Monday,16 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1353, (20 - 26 July 2017)
Monday,16 July, 2018
Issue 1353, (20 - 26 July 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Sixty-five years on

More than six decades after Egypt’s 23 July Revolution, there is still a lack of consensus over its key aims and character, writes Walid M Abdelnasser


We are soon approaching the 65th anniversary of the 23 July Revolution, which definitively changed or influenced many realities in Egypt, the Arab world, Africa, the Middle East, the Third World and to some extent even the world as a whole. Despite the many years that have passed since then, the revolution remains controversial inside and outside of Egypt. The advantage of the passage of time is that it allows people, particularly historians and analysts, to view the events of the revolution dispassionately and reassess them from a more objective and non-partisan perspective.

One of the issues that has never been resolved, and probably will not be in the near future, is whether what happened on 23 July 1952 was in fact a revolution, or whether it was simply a military coup d’état, or rather a movement of the armed forces against the then regime in order to bring about national goals. Was it a coup d’état that transformed itself into a revolution through the political and socio-economic policies it introduced and the measures it adopted?

Opinions in this respect have been largely affected by the ideological affinities and political affiliations of their holders. However, one could observe that over the years there has been a growth in the number of those who argue that even if it started as a movement by the armed forces, or at least a part of them, it developed over time into a fully-fledged revolutionary movement with far-reaching and ambitious socio-economic consequences, both domestically and externally and particularly in the Arab world, the Third World, and even to some extent the whole world.

Another relevant issue has been the need for objective judgement of the role of key figures in the history of the revolution. I do not mean only the late presidents Gamal Abdel-Nasser and Anwar Al-Sadat, but also figures such as the late president Mohamed Naguib and the late field marshal Abdel-Hakim Amer, just to mention a couple of examples. In the past, attempts to assess the role of such figures have been influenced by personal and subjective considerations, even if they result in passing judgements that have not been soundly based and even in some cases have been without support from reality.

It is time today, as these figures departed from this world many years ago and as 65 years have now passed since the 23 July Revolution, to embark on genuine efforts to re-evaluate their roles in the overall context of the evolution of the revolution in order to be able to record history in a correct and objective manner, particularly for the new and upcoming generations of Egyptians and Arabs. It is time, too, to give these figures, or rather their memories, families and descendants, their due by presenting a balanced judgement of their historical roles.

A third issue worth addressing here is the extent to which the 23 July Revolution should have focused, particularly in its early years, on establishing a solid economy and viable society and state at home, as compared to its extended efforts and activities beyond Egypt’s national borders, particularly, but not exclusively, in the Arab world. The controversy has never ceased between proponents of establishing a strong Egypt to serve both as a model and an example and those who argue that the revolution could have never been safe without going beyond Egyptian national borders to fight its regional and global enemies on third party territories before those enemies attacked it on its own ground, as they did in 1956 and 1967.

However, this has been an unresolved debate in the history of all revolutions in modern history, starting with the French Revolution of 1789. It was best exemplified in the case of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia in October 1917 and in the following years through what has become known as the Stalinist/Trotskyite confrontation over whether to establish solid and strong socialism in one country, namely the former Soviet Union, as Stalin tried to do, and to serve as a model for the rest of Europe, or instead to help promote a worldwide permanent revolution, with the Soviet Union at its heart and actively involved in supporting that revolution as the best guarantee for defending socialism in the Soviet Union, which was the policy promulgated by Trotsky. A similar debate has recurred with regard to all revolutions, whether in general or in the Arab world in particular.

The fourth and final issue to be addressed here is the controversy over the democratic question in the 23 July Revolution. The majority of writers on the revolution tend to think of this democratic question as the missing pillar in the march of the revolution, particularly in contrast to the fact that the establishment of genuine democratic life was one of the six declared objectives of the revolution in its early period. But throughout its different stages, the revolution largely failed to turn this objective into tangible reality.

However, there are also voices that argue that the revolutionary leadership of the time did not have enough time to establish a healthy democratic system in Egypt due to the continuous pressures that external enemies of the revolution exerted on its leadership. Another argument from those looking for the reasons for the failure to establish genuine democracy in post-1952 Egypt has been that due to the shortcomings of pre-1952 democracy in the country, the revolution tried other forms of democracy, a fashionable phenomenon in Third World countries in the 1950s and 1960s, particularly the “popular democracy” based on a single political party.

Proponents of such a view argue that Nasser was planning to install a pluralistic political system once the Egyptian territory occupied in 1967 had been liberated as he realised the shortcomings of the “popular democracy” model. They refer to Nasser’s interventions in meetings of the central committee of the Arab Socialist Union of the time as evidence, this being the only political organisation in Egypt at the time, in the aftermath of the 1967 defeat.

The above-mentioned four issues are only examples, rather than being an exhaustive list, of the still controversial and open-ended questions we confront today on the legacy of the 23 July Revolution. It would be unrealistic to expect that the debate regarding any of these can be resolved in one direction or another in the near future.

The writer is a commentator.

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