Ahmed Ezz Eldin
Last updated: 27 February, 2014

“It could be argued that Nasserism is not what is demanded by the voter, but rather Nasser himself”

The Nasserism that emphasized democracy and social justice in 2011 is losing against the authoritarian Nasserism that ranks security and stability over anything else. This is to be confirmed in the next elections, writes Ahmed Ezz Eldin.

In few weeks, Egyptians will line up to choose their next president after the controversial ouster of former president Mohamed Morsi. The competition is expected to be limited to two potential candidates: Field Marshal, Abd El Fatah El Sisi, and the former presidential candidate, Hamdeen Sabahi.

Despite the difficulty of spotting even the fewest commons among the two, supporters of each candidate view their leader as the next Nasser. Nasserism made a historical come-back to the political scene in 2011 as a sound political option, but now it is developing to be the only option.

Nasser mania is taking over media and streets, but there is more to the story than electoral propaganda. Nasserism is evolving into two distinct competing ideologies satisfying different audiences.    

In July 1952, military tanks were marching into the streets of Cairo, taking over sensitive points in the Egyptian capital. Frustrated with corruption, foreign interference and social injustice, the group of young army officers – known as the Free Officers – took over Egypt and deposed its king. Among them, a young tall handsome officer founded a historical national legacy that would last for decades: Gamal Abd El Nasser.

Nasser mania is taking over media and streetsNasser had an ambitious socialist nationalist agenda that he embarked on even before his official presidency in 1956. Socially, he established a strong welfare state with clear redistributive agenda that was not limited to provision of free education and healthcare, but extended to direct Robin Hood policies of transferring the rich’s land to the poor and nationalizing private enterprises.

Economically, he built a large public sector to be the main engine for economic development. Politically, Nasser controlled any attempts of political dissent, especially from the Muslim Brotherhood, and established a strong authoritarian military regime which achieved internal stability.

Internationally, Nasser’s ambitions were not confined to the borders of Egypt, but went further to the leadership of the Arab World and Africa. This came along with evident hostility towards Western imperialism which he resisted by different means ranging from supporting global anti-Western political movements to direct military confrontation.

Through his achievements, charisma and wide popularity, Nasser established a political ideology, Nasserism, which dominated his era. However, with the gradual shift towards the Western camp during his successor Sadat and the adoption of neoliberal policies during Mubarak’s reign, Nasserism gradually faded from the actual political arena to be confined to books, intellectual debates and the dreams of many Egyptians.

After the downfall of Mubarak, Nasserists came back to the scene with their presidential candidate Hamdeen Sabahi who took the third place in the electoral race in 2012. However, Nasserism evolved from becoming an option among several viable ideological options after Mubarak’s resignation to a pre-requisite for Egyptian presidency.

It is quite reasonable that Nasserism would find supporters after the downfall of Mubarak’s regime for obvious reasons. Since a core motive for which the Egyptians undertook their revolution in 2011 was the social inequality they experienced, it is quite predictable that an ideology emphasizing social justice would find lots of supporters.

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The disappointed unemployed young population and workers frustrated from the corrupt privatization policies are looking for an ideology that revives the public sector and protects labor rights against the greed of the powerful business elite. The social component of Nasserism was the main base for its revival after the 25thof January revolution.

However, Egyptian voters had two competing models of social justice to choose from; the Islamist model and the Nasserist model. Both enjoyed credible emphases on social justice based on their religious and historical foundations, respectively.

Even the capitalists represented by the presidential candidate Ahmed Shafik adopted a language that highlighted social justice. Simply ignoring the demands of the masses was not a smart idea for any group.

As Nasserists were far less organized than their Islamists rivals and lacked the resources of the capitalist elite, they lagged behind both groups. Nasserist might have had the strongest social component, but they didn’t monopolize it and other factors led to the final results. With the ouster of Morsi, circumstances are playing in favor of Nasserism again, but a different form of it.   

Although the same social demands are still existent, post-Morsi Nasserism has relatively different concerns. As several Islamist groups are getting engaged in violence, the typical voter misses the Nasserist legacy of crushing Islamic extremism in general, and the Muslim Brotherhood in particular.

This comes along with increasing public frustration from Western powers, especially the USA and EU, which revives the memories of Nasser’s shift to the Soviet’s camp when he was denied American support.

As national media propagates the news about conspirators against the Egyptian people including the Muslim Brotherhood, Al-Qaeda, America, Israel, Turkey, Iran, Hamas, Qatar, European Union, UK, and even Ethiopia, the national sentiment is being fueled by anger and fear. With the lack of almost any strong popular leader since the revolution, nostalgia to the charismatic leadership of Nasser is at its peak.

The social component of Nasserism is not a priority anymore, but the authoritarian national element of it. It could be argued that Nasserism is not what is demanded by the voter, but rather Nasser himself. The masses are nostalgic for the strong leadership of Nasser that can crush conspirators in the inside and outside. Unfortunately, authoritarian Nasser is more demanded than the socialist one. This is reflected in the expected presidential race between the two claimed Nassers.

“The national sentiment is being fueled by anger and fear.”Hamdeen Sabahi is a hardcore Nasserist who opposed Mubarak’s regime for many years and calls himself “Nasser’s son by choice”. When he ran for the previous presidential elections in 2012, he was portrayed as the new Nasser. He always advocated social policies, worker’s rights, revival of the public sector, and the regional role of Egypt. He has the “warm heart” of socialist Nasser.

Unlike his political father, Sabahi is not a bureaucrat and never held a high rank executive position in the state. He is also a supporter of freedoms of expression and human rights which is a departure from the Nasserist totalitarianism.

In contrast, El Sisi comes from a military background and held many sensitive posts in the state till the disposal of Morsi when he dominated the political scene. Despite the fact that he never advocated any social policies or claimed to be a Nasserist, he is always pictured by his lovers as the new “Nasser”.

His charisma as a strong statesman who is capable of waging war against terrorism and combating American imperialism by building ties with Russia revives many memories from Nasser’s time. Believed to be the actual current ruler of Egypt, the arrests of youth activists and Muslim Brotherhood members by the police are perceived as Nasserist prescription to achieve stability. He has the “iron fist” of the authoritarian Nasser.

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This latter version of Nasser found stronger grounds. Former supporters of Sabahi, including Nasser’s family, are shifting to support the army man. Any attempt to incubate the Muslim Brotherhood, tolerate Western imperialism, allow the continuation of strikes and the endless protesting, or even talk about human rights violations is not acceptable by many voters and might reach the level of treachery.

A large segment of the population is fed up with the harsh economic conditions, insecurity, and more importantly the pointless talks of politicians. For them, only a strong leader with an effective powerful peace keeping apparatus can control the instable country, a military man. The Nasserism that emphasized democracy and social justice in 2011 is losing against the authoritarian Nasserism that ranks security and stability over anything else. This is to be confirmed in the next elections.