Al-Ahram Weekly Online   21 - 27 April 2011
Issue No. 1044
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Abdel-Moneim Said

Reform and revolution

The entire modern history of Egypt is characterised by the to and fro between forces of political reform and forces of revolution that break free when reform fails, writes Abdel-Moneim Said

My dear colleague Mohamed Fayez Farahat, the editor of Strategic Papers issued by the Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, asked me to write a paper answering the question why the reformers failed in the National Democratic Party (NDP), and why reformers in Egypt -- whether they belong to a party or not -- were unable to achieve reform in Egypt. This failure ushered in the revolution as we saw it, and how we will see it in the future, and irrespective of the many and scattered events, no two people would disagree that Egypt after 25 January 2011 will never be the same. This in itself is a simple definition of revolution, namely that it is a colossal event causing society and state to qualitatively change whereby it's not a new episode, but a new point in history.

The question about the failure of reformers is premature since many people are still in a state of revolt and reject any calm thinking or advice, or criticism of events. During such times, simple ideas are prevalent and mixing reform and opportunism is easy, and since Egypt's history began at this moment -- as was said about all revolutions in past -- studying what occurred before the revolution outside the agreed upon political explanations is a breach of consensus in political terms. Nonetheless, the failure of reformers before the revolution had always been an ongoing debate among historians and intellectuals who are familiar with Egyptian history and attempted to study its parameters of progress.

Today, the public believes that throughout its history Egypt was a democratic and wealthy state where human rights were respected until the arrival of the NDP and its leadership on the scene which transformed all this into a dictatorship, poverty and absence of human rights, whereby the past three decades were the ultimate difference between day and night. Of course, it was never like that. Throughout its history over thousands of years, the Egyptian state was never a democracy and after the middle point in Pharaonic times wealth continued to deteriorate over the next centuries and millennia, except for a few years here and there in Egypt's history. This was accompanied by colonialists, conquerors and invaders.

I do not intend to revise Egypt's entire history, but modern history has witnessed the debate between revolution and reform. Perhaps the starting point in the modern state of Egypt was the revolution of the Egyptian people against French occupation that continued until Mohamed Ali was appointed as the leader of Egypt in 1805. This revolution was entirely Egyptian, led by Al-Azhar and a group of enlightened people who demanded an end to the dark ages of Ottoman rule. In the end, however, they pledged their allegiance to the Ottoman ruler who was ambitious enough not only to launch Egypt's independence movement but also initiate its exit from the Middle Ages of the Ottoman Empire into the modern age.

Between the rise of Mohamed Ali to power and the Orabi Revolution, which was carried out by the army with the support of the people, reform efforts were immense by the criteria of the period. There was reform in agriculture, irrigation, land reclamation, railroads, telephones, telegraphs, journalism, books, theatre and changing the rules of agricultural land ownership, which empowered the Egyptian people -- or at least some of them -- and enabled them to transform culturally, intellectually and prepared them to consider their various forms of politics and leadership. Historians have mainly focused on the conquests of Mohamed Ali and his conflict with foreign states; what his son Ibrahim did in Sudan, the Levant and Arabian peninsula; Khedive Abbas's efforts to instil law and order and the pillars of the state in Egypt; followed by the conquests of Saied and Ismail in Africa and great reforms, most prominently the digging of the Suez Canal and allowing Egyptians for the first time in 3,000 years to be drafted into the army, become civil servants and involved in industry. This was accompanied by great advances in agricultural development.

All this occurred because of the work of a variety of reformers whose names are sometimes known in the fields of education, organisation, industry, agriculture, and others. But the political outcome of their deeds was in sharp contrast to the rewards of these reforms for the Egyptian people and the type of political system that remained defined as absolute power for the Wali or Khedive, who only viewed the people of Egypt as subjects and nothing more.

The confrontation between Ahmed Orabi and Khedive Tawfiq in front of Abdeen Palace demonstrated the reality of a closed and narrow political system, which is unable to accommodate a large number of Egyptians who had changed during previous Ottoman epochs, or in any other time in history. They were a group of Egyptians who no longer accepted the political system in its entirety and aspired for a constitution similar to those in advanced countries.

The Orabi revolution was thwarted by foreign intervention and British occupation, and Orabi was exiled. But one of the most important outcomes of the revolution was the emergence of the contradiction between Egyptian reformers on the one hand, whether they were full-blooded Egyptians or foreigners who became Egyptians over time, and revolutionaries on the other. While reformers believed the Orabi revolution was a rejection of development efforts in Egypt and a fad that relied on the general public and resulted in British occupation, the revolutionaries asserted that the reformers betrayed the revolution and abandoned an opportunity to restore an independent Egypt to the Egyptian people. But the reformers did not allow the revolutionaries to slow them down, and continued their efforts, and even Orabi -- upon his return from exile -- admired the level of development and sophistication that Egypt had achieved during his absence.

History repeated itself at the beginning of the 20th century when a second wave of reforms swept over Egypt, emancipating women, liberalising education and universities on a par with advanced countries. While this empowered the Egyptians further, they were still shackled by British occupation that suffocated the national spirit. The Khedive and in turn the Sultan did not realise that Egypt had entered the 20th century whether it desired to or not, which is how the 1919 revolution was born between the contradiction between reform and oppression -- both foreign and domestic.

History books are full of stories about what happened to and during the revolution, and I do not intend to recite what happened. Nonetheless, once again the contrast between the revolutionaries and reformers is apparent in the dispute between the National and Al-Umma parties, and later between the Wafd and Constitutional Liberal parties. They always quarrelled over whether the nation was ready for independence, freedom, a constitution, overthrowing Ottoman and British rule, and whether the infrastructure of reform was adequate to usher in leaders who have the values and beliefs that are acceptable to advanced countries, or will change be nothing more than rehashing the same backward and diseased ideas of the Ottoman era that denied the birth of the Egyptian nation.

In the end, the revolutionaries won and Egypt gained its independence -- even if it was the wretched reformers who drafted its constitution. Since the first moments of the revolution's success, quarrels erupted between Saad Zaghloul and Adli Yakan on many issues, most prominently, if it is necessary for the revolution to continue until the British leave or should reforms continue in order to prepare the country not only for independence but also for Egypt to take an eminent place among nations. Eventually, Saad Zaghloul and later Mustafa Al-Nahhas were willing to accept and move beyond what the wretched committee did by defending the 1923 Constitution.

Yet once again, whether under King Fouad or King Farouk, the entire political system was restricted for all political forces, even the Wafd Party which always won a majority was in power for a little more than seven years during the three decades known as the liberal epoch. What is strange here is that the reformers never stopped their work and Egyptian capitalism began to appear in the form of Banque Misr and various economic institutions across the country, accompanied by the establishment of universities and schools.

Egypt was wide open to the world during World War II and the 1936 Treaty enabled Egypt to take great strides in development, starting with creating a national army and interacting with the world, whether through the League of Nations and later the United Nations, until war broke out in 1939. Egypt was transitioning, and during this transformation more demands were being made which go beyond independence and the expulsion of occupiers, including educational and agricultural reform.

Simply put, the crux of Egyptian policy was beginning to be applied. Expanding the capabilities and potential of Egyptian politics manifested itself in political parties, civil society, social and economic organisations, and open channels with the outside world. This was taking place under a political regime led by a king who failed to accommodate all these forces within a political system that had come to rely on the minority all the time.

The contrast between immense progress taking place in the country and political impotence necessitated the revolution on 23 July 1952, which dealt with this paradox in its own way but was unable to escape it.

More on this later.

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