Egyptian History Repeats Itself

Even before the emergence of the modern Arab state, the great Arab, Tunisian, and North African philosophical work of Ibn Khaldun in his book the Muqaddimah (“Introduction or Prolegomena”), written in the fourteenth century, presented concepts that can help to illuminate some of the contemporary political, economic, and social crises in Middle Eastern societies today. According to Ibn Khaldun, “A ruler can achieve power only with the help of his own people. They are his group and his helpers in his enterprise. . . . With the approach of the second stage, the ruler shows himself independent of his people, claims the glory for himself.”1 Ibn Khaldun also explains how rulers can either acquire people’s trust or generate anger: “Exaggerated harshness is harmful to royal authority and in most cases causes its destruction. . . . If the ruler continues to keep forceful grip on his subjects, group feeling will be destroyed. If the ruler is mild and overlooking the bad sides of his subject, they will trust him and take refuge with him. They love him heartily and are willing to die for him in battle against his enemies. Everything is then in order in the state.”2 According to Ibn Khaldun, “Injustice brings about the ruin of civilization.”3 He notes how people lose their interest in production when they become subjects of injustice: “Attacks on people’s property remove the incentive to acquire and gain property. . . . When people no longer do business in order to make a living, and when they cease all gainful activity, the business of civilization slumps and everything decays.”4 Ibn Khaldun’s explanation of the “dynasty’s senility” as the last stage of a state’s life is still valid and applies to contemporary political experiences. This phase attributes the split of a dynasty to its ruler’s arrogance and willingness to maintain his absolute individual authority:

When royal authority comes into its own and achieves the utmost luxury . . . and when the ruler controls all the glory and has it all for himself, he is too proud to let anyone share in it. . . . He eliminates all claims in this direction by destroying those of his relatives who are possible candidates for his position and whom he suspects. Those who participate with the ruler in this (activity) often fear for their own (safety) and take refuge in remote parts of the realm. . . . The refugee related (to the dynasty) gains control. His power grows continually, while the authority of the dynasty shrinks.5

Ibn Khaldun then confirms that when the stage of senility occurs, nothing can stop it: “Senility is a chronic disease that cannot be cured or made to disappear because it is something natural.” He interestingly adds, “At the end of a dynasty, there often also appears some power that gives the impression that senility of the dynasty has been made to disappear. It lights up brilliantly just before it is extinguished.”6 Considering the current upheavals in the Middle East, Ibn Khaldun’s words are relevant for many of Egypt’s past and current politicians, who face political unrest within their respective borders.

Modern Egyptian history witnessed several social and political crises, many of which were linked to state corruption and repression. Many of those crises involved social uprisings and riots. Critical analysis of these uprisings shows that most of their leaders lacked revolutionary vision and the movements failed to result in the improvement of the living conditions among Egyptian people. This section surveys Egyptian analysis of modern revolts to demonstrate how the themes of duplicity and failed leadership predicted revolutionary failure in the past. In his work The Social Crises in Egypt in the Seventeenth Century, Naser Ahmad Ibrahim draws a tragic picture of daily life in Egypt from 1678 to 1703. He examines the relationship between malnutrition and epidemic diseases and the economic crises caused by rapid price increases during the period. According to Ibrahim, such crises were not caused by food scarcity throughout Egypt, but rather by pricing policies and market monopolies imposed by wealthy merchants. At the same time, Egyptian rulers did not interfere or assist their people during the hardships of repeated starvation. In fact, research shows that the crises were the result of political and administrative policies adopted by Egyptian rulers, rather than disease or exogenous factors. For example, the illegal multiple taxes imposed on the people by the corrupt governors were high enough to absorb Egyptian farmers’ entire annual incomes, leaving them in a severe state of destitution and further damaging their already decaying agricultural infrastructure.7

