Nezar AlSayyad is Professor of Architecture and Urban History, and Chair of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. He was raised in Cairo, and as a practicing architect has designed many buildings in the city. His Cairo: Histories of a City, forthcoming this spring, chronicles the many Cairos that have existed through the centuries, and the figures who have shaped them, including Hosni Mubarak. Below, in a piece co-written with Tara Graham, Publications Director of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Berkeley, AlSayyad identifies the powerful vested interests threatening this vulnerable moment of transition in Egypt.
“Egypt has passed through a critical period in her recent history characterized by bribery, mischief, and the absence of governmental stability . . . Accordingly, we have undertaken to clean ourselves up and have appointed to command us men from within the army whom we trust in their ability, their character, and their patriotism. It is certain that all Egypt will meet this news with enthusiasm and will welcome it.”
The statement above could have been uttered in the recent past by some YouTube revolutionary or Facebook organizer, but Free Officer Anwar Sadat made this early morning rally call nearly six decades ago, on July 23rd in 1952, when the Egyptian military launched a coup to overthrow the king. A few years later, the new republic swore in its first president.
The Egyptian people have long referred to that day in July as their liberation day, and Tahrir (or Liberation) Square in downtown Cairo owes its name to this early military revolt. It is both appropriate and ironic that the square became the site of the more recent revolution resulting in the removal of President Hosni Mubarak from power. Tahrir Square has certainly earned its name.
Mubarak, who stubbornly stood his ground in three successive speeches delivered during the course of the recent uprising, never announced his own resignation. In the end, he was most likely exiled by his Armed Forces, to whom he supposedly delegated his authority as president. It seems history has just repeated itself, but this time with the military ousting a president, instead of a king.
Today, as pundits of all political persuasions engage in speculation about the future of Egypt, it is important to take a more tempered attitude toward the prospects. It is not yet clear whether the Egyptian uprising will be a Velvet Revolution, as many have hoped, or an Iranian-style Islamic Revolution, but it is clear that all has not devolved into a Tiananmen Square crackdown. At least, not yet.
The country’s future now depends on the actions of the Egyptian military over the course of the next few months. While the five communiqués issued by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces give reason for optimism, they don’t readily reveal the military’s true stance on matters. The army may not have intervened to silence the anti-Mubarak protesters, but it maintained the same passivity when pro-Mubarak thugs went on the attack. The rationale here is unclear, but it’s worth noting that the military has much more to lose in the current environment than it has to gain.