Friday,21 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1314, (6 - 12 October 2016)
Friday,21 September, 2018
Issue 1314, (6 - 12 October 2016)

Ahram Weekly

No model past

As Egypt marks the anniversaries of the deaths of Gamal Abdel-Nasser and Anwar Al-Sadat, Amr Al-Shobaki tells Dina Ezzat neither president’s rule offers a model for today’s Egypt

Al-Ahram Weekly

Gamal Abdel-Nasser died on 28 September 1970. Eleven years later, Anwar Al-Sadat was assassinated on 6 October. Barely a week separates the anniversaries of their deaths.

The three years since President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi came to power in June 2013 have seen renewed interest in the legacies of his two predecessors. Inevitably Al-Sisi, whose ascent to the presidency followed the ouster of Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohamed Morsi, has been compared to Nasser, whose attempts to eliminate the oldest Islamist group in Egypt is imprinted on the collective memory of a generation. Posters displaying images of Nasser and Al-Sisi side by side became a commonplace, as did analyses proclaiming Al-Sisi is Egypt’s 21st century Nasser. 

Hoda Abdel-Nasser, the daughter of Egypt’s first military strongman, encouraged the comparisons only for Gihan Al-Sadat, the widow of Nasser’s successor, to insist that Al-Sisi was more like her husband.

In a leaked off the record segment of an interview Al-Sisi, then Minister of Defence, gave to Yasser Rizk, the editor of Al-Akhbar, Al-Sisi himself appeared to court a comparison with Sadat, speaking of a dream-vision in which Sadat told him he would become the president of Egypt.

“But in practice,”says political scientist Amr Al-Shobaki, “neither Nasser nor Sadat offered a feasible model for Al-Sisi and it is quite possible he does not want to follow in the footsteps of either.”

Many commentators have noted that during his two years in office Al-Sisi has adopted a discourse on social justice, and of conspiracies to undermine Egypt like Nasser. But he has also followed the political and economic direction — cursory nods in the direction of political plurality, an unregulated free market economy — first charted by Sadat.

“The fight with political Islam is not enough reason to suggest Al-Sisi is following in the footsteps of Nasser,” says Al-Al-Shobaki. “The fight, particularly with the Muslim Brotherhood, has been an on-and-off affair since the time of King Farouk. It was a feature under Nasser, and under Sadat and Hosni Mubarak.”

Under the one-year rule of Morsi, Al-Shobaki argues, the fight became an explicit battle for power between the establishment and the Muslim Brotherhood.

The constant comparisons between Al-Sisi and both Nasser and Sadat reflect the ongoing search for an overarching political narrative like the independence and development espoused by Nasser or the pursuit of relations with the West to which Sadat subscribed, says Al-Shobaki.

“One could even argue that the ongoing debate about Nasser and Sadat and which one was better for Egypt is about the search for a new legitimacy. The debate over the legacy of Nasser and Sadat is more perceptions of Egypt’s current political reality rather than about who might serve as a possible model for the current president,” Al-Shobaki said.

Nasser and Sadat, whatever the agreements and the disagreements about their successes and failures, “were leaders with particular political visions inspired by the challenges of the time which they pursued according to prevalent norms”. 

“Nasser’s demand for national independence was not a fabricated cliché. It was the clarion call of his times. His nationalisation of the Suez Canal was not an act of political propaganda but an integral part of the pursuit of independence.”

It is meaningless, says Al-Shobaki, to compare Nasser’s battle with the West over the nationalisation of the Suez Canal and the construction of the High Dam with the strained foreign relations Cairo is experiencing following the crash of the Russian Metrojet late last year, the brutal murder of Italian researcher Giulio Regeni in Egypt early this year and the fate of the EgyptAir flight downed whilst heading for Cairo from Paris.

“These are not matters related to Western conspiracies. They are about the competency of domestic administration.”

 “Sadat,” argues Al-Shobaki, “made very clear, even dramatic, political choices when he chose a military option in 1973 and then later pursued the peaceful administration of the struggle with Israel”.

“Even when he began the open door policy, and notwithstanding the way it was managed, Sadat was making a clear choice. He had decided on a complete U-turn when it came to economic policy.”

Sadat and Nasser were not overly concerned with human rights and democracy. Both argued independence, development and liberation would have to come first though Sadat did abandon Nasser’s one party state to adopt at least the semblance of a multi-party system.

“But any comparisons between the 1960s and 1970s and now are redundant, certainly when it comes to human rights and the role of the media. The political choices of today need to be free of this obsession with the legacies of the past, for good or for bad.”

In his first weeks in office Mubarak, who had been for five years Sadat’s vice president, was often asked whether he would continue the path of Sadat or turn back to Nasser. His invariable answer was “my name is Hosni Mubarak” and throughout his three decades in office, which began with the assassination of Sadat by an Islamist army officer and ended on a no less dramatic note with the head of the army asking him to step down, Mubarak remained himself, a cautious head of state who spurned any major policy shifts. 

According to Al-Shobaki Mubarak, unlike Sadat and Nasser, had no overriding political and “opted to keep things chugging along at a very slow pace”. 

One result of this, says Al-Shobaki, is that politics withered under Mubarak, allowing Nasser and Sadat to continue to cast long shadows over an otherwise empty political arena. “Mubarak, who ruled for 30 years during which many regional and international changes occurred,” inhabited a political vacuum.

Unlike Nasser and Sadat “who were true politicians and not just members of the military who rose to power” Mubarak had no taste for politics and has far less interest in culture and history than his predecessors.

“He distrusted grand political ideas and liked to play it safe, with the result that politics stagnated during his rule,” says Al-Shobaki. 

The extent of the “political desiccation” became evident after Mubarak was removed — “and maybe even during the days of the January Revolution which throughout its 18 days failed to produce any clear leadership, formulate a political vision or forge a new political legitimacy”. 

Morsi, Al-Shobaki adds, catastrophically failed to present a unifying political vision. He turned his back on the political groups that offered him their conditional support during the second round of the first post-Mubarak presidential elections in the summer of 2012 “and opted to put off politics once he was in power”.

Today, Al-Shobaki argues, the fact that comparisons with Nasser and Sadat persist 46 years after the death of the former, and 36 years after the assassination of the latter, is symptomatic of the way politics has been undermined.

“Unfortunately, it seems that what is left of the political legacy of both are the downsides to their consecutive experiences: hardly any faith in political pluralism, artificial attention to human rights, confused international relations and muddled economic choices.” 

The continued obsession with their experience reveals the failure to formulate a politics suited to today.

“You can replay neither Nasser nor Sadat. It is impossible to mix the discourse of one and the actions of another. It is a mistake to judge the political realities of today by norms that were in place five decades ago. This is no path towards the future.”

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