Popular Uprisings in Egypt’s Recent History





Robert Tignor (Ph.D. Yale University) is Professor Emeritus and the Rosengarten Professor of Modern and Contemporary History at Princeton University and the former three-time chair of the history department.

Millions of Egyptians have taken to the streets in the last week, demanding the removal of President Hosni Mubarak from office and an end to dictatorial rule.  These events catch many by surprise.  The conventional wisdom is that Egyptians have grown accustomed to autocratic rule, even take comfort when led by a charismatic figure.  The names of the great men, and now and then great women, of Egyptian history abound:  Ramses II, Alexander the Great, Cleopatra, Saladin, Napoleon Bonaparte, Muhammad Ali, Lord Cromer, and last, but far from least, Nasser, Sadat, and Mubarak.  Although Nasser and Sadat announced that they had restored native-born Egyptians to power and claimed to be from village and poorer city quarter roots, as it turned out they were just as autocratic and repressive as their predecessors.

Is it in fact true that the Egyptian populace has been passive, even desirous to live under the protection of charismatic and powerful rulers?  Does their present day protest mark behavior unprecedented in Egypt’s history?  In truth, on quite a few occasions the people have risen up to challenge unpopular and repressive rulers, just as they are doing now.  Yet until the present moment foreign armies or the Egyptian army itself have suppressed these rebellions, some of which have been bloody.  Let us briefly consider the most dramatic challenges to autocracy in modern times and plot their outcomes. 

We begin with the French invasion of 1798.  Seeking to create a French colony in Egypt, Napoleon Bonaparte employed the same strategies that had been so effective in his European conquests.  He announced that his forces came as liberators.  They were in Egypt to rid the country of hated Mamluk rulers and bring the benefits of the French Revolution.  The Egyptians did not agree.  They saw them as alien conquerors, imposing unwanted values and institutions.  They rose in revolt, a rebellion that the French forces brutally repressed.  Having driven the French from the country, when prospects for regime change appeared unusually favorable, the people saw a new strong man, Muhammad Ali (ruled 1805-48), install himself and his family in power.  He established a dynasty that remained until overthrown in the military coup d’état of 1952.

Under Muhammad Ali’s grandson, Khedive Ismail (ruled 1863-79), popular elements again surfaced to challenge the ruling elite.  On this occasion, British troops suppressed a popular movement, seeking representative government.  Led by young, Egypt-born military officers, they aspired to lessen growing foreign influence over the country and to create a parliamentary system.  The ensuing British invasion of Egypt in 1882 ushered in their occupation of the country, which lasted until 1956.  

Next, in 1919, Egyptians fiercely challenged Britain’s dominance of the country.  At the close of World War I, during which Egyptians suffered grievously, Woodrow Wilson’s proclamations in favor of national self-determination found a receptive audience among educated Egyptians.  His words inspired the people to demand independence and to oppose Britain’s presence in the country.  Their widespread revolt has many parallels with today’s uprising.  Like the present protest movement, the political authority of the central government collapsed.  The countryside hived off from the center; in some areas local notables created independent republics.  Only with great difficulty and sleights of hand did the British reestablish their authority.  Their shrewdest move was to proclaim Egypt’s independence in 1922 while reserving for themselves most of the real levers of power, including the stationing of a large contingent of British armed forces in the country.

This awkward situation prevailed until the end of World War II when popular resistance movements once again made their appearance.  Their participants agitated in favor of political independence and social and economic change, a movement that culminated in “black Saturday” (January 22, 1952).  Egyptian rioters torched major British properties in Cairo and killed ten British subjects even while a massive British army of 100,000 men sat on their rifles in their military base in the Suez Canal zone.  The government had to call in the Egyptian army to restore order.  The British occupation was in effect over though it took another two years for the British statesmen to see the new political realities and to sign an agreement with Egypt to evacuate their soldiers from the country.  Yet, even here, when so much of the heavy lifting was being done by ordinary folk, the group that took advantage of the power vacuum was the Free Officers movement, led by Gamal Abdel Nasser.  These men carried out a coup d’état in July 1952 and installed themselves in power.

Since the 1952 military takeover, there has been no dearth of popular protest movements, usually kept in check by the security forces, backed up when needed by the military.   In 1977 the people rose to oppose government efforts to reduce subsidies on foodstuffs and other vital products, and in 1986 the poorly paid security forces, so omnipresent in the present movement and so greatly reviled, went on a rampage.  Yet, in contrast to the present, these uprisings did not involve the millions that are in the streets today. 

Does this recounting of popular protest movements and their outcomes offer any guidance for viewing the present events?  I believe that it does.  Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries Egyptian men and women outside the halls of power have challenged their rulers and have sought a voice in state affairs, only to be stymied by the forces of order.  Up until the 1950s, foreign troops from Britain and France put down the popular uprisings.  Foreign interventions to suppress popular demands has left  a strong suspicion that the big powers in the world, at present the Americans, will in the final analysis defeat the wishes of the people.  Since then, the Egyptian military has put down those movements of popular dissent that proved beyond the capabilities of the security forces.  Yet, never before have the soldiers faced such large numbers.  If the military is to be taken at its word, it is no longer available to repress protesters.  Nor is this surprising, given the fact that the military is a conscript army and those who would be called upon to curb the actions of the people would have to turn against their own relatives and friends.  The only hope for Mubarak and his National Democratic Party is that foreign powers will come to the rescue as has occurred so frequently in the past.  At the head of these powers would be the United States, which has relied on the Mubarak government to maintain political stability and support for American policies in this volatile region.  The Americans may be willing to sacrifice Mubarak, but they are unlikely to view favorably a government in which Muslim elements have a strong voice.  Even so, how the ruling elements and the army will restore calm short of allowing free and democratic elections, with possibilities for Muslim Brothers to enter the government, remains the big dilemma for the ruling group in Egypt and its American backers.

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