The Long-lived “July Republic” and the Abolition of the Egyptian University’s Autonomy

By Amr Hamzawy

Photo: Amr Hamzawy

On September 28, 2020, a half-century had passed since the death of President Gamal Abdel Nasser. The legacy of the “July 1952 Republic”, whose legal and political pillars he built between 1952 and 1954 and that he ruled until his death in 1970, is still omnipresent in today’s Egypt.

In the “July 1952 Republic”, Egypt’s successive ruling elites have monopolized the right to speak in the name of nationalism. They have controlled the articulation of its narratives and disseminated them to the society through persuasion and coercion.

At the heart of the ruling elites stood the military to which Abdel Nasser and the Free Officers Movement belonged. They were young officers when they overthrew the monarchy in 1952 and ended the British colonial presence in 1954. The military has remained the most significant actor in ruling the country ever since. The security and intelligence services were also key actors, tasked to control citizens and contain popular mobilization. Their prominence has also remained unchanged ever since.

The bureaucratic and technocratic government apparatus has similarly contributed to fulfilling the control and containment tasks. During Nasser’s reign 1954-1970, the government apparatus singlehandedly provided education, health care, and social security benefits and managed economic production. Since the 1970s, however, the government apparatus has started to collaborate with the private sector in fulfilling these tasks.

To establish their ruling monopoly, the elites of the “July 1952 Republic” banned the loyalists of the abolished monarchy from politics and the public sphere. They  also banned the political parties that dominated the semi-constitutional, semi-liberal, and quasi-modernist era between 1923 and 1952. Foremost among these were The Wafd Party and the communist movements, which, in different ways, represented the interests of emergent middle and working classes in urban centers. The Muslim Brotherhood, which provided an anti-liberal and anti-modern model based on a reactionary understanding that subordinated social and political dynamics to religion, was marginalized in the beginnings of the republic and later banned and persecuted.

The republic’s ruling elites silenced all these forces in the name of Egyptian nationalism. The definition of nationalism was limited to the notions of independence, national liberation, and social justice. Left behind were the struggles to build a democratic order and to promote citizens’ freedoms, which had also been part of the essence of the national movement since the beginning of the twentieth century.

During Nasser’s reign, Egyptian nationalism was associated with pan-Arabism and state socialism. Since the 1970s, Egyptian nationalism has been redefined to replace pan-Arabism and socialism by revivalist notions pertaining to Egypt’s non-Arab identity components, economic liberalization, and limited political pluralism. The ruling elites have maintained their autocratic approach and unilateral control of the state. Although a degree of political competition has been allowed since the 1970s, opposition movements, secular and Islamist alike, have been relegated to the margins of politics. They have never competed to gain power, and their fluctuating minor representation in state institutions—primarily in parliament—has remained ineffective. The republic’s ruling elites have employed a vast set of control and containment tools to dominate society in various sectors, such as universities, trade unions, publishing houses, newspapers, the media, and nongovernmental organizations. They have subjected Egyptian citizens to constant surveillance in order to compel them to steer clear of politics and public spheres. They have systematically employed the legislative and judicial branches of government to pass constitutional and legal texts tailored to either diminish citizens’ rights and freedoms or to repress opposition movements whenever needed. But the “July 1952 Republic” that Gamal Abdel Nasser founded has never used other means to persuade wide segments of the population of the righteous nature of its policies and decisions and to ensure their allegiance. Providing key social and economic services has been an integral part of the republic’s persuasion scheme.

In other words, the “July 1952 Republic” has always juggled two legitimation strategies: coercion and control on the one hand, and persuasion and allegiance on the other hand. The balance between these two strategies has varied considerably throughout the last decades. For example, persuasion predominated between 1954 and 1967 due to Gamal Abdel Nasser’s charisma. There was general popular satisfaction with the achievements of national liberation (The Suez Canal Base Agreement of 1954, the contribution to the establishment of the Non-Aligned Movement, the nationalization of the Suez Canal in 1956, the endeavors for Arab unity, the support for national independence wars in Algeria and Yemen, and the construction of the Aswan Dam in the 1960s). A clear majority of Egyptians supported the social justice policies that Nasser implemented, such as the land reform. Popular support also marked Anwar Sadat’s reign in the wake of the October 1973 war and Hosni Mubarak’s first term (1981 to 1987). In contrast, coercion and the decline in public support characterized the final years of Sadat (ending in 1981) and of Mubarak’s long reign (1988–2011).

