Book Review

The Struggle for Egypt: From Nasser to Tahrir Square

Steven A. Cook

Spring 2012, Volume XIX, Number 1

Egyptians and Egypt watchers are still digesting the ramifications of January 25, 2011, when a small group of activists organized what they thought would be a modest Cairo street protest against police brutality. The eruption that followed stunned the organizers and the world: a mere 18 days of protests led to the downfall of what had seemed one of the most unshakable elements of the dysfunctional regional order. Not fast enough for some but too fast for others, events have continued to unfold at eye-watering speed. Only a year later, we have seen a constitutional referendum, the legalization of dozens of new parties, former president Hosni Mubarak appearing in court, and parliamentary elections. Two days before the uprising's anniversary, a new People's Assembly was sworn in and, in an ironic twist that must have made Mubarak squirm on his prison bed, a member of the long-banned Muslim Brotherhood was elected speaker.

However, alongside this checklist of seemingly positive developments there have been far more ominous trends: the resistance to change shown by the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), the constriction of media freedoms, the prolongation of the emergency law, and the use of military trials against thousands of civilians. Discouragingly, we have also seen a continuation of other Mubarak-era practices such as the SCAF's tendency to blame the country's problems on unlikely foreign conspiracies or mischievous "foreign agents," and the military's often patronizing and belittling attitude towards the population. Of particular concern for Egyptian-U.S. relations (on which more later) is an ongoing campaign against foreign-funded NGOs. Rather than being addressed as a technical problem — the legal framework for the operations of such organizations is desperately in need of reform — the dispute has been framed as a battle against organizations that are seeking to destabilize the country.

Back in January 2011, the world appeared convinced that the Tunisian experience would not be easily repeated in Egypt. There were good reasons for this, given the sheer size of the state and its penetration of society. This was not just a function of the omnipresent police (who rarely appeared motivated) or not-so-secret services. Rather it was the way in which the fate of key (and numerically enormous) constituencies — the business community, the military, the bureaucracy — appeared so closely intertwined with the fate of the leadership. The "system" was also protected by the population's poor level of education and the fact that more politically aware Egyptians had learned that trying to challenge the system invariably led to blocked employment avenues, intimidation, arrest, injury or worse.

We now know that the latter point was no longer valid after the Tunisian uprising blew away the "fear factor" and made people realize that change was indeed possible. Nevertheless, after the euphoria of February 11 dissipated and the months went by, it became increasingly clear that large parts of the underlying regime had very much survived. Furthermore, they were seeking to steer the outcome of the transition in a way that protected their strategic priorities and were doing so using their old pernicious methods. In order to comprehend why these institutions have proved so enduring, it is important to analyze how they have evolved and how they have helped to shape and perpetuate national myths that still hold considerable currency.

This is where The Struggle for Egypt comes in. The history of Egypt since the 1952 coup has been written about endlessly: the wars with Israel, Nasser's rise as the champion of Arabism, Sadat's separate peace and subsequent assassination, and the battle against various strains of Islamist extremism. But this book views these events through a different lens. Rather than focusing on regional implications, Cook examines what the Free Officers' long reign did to the system underneath them and how it affected the population's attitudes to politics, regional states and the West.

For anyone trying to forecast where Egypt may go from here, and particularly for those tasked with forming policy towards the country in the coming years, these things need to be understood. Even those actively looking for information on the opaque workings of the military and previous governments often struggle to find it, and Cook's well-informed and carefully referenced book fills some important gaps. The parallels of the current situation with previous political upheavals in Egypt are striking on page after page, from the Free Officers' lack of a plan when they came to power in 1952 to the Muslim Brotherhood's pragmatic approach towards successive incarnations of the authoritarian milieu in which they were forced to operate.

After a short introduction, the first chapter, "Egypt for the Egyptians," describes the backdrop against which the 1952 coup took place. Cook explains how the nationalist revolt of 1882 led by Colonel Ahmed al-Urabi resulted in Britain's extensive involvement in Egypt and tracks the growing frustration with the British presence. In addition to the persistent desire for freedom from foreign domination, other key themes of the first half of the twentieth century are discussed: the establishment of the Muslim Brotherhood in 1928, and the growing distaste for the political machinations of the monarchy, the main political parties and the British. The chapter also discusses the impact of the two world wars and the establishment of Israel in 1948. Cook argues that the latter played a critical role in the thinking of the Free Officers, who would go on to seize power after their anger over the ineptitude of the Egyptian military against Israel convinced them of the need for change and renewal.

