About two weeks ago, Radio 4’s BBC World Service broadcast a programme over four episodes on the Arab world in the contemporary era; the second episode was about the Gamal Abdel Nasser era. This time in Egypt’s history was written and presented by Egyptian writer Tariq Osman, who depicted it as the golden age and the beginning of true liberation from colonialism. It was also the period that saw the end of feudalism and opened the Egyptian public to education and industrialisation. There is no doubt that the Nasser era was in fact a golden era when compared to the years that came before and after it; his accomplishments were glorious, especially when it came to fostering the idea that getting rid of colonialism was not as impossible as the dismissive elite made it out to be.
Yet, one of the participants in the programme revealed that the era was also intrinsically authoritarian and that Nasser did not trust the people, although the people greatly admired him. Ahdaf Soueif, an Egyptian writer, said that the people’s love for Nasser was built mostly on the decision to neglect or ignore the authoritarian nature of the regime, which may not have been evident at the time. It was undoubtedly difficult for someone loyal to the Nasser regime to believe that he had created a system that forced the people to hold their breath. There was not a single village or corner in Egypt that did not have at least one political prisoner. The state intelligence agencies became involved in every detail of people’s lives and the media played a significant role in broadcasting information that was strategic to the regime’s wellbeing. Salah Jahin’s daughter revealed that her father, who was one of the intellectuals close to Nasser and one of his admirers, was placed on the “most wanted” list a number of times. The only thing that saved him from being arrested was that Nasser deleted his name from the list repeatedly himself.
According to her book, one of the things that caused her father much grief was the realisation that were it not for Nasser’s love for him, he too would have fallen victim to the very system that he supported. Perhaps this point refutes the argument that the president was unaware of the intelligence agencies’ abuses of power because it is clear that he reviewed such lists and permitted them. Whatever the case may be, the Nasser era did leave a few positive effects on society, such as free education and other services that benefited the poor. And yet, the Egyptian people’s liberation during the Nasser era has since turned into an enthusiasm for subordination that is so severe, it would make even the late King Farouq shudder, may he rest in peace.
We could have taken this era in history as a lesson on what not to do in the future; however, the situation in Egypt has far exceeded any expectations in this respect. For many Egyptians today, it does not suffice simply to lament the Nasser era or categorise it as the golden period in Egyptian history. In fact, many people believe that the era has returned to Egypt thanks to its new dictator, General Abdel Fatah Al-Sisi, a man who many view as the reincarnation of Gamal Abdel Nasser. Keeping in line with Karl Marx’s famous quote that, “history repeats itself the first time as a tragedy and the second time as a farce”, one can say that Al-Sisi’s decision to drape himself in Nasser’s legendary cloak is in fact the biggest farce of all. This man is only remaining loyal to the dark side of Nasser’s legacy by targeting the Muslim Brotherhood. As for the libertarian aspects of the period, Al-Sisi could not be any farther from the legend. Isn’t it enough that at the beginning of his rule he approached the Israeli government to discuss placing restrictions on the Gaza Strip to target innocent Palestinians? He also hired Zionist groups to paint a positive image of him in Washington.
I wonder how anyone can imagine Nasser as the head of an army whose salaries are paid for by an organisation just like the Blackwater mercenaries in Iraq. This has never happened in Egypt before, not even during the colonial period. As for the rights of the poor and underprivileged, saying that Al-Sisi and his followers consider Sadat and Mubarak’s economic policies to be sacred just about sums up the reality of this particular situation.
One may be able to find some excuses for Nasser during his rule because he was planning for unprecedented changes for his country during a turbulent time. He understood that he was an unknown young officer when he came to power and that it was very possible for figures such as Mohammad Naguib, the first president of the Republic of Egypt, or the Muslim Brotherhood, to oust him. At the same time, Nasser lived in an era when colonial powers were both capable and willing to overthrow political regimes. Nasser witnessed first-hand what happened to Iranian Prime Minister Mossadegh when he was overthrown by a military coup staged by the American CIA and British MI6 in 1953. In fact, when Nasser did not learn his lesson from the Iranian example, the invasion of the Suez Canal took place in 1956 to emphasise the very clear message from the west.
