January vs. July

On the 60th anniversary to the 23 of July revolution, I like to think about the man who actually made it happen: Officer Yusef Sediq. Yusef was a communist member of the Free Officers movement who actually went and took over the Egyptian army’s headquarters, shooting tow soldiers in the process and imprisoning the army’s leadership, a full hour before Nasser and the rest of the movement started. If you are not familiar with this man and his story, don’t blame yourself: Nasser and his compatriots made sure to erase his contribution from the official history books, partly because it would tell people how to actually stage a similar revolution, and partly because they threw Sediq in the Gulag in 1954 for demanding the return of democracy to Egypt, and then kept him in house arrest until he died in 1975, the same fate that has befallen the other believer in democracy in the 1952 revolution, General and ex-President Mohamed Naguib.

The fact that the average Egyptian doesn’t know about Sediq’s story is due to the fact that it’s completely absent from the history books they thought us in school on purpose. Actually, there isn’t much that they thought us about the 1952 revolution in our history classes, apart from that it took place, and that everyone was seemingly happy about it and its achievements, from free education to land reform to the High dam. However, the 1952 revolution and its leaders had a huge effect on all of our lives, in ways most people don’t even imagine, and all of them were negative. So today, I will name my main issues with that revolution, and hopefully it will shed some lights on way the participants of the January 25 revolution believe their revolution was brought to end the 23rd of July one, and the concept of military rule.

The 23rd of July revolution ended democracy: One of the revolution’s first and longest-lasting achievements was the destruction of the concept of democracy in Egypt. It cancelled Parliament, dissolved parties, threw anyone whom they viewed as a political threat into prison, established the notion of strong-man rule that shouldn’t be opposed, questioned or challenged, a tradition that was carried by Nasser, Sadat and Mubarak. Even after Sadat brought back parties, they were not allowed to be anything other than the approved cartoonish opposition, a tradition that Mubarak carried through throughout his 30 years in power. This is why most parties , whether created before or after the January 25 revolution, are limping and unable to establish themselves in the Egyptian political scene today.

The 23rd of July revolution ended diversity: The 23rd of July revolution dealt with everyone in Egypt with the paranoid and xenophobic eyes of the military, viewing everyone who isn’t their definition of a pure-blood Egyptian as a spy/traitor at worst or an unwelcome intruder at best, a mindset we still suffer from to this day. Before the 1952 revolution Egypt was a hotbed of diversity, where people from various points of origin and religious backgrounds came here and co-existed peacefully. Once Nasser took power he first vilified the foreigners (Italians, Greeks, whatever) who lived here and forced them to leave, then vilified the Egyptian jewish population and also forced them to leave, a tradition that got carried through by his predecessors as well: Sadat was the first President to utilize a sectarian tone in Egypt, by stating that he is a Muslim President and that Egypt is officially a muslim country, and acting upon it, which started the process of Coptic migration out of Egypt, and Mubarak continued the sectarian tone with the Christian copts and added to it the vilifying of the Egyptian Shiites as agents of Iran. In a country where people of many faiths and origins were always welcome, the 23rd of July revolution and its aftermath had one message: Sunni Muslim Egyptians are the only true Egyptians, and everyone else is a second class citizen at best.

The 23rd of July revolution destroyed the arts: The 1952 revolution nationalized all film studios, music companies, recording studios, basically any means of production or distribution of music and cinema. It made all the actors into government employees (our Movie stars used to get monthly paychecks), and instructed them to make movies that were not political, offensive or dangerous to society (i.e. in opposition to their rule), which led to two decades of Egyptian cinema essentially creating the same love-story plot movie over and over again, sometimes adding a few bits of comedy, others heightening up the drama, but no one was allowed to create anything else until 1974, when the first private movie production company was allowed to be created, and even then the egyptian censorship board was there to prevent any movie whose idea was considered to be too daring or provocative to our military overlords. And despite of how bad this all is, it is nothing compared to what they did to the music industry.

