Egypt’s crisis has been called the worst in its history, but in fact it bears a striking resemblance to a previous episode, almost 60 years ago.
On Feb. 28, 1954, almost a million protesters besieged Cairo’s Abdin Palace, then being used by future Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser and other leaders of the July 1952 coup. The protesters’ main demands were the restoration of Egypt’s fragile democratic institutions, the release of political prisoners and the army’s return to its barracks.
The two-month crisis of 1954 was sparked by the removal of former Egyptian president General Mohammed Naguib by Nasser and his faction. In common with this year, the Muslim Brotherhood was at the center of events, mobilizing on the side of the deposed Naguib, but following Nasser’s promises to hold elections in June 1954 and to hand over power to civilians.
One of the Brotherhood’s leaders, Abd al-Qadr Audeh, dismissed the protesters.
Nasser’s promises were empty. By November, his faction was victorious. Naguib remained under house arrest, leftist workers were executed and liberals were terrorized. Audeh was arrested and, in January 1955, he and five Brotherhood leaders were executed. Egypt lost its basic freedoms and democratic institutions for the next 56 years, until Feb. 11, 2011, when former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak was overthrown.
The similarities between February to March 1954 and the last two months are numerous. In both crises, zero-sum behavior and rhetoric, mobilization and counter-mobilization by a divided public, and deception by (and manipulation of) the media were the order of the day. More worrying are the similarities in potential outcomes. In 1954, a junta that regarded itself as being above the state destroyed a weak democratic order — that outcome is highly probable now as well.
There are differences between the two episodes, though.
In 1954, the conflict was wider than a power struggle between a president and a junta — it was also a battle over who would determine Egypt’s future, and the relationship between civilian and military institutions.
Surprisingly, the army back then was split between officers who wanted a civilian-led democracy and others who wanted a military-led autocracy. In the first camp were Khaled Mohyiddin, Ahmad Shawky, Yusuf Siddiq and others. Naguib played along. The second camp was led by Nasser and the majority of the junta represented in the Revolutionary Command Council.
The Brotherhood’s relationship with Egypt’s military is the result of a few critical events, including the 1954 demonstrations (and now this year’s coup). Bloodshed, particularly Nasser’s execution of Brotherhood leaders, increased the Brotherhood’s bitterness toward the army.
In June 1957, Nasser’s security forces allegedly opened fire on Brotherhood members in their prison cells, killing 21 and wounding hundreds.
A Brotherhood intellectual, Sayyid Qutb, started theorizing about a binary world, in which the forces of good (Party of God) would inevitably clash with the forces of evil (Party of Satan). His writings led directly to his execution in August 1966.
The consequences of the events of this year, like the consequences of Naguib’s removal in 1954, may not be recognized quickly, but once elected officials are removed by force, the outcomes are rarely favorable for democracy. In case after case — for example, Spain in 1936, Iran in 1953, Chile in 1973, Turkey in 1980, Sudan in 1989 and Algeria in 1992 — the results were tragic: military domination of politics with a civilian facade, outright military dictatorship, civil war or persistent civil unrest.