The economic roots of the Egyptian revolution
Source Louis Proyect
Date 11/02/04/23:47
American Socialist, January 1959

[Louis Proyect: This 1959 article reflects the same kind of
dialectically nuanced analysis found in the American Socialist articles
on Peron from the preceding year. Nasser, like Peron, was accused by
liberals and some Marxists of being—as the article puts it—a
‘fascist-Hitlerite dictator.’ This was the ideological punishment meted
out to a nationalist trying to eliminate over one hundred years of
colonial exploitation. While obviously no Marxist, Nasser is depicted as
an anti-imperialist fighter who deserved support from the broad Marxist
movement against Anglo-American imperialism.]

WHEN THE SMOKE of the Egyptian revolution cleared away, it was easy to
see who were the losers: the monarchy and the landed pashas. But who
were the winners? What is the military regime doing inside the country,
now that Egypt rules itself?

The Nasser Revolution
Harry Braverman

HOW Egypt, one of the world’s poorest and weakest countries, became a
country of importance in half a decade is pretty well known. The army
regime that deposed King Farouk had, at first, no other aim than to come
to terms with the West in order to get arms—chiefly to threaten or use
against Israel—and to get economic aid for industrializing the country.
The protracted negotiations with Washington, however, always seemed to
add up to one thing: Nothing but mouth-watering promises would be
forthcoming until Egypt agreed to join the Western military bloc and to
permit American bases and military missions on its soil. But the young
officers in charge of the country were not disposed to imperil the
independence they had just begun to establish. They thus started the
triangular game of playing off the major cold-war antagonists against
each other. In 1955, Nasser participated in the Bandung Conference, and
later the same year announced the purchase of arms from the Soviet bloc.
He negotiated with both sides for aid in building a high dam at Aswan,
and while Washington reneged on its commitment, the Moscow string to
Nasser’s bow is now bringing results. In the meanwhile, the new regime
answered Western withdrawal from its earlier commitment on the Aswan Dam
by taking over the Suez Canal, and saved itself from imperialist wrath
with the help of the Russian counter-balance. More recently, Egypt has
joined with Syria and Yemen to form the United Arab Republic, has won a
battle in Iraq, and in general, by a policy of impudent independence and
bold maneuvers, has raised its own strength on the Middle Eastern
chessboard far above its former rating as despised and ignominious pawn.

All of this has been told in the headlines of the last five years. But
far less information has been forthcoming about the state of affairs in
Egypt itself. Hard as it is for Western readers to piece together an
accurate picture from the scraps and fragments of the daily and
periodical press, it becomes well-nigh impossible in the present state
of our informational services. As in so many other fields, the cold war
has driven truth into hiding: Nasser is a ‘fascist-Hitlerite dictator’
in pursuit of ‘foreign adventures’ to distract his people from their
poverty; he is the chief ‘aggressor’ in the Middle East. Or, on the
other hand, he is a ‘peace-loving Nehruite’ and a ‘colonial
revolutionary.’ These Hollywoodized stereotypes of ‘good guy’ and ‘bad
guy’ add very little to our knowledge of the complex forces at play in
Egypt. We are thus fortunate in having a fine new book, Egypt in
Transition, (Jean and Simonne Lacouture, Criterion Books, New York,
1958, $7.50) which gives an uncommonly complete and sensitive picture of
the developments since the coup against the old regime in July 1952. The
authors, a French couple, have supplemented their years of residence and
observation in Egypt with exhaustive research, and have assembled the
whole with careful objectivity, not to say skepticism. Although it
carries the story up to as late as February 1958, it has already been
published and’ acclaimed in France, and made available in this joint
British-American edition. Anyone who can’t get the details, problems,
and policies of the new regime straight has only himself to blame, now
that this book is on the market.

POST-World War II Egypt was in the all-too-common position of a nation
whose social classes find it impossible to muster the strength to get
out of their impasse. Of the peasantry, which embraces the vast majority
of the population, there is hardly any need to speak; it was, and still
remains, almost entirely sunk in the immemorial poverty, disease, and
debility of the Nile Valley, mustering barely enough energy to keep
alive, and all hut dead to the national problems of Cairo and
Alexandria. Even the hope of a solution to the land problem had been
virtually extinguished by the peculiar Egyptian situation, in which the
entire agricultural economy is concentrated in a thin strip of alluvial
mud bordering the Nile, resulting in a rural overcrowding as bad as that
to be found anywhere in the world. It was not the peasantry which took
the lead for change; the ferment came chiefly among the city classes.

