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Out of all the recent historical figures, Egypt has been living in the shadow of one man, Gamal Abdel Nasser. Ever since he came to power through a military coup in 1952, he has proved to be an enduring and at the same time divisive figure. All the regimes that followed tried either to appropriate parts of his legacy, or to distance themselves from it. Nasser was always the benchmark, whether good or bad, for evaluation.
From Sadat, who drastically attempted to realign Egyptian policy, coining the policy of “Egypt First”, to Mubarak who always reasserted his commitment to the betterment of the downtrodden masses - a rhetoric that he repeated until the last days of his reign - all clearly carried a Nasserist undertone. The same applies to Morsi. The current regime in Cairo is no different; El Sisi seems to be selectively trying to revive certain aspects of Nasserism as an ideological platform for the reinvigorated military regime.
But Nasserism is based on two main pillars: Arab nationalism and Arab socialism. Both at the time of their creation were considered to be progressive, anti-imperialist ideologies aimed at ridding the Arab world of its backwardness. Although heavily influenced by ideas from the west, both were considered to be purely indigenous paths to development.
It is important to understand those ideologies and their longterm impacts on the Egyptian polity in order to better understand the current situation in Egypt. Arab nationalism was the main ideology acting as the backbone of Egyptian foreign policy, until it was abandoned by Sadat in the 1970s, to be replaced by his “Egypt First” policy. The essence of this policy was that the Arab world was essentially one nation, with shared interests, history and culture. Egypt, as the leading state, therefore had the obligation to support other “nationalist” and “progressive” forces in the region. This policy divided the Arab World into “progressive” and “regressive” countries, and initiated what Malcolm Kier called the “Arab Cold War”, that reached its apex with the Egyptian involvement in Yemen.
This ideology involved a deep commitment to the Palestinian issue, as the premier cause in the Middle East, and fervent anti-Zionism. As a policy, this had the dual effect of acting as an ideological justification for Egyptian hegemony, and providing domestic legitimacy for the Nasser regime. This policy also involved close cooperation with the USSR, especially after the 1967 Arab/Israeli war and subsequent defeat, when Egypt lost its ability to maneuver. This alliance was cemented in the collective psyches of Egyptians in the form of an anti-imperialist alliance.
The second pillar of Nasserism is Arab socialism, allegedly a socialism much influenced by Titoism. This ideological pillar has a strong commitment to social justice, the nationalization of economic assets, and rapid rates of industrialization. The attendant policies led to the creation of a bureaucratic middle class employed in the public sector, which acted as the social support base of the regime.
Some observers argue that it was a form of state capitalism, as the profit incentive was always present. It also led to a widespread redistribution of wealth, especially in the Egyptian countryside, to a land reform that ended the power of the landed class while increasing the power of the state, and to increased support for the regime in the countryside. This policy left a lasting impact on Egyptian expectations from their government, and in particular their regard for the paternal role, with its responsibility for providing basic services and other goods. The Nasserist legacy has left a lasting impact in that regard.
But there is another side of Nasserism, the side that is the more prominent candidate for revival by El Sisi and co. Nasser was notorious for his repression of political opponents, namely the Muslim Brotherhood and the Communist movement. He tried to frame the Muslim Brotherhood as an extremist terrorist group, and embarked on a repression campaign that led to the radicalization of some members of the Brotherhood who formed their own jihadist groups.
This was also coupled with an outright contempt for parliamentary democracy, as a destructive and inefficient political system that served only to propagate societal tensions and conflict. The best way to handle dissent in this era was repression, rather than dialogue. Nasser also propagated military dominance over the state, especially over the public sector, guaranteeing the military both political and economic control of the country.
This involved a certain type of cronyism, based on a classification of “people of trust vs. people of expertise”, which effectively created a class of people who might not be knowledgeable, but however were of proven political loyalty.These were teh poeple who were able to procure leadership positions within the state. The defeat in 1967 initiated a process of readjustment where most of the Nasserist ideologies were abandoned, while some morphed and their impact can still be felt as an undercurrent in Egyptian political life.
Currently El Sisi is attempting to recreate certain aspects of Nasserism as an ideological base for the neo-military regime in Egypt, as follows. First, El Sisi is attempting to create a sense of personal legitimacy around his own identity as a “national hero”, this image being propagated and pushed by both private and public media on a daily basis, and entailing a claim of similarity to the “Great Man”, Nasser.
There is also an emphasis on the support given to El Sisi by a number of prominent societal figures and intellectuals who have had close links to Nasserism, namely, Mohamed Hassanein Heikal, one of most important figures of the Nasser regime, and Nasser’s son Abdel Hakim Abdel Nasser, who stated that only El Sisi can compete with his father for the title of “loved by millions”. Both men have argued for the need to save the nation from the diabolical plans of the Muslim Brotherhood, and both men have justified the extremely repressive tactics employed against the Brotherhood, on the basis that this represents an existential threat to the nation.
On the foreign policy front El Sisi is attempting to portray himself as an anti-imperialist, anti-American hero; again attempting to appropriate the legacy of Nasser. On one hand, there is a vicious media campaign to defame the revolution, claiming that it was an American-funded plot to destroy Egypt and the last Arab fighting force, and that this plot was orchestrated with the cooperation of the Muslim Brotherhood. A ludicrous claim, since the Egyptian military is a staunch American ally, and receives billions in aid from the United States. In this respect Syria is used as an example of the American plan for Egypt, where the United States is accused of supporting Islamist extremists and igniting the civil war in Syria, formerly their plan in Egypt, using the Muslim Brotherhood as their pawn.
On the other hand, El Sisi has been flirting with Russia, with local media reports continually highlighting the importance of this increased cooperation, hinting that it would change Egypt’s relationship to the United States, breaking Egyptian dependence, at least on the military front. However, this deal is yet to materialize. The increased media praise for Russia and Putin, as a bulwark against American imperialism is one result, ignoring, of course, Russia’s role in the Syrian conflict. This cleverly manipulates an Egyptian psyche that links Russia to the Nasserist legacy of anti-imperialism and resistance. However, as I have argued elsewhere, this does not indicate a change in Egyptian foreign policy, or a break with the United States.
On the domestic front, El Sisi seems to be reviving the repressive and antidemocratic aspect of Nasserism, ignoring its emphasis on social justice, and progressive social policy. El Sisi is attempting to create an image for himself as a demi-god, an almost mythical figure that will save Egypt from the powers of darkness. Both men are declared to have fought “enemies of the people” and “American agents”, a repetition of the Nasserist rhetoric, whereby dissent becomes equivalent to treason, and opposition to the regime becomes a crime. In short, El Sisi becomes a symbol of the nation, just as Nasser did before him.
The military has also attempted to revive the notion of its achievements, an attempt to recreate the image of the military as a force for progress. Due to the lack of any real evidence for this, the dark comedy of General Kofta began, whereby the military announced the invention of a device that not only detected AIDS and hepatitis C, but also cured them. This magical device will be made available on June 30, on the first anniversary of the mass protests that led to the toppling of Morsi.
The revival of the Nasserist legacy has been selective at best, aimed at reinforcing a “false consciousness” haze in the minds of many Egyptians. Aspects of Nasserism related to social justice, the role of the state in society, and genuine anti-imperialism seem to be totally absent. But as I have argued before, the ability of the regime to impose this fog is limited by material factors that have placed the military on a collision course with the middle classes. In the end, propaganda will only serve to strengthen an attack on the ideological base of the current regime, leaving its repression exposed. It seems that what is happening in Egypt is a comical repetition of history, following the Marxist dictum that “History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce.”