A history of revolt

24-06-2015 09:20 PM

Mervat Ayad

As Egypt marks two years on the 30 June Revolution, Watani notes that not many know of the first revolution in Egypt, possibly in history, waged by the Egyptians as far back as the 20th century BC

 At the time, 30 June 2013, it seemed almost unimaginable that anything at all can dislodge a despotic Islamist regime, moreover one that had come to power riding the wings of democracy. True, Egyptians—the majority of whom are pious Muslims—had decided one year earlier to give political Islam a chance in the wake of the January 2011Arab Spring uprising that put an end to the secular rule of long-time president Hosni Mubarak. On 30 June 2012, the Muslim Brother (MB) Muhammad Mursi was sworn in as president, elected by a thin margin of 51 per cent. 

 Overthrowing the Islamists

The MB rule, however, proved disastrous for Egyptians in that it became clear beyond doubt that the Islamists’ first priority was not at all to advance Egypt or Egyptians, but to fulfil their dream pan-world Islamic caliphate. To that end they went about attempting to wipe out Egypt’s time-honoured values and identity and to replace them with Islamic doctrines and loyalties. This did not sit well with Egyptians who had always held on to their own version of moderate religion and had an instinctive aversion to anything ultra-conservative; they felt their values were being twisted and tampered with to achieve Islamist MB ends. It did not help that the MB rule threw to the wind all Egypt’s interests and let the economy go into a downward spiral that made everyday needs difficult to meet. Unrest, violence, and crime rose to unprecedented levels. And to crown it all, President Mursi issued a collection of Constitutional Declarations that gave him sweeping powers and practically buried the democracy that had voted him in. He made his decisions immune against judicial appeal, and imposed an Islamist Constitution which was practically passed overnight. This brought on popular rebellion that practically placed the country on the threshold of civil war.

Egyptians revolted. On 30 June 2013, to mark Mursi’s one year in office, they took to the streets in nationwide peaceful protests estimated at some 33 million strong. The military stepped in, issued a 48-hour ultimatum to the President to resolve the crisis or else the military would deal with the situation through its own roadmap. Mr Mursi belligerently rejected the ultimatum.

 The price

On 3 July 2013, the military issued the Roadmap to Egypt’s democratic future, drawn jointly by representatives of the various sectors of the Egyptian community. The following day saw the head of the Supreme Constitutional Court, Adly Mansour, sworn in as interim president. In January 2014 a new Constitution was approved by a landslide popular vote and, in June 2014 another landslide vote brought in the secular retired army chief Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi as president. Both votes witnessed a turnout of some 40 per cent, almost unprecedentedly high in Egypt. The election of a parliament completes the Roadmap and is scheduled before yearend 2015.

Egyptians never imagined the overthrow of the Islamist MB would come cheap. They knew they would pay a hefty price in sustaining Islamist terrorism, a threat the MB flaunted on every occasion. Today Egypt is embroiled in a battle against Islamist terrorism on her soil, along her borders, and in the entire region.

The fall of the Islamists in Egypt obviously defeated not only the MB, but also the western powers that had sought to fulfil the ‘Great Middle East’ project and the ‘Creative Chaos’ theory carefully planned for decades by the United States and declared by US high ranking officials including former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice. The West thus waged, and is still waging, another ‘soft’ war on Egypt through its media which almost never fails to depict the 30 June Revolution as a ‘coup which toppled a freely elected president and replaced him with the military leader who overthrew him’. Directly after the Revolution, western media attempted to depict MB demonstrations against the new regime as ‘peaceful, unarmed’, till it became all-too-obvious they were neither peaceful nor unarmed.  Islamist terrorism was then portrayed as retaliation against ‘Mr Sisi’s crackdown’ against them.

Revolt in ancient Egypt

Two days from today, on 30 June, Egypt marks the second anniversary of the massive revolution that reverted her historical course from Islamist to Egyptian. But this was not the first time Egyptians revolted. They rebelled aplenty throughout their long history against dire economic conditions or hunger, against religious or social conditions, or against foreign occupiers.

Egyptologist Abdel-Halim Noureddin reminds of revolutions in the ancient times. He cites two Egyptian revolts which took place against foreign invaders. The first was against the Hyksos, an Asiatic people who occupied Egypt for some 120 years starting around 1650BC, and whom the Egyptians drove out after prolonged armed resistance especially by the people of Thebes. The second was against the Persians in 6th century BC, who were even more oppressive than the Hyksos had ever been; they severely depleted Egypt’s riches and despised Egypt’s gods and culture. The result was a six-year revolt against the Persians till they were finally driven out in 404BC.

The religious revolution erupted against the Pharaoh Akhenaten who ruled in 1385 – 1350BC and who abolished the worship of all gods but the sun-god Atun; he is known as the father of monotheism. But Egyptians were not happy with his thought and rebelled against this aberration of their age-old worship. Led by the priests of the god Amun, they revolted until the exclusive worship of Atun was dropped once Akhenaten died.

