Third in a series of dispatches from Cairo
Cairo—For months around this town, portraits of Egyptian president Abdul-Fattah al-Sisi have shown him paired with Gamal Abdul Nasser, Egypt’s firebrand leader of the 1950s and 60s. Besides the nostalgia value in referring to the imagined past glory days, the posters are also say something about Egypt’s present: the script Sisi employed to take and use power is similar to Nasser’s.
The problem for Sisi is that times have changed and he lacks many of the resources available to Nasser which, for a time, made him popular among many Egyptians and millions of Arabs across the region.
First the similarities. Sisi followed Nasser’s script of cracking down not only on Islamists but also secular opposition, be they from the right or left, of Egyptian politics.
Egypt’s military took over in 1952, but Nasser consolidated his power in 1954. Until then, Nasser had gotten along swimmingly with the Muslim Brotherhood, but their romance fell apart over the terms of British colonial withdrawal from Egypt. A Brotherhood member shot at, but missed, Nasser during a speech in Alexandria, and Nasser used the opportunity to round up thousands of Islamists and toss them in jail. He had already been cracking down on leftist groups. Free speech and assembly were circumscribed.
In 2013, Sisi seized on public dissatisfaction with the elected president Muhammed Morsi and, in the name of fighting terror, jailed thousands of Muslim Brotherhood members and sympathizers. All the while, he also persecuted and jailed secular opposition, including prominent grass roots leaders who spearheaded the 2011 demonstrations that brought down president Hosni Mubarak. Free speech and assembly are basically banned.
Now the many differences:
- In 1954, Nasser had significant candy to give away to the masses. There was land reform for peasants and later, he confiscated businesses, both foreign and domestic, to hand out to supporters. He took populist steps like opening private beaches to the general public. Sisi has none of those resources available and so far is only offering economic austerity to get Egypt’s spending accounts in order.
- Nasser was able to ride a wave of anti-colonial feeling to popularity. In July, 1956, Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal, until then owned and operated by Britain and France. National pride was in a fever. In October that same year, Britain, France and Israel invaded and the country mobilized to fight off the “Tripartite Aggression.” US President Dwight Eisenhower prevailed on the three invaders to leave, but credit showered on Nasser, who became an international hero. There is no such triumph on the horizon for Sisi; piecemeal military interventions in Libya and Yemen are hardly of the same order as fighting off the colonialists and have no popular echo among the general population.
- In 1954, Nasser began planning an expanded Aswan Dam on the Nile River in south Egypt. It is still a source of national pride. Sisi is having trouble persuading Egyptians that the construction of a Nile dam by Ethiopia is not going to suck water away from Aswan and reduce its power generation.
- Sisi is also at odds with Egypt’s business community which resents the army’s intrusion into Egyptian economic life.
- Nasser’s vast persecution of political enemies proceeded without subsequent internal violent turmoil. In 1954, Middle East terrorism was yet to become a widespread tool of revolt; the anti-French war in Algeria, where terror would be used against foreigners, was just incubating. Sisi, on the other hand, faces a global situation where the tactics of terror bombings and shootings are advanced and frequent. Hardly a day goes by in Egypt without an assault, usually on police. Such instability harms both the climate for investment and tourism needed to bolster Egypt’s economy.
In short, Sisi lacks advantages that fell into Nasser’s lap. He is even less inclined than Nasser, so far, to institute even the trappings of democratic reform. Nasser cobbled together a fake political party to promote his programs. Sisi hasn’t bothered, and parliamentary elections have been repeatedly postponed.
Sisi can only wish it was 1954.
A critique of Sisi’s rule from Middle East Monitor.
Still, labor has yet to succumb.