Sunday, 6 March 2011

How Friedman Got it Wrong on Egypt's Revolution

Tom Friedman claimed, in a recent editorial, that the young Egyptians, Tunisians and other Arabs in revolt were inspired by democracies in the US, China, and Israel, among other countries. That conclusion would find few supporters on the ground inside Arab societies. In the case of Egypt, young people had their own history of home-grown democracy to look up to: in the thirties, forties and up to the military coup of 1952 that became known as the July 23rd Revolution, Egypt had a secular, multi-party, parliamentary democracy with fiercely contested elections and intense popular engagement in the political process. A wildly popular television docudrama, “King Farouk”, riveted viewers in Egypt and the Arab world to their sets three years ago. The runaway success of this dramatization of Egyptian party politics in the 1930’s and 1940’s introduced entire generations to a history that the Nasser regime, and its successors, had tried hard to suppress.
Young people under forty watched, incredulous, as freely elected Egyptian Prime Ministers pre-1952 demanded accountability from King Farouk himself over his expenses, and contrasted that with the unaccountability of their current billionaire Pharaohs. As in the British system, the winning party’s leader was appointed prime minister and formed a cabinet from his party; the Wafd Party, with which my family’s history is associated, was by far the popular favorite. Egypt’s democracy was qualified by the power of the King and the influence- official or unofficial- of the British, and there was some corruption in the electoral system, but it was a very real democracy nevertheless. The miniseries “Farouk” opened the eyes of the post-1952 generations to their parents’ and grandparents’ legacy not only of democracy, but also of passionate patriotism, of a reverence for the very word “Egypt.” The revelation of their suppressed history created a sense of loss, a powerful nostalgia for that belonging, that legacy.
Almost exactly a year before the January 25th revolt, there was a first inkling, a first expression of this diffuse longing to rally around the flag: when Egypt won Africa’s Football (Soccer) Cup, the outburst of national pride, the flag-waving, was out of all proportion to the catalyst. The Mubarak regime sensed the inchoate passion, and thought to co-opt it by putting Gamal Mubarak and his brother Alaa front and center in the football stadiums. This gesture backfired; it only proved that the aloof Gamal Mubarak seemed congenitally incapable of connecting with the crowd.
A few months later, the Tunisian example was all that repressed young Egyptians needed to mobilize and claim their country, their flag, their own history, their own legacy of democracy.


  1. Thanks for the much needed history lesson! Egypt is an inspiration.
    If you have the time, I would love to know your thoughts on Libya.

    Keep writing...

    Love, Judy

  2. Thank you Judy!
    Libya is almost closer to Bahrain in that they are both tribal/clan societies where Egypt is not. Civil war is a threat in Libya but not even a scenario in Egypt. And with Libya there is the complication of oil wealth, as well.

  3. Becky- Lee's mom- if you're reading this, I'm so pleased, just wanted to say hello.


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