Both World Wars put huge Western armies on Egyptian soil, and at the
same time sharply reduced the import of foreign goods. As would be
expected, the result was a considerable growth in Egyptian industry to
meet the new market and the curtailed supplies. Where, before the first
World War, Egypt seemed nothing but an immense cotton plantation for the
benefit of the textile trade and a fascinating playground for
archaeologists, it now began to take on a Western appearance. Egyptian
industry and commerce, even on a small scale, meant inevitably the
undermining of the feudal orders and the encroachment of a new social
arrangement, with a middle and upper class of trade and manufacture, and
a city working class. Along with this came the usual accompaniment:
nationalism, radicalism, strivings of independence and social reform.
Revolts in the inter-war period won a measure of independence, including
even the evacuation of British troops from Egyptian territory outside
the Canal Zone, but Britain retained the final say in all major matters
of foreign and domestic policy, both by formal agreement and informal

After the second World War, an increasing popular pressure, from the
working class which had increased in size by 35-40 percent during the
war, from the nationalistic capitalists, from the students, and from the
vast miscellaneous throngs of the major cities—so hard to describe in
social terms but so important to the popular politics of the Middle
East—made the status quo ever harder to maintain. Demonstrations shook
the regime, but even when relative calm prevailed, the internal rot,
weakness, and loss of confidence of all the major forces in the ruling
structure pointed to doom. The Wafd, an all-national party which ran the
parliamentary system, managing to combine pashas and nationalist
capitalists m one coalition, had lost much of its popular aura by its
capitulation to the British during the war. The king, Farouk, had
transformed his entourage into a Florentine hotbed of nepotism,
sybaritism, and pimping. The British, the third element in the power
structure, were on the defensive throughout their colonial empire, the
object of universal detestation in Egypt, and badly weakened by the war.

THE outburst of the Cairo masses on January 26, 1952, which the entire
center of the city was burned to the ground, including most of the
foreign and fashionable structures, brought matters to a head. In
October of the preceding year, Mustafa Nahas, head of the Wafd ministry,
had submitted a project for abrogating the Anglo-Egyptian Treaty of
1936, in order to satisfy the universal popular demand to be free of any
form of occupation. Soon thereafter, Egyptian partisans began guerilla
attacks on the British forces in the Canal Zone, attacks which
culminated on January 19, 1952, in an almost frontal daylight assault on
the garrison at Tel El Kebir, the largest British munitions depot in the
Middle East. As the Egyptian auxiliary police were standing idly by or
even siding with the insurgents, the British commander sought revenge by
an attack on the police barracks, massacring about fifty in the process.
It was this which brought on the rising excitement, the union boycotts,
the student demonstrations, and finally the burning of Cairo. While the
Lacoutures bring much evidence to bear of provocation by the monarchy,
the fascist ‘Green Shirts,’ and the Moslem Brotherhood, there is little
doubt that, whatever the forces at work behind the scenes, the explosion
in Cairo on January 26 was the first day of a popular revolution. On
July 26, Farouk was forced to abdicate.

With the burning of Cairo, the old regime went up in smoke, but it took
six months for a new force to come forward. For the truth was that no
social class had the strength, the leadership, or the organization to
take over on its own. The capitalists were too few, too timid, too much
tied up with the discredited Wafd and with the old regime itself, to
constitute themselves as an independent political force. The
peasantry—despite its four uprisings on several of the largest estates
during 1951, put down with much bloodshed —-was completely without
organization or political consciousness beyond the most rudimentary.
Among the workers, while strikes flared throughout the preceding period
and radicalism had been growing since the middle of the war, there were
only weak unions and a Communist movement split into no fewer than ten
competing grouplets, none of which had been able to find a clear star of
policy to steer by in the fast-moving and complicated events. Besides,
the working class itself is still an amorphous grouping, embracing a
small number employed in the few huge vertical trusts and a large number
of employees in tiny scattered shops. So recent is the class that it
consists in considerable part of peasants whose families still live on
the land, and who have hardly been assimilated to city life. For all
these reasons, the infant working class could hardly have been expected
to make the decisive challenge to the old government.

ALL of this goes to explain why Egypt is today ruled by a ‘party’ of
some hundreds of army officers. The Bonapartist regime has been forced,
by the absence of any decisive solution to the tensions, to straddle the
contending social forces and provide an interim barracks order to a land
that could no longer live in its old pit but hadn’t the strength to
climb out of it.

