Ashes and roses

Published : Aug 26, 2011 00:00 IST

APRIL 19, 1955: President Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt (right) in conversation with Prime Minister Seif el Islam el Hassen of Yemen during the Asian-African Conference in Bandung. - THE HINDU ARCHIVES

APRIL 19, 1955: President Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt (right) in conversation with Prime Minister Seif el Islam el Hassen of Yemen during the Asian-African Conference in Bandung. - THE HINDU ARCHIVES

The Egyptian revolution of 1952 has a historical relevance in the post-Mubarak era.

A REVOLUTION that was 30 years in the making divided an army and toppled a discredited and corrupt regime which, despite regular rigged elections, was little more than a dictatorship and one of the linchpins of the West in preserving its strategic interests in West Asia. When the overthrow of the regime came in the dead of night, it was cheered by millions whose support had made it possible.

The Egyptian revolution, described above, occurred on July 23, 1952, when a group of nationalist military officers communists, Islamists and neutralists among them overthrew the regime of King Farouk and inaugurated a series of similar popular uprisings across the Arab world in the 1950s until the fag end of the 1960s (with the emergence of Muammar Qaddafi in Libya in September 1969).

Surely, the historic importance of this event will not be lost on the Arab revolutionaries who earlier this year overthrew the despotic regime of Hosni Mubarak, which had similarly lasted for three decades, as they commemorate the 1952 revolution while confronting the challenges of the post-Mubarak order, dominated largely by the military as it was post-1952.

Yet a contrast of the 2011 uprising with the 1952 revolution is not only instructive but even vital, not just for the victorious insurrectionists in Tunis and Cairo but for people across the Arab world. The 1952 revolution barely merits such a description even in standard textbooks and histories of the subject, which see it as little more than a military coup. Unlike the 2011 uprising, it was led by nationalist military officers and not by the Egyptian masses; popular mobilisations from below came much later following the overthrow of King Farouk and the consolidation of the revolutionary order. The aims of the revolution were to end the occupation of Egypt by British troops, which were still in control of the Suez Canal despite the granting of formal independence to the country in 1922; destroy the power of the landlords and the monarchy; and end the corruption of political life in the country under the rule of the Wafd Party, which despite its anti-colonial origins was not different from that of Mubarak's National Democratic Party.

Gamal Abdel Nasser, who soon established himself as the charismatic leader of the revolution, was remarkably in tune with the hearts and minds of the Arab masses. He had a vision not just for Egypt but for the entire Arab world: a vision of Arab unity that would reverse centuries of colonial dominance of the Arab world as well as the humiliation of the nakba the dispossession of Palestine by Israel in 1948. As a first step, he nationalised the Suez Canal in 1956, a move wildly applauded not just throughout the Arab world but across continents. The former colonial powers, Britain and France, as well as the new expansionist power, Israel, were determined to punish this act of intransigence by an Arab leader. Only the term regime change had not been invented at that time. They organised an air raid to topple Nasser; the raid not only failed, but enhanced Nasser's control over Egypt and his prestige across the Arab world.

Nasserist infection

In a sequence reminiscent of the current wave of Arab uprisings in Tunis, Cairo and across the Arab world, the (Nasserist) infection spread: first to Baghdad where, in 1958, radical nationalist and communist army officers overthrew the hated Hashemite monarch; then to Sana'a in North Yemen where radical army officers ousted another Arab primitive in 1962; and even to Damascus, where radical Baathists (though mercifully not of the Assad variety) came to power in 1966 promising to turn Syria into the Cuba of West Asia.

A year later, the unthinkable happened: a Marxist guerilla group drove out the last vestiges of British control from southern Arabia to proclaim a People's Democratic Republic of (South) Yemen, a first in the Arab world. Then, in 1969, first in Sudan, and then in Libya, radical army officers came to power; in the first instance with the support of the Sudanese Communist Party (one of the largest in the Arab world) and in the second, dismantling both the monarchy and the Wheelus airbase, the largest American base in the Arab world. The revolutionary upheavals were given further succour by the triumph of the Algerian revolution led by the socialist FLN in 1962 against brutal French colonial control after a debilitating war.

The Egyptian revolution put in place a highly egalitarian socio-economic programme which broke the power of the landlords, nationalised basic industries and provided for free education, health, housing and employment to the ordinary Egyptian. Despite its ill-conceived absorption of the Egyptian Communist Party and a top-down military model, it was participatory to a large extent. Furthermore, it did not shy away from giving support to other liberation struggles, be it of the Palestinians or of fellow revolutionaries in Yemen and Algeria fighting the forces of colonialism and reaction.

After Egypt's union with Baathist Syria in 1958, there was a real opportunity to unite with republican Iraq for the formation of a great Arab superpower with material bases in Egypt's Nasser, Syria's communists and Iraq's oil, but that attempt was put paid to by foolish internal differences, something which would be regretted for years later given the tragic events that were to follow.

The revolutionary Egyptian regime remained a thorn in the side of Western imperialism now led by the United States and the conservative order in West Asia, led by Zionist Israel and Wahabi Saudi Arabia. The latter duo would return to haunt the region with a vengeance helped by the former after the catastrophic defeat of the Arab-Israeli war of 1967. Nasser survived the defeat, but the revolution did not outlast his death in 1970; the absence of a capable successor and the authoritarian model instituted thereby ensured that the revolution died with the great man.

