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Al-Sisi is no Gamal Abdel Nasser

May 5, 2014 at 3:40 pm

One of the great myths-in-the-making doing the rounds in Egypt today is that General Abdul Fattah Al-Sisi is a latter day Gamal Abdul Nasser. This may be a fair comparison if Nasser’s legacy is seen only through the prism of his confrontation with the Muslim Brotherhood. Since Al-Sisi’s vendetta has extended to a large swathe of the Egyptian population, though, the comparison seems wholly inapt. Furthermore, the respective approaches of each general towards Israel and their support for the Palestinian people also appear to be at odds.

Apart from their vicious feud with the Brotherhood, there are, admittedly, some similarities, particularly in their methods. Both leaders relied heavily on propaganda to consolidate their military rule. One of the most engaging commentators of the Nasser era was Miles Copeland, a former US Vice Consul in Syria and a founding member of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Having lived in Egypt throughout the period, he asserts in his book, The Game of Nations, that he had probably seen more of Nasser than any other westerner. Censorship and state propaganda, he noted, were used routinely to discredit enemies and justify harsh punishment.

Copeland recalled that the American ambassador in Cairo, Jefferson Caffery (1949-1955), had arranged for the “loan” to Nasser of the leading practitioner of “black” propaganda in the western world, Paul Linebarger, who was an OSS propagandist during the Second World War. He showed Nasser’s government how to damage “hallowed figures” such as Muhammad Naguib. The same techniques are still being used today to vilify opponents of the coup.

During those early days, Nasser’s Revolutionary Command Council drew up one list of media correspondents, foreign and local, who could be trusted and another of those who could not be trusted. Inevitably, they favoured the former. Prominent among those favoured by the Nasser regime was a certain Mohammed Hassanein Heykel and the Amin brothers, Mustafa and Ali. The former is believed to have played a major role in bringing down Egypt’s first elected civilian president, Mohamed Morsi.

Supporters of the July 2013 coup which toppled Morsi are not the only ones to sing Al-Sisi’s praises. In Israel, he is celebrated with such passion that The Times of Israel warned on Monday that the creation of a Nasser-type personality cult around Al-Sisi is not in Israel’s best interest. Since Nasser had an image of being the historic enemy of Israel among many Arabs, the newspaper warned it would be dangerous to cultivate such a figure in today’s climate of regional uncertainty.

Like his predecessors, Al-Sisi’s primary concerns are two-fold: to preserve his grip on power and avoid any confrontation with Israel. In the latter instance, however, he has gone much further than any other in trying to cosy up to the Israelis. In his desire to reciprocate for the Israelis’ support and lobbying on his behalf in western capitals, Al-Sisi is going to great lengths to victimise and humiliate the people of Gaza.

In reality, the period of courtship between Israel’s military and intelligence establishments and their Egyptian counterpart is over; their marriage has been consummated and the honeymoon is well and truly under way. This is the message coming from the Israeli media. Some describe the relationship as even stronger than that at the time of Hosni Mubarak.

Is Al-Sisi acting in Egypt’s or Israel’s interest? It is logical that a strong and secure Palestine would be the first line of defence for Egypt’s national security. Although Nasser did not deliver on his promises to liberate Palestine, he never saw himself as an enemy of the Palestinian people, in whole or part. By its actions against the Gaza Strip, Al-Sisi’s coup regime has done just the opposite. He has, for all practical purposes, joined forces with Israel against the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, something that Nasser never did. For this reason, Al-Sisi is in a league of his own and is putting Egypt’s security on the line for Israel.

Whatever his shortcomings and miscalculations, Nasser seemed to put Egypt’s interests first. When the Americans and British started discussions in March 1953 about the formation of a Middle East Defence Organisation (MEDO) along the lines of NATO, Nasser dismissed it out of hand. Copeland recalls that Nasser didn’t want any part of it, nor was he concerned about whether Britain had bases in the region, as long were they were not in Egypt.

Nasser did want US military aid, however, to boost his internal security and make his army a “proud army”. Copeland noted, “If his army was to have any military mission at all it would have to be against the Israelis or against one of the uncooperative Arab countries, not against the Soviets or any European power.”

Towards the end of 1951 a special team of experts from the State Department, the newly-formed CIA and the Defence Department were assigned to study the Arab-Israeli conflict and to work out solutions, “whether or not they fitted orthodox notions of proper governmental behaviour”. Because of its influence on other regional states they decided that Egypt was the place to start.

About his protégé, Copeland says, “I had a feeling throughout that had Nasser not been born our Game would have had to create him just to have a leader who, although non-existent at the moment, was natural to the Game and was sure to pop up sooner or later.”

Given the manner in which US intelligence has played with Egypt’s military elite since 1952, to focus on the person of Al-Sisi could be fatal. He, like Nasser, is a prototype to be used in the shady Game of Nations. In Nasser’s time the west needed a certain type of Arab leader who could rant about Israel and imperialism. Today, a different type of figurehead is needed by the west, not to champion the Palestinian cause and confront Israel but to normalise relations with the Zionist state and subvert Palestinian resistance. He is certainly no Gamal Abdel Nasser, but step forward Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi, the west’s new man of the moment.