The Struggle for Egyptian Identity
At an Oct. 24 event at George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs in Washington, DC, author Steven Cook, senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, discussed his new book, The Struggle for Egypt: From Nasser to Tahrir Square.
The book's central thesis, he explained, is that Egypt's political environment has been contested and unstable for far longer than many believe. According to Cook, Gamal Abdel Nasser, Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak all failed to establish a political ideology that created an enduring sense of what it meant to be Egyptian. This failure to establish "a set of positive myths about Egypt, about Egyptian society, [and] about Egypt's place in the world," Cook argued, has resulted in a perpetual political struggle to define the Egyptian identity. In this context, the January 2011 uprising in Tahrir Square was but one in a series of "nationalistic episodes" that have occurred in Egypt since the 1952 Free Officers coup.
Discussing Egypt's presidents since then, Cook maintained that despite the initially strong nationalistic appeal of Nasserism, its influence only lasted for about a decade. According to Cook, Egypt's humiliating defeat by Israel in the 1967 Six-Day War "revealed Nasserism to be hollow" and resulted in a sharp decline in its influence.
While Nasserism enjoyed a decent amount of popular enthusiasm for a fair amount of time, Cook noted that Sadat "only resonated with a small group of people for a relatively short period of time." Furthermore, Cook said, Sadat's "shift to the West" dealt a fatal blow to the already decaying influence of Nasserism, which emphasized Egyptian nationalism. Thus, according to Cook, by the time of Sadat's death "Egypt was far more contested than ever before."
While Nasser and Sadat attempted, but failed, to come up with a compelling ideological narrative for Egypt, Cook said that "Mubarak didn't even really try." Instead, he "[relied] on force to control the Egyptian population," which Cook described as the least efficient means of establishing political control.
Given that Egypt evolved from a country that largely embraced Nasser's ideology to an "ideologyless" police state under Mubarak, Egypt's revolution came as no surprise to Cook. To him, Jan. 25 was in many ways the inevitable culmination of years of ideological decline and struggle. While many viewed Mubarak's regime as strong and stable, Cook pointed out, the only thing really keeping him in power was fear. "Once that fear is gone," he concluded, "you essentially are risking being overwhelmed by the crowds."