North Africa, West Asia

The revival Nasserism in El Sisi’s Egypt

Maged Mandour

The selective revival of Nasserism by Egypt's current regime may help expand its support base amongst the masses, but only temporarily, as living standards continue to deteriorate.

Maged Mandour
16 December 2015
Demotix/Khaled Basyouny. All rights reserved.

Demotix/Khaled Basyouny. All rights reserved.

Egypt’s current regime has used a considerable amount of repression to remain in power. This however is not the full picture, as state violence alone is not sufficient to maintain power; an ideological base has to accompany it. This base is used by the regime not only to consolidate support, but also to maintain internal cohesion among elites. 

The regime builds support from its core base and justifies its existence through, for example, the creation of a national security state that is anchored in “fighting terrorism”. This combined with a public backlash against the Muslim Brotherhood has created a personality cult around President Sisi as a national hero. 

However, this view ignores a more subtle trend within the ideological base of the Sisi regime, namely the selective revival of Nassersim in the political rather than the economic sphere. This selective revival is used by the regime to justify state repression, the stifling of civil society and any snuffing out of any semblance of a democratic process, most notably the parliamentary process.

Nasserist revival: parliament   

The first aspect of this revival is the renewal of the Nasserist suspicion of the parliamentary process, as expressed by Nasser himself when he stated:

“Our ultimate aim is to provide Egypt with a truly democratic and representative government, not the type of parliamentary dictatorship which the Palace and a corrupt "pasha" class imposed on the people”.  

The Nasserist conception of this “democratic” order involved the abolition of all political parties and the establishment of a single party state. When one compares this to Sisi’s position, there are striking similarities. Sisi’s suspicions of a functioning parliament have been conveyed on more than one occasion. 

First, when he called for the establishment of a single electoral coalition to run for parliament, in essence creating a single party state converting parliament into a 'rubber stamp'-approving body. Second, is his recent call to amend the constitution, citing that the powers of parliament were too broadly defined and based on “good intentions”, which was not 'suitable' for the current Egyptian political situation. Thus, unlike the Mubarak era, when the regime attempted to create an aura of democratization (for example, the 2007 constitutional amendments, which appeared to strengthen parliament, at least overtly), Sisi has attempted to revive a Nasserist view of parliament: that it is an untrustworthy institution.            

Nasserist revival: opposition  

The second aspect of the Nasserist revival are the views propagated by the regime regarding the Muslim Brotherhood and the secular activist opposition. Both are currently being subjected to widescale repression

When explaining his views of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Communist movements Nasser stated

“The greatest internal enemies of the people are the Communists who serve foreign rulers, the Muslim Brotherhood which still seeks rule by assassination”. 

This was followed by a widescale crackdown on both groups, and the outlawing of the Muslim Brotherhood. If one looks at the current situation, the resemblance is striking. Both the secular opposition and Muslim Brotherhood have been accused of having “foreign rulers”. The clearest example are accusations brought against the Brotherhood’s leadership, such as deposed President Morsi, who is accused of high treason and espionage; and eavesdropping on prominent activists accused of “conspiring against the state”, with actual criminal investigations taking place in some cases. 

Moreover, the Brotherhood, which Nasser accused of seeking rule by assassination - a synonym for terrorism - has also been declared a terrorist group and officially banned. Thus, the Nasserist view of the Muslim Brotherhood and the more vocal secular opposition as foreign agents or terrorists has been revived and used as a justification for widescale state repression.

Nasserist revival: strikes, protest & civil society  

The third aspect of the revival of Nasserism is the view held of strikes, protest, and civil society at large. Nasser viewed civil society, such as labor unions and NGOs, with extreme suspicion which he proceeded to repress. There are a number of clear examples. 

First, the suppression of labor movements in 1952 where two unionists, Mohammed Mustafa Khamis and Mohammed Abdel-Rahman al-Baqri, were executed. This was followed by the establishment of a national labor union, which in essence ended the independence of the labor movement and turned labor unions into mere appendages of the state. Second, is law 32 of 1964, which gave the state the authority to disband NGOs at any given time and for any reason it saw fit. 

The Sisi regime is following in the footsteps of Nasser, reviving the very same practices with the goal of ending any and all gains made by civil society. The new anti-terror law, for example, is very broadly defined and can be used as a flexile tool to exert state control over civil society. Another example is a new law that criminalises news reporting, that contradicts the government's account, to exert control over the media. 

The anti-terror law also vaguely defines terrorist organisations in a way that it can be used to level terrorism charges against NGOs or other organisations within civil society. For example, a labor union that organises a protest that disrupts work in a public institute will fall under the jurisdiction of this law.  

The Egyptian regime has proceeded to outlaw labor strikes, and has moved to reassert its control over labor unions, reversing gains made by the labor movement since 2011. Labor strikes are now seen as an act of treason, similar to the accusation against the Muslim Brotherhood and secular activists. 

The regime is attempting to revive the Nasserist view of civil society as untrustworthy, and that of protests and strikes as punishable crimes. Thus, one could argue that Sisi’s regime has revived the most repressive aspects of political Nasserism; it has been using this revival to create a support base for its repressive policies by creating links between Sisi and Nasser.

The Sisi vs. Nasser link 

The clearest example came from Sisi himself when he stated that he “wished” he were Gamal Abdel Nasser. There is also increased evocation of the image and legacy of Nasser in an attempt to use this nostalgia to create support for the current regime amongst the masses. This evocation in the public sphere is used to justify widescale repression. For many Egyptians, this provides the moral justification for the use of extreme violence against opposition groups, as well as justifying the overt dominance of the military in the economy and state.  

However, the viability of this ideology is restricted and directly linked to the ability of the regime to deliver improved standards of living, which have been steadily deteriorating. Thus, at best one could argue that this revival is providing limited breathing space for the regime, and if it doesn’t rethink its strategy fast, there will be little to no room left for manoeuvre.

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