Welcome to another edition of “What’s the Deal?”, the blog that puts its revolutionary theory of picture jokes and current event puns into practice.
In this week’s blog, we’ll discuss this week’s massive protests and military crackdown in Egypt over the transition from the reign of Hosni Mubarak to an elected government and what a martial law rule over Egypt means for the Revolution. We’ll take a look at Egypt’s history and see how we arrived at this tumultuous year and what other former counter-revolutionary movements resemble the Egyptian military crackdown.
The protesters gathered in the tens of thousands in Tahrir square for the seventh straight
day demanding a voice in government with free and fair elections with civillian leaders. This is not February 2011 however, and the protesters have long dispensed with Hosni Mubarak. Now, the massive protests are fed up with the military controlled transitional government that has continued to delay elections of public officials and adopting a new Constitution. The transitional government is currently ruled by several military Generals in a council led by Mohamed Hussein Tantawi who had joined with the protesters back in February to help oust Mubarak (Tantawi was Mubarak’s Defense Minister, and many considered him to be a potential Mubarak replacement). Their response to the protests has been anything but democratic; a brutal crackdown that has left 38 dead and 2000 injured so far, and has caused international leaders and organizations to condemn the tight-fisted control on power.
Having a singular strong military leader is nothing new for Egypt. Since the ancient dynasties, *autocratic rule with a military leader has been the norm and popular elections have not been a part of Egyptian political life. It is easy to see the tendency for Egypt to remain with a military leader in power just because *those with power are not always apt to break with tradition.
To understand Egypt’s position, it’s helpful to take a look at this tradition of military leaders starting with a period of anarchy in Egypt where several peoples were grappling for control of Egypt. After kicking out Napoleon’s forces in 1801, Ottomans, Mamluks, and Albanians struggled to gain power of the Egyptian region, which was still nominally still part of the weakening Ottoman Empire. Eventually an Albanian military leader, Muhammad Ali, emerged the powerful figure and was nominated to be the Ottoman viceroy in Egypt. As Ottoman power receded, Ali was not in reality a subordinate of the Ottoman Empire, but a ruler of an independent Egyptian territory. During his rule, he used his military prowess to annex territory in Africa that expanded the Ottoman reach. The Ali dynasty continued into the 20th century, but lost significant reach and power when the British bought the Egyptian share of the Suez Canal in 1875, a huge portion of national income.
British and French controllers imposed their power as bondholders and sat in the Egyptian cabinet. The new “economic” protectorate of Britain officially became a British protectorate in 1914. Nationalist movements appeared for the first time in 1879 in response to European influence on the Ali dynasty which was powerless to resist because of their economic attachment. This resistance led to a revolt to rid Egypt of a foreign yolk and was successful with the British declaring the independence of Egypt in February 1922 (February theme may appear again). A constitution was drafted and a Parliament created with a King as executive leader, a constitutional democracy. British influence remained however, as they still had control of the Suez Canal and extended into 1954. A key decision by the Egyptian government came after the 1936 Anglo-Egyptian treaty that allowed sons of non-aristocratic families (non-elite) into the military academy. This provided an avenue to political power for military officers; something that would be important in shaping Egypt’s future.
The event in Egyptian history that is a great example to think about when you look at what is occurring now, is the Revolution of 1952, or the Blessed Movement. With support from the U.S. and U.S.S.R. to oust British control of the Suez for good, a group of Egyptian Military leaders called the “Free Officers Movement” carried out a coup dé tat that not only got rid of King Farouk, but created an independent Sudan (which had also been a British protectorate) and dissembled the constitutional monarchy based on highly nationalistic and anti-imperialist policy. The transitional government, the Revolution Command Council (RCC) made up of military officers including Nasser and Anwar el Sadat, declared that a three year transition period would exist in Egypt with no other political parties allowed until a constitution and elections could be held.
The transition government under Nasser was heavily protested by the Muslim Brotherhood (evoking scenes similar to this year), mostly because it signaled a continuation of secular government. Nasser rose to prominence within the RCC and became RCC Chairman and eventually Prime Minister in 1953. In 1954, the RCC set out to completely gain control of the Suez mounting attacks on the British and French troops who remained. A 20 month evacuation treaty was signed and by June of 1956, the Egyptian flag was now flying over the Suez.
Nasser then announced the formation in 1956 of a new constitution and election process and the former military leader was elected President. After Nasser’s death in 1970, he was succeeded by his military colleague Anwar al-Sadat. Sadat was assassinated in 1980 and succeeded by Hosni Mubarak who of course governed Egypt until January 29th of this year. Mubarak himself was the Chief of Staff of the Air Force and played a pivotal role in the October War in 1973 to regain the Sinai Peninsula and the Golan Heights from Israel. (territory lost in the 1967 war). This leads us to the military council of today’s Egypt that has delayed election of civilians and in effect, refusing to give up the military control until 2013, a two year period to regain complete political control
So what can we summarize from this (too) brief description of Egypt’s history and leadership from the modern era?