The time of the Pharaoh Ramses III who reigned from 1182 to 1151BC saw the first known labour strike in recorded history. The Harris and Turin papyri talk of workers who went on a three-day strike behind the funerary temple of Thutmose III in Thebes, clashed with the guards, then pillaged the grain stores as they shouted: “We are hungry”. The strike turned into a large revolution.

The first revolution

Revolution continued to erupt in Egypt along the ages, whenever the conditions were ripe.

As we mark the 2nd anniversary of the most recent, it might be interesting to recall the first revolution in the country, very possibly the first in the entire world.

This occurred during what is known today as the First Intermediate Period which began around 2281BC and extended along some 150 years; it marked the fall of the mighty Old Kingdom of the pyramid builders.

Egyptian masses went out in revolt against their king, crying: “Down with the temples! Down with the courts of law! The land belongs to whoever cultivates it, and the crafts to the craftsmen.” Mobs torched State buildings and desecrated and robbed the tombs of their kings; the people stopped paying taxes, robbers spread everywhere, and vandalism and crime abounded. The social pyramid at the peak of which sat the king and noblemen, down through the army officials and landed gentry to the base formed of peasants, labourers, and commoners, which Egyptians valued so much was turned upside down. 

The revolution lasted for some six years, but it took Egypt the remaining part of the 150-year-long First Intermediate to stand on her feet again.

Egyptologist Erian Labib Hanna (1936 – 2009) wrote in Watani International on 5 October 2003 describing that critical period in Egypt’s history. Excerpts from his article:

Right to the afterlife

When pressure builds up inside a boiler, there is an eruption. This is precisely what happened in Egypt at the close of the Old Kingdom. The common people revolted, suffering under a feudal system that became too oppressive with the onset of a string of too-low annual Nile inundations that led to famine. It did not help that Pepi II, the last major pharaoh of the Old Kingdom’s 6th Dynasty had sat on Egypt’s throne for some 90 years. He ruled from childhood until he was very elderly and outlived many of his heirs, giving rise to problems with succession in the royal household. The provincial rulers gained power and influence, and the regime of the Old Kingdom disintegrated amid internal conflict and disorganisation.

Adding insult to injury, the common people were riled at their deprivation of the right to resurrection in the afterlife, a privilege, or so it was ordained in the Pyramid Texts, reserved only for the Pharaoh. The Pyramid Texts are mostly a collection of spells or magical incantations and chants the purpose of which was to secure the apotheosis of the Pharaoh and his well being in the after life. By the time the revolution had transpired and the Middle Kingdom Dynasties took the reins of power, the Pyramids Texts were changed into the Sarcophagus Texts and later, during the New Kingdom, into the Book of the Dead. The Book of the Dead is not a precise translation; the original reads as “The Book of Crossing into the Day” and includes prayers that were read for all who died, pharaoh and commoner alike.

The Delta weeps

Literature from the First Intermediate Period and later times describe the upheaval and chaos that gripped the land during and in the aftermath of the revolution.

In general the stories focus on a society where the natural order of things was overthrown.

In the poem entitled “The Admonitions of a Prophet” the poet Ipuwer gives details of what happened during the popular revolution. It concerns mainly the general distress which signifies social disorder—robbery, murder, vandalism and famine. Officials are expelled, the administration destroyed, foreign trade is at a standstill. Foreigners invade the country, and the rabble occupy the positions formerly held by the upper classes.

“A man goes to plough with his shield…

Nay, but the Nile is in flood, yet none

ploughs for him…

“Nay, but poor men now possess fine things.

He who once could not make sandals for himself

now possesses riches…

“Nay, but gold and lapis lazuli,

silver and turquoise,

carnelian, bronze and marble…

are hung about the necks of slave-girls.

“But noble ladies walk through the land,

and mistresses of houses say,

‘Would that we had something we might eat’…

“Nay, but great and small say,

‘I wish I were dead.’

Little children say,

‘He ought never to have caused me to live.’

“Nay, but men feed on herbs and drink water.

No fruit nor herbs any longer are found for the birds.”

 “The Delta weeps, the storehouse of the Pharaoh is for every one.”


“It is good”

Strange to say, the sixth poem gives a description of the happy times the future holds in store. This shows the Egyptian’s optimistic side, the one who still expects his or her misery to come to an end and who hopes for better days to come. Ipuwer repeats, “It is good.”

“But it is good when boats sail upstream…”

“But it is good when the net is drawn in and the birds are made fast.”

“But it is good when rejoicing is in men’s mouths, and the magnates of the district stand and look on at the jubilation in their houses, clad in fine raiment.”


 Watani International

24 June 2015

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