The History of Military Dictatorship in Egypt
PAUL JAY, Senior Editor of The Real News Network (TRNN) interviews professor ACHCAR.
Gilbert ACHCAR grew up in Lebanon, and is currently Professor at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) of the University of London. His books include The Clash of Barbarisms: The Making of the New World Disorder, published in 13 languages, Perilous Power: The Middle East and U.S. Foreign Policy, co-authored with Noam Chomsky, and most recently the critically acclaimed The Arabs and the Holocaust: The Arab-Israeli War of Narratives.
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m PAUL JAY. In Egypt, the military dictatorship continues its rule. The question is whether it will be with or without President Mubarak. How did in fact this dictatorship, this military regime come to power in Egypt? Now joining us to talk about the history of this regime is Gilbert ACHCAR. He grew up in Lebanon. He’s now a professor of development studies and international relations at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. His most recent book is The Arabs and the Holocaust: The Arab-Israeli War of Narratives. Thanks for joining us, Gilbert.
PROF. GILBERT ACHCAR, SCHOOL OF ORIENTAL AND AFRICAN STUDIES: Thank you, Paul. My pleasure.
JAY: So talk a bit–first of all, do you agree with this description, that Egypt is in fact essentially a military dictatorship?
ACHCAR: Of course, essentially. I mean, it has been like that since 1952. It has been basically a country where the backbone of the political power is the military. Of course, it has taken more of a civilian facade in the last few decades, but the real center of power remains the army.
JAY: So in 1952 this is essentially the coup led by the then middle rank officer Nasser overthrowing the king. Give us a sense of the arc of history. Take us from there to today.
ACHCAR: Well, by a kind of historical coincidence, if you go back to the year 1952, this is a year that started with a major day of riots and fire in Cairo. That was on 26 January 1952. And by, I mean, historical coincidence, the events this time start on 25 January. So that was an indication of the ripeness of the situation for something. That was really a very explosive situation: very sharp social contradictions, a lot of discontent, a very hated monarchy, /loUz/ monarchy, British domination. So a huge resentment. And on top of all that, of course, the resentment created by the war of Palestine in 1948 and the defeat of the Arab armies, including the Egyptian army, in that war. So, all that created a very unstable situation. The country already, after ’45, had gone through a wave of social struggle, which peaked in 1946. Now, in terms of political forces [that] you had, I mean, the workers movement was quite weak. The organized workers movement in the country was quite weak. What could be described as the liberal party was rather, I mean, discredited and unable to lead any mass uprising. The major organized political force that existed was already at that time the Muslim Brotherhood. So you can see a lot of repetition, actually, in history. And the end result of all that was that the army moved forward and seized power. But that was not the army. We have to be clear on the fact that that was, I mean, actually a group of officers that organized within the army. They called themselves the Free Officers. And that was a committee representing more or less all the major political currents within the Egyptian opposition. So you had people among them close to the Muslim Brotherhood, to people close to the communists, and nationalists in between, and even a few liberal figures at the beginning.
JAY: Alright. Gilbert, back up just a sec. For viewers that aren’t too aware of this history, talk about the issue of the Suez Canal, what was at stake, that the–the extent to which Britain and France had, you know, control of this region, and why the Suez was so important.
ACHCAR: Well, that came later, the issue of the Suez Canal. I mean, of course, that was an old nationalist demand–or normal national demand, I would say, in Egypt by the national movement, because the Suez Canal is such a vital economic artery for Egypt that they thought that it didn’t–I mean, it wasn’t correct, it wasn’t right that it belonged to foreign interests. But actually the new regime that came to power in ’52, and when even after Nasser took over in 1954 and he became the president, ’54–for the first two years someone else was at the head of–I mean officially at the head of the state. He–it is not before 1956 that he nationalized the Suez Canal. And that came also after the failure of attempts to get US aid, actually, for economic projects in Egypt. And finally, I mean, the government, faced with the conditions put by the United States, the reluctance of United States to give it aid, and also the fact that they couldn’t even get arms, which they needed, finally decided to nationalize the Suez Canal in 1956. And that led to the tripartite aggression against Egypt waged by Britain, France, and Israel. The three of them attacked Egypt. And, well, that ended with them having to withdraw with a few conditions, but under international pressure, including that of the United States at that time. Both Moscow and Washington made pressure on the three countries to withdraw from Egypt. And Nasser came out of that as a major hero for not only the Egyptians but all the Arab people, and beyond the Arab world, actually, as one of the key heroes of the–what used to be called–it started [to] be calling at that time the Third World.
JAY: And again, for people that don’t understand the geography here, the Suez Canal was the central route for oil tankers moving oil from the Arabian Gulf oil fields to Europe. In fact, I would expect, at that time at least, it was the majority of Europe’s oil would’ve been traveling through the Suez. So it had enormous strategic interests for England and France, but also for the United States, who wants to start to control the world by controlling the Middle East oil supply.
ACHCAR: Absolutely. That’s absolutely the case. And it remained so until 1967, when it had to be closed as a result of the war, the June 1967 Arab-Israeli War. And it remained closed for quite a long time, and tankers were developed to go, you know, around Africa. And that diminished somewhat the importance of the canal. But when it was reopened, it–I mean, it recovered part of its importance, and it’s one of the major sources of income for Egypt.
JAY: So, as you say, the beginning of the military regime is the coup that overthrows the king in 1952. Nasser emerges as a nationalist hero who, if I understand correctly, sort of plays the Soviet Union and the United States off against each other to some extent, at least more independent than others in the Middle East. What happens to Nasser? And then what happens to the character of the military regime?
