Assem El-Desuki is an Egyptian historian specialising in contemporary economic and social history. He was the head of Faculty of Literature at Helwan University, and is member of the Egyptian Society for Historical Studies. His statements about the history of the 1952 Revolution in particular attract controversy.
El-Desuki spoke to Ahram Online about the writing of history and the January 25 revolution, including the role of media in this process, and the idea that Egypt is going through the Second Republic state.
Ahram Online: As a renowned Egyptian historian, can you explain to us how history can be documented, and how media can be used as a means of writing the history of January 25 revolution?
Assem El-Desuki: What has written about the revolution so far are simply impressions of participants and observers, but this is not how we document history. The ideal method is to start by collecting testimonies of all those who participated in the event, and document the important facts through the reports of local and foreign media, and also reports of the internal security, foreign ministers and international documentation. All these are just the raw material for information, and the writer then builds the story by using these different kinds of material to reconstructing the events. The writer is allowed to say his opinion, but any other writer, historian or researcher could use their same account and raw material to tell the story in a different way, exploring other dimensions.
AO: You have argued that Anwar Sadat removed Mohamed Hassanein Heikal from the post of chief editor of Al-Ahram because he revealed in the paper that 1973 did not constitute a victory for Egypt over Israel. What do you mean by this?
AED: This is related to the war of 1973, and deals with Sadat, Nixon and Golda Meir, using the documents published in full by Heikal in Al-Ahram. According to these documents, when news reached Golda Meir that an attack from Egypt was expected, she gathered a war council and decided to take Nixon's advice not to attack and assurance that the US would not support the aggressor.
As soon as the Egyptian army crossed the Canal, Sadat assured Henry Kissinger that they would not be progressing further. Israel crossed the Canal also. In fact, according to the testimony of an American fighter pilot, this became the first time historically that an army crosses a body of water and nearly wins, but instead stops and makes peace with the enemy. And this is precisely what Israel did.
Before 1973, Heikal described Egyptian relations with Israel in terms of 'no peace, no war'. But then in what he published in on 2 February 1974, this became 'no victory, no defeat.' He published in Al Ahram map of the Suez Canal, describing the movements of both the Egyptian and Israeli army, to show there was no victory for Egypt and no defeat for Israel.
Two days later, Heikal left Al-Ahram.
AO: What do you think of the idea that we are living now through the Second Republic?
AED: The idea of the republics is taken from the French experience, for the simple reason that French republics were not continuous: the revolution would declare a republic, then monarchy would return, then another revolution and so on.
If we are to make the distinction in Egypt in terms of republics, it should be based on the philosophy of rule, not on the individual leaders. Some would say we are now in the Second Republic since the first was ruled by the army. But this assumes that all successive generals from Mohamed Naguib through to Hosni Mubarak were all the same, and this simply is not true.
The rule of Mohamed Naguib should be considered the First Republic. It was short and transitional, without any vote or referendum. It was an attempt to prevent any return of the monarchy. But the counter-revolution used Naguib and his calls for a return of democratic institutions and parties and for the army to get back to their barracks. And this is way Naguib wa pushed aside by Nasser.
The Second Republic started during Nasser in 1956, and the frame of rule under this republic was the Arab and Palestinian cause and social justice. Sadat's rule constituted the beginning of the Third Republic, abolishing the role of the state and moving towards liberalisation of the economy, and sacrificing Palestine for peace with Israel. Essentially, he got rid of all Nasser's policies.
Mubarak's rule continued along the same lines, and he can be seen as the second president of the Third Republic, which is characterised by how it fulfils the American agenda for the region.
Although the latest elections resulted in a civil president, but this isn't really the measure; it's not someone's uniform or absence of one that defines the Republic. The new president is coming to continue the American agenda, so he now becomes the third president of the Third Republic, not the first president of the Second Republic as some people are claiming.
The Fourth Republic will not start until there is a change to the philosophy, exactly like in France when De Gaulle, who was an army man, started the coup to start the republic that is still in existence now. The president might be leftwing or rightwing, but the philosophy of the state will not change.
This third president will not be able to touch the free economy or rapacious capitalism. His statements carry a lot of contradictions: he is speaking of social justice as if he is Abdel-Nasser, then talking about foreign investment in all sectors.
AO: How could president Morsi reconcile the political requirements for the state of Egypt and the Muslim Brotherhood itself?
AED: Morsi has to liberate himself from the thought of the Muslim Brotherhood thought, and become a president for all Egyptians, and that is the real test. He should know that the US supports the Islamist rise to power after the Arab Spring because of certain goals of its own. With the Brotherhood their agendas regarding the hudud (Islamic penalties), and statements about the role of women, it is likely there will be tension with the Coptic minority. This could be a pretext for US intervention. This is not very far from what Al-Bashir did in Sudan, and eventually the South split from the North.
These are very old strategies that started since the breakdown of the USSR and obvious in the calls of George W. Bush for a "new world order."