First Published: 2012-02-26


Conflict in Egypt: A Four-Sided Triangle


The conflict in Egypt relates, in essence, to its identity: Is Egypt Egyptian, Arab, or Islamic? More importantly, this conflict reflects an extended competition among three parties: the military elite, the religious currents, and (leftist currents and pro- democracy propagators), argues Abdullah Kamal.


Middle East Online

The conflict that erupted in Egypt at the beginning of 2011 shall not be resolved soon. It shall take years of relentless cultural work and mature political reactions before it is resolved. The conflict in Egypt relates, in essence, to its identity: Is Egypt Egyptian, Arab, or Islamic? More importantly, this conflict reflects an extended competition among three parties: the military elite, the religious currents, and (leftist currents and pro- democracy propagators). The three sides of the triangle have allied together during the uprising of January 28 that led to the change of rule in Egypt. However, this did not resolve the dilemma of conflict that emerged after the 1952 revolution, and lasted for 60 years; on the contrary, it blew it up.

The present generation is facing the heritage of two former generations. Obviously, the "Free Officers" organization succeeded in toppling over the royal regime, shifting to the republican regime, and freeing the country from the British colonization. However, they were not able to overcome the structural dilemma. They belonged to different currents; Muslim Brotherhood, Communists, Democracy advocates, and the military elite that sought to rule. In 1954, after the controversial assassination attempt against Nasser , the resignation of President Mohammed Naguib, , and the imminent specter of war within the army, the conflict reached its peak, where the military elite solely seized power under the leadership of Gamal Abdel Nasser, excluding the second and third sides of the triangle.

For 60 years, the three sides had gone through different forms of conflict. The first side – the military one – tended to antagonize the other two sides against each other. In 1965, Muslim Brotherhood members failed to overturn the military elite rule, and ended in jail. During late 1950s and until mid 1960s, the leftist currents allied with Nasserist ideology so as to refute the religious discourse of the Brotherhood. In 1968, and riding over the wave of youth protests, leftists allied with the Brotherhood against the military elite rule and both sides called in massive demonstrations for democracy and confrontation of Israel . In 1972, and under the slogan of “liberation of land from Israeli occupation”, leftist students staged demonstrations in Tahrir Square against the military rule represented then by President Sadat.

In 1974, Sadat made a dramatic change in the inner conflict when he allied with the religious currents against the leftist ones. And in 1977, the leftist currents led the most powerful protests against the regime because of soaring prices. In 1981, a violent segment from the religious current assassinated Anwar El-Sadat himself. During the 1980s and 1990s, the leftist forces had a break while the military elite regime under Mubarak led an extensive confrontation with religious violence groups. At the same time, he accepted the partial implicit inclusion of some religious currents in the political system, and limited representation of the leftist currents through parliamentary elections.

This long conflict over rule in Egypt has reflected contradictory visions of the community identity. Religious currents call for an Islamist society, and accept to have Egypt as one of the states of a vast Islamic caliphate. They do not have a definite economic program, but mix between rightist values and social solidarity considerations. (Leftist currents and democracy advocates) believe that the society has both the Egyptian and Arabism traits. They adopt divergent economic and social ideologies, but they agree upon the belief in a civil and secular state. As for the military elite, it has preserved its ruling position through adoption of a moderate approach. It accepts an Egyptian identity, certifies an Arab affiliation, and does not reject the Islamic cultural dimension. At the same time, it presented an economic and social program that has developed where needed; from Nasserist socialism in 1960s, to explicit capitalism in 1970s, then centre-right approaches in 1990s and during the last decade.

However, through the six decades of conflict, a fourth external side has always intersected with the three divergent Egyptian sides. In the 1950s and 1960s, the ruling military elite relied on Soviet support. In 1970s and the three decades that followed, Sadat and then Mubarak established a strong alliance with the United States. On the other side, and also during 1970s and 1980s, the leftists had a tacit alliance with Moscow or its allies in the Middle East, whereas the religious currents received Wahabi support from the Gulf States, mainly from Saudi Arabia, in the 1960s and 1970s. From the nineties onwards, the fourth side, that is the American, merged with the three Egyptian sides, and reached the peak when the United States managed to extend bridges with the three sides of the Egyptian triangle.

The military elite, in its prime, used to adopt different maneuvers, without exclusion of either of the other two sides but would rather confront one of the two. The real transformation in the very last years of Mubarak's rule occurred when his regime was no longer capable of allying with one side against the other. The critical point of weakness was swollen when the leftists and democracy advocates allied with the religious currents in face of the military elite. They failed to overthrow the military regime until the military elite decided to sacrifice its head to maintain its existence as one of the three sides of the triangle. They presented Mubarak as a sacrifice to January 2011 uprising. The triangle has come back to shape temporarily, to explode shortly after.

Throughout the last sixty years, the length of the sides of the triangle had been defined according to their power. The side of the military elite has been the longest until the stepping down of Mubarak, on February 11, 2011; only then the three sides became of equal length. The conflict erupted again when the religious currents began to extend their power with the intention of excluding the other two sides or at least curbing their powers. (Leftist currents and democracy advocates) believe that the military elite has allied with religious currents; and thereupon declared struggle against both. Many believe that the side of the religious currents tends to control the movement of the triangle for decades to come excluding the others.

The future of this conflict shall not solely depend on political interactions. Other factors such as cultural influence, particularly the identity issue, and relation with the variables of globalization, shall definitely influence this future. The religious side owns an extremely powerful cultural institution represented in religious TV channels and the minarets of mosques. On the other hand, leftist currents and democracy advocates also own a cultural institution prevalent in newspapers, and both traditional and modern mass media. Yet, the side of the Military Institution till present lacks cultural discourse and the mechanism of publication.

The fourth side of the triangle will undoubtedly have a strong influence on the conflict as the United States strongly supports the Leftists and democracy advocates, and has an unbreakable alliance with the Military Institution. On the other hand, Washington has some typical concerns as regards the religious currents even if it deeply communicates with these currents.

At the same time, a fifth side that has always been excluded from the circle of conflict is now becoming stronger and larger especially after the January 28 uprising, mainly (the Egyptian Public Opinion).

Abdullah Kamal is an Egyptian journalist and political analyst, working now on writing a book about the end of Mubarak era under the title of The Penultimate Pharaoh. The writer had been editor- in- chief of both Rose El-Youssef magazine and newspaper (2005 – 2011) and a member of Shoura Council (2007 – 2011).


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