11 - 17 July 2002
Issue No. 594
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875||Recommend this page|
All is not lostContinuing Al-Ahram Weekly's series of interviews with prominent public figures on their memories of the 1952 Revolution, Gamal Essam El-Din talks to Diaaeddin Dawoud, former minister of social affairs under Nasser and now head of the Arab Nasserist Democratic Party
Where were you on the eve of the 1952 July Revolution, and what was your initial reaction to it?
Click to view caption
Dawoud in a meeting of the Central Committee of the ASU with Nasser, Ali Sabri and Hussein El-Shafei; with President Mubarak; at a meeting with the executives of the Journalists Union, flanked by Salah Hafez and Kamel Zuheiri; and in a meeting with his Damietta constituency
I was 26 when the revolution broke out on 23 July 1952. At that time, I was a young lawyer practicing in Faraskur, the town closest to my native village of Al-Roda in the Northern Delta governorate of Damietta. I heard the news on a radio inside a modest coffee shop close to the court buildings in Faraskur, and my reaction was one of great enthusiasm. Anwar El-Sadat read out the statement announcing the revolution, and my enthusiasm was only tempered by fears that King Farouk, still in Alexandria at that time, would move to crush it, nipping it in the bud. When I expressed these fears aloud, one of my colleagues warned me to be careful, since King Farouk was still Egypt's official ruler at the time.
My enthusiasm was due to my background and upbringing. I was born in the village of Al-Roda, which has now become a town, whose inhabitants, like those of many other villages in Egypt at the time, were suffering from severe poverty. Most of them were small tenant farmers, farming land that belonged to Mohamed Abdel-Halim Halim, a prince related to King Farouk. Halim, who didn't even live in Egypt, but spent his time in Turkey, made absolutely no attempt to improve the living conditions of his tenants. On the contrary, he sought only to exploit them as much as he could by arbitrarily raising land-tenure prices and buying cotton at very cheap rates. And Halim was just one of several feudal princes who then owned most of Egypt's cultivated land.
However, my family, together with one other in the village, enjoyed better lives than did our neighbours, since we owned some 100 feddans of agricultural land, the revenues from which enabled me to get an education. I was the only one in my village who managed to obtain a university education in the 10 years preceding the revolution. I would compare my relatively good living conditions with those of Al-Roda's poor villagers, my education and reading of books about socialism and the history of Egypt leading me to conclude that Egypt's major problem was the class polarisation and social disparities. If these disparities could be reduced or abolished, then this would lead to socio-economic progress and full independence. My conclusion was that the monarchy and the British occupation provided a favourable environment for the proliferation of such social disparities and class polarisation.
However, this was not the only reason why I welcomed the revolution. Over the six months that had preceded it, Egypt had passed through some of the most serious political unrest in its history. After the burning of Cairo in January 1952, and the dismissal of the liberal Wafd Party government, the monarchy was rapidly reaching bankruptcy. Four governments had been formed over this period, each one remaining in power for only a very short period. At the same time, there were no indications that Britain would give Egypt full independence.
I had spent my university years in Alexandria and Cairo in close and active contact with political forces demonstrating for the expulsion of the British occupying forces from Egypt. I joined the Faculty of Law at Alexandria University for the first year, but later moved to Cairo [then Fouad the First] University, where I completed my remaining three years. In 1946, I joined the old National Party (NP) led by the famous historian Abdel-Rahman El-Rafie and the great politician Fathi Radwan. Also in 1946, the then prime minister, Ismail Sedqi, concluded an agreement with the British foreign secretary, Ernest Bevin, which came to be called the Sedqi-Bevin Treaty. In protest against this treaty, students at Alexandria University led large demonstrations, the British occupation forces being visible everywhere in Alexandria at that time. This was highly provocative to our national pride, and Sedqi, well-known for his dictatorial practices, rushed to crush student demonstrations in Alexandria and Cairo. The result was that two of my colleagues at Alexandria University Faculty of Law were killed by the security forces, and the next day, the students responded by attacking the British barracks near Al-Raml tram station. The security forces reacted by closing down Alexandria University until October 1946.
My spontaneous enthusiasm for the revolution in the early hours of 23 July 1952 was therefore due to reasons I shared with many other Egyptians: namely, the severe social disparities and class discrimination, the bankruptcy of the monarchy and the British occupation of Egypt.
How did you come into contact with the revolution?
I should add that my enthusiasm for the revolution was also a result of the fact that it was of the Egyptian Army's making. To me at that time, the Army was Egypt's last hope in escaping the political and socio-economic crisis. I remember that when I joined Cairo University's Faculty of Law in late 1946, I decided to relinquish my membership of the National Party because I believed then that the political parties of the day, together with the monarchy, had reached a point of political bankruptcy and lacked solutions to help the country escape the continued political and socio-economic crisis. I thought at the time that there would have to be some kind of revolution, though not necessarily a military revolution, in order to liberate Egypt from British occupation and find solutions to the crisis. I thought then that this would be a popular revolution on the model of the 1919 Revolution.
