Egyp’s revolution in historical perspective

Posted on | november 24, 2011 | No Comments

An 1840 portrait of Mehmet Ali

To understand why Egyptians rebelled in the early months of 2011 and then continued their uprising in November 2011 after the Mubarak regime was overthrown, one must examine not just the short-term causes (poverty, political corruption, authoritarian rule, etc.) of Arab Spring, but the history of this North African country from the era of Mehmet Ali the reformer (1801-1849) until Arab Spring 2011. Although a North Africa-Middle Eastern-wide mass movement, Arab Spring in Egypt is part of a historical process with very deep roots that date to the Ali era.

As part of a regional mass movement against the old authoritarian regime that includes the military and police as sentinels of the status quo, the Arab Spring revolts of 2011 certainly qualify as Pan-Islamic only in so far as they have religion in common as a catalyst for change against authoritarian governments. Unlike the Arab Spring bottom-up uprising, Egypt’s previous uprisings were nationalist, top-down that included the military as a catalyst to change.

The similarities between past and present include nationalism and Islam as ideological catalysts, although it must be stressed that domestic, regional, and global conditions are constantly changing and revolutions reflect such changes. While ‘Islamism’ and nationalism may be constants in Egypt’s revolts from the 19th century to the present, Islamism and nationalism have undergone changes to reflect domestic and global circumstances. Unlike, Europe that underwent a Renaissance, Commercial and Industrial Revolutions and Enlightenment, this is not the case in Egypt (nor Asia or Africa for that matter), thus religion plays a key role in revolution of a traditional society and shapes the anatomy of the revolution itself.

In the first half of the 19th century when northwest European were trying to expand their colonial empires after the Napoleonic Wars, Mehmet Ali managed to prevent his country from external dependence. This was at a time that the Ottoman Empire was divided into European spheres of influence. Ali carried out a nationalist revolution (the term ‘revolution’ means radical or systemic change) at a time that political revolutions were confined to Europe. However, his successor Abbas I (1848-1854 and Muhammad Said Pasha (1854-1863) prepared Egypt for colonization under England, thus undermining Ali’s reforms intended to achieve a modicum of national sovereignty.

The catalyst to colonization was the unraveling of the strong state structure that Mehmet Ali had built and the extraordinary foreign borrowing to the point that foreign creditors, especially British, paved the way for financial control over Egypt. By controlling Egypt and its precious canal, Britain enjoyed commercial and military control of much of Africa and the Middle East. Egyptian anti-colonial resistance from the late 19th century to the revolt of 1919 did not result in the elimination of British imperial rule.

In July 1952, Gamal Abdel Nasser and the Free Officers Movement took a page out of Mehmet Ali’s reformist nationalist movement in the 19th century and established a strong sovereign state for the next two decades. Nasser’s top-down revolution took place with the military as key player. The most significant achievement of Nasser was to eliminate British imperial rule and to provide Egypt with a sense of independence that it lacked since Ali.

Just as in the case of Ali, Nasser made mistakes of costly projects that did not yield the best results, exorbitant military spending made necessary owing to regional hostilities and the old War, and wasteful public enterprises. At the very least, the Nasser era afforded the people of Egypt a sense of pride that imperialism had denied them for more than a century.

The US and the West tried to isolate Nasser and portray him as a Communist sympathizer, merely because he opposed surrendering national sovereignty to the US and tried to strengthen Egypt and the Arab and pan-African movement. Nasser and Ali brought to Egypt a sense of respect by asserting national sovereignty and rejecting external dependence, but neither of them succeeded largely owing to pressures from the Great Powers.

Many in the West do not grasp the meaning of ‘national sovereignty’, because it appears as vague as the concept of ‘freedom’ to those who enjoy it and do not have to think about it. A Westerner thinks that ‘sovereignty’ is nebulous and meaningless because s/he lives in a country that enjoys national sovereignty. Why would Egyptians be fighting for this nebulous concept and not be content with a Wall Mart, a fast food restaurant, and a branch of an American or European bank in their city? Why aren’t Egyptians happy to have internet as a shopping mechanism, instead of using it to stir up a grass roots rebel movement?

The Arab Spring revolt is the third in the history of Egypt since Mehmet Ali to assert national sovereignty, not merely a struggle for jobs, higher income, less official corruption, a more efficient public sector and a modern private economy, one not based on the primary sector and tourism so heavily. Arab Spring for Egypt has deep historical roots and there are parallels between what took place in the 19th century before the building of the Suez Canal; what took place in the revolution (Egypt and Sudan) of 1919 official independence in 1922, while Britain remained hegemonic in essence; the successful revolution of 1952 when Nasser took the country to the non-aligned bloc; and what took place in 2011.

