After 200 years of strife, who will win the battle for Egypt?

The removal of its Islamist leader in July 2013 has left the leading Arab nation riven by opposing factions. It’s the latest episode of a battle of ideas going back two centuries, reports Chris Bowlby

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The removal of President Mohammed Morsi has left Egypt poised between very different futures: transition to a more stable democracy, say the optimists; permanent instability or even civil war, fear the pessimists.

What everyone agrees on is how much Egypt matters. It is the most populous Arab nation, a pivotal country in the Middle East and a place where assumptions about the historical change promised by the ‘Arab Spring’ are now being tested acutely. Most immediately, there is now a confrontation on the streets between key institutions and movements – army, Islamists and secular campaigners – who have long contested Egyptian power.

This is also a battle of ideas with deeper and wider roots than outsiders might assume. In his book The Arabs: A History, Eugene Rogan focuses on an Egyptian Muslim cleric, Rifa al-Tahtawi, who returned from a stay in France in 1826–31 to write a critique for Egyptians of French society. While he disliked what he saw as a lack of religious belief, he admired French ideas of justice and equity, guiding “both rulers and their subjects,” which led to such advantages as “knowledge increased” and “wealth accumulated”. His analysis challenged Egypt’s colonial and local rulers as well as its religious movements.

Visible here are themes still hotly debated in Egypt today – and that debate continued in a vigorous press. There were over 160 newspapers and journals established in the last quarter of the 19th century alone, ancestors perhaps of the bloggers so active
in Egypt recently.

By the 1920s there was an Egyptian nationalist movement, the Wafd, hoping to exploit opportunities for national self-determination after the First World War. Women played a marked role in organising and demonstrating against British rule. But the 1920s also saw the creation of the Muslim Brotherhood, central to today’s events as Mr Morsi’s movement, to fight against western influence in Egypt but also against what it saw as the erosion of Islamic values.

Professor Rogan describes how one of its most influential figures, Sayyid Qutb, sent on a scholarship to the USA in the 1940s, was shocked by what he saw as “moral laxity”, symbolised by Christian pastors playing sultry songs in their churches. He returned wanting “to protect Egypt… from the moral degeneration he had witnessed”.

But as Egypt did finally shake off British rule, it was not the Islamists who benefited, but a much more secular and military regime under President Nasser. As a young army officer he helped plot the overthrow of King Farouq in 1952, to considerable popular acclaim. The Egyptian army had embodied an idea of Egyptian identity as far back as the time when the country was ruled by the Ottomans.

Now it presented itself as guardian of the nation’s values and security, with Nasser’s defiance of Britain, France and Israel over 1956’s Suez crisis being a key moment. Egypt’s military rulers promised benefits for the masses while exploiting their power to create their own economy, complete with factories and interests ranging from the oil business to the Suez Canal.

Radical opposition

The Muslim Brotherhood, meanwhile, was banned under Nasser. It was harassed constantly by the authorities and, in 1966, Qutb was executed. Islamic radicals saw Nasser and his successors as ‘pharaohs’, figures who placed man’s law ahead of religion. “I have killed pharaoh” shouted one of the assassins who shot President Sadat during a military parade in Cairo in 1981. Hostility had grown after Sadat signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1979.

But Islamic groups were successful grass roots organisers as well as preachers, providing food and social services, contrasting themselves with what they deemed corrupt and incompetent government in the era of Sadat’s successor, Hosni Mubarak. And after Mubarak’s removal in 2011 as huge crowds gathered in Tahrir square and elsewhere, it appeared to be the Brotherhood that would benefit most electorally, provided the army would allow them to rule.

But the Morsi government’s time in power, after his narrow election victory last year, brought great criticism. Competence seemed limited as the economy continued to deteriorate, and the government was accused of failing to accept a pluralist society. Roger Hardy, a Middle East specialist at King’s College London and the LSE, believes its behaviour was coloured by the Brotherhood’s decades as a repressed underground group. This produced “paranoia that is hard to shake off”, which sees “every form of opposition as a conspiracy”.

The army’s latest intervention, meanwhile, tests anew its status in Egypt. Hardy believes that many still see it as “a patriotic force that can save the nation at moments of crisis”. “What we see now”, argues Eugene Rogan, “is how deeply entrenched the military became in the decades since 1952,” always acting “to ensure there aren’t changes in politics that will put their interests in jeopardy.”

And while the army may have removed Morsi from power, adds Rogan, the Brotherhood will remain a powerful presence. That is why attempts to force it back underground “could be so destabilising”.

At worst, there could be more of the violence already seen between the security forces and demonstrators, as well as violent clashes between, say, Muslims and Egypt’s Coptic Christian minority. And what of the outside powers that, over centuries, sought to shape developments in Egypt? In some ways, suggests Roger Hardy, outsiders have “been bystanders” recently.

Many Egyptians suspect otherwise. Nor should we forget, argues Eugene Rogan, that regional powers remain active. Israel watches any developments in Egypt very carefully. Other rulers, fearful of challenges to their own rule by secular or Islamist movements, have their own aims.

Gulf states are currently sending large amounts of financial aid to Egypt, a reminder that, below all the talk of political and religious beliefs, what many Egyptians want most is simply economic improvement. Rifa al-Tahtawi’s fascination nearly two centuries ago with how France achieved prosperity has been as much a priority, a yearning, in Egyptian minds as the question of who wields political power. 

This article was first published in the September 2013 edition of BBC History Magazine.

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