Harry Braverman

The Nasser Revolution

(January 1959)

From American Socialist, January 1959. [1]
Copied from the American Socialist Archive in ETOL.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.
Proofread by Chris Clayton (July 2006).

When the smoke of the Egyptian revolution cleared away, it was easy to see who were the losers: the monarchy and the landed pashas. But who were the winners? What is the military regime doing inside the country, now that Egypt rules itself?

HOW Egypt, one of the world’s poorest and weakest countries, became a country of importance in half a decade is pretty well known. The army regime that deposed King Farouk had, at first, no other aim than to come to terms with the West in order to get arms – chiefly to threaten or use against Israel – and to get economic aid for industrializing the country. The protracted negotiations with Washington, however, always seemed to add up to one thing: Nothing but mouth-watering promises would be forthcoming until Egypt agreed to join the Western military bloc and to permit American bases and military missions on its soil. But the young officers in charge of the country were not disposed to imperil the independence they had just begun to establish. They thus started the triangular game of playing off the major cold-war antagonists against each other. In 1955, Nasser participated in the Bandung Conference, and later the same year announced the purchase of arms from the Soviet bloc. He negotiated with both sides for aid in building a high dam at Aswan, and while Washington reneged on its commitment, the Moscow string to Nasser’s bow is now bringing results. In the meanwhile, the new regime answered Western withdrawal from its earlier commitment on the Aswan Dam by taking over the Suez Canal, and saved itself from imperialist wrath with the help of the Russian counter-balance. More recently, Egypt has joined with Syria and Yemen to form the United Arab Republic, has won a battle in Iraq, and in general, by a policy of impudent independence and bold maneuvers, has raised its own strength on the Middle Eastern chessboard far above its former rating as despised and ignominious pawn.

All of this has been told in the headlines of the last five years. But far less information has been forthcoming about the state of affairs in Egypt itself. Hard as it is for Western readers to piece together an accurate picture from the scraps and fragments of the daily and periodical press, it becomes well-nigh impossible in the present state of our informational services. As in so many other fields, the cold war has driven truth into hiding: Nasser is a ‘fascist-Hitlerite dictator’ in pursuit of ‘foreign adventures’ to distract his people from their poverty; he is the chief ‘aggressor’ in the Middle East. Or, on the other hand, he is a ‘peace-loving Nehruite’ and a ‘colonial revolutionary.’ These Hollywoodized stereotypes of ‘good guy’ and ‘bad guy’ add very little to our knowledge of the complex forces at play in Egypt. We are thus fortunate in having a fine new book, Egypt in Transition (Jean and Simonne Lacouture, Criterion Books, New York, 1958, $7.50), which gives an uncommonly complete and sensitive picture of the developments since the coup against the old regime in July 1952. The authors, a French couple, have supplemented their years of residence and observation in Egypt with exhaustive research, and have assembled the whole with careful objectivity, not to say skepticism. Although it carries the story up to as late as February 1958, it has already been published and acclaimed in France, and made available in this joint British-American edition. Anyone who can’t get the details, problems, and policies of the new regime straight has only himself to blame, now that this book is on the market.

POST-World War II Egypt was in the all-too-common position of a nation whose social classes find it impossible to muster the strength to get out of their impasse. Of the peasantry, which embraces the vast majority of the population, there is hardly any need to speak; it was, and still remains, almost entirely sunk in the immemorial poverty, disease, and debility of the Nile Valley, mustering barely enough energy to keep alive, and all but dead to the national problems of Cairo and Alexandria. Even the hope of a solution to the land problem had been virtually extinguished by the peculiar Egyptian situation, in which the entire agricultural economy is concentrated in a thin strip of alluvial mud bordering the Nile, resulting in a rural overcrowding as bad as that to be found anywhere in the world. It was not the peasantry which took the lead for change; the ferment came chiefly among the city classes.

