By Johannes Amin Makar
“For a century and a half the Arab world has been following a negative policy. It has known what it wanted to do away with, but it has not known what it wanted to build. […] Democracy was only a veil for dictatorship. Constitutions framed in the interest of the people of the Middle East became instruments for their exploitation and domination. Egypt’s story in these years centres upon the effort to free the country from a foreign yoke and to find a policy capable of eradicating the evils accumulated by feudalism and compounded by misuse of governmental power. It was a long and painful search. Egyptians hoped for leaders to champion their cause and defend their interests, but politicians and factions for the most part made themselves subservient to the forces that were ravaging the country.”
Few words better describe the slow motion tragedy that has taken place in Egypt over the last few decades. Up until today the nation continues to suffer from the mismanagement and the corruption that defines much of its Kafkaesque administration. The context in which the passage above was written initially is, conversely, very different from present-day Egypt. Forming the introduction to a 1955 Foreign Affairs article, in its original context, the passage aims at decrying the country’s rule under the monarchy and the British occupation. The author, and accidental visionary of the critique is no one but late president Gamal Abdel Nasser who himself played a key role in shaping today’s Egypt.
As a revolutionary and a liberator, Nasser set an example for many post-colonial nations. Not only did his social policies and nationalist rhetoric inspire many leaders of his time, he also succeeded in boosting the country’s advancement in the short run. Yet, in spite of his glorious status, Nasser is also remembered as the man who lay the first stones to the immense state apparatus the Egyptians fought in early 2011. Many of his economic reforms also turned out to be less beneficial than Egyptians had hoped at the start of his term.
For the ordinary Egyptian, however, Nasser continues to evoke the memory of a grand, national triumph. In Egypt’s political debates too, the former leader’s legacy continues to leave its mark. Playing the trump card, both presidential candidates, Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi and Hamdeen Sabahy, have recently jumped on Nasser’s bandwagon in an attempt to increase their electoral backing.
During his first interview ever, Sisi went as far as saying: “I wish I was Gamal Abdel Nasser”. The statement followed after a reporter recollected earlier observations that compared the presidential hopeful to the mid-20th century national hero. Sisi’s images are correspondingly circulating in public life, depicting the former military chief along snaps of Nasser. Not by chance, commentators have noted resemblances between Sisi and Nasser’s speechmaking.
Hamdeen, in turn, has a longer tradition of impersonating Nasser. Since the early seventies, the political veteran has been fighting for the “Nasserist” cause. Though his missionary work made him a seasoned oppositional figure, many Egyptians today regard Sabahy with suspicion. This is largely due to his past support for the now marginalised Muslim Brotherhood, and his tendency of shifting allegiance from one faction to another.
A new republic?
Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi, who is expected to pull the longest string in the presidential run-off, has, for a long time, remained mysterious regarding his future presidency. Not only did it take him weeks to officially announce his anticipated candidacy, expectations of what a post-Sisi Egypt might look like were until recently largely deduced from flawed analogies with Gamal Abdel Nasser. Giving a five hour interview last week, Sisi finally shed more light on his plans for the future.
One of the most distinctive features of Sisi’s speechmaking has been his outlook on Islam and society. Sisi, who has a distinctive zebiba or prayer bump on his forehead, has on numerous occasions portrayed himself as a pious Muslim. His discourse has in this respect jogged the memory to the self-styled “believer president”, Anwar El-Sadat. Sisi does not, on the other hand, consider cooperating with the country’s Islamist forces as Sadat did (excluding his Salafist supporters), and blames them using religion “at the cost of humanity”.
On the other end of spectrum, in pledging to fight the Muslim Brotherhood, Sisi has appeared to copy Nasser, who suppressed the organisation aggressively. Likewise, Sisi is expected to mobilise Al-Azhar and local imams for spreading his national project. In fact, by tightening its control over the mosque sermons, Egypt’s interim government has recently started executing this plan.
Contrary to mid-century Egypt, however, Al-Azhar has in the past years seen an expansion of its powers. Laws passed in 1952 and 1961 that put the religious institution under significant state control, have, for the most part, been reversed since the upheavals started in 2011. For instance, in early 2012, SCAF pushed forward legislation that removed the authority to appoint al-Azhar’s Grand Sheikh away from the president, and back to the institution’s Council of Senior Scholars. In addition, since the 1980s, the Islamic Sharia law has been enshrined as the principle source of legislation, a vital instrument Egypt’s lawmakers did not annul in the latest round of constitutional reforms. With the legal arena (amongst other factors) favouring a more prominent role for Islam, Sisi will surely deviate from Nasser’s primarily secular design.
Another notable feature of the future Egypt is found in the country’s foreign policy. As the new regime is heavily banking on money inflows from Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Kuwait, Egypt’s future architects will be greatly reliant on the desires of the Gulf triumvirate. Moreover, distancing himself from Nasser’s hostile discourse towards Israel, Sisi recently said he will respect the peace treaty, which he called “deeply implanted within the Egyptian people”.
In Israel the former military chief has found an ally for fighting the Muslim Brotherhood and its Gazan offshoot, Hamas. This line of attack has been on the go since the downfall of the Morsi regime. Raising pressure on Gaza’s Islamist rulers, the interim-government has regularly closed the Rafah border crossing and destroyed many of the tunnels that form a smuggling route between Gaza and Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula.
Most interesting to follow will be the new regime’s social and economic policy. Facing vast problems in its soaring economy, Egyptians are in dire need of strong economic reforms. Apart from the financial support coming from the Gulf region, Egypt’s coming leaders will be facing the choice to either open up the country’s economy, or continue many of the centrally planned measures that Nasser introduced in the 1950s.
Some commentators argue that Sisi has signalled taking a step back from the command and control economy. The presidential candidate has, in this case, spoken about rearranging Egypt’s “flabby” administration. In addition, they argue, he has addressed the “responsibility of every Egyptian to work hard in times [where] there is no wealth to redistribute”.
Conversely, the interim-regime has continued to finance large state projects, and the Beblawi and Mehleb governments have indicated they would continue public investments in wheat production, vital for keeping the country’s infamous bread subsidies going. The Egyptian Armed Forces, which according to some estimates control up to 40 percent of the economy, has recently also seen a significant expansion of its economic activities. For this powerhouse too, liberalising the economy would turn out little beneficiary.
For a long time Egypt’s revolutionary narrative has been dominated by vain words and empty promises. In reality, however, its prospects remain less hopeful. Those dreaming of a return to the days in which Abdel Halem Hafez and Um Kulthum propelled the country’s cultural scene and short-skirted girls were able to walk around freely on the Square of the Liberation might be deceived if they count on Sisi for this turn to take place. As the broader context in which Abdel Nasser ascended to power varies vastly from Sisi’s times, tomorrow’s Egypt will be very different from yesterday’s. More than propagandistic speech, Egypt’s people urge actions that direct the country to the future, and not a hazy, distant past.
Johannes Amin Makar frequently writes on the Middle East and Egypt. He is a graduate student at Leuven University where he pursues a MA in Economic Policy.