The potential of the Egyptian Revolution of 2011 cannot be underestimated. Egypt has been the political centre of gravity of the Middle East since the Arab conquests of the 7th century AD. Again and again throughout history, it is Egypt that has led the rest of the Middle East.
When Saladin united Egypt and Syria under Ayyubid rule in the late 11th century AD, he created from the shattered fragments of the former Islamic empire a mega-polity with the power to take on the Crusader states. The Battle of Hattin in 1187 was the Crusaders’ greatest defeat. It led directly to the recapture of Jerusalem by the Muslims later that year. Richard the Lionheart’s Third Crusade, mounted in 1189-1192 in an effort to reverse the defeat, failed to regain the Holy City.
As the power of the Ottoman Empire waned during the 19th century, Egypt was twice in the forefront of drives towards Arab independence, economic modernisation, and social reform. And on both occasions, Britain intervened to frustrate Arab ambition.
During the long rule of Muhammad Ali (1805-1849), ostensibly the Ottoman Sultan’s viceroy but in fact a more or less independent Egyptian leader, the British bombarded Beirut and threatened Alexandria in 1840, in order to frustrate an embryonic Arab nationalist drive to reunite Syria and Egypt. History repeated itself with greater violence in 1882, when the British bombarded Alexandria, invaded Egypt, crushed the nationalist regime of Ahmed Arabi at the Battle of Tel el-Kebir, and then occupied the country. They stayed for 40 years, and even then, in 1922, they imposed a form of top-down ‘independence’ that preserved the substance of British imperial power in the region. Arab nationalism crashed repeatedly against the reality of foreign domination of the Middle East before and after the 1922 ‘settlement’, with Egypt usually in the forefront of the agitation.
In 1952, Gamal Abdul Nasser, at the head of the Egyptian Free Officers’ Movement, led a military coup that overthrew the British-backed king. A wave of copycat Arab nationalist coups followed. Nasser became an Arab hero and, though the 1956 Arab-Israel War represented a partial defeat, the nationalisation of the Suez Canal and the ignominious withdrawal of former colonial powers Britain and France during the crisis made the Egyptian leader the living embodiment of a new, assertive Arab spirit. But after Arab defeats in the 1967 and 1973 wars, the nationalist cause sank. Sadat, Nasser’s successor, abandoned the Palestinians and made peace with Israel.
Mubarak, his successor in turn, moved wholeheartedly into the orbit of the US, and also embraced the neoliberal ‘free market’ model increasingly favoured by western leaders, international bankers, and the multinationals. The dispossessed and the poor were sacrificed to the ‘New World Order’ heralded by the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. And as the rift between the pro-western regime and the Cairo streets widened, the Egyptian state, armed by the US, became ever more dictatorial and brutal.
What is now unfolding across the region is the blowback from 30 years of growing alienation. It is not simply a revolt against police terror and the cronyism and corruption of the Arab regimes. It is also a revolt against US imperialism, neoliberal capitalism, mass unemployment, and a yawning gap between rich and poor.
This is not 1989 – a series of ‘velvet revolutions’ controlled from above and containable within a liberal parliamentary framework. This looks more like 1917, where the struggle for democracy ushered in a yet more powerful wave of struggle for radical social change.
It is Egypt that gives the Arab Revolution this potential. With its 85 million people, and its long tradition of popular resistance, it is the political and cultural epicentre of the Arab world. We may be on the brink of a remaking of the entire region comparable in scale and significance with that between 1916 and 1922, which saw the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the creation of today’s western-dominated Middle East.
Egypt has been one of the world’s sleeping giants. It has now awoken, and the earth shakes. Anything could happen.