There are different interpretations on the causes of the original Arab Spring revolt in Egypt specifically, among them endemic poverty, corruption and external dependence, stronger commitment to Islam, etc. Many Western analysts, journalists and politicians insist that the revolt had absolutely nothing to do with the West, or any other external factors, and that the causes are purely domestic, factional rivalries of varying sorts. This argument assumes that Egypt exists on planet earth completely alone, cut off from the its Arab neighbors, from Israel, from sub-Sahara Africa, from Europe and from its long-time patron the US.

Those who have studied the history of colonial revolts dating back to the 19th century know that colonizers always attributed the causes of revolts to internal factors, rarely placing much weight on external ones. A closer examination of the influence of the US on Egypt in the last four decades reveals that the Arab Spring of 2011 is rooted in semi-colonial and extremely corrupt conditions under Sadat and Mubarak, as much as it is on domestic causes related to Islam that has always played a role in political rebellions.

In the 1980s, the public sector accounted for roughly half of industrial production and 90 percent of banking and insurance, occupying about 20 percent of the labor force; not at all unusual for an undeveloped or even a semi-developed economy. In the 1990s Egypt experienced a financial crisis when international banks refused to extend credit, largely because the state finances depended heavily on state enterprises; a position with which Western governments and IMF agreed. In the wave of neo-liberal policies that the US and IMF were promoting, Egypt agreed to go along the route of privatization.

In the early 1990s, the US government through the Agency of International Development funded to the tune of $10 million the Egyptian Center for Economic Studies, a think tank that included the son of former president Mubarak intended to bring about structural change in the country. The US-funded think tank that was intended to reform Egypt in reality looted the country and its members are now in prison, others fled the country. Interested in privatizing as many public companies as possible, the think tank was to bring US-style neo-liberalism in Egypt.

The publicly-stated promise of the US and the West was that Egypt would be lifted from poverty, it would become democratic, it would modernize rapidly, and it would join the modern community of nations – a package called the “Washington Consensus”. That was two decades before Arab Spring, a promise never materialized, a promise that entailed greater poverty, less democracy, more external dependence, greater corruption, and a return to pre-1952 conditions. Working with a US law firm, Mubarak’s son undertook to implement the Washington Consensus in the name of progress. Specifically, the goal was to privatize 350 public companies worth more than $104 billion so that Egypt can join the 21st century.

The USAID-funded think tank, which Mubarak’s son and the US law firm headed, sold public assets worth $100 billion for a mere $10 billion, or $2 billion more than the foreign aid that the US provided between 1991 and 2011, on condition that Egypt must privatize as much of its public sector as possible. The members of the think tank and others linked to the former regime pocketed a great deal of money not only from the sale of public assets, but also from US aid.

After Mubarak fell, U.S. officials began asking questions about $70 billion of US taxpayer money going to Egypt for aid in past six decades and about a handful of people pocketing the money. However, because the US was itself behind the schemes to ‘privatize and reform’, it could not go public with what had taken place in Egypt under Mubarak, especially given that the regime was making just aboput every political and military concession to the US and to a lesser degree to Israel.

Some of the details of these scandalous exchanges were made public by Wikileaks on which the Washington Post then pursued its own investigation. Internal State Department memos (2006) indicate that the US was well aware that its own privatization program was the cause for even greater corruption in Egypt, but USAID continued the program without pause.

The fall of Mubarak was a celebrated event, even by the US, at least publicly, while privately, the US was demanding that the military must guarantee all treaties and obligations. In essence this entailed that Egypt can change faces but not policies, it can have elections but it cannot permit any change in the status quo ante. The military remained behind after Mubarak to make sure that the country stayed a dependency of the West, a nation of poor people with a hand full of millionaires linked to the state, a Muslim country with cordial relations to Israel and US.

Arab Spring for Egypt was not merely part of a regional – North Africa-Middle East – awakening, but it had its own historical causes, and it was more a continuation of the two-century long struggle of Egypt to achieve national sovereignty among nations.Whereas Ali and Nasser used the military to carry out their reforms and strengthen the state structure against foreign intervention, the rebels of Arab Spring are fighting against the military that has evolved into status quo guardian of domestic elites and foreign interests.

As we approach the end of 2011, unless a new regime takes power that genuinely represents the spirit of national sovereignty in the manner of Mehmet Ali and Gamal Abdel Nasser, Egypt will not have lasting social harmony. Trying to forge alliances with the various interest groups in Egypt, groups that have disparate interests will not be easy, but the catalyst to unity will be a strong commitment to national sovereignty and social justice.

AUTHOR: Jon Kofas
E-MAIL: jonkofas [at]


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