This week marks 60 years since Egypt’s self-proclaimed Free Officers overthrew the constitutional monarchy of King Farouk — and it’s the first anniversary when one can imagine the demise of the military despotism that for 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 levels of inequality 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. Industrialization 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 Mubarakas “liberal, glamorous, cosmopolitan.”
The dreary rule of generals and colonels began on July 23, 1952, led by the ambitious Gamal Abdul Nasser. The grandiose Anwar Sadat followed him in 1970, and finally the pompous Hosni Mubarak assumed control when Sadat was assassinated in 1981. 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 socioeconomic par in 1952; now, Egypt has fallen far behind. He writes that “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 from his wife) he 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 had won, but they served merely as a tool and a 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 (SCAF) still runs the country, and the Muslim Brotherhood wants to push it aside. Which of these unworthy, autocratic forces will win? The SCAF has, in my view, an 80 percent chance of holding power, meaning that Islamists will prevail only if they display enough talent. The 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 Mohammed 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 the SCAF.
As Egyptians endure the 60th anniversary of the military’s power grab, they have little to look forward to. If more July 23 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 60 years of tyranny and decline.