x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Apathy in Egypt on coup's anniversary

Unemployment and recession have led to a lack of patriotism among Egyptians, many of whom feel that the fight for democracy 57 years ago has achieved little.

Some of Egypt's citizens are alarmed at the level of power they perceive the country's army to hold.
Some of Egypt's citizens are alarmed at the level of power they perceive the country's army to hold.

CAIRO // Fifty-seven years ago today, Ahmed Hamroush woke up in a new Egypt. An overnight coup d'état led by Gamal Abdel Nasser and his Free Officers Movement against British colonialists meant that for the first time since the dynasties of the pharaohs, Egypt was to be governed by Egyptians. "Before the revolution we were a poor people living in a very miserable situation and suffering from imperialism and the occupation by British forces," said Mr Hamroush, a leader of the Free Officers Movement whom Nasser had personally entrusted with securing the coastal town of Alexandria where King Farouk, the British-backed Egyptian monarch, was residing at the time.

"Egypt changed. The people changed. The land changed. Everything changed in Egypt after the revolution." This morning, Mr Hamroush awoke to an Egypt that he said has changed yet again. It has become a place where change itself can seem nearly impossible, and where the patriotic dynamism that once energised Nasser's Free Officers has faded in the face of political gridlock and economic stagnation. "Everything has changed. I feel that sometimes I am a stranger in my country," said Mr Hamroush of the nation he helped liberate. "The society around me, the principles that were lost, the corruption - all of these things make me feel alone. They make me feel lonely, strange."

As Egypt's 1952 revolution moves from the realm of memory to the pages of history, some have been left wondering whether Egyptian leaders have been any more responsive to the Egyptian public than the colonial overlords they ousted. The pride and pageantry that once characterised this annual holiday have yielded to indifference and, in some cases, nostalgia, for a time when true democracy still seemed like a possibility.

"I don't think that, morally, [the government] has any right to celebrate the revolution," said Alaa Aswany, a prominent Egyptian author and outspoken critic of the Egyptian government. "I think that we have come very far from the concept of the revolution and the achievements of the revolution have been omitted by the Egyptian regime because the revolution was a change in the vision ... to a state for the poor people, for the marginalised people. That's exactly to the contrary of what is happening now."

The key to that failure, said Mr Aswany, is democracy, or rather, the lack of it. When he first came to power shortly after the revolution, Nasser promised Egyptians that he would give the nation back to its people. But the military never really left the executive offices. Egypt remains a state beholden to an army that is as horrified by opposition as it is enamoured by its own authority. And the vast majority of Egyptians have lived under no other system of governance. According to the CIA World Factbook, 95.2 per cent of Egyptians were born after 1945. For most of them, it is the sour economic opportunities that smart the most, and without a political voice or an avenue for change, many are frustrated and pessimistic.

"There is a lack of a national goal, like in the time of the revolution," said Mohammed Abdel Aziz, 23, a leader of the 6th of April Youth Movement, which has tried to organise a "Day of Anger" for the past two years to protest the Egyptian government's intransigence. "The widespread unemployment and lack of opportunity, the lack of justice and transparency - this created a situation of un-patriotism among youth and got us to this stage where, 57 years after the revolution, unfortunately, most of the youth in Egypt don't have a real patriotic sense about their country, much less about the revolution."

If it is the small space for democratic expression that angers so many Egyptians, it is the economic misfortune that gets them onto the streets. In the past five years, more than 1.5 million Egyptians have participated in labour strikes and protests across the country, according to a recent report by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. The number is particularly surprising given that the vast majority of Egyptian labourers are organised under official, government-controlled syndicates that rarely call for walkouts. The wildcat strikes represent a recent groundswell of popular anger that acts in direct opposition to the government.

Much of that anger has been directed at the recent policies of privatisation, fiscal austerity and trade openness that were first put in place nearly five years ago by Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif. It was those policies that attracted foreign investment and helped lift Egypt's rate of economic growth to seven per cent in 2007. But many Egyptians have yet to feel the effects of the reforms: about one-fifth live on less than US$1 (Dh3.67) per day, according to the United Nations.

Despite the continuing poverty, it is perhaps Egypt's poorest who remain most appreciative of the revolution and the era that followed. Before his death in 1970, Nasser had nationalised thousands of foreign and domestic firms, redistributed Egypt's rich farmland and offered social protections and free education to millions of poor fellahin, the legions of Egyptian farmers who lived under something like serfdom before the revolution.

"I'm planning to celebrate because the revolution transformed us. It was against the landowners, who were only five per cent of the population," said one 70 year-old-man, who was seated at a cafe yesterday in the middle-class Cairo neighbourhood of Agouza. Though the man refused to give his name because he feared government retribution, he went on to praise the legacy of the revolution and its rejection of foreign dominance. "It's not about democracy, it's about taking our rights. I reached the position of general manager in an Egyptian bank. You couldn't do that before the revolution."

And it is the feeling of identity - the hope of an Egypt governed by Egyptians - that continues to nurse any residual affection for July 23, even if some have forgotten. "Yeah, tomorrow is a holiday. What about it?" said one young passer-by in Agouza yesterday. After another man reminded him of the date's significance, he laughed. "I've forgotten! We've all forgotten! Go ask that guy sitting over there, he knows all about the revolution," the young man said pointing to a white-haired septuagenarian who was smoking a shisha pipe a few metres away.

mbradley@thenational.ae