As power in Egypt passed into the hands of lesser men and the legacy of Egypt's revolution was repudiated first by Anwar Sadat and more thoroughly by Hosni Mubarak, the impact of the retreat was felt everywhere. As the heirs of Nasser found the power of Israel and Saudi Arabia too tempting to reject, the regimes in Baghdad and Damascus degenerated into family dictatorships which massacred communists and Islamists alike.

The regime in Sana'a became a tribalistic cabal buttressed by Saudi hegemony. In Aden, feuding communists could be said to paint a similarly dismal picture. In Sudan and Libya, the revolutionary leaders flirted with Islamism, no doubt the flavour of the month.

With the implosion of the Soviet Union and the rise of a unipolar world, many of these dictators, no doubt seeking to be on the right' side of history, made their peace with their former nemesis and were accepted into Washington's fold. The tragic occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq did nothing to undo the oppression and economic misery these dictators unleashed on their subjects.

Here again, Egypt led by example: having made an unpopular peace with Israel and opened up the economy to neoliberal infitah par excellence, it was rewarded with massive military aid by the U.S., making it the second largest such recipient (after Israel). And the Saudis poured aid generously to its favoured beneficiaries the Muslim Brotherhood now that the ungodly Nasser was no more. But amidst all this pottage, no serious alternative to the status quo in Cairo was really permitted by Washington and Riyadh, as Mubarak became indispensable, too, to Israel as a valued adjunct in the occupation of the Palestinians in Gaza.

Victorious uprisings

Given these abysmal conditions, it was no surprise that the despot was finally overthrown by a popular uprising. All this first started in Tunis, tragically helped by the self-immolation of an unemployed graduate, and then spread to Cairo. The primacy of geography is not important, but what is important is the fact that unlike the upheavals of the 1950s and 1960s, it was the Arab people themselves who were involved in the mobilisations and the victorious uprisings, and spontaneously.

It did not stop in Cairo but spread across the Arab world, shaking sultan and colonel alike. The momentum was the heaviest in tiny Bahrain, Libya, Syria and Yemen. In Bahrain, the Wahabi royals were saved the ignominy of having a democratic non-confessional state on the Saudi border by the intervention of fellow Wahabis from Riyadh.

In Libya, the U.S. intervened directly to prevent another organic uprising from reaching Tripoli, with the result that the rag-tag army of would-be rebels' composed mostly of exiled Libyan businessmen and rogue generals is now totally in thrall to imperialist motives, not excluding oil.

In Syria, the family dictatorship of the Assad dynasty is under threat from a serious uprising, which to its credit has rejected foreign intervention outright.

In Yemen, the dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh has not returned from Riyadh after being seriously injured in the uprising against him; he would no doubt be receiving valuable advice there from fellow-dictator-in-exile, the Tunisian Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

Even the reactionary Saudi state was not spared the wrath of its rebellious would-be women drivers. But where would the Saudi royals seek refuge when their own benighted population turns against them in a more serious uprising? So far they have managed to calm their local population by million-dollar handouts as well as by spreading the cash around in Bahrain, Yemen and even Egypt (where it has gone to the military, which is in charge).

The roles of the U.S. and Saudi Arabia in aiding the forces of counter-revolution are not dissimilar to what happened in the wake of the 1958 Iraqi revolution, when U.S. Marines landed in Beirut to protect the corrupt strongman Camille Chamoun against popular secular-nationalist currents. Later, with the help of the British, they did the same for the Israeli-American protectorate in Jordan.

Beyond the military

In the wake of the uprising in Cairo, the military took over from Mubarak, both because of the prestige it enjoyed among the masses owing to its revolutionary history and because Washington did not want a more revolutionary alternative in the absence of a pliant client. However, the Egyptian military is no longer the revolutionary outfit it was in the 1950s; Sadat's pro-Israeli volte-face ensured that it regularly received the bulk of U.S. aid as a valuable ally of Washington. So far, the people have been pressuring the military regime with strikes and protests on a daily basis, despite the postponement of elections.

Whatever be the outcome of the elections in November, the country desperately needs a new constitution that will guarantee basic freedoms of education, health, housing and employment as well as a renegotiation of the humiliating terms of the peace treaty with Israel, something that is anathema to Tel Aviv and Washington. In that, the old Nasserist state set up in 1952 could well serve as a model minus the overbearing role of the military which eventually bled the revolution to death.

Egypt has historically been at the forefront of the Arab world for reasons of its antiquity, population size (largest in the Arab world) and pioneering role in nationalist movements against colonialism. It continued to play that role under Nasser until the decisions of his successors led it to irrelevance in that world for some four decades. Now, with the successful revolt of the Egyptian people, the country's ruling elite primarily the military can no longer ignore the needs and hopes of a people who are anxious to remake history in their own image, a promise unfulfilled by the revolutionaries of 1952. As the great Syrian poet Adonis wrote in his epic poem An Introduction to the History of the Petty Kings fittingly dedicated to Nasser despite being written after the great defeat of 1967 and the death of the great man:

A time between ashes and roses is comingWhen everything shall be extinguishedWhen everything shall begin

Nasser clearly realised this when as a young cadet in Egypt's military academy he was advised by Colonel Abdul Aziz that The real battle is in Egypt. Now, in 2011, the real battle is still in Egypt, even as the ashes precede the roses.

Raza Naeem teaches Political Economy and Middle Eastern History and is completing a book on the legacy of revolutionary Yemen post-Saleh. He can be reached at

Sign in to Unlock member-only benefits!
  • Bookmark stories to read later.
  • Comment on stories to start conversations.
  • Subscribe to our newsletters.
  • Get notified about discounts and offers to our products.
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide to our community guidelines for posting your comment