By Osama Diab
In the final days of 2011, Egypt witnessed a crackdown on human rights organisations, while the ousted president Hosni Mubarak and his sons awaited a trial that seems more likely to be decided in the court of public opinion than through a fair trial. If you believe that history repeats itself, it might be time to revisit Egypt’s history to see what it can tell us about how the situation may unfold in 2012.
Attacks on a police station on 25 January 1952 ( a notable date, it seems) by the British forces in Ismailia sparked a popular uprising in the form of nationwide riots which set the stage for a military coup on 23 July, which became known as the1952 revolution. To commemorate the 50 police officers who died while resisting British occupation, 25th January was named Police Day and declared an official holiday in 2009. Fast-forward 59 years, where the once revered police has become a symbol of a corrupt and brutal ruling elite. On this 25 January 2011, people took to the streets not to defend the national police, but to protest against its brutality and corruption.
Despite the different motives for each uprising, the outcome was similar: a council of military officers took power to administer a transitional period. In 1952, a Revolutionary Command Council (RCC) of 14 middle-ranking military officers who conducted the coup took over running the country until 1956. Although the Free Officers had promised free and fair democratic elections, the RCC decided that they would be better able to run the transition if there were no political parties or a parliament. In 1953, they took the decision to dissolve all political parties including al-Wafd, which was the major political force for the three decades prior to 1952.
Today’s Ruling Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) is unlikely to tighten its grip on power in the same way. Wide-scale nationalisation and the global rise of socialism allowed the RCC to gain economic and political power their contemporary equivalents are unlikely to hold, and the scale of organised popular protest in 1952 was far more limited than today. However, the armed forces still enjoys many of the economic advantages they gained in 1952 and continue to use similar techniques to crackdown on building a healthy democratic life that threatens not only their privileges, but their whole existence.
When the military police raided local and international human rights organisations that have been active in both pre- and post-revolution Egypt in uncovering and documenting government (and now military) human rights abuses, the army justified its actions with the same argument used to dissolve political parties on 16 January 1953: “suspicion” that these organisations received illegal foreign funds. And the reason: after political parties were tamed by successive regimes in Egypt, civil society represents the biggest challenge to Egypt’s authoritarian rulers.
Another striking similarity is that both the SCAF and the RCC have been intolerant of labour strikes, protests and sit-ins. Shortly after 1952, two 18-year-old labour activists were sentenced to death, less than three weeks after the armed forces took over power, for taking part in a strike in the delta city of Kafr al-Dawar before a military court. Even though no one was executed in the aftermath of the 2011 revolution, the SCAF has nevertheless passed a law to criminalise protests, strikes and sit-ins that “that interrupt private or state owned businesses or affect the economy in any way”.
The role of the Muslim Brotherhood in both transitions was also very similar: allying itself with the military ruling council, while ignoring the military crackdown on media, civil society and political organisations. In both revolutions, the Muslim Brotherhood has been employed to disengage protests and break up sit-ins. In 1953, the Muslim Brotherhood silently watched the dissolution of all “counter-revolutionary” political parties on 17 January because the Islamist group hoped to run the country or at least co-run Egypt with the RCC.
This time round, the Muslim Brotherhood is repeating the same timeworn trick. They have been cautious to criticise the SCAF’s actions and grave human rights violations. They have hardly taken part in any major demonstration called for by other political groups against military police brutality, and their reaction to the crackdown on human rights organisations has been mild.
The military-brotherhood honeymoon period ended shortly after the 1952 revolution when they clashed over Egypt’s new constitution, and the Brotherhood was itself dissolved on 29 October 1954 after the regime accused it of attempting to assassinate then President Gamal Abdul Nasser (which the Brotherhood would try to do on numerous occasions), and many of their leaders were either sentenced to death or put in jail for long sentences. They had fallen into a trap of their own making. They were a victim of the absolute power and authority they contributed to produce.
The army was aiming for an Arab socialist, secular constitution while the brotherhood obviously wanted more Islamic law in it. It is expected that a similar clash will emerge between the military council and Egypt’s Islamist forces. Early signs of this clash already emerged back in November when Islamist groups took to the street for the first time to oppose the SCAF’s supra-constitutional governing principles that aim to grant the military political powers many have defined as illegitimate.
The story of Abdel-Qader Ouda exemplifies how conspiring to share power and halting the democratic process is not the best idea, even for the conspirators involved. Ouda, a Muslim Brotherhood judge and jurist, was asked by the military rulers of the time to help disperse a large protest in front of the Abdeen presidential palace in March 1954. This judge who was used by the military regime to calm down angry protesters was sentenced to death by the same regime along with other Brotherhood members after being accused of the alleged attempt to assassinate Nasser a few months later.
However, despite the striking similarities, there are still a few major differences. Even though there is no reason to believe that the contemporary military junta are more well-intentioned or moderate, in the circumstances surrounding the new revolution, they face more pressure and challenges that will hinder them from committing such acts as executing political leaders and labour activists.
The SCAF, unlike the revolutionary RCC, is the established order and, hence, lacks the vision that can empower it to win the heart and minds of the Egyptian people despite its abuses. Unimaginatively, today’s generals only seem to have the obsolete argument of stability, whereas the RCC carried out almost immediate reform, such as land redistribution and free education, and took considerable steps towards building a more equal society.
Armed with $1.3 billion in US military aid, Egypt’s SCAF seem to care more about its image abroad than did the RCC, which was quite clearly in a clash with the West anyway. For example, they immediately retreated after the US expressed “deep concern” over the recent crackdown on human rights organisation.
In addition, the emergence of the Tahrir mindset among the masses and the so-called “Facebook generation” of activists acting as a watchdog over the transitional process and who will not hesitate to take to the streets again if they sense any diversion from the path to democracy has severely restricted the army’s freedom of manoeuvre. This generation is equipped with tools its predecessors did not possess, such as online citizen journalism, and despite so many hurdles along the way, they don’t willing to give up on their battle any time soon. While the SCAF defines the revolution as the 18-day protest that ended with the ouster of former president Hosni Mubarak, the youth of the revolution still believe it to be an ongoing struggle.