Nasser’s shadow hangs over Egypt
CAIRO - When the July 23 revolution erupted in Egypt in 1952, Hussein Abdel- Razeq was 16 years old.
As a teenager, Abdel-Razeq, now one of the top leaders of the leftist National Progressive Unionist (Tagammu) Party, saw army officers, later known as the Free Officers, depose the king and declare the republic.
“This was the dream of everybody in my generation,” Abdel-Razeq said. “We were dreaming of a country without the monarchy, an end to corruption and more social justice and the Free Officers were doing all this,” he added.
Many find themselves drawing comparisons between Gamal Abdel Nasser, the army officer who led the move against the monarchy in 1952, and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. The comparisons are likely driven by the desolation felt after Nasser’s death in 1970 by millions of Egyptians who lived his dream and also by Egyptians’ yearning for a Nasser-like figure who can rid them of the turmoil that has persisted since the 2011 popular uprising.
Like Nasser, Sisi came from the military establishment and led the army in deposing Egypt’s leader — in the case of Sisi, Muhammad Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood — in July, too, but of 2014, after mass protests across Egypt.
When he came to power, Sisi was 60 years old. Nasser was 38 when he took over in 1956.
“Nevertheless, the historical context of the two men’s coming to power is almost the same,” said Nagui al- Shehabi, leader of the nationalist al-Geel (Generation) Party. “When you look at the challenges facing Egypt’s national security in both eras you can discover that they are the same, even as they have different names.”
When Nasser rose to power in 1956, British occupation forces were about to leave Egypt, its Suez Canal was controlled by Britain and its people were languishing in poverty and a small group of land owners was in control of most of the wealth.
When Sisi took power the country was on the verge of civil war, many of its citizens were languishing in poverty and a small group of people, mainly business moguls, controlled most of the wealth. Egypt also faces a military challenge in Sinai created by militants linked to the Islamic State (ISIS), who want to declare the north-eastern triangular peninsula an Islamic state.
No wonder then that when scores of people visited Nasser’s tomb in eastern Cairo on July 23rd to mark the anniversary of the 1952 revolution, many were holding posters showing photos of both Nasser and Sisi. On the streets of Cairo, these posters were common even before Sisi became president.
But to some observers this approach is too simplistic, even misplaced nostalgia. Political science professor Nader Fergany said that none of the people who ruled Egypt after Nasser was like him.
“All of them [Nasser’s successors] liked to demonstrate links with Nasser only to benefit from people’s love for him,” he wrote on Facebook.
Fergany says, however, Nasser and Sisi are similar in that both show total disregard for democracy and human rights. Fergany described Nasser in his Facebook post as the founder of the “Republic of Fear”.
Nasser put scores of political thinkers, Islamists and pro-democracy activists in prison. His security agencies were notorious for spying on the people and torturing different-minded Egyptians in the prisons.
Sisi’s regime is accused of doing the same. International rights organisations talk of thousands of political prisoners and human rights violations.
Abdel-Razeq expresses hope that Sisi would redress such mistakes in the three years he has remaining in office. He says he hopes that Sisi would show more interest in democracy and human rights.
Sisi, however, might be scoffing at these debates and artificial similarities between him and Nasser. Often he has said he does not view himself as either a leader or an exceptional person.
“I am one of the people,” Sisi said on several occasions.
The current Egyptian leader likes to draw similarities between himself and the late president Anwar Sadat, who was an arch enemy of Egypt’s Islamists. He was assassinated by them in 1981.
In his crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood and religious extremism, Sisi says he is following in the footsteps of Sadat. He even told an American newspaper that he expected to meet Sadat’s fate.
Personal perceptions aside, Sisi’s economic policies seem different from those of Nasser, who dispossessed economic sharks, including major land owners, and redistributed the wealth to the poor.
“Sisi is not like this at all,” Abdel- Razeq said. “He still depends on businessmen to push the economy forward, but all this is coming at the expense of the poor, who continue to suffer.”