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Shifting Sands: Political Liberalization of Egypt Since 1952

Al-Sharif Nassef predicts whether or not Egypt’s ruling military junta will relinquish power and traces the historical trends of Egyptian political liberalization in the face of the authoritarian military regimes of Nasser, Sadat, and Mubarak.

Since the transition of Egyptian governance from the hands of a British-influenced monarchical system to a republic, the ruling elite and the Egyptian military apparatus have maintained a symbiotic relationship. To date, each successive Egyptian president has emerged from the military establishment. As a result, the military has played a key role in solidifying and maintaining each ruler’s power, whilst each president has ensured that military elites receive high-prestige and numerous societal perks.

The Arab Spring, however, is shifting the sands of Egyptian power. One year ago, after taking to the streets for 18 days demanding the removal of their long-standing president, Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian people overthrew a regime firmly rooted in the military establishment. But the military’s special relationship to the old regime rings true: indeed, when Mubarak stepped down from office, power was transferred directly to a cabal of high-ranking military personnel called the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF).

While the SCAF has promised a quick transition to a civilian government, their commitment to adhering to revolutionary demands has been doubted by millions of Egyptians as well as outside observers. The Egyptian revolutionaries demand a new constitution, parliamentary elections (which are currently taking place), presidential elections, and a rapid end to military rule. The power to adhere to these demands rests with the military junta which is headed by Field Marshall Mohammed Hussein Tantawi.

Will the ruling junta carry out their promise to abide by the demands of the revolution? Or will a power-hungry military elite thwart the demands of the Egyptian people in order to hold on to power?

A historical look at the civil-military relationship since 1952 and ensuing political trends under Gamal Abdul Nasser’s authoritarian reign, through to the “opening” (albeit slightly) of the Egyptian political system under Anwar al Sadat, and the emergence of the liberal Pan-Arab and independent media under Mubarak has created a reality in Egypt that would make any tyrant’s job very difficult. This trend demonstrates the implausibility of indefinite SCAF control of the country. After the strides made during the years of liberalization the Egyptian people simply do not want another military dictatorship. Thus, although there have been several attempts by the SCAF to stifle opposition – often violently – and maintain power, it is unlikely that they will be able to do so in the face of fearless, organized, and persistent activism in Egypt’s most liberal political climate to date.

Military Regime Takes Hold

In the wake of the perceived inefficacy of the heavily British-influenced, Wafd-party-staffed, monarchical regime, and Egypt’s embarrassing defeat by Israel in the 1948 war, a clique of elite military officers sought to utilize their military establishment as a means of correcting Egypt’s path. The 1952 Free Officer’s coup d’état formally abolished the monarch and declared Egypt a republic. A charismatic leader emerged from the military movement in Colonel Gamal Abdul Nasser, who assumed the presidency for the next 18 years.

Despite his popularity around the Arab world and his populist agenda for Egypt, the nature of Nasser’s rule was highly authoritarian, and political opposition was not tolerated. After an assassination attempt on Nasser, many opposition figures including scores of Islamists and members of the Muslim Brotherhood were rounded up and either imprisoned or executed. All political parties except for Nasser’s own Arab Socialist Union were declared illegal. Egypt in its political functioning revolved solely around the presidency—like to a general in the army, everyone reported to Nasser. He and the military establishment that was built around him had a firm grasp on power that could not be legitimately challenged. The intimidating security and intelligence apparatus that he developed to stifle opposition became a staple of the Egyptian authoritarian tradition.

Seeds of Opposition

When Nasser died in 1970, his next-in-command became president. A military academy graduate and fellow (junior) Free Officer, Anwar al Sadat was another direct product of the Egyptian military establishment. Sadat pursued policies of political and economic enfitah (or "opening") that liberalized the country in these respective dimensions. Much different from the authoritarian approach of Nasser, Sadat allowed the re-emergence of the Muslim Brotherhood (although still illegal) and permitted limited political activity outside the control of the regime. He first allowed the formation of multiple “party platforms” to take hold under the Arab Socialist Union, and then eventually dissolved Nasser’s party to create the National Democratic Party. Political parties emerged out of these platforms, and limited political debate even took place in parliament. Unwittingly, this set the stage for underground opposition to the regime. A “parallel Islamic sector” began to develop in Egypt’s universities and professional syndicates. Along with its social and charitable work, the Muslim Brotherhood and like-minded Islamist groups learned to effectively organize political opposition.

These developments, unheard of in the Nasser era, made it more difficult for the regime to maintain power. It was during Sadat’s enfitah when seeds of political opposition were planted into Egyptian society. This reality culminated in the assassination of President Sadat by a radical Islamist group in 1981. Ironically—or perhaps symbolically—Sadat was assassinated while dressed in his full military uniform during a military parade. This reflects the relative weakness of the military regime after liberalization, compared to Nasser’s regime.

