Informative article

February 2, 2011

In News

Egypt’s contemporary history is full of popular revolts that united political spectrums in the face of oppression.

Whether marching through the streets of Cairo or entrenched in the presidential palace, Egyptians would do well to learn from their past.

In January 1977, Anwar Sadat faced popular demonstrations that threatened to put an end to his rule.

In his push for economic liberalisation, or infitah, Sadat enacted stipulations by the International Monetary Fund to lift government subsidies on more than two dozen basic commodities, including flour and oil. In Egypt, bread is called ‘aish, the Arabic word for “life”, and the resulting Bread Riots reflected the state’s assault on the basic means of survival for millions of Egyptians.

At the height of the two-day protests, which featured tens of thousands of people taking to the streets of every major Egyptian city, Sadat saw the end in sight.

While departing Aswan in upper Egypt, he was approached by his military guard to escort him to the presidential helicopter. Sadat believed he was being placed under arrest, and told his presumed captors not to forget all that he had done for Egypt.

Astonished, the guards told Sadat that he was still their president and that they had only come to see his safe return to Cairo. By the end of the following day, the protests were broken up by a combination of military intervention, widespread curfews, and an unrelenting stance taken by Sadat (although he also announced the reinstatement of the subsidies).

Sadat condemned what he called the “Thieves’ Uprising”, and never faced another popular outburst of that magnitude.

A rich Egyptian history of kefaya

During the past three decades, countless commentators have lamented (or in some cases, lauded) the lack of popular action in Egypt against an increasingly authoritarian regime that by all accounts has failed to develop the country.

There was something exceptional about Egyptians, we were told. Their patience and uncanny ability to withstand perpetual political repression and economic stagnation seemed to defy all odds.

Cultural arguments pointed to their pliant and acquiescent nature. These false explanations are, in part, responsible for the shock on the part of many observers at the recent events unfolding in Egypt.

What would elsewhere be a completely logical outgrowth of a particular political context – popular uprising against three decades of tyrannical rule – is instead treated as an anomaly in Egypt.

In fact, Egyptians have a rich legacy of popular outcry in the face of political failure on the part of their leaders.

Prior to the Free Officers Revolution of 1952, which resulted in the overthrow of King Farouk I, observers could gauge the political winds in Egypt by studying the crowds at the central square in downtown Cairo as much as they could by following developments in parliament or the royal palace.

In February 1946, thousands of Egyptians protested the lack of a fair constitution that guaranteed their political rights. As they marched over the Abbas Bridge, police raised the bridge on the protesters, leaving many of them to fall into the Nile or get trampled in the stampede.

The mobility of youth

Cairo’s streets are overwhelmingly populated by young people in the current protests, but Egyptian youth were always instrumental to the popular opposition. Anti-government student protests in the mid-1930s were a humbling experience for the leading political parties and movements, as liberals, communists, Wafdists, and the Muslim Brotherhood were forced to put aside their differences and come together under the banner of the United Front at the urging of the young picketers.

These protests were responsible for multiple changes in leadership during a volatile political era, and the widespread discontent ultimately paved the way for the revolution in 1952.

Even the charismatic revolutionary hero Gamal Abdel Nasser was not exempt from the wrath of popular opposition. In the late 1960s, he faced repeated popular protests over the lack of accountability of military officials responsible for Egypt’s defeat in the June 1967 war with Israel.

As many student leaders from the era recall in interviews I previously conducted, however, their protests were as much about wider calls for freedom, democracy, and the restoration of civil and political rights, as they were about the immediate issue of accountability for the defeat.

By early 1968, city buses were stopping in front of Cairo University’s gate to read the banners and signs put up by the student protesters.

The government rerouted public transportation to prevent “ordinary” Egyptians from mixing with the “radicalised” students. Given the size of subsequent protests, however, the distinction existed only in the minds of the regime.

Someone everyone can despise

Another salient feature of Egypt’s protest culture that appears to be lost on most of those observing its latest manifestation is the ideological diversity that unites members of competing political trends in the face of a common foe.

Despite their overt differences, students representing leftist and Islamist groups came together in protest of continued repression by the Nasser and Sadat regimes.

Abdel Moneim Abul Futuh, a student leader in the 1970s who later rose within the leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood, recalls in his memoir that he and many others joined in the 1977 protests, not as members of the Muslim Brotherhood, but as concerned Egyptian citizens joining “a wave of anger and frustration sweeping the country in opposition to the government’s policy.”

It is the Egyptian regime that attempts to divide the protest movement by painting it with a broad brush.

Just as Hosni Mubarak’s initial response to the January 25 protest was to blame the Muslim Brotherhood, Sadat attempted to pin the Bread Riots on communists. In response, the international media has disputed Mubarak’s claims.

However, those who say that there is a lack of Muslim Brotherhood presence in the streets today miss the point: the grievances raised by these protests are universal, and appeal to all Egyptians regardless of their ideological allegiances.

Abul Futuh’s generation that came of age during the popular protests of the 1970s is now poised to participate in the reshaping of Egypt’s future, as part of an open process that views the bond of citizenship, with all of its ideological, religious, and socioeconomic diversity as transcendent over narrow partisan ties.

The latest round of protests, which surpasses previous ones in the number of accumulated grievances, is also marked by the presence of Egyptians from all walks of life, young and old, professionals and labourers, artists, judges, and intellectuals. Its unity, persistence, and reliance on satellite and social media distinguish it from previous protests, and may be enough to see the latest opposition movement through to victory.

Mubarak: oblivious to reality

Based on Mubarak’s performance over the past week, there has never been an Egyptian president as unable to face reality as he. Just as Sadat assumed he was facing a certain end in 1977, Nasser recognised the possibility of a political crisis in the aftermath of the 1967 defeat, and offered his resignation to the nation.

Ironically, it was a march by tens of thousands of Egyptians through the streets that ensured Nasser would remain president (whether one chooses to believe the marches were orchestrated by the regime or a genuine expression of popular sentiment).

Perhaps more so than either of his predecessors, Mubarak appears to believe the false self-image that has been carefully cultivated over the course of three decades. This delusion situates him as the paternalistic figure at the head of the family, with the leagues of Egyptians as nothing more than petulant children who could not possibly mean what they say when they call for his removal.

Consequently, Mubarak put forward a number of proposed measures, such as his dismissal of the government and appointment of his first ever vice-president, that attempt to placate the protesters without addressing their underlying demand.

How Egyptian protesters will respond to the regime’s continued gestures remains to be seen. But if history is any indication, if the protesters yield, the result is usually far greater repression, not less.

The years after the 1977 protests are universally viewed as Sadat’s most repressive, as he insulated his regime from public criticism, reintroduced university guards onto Egypt’s campuses, and became increasingly authoritarian.

During the remainder of his rule, political and socioeconomic conditions in Egypt worsened dramatically, and Sadat himself became the country’s most unpopular ruler in recent memory. Perhaps until now.

Abdullah Al-Arian is a doctoral candidate in the department of history at Georgetown University.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.