Over the past few days, the demons of history have weighed down on public discussions about the country’s state of affairs and the looming conflicts over the constitution and the presidential elections. The recent quarrel between the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces and the Muslim Brotherhood, triggered by their disagreement over the future of the cabinet and possibly even the presidential race, has elicited fears of a showdown between the army and Egypt’s oldest Islamist organization. The confrontation has caused many to draw parallels with an ostensibly similar moment in Egyptian history in 1954, when the Free Officers led by Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser consolidated their grip on power and began to stamp out their political opponents, including the Muslim Brotherhood. SCAF’s ominous warning to the Brotherhood two days ago to remember “historical lessons in order to avoid the recurrence of mistakes from the past” has been interpreted by analysts as a reference to 1954, raising fears of history repeating itself.
Historical comparison is a fruitful enterprise for contemporary political analysis, and this case is no exception. But 1954 is an interesting reference point for reasons other than those that are normally presumed. Rather than reading SCAF’s statement as an accurate portrayal of the council’s power to create certain outcomes, the statement may be more usefully read as an indicator of the generals’ anxieties about the current political situation. What a comparison with 1954 and the years that followed reveals are significant differences, not similarities, which can be equally instructive in understanding the present moment.
First, the ruling generals today are not the Free Officers. In 1954, there existed a highly politicized band within the Egyptian army that had successfully executed a coup d’etat two years earlier, and a strong faction among them felt empowered to seize longer-term control of the country. The Free Officers understood themselves to be anything but creatures of the regime they displaced. In the years after the coup, they led an attack on the old power holders — the monarchy, large landowners and Wafdist-nationalists — and eventually replaced this ancien regime with a new elite composed of the military and state technocrats. Inspired by ideologies of revolution and social transformation prevalent around the post-colonial world, the officers eventually forged a ruling bargain whereby the majority of society sacrificed their political freedoms in return for the benefits of social welfare and state-led development.
Today, the military council is neither politicized in the same fashion, nor does it see itself as a force for radical change. On the contrary, the generals represent the strongest and most enduring element of Mubarak’s order and wish to protect what they can of the status quo. Far from being a zealous cadre with far-reaching ambitions of power, the generals seem increasingly on the defensive, concerned largely with protecting their interests and privileges in the new Egypt against the tide of political change. And with a sweeping popular desire to break with the past, they hardly possess the ability to enlist mass public support and expand their political authority in the way the Free Officers did.
Second, the state of political mobilization was different then and now. In 1954, the Free Officers were engaged in an internal power struggle that spilled onto the streets. Egyptian political forces were sharply divided, with one segment consisting of the Muslim Brotherhood (who were later neutralized), students, former Wafdists, and some communists and trade union activists supporting General Mohamed Naguib’s calls for a return to parliamentary democracy and the legalization of political parties, and another segment supporting Nasser’s preference for prolonged military rule. In the end, the second group won out, with horrific consequences for the opposition.
No such division exists today. The active supporters of SCAF are a small and feckless minority with almost no potential to garner wider public sympathy. Popular opinion, for the most part, is deeply skeptical of the military council, not least because of the generals’ ties to the former regime and their dereliction during the interim period. Their self-portrayal as disinterested facilitators to democracy quickly began to collapse after Mubarak’s ouster, and since then, a growing number of Egyptians have come to see the military council as a power broker intent on safeguarding its own interests and forestalling any meaningful reforms of state institutions. The mounting disappointment has unleashed one wave after another of protest in major cities against military rule and for a speedier handover of power to civilians.
Third, attitudes towards representative democracy have transformed significantly. In 1954, popular forces that allied with Nasser were deeply resentful toward multi-party democracy, which had been denounced since the 1930s by grassroots political figures as a domain of elite politics. As politicians during the interwar period failed to end British colonial rule, redistribute wealth and engage mass political movements, Egypt’s parliamentary system came to be viewed with widespread suspicion. For many, democracy then became associated with growing social cleavages, a restrictive political and public sphere and limited parliamentarianism that represented the narrow interests of a conservative elite. These grievances were a source of popular frustration that may explain why crowds poured onto the streets of Cairo in March 1954 and chanted “No parties, no democracy.”
By contrast, in 2012, the idea of electoral democracy does not carry a comparable stigma. On the contrary, one of the main demands of the revolution was for more representative forms of government. The failure of the newly elected People’s Assembly, led by the Muslim Brotherhood, to deliver tangible results over the last two months has left many feeling unimpressed. While it’s common to encounter despair over Parliament’s performance — not for reasons of social rank (the current assembly is probably the most un-elite in Egypt’s history) but for reasons of perceived competency — such feelings are often tempered by a more profound wariness of attempts to restore authoritarian rule.
Fourth, the colonial context has changed. The persistence of British rule until the 1952 coup served to rally public support around the Free Officers, who vowed to end Egypt’s subordination to foreign powers. The presence of a clear external enemy helped foster a broad national consensus that effaced differences of class, gender and religion, and stalled demands for domestic political reform. Today, many Egyptians remain cynical about the role of foreign powers in frustrating efforts toward democratic change, and anti-Western sentiments are still common, for good and bad reasons. But to a growing segment of society, Egyptian officials’ claims to be standing up to foreign powers and protecting national sovereignty — most recently deployed in the row over US-funded civil society organizations — have been reduced to mere rhetoric and are unlikely to offset popular desires for internal reform.
It seems highly improbable that a repeat of 1954 is on the horizon. The constellation of political forces today is very different, as are public attitudes and expectations. There are legitimate reasons to worry about what a feud between the two most powerful forces in Egypt — SCAF and the Muslim Brotherhood — may mean for the future of a contentious transition, but a violent purge and the restoration of military rule is probably not one of them. In the worst case, if SCAF did try to dissolve Parliament or forestall the presidential election, it would likely end in more trouble rather than success.
Unlike the Free Officers’ coup, Egypt’s current revolutionary experience has yielded no leaders or groups that are capable of exercising sole control over the country, or determining the shape of the new political system alone. More likely than a decisive victory and the forging of a hegemonic order by any single force is the persistence of negotiations and conflicts between elements of the old ruling establishment, emerging political leaders and parties, and, lest we count them out, popular forces that have set the pace of events for much of the interim period.
Struggle, not mastery, has been the theme of Egyptian politics over the past year, and it is likely to continue being so for some time.
Ahmad Shokr is a doctoral candidate in Middle East history at New York University. He is based in Cairo.