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Republic in review
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 31 - 07 - 2003

The Egyptian republic was born 50 years ago last June. Roger Owen* saw it unfold
I first visited Egypt in June 1956 when the republic was not yet three years old. It was an exciting moment with Cairo's main streets decorated with the flags and buntings to celebrate Evacuation Day and the departure of British troops from the Canal Zone after an occupation of almost 74 years. As I was soon to realise, it was one of few wholly happy occasions in the long and troubled history of Anglo-Egyptian relations soon to deteriorate yet again with the start of the Suez crisis only a month later.
My visit marked the beginnings of a personal and academic interest in Egypt, its history and its political economy, which has lasted ever since. It took me on what has always seemed something of a roller coaster ride. The initial enthusiasm for the revolution and its economic and social reforms. The great wave of excitement which swept through Cairo where I was living in 1963 in response to the unity talks with Syria and Iraq and the first elections for the lower echelons of the Arab Socialist Union. The first doubts about Nasserism prompted by the appearance at a London conference in 1966 of two Egyptian Marxists recently released from prison. The shock of the 1967 defeat and the experience of the shortages and privations of President Nasser's last years. The nice surprise produced by the successful crossing of the canal followed by the general puzzlement about the implications of President Sadat's "October Paper" announcing the new policy of economic and political infitah. The huge demonstrations of early 1977, the visit to Jerusalem, and the sudden sad and shabby ending of the Sadat era.
Then on through the renewed hope of meaningful political progress ushered in not only by the 1984 and 1987 elections but also by the evidence they gave of an organising intelligence and purpose designed to produce a lively opposition to the governing party. And the equally hopeful signs of the recovery of economic purpose in the early 1990s. The general willingness to give the regime the benefit of the doubt as movement towards meaningful democracy was put on hold during the first fierce stages of the militant Islamist insurgency. And finally the growing realisation that what we were witnessing was not a "stalled" or "blocked" process -- to use two of the words often applied to it by political scientists in the later 1990s -- but something else entirely, a reconstruction of the political system specifically designed to maintain a particular constellation of power.
The invitation to look back on the 47 years since 1956 now provides an opportunity to take the long view of this whole process, to make comparisons, to identify trends and turning points which were much less obvious at the time. And, of course, it should be an occasion for drawing lessons and making judgements.
To begin by stating the obvious, the declaration of a republic in Egypt in June 1953 was part of a process of political, economic and social revolution, the impact of which remains central to the understanding of the Egypt of today. Part of this process can be taken care of by the usual balance sheet approach: for example that the huge advance in national dignity and social justice during the 1950s and early 1960s was bought at the price of the creation of a security state and a flawed system of government which at one and the same time allowed huge mistakes to be made while preventing any real progress towards either a proper democracy or a properly functioning form of Arab or Egyptian socialism.
But care has to be taken that we do not rest there and ignore four much more fundamental processes which continue to haunt Egypt today. First, the Nasser regime was heir to an extraordinary flowering of Egyptian intellectual and cultural life during the monarchical period. It was the men and women from these 30 years, and the younger men and women whom they educated and influenced in Egypt's fine universities, who provided the regime with its best talent, a wonderful resource that it took completely for granted while introducing an unthought-out process of educational expansion and administrative control which pretty much ensured that the intellectual and cultural capital that it had inherited would never properly be replaced.
This may have had something to do with the fact that the revolution itself, like most revolutions, had to justify itself by blackening the ancient regime in such a way as to prevent any appreciation of its achievements or to draw fruitful lessons from its failures. So out with the bathwater of the feudal landowners and the universally despised monarchy went the baby represented by the, admittedly flawed process of regular elections and multi-party democracy, on the one hand, and by a vibrant civil society underpinned by relative free universities, a free press and a largely independent judiciary on the other. In this way, a whole world of nascent national experience was more or less lost.
