Egypt still trying to shake off grip of former leader

Cairo marks the anniversary of a Nasser-led military coup.

Fifty years ago Tuesday, a clique of Egyptian Army officers overthrew their country's British-backed monarchy in a bloodless coup and sent the disgraced king sailing for Italy.

The uprising catapulted a young general, Gamal Abdel Nasser, into his new role as "liberator" of the Arabs.

This week, President Hosni Mubarak is sponsoring a carefully orchestrated celebration of all the good things "Nasserism" achieved. Aging supporters of Nasser, who died from a heart attack in 1970, are lauding their former mentor.

"Now, we can say in Egypt that even a peasant has a home with an affordable rent," says Nasser's former minister of social affairs, who was jailed for several years when Anwar Sadat was president between 1970 and 1981. "Disease and illiteracy are less a matter of worry than they were before. The revolution is moving ahead. It is no wonder that we still call public servants thawra or 'children of the revolution.' "

The "July Revolution," as it is known, has served as the main source of legitimacy for the three autocratic regimes that have followed in its wake, standing Egypt up as one of the most stable postcolonial states on the African continent.

But even with fireworks bursting across the Nile today, some observers say Egypt is stuck in a time warp, unable to escape the false promises and muddled thinking of the leaders of the 1952 uprising.

Despite claims to the contrary by optimistic Nasserites, mounting social and economic problems haunt the country. Egypt, a moderate Islamic state on the doorstep of Europe still has some 34 million citizens – half the total population – living on a mere $2 per day.

Amid efforts to privatize the economy, banks with close ties to the president have handed out massive loans for white-elephant housing and tourism projects – stalling any sense that the public can someday take back what belongs to it.

"When it comes to democracy, we still interpret it here the way Nasser did," says Hala Mustafa, a political and social commentator with the state-supported Al-Ahram newspaper group. "At that time and even now, it meant providing bread for the people."

And like the revolution's Free Officers movement, President Mubarak's government is also dogged by the specter of an Israel allegedly trampling on the rights of fellow Arabs and an Islamist movement bent on killing its leaders.

Dr. Mustafa and other forward-looking analysts here say that Egypt is unlikely to emerge from the trap of its Nasserist past until some kind of lasting peace is brought to the Middle East. "In the street, demonstrators still apply the same Nasserist-era independence slogans," she says. "Israel has replaced Britain as the last great colonial power that needs to be abolished. We still haven't made democratization our first priority."

A United Nations report released last month pegged the Arab region of 22 countries on the lowest rung in the world when it comes to democracy, civil liberties, and media independence.

Some critics of Nasserism hold Nasser himself responsible for current conditions in the Arab world. Nasser tried but failed to unite the Arabs under a banner of socialism. Just as Marshal Tito's vision of a pan-Slav Yugoslavia has collapsed in shambles, Nasser's dream of a vast, pan-Arab state appears destined for the dustbin of postcolonial history.

"[Egypt's Free Officers] had no clear vision of what they hoped to achieve except in the most abstract sense," writes US historian, Joel Gordon in his book "Nasser's Blessed Movement." "[They] were not convinced the system needed leveling so much as reforming by force."

Some historians also blame Nasser and his young band of generals for the country's lasting tradition of flouting legal procedures and turning a blind eye to torture. Likewise, human rights officials say, the current regime's continued stifling of dissent and unjust punishments have fueled the growth of Islamic extremism.

Over the weekend, some 34 members of the Muslim Brotherhood, the country's largest Islamic group – many of them intellectuals and professionals – were arrested for meeting secretly near Alexandria. They are expected to go on trial in military tribunals along with dozens of their fellow Islamists later this year.

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