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Wednesday, 17 October 2018

Persistent deconstruction

The period of Nasser has come in for unprecedented criticism of late. Learning from the past is one thing, but it is perilous to oblige a nation to break from it

Hussein Haridy , Wednesday 1 Aug 2018
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26 July is of a great historical and strategic significance in the modern history of Egypt. However, this year was a sad one.

In 2018, 26 July came and passed like a meteor. There was no celebration, either officially, nor in the media, whether the semi-official one or in the independent newspapers. 

This deafening silence coincided with a fierce campaign against the July 1952 Revolution and late president Gamal Abdel-Nasser.

On 26 July 1956, Nasser had nationalised the Suez Canal, a decision that secured him a special place in the hearts of Egyptians and in Third World countries.

This historic decision led to a major realignment of forces in the Middle East and the beginning of the end of Western colonialism.

It is a date that separates two distinct phases in the history of the Middle East.

In the pre-26 July era, the peoples of the region had been subjected to foreign rule and military occupation where the final say in their destinies had been made in faraway capitals, namely London and Paris.

The post-26 July period heralded a time of political and economic liberation and national revival.

In Egypt, celebration of the anniversary of 26 July has always been an occasion for renewed national pride and a painful reminder of the many sacrifices Egyptians made as a direct cost for having such a coveted and strategic international waterway that links three continents and three oceans.

In the two world wars in the 20th century, Egypt became a major battle ground because the belligerents either wanted to control the Suez Canal or prevent their enemy from controlling it.

The fact that an Egyptian leader could wrest control of the Suez Canal for the benefit of the people of Egypt was not lost on Western decision-makers.

Hence, the Suez War against Nasser’s Egypt in October 1956. The way this campaign ended heralded a new regional order in the Middle East with a very influential Egypt emerging, an emergence that tipped the balance of power to the advantage of the Arabs in their quest for a complete break from their colonial past, a past that had lasted more than 100 years. Egypt and the newly-independent Arab countries were making history.

When Egyptians celebrated this cherished national anniversary they were, in fact, rededicating themselves to the true meaning of the nationalisation of the Suez Canal, which has always been an assertion of their national will and independence from foreign powers.

It was never lost on generations of Egyptians that the decision to nationalise the canal had been a strong response on the part of president Nasser and the young Egyptian revolution to the withdrawal of the financing offer by the World Bank to build the Aswan High Dam, after initially expressing its willingness to do so.

American objections, and as a way to exert political pressure on the revolutionary government in Egypt, made it impossible for Eugene Black, then-president of the World Bank, to proceed with the project.

The nationalisation of the Suez Canal made the dream come true, but at a heavy cost for the Americans at the height of the Cold War years. The former Soviet Union agreed to finance the building of the High Dam and gained a firm footing in the Middle East.

Accordingly, Egyptians have always taken a special pride in their ability to shape the course of history in the region and in the wider Arab world. Celebrating 26 July, year in and year out, worked like magic on their morale.

This year there was seldom a mention of the anniversary. Of course, today’s Egypt is a completely different place of that lost Egypt that had dared to dream.

But it is no excuse for failing to celebrate 26 July. One has a feeling that modern day Egyptians, due to their daily and endless frustrations and lack of confidence in better tomorrows, no longer care about their past, however great that distant past was, and however inspiring that past had been for other nations around the globe.

Maybe someone in power thinks that by neglecting significant and important historical dates in the history of the nation new kind of political legitimacy for the post-June 2013 order will be born.

I am afraid working for a complete break with the high moments of the July 1952 Revolution would only embolden the Muslim Brotherhood, and the forces of the extreme right in the country, in their unending quest to regain power.

There was a parallel to such neglect and the green light to ascribe to the July 1952 Revolution all the political and economic ills of the nation.

It took place, and with vehemence not unlike what we have witnessed lately, in the period from 2005 till the outbreak of the popular uprising of January 2011.

And the culprits had been the same; that is, the Muslim Brotherhood and the crony capitalists of the day. It is strange that history, albeit a very recent one, could be repeating itself before our eyes.

Going back to the roots, celebrating national anniversaries, like the anniversary of the nationalisation of the Suez Canal, that defined Egypt in the second half of the 20th century, and made the country a symbol for progress, independence and the true incarnation of free national will, as well as turning it into a beacon of hope in the Third World, would make sure that the July Revolution would strengthen and deepen the legitimacy of the June 2013 Revolution.

A break between the two would chip away at the political legitimacy of the post- June political order.

Deconstructing the July 1952 Revolution is a very perilous road to take. Some former Egyptian presidents should have known better.

The writer is former assistant foreign minister.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 2 August 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Persistent deconstruction

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