x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Amid Egypt’s troubles, Nasser era takes on a rosy hue

The Nasserist revival has happened in parallel with the rise of a man who seems to be filling the role of Egypt’s strongman: Gen Abdel Fattah El Sisi.

Residents of Cairo hold out posters of the late president Gamal Abdel Nasser, left, and the current military chief, Gen Abdel Fattah El Sisi, while watching a protest by supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood last Friday. Hassan Ammar / AP Photo
Residents of Cairo hold out posters of the late president Gamal Abdel Nasser, left, and the current military chief, Gen Abdel Fattah El Sisi, while watching a protest by supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood last Friday. Hassan Ammar / AP Photo

CAIRO // The aquiline profile and silver-streaked coiffure of Gamal Abdel Nasser were everywhere in Egypt. From his ascent to power in 1956 to his death in 1970, he presided with famous charisma over turbulent years: in official buildings and on the covers of foreign magazine, his was the face of Egypt.

Four decades later, he is enjoying a comeback. Amid the confusion and violence in Egypt, his face has begun to reappear – on T-shirts and placards at demonstrations and on the front page of newspapers.

Nasser’s heritage – a lingering memory of bold calls for a united Arab world, tough crackdowns on Islamists, and development of the country – never completely went away. Many Nasserist movements still exist and a Nasserist presidential candidate, Hamdeen Sabbahi, made a respectable showing in elections last year.

But analysts think his sudden surge in popularity is due to profound disappointment in a democratic experiment that led to a flawed Islamist rule, and a desire for stability and a strong, secular leader.

There has, said Abdel Moneim Said, former chief of the Al Ahram centre for political studies, been a swelling of nostalgia for times gone by among Egyptians who do not even remember those times.

People think of Nasser’s rule as “an era of dignity, an ability to talk with other countries with heads held high, an ability to do nationalisations like the Suez Canal”, he said.

“There is an image of equality between people, that there wasn’t sectarian division.”

Nasser came to power in 1956, four years after he had been a driving force behind a group of soldiers – the Free Officers – and their overthrow of the western-backed monarchy.

The last British troops withdrew from the country shortly afterward, but the country’s relationship with the West remained problematic. Egypt’s desire for assistance in developing the impoverished country was at odds with a proud wish not to compromise on principles, including supporting the independence of Algeria.

When, in 1956, the US and UK rescinded their funding for the Aswan Dam project, which was to revolutionise agriculture in the country, Nasser responded by nationalising the vital Suez Canal, then run by the French-founded Suez Canal Company.

The money generated by the wildly popular nationalisation successfully funded the building of the vast dam at Aswan, and is remembered with pride, as was the investment by the central government in vast industrial projects and factories as well as schools and the redistribution of land from landlords to farmers.

In recent years, Nasserist thought has been prominent among labour movements objecting to an opening up of markets under Hosni Mubarak, which they say led to crony capitalism.

Last week, demonstrators objecting to proposed US air strikes on Syria waved flags with the Nasserist Popular Current bloc’s name on them. One man wore a banner with Nasser’s face wrapped around him. The demonstrators chanted defiant anti-American slogans.

The Nasserist revival has happened in parallel with the rise of a man who seems to be filling the role of Egypt’s strongman: Gen Abdel Fattah El Sisi.

In his crackdown on the Brotherhood since ousting the Islamist president Mohammed Morsi on July 3, in his publicly assertive attitude to western reservations about the brutality of his security forces, and in his stirring, nationalist rhetoric, some Egyptians see a new Nasser in Gen El Sisi, and put their pictures together on posters and placards.

A group including lawyers and other professionals yesterday launched a petition called “complete your good deed”, urging the military chief to run for president, the Associated Press reported. He has denied wishing to hold office, but with posters of him plastered around the city and songs about him on the radio, it is hard to rule out the possibility.

In Hakim Nasser’s house, his father is everywhere: in a gloomy oil painting, in black-and-white family photographs with world leaders on the grand piano, in sculptures, on vases and, in the joltingly similar face of the son.

Hakim Abdel Nasser is an engineer who never troubled himself with politics until the last few years of Mubarak’s rule when, he said, he felt that inequality of wealth had become so pronounced that it was like the pre-independence times.

At the demonstrations that ousted Mubarak in 2011, and then in the huge rallies which preceded the removal of Mr Morsi in July this year, he made appearances and was mobbed by thousands, he said.

“People, when they see me – it was ... I get crushed!” he said. “People express their gratitude to my father and their feeling that his soul is with us. It’s a feeling which I will never forget for the rest of my life.”

There is, however, a certain amnesia among those who would like to see a return to Nasser-style rule, said Mr Said, the economist.

“They forget that Egypt was not that developed in the Nasser era, and that Egypt was occupied twice and that it was an era of great, great repression for people, whether they were Muslim Brotherhood or Communists, or whatever,” he said. “All that is forgotten.”

But for Hakim Abdel Nasser, who does not rule out running for political office, the time has come not for a recreation of his father’s rule, but for his ideas and for the pride that he gave Egyptians.

“You can’t say ‘return’, because nothing returns,” he said. “But the values of my father and his revolutionary council, I believe they were the driving values of the January 2011 revolution ... freedom and social justice and human dignity and national independence.

“When people found the Muslim Brotherhood didn’t implement any of these values – that’s why they went again to an uprising.”

afordham@thenational.ae