North Africa, West Asia

Spring into winter: Nasser, Sisi and the fate of Egypt’s revolution

Why would a country that showed itself so courageous in confronting Mubarak’s repression now be content to sacrifice its hard won gains, and accept a regime that has gone far further?

Neil Serougi
15 March 2016
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KimBadawi/Getty Images. All rights reserved.What became of the Arab Spring? The heady optimism that saw dictators fall like dominoes under the irresistible momentum of a popular uprising has now been replaced by a harder edged disillusionment. We shouldn’t be surprised. The pattern of events that followed the Arab Spring was not unusual in terms of post-insurgency dynamics. History is littered with evidence of popular uprisings that gather momentum and then fragment into competing, volatile pressures.

In Egypt this was played out on a very visible scale courtesy of ‘Tahrir Square’. As the multitudes poured into the centre of Cairo, it was easy to forget that the incompatibilities of their political alignments had very different endgames. Nowhere was this more evident than in the exuberant optimism of the young who, connected into a global world, envisaged their lives in very different ways from either the Muslim Brotherhood or the anti-Mubarak establishment. For this group in particular freedom of expression was central to their energy but it has now become apparent that what they wanted was inimical to a political elite accustomed to absolute control as a precursor to privilege and power. Predictably, given Egypt’s human rights record, the repercussions have been ruthless. Yesterday’s ‘Young Turks’ are today’s political misfits, rebadged as naive and their voices recast as sedition. The administration of President Sisi, intent on maintaining the military’s grip on civic life, has cracked down hard on any public expression that breaches the State’s rigid view of permissible dissent.

But why would a country that showed itself so courageous in confronting Mubarak’s police state now be content to sacrifice its hard won gains? How can a populace so enraged by repression come to accept a regime that has gone further than Mubarak ever dared?

As ever the answer lies in the complex interplay of factors that straddle the practical and the political in the Middle East. At its heart is a layer of consciousness that sits between political inertia and political activism, comprising attitudes and values that register neither as revolutionary or reactionary. Rather they are shaped by the material and cultural consequences of the events unfolding before them and ‘support’ is contingent on the degree of dissonance between expectations and reality. In Egypt this dissonance grew the longer the factors ostensibly causing instability persisted, creating a source of fractious intolerance that ultimately focused on those still seeking reform.

The grim implications for vast numbers of Egyptians soon undermined support for pro-democracy campaigners.

The most pressing of these was the economic impact of the prolonged nature of the protests which eroded support amongst those whose livelihoods depended on a return to normality. Sisi, under the auspices of restoring national respect, was able to exploit the instability as wilful and reckless, fomenting the anxiety of an increasingly wearied population and generating a hostility towards ‘disruptive elements’. The dying of the reformist beacon that had shone a light into the darkest corners of Mubarak’s Egypt has accordingly been now almost completely extinguished with popular assent.

Undoubtedly the hardships that accompanied the revolution were very real but adversity wasn’t equally experienced. Those who already struggled to make ends meet faced the hardest time. The wealthy by contrast had options and were able to get through. But for the majority, it was a different story.

At the outset, the protests had been propelled by a belief that life would get measurably better but as the shops remained closed and economic survival became even more precarious, large numbers began to worry that they could lose what little they had. From their perspective, the nascent vision of a Brave New World was a luxury they could ill afford. Egypt’s social fabric wilted under the economic collapse that followed as the economy, hit by an outflow of foreign direct investment and portfolio investment, struggled to remain afloat. According to its Central Bank, the country’s losses totaled $418.1 million and $3.3 billion respectively in the second half of 2011. Stagflation followed with growth slumping to 2.2% and critically, for those on the ‘bread line’, by the end of 2012 inflation was running at 8.7 percent. The pressure on ordinary Egyptians who had been so redoubtable during the sacrifices of the early days of the revolution intensified. Staple goods including food and medicine soared in price and unemployment increased to 13 percent effectively creating 850,000 extra jobless people.