ACHCAR: Well, this is–I mean, Nasser took over in ’54. He, I mean, nationalized the Suez Canal in ’56 and had his first war, with him at the head of the state, against Israel. But he–I mean, his–one of his major projects was Arab unification, because he was an Arab nationalist–more than an Egyptian nationalist, he was an Arab nationalist. And there has been an attempt at creating what was called the United Arab Republic by the union of Egypt and Syria, but that was relatively short-lived. It ended in ’61. During that time, there has been a gradual radicalization of the Nasserite regime. It started, I mean, at the beginning, with a, let’s say, fairly relatively moderate, democratic (in the social sense, not in the political sense) kind of program that is a certain degree of agrarian reform, what at the beginning was rather moderate, and some national aspirations. So sovereignty, agrarian reform, I mean, the removal of the old land-based classes, that was the initial program. And gradually this government went into gradual encroachments in capitalist property in Egypt, starting with foreign property at the time of the Suez Canal. And later on, most of foreign investments in Egypt were nationalized. And later on, in the early ’60s, that moved to local capital. And the government proclaimed socialism in the early ’60s and started defining itself as socialist, renamed the ruling party the Socialist Union, the Arab Socialist Union. And that was seen, you know, from Washington as a kind of equivalent of what was happening in Cuba, what’s happened in Cuba, you know, after Fidel Castro seized power and revolutionaries took power in ’59. Well, a couple of years later the revolution had proclaimed itself socialist, and even adopted Marxism in Cuban case, which is not the case, was never the case in the Egyptian case, where it was rather what used to be called–what has been called at that time “Arab socialism”. They wanted to have their own brand of socialism in the same way that you had in that same period of history African socialism in some Sub-Saharan African countries and the like.
JAY: What was Nasser’s relationship with the more dominant members of the Egyptian elite, non-nonmilitary elite?
ACHCAR: Well, they practically–I mean, the military regime, well, started by substituting itself politically to the former ruling class and to whichever class was dominant, the economically dominant class in Egypt. But then, a few years later, this substitution moved from the political realm into the economic realm, where actually they even took over economically and the economy became completely dominated by state capitalism, that is, the public sector, a very sweeping nationalization of the industry, which became, I mean, almost completely nationalized, except marginally remaining a marginal–a relatively marginal private sector when it comes to the industry. So, you know, at that time in the ’60s you had debates even among Marxists about whether to–I mean, how to describe this country of Egypt. Was it the equivalent of what you had in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, or even Cuba or other countries? Was it, you know, this kind of socialism? Or was it something different because of the different ideology, because there was no commitment to suppress private property as such as a principle, and because the government still spoke of the union of classes and of popular forces? But it was indeed a very radical experience, one of the most radical experiences led by nationalists, short of those which were led by communists in other countries, like China or Vietnam or the rest. If you take nationalist-led experiences, there’s no doubt that the Egyptian one has been historically one of the most radical, if not the most radical.
JAY: Now, there’s a quote from President Eisenhower where he talks about using the alliance with the Saudi family, Saudi royal family, and their defense of Mecca to spread Wahhabism throughout the Middle East, and one of the objects is to fight Nasserism. So how does the US deal with Nasser?
ACHCAR: Yes, absolutely. I mean, once–you know, after the turn of the regime towards the [inaudible] opening up the regime towards the Soviet Union, which started in the mid-’50s with arms imports and gradually deepened, the country, seen from Washington, as I said, became another Cuba. You know, that was seen by Washington as some kind of communist state and closely allied to the Soviet Union, so part of the Soviet system. And the United States faced Egypt through its main region–and oldest regional ally, which is the Saudi Kingdom, which we shouldn’t forget, every time, that the Saudi Kingdom is by far the most undemocratic, the most anti-women, the most obscurantist and fundamentalist state of the whole region, and that compared to Saudi Kingdom, Iran, even Iran is a beacon of democracy and women’s liberation. And so this state, which has been, which is the oldest ally of the United States in the region, it’s really a US protectorate. I call that in one of my books an Islamic Texas. It’s the real 52nd state of the United States of America–well, the 51st. The Saudi Kingdom was–I mean, the–instrumental in the alliance with the United States in trying to fight Nasserism. And that went through support to the Muslim Brotherhood, which–who were repressed by Nasser in 1954 after an attempt at assassinating him, and who–the Muslim Brotherhood became Nasser’s most bitter enemy. I mean, his fiercest enemy were the Muslim Brotherhood, and they were backed by the Saudi Kingdom and by the CIA and the United States.
JAY: Yeah. This is of course one of–this is one of the great ironies of this whole current war on terrorism rhetoric, that so much of this Islamic extremist radical movement was nurtured and brought into being by the US and the Saudis to fight Nasserism and other forms of Arab nationalism.
ACHCAR: Absolutely. I mean, the United States has been instrumental in producing the kind of political cycle that prevailed after the ’70s and through which Islamic fundamentalist organizations and movements became the main forces in the–at least in the mass opposition in the Arab world. But that is a result of two decades of fight by the United States against any kind of progressive current, secular or whatever you want to call it, any kind of left-wing current in the region, and fighting them through the use of Islam, of the Muslim Brotherhood, of the Saudi Kingdom, and a whole range of Islamic fundamentalist organization. And this kind, you know, of line followed by Washington ended relatively recently, because the last major example or illustration of this same line is the war in Afghanistan against the Soviet Union. I mean, everybody knows how the United States also there, I mean, used Islamic fundamentalist forces in alliance with the Saudi Kingdom again and the Pakistani dictatorship in fighting the Soviet occupation of the country.
JAY: And, of course, the alliance with the Saudis is as close as ever. Gilbert, let’s pick this up in part two of our interview about the rise of the current military state of Egypt. Please join us for part two of this interview on The Real News Network.
End of Transcript
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