The officers’ movement which was to furnish the new structure of
government can be traced back two decades. The Anglo-Egyptian Treaty of
1936 which gave Egypt a limited political independence at the price of
an indefinite]y prolonged British occupation, left many of the younger
generation deeply dissatisfied; a dissatisfaction which was increased by
repeated demonstrations of the weakness of the monarchy and the Wafd in
the contests with the British. A Wafd government decree of 1936 had
unwittingly sown a seed for the future by opening the Military Academy
at Abbassieh to young men regardless of class or wealth. The young
officers of the newly formed army were thus recruited in large measure
from among the sons of the peasantry and of lower grade civil servants,
a great many of whom chose the military profession as a way of seeking
revenge against the British occupiers. The army thus had a peculiarly
nineteenth-century, Garibaldiesqu appearance, staffed as it was by
patriotic Julien Sorel who had chosen the wearing of the ‘red’ as their
path from poverty to a career, by nationalist officers who devoured
books by Laski, Marx, Engels, Nehru, Bevan— Hitler !—and who met on
hilltops to swear oaths of revenge against the British and to make plans
for recruiting other officers to the groups that started to form as soon
as the first graduating class was posted to its assignments in 1938. The
most prominent among these rebellious young lieutenants of the class of
‘38 was Gamal Abdel Nasser. By the late forties his connections extended
throughout the army, and by 1950 he had founded a paper for the
movement, The Voice of the Free Officers.

When the guerrilla-campaign for the Canal began in 1951, the officers’
movement became a seething hive of excitement, forming commandos,
helping the partisans, and supplying arms. Up to this time the officers
considered themselves little different from the Wafd nationalists, but
after the burning of Cairo, and as it became obvious that the Wafd was
neither willing nor able to take action, the officers’ ‘party,’ for that
is what it in effect was, made plans for its long-prepared coup, which
went off successfully at the end of July 1952. General Mohamed Neguib
was selected as flag-bearer of the new regime, and for the first two
years served as chief of state, after which he was ousted in an internal
disagreement. But from the beginning the strongest man in the regime was
the lieutenant-colonel who had founded the Free Officers’ Movement years
before, Nasser.

THE losers are easy to name: the monarchy and the feudal pashas. But who
had won? The khaki-colored regime, despite its early protestations of
democracy and parliamentarianism, soon showed that it intended to impose
its will on all sections of the population, and by balancing itself
above the classes, carry out a national program that would presumably
benefit all. Blows were dealt against Left and Right, against workers
and landowners. Within a month, a strike at a big spinning mill owned by
the major Egyptian trust, the Misr Company, broke out. When the police
opened fire on the strikers, the enraged workers burned two of the
factory buildings, shouting: ‘Long live the army’s revolution, the
people’s revolution.’ But the ‘people’s revolution’ sent troops who
killed eight workers and wounded 20, arrested 200 workers, and sentenced
two of their leaders to death. These were the first victims of the

Then within a few months, a rich and powerful landowner who refused to
bow to the new regime, firing on and setting his dogs upon the surveyors
who had come to measure how much land he would have to hand out to his
fellahs under the agrarian reform, was dragged to Cairo in chains, where
he too was sentenced to die, a sentence which was in his case softened
to life imprisonment. The officers could point to a blow against the
Right to balance the blow against the Left. And so it continued. The
military police arrested 43 worthies of the old regime, and at the same
time suppressed all parties, including those of the Left, and created a
‘National Liberation Rally’ to supplant them. The aristocratic former
Regent, Colonel Rashid Mehanna, was placed on trial as a
counterrevolutionary with two dozen of his subalterns. At the same time,
the long series of Communist trials, which processed radicals in groups
of fifty, was begun, and the unions, deprived of the right to strike,
were placed under government supervision. A careful boxscore might show
that the large capitalists were hardly getting their share of lumps from
the new regime and that the workers and the Left were getting more than
their share. Yet even the big capitalists had been reduced in power,
could no longer bribe and manipulate with the same ease, and waited
impatiently for the army ‘wolves’ to slink back to their barracks. But
the army kept a tight rein, and the country settled down to life under a
council of a dozen officers, which rested upon a larger base, the
Society of Free Officers of about 250 members, which rested in turn upon
the 2,000 officers of the Egyptian Army.

