Why Sisi Can’t Imitate Nasser’s Model

While parallels can be drawn between the authoritarian approach of Gamal Abdel Nasser and Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, Egypt’s economic conditions limit the military’s ability to quell its opposition.

al-monitor Protesters cheer with Egyptian flags and a banner of army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, seen between former presidents Gamal Abdel Nasser and Anwar Sadat, as they gather for a mass protest to support the army in front of the presidential palace in Cairo, July 26, 2013. Photo by REUTERS/Asmaa Waguih.

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protests, egyptian presidential election, egypt

Aug 4, 2013

This may not be a logical issue; history often repeats itself where the first time is a tragedy and the second time is a comedy. Yet, the popular urge and massive support in the street for Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi justify the discussion of the possibilities of realization of this approach, in which mobilization by the media played a major role. This role reawakened the dream of the majority of Egyptians and perhaps Arabs of restoring the vision [Gamal] Abdel Nasser had for Egypt as at once a powerful and authoritarian state. What is ironic is that this dream is reduced to the figures that are Abdel Nasser and Sisi, despite their differences.

These differences are not only limited to the experience, education and culture of Sisi and Abdel Nasser, but they are also related to the historical circumstances and the choices made by each of them, making it practically impossible for Sisi to repeat Abdel Nasser’s experience. However, Sisi does not hide his Nasserism, in the sense that he admires Abdul Nasser’s national positions and eagerness to safeguard Egyptians’ pride and dignity. This admiration is shared by most of the Egyptians who believe Nasserism galvanized Egyptian nationalism during the Cold War and represented an attempt to build an independent development model. On the other hand the Nasserist vision and position on democracy has been a contentious issue that divided the Egyptians, even among Nasserites themselves. Moreover, Sisi’s coup backed by popular support intersects with the values ​​and mechanisms of democracy, regardless of the lack of democracy of the Brotherhood’s rule, their failure to run the state’s affairs and their urge to Brotherhoodize and divide Egyptian society, likewise disregarding the popular illusion of a saving hero who will safeguard the unity of the homeland and its national security.

Certainly, reducing history and the future to any specific person reflects the weakness of the masses and the elite’s culture of democracy. Political conflict and a lack of security have exhausted most of the Egyptians and pushed them to search for a saving hero who has the support of a national disciplined institution such as the army. Yet, the irony is that Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi could have fulfilled this role two years ago, but the errors of the military council in terms of administration of the transitional period ruled him out. On the other hand, the elites renounced their principles and retracted the claims they had requested from Morsi and his group. They demonstrated their double standards by calling the army to intervene then by justifying the gross violation of public freedoms and the use of excessive violence against the Brotherhood. In this context, hypotheses have arisen justifying an alliance between civil forces and the army, which shall rule alone, eradicate the Brotherhood and the Islamic forces, and impose on them a non-negotiable prerequisite for national reconciliation that allows them to play a political role. In practice, this means that the alliance between the army and civil forces mimics the Brotherhood’s strategy and methods in dealing with their opponents, on an equal footing with the other opposing party.

Yet, as I pointed out two weeks ago, the army-civilian alliance has maintained the cultural and political division of society, and perhaps even deepening it. This alliance is very vulnerable and likely to collapse due to the opportunism of the civil parties’ elites and their internal conflicts, as well as their failure to bring in new members or reach a consensus on a presidential candidate from outside the army. It is worth mentioning that these elites are aware of their weakness and of their defiance by the popular masses, which make them unable to impose conditions for an alliance or for setting the objectives for such alliance. Thus they acknowledge their subordination to the army, especially after Sisi’s success in calling millions of Egyptians to renew his delegation to fight terrorism, without resorting to the political parties or even obtaining the authorization of the interim prime minister and his government. There is no doubt that all of these parties would not have been able to object or oppose the call made by Sisi, since he proved his ability to build a relationship based on direct and rapid communication with the masses. This relationship increases Sisi’s charisma and is somewhat similar to the relationship between Abdel Nasser and the popular masses. If this relationship were to persist, the most important condition for the emergence of the authoritarian leader would be met.

The truth is that luring the public’s support and encouraging the civilian and military elite benefiting from the new ruling formula may push Sisi to repeat the experience of Abdel Nasser, or at least some of it, particularly in terms of dealing with the Brotherhood and safeguarding the rule of law, citizenship and national independence. However, this mission appears to be difficult or even almost impossible, due to the following reasons:

1. The mechanism to mobilize the masses by making public calls and without relying on any given organization proved to be successful since it led to the ousting of the Brotherhood and was then retained by Sisi to ensure [the success of] his delegation to fight terrorism. Yet, this mechanism may not always be relied upon. It raises the aspirations of the masses regarding the leader’s capacity to meet their demands in terms of social justice, the most pressing matter for Egyptians. However, the Egyptian economic situation is not living up to the expectations of the people. This implies that the direct relationship between the leader and the masses has an economic and political cost, which Nasser was able to deal with in light of the Egyptian economic and social situations and international environment during his term. As for Sisi, the constraints of globalization and the deterioration of the economic situation after the revolution may prevent him from giving real social benefits to the poor.