Both World Wars put huge Western armies on Egyptian soil, and at the same time sharply reduced the import of foreign goods. As would be expected, the result was a considerable growth in Egyptian industry to meet the new market and the curtailed supplies. Where, before the first World War, Egypt seemed nothing but an immense cotton plantation for the benefit of the textile trade and a fascinating playground for archaeologists, it now began to take on a Western appearance. Egyptian industry and commerce, even on a small scale, meant inevitably the undermining of the feudal orders and the encroachment of a new social arrangement, with a middle and upper class of trade and manufacture, and a city working class. Along with this came the usual accompaniment: nationalism, radicalism, strivings of independence and social reform. Revolts in the inter-war period won a measure of independence, including even the evacuation of British troops from Egyptian territory outside the Canal Zone, but Britain retained the final say in all major matters of foreign and domestic policy, both by formal agreement and informal pressures.

After the second World War, an increasing popular pressure, from the working class which had increased in size by 35-40 percent during the war, from the nationalistic capitalists, from the students, and from the vast miscellaneous throngs of the major cities – so hard to describe in social terms but so important to the popular politics of the Middle East – made the status quo ever harder to maintain. Demonstrations shook the regime, but even when relative calm prevailed, the internal rot, weakness, and loss of confidence of all the major forces in the ruling structure pointed to doom. The Wafd, an all-national party which ran the parliamentary system, managing to combine pashas and nationalist capitalists m one coalition, had lost much of its popular aura by its capitulation to the British during the war. The king, Farouk, had transformed his entourage into a Florentine hotbed of nepotism, sybaritism, and pimping. The British, the third element in the power structure, were on the defensive throughout their colonial empire, the object of universal detestation in Egypt, and badly weakened by the war.

THE outburst of the Cairo masses on January 26, 1952, which the entire center of the city was burned to the ground, including most of the foreign and fashionable structures, brought matters to a head. In October of the preceding year, Mustafa Nahas, head of the Wafd ministry, had submitted a project for abrogating the Anglo-Egyptian Treaty of 1936, in order to satisfy the universal popular demand to be free of any form of occupation. Soon thereafter, Egyptian partisans began guerilla attacks on the British forces in the Canal Zone, attacks which culminated on January 19, 1952, in an almost frontal daylight assault on the garrison at Tel El Kebir, the largest British munitions depot in the Middle East. As the Egyptian auxiliary police were standing idly by or even siding with the insurgents, the British commander sought revenge by an attack on the police barracks, massacring about fifty in the process. It was this which brought on the rising excitement, the union boycotts, the student demonstrations, and finally the burning of Cairo. While the Lacoutures bring much evidence to bear of provocation by the monarchy, the fascist ‘Green Shirts,’ and the Moslem Brotherhood, there is little doubt that, whatever the forces at work behind the scenes, the explosion in Cairo on January 26 was the first day of a popular revolution. On July 26, Farouk was forced to abdicate.

With the burning of Cairo, the old regime went up in smoke, but it took six months for a new force to come forward. For the truth was that no social class had the strength, the leadership, or the organization to take over on its own. The capitalists were too few, too timid, too much tied up with the discredited Wafd and with the old regime itself, to constitute themselves as an independent political force. The peasantry – despite its four uprisings on several of the largest estates during 1951, put down with much bloodshed – was completely without organization or political consciousness beyond the most rudimentary. Among the workers, while strikes flared throughout the preceding period and radicalism had been growing since the middle of the war, there were only weak unions and a Communist movement split into no fewer than ten competing grouplets, none of which had been able to find a clear star of policy to steer by in the fast-moving and complicated events. Besides, the working class itself is still an amorphous grouping, embracing a small number employed in the few huge vertical trusts and a large number of employees in tiny scattered shops. So recent is the class that it consists in considerable part of peasants whose families still live on the land, and who have hardly been assimilated to city life. For all these reasons, the infant working class could hardly have been expected to make the decisive challenge to the old government.

ALL of this goes to explain why Egypt is today ruled by a ‘party’ of some hundreds of army officers. The Bonapartist regime has been forced, by the absence of any decisive solution to the tensions, to straddle the contending social forces and provide an interim barracks order to a land that could no longer live in its old pit but hadn’t the strength to climb out of it.

