Egypt after Sisi’s election: debunking the neo-Nasserist myth

Only two candidates are contesting the first round of Egypt’s presidential elections scheduled for May 26 and 27 – leftist politician Hamdeen Sabahi and former General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who is widely expected to win in a landslideBoth to varying degrees lay claim to the mantle of neo-Nasserism, an ideological posture which is being used to justify authoritarianism, says leading analyst Amr Hamzawy. Having previously discussed the “candidate of necessity” myth, he analyzes and debunks four aspect of the concept, writing in the Atlantic Council’s Egypt Source.  

The first component of the myth of neo-Nasserism is its idealistic and romantic recollection of the 1950s and 60s, and its depiction of those decades to the public as an extended era of national independence, rejection of domination by other countries, economic prosperity, and social modernization, with social justice policies that defended the poor, under the leadership of the military establishment and a single, heroic military leader, commander, and savior.  …

The idealistic and romantic recollection of the 50s and 60s dresses up the idea of autocracy in the false robes of the “just dictator.” It justifies the military establishment’s intervention in politics and the predominance of the intelligence and security agencies as the direct results of the weakness of the civil, political, and economic elite and of the necessities of national security and preserving the cohesion of the nation-state. It blames local or foreign conspiracies or “the avoidable mistakes of Nasserism,” like the breaches of rights and freedoms, for the lack of growth and modernization and the catastrophic military defeat. The truth that this idealistic and romantic recollection denies in 2014 is that all of the dangerous violations and breaches mentioned above were the inevitable result of the autocracy established in the 50s and 60s. …

The second element of the myth is connected to a claim that is contradicted by Egyptian history from the 1950s until the January 2011 revolution. In essence, it is that the arrival of former President Anwar Sadat to office in 1970 made a break from the Nasserist period, which only grew during the three decades under former President Hosni Mubarak. On the one hand, this creates a distinction between Nasserism – which strove for national independence, development, modernization, and social justice, and was biased towards the poor and low-income ­– and the governments of Sadat and Mubarak – who pushed Egypt towards subordination to other countries, ignored development and modernization, and turned against the poor and low-income in favor of an alliance between the government and the revolution, and of a corrupt and exploitative economy. ….

The third element relies on people’s false perception that reproducing the attitudes and policies of the 50s and 60s is the way out of our current failures and crises, and that “the candidate of necessity” in the presidential election, Former Defense Minister Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, is the only person capable of moving Egypt in that direction. The writers, politicians, and media figures involved in perpetuating the myth of neo-Nasserism differ in their explanations for the current crises and failures. …. It is as if the autocracy connected since the 50s and 60s to presidents with military backgrounds had not weakened the nation state with its absence of democracy, the rule of law, justice, and freedom, and had not derailed development and social justice for the benefit, profit, and gain of the ruling military-security sector and the wicked economic and financial elite. It is as if fighting those local and foreign conspiracies was conditioned on abandoning the need to build a democratic nation state, society, social justice, and a legitimate government that adheres to the rule of law and the principles of transparency and fairness. After all, these are all ideas that autocracy throws to the wind.

The fourth element of the myth is the direct relationship between the heroic savior with a military background and the common people, who have no need for political entities, parties, or civil society organizations as mediators, or for legal or popular monitoring of the government. …..This rose-tinted picture goes hand in hand with the sales pitch that the military establishment is the only institution that can stop the political entities and parties toying with the nation and quarantine the damage caused by civil society organizations, which it accuses of working against the nation state to fragment society. Then, in the name of the direct relationship between the heroic savior and the public (the connections of love and trust) and in the name of the military’s necessary role, it justifies autocracy, militarization, the absence of democracy, the oppression of civil society, the disappearance of the individual citizen, and the weakness of legislative, executive, and judicial institutions and agencies meant to monitor the ruler and hold him accountable…..

The myth of neo-Nasserism, with its many components and diverse contexts, has one goal: to justify autocracy and convince the public that it must inevitably accept the dominion of the military establishment over the state and society, and support its heroic savior.

It does so in spite of the bitter fruits of the Nasserist period in the 50s and 60s, the fundamental difference in the situation today, the tragedy of romanticizing the past, the disastrous reduction of the nation to one ruler who is neither monitored nor held accountable, the danger of allowing the government and the wicked economic and financial elite allied with it to gain more power, and the delusion that those who oppose the government are abandoning the defense of the nation or following foreign agendas.

Amr Hamzawy joined the Department of Public Policy and Administration at the American University in Cairo in 2011, where he continues to serve today. He is a former member of parliament, former member of the National Salvation Front, and founder of the Freedom Egypt Party. 

Since engineering the coup in July 2013 that overthrew Egypt’s first freely elected president, Muslim Brotherhood member Mohamed Morsi, Sisi has been the de facto head of the Egyptian government, the Hudson Institute adds. It was hardly surprising when he resigned his commission in order to make an official run for the top spot. Given that it’s a foregone conclusion that Sisi will be the country’s next president, what will Egypt look like under his rule?

The serial failures of post-Mubarak regimes—from the interim military government immediately following Mubarak’s fall to Morsi and then Sisi’s coup government—suggest that Egypt’s fundamental problems may be insoluble. Donors from the oil-rich Gulf states like Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates can delay the inevitable, but unless the country can address basic issues like slashing subsidies, encouraging investment, and privatizing industry, the Egyptian economy is headed for trouble.

Further, with Sisi prosecuting wars against the Muslim Brotherhood and assorted Islamist groups in the Sinai, Egypt’s social situation is also precarious. Will Sisi’s Egypt spin out of control, or can he master the feat of governing the most populous and in many ways still most influential Arab state?

On May 16th, Hudson Institute Senior Fellow Lee Smith will moderate a panel with Hudson Institute colleague Samuel Tadros and Mokhtar Awad to discuss the future of Sisi’s Egypt.

This event will be live streamed on Hudson’s homepage.


 Samuel TadrosSenior Fellow, Center for Religious Freedom, Hudson Institute

Mokhtar Awad, Research Associate, National Security and International Policy, Center for American Progress

Lee Smith Moderator, Senior Fellow, Hudson Institute; Senior Editor, The Weekly Standard; Columnist, Tablet Magazine

FridayMay 16th, 2014

Hudson Institute, Washington, D.C. Headquarters, 1015 15th Street, N.W., 6th Floor, Washington, DC 20005.


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