Third, for reasons that have never been satisfactorily explained, the Nasser regime and its technocrats destroyed any possibility of a working relationship with Egypt's burgeoning entrepreneurial class, something which, in my own judgement at least, paved the way for a system of state control over the economy more comprehensive than anything to be found in the rest of the non-European world outside one or two of the communist countries like China and North Korea. This is not to argue that there should not have been a programme of nationalisation and planned development. Simply that the way it was carried out produced a state sector which was more than usually isolated from the small areas of market activity that were allowed to remain and so much more difficult either to monitor or reform.
Lastly, for all the presence of excellent economists and technocrats, both Egyptian and foreign, in the late 1950s and early 1960s, the regime itself seemed uninterested in producing the figures which would permit a process of self- evaluation or a proper assessment of Egypt's domestic resources in terms of the usual criteria of comparative advantage. One looks in vain for any attempt to work out whether the land reform led to increases in output and productivity. Or of whether any state industrial enterprise could be said to be actually making a profit. And, as an economic historian, I can only weep at the way the regime continued the practice of its monarchical predecessors of banning the import of lower grade cotton and so using high quality Egyptian cotton to produce low quality textiles.
It is only to state the obvious that the Nasser regime left a huge host of problems for its successors. President Sadat's mixed record is also well-known. One major achievement, which only those who knew Egypt both before and after 1970 can appreciate, is the freedom he returned to everyday life, not just in terms of curtailing the powers of the secret police but also of allowing Egyptians to come and go without the permissions and visas and limitations on the transfer of funds which marked the late Nasser years. He and his advisers also managed the transfer from a one-party to embryonic multi- party system both more sensibly than, and, it should be pointed out, many years in advance of, the much touted process of Perestroika begun a decade later in the Soviet Union. And whatever his critics may continue to say, he provided a decisive answer to the question of how to deal with Egypt's more powerful eastern neighbour by finally removing the possibility of any further war.
But there were great opportunities lost as well. The flood of oil money was used to keep most of the Nasser-period system going without any serious attempt to tackle its underlying economic and social problems. The search of a new Egyptian role in the Middle East was only half-heartedly pursued. And, so it seems to me at least, a huge opportunity was lost by not managing the return of the Muslim Brothers to the mainstream of Egypt's religious and political life in ways which would have allowed them to play the positive role which their immense contribution to the country's history might suggest.
Once again the new regime ushered in so precipitously in 1981 also made good progress in tackling the continuing problem of creating a political system in which a wide variety of Egyptian interests could receive some representation in parliament. But once again too valuable time was lost as far as the moribund economy was concerned. Had it not been to the fortuitous offer of debt relief during the first Gulf War this process might have gone on even longer. And while the regime can receive credit for achieving the IMF's fiscal and monetary targets which allowed it to regain some measure of economic independence during the 1990s, it more or less abandoned the policies once captured under the notion of the comprehensive "development" of all the nation's rich natural, social and intellectual resources. Perhaps most debilitating of all was the encouragement of fortunes made out of exploiting monopoly positions to be found inside the domestic market, allied to a particularly timid and defensive engagement with the world outside Egypt.
The record of the republic's 50 years is not a bad one but there is no doubt it could have been immeasurably better. It started well. Few Egyptians seem to have regretted the end of the Royal Family, recognising Kings Fouad and Farouk as only the palest of shadows of some of their great 19th century forebears. But what of the people in whose name the legitimacy of the new system of government was now claimed? While republics do not necessarily have to be democratic -- there was a great debate about this in first decades of republican America -- the notion that a republican government should be of the people, by the people and for the people is one which it is difficult to ignore.
Much has been said and done in the name of the people of Egypt over the last 50 years. But they, men and women alike, have never been allowed directly on to the political stage nor given the unfettered possibility of choosing their president, their government or their constitution. And yet without a system with mobilises their energies, their skills and their commitment to the common cause, the country will continue to underperform and so to betray the bright promise suggested by the new start embarked upon in 1953.
* The writer is professor of history at Harvard University's Centre for Middle Eastern


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