The officers’ movement which was to furnish the new structure of government can be traced back two decades. The Anglo-Egyptian Treaty of 1936 which gave Egypt a limited political independence at the price of an indefinitely prolonged British occupation, left many of the younger generation deeply dissatisfied; a dissatisfaction which was increased by repeated demonstrations of the weakness of the monarchy and the Wafd in the contests with the British. A Wafd government decree of 1936 had unwittingly sown a seed for the future by opening the Military Academy at Abbassieh to young men regardless of class or wealth. The young officers of the newly formed army were thus recruited in large measure from among the sons of the peasantry and of lower grade civil servants, a great many of whom chose the military profession as a way of seeking revenge against the British occupiers. The army thus had a peculiarly nineteenth-century, Garibaldiesqu appearance, staffed as it was by patriotic Julien Sorel who had chosen the wearing of the ‘red’ as their path from poverty to a career, by nationalist officers who devoured books by Laski, Marx, Engels, Nehru, Bevan – Hitler! – and who met on hilltops to swear oaths of revenge against the British and to make plans for recruiting other officers to the groups that started to form as soon as the first graduating class was posted to its assignments in 1938. The most prominent among these rebellious young lieutenants of the class of ’38 was Gamal Abdel Nasser. By the late forties his connections extended throughout the army, and by 1950 he had founded a paper for the movement, The Voice of the Free Officers.

When the guerrilla-campaign for the Canal began in 1951, the officers’ movement became a seething hive of excitement, forming commandos, helping the partisans, and supplying arms. Up to this time the officers considered themselves little different from the Wafd nationalists, but after the burning of Cairo, and as it became obvious that the Wafd was neither willing nor able to take action, the officers’ ‘party,’ for that is what it in effect was, made plans for its long-prepared coup, which went off successfully at the end of July 1952. General Mohamed Neguib was selected as flag-bearer of the new regime, and for the first two years served as chief of state, after which he was ousted in an internal disagreement. But from the beginning the strongest man in the regime was the lieutenant-colonel who had founded the Free Officers’ Movement years before, Nasser.

THE losers are easy to name: the monarchy and the feudal pashas. But who had won? The khaki-colored regime, despite its early protestations of democracy and parliamentarianism, soon showed that it intended to impose its will on all sections of the population, and by balancing itself above the classes, carry out a national program that would presumably benefit all. Blows were dealt against Left and Right, against workers and landowners. Within a month, a strike at a big spinning mill owned by the major Egyptian trust, the Misr Company, broke out. When the police opened fire on the strikers, the enraged workers burned two of the factory buildings, shouting: ‘Long live the army’s revolution, the people’s revolution.’ But the ‘people’s revolution’ sent troops who killed eight workers and wounded 20, arrested 200 workers, and sentenced two of their leaders to death. These were the first victims of the revolution.

Then within a few months, a rich and powerful landowner who refused to bow to the new regime, firing on and setting his dogs upon the surveyors who had come to measure how much land he would have to hand out to his fellahs under the agrarian reform, was dragged to Cairo in chains, where he too was sentenced to die, a sentence which was in his case softened to life imprisonment. The officers could point to a blow against the Right to balance the blow against the Left. And so it continued. The military police arrested 43 worthies of the old regime, and at the same time suppressed all parties, including those of the Left, and created a ‘National Liberation Rally’ to supplant them. The aristocratic former Regent, Colonel Rashid Mehanna, was placed on trial as a counterrevolutionary with two dozen of his subalterns. At the same time, the long series of Communist trials, which processed radicals in groups of fifty, was begun, and the unions, deprived of the right to strike, were placed under government supervision. A careful boxscore might show that the large capitalists were hardly getting their share of lumps from the new regime and that the workers and the Left were getting more than their share. Yet even the big capitalists had been reduced in power, could no longer bribe and manipulate with the same ease, and waited impatiently for the army ‘wolves’ to slink back to their barracks. But the army kept a tight rein, and the country settled down to life under a council of a dozen officers, which rested upon a larger base, the Society of Free Officers of about 250 members, which rested in turn upon the 2,000 officers of the Egyptian Army.

NO matter how absolute their power, the officers could not conjure away the set of problems which had created their crisis regime in the first place. Like many dictators, they are themselves dictated to by circumstances and pressures, from the semi-colonial position of the country, from the growth of population, from the poverty of the exploited. Forced to take measures, they have earned a measure of right to the title of revolutionaries. The Lacoutures comment that ‘perhaps the military government’s most fundamental claim to be revolutionary is that at last, through them, Egypt was governed by Egyptians. In order to grasp the revolutionary importance of the changeover we have to remember that the old regime was led by a dynasty originating in Albania, with Turkish customs, French caprices, English interests, a Levantine notion of public morality, and an Italian background.’