The second chapter, "The Rise of the Officers," describes the early years after the Free Officers' coup. Their somewhat idealistic and ill-defined desire for "reform" rather than regime change gradually gave way to a push for more far-reaching change and the gradual but unmistakable shift towards authoritarianism. These early moves against opposition to the new regime were the founding pillars of the system that would prevail until 2011 and perhaps beyond.

Cook describes how, in the early days, the officers appeared to be making things up as they went along, an observation that is comparable with the SCAF's recent approach to ruling. He notes that Sadat's speech announcing the coup "was remarkable…for the absence of anything that resembled a plan for the future of Egyptian politics." At first this benefited the coup leaders, as political groups "could claim the officers as their own." However, as time went by, their "distinct lack of ideological convictions or anything but the most rudimentary guiding principles made them vulnerable to other political forces selling comprehensive, emotionally and materially satisfying notions of what Egyptian society and politics should look like."

Chapter 3, "Setback and Revolt," covers some of the best known events in Egypt's history: the nationalization of the Suez Canal, the "Tripartite Aggression" and the disastrous 1967 war. Cook explains how Nasser's nationalization of the canal won him regional admiration and allowed the government some breathing space. By standing up to hated colonial powers, the regime gained legitimacy in the eyes of the population. Rather than just being a vehicle for the military to hold power, the government now appeared to be acting in the interests of its citizens.

But, as time went by, the gap between the regime's self-congratulatory rhetoric and the realities of daily life — in which political freedoms were curtailed and economic hardships were growing — became increasingly pronounced. The 1967 war, in which Israel destroyed more than 300 aircraft in a matter of hours, killed 10,000-15,000 Egyptian soldiers in three days and occupied the entire Sinai peninsula, brought about a moment of crisis. Nasser himself was spared, with thousands taking to the streets to demand he retract his resignation, but Cook argues convincingly that the resulting public debate over the failure nevertheless spelled the end of Nasserism. Egyptians has been asked to "sacrifice political and personal rights for the benefit of … important collective goods. Yet Egypt's shattering defeat seemed to strip bare the justifications for the regime and the nature of the political system." The same type of military ineptitude and poor leadership that had fueled the Free Officers revolutionary schemes during the Palestine campaign appeared to endure even after 15 years of their own rule.

Several hundred military personnel were sacked following the defeat, and four air-force commanders appeared before a military tribunal. However, two were acquitted and two received relatively light sentences, given the nature of their alleged wrongdoings. The verdicts prompted protests in Cairo and Alexandria by students and workers, "two potentially potent political adversaries." Cook argues that these developments "marked the beginning of the end of the regime's ability to elicit the loyalty of large numbers of Egyptians without resorting to either patronage or force," a situation that was to endure for another 40 years. "Egypt's leadership…was never able to regain the political advantages of its normative appeal, relying ever more on patronage and coercion to ensure the integrity of the political order."

After the 1967 debacle and Nasser's death two years later, the second of the Free Officers began his reign. In Chapter 4, "Hero of the Crossing," Cook explains that Anwar Sadat, initially seen by his comrades as a weak figure, had been involved in politics all his life (he was imprisoned twice for political activities prior to the 1952 coup) and was incredibly shrewd. He tried to strike a balance between exploiting what was left of Nasser's legacy while at the same time seeking to carve out his own niche and bolster his position.

Sadat was criticized for delaying another confrontation with Israel, but when he eventually committed his troops to conflict, they achieved a remarkable military success. The war of 1973 was hailed as a great victory, even though the Egyptians were overstretched after their initial successes, and the Israelis had 45,000 Egyptian troops surrounded when superpower pressure forced a ceasefire. Sadat became known as the "Hero of the Crossing," but this was not enough to silence his opponents. He moved to further restrict the political space, among other things by imposing a new political-parties law that remained in force until 2011.

Sadat's era also saw the launch of the Infitah, or "economic opening," which set the scene for later economic liberalization and the subsequent evolution of crony capitalism under Mubarak. Right from the beginning, there were no meaningful efforts to ensure a level playing field. The ramifications of the policy — increasing disparities in wealth, disproportionate opportunities for the well connected, a proliferation of bars and Western-style materialism — were contentious from the start. But by far the least popular of Sadat's actions, among his allies as well as his foes, was his signing of the now infamous 1979 peace treaty with Israel, something that would ultimately lead to his assassination in 1981.

The fifth chapter, "A Tale of Two Egypts," discusses the Mubarak years and the rise of the crony capitalism that came to define his presidency. Like Sadat, Mubarak was initially seen as weak, but he was to outsmart his doubters and become the longest-serving of the post-1952 military rulers. However, anger at his efforts to put in place a hereditary succession played a major role in the regime's eventual undoing. The chapter provides a damning description of the disparities in wealth that economic reforms brought about, including intriguing details of Gamal Mubarak's dealings at Bank of America and the way in which he allegedly profited from trading in Egyptian debt.