Ever wonder why the pre-Jan 25 revolution music scene was populated only by pop musicians who only sang about patriotic songs or love songs? Or why you have very little information about the Egyptian music pre the 23rd of July revolution? Or why the stars of that era were AbdelHalim and Om Kalthoum? Or why very very few Egyptians know about Nadra, which was the queen of Arabic music before the revolution and the star of Ansohdet el Fouad, the first ever Arabic musical film, and whose talents so eclipsed Om Kalthoum’s that it was said that Om Kalthoum wouldn’t dare sit down in a room if Nadra was sitting? Well, mainly its due the fact that the officers decided that there is the right kind of art and the wrong kind of art, and the right kind was either patriotic or love-themed, and that they needed to create their own music stars – who were loyal to them- who would carry their messages in their songs, and completely sidelined or destroyed anyone who didn’t fit that bill. When Om Kalthoum went and reported to the officers that Nadra was against the revolution and pro the monarchy- for recording an old historic Othmani song that’s written for the Othman ruler-Nadra ‘s songs were immediately banned from playing on the radio and on TV and was not allowed to record another song after that. Also, her film reel was somehow lost and in the official music history books, it is now noted that ElWarda elBaydah was the first Arabic musical film, because it starred the regime-approved Mohammed Abdel Wehab. For at least twenty years no one other than regime-approved musicians could record anything other than regime-approved love or patriotic songs, which would then be broadcast in the regime-owned Radio (The only person who managed to escape this was Sheikh Imam, but mainly due to the fact that he was adopted by leftists activists, who made sure that his music survived those years). Even after the invention of the cassette tape and the private recording companies, the government still controlled the radio waves and wouldn’t allow the broadcasting of anything other the set criteria, and any other form of music was relegated to either Nighclubs or private recordings, but never the radio. The insanity that someone like Mohamed Adaweya would spend years unable to broadcast his songs on the radio, even though millions of Egyptians listened to him and bought his tapes, was never questioned, and still isn’t. Until this day, a year and a half after the revolution, we are still unable to listen to any kind of Arabic music on our radios except love songs or patriotic songs. The moment you hear DJ Amr Haha instead of Cairokee on the radio, that’s when you know that the radio waves got liberated.

The 23rd of July revolution ended government transparency: In the Egyptian state, there is an institution that got created in the days of Mohamed Aly that’s called the Hall of records, where every piece of government issued decision or paper was archived and accessible to the public, well, up to the 23rd of July revolution. Since that day, not a single piece of government paper was submitted or archived there, because the military regime believed that its affairs should be kept secret and away from public access. This not only ended government transparency, it also ended government accountability, and has kept the Egyptian people in the dark, till this day, as to how the affairs of their state are being run or how historic decisions- that are no longer secret- were even made. The importance of having those documents as part of the public record could not be overstated, not only for purposes of transperancy, accountability, or even academic history, but also to learn from historically bad decisions and to know our people. How insane is it that until this day we are not allowed to know the census information of Egypt, or how many Christians are there in the country? While the rest of the world was introducing freedom of information acts, some even going for open-meeting legislation that allow access to government meetings and not only records of them, our military-run government until this day resists the very notion of opening its books or archiving its documents.

The aim of the 23rd of July revolutionaries was to create a strong Egyptian state, and given that they were all military men who witnessed the armies of might super powers, they believed that military strength is the only way to make their country into a world power, and acted accordingly. They didn’t comprehend that the world powers were world powers not because they had advanced armies, but because their state had other foundations (social, political, cultural, economical) that made them strong and contributed to the strength of their military, and that without those foundations any state would be doomed to fail, the way theirs did over and over again.

This is why the 25th of January revolutionaries believe in their heart of hearts that their revolution came to end the 23rd of July revolution, because their values are in complete contradiction with each other. 23rd of July ended democracy and political life while the 25th of January demanded it; 23rd of July ended diversity and was xenophobic, while the 25th of January revolutionaries celebrates diversity and constantly battles the xenophobia; 23rd of July destroyed and controlled the arts, while the 25th of January has produced more inventive music and film in the past year and a half than the last 30 years combined; 23rd of July ended government transparency and accountability, the 25th of January happened as call for accountability and still demands transparency from the government in every decision it makes; And finally the 23rd of July revolution propped up and supported many regimes just like it (Assad’s Syria and Ghaddafi’s Libya for example), while the 25th of January revolution inspired the citizens of those countries to topple those regimes. To say that the 25th of January revolution is an extension to the 23rd of July revolution is an outright lie propagated by a military whose rule has ruined this country in every way and tries desperately to save its legacy. The only connection that the 25th of January revolution has with the 23rd of July one is that the latter drove the country so off-course, that the former had to happen to stop it.

Comments

  1. Sandmonkey, – absolutely great essay.
    Thanks for this excellent piece of ‘investigative’ analysis of the 1952 military putsch and its aftermath in Egypt and in particular its consequences not only in and for Egypt,
    but also – serving as a misleading and bad example – in neighbouring countries like Libya etc.

  2. Mahmoud, your writing gives me hope for Egypt’s future. Even when your frustration, outrage and passion for democracy seems hopelessly pitched against an ocean of ignorance, you struggle on against tides that would crush most people.
    Others in Egypt do too. You have been courageous enough to make your voice heard. It will take time before the chorus of voices like yours grows louder and sings in harmony but it will happen.

    You discuss bids for democracy and compare revolutions. It makes an interesting read. With all of my heart, I hope that Egypt can build the foundations of a decent society for all citizens to thrive in. I wish I were more optimistic. People like you give me hope that all is not lost – yet.