The violence that has shaken Egypt for the past several days is, in part, provoked by the ongoing polarization of society and inability of any of the parties to find a way to consensus; and in part by the anniversary of the events of two years ago, the early days of the Revolution. The protests began on January 25, and January 28 was the bloodiest day. Everyone recognizes the echo of those days.
But let me suggest that there is another specter haunting the events in Egypt today: the specter of another January: 1952. Saturday was the 61st anniversary of "Black Saturday" and the widespread burning of downtown Cairo. Though the British are long gone, there are echoes of Black Saturday still in the air: armed partisan groups, including the Muslim Brotherhood, an ineffective executive, a demoralized police, and, perhaps, an Army waiting in the wings.
The parallels are not exact; history doesn't really repeat itself (but, as Mark Twain allegedly said, sometimes it rhymes). The various parties in Egypt increasingly see events through highly polarized lenses: the National Salvation Front rejects Morsi's offer of talks, suggesting they would not be productive, thus further undermining Morsi's legitimacy; but however ill-advised his policies may be, he did in the election, and his partisans continue with their "we won, so we don't need to listen to anyone else" approach. Both sides exclude the middle, exclude compromise, and in so doing probably exclude the views of most Egyptians.
This piece by Steve Negus at The Arabist offers, I think, one of the best assessments I've seen: this is not a new dictatorship with the Muslim Brotherhood in the place of Mubarak; it's rather a fragmented state with no one clearly in firm control. The reason I bring up the specter of January 1952 is because the events in Ismailia and Black Saturday led directly and inexorably to the military coup of July of that year, and the beginning of six decades of authoritarianism.
I know that some liberals in Egypt are talking almost wistfully about a possible army intervention. Have they forgotten how recently they sent the Army back to its barracks? Have they forgotten the old rule that if you bring in the Praetorian Guard to get rid of a rival, you will have a lot harder time getting rid of the Praetorians than you did the rival?
I'll have more to say about events in Egypt soon, but in evoking the ghosts of January 2011, all sides would do well to remember the fires of January 1952.