On 26 July 1952, the Egyptian army under the control of the Free Officers deposed King Farouk and expelled him from Egypt. On 11 February 2011 — some 59 years later — the Egyptian army deposed President Hosni Mubarak and placed him under house arrest in Sharm El-Sheikh. Today, as Egypt officially celebrates the July “revolution”, it is appropriate to look at this momentous event in Egypt’s modern history in a new light, after the January 25 Revolution. What are the similarities and differences between the two events?
The common feature between the two events is that they ushered in a military council to rule the country: the Revolutionary Command Council in 1952 and the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces in 2011. Some conspiracy theorists believe that the January revolution is nothing more than a ruse by the army to reassert its political control over the country, after Mubarak had curtailed its influence for the benefit of the police, which in recent years had the most control over the country. But this argument is too simplistic because there are major differences between domestic and international political conditions in 1952 and 2011.
A military council took over power in Egypt in 1952 after a successful military coup, but the military council is ruling Egypt today after a successful revolution. The difference between coup and revolution is immense: in a coup, military forces move stealthily in the dark to seize power; in a revolution, millions of people go out in broad daylight to participate in politics and impose change on a regime that refuses to change.
July 1952 was the beginning of retiring the Egyptian people from the political arena, making them supporting or opposing spectators of the regime’s decisions, but not participants. After July 1952, genuine elections never took place in Egypt. Voter turnout in the 1951 elections (one year before the July coup) was nearly 60 per cent; voter turnout under the July regime during three presidencies was never more than five per cent, if we set aside the votes cast by the dead or missing which were added by tampering with ballot boxes.
After 1952, the great leader came to power and dominated the entire political scene while the Egyptian people became merely millions who lined up to greet the president. After January 2011, it is certain that the era of the great leader is over and that the millions who took to the streets do not follow any particular leadership. The January revolution opened the door to extensive participation in politics by a people who for decades were known to abstain from politics.
The world has changed greatly between 1952 and 2011. The trend in newly independent states of the 1950s was for the army to assume power in countries in Asia, Africa and South America. US policy at that time was to support military regimes — in the beginning Egypt’s military coup was supported by the US. Today, it is more fashionable for civilians to assume power. The military council ruling Egypt today did not come to power with the purpose of directly ruling the country. The army’s ascent to the helm was the only solution to the power vacuum that opened up in Egypt in February 2011, after it was ascertained that the Mubarak regime was unable to continue and there was no unified leadership among the opposition to take power. In 2011, the army did not seek out control; power sought it.
While some believe the Egyptian army does not want to rule directly today, this in no way means that the military wants to completely withdraw from politics. The political balance of power in Egypt today shows that the military will remain a vital political player, either behind the political scenes or by adding constitutional articles that allow the army to interfere at certain moments, such as the case in Turkey. Nonetheless, army intervention in politics is one thing and military rule similar to 1952 is quite another.
The partial withdrawal of the army from Egyptian politics today serves the interests of the military. Nearly 59 years after the July coup and three military presidents ruling Egypt, the army knows that it has failed the Egyptian people when society was retired from the political scene, political parties and civil society were thwarted, and the state and some economic sectors militarised. The end result was a disaster for the country and society.
The military wants to safely exit direct politics, as long as it remains largely independent in managing its own financial and military affairs. This issue will be resolved in the future based on a dialogue between the army and legitimate elected governments in a democratic era.
History is certainly not repeating itself. There are major differences between 1952 and 2011, but they should not overshadow the similarities — most importantly the radicalisation of the middle class. In 1952, there was a deadlock in the political system because of the monopoly by the pachas and elite classes over the political order, which triggered rising aspirations among the middle class to join political movements on the periphery of the official political system, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, the communists, Misr Al-Fatah, and others. This is how the monarchy was easily deposed in 1952 and how the July coup gained majority support in the middle class followed by the poorer classes.
In January 2011, large sectors of the middle class demonstrated their loathing of the rise of the neo-pachas in the form of businessmen and their growing monopoly over the political order. This is why slogans of social justice were prevalent during the 2011 revolution, just as they were in 1952. The difference between 1952 and 2011 is that the July bureaucratic regime removed the pachas from politics using slogans of political cleansing, then ousted them from the economy using slogans of socialism.
The January regime needs to remove them from politics but keep them involved in the economy, which means that in the coming phase the political scene will be dominated by the middle class that is operating with covert or overt support by businessmen. The revolution of the middle class in January 2011 will not eliminate the pachas; that is the biggest difference between July 1952 and January 2011.
The writer is assistant professor of political economy at the American University in Cairo. He is also the author of The Autumn of Dictatorship which predicted the collapse of the Mubarak regime.