Stop the Nasser-Sisi comparison: Why Egyptians should hope for something new
This week’s announcement by retired Field Marshal Abdel Fattah Al Sisi that he would run for the presidency of Egypt had been fully expected since the massive, sustained cult-like campaign supporting him first materialized last June.
This coincided with his use of the armed forces to remove from power President Mohammad Morsi, whose year in office revealed the weakness of the Muslim Brotherhood as a governing party.
Sisi’s election is about as certain as the flow of the Nile River, especially if the presidential election campaign follows the pattern of last January’s constitutional referendum, when those opposed to the new constitution were routinely arrested or physically prevented from putting up their posters in public. Mostly supportive Egyptian reactions to Sisi’s ascendancy to the presidency in the coming weeks will undermine Egypt’s opportunity to craft a genuinely pluralistic and democratic political system, in favor of understandable demands for stability and security, and the comfort of a charismatic ex-military leader who can act as father and protector.
I am not surprised by any of this, because we are witnessing two universal dynamics in action. First is the persistence of a power structure that took 60 years to implant itself deep in the Egyptian mindset, society, bureaucracy and military, and will not let go easily.
Second is the reflexive demand of an anxious society for a strong leader who can make the world right. Egyptians are not abnormal people; rather, they are perfectly normal people who are behaving abnormally because of the impact of the last 60 years on their way of thinking and their system of governance.
If it were not Sisi, another charismatic leader would appear on the scene to promise to restore Egypt’s pride, stability and power. Ahmad Shafik, a Mubarak prime minister, almost did this when he nearly won the first post-Mubarak presidential election in 2012. So let us take these developments in our stride, and see what Egyptians decide, and how Sisi performs as president. We can only wish them both the best, for Egypt is a great country that deserves only the best.
What surprises and saddens me, however, is the manner in which Sisi supporters are using images of the late President Gamal Abdel Nasser to generate emotional support for their candidate. Anyone in Egypt who truly believes that Abdel-Nasser was a historic figure worthy of emulation is deeply and dangerously mistaken. I say this because in retrospect we see that the practices and legacy of the Nasser years were among the seminal catastrophes of the modern Arab world. Virtually everything that has led to the collective mismanagement, mediocrity, and, in most places, pauperization of the Arab world in the past two generations can be traced back to the perverse innovations of the Nasser years.
Nasser had a powerful impact on Arab psyches and the short-lived but largely emotional spirit of Arab nationalism. He certainly did some positive deeds in improving socio-economic conditions and opportunities for Egyptian peasants and workers. That, too, however, was short-lived, because it was destroyed by the negatives of his presidency – a ghastly concoction of incompetence, lying, mismanagement and corruption that has become the norm across most of the Arab world since the 1970s.
The two most destructive phenomena that Nasser brought to Arab governance were military rule and ministries of information, both of which still demean and haunt us today. The permanent, non-accountable rule of military men that he established in Egypt has persisted there and across most of the Arab world. This remains in my mind the single most corrosive element that has led so many Arab states to their present condition of incompetent governance, which in turn has caused the mass desperation and revolt of hundreds of millions of Arabs today who are prepared to die in order to retrieve their rights and their humanity.
The establishment of a ministry of information under Nasser was equally degrading to Egyptian and Arab citizens, because it acted like an Orwellian monster that sought to control what every citizen heard, saw and read. Arab ministries of information around the region were mostly run by incompetent autocrats, and they sought to have Arab citizens act like sheep who see the world and themselves only as their government wants them to.
I sincerely hope that this hysterical re-imagination of Nasser is only the passing sign of fearful men and women who do not know where to turn for succor. I pray that Egyptians will flourish and prevail, because they will activate their own wisdom, and leave the Nasser ways where they belong – in the sealed rooms of history’s failures and horrors.
By Rami Khoury