Sisi and the Strong Man
Is Egypt's president-in-waiting turning back the clock -- to the Nasser era?
As I walked down Talaat Harb St., a main drag off Cairo’s Tahrir Square, a group of men and women stood on a balcony above a giant banner of former President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s face, flashing victory signs at the people on the street below. As they waved flags and cheered, a set of aged speakers blared a nationalist song from the 1960s. The headquarters of Egypt’s Nasserist Party was bursting with jubilation.
It was July 3, 2013, and the streets of downtown Cairo were heavy with anticipation. Two days earlier, Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the head of Egypt’s armed forces, had issued an ultimatum: Unless President Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood reached an agreement with their opponents, the army would lay out a "roadmap" for the country’s political future — which everyone knew meant Morsi’s ouster at gunpoint.
Nasser was suddenly everywhere. A man sat on a curb selling Nasser headshots, while throngs marched through the streets, holding posters of Nasser and Sisi side by side, and chanting "Sisi is my president!" For decades, Egypt’s Nasserists had been a marginal opposition force. That day, it seemed their time had come. By nightfall, the army had placed Morsi under arrest and an assortment of national leaders from the military, the clergy, and various political parties unveiled a new interim government.
Six months later, a successful presidential bid by Sisi now seems inevitable. A new constitution blessed by the military passed in a referendum this month with a whopping 98 percent of the vote — a level of support that Sisi’s supporters described as a popular mandate for his candidacy. Of course, it helped that the new government brooked no opposition — security forces arrested political activists who passed out fliers calling for a "no" vote. And on Jan. 27, Sisi’s presidential candidacy took another step forward when the Supreme Council of Armed Forces, the country’s highest military body, announced it was backing Sisi’s candidacy.
Supporters of Nasser, meanwhile, have continued to cheer on the new strongman in Cairo — perhaps hoping he will follow in their hero’s footsteps not only by crushing the Islamists, but also by restoring Egypt’s international prestige. Nasser’s daughter, Hoda, a political scientist and historian, published a fawning op-ed in one of Egypt’s leading newspapers imploring Sisi to run for president, saying that the army chief had "achieved in less than two months what politicians cannot achieve in decades."
Since the July 3 coup, Sisi has repeatedly been likened — by both allies and enemies — to Egypt’s most influential president. At first glance, the similarities are rich: Both Sisi and Nasser were military leaders who came to power on the back of a coup, and who began by crushing the Muslim Brotherhood before seeking to quash dissent from the left. At a more fundamental level, however, the comparison is spurious. Nasser was a transformative leader, while Sisi appears to be a conservative who holds more in common with Hosni Mubarak. Nasser’s popularity rested on his promises to change Egyptian society; Sisi’s comes from promises of stability.
Sisi has claimed that he dreams about former President Anwar Sadat, but the public image that he has crafted for himself also harkens back to Nasser. Three weeks after ousting Morsi, he used the anniversary of the 1952 coup that brought Nasser to power to call for a pro-military, anti-Muslim Brotherhood protest. Last September, he visited with Nasser’s family at the former president’s tomb. Pro-Sisi media draws the comparison between the army chief and Nasser frequently — something that would be unlikely if it wasn’t an image the general was actively seeking to cultivate.
It’s not hard to see why many Egyptians would yearn for a return to the Nasser era. The years between 1956, when Israel, France, and Britain embarrassed themselves in the Suez Crisis, to 1967 when Egypt embarrassed itself in the Six Days War, were in many ways Egypt’s last golden age. Cairo’s cultural and political influence was at its zenith: From Casablanca to Baghdad, millions of Arabs tuned in to Sawt al-Arab ("Voice of the Arabs"), a Cairo-based radio station that featured hours-long concerts from the legendary Egyptian diva Oum Kalthoum and anti-imperialist, pan-Arabist propaganda put out by the Egyptian government. The Nasser years also brought unprecedented class mobility to Egyptians, with a rollback of the feudalism that existed under the monarchy and universities and middle-class jobs suddenly open to the poor.
At the same time, Egypt under Nasser’s leadership was the undisputed political center of the Arab world. The Egyptian president spearheaded anti-imperialist movements throughout the region: His opposition to the Baghdad Pact, an anti-Soviet regional defense agreement dreamed up in Washington, helped sink the agreement, and he soon became the bête noire of America’s allies in the region. In 1958, his popularity was so high that Syria voluntarily merged with Egypt, in a move that pan-Arabists hoped was a prelude to the unification of the entire Arab world. Politicians from Lebanon to Baghdad courted Nasser’s support — a kind of regional influence no Egyptian leader has come close to exercising since. Saïd Aburish, an Arab journalist and Nasser biographer, wrote that the colonel was "the most charismatic leader since the Prophet Muhammad." It is little wonder, thus, that Sisi embraces the comparison.
Sisi may also be drawing on Nasser’s legacy to justify the repression of his Islamist rivals. After an assassination attempt in 1954, Nasser banned the Muslim Brotherhood, threw its leaders in jails, and had some of its members tortured and executed. But Sisi’s crackdown on the movement has been even more ferocious: While Nasser arrested some 1,200 members of the group in 1954, today there are 1,200 alleged Brotherhood members facing trial in the Upper Egyptian city of Minya alone. And nearly 1,000 people were killed when security forces cleared Brotherhood protest camps in Cairo this summer, while countless thousands still languish in jails across Egypt.