NO matter how absolute their power, the officers could not conjure away
the set of problems which had created their crisis regime in the first
place. Like many dictators, they are themselves dictated to by
circumstances and pressures, from the semi-colonial position of the
country, from the growth of population, from the poverty of the
exploited. Forced to take measures, they have earned a measure of right
to the title of revolutionaries. The Lacoutures comment that ‘perhaps
the military government’s most fundamental claim to be revolutionary is
that at last, through them, Egypt was governed by Egyptians. In order to
grasp the revolutionary importance of the changeover we have to remember
that the old regime was led by a dynasty originating in Albania, with
Turkish customs, French caprices, English interests, a Levantine notion
of public morality, and an Italian background.’

‘A few months later men of an entirely different stamp were to be seen
in the Abdin Palace. Broad-shouldered, heavy of gait, deeply bronzed,
they trod gingerly across the carpets and knocked on the door before
entering their own offices. At night they returned to their modest
houses or their barracks at Helmieh or Manshiyat el Bakri. Thicknecked,
in their khaki shirts, they spoke in ringing tones, and brought bean
sandwiches with them which they ate in between their reading of the
files, and which they kept hidden in the drawers of their Empire desks.
They were Egyptians who for the first time since the Assyrian invasion,
that is to say for twenty-seven centuries, were the real masters of the
lower Nile Valley.’

Of the regime’s internal measures, the Agrarian Reform of 1952 is
undoubtedly the most revolutionary. It limits the possession of land to
300 feddans (315 acres). In a land where only some three percent of the
country is arable, this is quite large. Nevertheless, it made available
660,000 feddans of land for state purchase and distribution, apart from
180,000 feddans belonging to Farouk and 200 members of the royal family,
which were confiscated outright. The transfer of estates involves about
13 percent of the arable land, and the beneficiaries constitute under
ten percent of Egypt’s 18 million fellahs. A couple of hundred
agricultural cooperative societies, compulsory by law in the
re-distributed areas, organize production and marketing and try to
combine the advantages of large-scale operations with small-scale
ownership. Limited though the reform may be, it unquestionably has given
new life and increased income to a portion of Egypt’s most exploited
population. And, more important to the great mass of tenants, a
compulsory decrease in land rents, which has cut the average rent
approximately by half, has aided a far larger number of fellahs, about a
third of the peasantry. Within a few years, according to the
government’s statistics, the income of small farmers had been increased
by £30 million a year ($84 million), enabling them to consume for the
first time some of the poultry, eggs, and milk they produce.

But the most important result of the shakeup on the land is not economic
but political. The age-old feudal rule of the landed pashas has been
broken. The regional landowner-dominated principalities have given way
to a central authority which, while jealously dictatorial, has no vested
interest in the perpetuation of village poverty and miseries.

DESPITE this, little has been accomplished in meeting the basic economic
problems of the country. The workers, agricultural and city, are
probably worse off than in the past, in terms of standards of wages.
Industrialization proceeds at a snail’s pace. No solution has been found
to the desperate and growing over-population of the country in relation
to its present productive resources.

The basic trouble is that which afflicts all colonial countries: for
decades, as a result of imperialist domination and shaping of the
economy, it has been a one-resource land, producing its major crop for
export, in raw form, to the cotton mills of the capitalist nations.
Cotton accounts for more than a third of the national revenue, and with
rice, forms the speculative basis of the economy. Much of the effort of
the peasantry is drained off in the form of wealth for the larger
landowners and profits for the textile mills abroad. As in the other
colonial countries, the nation is abjectly dependent upon the world
market in its particular crop. In the years immediately following the
officers’ revolution, this was emphatically brought home by a sharp drop
in the world price of cotton, resulting in a severe depression on the
countryside, and a fail of wages and incomes. The government fought hack
by increasing the rice acreage at the expense of cotton, and by opening
new markets in the Soviet bloc, but none of this has changed the fact
that the country is chiefly dependent on the fortunes of one or two
major crops.

Nasser and his economic planners had hoped that much agricultural
capital, freed by the compulsory sale of large estates, would be
siphoned into industrial investment. The hope proved vain. Landowners
preferred to invest abroad, or in the quick-turnover luxury trades; they
had no faith in industry. Meanwhile, the compulsory reductions in upper
incomes reduced the market for manufactured goods without creating a
sufficient demand to compensate among the lower income groups: the
fellahs, as we have seen, are ‘splurging’ on food to supplement their
bean diets, the workers are not gaining in income, arid the middle class
is growing far too slowly.