Cook traces the steady build-up of strike activity since 2004, the increasing hardships caused by rising prices, and the regime's growing separation from the world in which the majority of Egyptians lived. The government's ineptitude, corruption and total disregard for the well-being of its citizens is illustrated through several case studies, including the al-Salam Boccacio ferry disaster and the Duweiqa rockslide. The chapter illustrates how a combination of factors, including worker protests and an increasingly vocal media, began to lay the foundation for greater political activism, something the regime only encouraged by staging increasingly farcical elections.

The sixth chapter, "Radar Contact Lost," dissects Egypt's complicated relationship with the United States. Cook explains how Cairo's affiliation with Washington since the signing of the unpopular peace treaty with Israel in 1979 has had fundamental ramifications on the way Egyptians viewed the regime, and how other Arabs viewed Egypt. Describing the "trilateral logic of bilateral relations," the chapter analyses how Egypt's dealings with Washington have become inextricably linked with Israel. Egypt's close relationship with the United States was almost entirely a function of its continuing commitment to the peace treaty, but Cairo never got over the fact the United States did not see a relationship with Egypt as a priority in itself. The regime constantly bridled over the fact that U.S. aid came with conditions. Cook also describes the way in which the military came to see the aid "not as American generosity but as their money," an attitude that persists today.

The chapter tracks the ebb and flow of U.S. aid as democracy-promotion efforts fell in and out of favour in Washington. Cook provides extensive detail on the various programs and their varying levels of ineffectiveness. His detailed observations warrant particular attention at a time when the Obama administration and the U.S. Congress are reconsidering aid to Egypt in light of political changes and the SCAF's anti-democratic behavior.

The last chapter discusses the lead-up to the tumultuous events of January and February 2011 and the uprising itself. It describes how the protests unfolded and includes fascinating commentary on the evolution of the uprising as different constituencies joined the throng. It also describes the "back to the future sense of things" as the SCAF took control with "no plan other than a vague notion of turning the country over to civilian rule as soon as conditions warranted."

What can Cook's observations and insights tell us regarding Egypt's future? There are obvious points to be made about the key political themes of the transition phase. In particular, the coming years will be marked by tensions between Islamists and liberals and between the military and political parties in general. But there are also important dynamics stemming from divisions among different parts of Egyptian society, the polarization of attitudes towards the military, an enduring suspicion of foreign agendas, and a knee-jerk tendency to blame everything from shark attacks to protests against industrial pollution on Israel. These undercurrents are intangible and far harder to frame than Islamist-liberal or political-military tensions. Nevertheless, they will play a key role in what happens next and should not be overlooked. The Struggle for Egypt provides a significant discussion of these dynamics in an accessible style.

The book also provides analysis of the Muslim Brotherhood's evolution and the way in which it has engaged with and been influenced by the regime over the last eight decades. After its early years, the impression is of an overwhelmingly pragmatic organization that has moved firmly away from its flirtations with violence. Discussing the Brotherhood's response to the Free Officers coup, Cook states that the Brotherhood's supreme guide, Hassan al Hadaybi, "understood that his and his movement's best interests were served by staying above the fray," a sentence that could equally have been used in the months following Mubarak's forced resignation.

Lastly, Cook's point that the United States cannot, and should not, control the outcome of this transition is an important one. He argues that the United States "should greatly lower its expectations of what is possible in the post-Mubarak era and come to terms with the end of the strategic relationship." It is indeed true that U.S. officials "will be met with tremendous resistance from those seeking to lead, if only because Egypt's politicians will need to demonstrate their nationalist credibility." However, a clear Egyptian-U.S. "breakup" appears unlikely, given continued (albeit reduced) U.S. global and regional influence, not to mention a slew of recent meetings between U.S. officials and the Muslim Brotherhood. The aforementioned pragmatism of the Brotherhood — which does not yet have any real power despite winning 47 percent of parliamentary seats — means it may be more amenable to compromise than is often perceived. Among other things, the group is fully aware of Egypt's precarious financial predicament and knows it cannot snub the international community and still hope to rescue the economy.

Cook's Struggle for Egypt is not just another Arab Spring book but one with lasting relevance for Egypt watchers. With 30 pages of footnotes, a 40-page bibliography and a comprehensive index, it is full of useful reference material, while personal anecdotes provide local flavor and add to the overall appeal, though they make the structure a little awkward at times. Although no one can claim to know where Egypt will go from here, Cook's exploration of the history of the regime and the dynamics it produced help place current events in context and provide important insights about how the main protagonists are likely to respond to the evolving order. Even those who know Egypt well will learn something new from this fresh presentation of events.