Imperialist domination of the Middle East, and resistance to it, have shaped Egypt for more than 100 years. The 30-year
dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak is bound up with Egypt’s alliance with the US and Israel.
And those involved in the uprising against him are part of Egypt’s rich tradition of rebellion against oppressors.
In the 1940s and 1950s, a mass nationalist movement challenged the British occupation forces and Egypt’s pro-British monarchy.
Gamal Abdul Nasser and the Free Officers group grabbed power in a coup in July 1952.
Nasser wanted to use the state to drive imperialist influence out of the Middle East. He wanted to carve out a more independent path for Egypt and other nations in the region.
His theories of Arab nationalism won mass support in the years that followed.
Nasser implemented major land reforms and seized the assets of the wealthiest families.
He nationalised the major banks, insurance companies, shipping firms and major industrial and commercial companies.
Britain ran Egypt’s Suez Canal, which was a route to India. Guerilla attacks and mass demonstrations forced British troops to withdraw.
Nasser’s radical reforms inspired the Arab masses, and threatened imperialist domination of the Middle East.
When Nasser nationalised the Suez Canal in July 1956, Britain, France and Israel invaded in an attempt to destroy his rule.
But their attack fell apart in the face of grassroots resistance and—for its own interests—condemnation from the US.
Nasser’s successful resistance to the West increased his popularity among people fighting imperialism across the world.
Suez was a disaster for the British. It signified the shift away from British dominance of the Middle East towards that of the US.
Nasser challenged poverty but attempted to limit opposition to capitalism.
The workers who had been instrumental in toppling the old order found themselves losing out in a strategy that put “Arab unity” above everything else.
Nationalists sought to use the power of the masses, but also to prevent workers taking control themselves.
The Egyptian state wasn’t strong enough to defeat the imperialist powers. Only a mass movement across the Arab world against their corrupt rulers and the colonial powers could do that.
The limits of Nasser’s revolution became apparent in 1967, when Israel crushed the combined forces of Egypt, Syrian and Jordan in the Six Day War.
Nasser was humbled, and died of a heart attack three years later. But his conflict with imperialism means he remains a respected figure among millions of Arab people.
In contrast, as economic crisis bit, his successor Anwar al-Sadat made Egypt one of the closest allies of Israel and the US. Egypt has retained this position under Mubarak.
Sadat launched a war against Israel in 1973 in an attempt to win back land lost in 1967. The attack shocked Israel and ended in a stalemate. It eventually led to Sadat agreeing unilateral peace terms with Israel.
Arab people were furious. Israel continued to oppress the Palestinians and occupy parts of Syria.
But Sadat was intent on making Egypt a crucial part of the imperial order—regardless of the implications of abandoning the struggle for Palestinian liberation.
In return for massive US funding, Sadat launched the economic programme called intifah or “open door”.
This allowed Western multinationals to operate in Egypt without paying taxes.
It was a disaster for ordinary
people. The nationalised industries that produced cheap consumer goods were smashed, and a new elite grew up.
The anger this provoked broke out onto the streets in January 1977 when food price rises were announced.
People took control of central Cairo and Sadat only just survived. He launched massive repression of the left, trade unionists, liberals and the Muslim Brotherhood.
Islamists assassinated Sadat in October 1981. The Egyptian people did not mourn him.
Vice-president Mubarak took over as president after Sadat’s death. He accelerated Sadat’s economic policies and repression. There has been a state of emergency throughout his reign.
Military courts have sentenced hundreds of Islamists to death. The secret police rounded up tens of thousands of political activists, detaining and torturing them.
The regime also sent tanks into the factories to put down bitter iron and steel strikes in 1989.
The challenge to the regime only began to revive at the beginning of this century—with protests against the Iraq war in 2003, a pro-democracy movement and a wave of strikes.
The overthrowing of Mubarak would fundamentally challenge the status quo in the oil rich region.
Egypt is the largest and most influential Arab country, with the largest working class.
Just as the Tunisian uprising inspired people in Egypt, a successful revolution there would threaten the corrupt, pro-Western rulers of other Arab states.
It is also a huge concern to Israel, the state that the US has used to discipline movements for change in the Middle East since its creation in 1948.
A revolutionary transformation of the region would throw this arrangement into question—and give hope that Arab people can win their fight for freedom.