Due to these devastating conditions, four public uprisings occurred when people broke out into the streets of Cairo to protest against inflation. Angry groups attacked shops, looted, and burned warehouses of grain. In studying the nature of the seventeenth-century uprisings and the reasons why they failed to improve the living conditions of average Egyptian people, Ibrahim notes that the main participants were temporary workers, peddlers, beggars, and porters. They were the most marginalized groups in Egyptian society, and the first to become victims in any crisis. Farmers, however, did not join the seventeenth-century riots, as they were engaged in domestic conflicts over water rations. At the time, scholars and religious figures—the educated class in Egypt—were used by the regime to mitigate people’s anger and to encourage the mob (as they were considered to be) to obey their rulers as good citizens and good Muslims. Instead of leading the uprisings, the educated were therefore used by authorities to control the people through religious teachings and social customs.8

For centuries, the continued lack of vision and the absence of inspired revolutionary leadership were behind the failure of many social uprisings in Egypt. The spirit of the Orabi Revolt (1879-1882) has been an inspiring symbol of success for many generations of Egyptians. However, in his book Orabi Revolt and the English Occupation, historian Abdul Rahman Al Rafie claims that the great charismatic leader Ahmed Orabi was defeated by his own arrogance and political inefficiency. Orabi, who was able to attract different classes of Egyptians to his revolutionary cause and gain their trust, was not politically qualified to be the supreme leader of a revolution. He refused to consult his qualified comrades to assist him in leading the country toward victory. In October 1901, Orabi even supported the British occupation in order to return from his exile.9 Historian Ahmad Amin presents a different perspective of the Orabi Revolt in his book Reform Leaders in the Modern Era, in which he talks about the well-known Egyptian reformer Mohamad Abdou (1849-1905). Abdou, who had an ambitious project of reforming Egypt, opposed Orabi’s revolution. He believed that Orabi would destroy the reform movement in Egypt and refused to join the revolution, until he realized that it was proving to be an attractive movement for many Egyptians. At that moment, he felt it was not a conflict between parties or leaders; rather, it was a battle between Egypt as a nation and the British-led occupation. He joined the revolution at a later stage, and was eventually imprisoned and exiled.10

The Egyptian Revolution of 1919, which was led by the revolutionary figure Saad Zaghlul and other members of the Wafd Party against the British occupation, is another inspiring revolutionary experience in Egyptian history, as it forced British authorities to recognize Egyptian independence in 1922. However, a careful reading of history will show that internal conflicts between revolutionary leaders actually damaged Egyptian national unity, thus allowing British authorities to maintain their forces in the strategic Suez Canal.

In his book The Events of May 1922: Unknown Chapter of 1919 History, historian Hamada Mahmoud Ismail discusses how two of the main figures of the revolution, Zaghlul and Adli Yakan, went from being close friends to enemies as they failed to unify the Egyptian people against the British occupational authorities. They both sought to maintain Egyptian unity, but their actions were in opposition to one another. The situation deteriorated as each figure accused and faulted the other in their public speeches, destroying what they had both worked hard to accomplish from the outset of the revolution. British authorities fueled the disagreement between the two leaders so that Egyptians would be perceived as incapable of governing themselves and protecting their own interests.11

This 1919 conflict led to a political deadlock, followed by waves of violence among Egyptians. Many national figures attempted to prevent the violence from spreading across the country. For example, Prince Omar Tousan issued a statement reminding Egyptians of their goals of independence and freedom. He argued that they should adopt the principles of civil coexistence, in which parties respect one another and avoid public marginalization and exclusion. Unfortunately, no one listened to Tousan’s call for calm, and the conflict between Zaghlul and Yakan continued to divide the nation, creating an environment of tremendous civil unrest. Waves of severe political and economic chaos followed, (mis) leading millions of Egyptians to believe that their struggles were the result of the revolution. In later years, they were ready to accept the abolishment of their parliament and political parties, and were cheering for a military ruler who seemed capable of resolving the turbulent security situation in the country. The people were willing to surrender their freedom for a certain degree of economic and political stability in Egypt.

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