Liberalization Trends Persist

Again, as a consequence of the military establishment’s reign, the successor to the presidency was former Air Force Commander and SCAF member Hosni Mubarak. He, like his predecessor, took steps to further liberalize Egypt politically and economically. For the first time, opposition parties were able to field candidates in parliamentary elections. The liberal Wafd party, absent from the public realm since 1952, re-emerged and its members even forged a parliamentary coalition with members of the Muslim Brotherhood who ran as independents (the Brotherhood was still legally banned at this time). The parliament saw a semblance of ideological diversity in its chambers for the first time since 1952. Under Mubarak, the political climate made an irreversible turn down the road of political liberalization. This turn was only emboldened by trends of liberalization in the Egyptian media under Mubarak.

Before Mubarak, the only source of media was state-owned and state-run. In the 1980s, Mubarak allowed political opposition groups to publish their own periodicals—a sharp turn from the closed media under Sadat and especially under Nasser. This trend continued into the early 1990s when a Pan-Arab press emerged, particularly aimed at Egypt’s educated elite. By the end of the 1990s, Satellite TV was ubiquitous around Egypt and the liberal Qatari owned Al-Jazeera news station could criticize the regime over the airwaves, without fear of repercussion. In 2005, Masry-El-Youm, Egypt’s first independently owned newspaper emerged and consistently outsold the state owned Al-Ahram newspaper.

This emergence of a drastically freer media only amplified political opposition. News of widespread government corruption, crony capitalism, and grotesque abuses of power by the Egyptian regime’s security apparatus circulated freely amongst the public.

Eventually the Egyptian people had enough: groups of students, intellectual elites, liberals, repressed Islamists, and frustrated unemployed youths mobilized using online social media and cellular phones to organize large protests against the nizam (the "system"). January 25, 2011 marked the beginning of the Egyptian Revolution; these youth protests snowballed and spread throughout Egypt, forever giving Egyptians the sense of popular empowerment that they once found elusive. Though Mubarak tried to use his security apparatus—battalions of riot police with tear gas, rubber bullets, fire hoses, batons, and all—to violently quash the uprising, his efforts at intimidation were met only with greater numbers of youths in the streets. The “system” was far-removed from the closed iron-fisted rule of Nasser. The gradual liberalization of Egyptian society from the Nasser-era greatly loosened the grip of the military on the people.

Shifting Sands?

During the revolution itself, the military commanders saw Mubarak as the target of the people. They therefore decided not to take sides and refused to use military force against their own people. The SCAF saw the popular uprising as a potential opportunity to gain direct power. When Mubarak stepped down, he transferred authority of governance to the SCAF—leaders of the military establishment that Mubarak himself came from, so relatively speaking there was not much change.

Since the overthrow of Mubarak, there have been numerous indications that the SCAF does not want to relinquish power. They have tried over 12,000 Egyptians in military tribunals, delayed parliamentary elections more than once, attempted to limit political speech, maintained the Emergency Law (albeit recently partially lifted) that has been in place from the time that Sadat was assassinated, and have even violently suppressed protests. They massacred dozens of Coptic Christians during anti-SCAF protests at the Maspero state television building in March and they used fire, teargas, rubber bullets and live ammunition in an attempt to evict demonstrators protesting against military rule from Tahrir Square.

Despite these abuses by the military, political opposition remains incredibly resilient. It is truly remarkable how 18 days of revolution and the toppling of a once seemingly invincible leader has changed Egypt. The political system in Egypt is more liberal than it has ever been. Political opposition is openly active in various forms. Over thirty-two political parties have been recently established, bringing the total number of recognized parties to 50. The media is more independent and transparent than ever before: they not only scrutinize every move of the SCAF, but criticize the junta for every wrong step that they take. Political debate and discussion have never occurred so freely in Egyptian coffee shops, sporting clubs, or at dinner tables. The youth are empowered. So are the poor, rich, old, and everyone in between—and the packed Tahrir Square on the first anniversary of the Egyptian Revolution proves it.

At present, the Egyptian people have their first truly representative parliament in decades. The people expect a new constitution and a transition of power to a civilian president; they will simply not accept anything less (or they will revive the revolution). Today, Egyptians breathe a political climate radically different from the one under Nasser, Sadat, and even Mubarak. For these reasons, despite any attempts to hold onto power longer than they are supposed to, the sheer popular will of the people against the SCAF will force them to hold fair elections and eventually relinquish power.

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