But looking beyond Sisi and Nasser’s shared military background and atrocious human rights records, the comparison between the two men starts to fade. "The parallels are not well founded," said AbdelAziz EzzelArab, a professor at the American University in Cairo who studies the Nasser era. "It appears to me that this recalling of Nasser and the Nasserist sentiment was a calling back of Nasser, the repressive part of him, as a strong statesman or a strong ruler who managed to repress the opposition and totally ignore the better side of Nasser, which were his social and economic policies that restructured the class relations in Egypt."
A pillar of Nasser’s rule was anti-imperialism and Third World solidarity: He backed national liberation struggles with arms and propaganda, and allied himself with leaders from India and Indonesia to create a bloc of states that rejected the dichotomies of the Cold War. For Western leaders, he was a wily and threatening foe: "I have never thought Nasser a Hitler…. But the parallel with Mussolini is close," Britain’s Foreign Minister Anthony Eden wrote in 1956 to President Dwight Eisenhower.
Sisi dabbles in anti-Americanism, but he’s no Nasser. The current Egyptian military chief has accused the United States of "turning its back" on Egypt, but he maintains regular contact with Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, talking with him more than 25 times since the July coup. When it comes to foreign policy, "the Nasser analogy is a bit of a stretch," said Steven Cook, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of The Struggle for Egypt: From Nasser to Tahrir Square. "There’s nothing to suggest Egypt is pulling out of the U.S. orbit any time soon."
Sisi’s nationalism is avowedly focused more on the domestic front than Nasser’s, and involves far less solidarity with the oppressed of the Arab world. He has taken a hands-off approach to the Syrian uprising, currently the Arab world’s bloodiest conflict, and has indicated that he does not intend to upend the peace treaty with Israel. While Nasser’s government was the scourge of Israel, a top diplomat in Sisi’s Egypt attended the funeral of former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon — the controversial head of state and Israeli military commander who played a key role in defeating Nasser’s army during the 1967 war. Moreover, the government under Sisi depends on the support of Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia — Nasser’s biggest regional rivals. "It’s not very Nasserist to be dependent on the retrograde conservative monarchies of the Gulf," Cook says.
It’s not only the two leaders’ international postures that differ, it’s their contrasting visions of society. In Nasser’s Egypt’s Liberation: The Philosophy of the Revolution, a 1953 pamphlet explaining his goals for Egypt, the colonel harped on the need for two simultaneous revolutions. One was political, removing the monarchy and expelling foreign influence. "The second revolution is social, in which the classes of society would struggle against each other until justice for all countrymen has been gained and conditions have become stable," he wrote.
Nasser’s rhetorical and intellectual commitment to "social revolution" was backed by action: His government instituted a series of land reforms that distributed roughly half a million acres of land to peasants in the first four years of his rule. The colonel-turned-president directly challenged the status of old guard elites, expropriating wealth from the urban monarchists and nationalizing industries.
Sisi, on the other hand, calls for stability, not revolution. In "Democracy in the Middle East," a paper he wrote while a student at the U.S. Naval War College, he explains why Arab societies are not quite ready for democracy — because of a lack of education and the attendant instability of creating new democracies. Many of his supporters now likely agree: After three tumultuous years and Morsi’s disastrous presidency, stability seems appealing.
"The wants and desires of the countries’ populations themselves need to be considered," he wrote. "Do they really want democracy and are they willing to change their ways to establish it and make it work?" Democratization in the Middle East would inevitably be a slow process, noted Sisi in his War College paper, adding that militaries and security services would need to get on board.
While Nasser never created the Arab Socialist utopia that he conjured in speeches, he undoubtedly succeeded in placing the military at the heart of the state and the economy. Egyptian writer Waguih Ghali provides a telling example of this shift in his autobiographical novel, Beer in the Snooker Club: In one scene, the upper-class narrator engages in the classic Cairene pastime of chatting with a taxi driver. "Before the revolution you could only pick up a fare in the posh districts," the taxi driver says. "Now the army people also ride in taxis; that means we have the posh people and the army."
Sadat undid much of Nasser’s socialist policies during a wave of liberalization in the 1970s, but the military remained in the driver’s seat. And even today, it controls vast swaths of the economy — as much as 40 percent of Egypt’s GDP, according to the high-end estimates. Retired generals are given preference in institutions from the national airline to governorships to various public-private companies. "Loyalty raises them into higher ranks within the army and then prestigious civilian positions afterward," the historian Zeinab Abul-Magd wrote in Foreign Policy ahead of the 2012 presidential election.
Sisi is the product of the Egypt that Nasser created: He rose through the ranks of the old system and has seen his friends and colleagues reap the rewards. If he were to undertake the sort of sweeping reforms of his predecessor, it would require seizing assets not just from wealthy landowners, but from the military itself. For this reason, his instincts have so far tended to be conservative — not revolutionary.
Since the Egyptian revolution began on Jan. 25, 2011, the military’s priority has been the preservation of its status. Under a year of military rule and then through compromises with the Muslim Brotherhood, the generals have looked to protect their paychecks and privileges. Now, it seems, the most effective means is one that was tested in the 1950s and 1960s: A demagogue in fatigues.