By Rasheed Hammouda and Mohamed Ibrahim
This is the final installment of a three part series. The aim of this series is to dispel the increasingly widespread belief held by both supporters and detractors of Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi that the circumstances he faces and the actions he takes are similar to those of his predecessors, specifically Gamal Abdel Nasser and Hosni Mubarak. By demonstrating these differences, we can open the floor for a more productive discussion about the state of Egyptian politics.
Over the past year, there has been much discussion about which past leader Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi resembles. It has been our goal in the previous two articles of this series to demonstrate how Sisi and his policies resemble no past Egyptian ruler, putting him in a league of his own. The reason we have worked to disprove these popular comparisons is to push the conversation further and force us, as Egyptians, to begin asking new questions about the forthcoming leader. The conversation should revolve around the question, “Who is Sisi and what direction does he represent?” as opposed to, “Which former Egyptian leader does Sisi most closely resemble?”
We as Egyptians have a tendency to look to our own past for answers to contemporary questions. However, we must look at the histories of other nations in order to understand the direction that our own nation is going. We argue that a dangerous picture presents itself: Egypt is careening towards a fascist state. Of course, this is not unavoidable, the country’s situation is anything but static—yet given the current direction of the nation we fear the most likely outcome is the least desirable one.
The current state of Egypt’s economy runs parallel to historical rises in fascism. Even a cursory look at history shows that past fascist regimes have been preceded by severe economic recession. To characterise Egypt’s current economy as such may be an understatement. We have discussed previously, as have countless others, the massive inequality and structural deficiencies that the current regime has inherited. The point that cannot be repeated enough is that Al-Sisi and company have neither enacted nor proposed any reforms that would alleviate the current situation. On the contrary—if austerity rhetoric becomes austerity measures the new regime risks further crippling an already injured economy. In this case, Egypt’s economic survival will be by the skin of its citizen’s teeth and not the ingenuity or intelligence of its national policies.
Of course, adding austerity to the nationalist discourse is a logical step for the consolidation of power. When Al-Sisi asks of Egyptians, “You have to give more than you take,” he is more precisely saying, “You must let us take from you more than you are able to give.” Utilising this rhetoric, Al-Sisi makes the civil dissenter a traitor to his country; the one who demands of his government just and fair action is coloured as ungrateful and impatient. This strategy entrenches the nationalistic, us versus them mentality and makes it easier for the regime and its supporters to root out their opponents.
The nationalist sentiment that is ever present in contemporary economics is a glimpse of the broader sentiment present in Egypt today. Past fascist regimes were preceded by surges of strong nationalism combined with failures of democratisation. The fledgling democracies of early 20th century Germany and Italy failed to adequately address the political issues of their day, and as a result citizens lost faith in the democratic process as a whole. Subsequently, these citizens perceived a crisis, then rejected democracy and turned towards nationalist leaders who promised to restore stability and former glories. Such leaders, using nationalism as a tool, advocated for violence in order to purge the country of undesirables, and Germans and Italians, fueled by nationalist dreams, too easily sacrificed the civil liberties and lives of their fellow citizens for greater perceived security.
Anyone who has been following Egyptian politics for the last few years will recognise this story. In addition, it is important to note the strong connection between Egyptian nationalism and the military. The two are intertwined. Ideas of nationalism and patriotism in Egypt necessarily inspire militarism and vice versa. Egyptian militarism is a trait many Egyptians see as unique to Egypt. In reality, it is not. It mirrors the militarism that surrounded fascist regimes in Germany, Spain and Italy in the early 20th century.
We are not the first to argue the rise of fascism in Egypt, and our own arguments are intended to build on those of others. During the 1980s and 90s, a number of western political scientists predicted an increase of fascist ideology in North Africa. Jack Snyder, professor of political science at Columbia University argued that there exists strong evidence supporting a connection between failures of democratisation and conflicts fueled by nationalist sentiment. Rapid democratisation after the fall of dictatorial regimes gives expression to long-standing popular aspirations that cannot be fulfilled quickly. As such, people give up democracy in favour of other ideologies that promise faster results.
Al-Sisi and the current regime have no problem exploiting the ripe combination of these desperate times and high aspirations. In less than a year they have managed to turn a political party into a terrorist organisation and legitimise massive state violence through preying on the fears of citizens. Mubarak served one good purpose: he was a unifying target for anger and unrest. After he fell there was no longer a single entity to point to as the problem, yet little had been fixed. The country continued to stagnate, and the inexperienced Brotherhood, not without blame themselves, became the easy scapegoat for an opportunistic military. The situation has gone from bad to worse as Egyptians sacrifice—knowingly or otherwise—the rights, liberty, and lives of themselves and their fellow citizens.
We would have liked to end this series with a more optimistic outlook, but the situation is bleak. Al-Sisi’s election seems all but certain, and his nationalistic rhetoric has only intensified. The esteemed Field Marshal is, quite unfortunately, not much like his predecessors. Any leader who tells his people not to speak their mind too loudly one day and then claims he is at their command the next is a charlatan. The silver lining here is that the Egyptian population was awakened to the power they possess when they toppled Mubarak; we did not forget this under Morsi, and we may be lucky to remember it under Al-Sisi. He is not the hero or servant many Egyptians want him to be, and he cannot save Egypt from falling to ruin. It was the tenacity of the citizen that moved the country three years ago, and it must be the tenacity of the citizen that moves it forward again today.
Rasheed Hammouda is an Egyptian-American researcher based in London with a focus on MENA economics and contemporary philosophy.