In order to gather support, the Free Officers and others began to tour Egypt's provinces, explaining the revolution's objectives. Over the years that followed, I joined all the revolution's political organisations, ranging from the Hi'at Al-Tahrir (Liberation Rally) in 1953 to the Al-Ittihad Al-Qaoumi (National Union) in 1962, and the Arab Socialist Union (ASU) in 1964. I became a member of the ASU at the level of Damietta province in 1964 and of its executive local council. I also ran the 1964 parliamentary elections in the district, managing to win the Faraskur professional (fi'at) seat. Shortly after becoming an MP, I was selected by President Gamal Abdel-Nasser to be the provincial secretary-general of the ASU for Damietta, though I still insisted on earning my living from my job as a lawyer rather than from receiving a salary from the ASU. This lasted until March 1968, when I was appointed minister of social affairs.
The 1952 Revolution is sometimes accused of having used repressive measures against its opponents and of failing to achieve its objective of creating a sound democratic life in Egypt. How would you answer these criticisms?
None of history's great revolutions began by establishing democracy. This applies to the French, English and American revolutions, and Egypt's July Revolution is no exception. It was, however, a real revolution, and not a coup d'état, because it aimed at introducing radical change to the country's political and socio-economic structures. By contrast, a coup just replaces one ruler with another and offers no real change. This happened in Syria in the 1950s and in Egypt in 1971.
Such radical, revolutionary change adversely affects the interests of pre-revolutionary elites, and in Egypt it was impossible for the new regime to introduce the Agrarian Reform Law in its first year in a democratic way. This law was rejected by the parliament, still composed of pre-revolutionary elements, even though it was submitted in a very modest form by socialist-minded MPs such as Ibrahim Shukri [now chairman of the Islamist-oriented Labour Party] and Mohamed Khattab. The revolution intended to replace the old political forces, including the majority Wafd Party, which had by then become bankrupt and was unable to bring about radical reform. The best thing the Wafd did it did in 1936 by concluding a new treaty with Britain. By 1951, however, the Wafd itself had annulled this treaty without coming up with any alternative to liberate Egypt from the British occupation.
The revolution, by contrast, managed in a relatively few years to liberate Egypt from British occupation and to achieve Egypt's most cherished hopes of introducing massive reforms aimed at abolishing social disparities and class discrimination. These things could never have been achieved by adopting democratic practices.
Moreover, the July Revolution was a "white", rather than a "red", revolution. I recognise that it resorted to some repressive measures, but it was compelled to do so in the face of opposition forces, especially the Muslim Brotherhood, that threatened what it sought to achieve. The Brotherhood tried to manipulate Nasser and the Free Officers in order to impose an Islamist state in Egypt; I myself joined the Brotherhood when I joined Cairo University, but later I realised that the Brotherhood's absolutist religious thinking did not hold the solution to Egypt's socio-economic and political crisis. The Islamist trends were even responsible to a large extent for worsening it.
There were also other reasons why the revolution was not able to achieve full democracy during Nasser's years in power, and these included the military threat posed by Israel and the conspiracies engineered by the British and Americans to topple Nasser. The latter were always keen to trap Nasser in an endless web of crises, the Americans first instructing the World Bank not to fund the Aswan High Dam, and the British joining the Israelis and the French in the 1956 Tripartite Aggression against Egypt in retaliation for Nasser's decision to nationalise the Suez Canal Company.
The question remains of why the objective of creating a sound democratic life has not yet been achieved. How do you explain this?
President Nasser was always keen on creating true democratic life in Egypt during his 16 years in power. This began in 1964 when the Tali'a (avant-garde) Organisation was established to be the core of a future socialist party. Nasser also once said that he was contemplating establishing a rightist party under the leadership of his army colleague Zakaria Mohieddin. But he was afraid that the re-adoption of the multi- party system would turn out to be in no way different from that which had existed in Egypt under the monarchy. On the other hand, the defining blow to the establishment of democracy in Egypt came at the hands of Nasser's successor, Anwar El-Sadat, who led a coup against the revolution in May 1971.
Sadat claimed that his coup -- he called it a "revolution" -- aimed at "restoring freedoms and re- introducing liberal democracy". This was a travesty, since Sadat ended up by cracking down on all the political parties, muzzling the press and placing more than 1,500 political activists in custody.
