Egypt’s Never-Ending Revolution

Cairo is tense and polarized. Egypt’s military is groping for solutions to the many political and economic problems that have beset the country since the fall of the old government. Various political parties and groups are united in their opposition to military rule despite being divided among themselves. The Muslim Brotherhood, meanwhile, is trying to remain above the fray and out of the line of fire by making deals with the army. And despite the promise of parliamentary elections and the prospect of a new constitution, the situation remains highly unstable.

One could be forgiven for thinking this is a description of early 2012, but it is actually an account of early 1954, when Gamal Abdel Nasser and his military colleagues, known as the Free Officers, first consolidated their power in Egypt.

Indeed, if the Egyptian revolutionaries who have battled the police and military over the past few months closed their eyes tight enough, forgot about Al Jazeera, Facebook and Twitter, they might find themselves amid the throngs of students engaged in a pitched battle with security forces on the Qasr al-Nil bridge in late February 1954 as they made their way to the presidential palace demanding that Nasser turn Egypt over to civilian rule.

Egypt’s history is not a formula for the future. Yet in order for Egyptians to avoid repeating the disastrous course of the past, they will need to find the means to prevent the military from imposing its will on society in the way that Nasser did in the 1950s.

The events in Egypt since last January, when millions took to the streets, eventually ousting Hosni Mubarak on Feb. 11, have been nothing short of extraordinary. The people are not supposed to bring down Egyptian rulers; they are instead supposed to build pyramids in memory of those leaders.

But the fact that 2012 resembles 1954 should not be a complete surprise. After all, the players are the same: the military, the Muslim Brotherhood, students or youth activists, and myriad political parties proclaiming the mantle of liberalism. Like the present-day Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which pushed Mr. Mubarak from office last February, the Free Officers who ousted King Farouk in July 1952 had no plan for how they would rule the country other than vague notions of reform.

To be sure, the left and labor movements had a more prominent role in opposing the Free Officers in the 1950s than those same groups do today in opposing the military, but Egypt’s political dynamics have hardly changed.

Today’s revolutionaries and activists have precisely the same demands for social justice, national dignity and representative government as the opponents of military rule did six decades ago.

After a brief honeymoon with a political class and public that regarded Nasser and his collaborators as saviors, opposition to the Free Officers emerged over suspicions that the commanders were reneging on their promises to clean up a corrupt political system and quickly hand power back to civilians.

In response to the determination of organized labor, the left, political parties and students to resist the Free Officers, the commanders used a combination of coercive measures — outright force and military tribunals — to subdue the opposition, followed by a variety of rules, decrees and regulations to prevent further challenges to the Free Officers’ authority. These institutions were authoritarian and constituted the foundation of Egypt’s nondemocratic politics for the ensuing 60 years.

The world has changed dramatically since the Free Officers whipped up instability in the streets of Cairo to justify their rule. Still, understanding the political patterns of the past provides insight into why and how leaders thwart popular demands for democratic governance. It can also help today’s activists, party leaders and average Egyptians write a new and considerably brighter political history for their country.

This is particularly important because even as Egypt’s current military rulers promise that they are preparing the ground for democracy, their actions belie this claim.

Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, who currently holds executive authority, and his senior commanders have a compelling interest in salvaging as much as they can of the old political order, which made them the source of legitimacy, authority and power; provided the military with the benefits of vast business interests; and, to the minds of the officers, ensured stability and social cohesion.

These interests clearly contradict the basic features of a democracy — in which the people are the source of legitimacy, the military’s activities are subject to civilian oversight, politics are unpredictable and power changes hands.

Egypt’s democracy activists understandably fear the intentions of both the military and the Muslim Brotherhood, whose own democratic credentials are hardly above reproach. The broader Egyptian public has, through its participation in the recent parliamentary elections, taken the first step in preventing the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces from re-establishing an authoritarian political system.

In the run-up to Egypt’s election season, Field Marshal Tantawi and his officers wanted two seemingly contradictory outcomes: a strong voter turnout to legitimize the military’s handling of the current interregnum and a weak Parliament that would be easy to manipulate.

Instead, high voter turnout — 54 percent of eligible voters, according to Egypt’s election commission — means that the leaders of the new People’s Assembly can credibly claim a popular mandate and thus have the capacity to resist the officers. The military has consistently claimed the support of the public, especially the mythical “silent majority,” for everything it has done over the last year, but now Parliament can do the same and has the votes to prove it.

Investing the People’s Assembly with power will not be sufficient to guarantee Egypt’s democratic future. The critical challenge is for Egyptians to draft a constitution that subordinates the military to elected civilian officials and establishes safeguards against the executive’s abuse of power, no matter who is in charge.

Limiting the power of the executive may seem like a challenge for a country without a strong democratic tradition, but liberal political ideas about the need for a balanced government have long animated Egypt’s politics.

After all, Egyptian civilians wrote a democratic constitution in 1954, which the military discarded. And the 1971 Constitution, before it was watered down, included strong liberal elements, like identifying the people as the source of sovereignty, endowing citizens with a range of personal as well as political freedoms, and investing Parliament with oversight powers that Egypt’s leaders ignored largely through emergency decrees. These are important precedents.

If Egyptians can now actually bring democratic ideals to life in a new constitution and an independent Parliament can resist the military’s own efforts to shape Egypt’s post-Mubarak politics, they will have done much to avoid the traps of Egyptian history.

By Steven A. Cook, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of The Struggle for Egypt: From Nasser to Tahrir Square.

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