The Egyptian University is one of the vital social sectors that was subordinated early on to the social control of the “July 1952 Republic”. It has remained under its domination until today. The first modern university in Egypt was established as a private university in Cairo in the early twentieth century (1908) and then turned into a public university in 1925. Law No. 96 of 1935, which was issued during the semi-liberal era that extended from 1923 to 1952, safeguarded academic freedoms in Egyptian universities and preserved their autonomy, until the Free Officers Movement seized power in 1952. A series of laws then forcibly subjected universities to the control of the republic’s ruling elites and restricted the university’s autonomy and academic freedoms. The first of these laws was the “Purification Committees” Law (Law No. 128 of 1953) that fired faculty members supporting democracy and freedom or sympathizing with the abolished monarchy. The longest-lasting law among these laws has been the Universities Regulatory Law, promulgated in 1972 (Law No. 49 of 1972) and still in force, with many amendments diminishing the university’s autonomy and restricting academic freedoms to this day.

Between the 1950s and the 2020s, the “July 1952 Republic” has turned Egyptian universities into subordinated institutions co-opted by the bureaucratic apparatus of the government. Faculty members have become government employees whose salaries and benefits come from the Ministry of Finance. The head of the executive branch of government—the Prime Minister when Abdel Nasser held that office from 1952 to 1954 and then the President of the Republic since he became President in 1954—has the authority to appoint the universities’ presidents and the faculties’ deans. An exception was made for a short period between the summers of 2012 and 2014 following the democratic uprising of 2011. Presidents and deans were elected to ensure the autonomy of Egyptian universities (the election-based selection of presidents and deans was adopted in accordance with Law No. 84 of 2012 that amended some provisions of Law No. 49 of 1972; it was later abolished by Law No. 52 of 2014, which reinstated the provisions of Law No. 49 of 1972).

Between the 1950s and the 2020s, the “July 1952 Republic” has continuously interfered in the affairs of universities to dismiss faculty members who advocated for democracy and freedom or who opposed the policies of the ruling elites. The republic has systematically employed its control and containment toolkit to undermine academic freedoms, often by allowing the presence of security forces on university campuses and thereby imposing surveillance on classrooms and scientific research.

In its endeavor to dominate the Egyptian University, the “July 1952 Republic” has extensively used persuasion to secure the allegiance of faculty members. It has controlled their access to economic and social benefits, as well as their ability to tap into university scholarships and promotions. It has also advanced to become the sole gatekeeper of lucrative academic jobs at Gulf universities and used this prerogative to ensure faculty submission.

In the name of the “true Egyptian nationalism”, the republic has constantly attempted to spread on campus the ideologies of the ruling elites and to garner support for their policies. While students have been threatened by the presence of security forces on campus, faculty members have been threatened financially by being turned into government employees and academically by seeing the republic monopolize their access routes to promotion and lucrative jobs.

Translated from Arabic by Diana Abbany.


Amr Hamzawy works as a Senior Research Scholar at Stanford University’s Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law. He studied political science and developmental studies in Cairo, The Hague, and Berlin. He was previously an associate professor of political science at Cairo University and a professor of public policy at the American University in Cairo and was a member of the Egyptian People’s Assembly after the January 25, 2011 revolution. His research focuses on democratization processes in Egypt, tensions between freedom and repression in the Egyptian public space, political movements and civil society, contemporary debates in Arab political thought, and human rights and governance in the Arab world. His new book On The Habits of Neoauthoritarianism – Politics in Egypt Between 2013 and 2019 appeared in Arabic in September 2019. Hamzawy contributes a weekly op-ed to the All Arab daily al-Quds al-Arabi.


Further articles in the Academic Freedom series on TRAFO:

Pascal Engel, Academic Freedom is the Freedom to Know, 24 February 2021.

Gisèle Sapiro, Amr Hamzawy, and Başak Tuğ, Threats to Academic Freedom – Historical and Contemporary Remarks, 17 February 2021.

Mitchell G. Ash, The Suppression and Misuses of Academic Freedom During the Nazi Regime, 3 March 2021.

Sandra Richter, What Kind of Academic Freedom and for Whom? Karl Jaspers’ Idea of the University, 10 March 2021.

Libora Oates-Indruchová, Academic Presses in Czechoslovakia and Hungary under Communist Regimes, 24 March 2021.

Balázs Trencsényi, Notes from the Underground: Academic Freedom, (Un)Civil Society, and Kulturkampf in Hungary, 1 April 2021.


Citation: Amr Hamzawy, The Long-lived “July Republic” and the Abolition of the Egyptian University’s Autonomy, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 07.04.2021, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/27796,


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