Egypt authorities replicating worst aspects of Nasser’s rule

Egypt’s new rule is reimposing the totalitarian policies of late President Gamal Abdel Nasser.

al-monitor A supporter of Egypt's army chief Gen.l Abdel Fatah al-Sisi holds a poster of Sisi and former President Gamal Abdel Nasser in front of the damaged buildings of the Cairo Security Directorate (R) and the Museum of Islamic Art after a bomb attack in downtown Cairo, Jan. 24, 2014.  Photo by REUTERS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh.

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politics, nasser, gamal abdel nasser, egyptian coup, egyptian revolution, egyptian media, egypt

Mar 2, 2014

The image of the late leader Gamal Abdel Nasser is back in the Egyptian media after a four-decade absence. Images of him in his military uniform are all over Egyptian TV channels, both state-owned and private. This phenomenon raises question about Nasser’s rule, which most Egyptians alive today didn’t live under, including this author.

Since his death, Nasser’s legacy has suffered from first being ignored, then from the deliberate distortion of the “Nasserite experience,” i.e., his policies during his reign from 1954 to 1970. Successive generations of Egyptians have grown up learning about the negatives of Nasser’s reign through the propaganda machine of late President Anwar al-Sadat, who portrayed Nasser’s rule as negative in order to pass policies that collided with the positive aspects of Nasser’s social, economic and cultural policies.

That situation continued under the reign of ousted President Hosni Mubarak. The chaos under Mubarak was portrayed as freedom, as opposed to Nasser’s totalitarianism; subordination to the outside was pictured as “openness,” as opposed to Nasser’s “closed-ness.” Egypt’s declining regional standing was portrayed as “rationalism” that prevented Egypt from being implicated in disastrous wars such as those led by Abdel Nasser.

Since the Muslim Brotherhood was overthrown last summer, Nasser’s image has been heavily evoked in the Egyptian media. Those who were politically associated with Nasser’s experience are being heard on TV and in newspaper columns, unlike in previous decades when they were marginalized in the media and in politics. Exploiting Nasser’s image and experience in this way is revealing a deep and fundamental political disagreement about the essence of “Nasserism” today.

The “matryoshka” coup

The sharp disagreement about “Nasser’s experience” is like a Russian matryoshka — a set of wooden dolls of decreasing size placed one inside the other. Nasser is being used as a matryoshka for both politics and history. In both cases, the image of Nasser is used to highlight political biases, but each holds different implications. The state media’s matryoshka restricts Nasser’s image to that of the man who conducted a coup. State media keeps showing Nasser in military uniform to transform the uniform into evidence of patriotism, thus imparting to anyone wearing the uniform the same moral status as Nasser. ...

Joining the act are politicians, journalists and activists who are ideologically affiliated with Nasser’s experience and characterized by integrity and honor. They think that the Egyptian state is fighting a battle against the forces of terror, whereby all other considerations become secondary.

In short, the matryoshka of the coup-makers is proving to be found also in the depths of many of those who belong to the experience of Nasser, even if they are well-intentioned — a soldier looking for the opportunity to reveal what he’s hiding on the inside, but then as soon as you touch the matryoshka he immediately jumps up and yells in your face.

The revolutionary matryoshka

The Free Officers Movement of July 1952 turned into a popular revolution with revolutionary actions. It showed clear social biases, such as the “land reform” just 40 days after the movement. The overall economic development that took place in Nasser’s era and the building of factories and giant national projects by Egyptian hands were a cornerstone of Nasser’s legitimacy and political experience.

Nasser was an icon for the national independence of Egypt, the Arab world and the third world. He was a beacon of social justice and a true believer in political and cultural Arabism. He ruled the sons of the marginalized poor in their name and for their own good, without personal or family gain, in the face of their opponents at home and abroad. Nasser, the son of a simple postman, didn’t acquire his popularity or political legitimacy by being a member of a large family or because of tribal, sectarian or regional solidarity. He earned his popularity by representing the marginalized poor, defending their interests and embodying their dreams.

Attributing Nasser’s legitimacy to his small family degrades his moral status and reduces him to the level of any Arab ruler who inherited power from his family or is in the process of passing on his inheritance to his sons. No fair person or Nasser sympathizer can ignore the 1967 defeat, for which Nasser was primarily responsible. One cannot ignore the suppression of freedom of expression or the political arrests, nor can one justify them by claiming that freedom has social and political components, therefore meeting the social component required a lack of political freedoms under his rule.

Abdel Nasser founded the repressive intelligence state and militarized the state. That part of his experience inspired regimes in Egypt and abroad to follow his approach, but without the popular policies.

From Abdel Nasser’s time until now, positions of power have been filled by trusted persons instead of competent ones. Once in power, they have furthered the interests of the regime at the expense of the interests of the country and people. Governance deteriorated and the leader became the symbol “for whom the people make sacrifices.” So his victories became their victories, and when he was defeated, so were they.

Nasserism isn’t based on an ideology — like Marxism for example — that one can debate, nor on a religious jurisprudence that can be interpreted, as with Islamist currents. Nasserism is based on Nasser’s historical experience in power. That’s where the experience may be a useful tool for comparing the condition of Egypt and the Arab world now, because it is an inspiring experience for a national revival, with all its pluses and minuses, and which cannot be replicated in its circumstances, characters and contexts.

Nasser died of anguish from the loss of land, the dissipation of the dream and the loss of hope. He left behind a unique experience, full of moral victories and material defeats.

Let the Nasserites expel those soldiers from their midst, like the matryoshka. That’s not how Nasser and his experience should be commemorated. Nasser’s militarization of society, suppression of freedoms, loss of territory and establishment of a police state are considered to be his negatives, contrary to how the media and those recalling him today are portraying them.

Times have changed. Social justice is and will remain of great value, but it doesn’t justify human rights violations and the absence of democracy. The Egyptians revolted on Jan. 25, 2011, to overthrow Hosni Mubarak’s dictatorship. And they could overthrow any other dictatorship — even one hidden behind the image of Gamal Abdel Nasser.

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More from  Mustafa al-Labbad

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