Lessons from Egypt's Past Could Prompt Optimism for the Future

Recent Egyptian history, therefore, provides a model for overcoming a protracted period of uncertainty, a disruptive military presence in politics, a growing Islamist movement and a deteriorating economy.

Max Reibman [2010] is a Gates Cambridge Scholar doing a PhD in History.

Amid a drawn-out civil war in Syria, sectarian tensions across Libya and Bahrain and a stalled political process in Yemen, Egypt has emerged among its neighbour states as a paradox of post-revolutionary change in the 'Arab World'. Egypt has not devolved into civil war, but almost two years after the initial uprisings in Tahrir Square, Egyptian politics remains chained to the edge of a precipice. Charges of widespread intimidation, voter fraud and the absence of international monitors discredited the recent constitutional referendum. The Muslim Brotherhood-backed constitution passed but only by the slimmest of margins and was rejected outright by voters in Cairo and throughout the Delta governorates of Monufia and Gharbia.

Worsening the political dislocations, Egypt's economic woes remain unresolved. When demonstrations erupted last November in response to pre-referendum manoeuvring, the government halted a set of austerity measures designed to lay the groundwork for a pending $4.8 billion IMF assistance package. The end of the year witnessed a further run on the Egyptian pound and commercial banks and exchange bureaux are increasingly unable to service clients with US dollars.

Social and sectarian divisions enshroud these prevailing cleavages. The crowds that convened in the Coptic-heavy district of Heliopolis last November were predominantly Christian. Media reports fixated on the 'affluence' of the protestors and their 'middle class' demographic, juxtaposing them against the 'baladi' character of regime supporters. 'Baladi' is a catch-all term in Egyptian Arabic. It refers generally to ordinary, working people, but more precisely means 'folk'. Cynics labelled the protestors 'bultagiyyeen', or thugs.

Regionally, a dismal geopolitical forecast continues to weigh in adversely on questions of capital flight and trade imbalances. On-going neighbouring conflicts highlight Egypt's inability to assume its traditional role as an arbiter of intra-Arab disputes and fuel speculation about continued uncertainty and the prospect of violence within Egypt's own borders.

And yet, despite all of these indicators, the reasons for optimism are compelling. The many challenges, in fact, are not unique to the aftermath of the 2011 uprisings. They resemble notable flashpoints in Egyptian history and none more so than the chaotic and prolonged struggle surrounding independence in 1922. Far more so than the Revolution of 1952 and Nasser's subsequent crafting of an effective one-party system, early twentieth century Egypt saw multiple and disparate players vie for the lead role on Egypt's changing political and social stage.


Like today, Egypt's political scene following World War I was intensely complex. Similar to the regional upheavals that accompanied the uprisings from Tunisia to the Gulf in early 2011, the end of the war reconfigured the former Ottoman Middle East and realigned the region according to new British and French colonial regimes, the Mandates. As the Peace Conference convened in Paris to settle the post-war territorial and economic questions, Egypt's leading statesmen lobbied for a say in the deliberations, but were rebuffed by their British overseers. Egypt's most visible nationalist agitators, including Saad Zaghloul Pasha, were arrested and deported to the island of Malta in early March 1919.

Rallying to the defence of their leaders, Egyptians initiated widespread strikes and demonstrations that rocked the governing British regime. As in 2011, immediate political catalysts triggered the Revolution of 1919, but Egypt's crippled economy, reeling from years of wartime hardships, accounted for much of the instability. In an effort to guarantee supplies to its army, Britain shut down the Alexandria Bourse and attempted to set price controls on major staples and commodities. Inflation soared, however, to 200 per cent. Camels and livestock were requisitioned in the provinces while urban workers experienced wage cuts and struggled with food shortages over the course of the war. On the eve of the upheavals of 1919, Egypt's economic predicament was dire.

To control the emerging protests, Britain deployed army units reinforced by military police to safeguard Egypt's main transportation routes and garrison its larger towns and cities. Shirking discipline, the colonial troops responded violently to the political turmoil, attacking doctors in Heliopolis, pillaging shops and houses in Cairo and burning an entire village near Zagazig in the Delta, among scores of other crimes and atrocities.

The violence backfired. It strengthened the resolve of Egypt's nationalist movement which eventually won concessions from a British colonial government impaired and weakened financially from the effects of the war. Britain was forced to compromise and, despite its flaws, the constitution granted to Egypt in 1922 set the parameters for parliamentary elections and awarded the country a degree of autonomy unseen since Britain's occupation began in 1882. Although the ensuing system was not immune to further pressures and personal rivalries - including the appearance of the Muslim Brotherhood as a force in local politics and the growing rift between Zaghloul Pasha and his chief adversary, Ismail Sidqi - it functioned relatively unencumbered through the interwar period and oversaw an expansion and stabilisation of the economy.

Recent Egyptian history, therefore, provides a model for overcoming a protracted period of uncertainty, a disruptive military presence in politics, a growing Islamist movement and a deteriorating economy. If imperfect, the period that emerged following the aftermath of World War I in Egypt was unprecedented for its transparency and promotion of civil society. Egypt's contemporary revolutionaries would do well to study it.

Picture credit: Creative Commons and LimerickStudent.


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