I was the first to alert President Nasser to Sadat's dictatorial and corrupt practices, charging Sadat at the 1968 ASU Congress in 1968 with corrupting Egypt's parliamentary life in the presence of the journalist Mohamed Hassanein Heikal, then editor- in-chief and chairman of Al-Ahram, and Khaled Mohieddin, now head of the Tagammu' Party. Nasser told me later that Heikal had informed him of my criticisms of Sadat, saying that he was aware of Sadat's attempts to use the National Assembly [parliament] to attack the ASU and the Tali'a. In 1968, Nasser replaced Sadat as speaker of the National Assembly by Labib Shukair, and later Sadat, as part of his 1971 coup, arrested both Shukair and myself.
Foremost among Sadat's undemocratic legacy was the creation of the National Democratic Party (NDP). This party, a result of Sadat's 1971 coup against the revolution, is not only an autocratic institution, but it is also witness to the fake multi- party system we have now in Egypt. The Arab Nasserist Democratic Party, by contrast, strongly believes in liberal democracy and the rotation of power. As I explained, Nasserism is not against democracy; it was only impossible to achieve democracy in the revolution's early years.
Recently a Nasserist Party MP surprised everyone by approving the NDP government's laws and policy statement. What does this mean?
Our MPs have the right to express their opinions freely, but on certain matters, which form an integral part of the party's ideology, they have to abide by the party line. This is why this MP, Heidar Boghdadi, is now being questioned by a special party committee, since he knows that he has gone against the party's official line on certain issues, notably on approving the peace treaty with Israel.
What about the July Revolution's other objectives, especially that of abolishing the capitalist monopoly on political power?
Sadat's 1971 coup aimed not only at crushing democratisation, but also at enabling the counter- revolutionary classes, capitalists and feudalists, to regain their power and wealth, which had been either expropriated or sequestrated by Nasser. Thirty- two years later, this has led to Egypt's suffering badly from class discrimination, deep social disparities and a precarious democracy.
When the July Revolution broke out in 1952, there were between 25 to 30 families that monopolised wealth and power in Egypt. The revolution abolished this monopoly through redistributing almost one million feddans of land among small farmers and nationalising industries for the benefit of all classes of society. In my village of Al-Roda, for example, the 1000 feddans owned by Prince Halim were distributed among the farmers, allowing them to educate their children. Until 1940, the whole of Damietta province had three elementary schools and one secondary school. This completely changed in less than 10 years following the 1952 Revolution, with free education being made available to all citizens. In my district of Faraskur, six elementary schools, five preparatory schools and one secondary school were built in the revolution's first 10 years.
When ordinary citizens now compare the achievements of Nasser's regime with what today's governments are doing, they agree that the comparison unquestionably favours the former. Nasser's governments built low-cost housing for the poor and for those on low incomes, whereas today the government spends billions on tourist villages and resorts on the Northern Mediterranean Coast and on the Red Sea at Hurghada and Sharm El-Sheikh. The government today is building golf courses and "Dreamland-" and "Beverly Hills"-type housing around Cairo to cater to the rich and privileged, who account for less than five per cent of Egypt's population, while it is doing nothing for the vast majority. Nasser's governments, by contrast, built industries to generate jobs for young university graduates.
The government today is disposing of state industries in favour of proliferating monopolies, whose owners make their money by looting bank deposits and joining the ruling NDP. During the recent court hearings on the 20 February train inferno, it was discovered that the government isn't spending a cent on renovating third-class train carriages.
President Nasser once said that he was unable to help one of his daughters to go to university, but his driver's son had gone because he had the necessary high-school diplomas. Today, on the other hand, if you are rich enough you can send your children to expensive language schools and have them go to whatever faculty you like.
In short, the kind of social disparities and class discrimination against which the revolution struggled are now clearly visible and acute once more in Egypt. However, this does not mean that the revolution "lost". On the contrary, the continuing existence of these disparities supports our party's view that the principles of the July Revolution are now more necessary than ever and that they are the only means by which Egypt's political and economic independence can be restored. These principles include maintaining the public sector, re-espousing Arab nationalism, and developing a sound democratic life.
Such principles are, however, as President Nasser himself emphasised, not immutable, but are subject to continual revision. We believe, for example, that the way the public sector is managed should be radically changed, though we oppose its privatisation, which is part of what the present government calls its "economic reform programme".
Such market-economy programmes, propagated by the United States and the IMF, have failed in all the developing countries that rushed to adopt them, including Argentina and other Latin American countries. Indeed, the West's present superiority and progress is not so much due to the application of market economy principles as to its colonising of Third World countries, plundering their resources as it did so. England's textile industry during that country's Industrial Revolution -- one of its most profitable industries -- flourished because of its monopoly on cheap cotton deliveries from Egypt, for example. Similarly, American wealth depended on importing huge numbers of African slaves for its accumulation.
Such things the West rarely, if ever, recognises.
Letter from the Editor
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