Professor of modern and contemporary history at Ain Shams University, Ahmed El-Shalk, says that 62 years later there is still very little consensus on what the 1952 revolution was about, what it achieved and what is left of it.
“The debate is still on, some historians say it was a revolution and others say a coup that turned into a revolution and a third group insist that it was always just a coup,” El-Shalk said.
It is this lack of disagreement on what the 23 July ouster of Egypt’s last monarch, Farouk I, that led to the establishment of the Republic a few years later, El-Shalk said, that is reflected in the confrontation that occurred on 23 July by the grave of Gamal Abdel-Nasser, the 23 July revolution prominent leader, between supporters of President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi, who has been compared by his campaigners to Nasser and supporters of Hamdeen Sabahi, leader of the Popular Current who has always carried himself as the political heir to Nasser.
“Sabahi is the product as he always said of the Nasser era and he believed in the principles that Nasser always championed in relation to social justice and national independence, while El-Sisi, like Nasser, is a military officer and he too speaks of the independence of Egypt and of combating poverty,” El-Shalk said.
“So there again, it all depends on how one sees Nasser and his rule that came after the July revolution,” he added.
One thing is sure, said this historian, “Over six decades the July revolution is still prompting questions as it is still prompting dreams of sovereignty and justice.”
El-Shalk argues that many of the young men and women who took to the streets during the 25 January revolution three years ago were “in many ways making similar demands to those that were adopted by the army with the support of the people back on 23 July 1952 – it was about the same demands of social justice, national dignity, freedom,” he said.
This historian, however, insists that the fact that the same demands were still being made after some six decades since they were championed by the 23 July regime, which he said ended with the end of the rule of Gamal Abdel-Nasser, is not to say that the July revolution failed “as some still like to argue.”
“The July revolution allowed for the launch of key steps in the face of what was incredibly shocking socio-economic discrepancies that had prevailed prior to 1952 and it too, under the leadership of Gamal Abdel-Nasser, managed to end the British occupation and started a socio-economic development scheme that was abruptly and bitterly interrupted with the 1967 defeat,” he said.
Today, he added, the search for social justice is inspired “to an extent” by some of the achievements of the rule that was established by the 1952 revolution.
According to El-Shalk, the July revolution and Nasser “as the ultimate image of the national leader” offered the revolutionary forces of 25 January – more perhaps than the 30 June 'revolutionary' wave – what they were lacking: “leadership.”
“These youthful masses had no leader; they had the revolutionary resolve and the revolutionary energy for sure but they obviously lacked a leader and that was one key reason for the setback that the path of the January revolution suffered,” he said.
El-Shalk added that “this search for the leader, for the Nasser, was perhaps why so many people looked around and turned to El-Sisi and hoped that he would be the leader – the Nasser that was missed throughout the last three years.”
The comparison between Nasser and El-Sisi, in terms of charisma, political shrewdness, popularity and regional and international posture is not something that El-Shalk is willing to dwell much on.
“Listen, history does not repeat itself and while 1952 was meant to face up to the prevailing corruption of King Farouk, the 30 June revolutionary wave was meant to remove the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood that wanted to exclude everybody else,” El-Shalk argued.
He added that he is not in favour of the mood for over-stretching the comparison either between ‘June’ and ‘July’ or between Nasser and El-Sisi.
Then and now, he said, the people chose to entrust one particular leader with their hopes and expectations and to lend this one person their unlimited, “but not unconditional,” support.
“Nasser’s experience is still being debated and assessed – although many historians would argue that Nasser despite the mistakes and everything that came along with the rule, managed to more often than not live up to the expectations of the people,” El-Shalk argued. He added, “El-Sisi for his part is starting.”
One key mistake of the July/Nasser rule, according to El-Shalk, was the failure to introduce democracy or to observe the norms of liberties and rights.
This, he said, hurt the ‘tacit agreement’ that people and the army had ‘in an association’ about the future of Egypt
Acknowledging the “current challenges to the cause of democracy that we have seen for example with the law on the regulation of the right to demonstrate,” El-Shalk is not willing to “jump the gun and say that El-Sisi is walking the path of human rights violations... It is still too early to make such a disturbing statement,” he said.
Nor is this historian worried about the ‘June’ regime falling into the trap of over-antagonising the Muslim Brotherhood, with the social and political hiccups that come along, as was the case with the ‘July’ regime.
Nasser, he said, did not hold animosity toward the Muslim Brotherhood nor does El-Sisi. “Not per se – the fact of the matter is that the Muslim Brotherhood were at odds with the rule of Nasser and with the entire July experience as they are with the current regime, and actually with every single president, because they have one vision and one vision only for the rule of this country to which they accept no alternative.”
For the Muslim Brotherhood, El-Shalk said, the ‘June’ revolutionary wave was more of a shock than the July revolution.
El-Shalk argued, “with July the Muslim Brotherhood thought they could have a good share and then full control; they did the same with the January revolution – with June it was clear that the objective of the masses who filled the streets as with the chosen leader that it was an anti-Muslim Brotherhood movement.”