‘A few months later men of an entirely different stamp were to be seen in the Abdin Palace. Broad-shouldered, heavy of gait, deeply bronzed, they trod gingerly across the carpets and knocked on the door before entering their own offices. At night they returned to their modest houses or their barracks at Helmieh or Manshiyat el Bakri. Thicknecked, in their khaki shirts, they spoke in ringing tones, and brought bean sandwiches with them which they ate in between their reading of the files, and which they kept hidden in the drawers of their Empire desks. They were Egyptians who for the first time since the Assyrian invasion, that is to say for twenty-seven centuries, were the real masters of the lower Nile Valley.’

Of the regime’s internal measures, the Agrarian Reform of 1952 is undoubtedly the most revolutionary. It limits the possession of land to 300 feddans (315 acres). In a land where only some three percent of the country is arable, this is quite large. Nevertheless, it made available 660,000 feddans of land for state purchase and distribution, apart from 180,000 feddans belonging to Farouk and 200 members of the royal family, which were confiscated outright. The transfer of estates involves about 13 percent of the arable land, and the beneficiaries constitute under ten percent of Egypt’s 18 million fellahs. A couple of hundred agricultural cooperative societies, compulsory by law in the re-distributed areas, organize production and marketing and try to combine the advantages of large-scale operations with small-scale ownership. Limited though the reform may be, it unquestionably has given new life and increased income to a portion of Egypt’s most exploited population. And, more important to the great mass of tenants, a compulsory decrease in land rents, which has cut the average rent approximately by half, has aided a far larger number of fellahs, about a third of the peasantry. Within a few years, according to the government’s statistics, the income of small farmers had been increased by £30 million a year ($84 million), enabling them to consume for the first time some of the poultry, eggs, and milk they produce.

But the most important result of the shakeup on the land is not economic but political. The age-old feudal rule of the landed pashas has been broken. The regional landowner-dominated principalities have given way to a central authority which, while jealously dictatorial, has no vested interest in the perpetuation of village poverty and miseries.

DESPITE this, little has been accomplished in meeting the basic economic problems of the country. The workers, agricultural and city, are probably worse off than in the past, in terms of standards of wages. Industrialization proceeds at a snail’s pace. No solution has been found to the desperate and growing over-population of the country in relation to its present productive resources.

The basic trouble is that which afflicts all colonial countries: for decades, as a result of imperialist domination and shaping of the economy, it has been a one-resource land, producing its major crop for export, in raw form, to the cotton mills of the capitalist nations. Cotton accounts for more than a third of the national revenue, and with rice, forms the speculative basis of the economy. Much of the effort of the peasantry is drained off in the form of wealth for the larger landowners and profits for the textile mills abroad. As in the other colonial countries, the nation is abjectly dependent upon the world market in its particular crop. In the years immediately following the officers’ revolution, this was emphatically brought home by a sharp drop in the world price of cotton, resulting in a severe depression on the countryside, and a fail of wages and incomes. The government fought hack by increasing the rice acreage at the expense of cotton, and by opening new markets in the Soviet bloc, but none of this has changed the fact that the country is chiefly dependent on the fortunes of one or two major crops.

Nasser and his economic planners had hoped that much agricultural capital, freed by the compulsory sale of large estates, would be siphoned into industrial investment. The hope proved vain. Landowners preferred to invest abroad, or in the quick-turnover luxury trades; they had no faith in industry. Meanwhile, the compulsory reductions in upper incomes reduced the market for manufactured goods without creating a sufficient demand to compensate among the lower income groups: the fellahs, as we have seen, are ‘splurging’ on food to supplement their bean diets, the workers are not gaining in income, and the middle class is growing far too slowly.

IN the final analysis, Egypt cannot industrialize without massive foreign help unless it can increase the amount of arable land. The whole nation is crowded into the pathetically thin ribbon of Nile-watered and -irrigated land. The food supply for the growing population and export surpluses for financing industrialization cannot be ensured from this tiny area by itself. Only a program of desert reclamation will reinvigorate the agricultural economy and give the cities a surplus to invest in industry, and even then, it is doubtful that the automatic pull of the market would do the job; some form of government planning would be required to ensure that the added wealth is kept in the country and applied to constructive tasks.

