June 18, 1953: Sixty years on, Egypt is still struggling to define itself.
It is July 24, 1952, and 100 army officers led by Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser have launched a coup to topple King Farouk. But things do not go quite as planned. The putsch is foiled by the British, who move army units from the Suez Canal zone to Alexandria, surround the Qasr el-Teen palace and protect the king.
As rumours swirl around Cairo, there is much sympathy for the rebellious officers and anger that the decisive action in thwarting the coup was taken by the British.
In this alternative history, the Egyptian monarchy would not have been deposed in June 1953 and King Farouk would not have sailed into exile. He would rule Egypt for a few more years, Nasser would be a footnote to history as a junior officer who tried to overthrow King Farouk. He would be hanged. But if this had come to pass would Egyptian history have been dramatically different?
Several key developments of the past six decades would have taken place in any case. The British occupation of Egypt was coming to an end. The 1936 treaty that anchored the British presence in Egypt had already been scrapped. British armed forces were confined to the Suez Canal region and its guiding principle was preservation of economic interests, not direct control.
Egyptian control of the Suez Canal was also inevitable. Nasser’s nationalization of the Canal in 1956 cast him as a hero in Egypt and beyond. But the Canal Treaty Agreement and the dynamics of international relations at the time required a change in ownership that would have led to Egyptian control.
But the key change that the first Egyptian republic brought about was of a different order: a fundamental transformation in the structure and cultural orientation of Egyptian society. Monarchical Egypt was based on an alliance between the most influential economic powers in the country, Egyptian and foreign. The First Egyptian Republic demolished the three pillars of that alliance. Nasser’s land reforms in the early 1960s, and the subsequent nationalization programme that affected almost all large privately owned enterprises, were in effect wealth redistribution on a grand scale.
His unambiguous championing of the aspirations of the poor and the lower-middle classes convinced many in the upper social echelons that the new regime would not hesitate to take assertive and potentially hostile actions against them if that was required.
This led to the wave of emigration in the late 1950s and early 1960s of leading Egyptian capitalists, well-established Christian families, the vast majority of Egyptian Jews and the bulk of the Greek and Italian communities.
This quickly diluted Egypt’s talent and entrepreneurial pool and deprived it of some of its largest concentrations of capital. Gradually, the Egyptian private sector lost its reach and vitality – a key reason behind the subsequent exponential rise in the role of the state across the economy.
The immense momentum that the first Egyptian republic – and especially Nasser – had given to Arab nationalism, at the expense of Egyptianism, coupled with the emigration wave, caused a decisive change in the Egyptian identity.
Throughout the eight decades of Egypt’s liberal age, from the 1870s to the 1950s, the active sectors of Egyptian society in politics, economics, and crucially in literature, music, theatre, and cinema, had predominantly seen Egypt as a Mediterranean country with a mixed heritage, in which Islam was the most powerful, but not the sole, frame of reference and in which Arabism was but one component of a rich mosaic.
By the 1980s, the country’s economic and cultural orientation had moved away from the northern shores of the Mediterranean, towards the Levant, North Africa, and the Arabian Peninsula. Cairo’s cultural anchors were no longer Paris, Rome, and Vienna, but Damascus, Algiers, and Riyadh.
The fall of monarchical Egypt in June 1953 marked the end of an era – not just politically, but socially and culturally. The result is that, amid the current transition from the first to the second republic, there are several identities fighting for domination in today’s Egypt, a fight that is exacting severe costs on our society.
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