- Egypt has a long history of military leaders (Ali, Nasser, Sadat, and Mubarak) that have consolidated power for themselves in long term reigns
- Military leaders have been reluctant to relinquish their power
- to oust foreign control and regain territory, strong military leaders took the leadership role for Egypt
- the military transition council governing Egypt since the February Revolution mirrors the RCC from the 1952 revolution
In looking at the crackdown by the military and police (tools grown and put in place by Mubarak and now used by Tantawi), we can effectively label this a counter-revolution: action by a group in power to suppress a popular movement, often occurring after an initial change of power. It’s interesting to examine other examples of counter-revolution and compare them to Egypt so we can understand why this is occurring and speculate as to what might occur next.
The best example of a counter-revolution is the suppression of the Kronstadt rebellion in 1921 occurring after the Russian Revolution. After over two years of civil war, the marxist ideals of the revolution had not been implemented, and many people around the newly formed Soviet Russia were starving and had no democratic voice. A group of sailors on the Naval island base of Kronstadt, just outside St. Petersburg (Petrograd) decided to act when they saw worker revolts in the Petrograd factories. The sailors drew up a makeshift constitution (Petropavlovsk) with a series of demands (mostly democratic elections and a voice for the individual in the workplace group (Soviet). The sailors were counting on the workers from Petrograd to join in their revolt and newly formed mini-democracy.
The workers didn’t join them as they were threatened by Bolshevik leaders that more than their job was at stake, and bribed with imported chocolates, bread, and given false rumors that the Kronstadt sailors were French backed White soldiers (former Russian military officers who had fought back against the Bolsheviks). Trotsky (then the chief of the Red Army) ordered the Red Army to cross the ice to the island to take the base by force, eventually killing many people and torturing and imprisoning many others for their acts “against the state.”
The Bolshevik argument for why democratic ideals and promises from the October Revolution were not in place was that in a Marxist Revolution there needs to be a transition period to the Utopian society of freedom for all with a strong central state, a “dictatorship of the Proletariat” to implement a classless society (you know, along with a Civil War that had been raging for 2 years and a wrecked economy). Revolutionary theory is obviously very different in Egypt, but we should take a couple of things from the Kronstadt revolt and counter-revolt:
- Freedom and democracy (ie. free and fair elections decided by the people) have not been implemented as promised.
- the governing bodies want a longer transition period (at least that’s what they say they want).
- the suppression of both Egyptian and Russian uprisings by the transitional government was done via violence through the military.
As the proposed election day in Egypt on this coming Monday approaches and the protests grow, it will be interesting to see if there will be another deal made between the military council and politicians. Clearly, the populace was not pleased with the mediocre deal struck between the Muslim Brotherhood and the council that (on Monday’s election) would hold general elections for civilians, but not carry any real transition power, as the military council would still hold ultimate control.
Tantawi and the council’s choice of Kamal el-Ganzoury as the new Prime Minister on thursday won’t do anything to placate the minds of the protesters. Mr. el-Ganzoury is a bureaucrat who worked for Mubarak as a former Lieutenant and is seen as a puppet to serve the military council, who as we mentioned is not done shaping Egypt’s future yet. Even if the elections continue as planned on Monday, the protests will not be curbed. There will likely be similar violence to the post-1952 revolution transition days, but violence and brutality can be halted against the protesters if the international community speaks out more forcefully.
Egypt’s history has produced several military leaders who have ruled for *long periods of time by *suppressing freedoms and political parties, perhaps out of the fallout from colonialism and the need to regain territory, they have felt that a *strong government and military capable of protecting its resources was vital. The mass mobilization of people and communication were the real movers of change in Egypt in 2011, even if they needed the force of the military to back them up. Now that the Revolution produced an opportunity for a government for the people, Mubarak’s former colleagues should create one right away and not continue their old ways. Otherwise, the military and protesters are headed for round 2.
(Author’s Note: this article is not attempting to explain every regime as one singular type of rule; obviously they all had their nuances and so forth, and my explanation leaves out some of the great social and national reforms that took place. I also don’t try and explain Egypt’s involvement with Israel and the Arab League, because I don’t have that much free time, #funemployment. What this article does try to discuss is how a series of strong military leaders may be a cause of the counter-revolution.)
Well, hope it was an insightful one! You know, I’ve found that there’s more to life than making shallow, fairly obvious observations… and that’s why I only write this blog part time.
Your Faithful Historian,
Eric G. Prileson
Forging Democracy, Geoff Eley
the Kronstadt Rebellion, Ida Mett
Leon Trotsky, “Hue and Cry over Kronstadt” <http://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1938/01/kronstadt.htm>
Emma Goldman, My two years in Russia