2. Despite the weakness of the culture of democracy among the masses and the elites, the January 25 revolution produced profound changes in the political awareness and patterns of participation, especially among the youth of the revolution. These changes do not justify the continuation of military rule, just as they did not with the Brotherhood to rule. This means that Egypt has been freeing itself of the dual grip of the army and the Brotherhood since 1952 toward the emergence of new liberal, leftist and national political entities whose role will not be limited to supporting the army, relying on it or reluctantly allying with the Brotherhood against the tyranny of the state with military roots (i.e., the Mubarak state model). It is worth mentioning in this respect the refusal of the April 6 Movement and some participating leftist groups to delegate Sisi to fight terrorism and their condemnation of excessive violence in confronting the Brotherhood, which threatens to reproduce a police state, which may finish with the Brotherhood only to chase after every person with a free or opposing opinion.

3. Egypt was under a different international and regional climate, which conferred to Abdel Nasser a wider scope of freedom of movement and maneuvering between the two Western and Soviet camps. Moreover, the circles of the non-aligned countries and the national liberation movements in the third world supported Egypt's ability to play an independent international and regional role. Yet, these variables were undermined by history and by the decline of Egypt's role in its Arab and African surrounding. Moreover, it is difficult to restore this role under the heavy legacy of Mubarak's foreign policy, Camp David’s restrictions and the relations with Washington, that Sisi may have partly succeeded in defying without being able to dramatically change the pattern of dealing with Washington in the foreseeable future. It is worth mentioning in this respect that the parties to the conflict in Egypt are betting heavily on the position to be taken by Washington and the EU, which will lead either to settling the battle or reaching a formula of coexistence and reconciliation. This means that the internal arena will be vulnerable and exposed to the pressures of the other party, in addition to the pressures imposed by globalization mechanisms. There is no doubt that this correlation between the external and the internal arenas did not have the same degree of importance during the era of Abdel Nasser.

4. The complex correlation between the internal and the globalized external arenas is not only imposed by the requirements of the Egyptian economy in crisis but by the globalized media and social networking mechanisms. This is due to the fact that it became difficult to implement propaganda in the broadcasting and shooting of events, to prevent their broadcasting or impose a media blackout.

This could have been possible during the 1950s and 1960s, given the social gains that Nasser provided for the majority of Egyptians. This is not to mention the strong grip of the state and massive sophisticated propaganda, which the Muslim Brotherhood and its regional allies failed to stand up against.

Nevertheless, this situation has completely changed as a result of the communication and information revolution, which ended the state's monopoly on media and its ability to do away with facts. The media was a key player in the Egyptian scene, which affected the turn of events. The Muslim Brotherhood was mobilizing and connecting with the public at home and abroad via the media. Photos and videos depicting the Muslim Brotherhood as oppressed and persecuted were diffused, as opposed to the state's media and businessmen’s channels, where they were portrayed as criminals and aggressors.

Morally and politically speaking, an all-out war against the Muslim Brotherhood and groups of political Islam is not possible as was the case under the reign Abdel Nasser in 1950s and 1960s. The Islamic group has grown bigger and gained social presence, and organizational, political and media experience, which does not compare to its status during the Nasser era. Thus, rushing to clash with it would lead to major losses, dealing a severe blow to the economy. Yet, a confrontation with the Muslim Brotherhood and its allies would not drag Egypt into a civil war, as was the case in Syria and Algeria in the 1990s.

Today, the problem lies in the fact that a small segment of the population, supported by political activists, has been calling for an open confrontation with the Muslim Brotherhood and political Islam groups, along the lines of Nasser half a century ago. There are fears that the army and the new ruling power might respond to these calls.

In light of the foregoing, Sisi is unlikely to be dragged in a confrontation with the Muslim Brotherhood, as was the case with Nasser, because the economy cannot offer social gains to the poor, who represent the public of the Muslim Brotherhood and political Islamists.

Even if Sisi won the presidency in fair elections, he cannot repeat human rights violations against the Muslim Brotherhood, which suffered during the era of Nasser and Sadat, and even under the rule of Mubarak. The world has changed, and most importantly, the Egyptian people have changed. They cannot tolerate any return to the police state.

It is likely that Sisi will firmly and transparently ward off the seduction of power and the image of Nasser. Perhaps, contrary to the people's expectations, he would declare that he will not fight the battle of the presidency, which some would perceive as contradictory to Sisi's rights in politics, should he leave military service. However, if he made such a sacrifice, Sisi would firmly be steep in history, by completing the process of democratization, reconciliation with the Muslim Brotherhood and integrating them in political action. He would have also had to pledge along with his military colleagues not to toss their hats in the ring, and run for presidential elections, which are unlikely to take place in six months.

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