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Taking the Long View on Egypt’s Revolution: Cook’s “Struggle For Egypt”

July 6, 2012

Steven Cook’s recent book on the political development of Egypt, The Struggle for Egypt: From Nasser to Tahrir Square, (Oxford University Press, 2011) traces political change from the pre-Nasser era to the Egyptian Revolution and fall of Hosni Mubarak in 2011.  To do so, he divides Egyptian political history into three main eras:

1. the rise of the Free Officer’s movement and the Nasser era,
2. the rise of Sadat and the transition to a more liberalized economy and the peace treaty with Israel, and
3. the Mubarak era and the demonstrations that led to his fall.

While describing the histories of each of the three regimes, Cook attends to the key theme of nationalism running like a leitmotif through Egypt’s political history, as well as the changing role(s) of the Muslim Brotherhood as an alternative and opposite organization to the state, with a very different vision of Egypt, and he articulated the impacts of both nationalist discourse and Muslim Brotherhood actions to the struggles with the state epitomized in Tahrir Square.


All three leaders sought to appeal to Egyptians’ sense of nationalism, Cook argues, as a reaction to England’s long colonial rule and the efforts by Egyptians to overcome foreign control. However, the only one who could convincingly pull off this stance was Nasser in the immediate aftermath of World War II and the era of de-colonization.

While Sadat and Mubarak both tried to paint themselves as nationalists, the fact that so much of their economic and foreign policies were closely tied to the United States and multi-national institutions meant that they were seen by many Egyptians as tools of foreign interests, and thus as compromising Egyptian sovereignty.  This proved deeply unpopular with the Egyptian people, whose experience of foreign interaction has historically been one of subjugation, first under the Persian Empire, then the Ottoman, and finally the British. Egyptians in general tend to be deeply suspicious of any foreign power that seeks to influence events in Egypt.

This mistrust of foreign alliances with the Egyptian government (along with other discontentment among the Egyptian population) would explode during the regime of Hosni Mubarak, and lead eventually to the fall of the system that the Free Officers had set up in 1952.

Nasser’s Egypt

In the period immediately preceding the Free Officer’s coup of June 1952, Egypt was in chaos politically.  In the thirty years since the British had granted the country nominal independence, 34 different governments had held power under King Farouk.  In addition, the humiliation of the 1948 war with Israel had led to deep discontentment with the government amongst ordinary Egyptians.

The Free Officers were quick to seize on this unhappy public mood, and in 1952 overthrew the monarchy.  After a year and a half under Muhammad Naguib, Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser assumed the presidency, and, over the next 16 years, radically changed Egypt.  In addition, Nasser set up the authoritarian system that would govern Egypt for almost sixty years.

In terms of foreign policy, Nasser’s reign centered around anti-colonialism, an effect of the long British colonization of the country.  The most dramatic act of the first half of his presidency was to nationalize the Suez Canal, which was at the time controlled by the British and the French, and garrisoned by British troops.

In the ensuing chaos, the Egyptian military was badly defeated by the coalition of Great Britain, France, and Israel (who, by the end of the brief conflict, controlled almost the entire Sinai Peninsula). In spite of this, Nasser was able to emerge as an Arab hero due to the fact that he stood up to the western powers, which was extremely powerful symbolically in the era of decolonization immediately following the Second World War.

Not only did his popularity in Egypt soar, but Nasser came to be seen as the most important Arab leader in the anti-imperialist struggle, which he used to turn Egypt into the most important power in the region.  As a result, the period of Nasser’s reign saw the strengthening of Soviet-Egyptian relations (even though Nasser was instrumental in the formation of the International Non-Aligned Movement).

Another hallmark of Nasser’s foreign policy was the idea of Pan-Arabism, the notion of the close cooperation of Arab states against what they perceive as enemies of the Arab world, as well as the possible unification of the Arab states.  This latter idea came to fruition in 1958, when Egypt and Syria formed the United Arab Republic, with Nasser as president.  However, the union was doomed to failure, as the Syrians chafed at being under the effective control of Cairo, and seceded from the republic in 1961, even though both countries would continue to cooperate closely in terms of foreign policy, especially vis-à-vis Israel and in resistance against the West.

The third major part of Nasser’s foreign policy was an almost continual state of war with Israel. Even when there was no formal state of war between the two countries, there were still skirmishes on the Israeli-Egyptian border, with Egyptian government-sponsored Fedayeen crossing the frontier to raid Kibbutzim on the border, and the IDF responding with raids into the Sinai.  Much of this can be tied into Nasser’s anti-imperialist stance, as much of the Arab world viewed (and continues to view) the Jewish state as an enclave of European imperialism and colonialism.

However, Nasser’s policy towards Israel can only be deemed a failure since it ultimately led to the greatest catastrophe Egypt had experienced in years, the loss of the Sinai Peninsula during the Six Day War. The extent of this disaster to Egypt’s national pride can be shown by the fact that Nasser resigned the presidency on the tenth of June (however, the Egyptian people and the Middle East at large rejected this, and he retracted the decision the next day).

Even after this humiliation Nasser’s policies towards Israel did not change. The regime was one of the chief backers of the Khartoum Resolution, which advocated the “three no’s”: no recognition of Israel, no peace with Israel, no negotiation with Israel. However, it is a measure of the damage the war had on Nasser’s reputation that he did not chair the summit.  That honor went to King Faisal of Saudi Arabia.

Nasser also launched the War of Attrition against Israeli positions in the Sinai at the beginning of 1968, though this failed to dislodge the IDF from their positions on the Bar Lev Line.

Nasser’s economic policy was centered around the concept of Arab Socialism.  This included the redistribution of wealth on a large scale, as well as redistributing land in order to curb the power of the local elites.  In this he was successful, and many of his policies were popular with the Egyptian masses, enabling him to cast himself as a populist, something radically different from the two presidents that came after him.  The economy under Nasser was a purely Statist model, and for a time the economy grew at a fast pace.  However, towards the end of the 1960’s, growth would tail off and Egypt would rack up a large debt.

Sadat’s Egypt

Cook depicts the rise of Anwar Sadat as centered around one key event- the crossing of the Suez Canal during the 1973 war with Israel.

Although he was Nasser’s vice-president, prior to the crossing he was seen as a weak figure who would never wield much power, and would be unable to reform the economic system Nasser had put in place. But then he became “the hero of the crossing.”

Though hardly a resounding military victory for Egypt, the crossing of the Canal restored the pride of the Egyptian people that had been shattered by the Six Day War, and Sadat was able to gainconsiderable personal prestige as the leader who had restored Egypt’s standing in the Middle East.

Sadat was able to use the prestige gained by the crossing to implement sweeping economic reforms.  Known as the Infitah (openness), these reforms included a de-emphasis on the statist economy established by Nasser (though many of the apparatuses of this system remained), as well as attracting foreign direct investment and strengthening the private sector.  As a result of these reforms, Egypt’s economy grew at a macroeconomic level, but many among the Egyptian lower class suffered, their frustrations culminating in the 1977 “Bread Riots,” sparked by the government cutting off subsidies on certain foodstuffs on the recommendations of the World Bank.  While the Sadat regime scaled back its subsidy cuts in the face of the popular protests, the overall liberalization of the economy continued for the rest of Sadat’s rule.

The other major change during the regime of Anwar Sadat was the reorienting of Egyptian foreign policy. Under Nasser, Egypt was a firm Soviet ally, and was dedicated to a perpetual state of war with Israel.  This was to change radically under Sadat.  While the 1973 Yom Kippur War was an inauspicious beginning for relations with Israel, Sadat would eventually become best known for both recognizing the state of Israel (the first Arab nation to do so) and for formally signing a peace treaty with the Israelis, ending almost three decades of war.  In the course of normalizing relations with Israel, Sadat also drew closer to the United States, which would become the most important relationship in Egyptian foreign policy for the next thirty years.

However, these changes did not come without a price. Egypt was almost immediately cast as a pariah in the eyes of the other Arab states for violating the Khartoum Resolution of 1967 (“the three no’s”), which severely harmed Egypt’s claim to be the leader of the Arab world. Indeed, Egypt’s membership in the Arab League was suspended (and it remained the only state to have its membership suspended until Libya in 2011).

Recognition of Israel also led directly to the assassination of Sadat by officers in the Egyptian Army who were members of the militant opposition group Egyptian Islamic Jihad, which was led by Ayman al-Zawahiri, who would later go on to lead Al-Qaeda.

Mubarak’s Egypt

In the wake of Sadat’s assassination, former commander of the air force and current vice president Hosni Mubarak assumed the powers of the presidency.

Mubarak’s presidency centered on maintaining the stability of the regime (which would backfire in the end), as well as maintaining close ties with the United States (though Cook sees these relations as cooling in the five years prior to the revolution), preserving the peace with Israel, and trying to undo some of the liberalization policies that were put in place by Sadat (although a return to the Statist model of Nasserism was out of the question).

While these policies kept him in power for almost three decade, they would ultimately be his undoing.

Much of Mubarak’s domestic policy was centered on ensuring his own survival.  He expanded the authoritarian apparatus put in place by Nasser and consolidated by Sadat.  Much of this effort was directed at the low-level Islamist insurgency that took place during the 1990’s, led by the group Al-Gama’a Al-Islamiyya. Indeed, Mubarak justified his repressive actions to the United States by saying that it was necessary to use these measures in order to keep the Islamists (including the quasi-legal Muslim Brotherhood) out of power, and in doing so ensure the stability of the entire Middle East.

Mubarak did institute cosmetic reforms, such as reducing direct censorship of the press, and allowing elections that were technically multi-party.  These reforms were “cosmetic” in that they took place against the backdrop of an ever-expanding police state (though the autocracy was never as extensive as those of Saudi Arabia or Syria).  Police powers were augmented by an emergency law that protected them from reprisals.

Dissent was virtually forbidden, with bloggers and activists who criticized the regime routinely jailed and tortured.  The most high profile case was that of Ayman Nour, the leader of Al-Ghad opposition party who ran against Mubarak in the 2005 elections and was arrested immediately afterward (he was released in 2009).  The expansion of the police state and lack of political freedom and freedom of speech was one of the main causes of the Egyptian Revolution of 2011.

Mubarak’s foreign policy was complicated.  Although nominally supportive of the United States (even to the extent of sending Egyptian troops to aid in Operation Desert Storm and tacitly supporting American action against Iraq and Afghanistan), relations between the two countries cooled in the years after the September 11th attacks due George W. Bush’s democracy promotion agenda, which Mubarak saw as a threat to the stability of the regime.

Much the same can be said of relations with Israel during this period.  While the two countries remained at peace, relations were not exactly friendly, as Egypt took a less prominent role in peace negotiations, and Mubarak even went so far as to blame Israel for the rise of Islamic terror in the previous decade.  This shift in rhetoric can be seen most likely as an attempt to gain the support of the Egyptian people who, regardless of the peace treaty, have remained hostile to the Jewish state and unhappy with the regime’s natural gas sales to Israel and enforcement of the Gaza blockade, and Arab regimes have always used Israel as a convenient whipping boy in order to keep public opinion away from their own failures.

Ultimately, Mubarak’s foreign policy in substance was largely unchanged from Sadat’s, even though the rhetoric towards Israel and the United States did undergo a shift in latter years.

Economically, Mubarak sought to undo some of the liberalization policies that Sadat had advocated, while still running a mainly free market economy.  While Egypt’s performance on a macroeconomic level improved under Mubarak (it was frequently cited as one of the fastest growing economies in the region), inequality was not only widespread, but the gulf between rich and poor expanded tremendously. Ultimately, this became one of the main reasons for the revolution of 2011.

In addition, corruption was rampant in Mubarak’s regime, with governmental officials enriching themselves at the expense of the Egyptian masses.  The continued shift from state to private ownership became a tool through which assets moved into the hands of businessmen connected to the Mubarak family. This corruption was one of the main causes of the revolution of 2011.

That this form of  economic corruption was likely to continue indefinitely was epitomized by the widespread belief that Mubarak was going to install his son Gamal as his successor upon his death (it was widely assumed by all that the elder Mubarak would die in office).

Gamal was widely seen as a symbol of the regime’s corruption, and his association with Bank of America persuaded many Egyptians that he was a tool for international financial organizations to run Egypt.  The looming nepotism offended many Egyptians, and was further proof that Egypt under Mubarak was not a real democracy.

The Muslim Brotherhood

Another prominent theme running through the book was the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood and the organization’s changing relations with the Egyptian state.

Initially the Brotherhood was on close terms with the military. The army even offered to protect Brotherhood members fighting in Palestine when King Farouk outlawed the organization in 1948.

Relations with Nasser’s government quickly deteriorated after the assassination attempt of 1954, the aftermath of which saw the banning of the Muslim Brotherhood and the imprisonment of many of its members.

In the ensuing decades, the Brotherhood continued to operate in varying degrees of openness, with periodic crackdowns on the group.  However, the Brotherhood’s organization remained strong, and on occasion was able to provide services to the Egyptian people that the government could not, most notably in the aftermath of the 1992 Cairo earthquake, when the Brotherhood was able to establish relief operations that were far more adequate than the governmental response.

It is extremely important to recognize the long history of charitable services performed by the Brotherhood over decades, in order to understand the sweeping victory of the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party in the parliamentary elections of 2011-2012. They were able to cast themselves as the opposition party with the longest history, and the party that could best identify with ordinary Egyptians, due to the religious foundations of the party as well as the repression the Brotherhood had suffered during the previous sixty years. In addition, they successfully represented themselves as the party with the best organization to stabilize and lead Egypt in the post-Mubarak era.

Cook’s book offers a good, sweeping introduction to the political history of modern Egypt. Those already familiar with Egypt’s history won’t find a lot new here, and may find themselves disagreeing here and there with Cook’s interpretations of the relations between different events, but those new to the study of the region will likely find it an informative, clear and cogent text capturing the story of Egypt’s changing regimes.

Review by Jack Nelson and Mark Allen Peterson


Cook, Steven A. 2011. The Struggle for Egypt: From Nasser to Tahrir Square. Oxford University Press.

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