The Aswan Dam project is seen by the regime as the basic answer. Forty-five percent of the Nile water is wasted. There are fat years and lean, drought and flood. The proposed High Dam announced by Nasser in 1954 would create a catch basin of 23,000 square miles, providing enough water to increase the arable lands by 30 percent. The entire agricultural setup would moreover be steadied, taken out of the Nile’s erratic mercies. By reducing the underground waters, drainage costs would be lowered by an estimated 24 percent. But the production of huge quantities of cheap electric power would be the most important consequence of the dam, making it possible to transform the face of Egypt. Egypt at present consumes only about a third of a million kilowatt hours, one of the lowest per capita supplies in the world. The Aswan Dam, fully electrified, would produce ten thousand million kilowatts an hour at a negligible cost. This in itself would provide the basis for an industrial revolution of great proportions. This project can raise the standard of living and end the disparity between the country’s resources and its growing population. Egypt has few natural resources apart from the Nile, but, when harnessed, the Nile can change the face of a large part of North Africa. The total building costs for the dam would reach some £400 million ($1,120 million) a sum which the nation, even with its revenues from the nationalized Suez Canal, cannot possibly raise without foreign aid. It is easy to see why for Egypt’s new foreign policy has taken precedence above all other of government.

Important as the Aswan project is, it is hard to see solution of the Egyptian problem by purely technical means. The hallmark of the present military regime is while sincerely seeking the industrialization and modernization of Egypt, it hopes to achieve that goal without breaking up the old social structure. Apart from the monarchy and the pashas, the power-structure remains intact. The dictatorship has little more authority over the direction of the economy than Nehru’s democracy, and for if the same reason: The economy is, by and large, still in if the hands of the same possessing classes. When the experience of China is set against that of all those colonial countries which have tried to make progress without a basic social revolution, it is easy to see that technical expedients are not enough; barriers which look insuperable to a regime that has its hands tied by old social relations may be leaped or circumvented by a regime that is free to make a fresh economic start.

GENERAL Neguib, when he was in office, told an Egyptian diplomat: ‘My dear ambassador, just explain to your friends that if we had not seized power, others would have overthrown the monarchy and by other means.’ The Lacoutures write:

‘In the collusion which was constantly offered by the British and Americans (and which Nasser accepted) there was certainly an element of ideological understanding, a common determination to block the passage to a violent social revolution by offsetting it with technical reform (the idea being less to bar the road to an imaginary Soviet invasion, than to nip in the bud some Mao of the Nile Valley).’

These are insights into the motives of the military revolutionists, but as the Lacoutures point out, they by no means define the entire process. In its foreign relations, a regime which started out to make the most of its ties with imperialism soon found that it was offered little independence in return for its collaboration, and broke violently to carry out some of the most striking anti-imperialist coups of recent years. The limited technical reforms of its internal policy have grown in implication, not because the changes have been so great, but because the awakening of the people has been furthered, and because they sit in judgment on the regime’s actions, and make demands and exert pressures.

Nasser’s regime is certainly a dictatorship masquerading as a revolution, but it is also a dictatorship fulfilling some of the obligations of a revolution, and initiating the trends and processes which will make for more revolution in Egypt. So long as the military can effectively substitute itself for the social struggle, keep the pot boiling, and give at least the impression of forward motion, it can hold sway. If it falters, the dispossessed nobles and landowners are on hand to take over again, with imperialist help, unless the Egyptian working class and peasantry have in the meantime so matured as to be able to make the Nile Valley the scene of Africa’s first experiment in socialism.


Note by Louis Proyect

1. This 1959 article reflects the same kind of dialectically nuanced analysis found in the American Socialist articles on Peron from the preceding year. Nasser, like Peron, was accused by liberals and some Marxists of being – as the article puts it – a ‘fascist-Hitlerite dictator.’ This was the ideological punishment meted out to a nationalist trying to eliminate over one hundred years of colonial exploitation. While obviously no Marxist, Nasser is depicted as an anti-imperialist fighter who deserved support from the broad Marxist movement against Anglo-American imperialism.


Last updated on 19.7.2006