In light of all these events, one could argue that the repressive policies that Nasser resorted to in the earlier days of his regime could be understood, if not justified, because they were required to ground his political system in society. However, Nasser’s decision to continue implementing these policies after the nationalisation of the Suez Canal and after Egypt’s union with Syria can neither be understood nor justified. Now that all the illusions have evaporated in the current era, any attempt to restore the oppression and the demagoguery that characterised the Nasser period is nothing more than a farce, as noted above. Today, the false illusions that were embodied by the slogans and logos of former regimes can no longer find their way into the hearts and minds of the people. The only programme that people in Egypt need to watch today is Bassem Youssef’s satire because it allows them to laugh at the on-going farce. Youssef relays all the news that is presented in the Egyptian media and press in a sarcastic and satirical manner. In the current age of YouTube and the internet, we can picture the well-known comedian Adel Imam when we see Adli Mansour’s clumsy attempt at performing the role of president, and that is truly all we need to make us laugh hysterically.
Nasser’s successor, Anwar Sadat, overthrew his system by placing particular emphasis on its darker aspects. Sadat took advantage of the people’s support and the October 6th victory against Israel to ditch the alleged gains of the Nasser era, especially those that dealt with liberation and social equality. Afterwards, the Mubarak presidency was characterised by dependency on America and subservience to Israel. Mubarak was then able to build a new oligarchy that revived the pasha system; the best evidence for this is that police officers are now referred to as “pasha” in real life and in movies. The pasha system allowed for the construction of a new discriminatory class system which prevents members of the general public from gaining access to positions in the police or security forces. These positions are more or less reserved for the members of the upper class or the current incumbents’ children.
For all the reasons that are mentioned above, the counter-revolution that we witnessed recently in Egypt cannot be categorised as a normal event by any means. While it is true that the pillars of the old regime, namely the security sector, are leading the counter-revolution, and it is also true that pillars of the Mubarak era hold a monopoly on authoritative power, it is imperative to emphasise that the Mubarak era’s oligarchy is a system that resembles the nomenclatura of the Soviet era or the Mamelukes in previous times. Thus, getting rid of this oligarchy would require a revolution much stronger than the January 25th uprising. The current regime has tried incessantly to erase all evidence of the January 25th Revolution and they will continue to eradicate all of the revolution’s effects until the new constitution legitimises that which cannot, in truth, be legitimised.
When Nasser came to power, many people promoted the argument that he was the first Egyptian to hold such a position in Egypt since Pharaonic times. This is wholly unfounded because it discounts the “Egyptianness” of many of Egypt’s former rulers and it is based on a very narrow understanding of Egyptian racial identity. No one can discount that Ismail Pasha was Egyptian, for example, or Ibn Tulun and his family, or even the former Sultan of Egypt, Al Zahir Baybars, and Abu Al Misk Kafur Ikshididi. All of these historical leaders were Egyptian in their identities, affiliations and loyalties. Yet, one can argue that Nasser was the first commoner to rule Egypt in a long time and this can be based largely on the fact that he was permitted to attend the military academy in 1936, the year that saw the abolition of the restrictions that prevented low-income and middle class Egyptians from entering the officer corps. The Mubarak regime revived the pasha system and the terrifying feudal nature of the military and other state institutions. What is even more surprising is that some argue that feudalism’s revival is a return to Nasser’s glory days!
There are many other significant and witty moments in history that were recalled by Tariq Osman’s programme on the BBC. For example, he quoted one of Nasser’s speeches mocking the Muslim Brotherhood where he told his audience that the group encourages many women to wear the veil when, in reality, only members of the Muslim Brotherhood marry veiled women. The audience then broke into fits of laughter and one man was heard yelling, “Tell the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood that he should wear a veil!” We do not need the presenter of this programme to remind us that most women in Egypt wear the veil voluntarily, in spite of Nasser and his audience, and in spite of the Muslim Brotherhood, whose members were mostly imprisoned or exiled when this phenomenon swept Egypt.
The lesson we must all learn from this is that if Nasser were to return to Egypt today, he would not be able to cope with all the popular currents that exist. The absurd attempt to bottle the glory of the Egyptian revolution and to revive a pasha-like feudal system in Egypt under the false pretences that contradict the country’s current reality will only lead to wasting national resources and leading the people down the path of conflict towards the collapse of the state. The attempt to turn back the clock in Egyptian history is wasteful and unnecessary. There seems to be an illusion that genocide can be waged against the Muslim Brotherhood, leading to its eradication. This same delusion led to the failure of the Nasser era because it ignored the need for dialogue with the movement. These attempts will not weaken the Muslim Brotherhood; on the contrary, it will give them it starring role in the war against the revival of pasha-feudalism.
This is a translation of the Arabic text published in Al Quds Al Arabi on 23 December 2013
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.