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Opinion

Egypt's future in the shadow of Nasser

With rampant comparisons between Sisi and Nasser, is 'cult of the leader' driving Egypt's presidential elections?

Last updated: 07 May 2014 06:59
John Bell

John Bell is Director of the Middle East Programme at the Toledo International Centre for Peace in Madrid. He is a former United Nations and Canadian diplomat, and served as Political Advisor to the Personal Representative of the UN Secretary-General for southern Lebanon and advisor to the Canadian Government during the Iraq crisis in 2002-03.
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Like Nasser, Sisi has indicated that he will pursue social justice, writes Bell [Reuters]

Egyptian presidential elections have kicked off, and the word "Nasser" is on the minds of many. Hamdeen Sabahi, the only competitor to presidential hopeful Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, is a self-styled Nasserist, and Sisi himself is frequently compared to the great Egyptian nationalist of the 1950s and 1960s. Gamal Abdel Nasser's shadow is long, but is the comparison longing and nostalgia for that era or something more tangible?

Sisi and Nasser are often compared because they are both military men who arrived to politics at a critical time in Egyptian history and who garnered populism through charisma. Both men have had confrontations with the Muslim Brotherhood. They are bold and decisive, and conduct opportunistic moves. Both strike a chord among many Egyptians as "decent" men who will work for the welfare of the people. Their speeches are palliatives in times of turbulence and paradigmatic change. Many look to this mix of pharaoh and "man of the people" to lead and save the day.

This is a longstanding tradition in the region, the "cult of the leader", a habit that revolution has not yet erased, and that many wish to perpetuate. However, in reality, the two inhabit vastly differing eras, and the similarities may end there.

Nasser was a man shaped through the struggle against the British and colonialism. He was an active fighter against the established order, a young protester in Alexandria, a founder of the revolutionary Free Officers' Movement, and a soldier in the battles against the creation of Israel. As president, he translated this considerable preface into active policy by nationalising the Suez Canal and instituting social and economic reforms at a vast scale - steps that some romanticise, while others see as the very source of today's ills.

Like Nasser, Sisi has indicated that he will pursue social justice, but a Chavez-like populism requires petro-dollars to succeed, and Egypt has none.

Former General Sisi has had no such history. He is a man who has stolidly climbed the military ladder and taken advantage of opportunity as it came about. Unlike Nasser, he is firmly a man of the establishment and the military. While Nasser forged revolution through the Free Officers, Sisi has shown up, "appeared", at the right moment to help take Egypt out of its misery.

A man of his time

No matter whether one reveres or despises him, Nasser was a man of his time. "Nasserism" was part and parcel of a wave of state socialism globally. It was an era of liberation from colonial oppression and of hope that that very act would portend national success and greater social equality. It was also an era of direct confrontation with Israel as another form of oppression of Arabs and their Palestinian brethren.

"The world has changed," an Egyptian observer told me in reference to all of today's Nasserite excitement. Sisi lives in a different time with very different demands. Global capital is both a scourge and an imperative for economic development. The scale and, above all, the expectations of today's citizens demand the lifeblood of massive capital to flow in and create economies. Furthermore, the legendary patience of the Egyptian people is less apparent in these volatile times; Sisi is aware of this and has begun to lower expectations. Like Nasser, Sisi has indicated that he will pursue social justice, but a Chavez-like populism requires petro-dollars to succeed, and Egypt has none.

The real question, in these elections and beyond, is whether Sisi or anyone can deliver what Egypt needs. Will the cult of a leader, or harking back to the high emotion of Nasserism provide a way forward for a politically fragmented country on the verge of financial default?

Sisi is making a lot of noises about consensus and the need for sacrifice by the people; however, the road forward is neither clear nor easy. The kind of political compromise and economic vigour required to move the country forward is in short supply. Returning to state-based intervention, a la Nasser, is anachronistic and dangerous, especially if it deepens the darker side of centralised control: mukhabarat and security in the name of stability and higher national purpose.

Sisi's reality is that he will have to decide whether to shift away from this security-based paradigm to a more consensus-based rule (not an easy feat for a military man). The choice of team and advisers will be an early indicator of his intentions. A resurgent economy requires stability, and that, in turn, requires some degree of political consensus.

Periods of trauma

Egypt has now had four periods of trauma in rapid succession: under Mubarak, the SCAF, the Muslim Brotherhood, and the time since their fall. Each of these periods has led to grievances and violent reactions - Sisi will have to find a formula to begin to heal these wounds. He is playing electorally to the view among many that the Brothers are the consorts of the devil and the source of terror, but that confrontation may not provide the basis for a healthy Egypt. His most recent statement that the Brotherhood will cease to exist under his rule will not likely further that end.

Like Nasser, Sisi is also calling on a profound force in Egyptian society that was fortified by revolution: nationalism and its attendant pride and emotion. Nasser, however, had a straightforward expression for this zeal. He could oppose the colonial powers, the UK and France and the Zionist enterprise. It was natural and harmonic for him to point his people and his country, indeed the whole Arab world, to these challenges.

Nasser was directly involved in the very creation of his era, he defined it, and rode its full arc. He embodied its spirit from glorious beginning, to less glorious end. Whoever rules Egypt today will have to ride a wilder tiger under no one's control.

"People do not want words - they want the sound of battle - the battle of destiny," Nasser said.

Sisi however has no such luxury. He may come to see the utility of external enemies, but that is a more difficult game today. A switch away from the US cannot be totally ruled out, nor can nearer adventures, whether in Ethiopia or Libya, but all such moves are very problematic. The nationalistic rallying cry of war and conflict may be only a temporary salve to Egypt's problems.

The Egyptian revolution of 2011 was about domestic injustice and corruption, and the answers will ultimately have to be there as well. Comparisons with Nasser will not save the day when Egypt's tourism industry is in the dumps, and its economy stalled.

Nasser was directly involved in the very creation of his era, he defined it, and rode its full arc. He embodied its spirit from glorious beginning, to less glorious end. Whoever rules Egypt today will have to ride a wilder tiger under no one's control.

The revolution of 2011 has unleashed untamed dynamics and the impatience of short-term expectations, while, Egypt's demographic and socio-economic problems require long term solutions. Sisi knows this, but unless he quickly adapts to the demands of his red-blooded revolutionary era, he may find his tenure short, bitter and fatefully tragic. As he decides, the looming shadow of Nasser will pass into the slipstream of history like many other dreams in the eternal land of the Nile.

John Bell is Director of the Middle East Programme at the Toledo International Centre for Peace in Madrid. He is a former United Nations and Canadian diplomat, and served as Political Advisor to the Personal Representative of the UN Secretary-General for southern Lebanon and advisor to the Canadian Government during the Iraq crisis in 2002-03.

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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