It wasn’t the first time that Egypt had suffered but in the past during hard times, Egypt could always turn to its tourism. However this too declined drastically after the revolution, with $2.5 billion wiped off the balance sheet by January 2011 compared to typical pre-revolution levels. Inevitably this had predictable implications for the value of the Egyptian pound, which declined catastrophically for a country heavily dependent on food and fuel imports. According to Egypt's Ministry of Industry and Foreign Trade, food products represent about 17 percent of the country's imports, and for oil products about 18 percent. From 2011 to 2012, these imports increased at least 10 and 28 percent respectively. The implications for vast numbers of Egyptians were inescapably grim and soon undermined support for the resilience of pro-democracy campaigners to protect their ‘revolution’.

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Mohamed El-Shahed/AFP/Getty Images. All rights reserved.If the economic hardships that arose were one factor that undermined Egypt’s will to see its Arab Spring through to real political reform, another was the unknown quantity that was Abdel Fattah El Sisi. His good fortune was to be unassociated with the Mubarak regime. The authoritarian comparisons with Mubarak are indisputable and yet Sisi has acquired a different persona in terms of legitimacy. What was perceived as disqualifying with Mubarak is seen as a strength with Sisi.

Undoubtedly the latter’s advantage is that he ascended to power in a crisis and with his reputation unsullied. The ostentatious corruption that characterised Mubarak’s quest to create a dynastical rule with his sons as ‘heirs apparent’ does not yet apply to Sisi. The festering resentment of Mubarak owed much to his disdain for ‘the people’ over many years, currying international acceptability, whilst presiding over economic and social decline. Sisi in contrast still enjoys a legitimacy that is as yet relatively untainted, enabling him to frame his iron grip as paternalistic and in the interests of national security amidst the rise of militant Islam. To many Egyptians, the fact that his authoritarian state seems to be a restoration of what they took to the streets to get rid of, is a contradiction that has been resolved by his stature as a national saviour with a growing personality cult that inures him from accountability. In this respect the country’s encounter (nationally and regionally) with militant Islam is instructive. Fear of Islamism has engendered much of Sisi’s popularity and consequent full authority to take whatever anti-democratic measures he deems necessary.

Fear of Islamism has engendered much of Sisi’s popularity and consequent full authority to take whatever anti-democratic measures he deems necessary.

It is a sentiment that was entrenched by the realisation that electoral democracy had elevated the Freedom and Justice Party (Muslim Brotherhood) into power with a mandate to change the character of Egyptian civic life beyond what most had wanted.

The misrule of Morsi became instrumental alongside the stuttering economy in the desire for the return of strong leadership. Sisi exploited the mood without any compunction and systematically began to erode wider political rights. Any misgivings and it only took a sideways look at the turmoil unfolding in Syria, Yemen and Libya to corroborate the instinct that this was Egypt’s best course to follow. Ultimately the early pluralistic promise of the Arab Spring reverted to a binary between extending political freedoms at the cost of political and economic instability or constraining freedoms but with the promise of secular prosperity and security.

Looking at Egypt today, it’s depressingly apparent that the immutable law of most uprisings has been resolutely proven; that ultimately they tend to mandate new iterations of the elites that they sought to displace.

But could it have been any different?

This question is intriguing if hypothetical. As with most uprisings across the region the character of the protests failed to coalesce around a political programme capable of initiating real change. The surge of energy that swept aside innate fear did so on the back of a fractured endurance that never evolved into a movement capable of building alliances. Defiance became the proxy for political objectives rather than a cohesive political agenda that could stand as a set of collective demands for ‘real’ structural concessions. Perhaps this was inevitable. In Egypt, the common denominator was the hatred of a regime that lived its life in opulence and corruption whilst presenting an inflated prospectus of its achievements to the international community. The wish for something different, to move away from the present, was not matched by a consensus of what the future might look like.


