James D. Le Sueur: Egypt and the Middle East, Stuck in the Past





[JAMES D. LE SUEUR is Professor of History at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln. He is the author of Algeria Since 1989: Between Terror and Democracy.]

Gamal Abdel Nasser pledged to thrust Egypt into the postcolonial time zone in 1952, when he wrested control of the government from the Egyptian monarch and the British Empire. As he wrote in his autobiographical essay, Egypt's Liberation, "The revolution marked the realization of a great hope felt by the people of Egypt since they began, in modern times, to think in terms of self-government and to demand that they have the final say in determining their own future." Unfortunately, almost 50 years later, Egyptians are still struggling to determine their own future. And now, with President Hosni Mubarak deposed, the aspirations of the people once again rest in the hands of the military.

Mubarak was just 24 years old when Nasser took power. He was part of a generation of leaders in the developing world who, like Nasser, came to view hegemonic nationalism as necessary and used the military to secure national unity at the expense of civic freedoms. When Mubarak took office after Anwar al-Sadat was assassinated, he rolled back Sadat's interior political reforms and repressed his political opponents, especially the Muslim Brotherhood.

It is safe to say that most of the protesters who filled Tahrir Square had an altogether different view of nationalism, the military, technology, ideology, and most important, time. Mubarak, however, subscribed to an outdated nationalist ideology that did not tolerate democratic discussion and was trapped in a view of the world that refused to account for change. For Mubarak, time stood still, so protesters clamoring for change made no sense historically to him.

Likewise, xenophobic Egyptian state propaganda presented the protesters as part of a foreign, almost neocolonial, conspiracy meant to undo the nation. As a result, the military -- which has been the beneficiary of autocracy and generous foreign aid packages from the United States and elsewhere -- found itself straddling the past and the future as it faced its first true crossroads since 1952. It had to make a decision about its place in time.

Many leaders within and outside the Middle East suffer from the same type of historical jetlag as Mubarak. As a result, they are similarly unable to keep pace with younger populations demanding political reform. Last month, activists in Tunisia chased 74-year-old Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali into exile, which emboldened Egyptians to get rid of Mubarak. With both men out of power, leaders from Algeria and Libya to Yemen have been put on notice....


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