment with liberal democracy and open markets. The new rulers' impatience
for change pushed them to adopt exceedingly blunt instruments such as
censorship, central planning, secret police, torture, phoney elections and
referendums always won by huge majorities. Egypt has been under some form of
emergency law for all but eight of the years since 1952.
Western hostility to the revolutionary regime, which culminated in the 1956
invasion of Egypt by Britain, France and Israel, only bolstered its prestige,
and silenced its critics. The initial lustre of the government that emerged
under Gamal Abdel Nasser, a pan-Arab nationalist who was both visionary
reformer and stern dictator, made Egypt a model for other Arab states.
Nasserism became a secular, pan-Arab political philosophy that many Arabs
Through the 1950s and 1960s, army coups as far afield as Algeria, Libya, Sudan,
Yemen, Syria and Iraq all produced regimes that sacrificed freedoms on the
altar of progress, stability and Arab unity. Many even adopted the same flag,
with its red, white and black stripes. Syria went so far as to join itself to
Egypt in the short-lived United Arab Republic.
"Nasser's leadership infected Arab nationalism with the germ of
authoritarianism, a crippling disease it has suffered from ever since," writes
Sameh al-Qaranshawi, an Egyptian historian, in the respected daily, AL HAYAT. A
recent UN-sponsored report on Arab development, written by Arab scholars, comes
to much the same conclusion. The Arab "deficit" in political freedom, it
suggests, largely explains the region's long-term under-performance.
Pre-revolutionary Egypt was feudal and venal, but it produced a renaissance in
Arab arts and ideas that some now see as a golden age. More recently it has
produced a prosperous nostalgia industry. A glut of books and magazines look
fondly upon what is seen as a more innocent past. Even decorators and fashion
designers have picked up on royalist themes. BLURRED HEROISM
Yet the debate over the pros and cons of the revolution goes over the heads of
most Egyptians. More than half of them are under the age of 20, and have never
known any rule but that of Hosni Mubarak, who assumed the presidency in 1981.
For most of the rest, decades of state "guidance" of education and the
media--one of the strongest legacies of the revolution--have turned the past
into a blur of grainy images of heroic moments. But even state guidance cannot
disguise the failures, such as Egypt's terrible mauling in the June, 1967, war
The government's anniversary celebrations amount to something of a
counter-offensive, both against revisionism and the general mood of gloom.
Addressing graduates of his alma mater, Cairo Military Academy, President
Mubarak described the revolution as "the crowning glory of the Egyptian
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