Ahmed Taranh/AFP/Getty Images. All rights reserved.Without this unity of purpose, it was inevitable that the post Mubarak solidarity would disintegrate badly and the predominant urge would be to return the military to centre stage. For some keen observers of history, this was the most likely outcome anyway, irrespective of the other factors noted above. Historically the Arab world has been frequently traduced by the image of a military strong man as national saviour, subordinating wider political accountability and participation to the appeal of what S E Finer aptly termed the Man on Horseback. Egypt’s post-Tahrir destiny dovetailed neatly with this ‘ideal’. The nostalgic appeal and political gravity of Nasserism, despite being heavily caricatured for domestic consumption, still lies close to the surface of the Egyptian psyche. Given the army’s imprint runs through civic life, Sisi was a man in the right place at the right time.

So how much of this was anticipated in the west? The confusion over how to receive and respond to Sisi’s ‘coup’ was a monumental failure. The blandishments and assurances that emanated from his regime contradicted his actions on the ground but the west was caught in a dilemma. The Arab Spring was not teleologically bound to produce a palatable result and the fact we generally failed to anticipate the eventual outcome was largely down to our insistence on seeing the Arab Spring through a western template that equated the hopes and aspirations of the young protesters with our own values and political exigencies. The narrative was of one of a desire for western political modernity thus far denied. The insurgency and its vicissitudes made for compelling TV viewing but its direction was rarely understood sufficiently to realise that the clamour for western political reform was not uniformly evinced in a way that media commentary implied. Tahrir Square was not Tiananmen Square.

Nowhere was this more evident than in the failure of Mohammed el Baradi, whose eminent career at the International Atomic Agency and impeccable credentials encouraged western diplomats to see him as the man who could lead Egypt to the next stage. Unfortunately, he commanded more support in international circles than in Egypt and was never a serious contender.

The fury that filled Tahrir Square viewed western hypocrisy and domestic autocracy as a joint enterprise.

So was there any ideological undercurrent to the protests? If not necessarily an overt statement of defining ideas, then perhaps an overarching sentiment that resonated with a set of formative historical identities, maybe juxtaposing current challenges with a ‘remembrance of things past’?

Political Islam may have triumphed in the post revolution elections but ultimately its effect had been to enervate not innovate the spirit and motivations behind the revolution. The Muslim Brothers were caught as much by surprise by the insurgency as the Mubarak regime and only latterly entered the fray. Islamism, despite the claims of its leaders, was not the psychological trigger that brought the masses onto the streets in 2011. Equally plausible was that the outrage resonated a different mentality shaped by strong sentiments more empathetic to the anti-colonial and independence dynamics that defined a previous era. In particular, the double standards of western geopolitics and the hegemony of its economic systems, fed into the rage against Mubarak. The fury that filled Tahrir Square viewed western hypocrisy and domestic autocracy as a joint enterprise. The diplomats in western capitals replete with the rhetoric of freedom and human rights had turned a blind eye to the abuses of Mubarak and others for years.

It maybe be too precipitous to make the conflation too acutely but a latent nationalist Arabism, redolent of a previous era came to characterise the uprising in a way that demonstrated the durable strength of identity politics in contouring Egypt’s political landscape. The Arab Spring in Egypt sought to resurrect a connection with an idealised but nevertheless distinctive past that would expunge the visions of Mubarak and Sadat as chief architects of Egypt’s subservience to American geopolitical stratagems and economic liberalisation. It conflated declining international status, nepotism, widening inequality and the lack of political ballast to navigate the country through the stormy waters of a globalised world with a desire for a resurrection of Egypt at a different historical moment. Disempowerment, disillusionment and deprivation created the conditions for the perfect storm and the forces unleashed by the Arab Spring were as much about wishing to reconnect with these feelings of political re-empowerment as they were about western civic blueprints. They embodied a different type of charismatic representation, consistent with a secular Islam, social justice and crucially self-regard.

It had been a long time since such a force existed and the only one whose reputation fulfilled this was Gamal Abdel Nasser. Numerous military men, seeking the mantle of successor, have intoned the political heritage of Nasser as a means of acquiring authority and legitimacy. Sisi was no different and when he took power; his popularity reflected a wish to reconnect with a leadership that was rooted in Nasser’s legacy. It’s an interesting phenomenon not least because the passage of time has blurred the boundaries between reality and myth.

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Khaled Desouki/AFP/Getty Images. All rights reserved.The history of Nasser as a leader has been obscured by the political iconography that has surrounded his place in history. On the one hand he was clearly a charismatic leader who by stature and eloquence genuinely inspired the masses in Egypt and regionally, succeeded in engendering a loyalty to his model of Arab socialism. In some respects, this was a matter of timing and opportunity rather than design. The misjudgement of Eden over Suez dealt him a card that he shrewdly played internationally without quite knowing the outcome. At the same time, he ensconced his position with Nehru and Tito as part of the triumvirate that led the non-aligned movement.

Sisi was able to exploit the time capsule in which Egypt still emotively sees Nasser’s legacy, transposing a historical political persona to his own present day legitimacy.

Nasser’s strengths were the idealisation of modern Arab societies predicated on what were secular anti-colonial values, alongside his three circles of Africanism, Arabism and Islam. For a while this excited the population’s view of themselves and their place within the global world. It was a project in which these values became integral to their lives and relationships. The consequent reputational currency that he accrued provided him the platform to present a new type of Arab society that would ostensibly blow away the hierarchical old orders across the Middle East.

In truth it didn’t work out like this, with costly interventions in the Yemen and Syria taking their toll on both the Egyptian exchequer and the feasibility of Arab unity. Nasser’s regime acquired the hallmarks of a military dictatorship in which the role of the army prospered disproportionately to the civic society it had deigned to serve. Opposition was not tolerated and institutions such as the judiciary rearticulated their jurisdiction within the political parameters of the Arab Socialist Union.

The emergence of the police state apparatus saw the early optimism of Nasser’s vision give way to the suffocating reality of paranoia, suspicion and surveillance. Inevitably those who could do emigrated, creating a skills vacuum that made it even harder to deliver on the early promises. He allowed himself to be outmanoeuvred in a war that in 1967 left the Egyptian military decimated and humiliated. The merging with Syria to form the United Arab Republic was naive and further drained energy from his domestic projects.

Instead, perhaps his greatest achievement was at a cognitive level, coalescing a range of competing interests and temperaments within the idea of a new Arab identity that offered the prospect of a new found stature, social justice and independence. Arabism would be a dynamic that complemented western modernity by its subscription to secularism and without disregarding its Arab modality. Crucially, the military was both the catalyst and the custodian in this enterprise, ready to protect the country from both backsliding conservative forces that would subvert progress and the western political machinations that sought to perpetuate Egypt’s dependency.

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Khaled Desouki/AFP/Getty Images. All rights reserved.When Sisi and the military took control, he was able to exploit the time capsule in which Egypt still emotively sees Nasser’s legacy, transposing a historical political persona with its political accoutrements to his own present day legitimacy. So far he has been fortunate. The pieces fell into place in the national psyche when he emerged as a new strongman amidst a potent imagery of Egyptian flags flying from army helicopters over Tahrir Square. The semiology spoke volumes to those below and the adulation began amidst a largely euphoric reaction that exuded the same exuberance redolent of Nasser’s hold on the excited masses decades before.

However, it is right to wonder how long Sisi can sustain this symmetry. What Nasser came to embody, even if the iconography fails the reality test, was a charismatic figure that rearticulated Egypt’s post-colonial role as a progenitor to a new age where the jigsaw was incomplete. His authoritarianism was interwoven into a wider vision and sphere of influence that escapes Sisi because 2016 is not 1956. As a harbinger of hope, Nasser shaped the identities and faith of those who heard his message in a way that left its mark. Sisi selectively will continue to ‘buy’ into this political lineage in the hope that he will secure the people’s confidence sufficiently to entrench his rule. The mistake though would be to believe in that confidence as an unlimited commodity. The moment will come when he needs to deliver or risk becoming the new Mubarak, with potentially the same results.

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