IN the final analysis, Egypt cannot industrialize without massive
foreign help unless it can increase the amount of arable land. The whole
nation is crowded into the pathetically thin ribbon of Nile-watered and
-irrigated land. The food supply for the growing population and export
surpluses for financing industrialization cannot be ensured from this
tiny area by itself. Only a program of desert reclamation will
reinvigorate the agricultural economy and give the cities a surplus to
invest in industry, and even then, it is doubtful that the automatic
pull of the market would do the job; some form of government planning
would be required to ensure that the added wealth is kept in the country
and applied to constructive tasks.

The Aswan Dam project is seen by the regime as the basic answer.
Forty-five percent of the Nile water is wasted. There are fat years and
lean, drought and flood. The proposed High Dam announced by Nasser in
1954 would create a catch basin of 23,000 square miles, providing enough
water to increase the arable lands by 30 percent. The entire
agricultural setup would moreover be steadied, taken out of the Nile’s
erratic mercies. By reducing the underground waters, drainage costs
would be lowered by an estimated 24 percent. But the production of huge
quantities of cheap electric power would he the most important
consequence of the dam, making it possible to transform the face of
Egypt. Egypt at present consumes only about a third of a million
kilowatt hours, one of the lowest per capita supplies in the world. The
Aswan Dam, fully electrified, would produce ten thousand million
kilowatts an hour at a negligible cost. This in itself would provide the
basis for an industrial revolution of great pro. portions. This project
can raise the standard of living and end the disparity between the
country’s resources and its growing population. Egypt has few natural
resources apart from the Nile, but, when harnessed, the Nile can change
the face of a large part of North Africa. The total building costs for
the dam would reach some £400 million ($1,120 million) a sum which the
nation, even with its revenues from the nationalized Suez Canal, cannot
possibly raise without foreign aid. It is easy to see why for Egypt’s
new foreign policy has taken precedence above all other of government.

Important as the Aswan project is, it is hard to see solution of the
Egyptian problem by purely technical The hallmark of the present
military regime is while sincerely seeking the industrialization and
modernization of Egypt, it hopes to achieve that goal without breaking
up the old social structure. Apart from the monarchy and the pashas, the
power-structure remains ~ intact. The dictatorship has little more
authority over the direction of the economy than Nehru’s democracy, and
for if the same reason: The economy is, by and large, still in if the
hands of the same possessing classes. When the experience of China is
set against that of all those colonial countries which have tried to
make progress without a I basic social revolution, it is easy to see
that technical expedients are not enough; barriers which look
insuperable to a regime that has its hands tied by old social relations
may be leaped or circumvented by a regime that is free to make a fresh
economic start.

GENERAL Neguib, when he was in office, told an Egyptian diplomat: ‘My
dear ambassador, just explain to your friends that if we had not seized
power, others would have overthrown the monarchy and by other means.’
The Lacoutures write:

‘In the collusion which was constantly offered by the British and
Americans and which Nasser accepted) there was certainly an element of
ideological understanding, a common determination to block the passage
to a violent social revolution by offsetting it with technical reform
(the idea being less to bar the road to an imaginary Soviet invasion,
than to nip in the bud some Mao of the Nile Valley).’

These are insights into the motives of the military revolutionists, but
as the Lacoutures point out, they by no means define the entire process.
In its foreign relations, a regime which started out to make the most of
its ties with imperialism soon found that it was offered little
independence in return for its collaboration, and broke violently to
carry out some of the most striking anti-imperialist coups of recent
years. The limited technical reforms of its internal policy have grown
in implication, not because the changes have been so great, but because
the awakening of the people has been furthered, and because they sit in
judgment on the regime’s actions, and make demands and exert pressures.

Nasser’s regime is certainly a dictatorship masquerading as a
revolution, but it is also a dictatorship fulfilling some of the
obligations of a revolution, and initiating the trends and processes
which will make for more revolution in Egypt. So long as the military
can effectively substitute itself for the social struggle, keep the pot
boiling, and give at least the impression of forward motion, it can hold
sway. If it falters, the dispossessed nobles and landowners are on hand
to take over again, with imperialist help, unless the Egyptian working
class and peasantry have in the meantime so matured as to be able to
make the Nile Valley the scene of Africa’s first experiment in socialism.

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