The twentieth century saw the reawakening of Egypt, starting with the 1919 Revolution against the British and continuing with the adoption of the 1923 constitution one year after the nominal independence of the country from British occupation.
This constitutional document is considered by many to be the foundation of a democratic system that lasted until 23 July 1952 when a group of army officers, known as the “Free Officers”, took power. Three days later, the last king from among the descendants of Mohamed Ali, King Farouk, left the country and went into exile.
The period between 1923 and 1952 is referred to by historians as the era of “liberal democracy” in Egypt, despite the fact that ten parliaments out of 11 elected during this “liberal” age were dissolved by the two monarchs that ruled Egypt at the time, King Fouad and his son Farouk.
During this period, which lasted for 29 years, 300 families ruled uncontested and unopposed over the destinies of millions of Egyptians. Not only were the avenues of power closed to the latter. They were also denied their rightful share of the national wealth.
After the Second World War ended in 1945, Egypt entered into a period of political and social instability that was exacerbated by the Palestine War and the creation of the state of Israel.
Demonstrations became the order of the day, and political parties that had a semblance of a popular support saw their power bases shrink because of the growing incapacity of the regime to meet the new demands of the population after 1945.
Not only did the monarchy become obsolete, but the ruling elite also failed to incarnate the political, economic and social aspirations of post-war Egypt. It should not come as a surprise, then, that this period saw the growing power of the Muslim Brotherhood.
The group was used by the British to counterbalance the nationalist movement in Egypt that demanded the complete independence of the country and the departure of all British forces.
In sum, the period from 1945 to 1952 was the political prelude to the 23 July Revolution in 1952, which should be seen as part and parcel of the nationalist movement unleashed by the 1919 Revolution.
Whereas the latter was limited in its objectives to the independence of Egypt, which it never succeeded in achieving regardless of the 1936 Treaty with the British, the former was more ambitious and comprehensive.
Its objectives were not limited to a political agenda, but aspired to change the economic and social lives of Egyptians and to take Egypt out of a feudal system of the distribution of national wealth to a system more attuned to the needs of what the writer Taha Hussein called “the damned of the earth” in a book of the same name that was banned in 1946 and only republished after 1952.
When writing about the 23 July Revolution, one leader comes instantly to mind — President Gamal Abdel-Nasser, the first Egyptian to rule the country for thousands of years. Nasser defined the 23 July Revolution both internally and in the world as a whole. He led a progressive movement in Egypt and the Arab world that aspired to bring to an end the era of foreign subjugation and economic dependency on the West.
He also worked hard to emancipate the poor from their state of perennial poverty and to offer the destitute an opportunity to break free from the devilish cycle of poverty, disease and ignorance.
It was for this reason that he introduced free education for all. He believed that no one should be deprived of the chance to go to school or university because his family lacked the financial resources. Today, this is known as “equal opportunities for all.”
One day in 1954, after the proclamation of the republican system in the country, a leading member of the Revolutionary Command Council that now ruled the country, the former vice-president, Abdel Latif Al-Bagdadi, was sitting in his house in the countryside when a group of schoolgirls passed on their way to school.
Al-Bagdadi looked at them with pride and realised that the July Revolution was all about them — namely, to empower the people and open up new avenues for everyone, regardless of class or gender, to climb the social ladder. This should remain the true legacy of Nasser and the 1952 Revolution.
Many books have been written about Nasser, some of them very negative, but most dealing positively with the man, the leader and the revolutionary. One writer from the French left once asked Nasser what future generations of Egyptians should remember him by.
Nasser reflected for a few seconds and then replied by repeating one of his most cherished slogans, “Walk tall for the days of oppression are behind us.”
In fact, the monarchy did not fall on 23 July 1952. Its death knell had already taken place on 26 January, when Cairo was set ablaze and the Muslim Brotherhood targeted foreigners and foreign-owned shops in the city. The fire raged for hours until the army was called in to re-establish law and order.
Had it not done so, the Muslim Brotherhood would have seized power through parties and political figures that had lost all legitimacy. Six decades later, the army had to intervene once again to save the state from similar anarchy and the country from political instability and social disorder. This was an almost identical situation to the one that Egypt lived through from 1945 to 1952.
I am proud that I had the chance to witness the revolutionary changes that Nasser brought about in Egyptian politics and society. Many of these were undone by his successors, however, and their failures are always attributed to the July Revolution. Here I beg to differ.
I would say that the January 2011 upheaval had nothing to do with the so-called “Arab Spring”, but was rather a result of the growing disconnect between the political class and the new tycoons in Egypt, the successors of the feudal lords that had run the country between 1923 and 1952, and the ever-growing disenchantment of the masses with the social and economic policies adopted over the previous four decades.
In fact, when I reflect on the slogans and the demands of those who took to the streets in 2011, I feel they reincarnated the ideals and objectives of the July Revolution and the policies and principles that Nasser embodied during his rule.
And maybe this is the reason why many demonstrators on the streets after 2011 have carried pictures of Nasser, who has been called “the beloved of millions of Egyptians.”
To write about Nasser and the July Revolution is to write about an unprecedented political and social movement in Egyptian history, and there are many approaches to analysing it.
But before I conclude this article on this great historical adventure that aspired to modernise Egypt, I would like to touch briefly on the July Revolution and democracy. One of the six basic principles of the revolution was to establish what was called a “sound democratic regime.”
But how do we define “sound” in the logic of the revolution? The answer was provided years later by Nasser himself when he insisted, and I fully subscribe to his point of view, that democracies are based on both political and social liberties.
He had in mind the so-called liberal democracy that Egypt had experienced prior to 1952, when the privileged few monopolised power and wealth and the rest of the population lived in utter deprivation.
We cannot claim to have a viable and sustainable democratic system when the majority lives in poverty, political tycoons can buy their votes under social and economic duress, and political parties are nothing more than machines geared to safeguarding the interests and privileges of the few.
This is another enduring legacy of the July Revolution. If we seriously want to establish a true and a functioning democracy in Egypt — a democracy for the people, by the people and to the people, for all Egyptians regardless of class, sect, gender or religion — I hope we heed this lesson.
If I had to sum up what the July Revolution was all about, I would say that it was to create an Egypt for all Egyptians, an independent, strong and modern Egypt. The road is worth travelling. That is the lesson of the Nasser Revolution.
*The writer is a former assistant to the foreign minister.
*This Article was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly