ישראל נאמן | Lectures, Articles, Tours: Israel | Mideast onTarget | Elliot Chodoff & Yisrael Ne'eman | Egypt 40 Years Later

Egypt 40 Years Later

22 October 2013

By Yisrael Ne'eman.

For the Arab World the 1973 October (or Yom Kippur) War is the Ramadan War. Today in parallel Israelis and Egyptians are looking back four decades and asking themselves what truly changed in their societies as a result of such a major event. In Israel the issues of overconfidence, complacency, the fall of Labor and the Left, the rise of the Likud, the Land of Israel settlement movement led by Gush Emmunim and the peace with Egypt (and later Jordan) are all discussed. Today's society is much more religious, capitalist, technologically driven and individualist as opposed to yesteryear.

But what of Egypt 40 years after the Ramadan War? The war is remembered as a great victory whether one is blinded to the final military outcome or not. For those who only see the first week or so of the conflict, there was a full military victory in the crossing of the Suez Canal with the vanquishing of the Israeli defensive Bar Lev line. The subsequent failure to break out by the Egyptian Army towards Israel's Negev is not discussed nor is the Israeli counterattack led by Ariel Sharon's crossing of the Canal to the west, the encirclement of the Egyptian Third Army and the eventual threat to Cairo itself. For those more in the know the acknowledgement of the Israeli upper hand after almost three weeks of battle is insignificant. Seeing the whole picture these Egyptians (usually the more secular intellectual types) view the ensuing diplomatic process, the 1979 Peace Agreement and the Israeli withdrawal from Sinai as the true consequences of the conflict. Where Israeli forces stood when the cease-fire ensued is considered to be a temporary technical issue. They have a point. The Egyptian Army became the great celebrated heroes and unifying factor throughout the society.

But Israel gained a peace agreement. "Yes," they will answer, "but a cold peace, one between governments." Egyptians, including many of the secular, western educated will note that no real peace exists between Jewish nationalism and the Arab people. Here the Palestinian issue is invoked and the underlying hostile attitudes of the 1970s remain. But of course Egyptians are conditioned to peace on their eastern front and the influx of Israeli tourists.

The real issues relate to what transpires inside of Egypt. In 1966 President Gamal Abdul Nasser, the greatest Arab nationalist of the 20th century had the leading Islamist intellectual Sayyed Qutb, executed. Where was Egypt in the 1970s when Sadat succeeded Nasser upon his death? Today there are clashes between the military dominated state authority and the deposed Muslim Brotherhood. In those days the Brotherhood was a repressed group attempting to take advantage of the power vacuum when Sadat stepped into Nasser's shoes in Sept. 1970. Simultaneously the communist leaning Arab Socialist Union challenged from the left and Sadat crushed both before embarking on his campaign against Israel. Whereas the ASU never recovered the Brotherhood enjoyed great support, even if they faced repression.

Sadat ditched the Soviets and shifted to the Western camp but did not adopt democracy. He allowed for more Islamic expression but for the still outlawed Brotherhood this was far from enough. They issued a fatwa demanding Sadat's death for signing a peace with Israel in 1979. Assassination was duly implemented in Oct. 1981, exactly eight years from the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War. Egypt remained a pro-American praetorian state. Under Mubarak there was economic development whereby the per capita GDP quintupled over a 30 year period to some $6,500. The population grew to 85 million as did the social gap. Mubarak by 2005 granted some Islamist expression, allowing the Brotherhood to run as "independents" for the People's Assembly where they took 20% of the vote (88 seats). Fearing popular support for the Islamists in 2010 the government rigged the elections reducing the MB to one seat. A spark was lit and revolution was on the way. The January 25, 2011 demonstrations initially led by the more secular left leaning younger generation gave way to the rise of the well organized Muslim Brotherhood.

This summer Egypt became a militarily dominated state once again. Throughout 2011-13 the three way tensions between military, secularism and the Islamism of the Muslim Brotherhood exploded. Mubarak was thrown out and although the military was poised to rule, general elections in 2012 swept the Muslim Brotherhood to power in a parliamentary landslide victory and a close presidential contest. Mohammed Morsi now led the nation. Legal decrees by the military prevented parliament from convening but the Egyptian people's voice was clear giving the Islamist parties over 75% of the vote. Any sort of liberal secular agenda was barely noticed. Supporters of the former regime found themselves in hopeless opposition. But 40 years later the military were still heroes and continued to be a major player behind the scenes.

Morsi's economic failures and attempts at imposing Islamic (Sharia) law on Egypt destined him for failure. He further challenged the military by forcibly retiring Chief of Staff Gen. Tantawi, the real power in the Land of the Nile. Secular Egyptians and the military waited for more discontent to set in and struck on June 30 when millions took to the streets demanding Morsi's ouster. In early July the freely elected Muslim Brotherhood president was arrested by the military in what many consider a coup, yet an "illegal" move supported by much of the people. Gen. A-Sisi took power installing an interim government. Clashes with and persecution by the army continued against the Brotherhood leaving hundreds killed and thousands arrested in ensuing clashes. Forty years after the October War Egypt is embroiled in what may evolve from a civil conflict to an outright war as there are increasing terror attacks against state, military and police targets. In particular the Sinai Peninsula is a haven for Al Qaeda and other terrorists.

Egypt must be seen in the context of the greater Middle East. The border with Israel is no longer secure, the Arab World is in turmoil, especially Syria and Iraq, and there appear to be no solutions in sight. Yet the Egyptian military enjoys a fair amount of support even if they may have moved too quickly against Morsi and the MB in early summer.

The military as the secular catalyst in Egypt began 200 years ago. Modernization can be traced back to the Albanian ruler Muhammed Ali and the enlightenment influences he brought into Egypt in the early 1800s. Some accredit him as being the first to introduce an Egyptian nationalism, but this is an overstatement. He did push for a more rationalist approach and equality, having himself learned from the Europeans and especially the French. He invested heavily in the Egyptian army, was sent by the Turkish sultan to vanquish the great Wahhabist uprising emanating in Arabia after the sacking of cities and Shiite holy shrines in Iraq. Eventually his son rebelled against the Sultan himself but failed to achieve final victory due to European intervention. However by the mid 19th century it was clear that the military, secularism and modernity were intertwined to build the force necessary for Egypt to make its mark as a local power. Secular nationalism and full independence were expressed politically in the aftermath of WWI but many looked to the military as enforcers. It was not until 1956 and the end of the Suez Crisis that Egyptians finally shook off direct British influence (they had a presence in Egypt since the 1880s due to a default). By then Nasser was at the helm in his war with Israel (who enjoyed British and especially French support. The Egyptian Army lost militarily but solidified a full diplomatic victory over all three by 1957. This was Israel's first withdrawal from Sinai.

The Muslim Brotherhood led by Hassan al-Banna organized against any secular regime to be, was involved in terror attacks and assassinations before Nasser took power in the 1950s. Not long after Nasser and the Free Officers overthrew King Faruk in 1952 the Islamists saw the newly installed military turned civilian leadership as tainted by Western secularism and continued their agitation against the new rulers. In response the Brotherhood was purged.

The difference between today and 40 years ago is two-fold. The MB is much stronger despite suffering recent setbacks. The Islamists passed the test at the polls, this including the al-Qaeda leaning Salafists who garnered 25% of the popular vote for parliament and accuse the Brotherhood (who gained 49%) of being far too liberal in their understanding of Islam. Moderates or the less ideological may have shifted back towards supporting the military but one can estimate hard core Islamist support at some 40% if not more. Having tasted political victory and rule, Brotherhood surrender is not an option.

Egyptian dilemmas reflect those of the entire Arab Muslim world. There is no agreed upon definition of identity. How is society ruled? Does one adhere to Sharia Law or to secular legislation made by the leaders of the nation state, whether freely elected or not? There is no unity of mission and purpose, so much so that civil strife, regime repression and acts of terrorism continue unabated. The Islamists and particularly the Brotherhood may be seen as having lost the last round, but they are certainly not knocked out and one can be assured we will continue hearing from them. The secular leaning military are still viewed as heroes but their Islamist opposition is far from defeated. Far from the 1970s, today's Brotherhood and Salafists are better organized, have tested their appeal at the polls, and at least in the case of the former, consider themselves the rightful rulers of Egypt.

The battle will continue well into the future, reflecting overall Middle Eastern trends. A long drawn out clash can be expected. No one should count out a Muslim Brotherhood victory at some future date.