On August 6, 2015, standing before an audience of French, Russian, Arab and African leaders as he inaugurated the newly expanded Suez Canal, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi delivered a paean to Egyptian achievement and tenacity:
“The Egyptian people has proven that it can still rewrite history. […] History will remember that Egypt faced a dangerous extremist terrorist ideology that if it had won would have turned Egypt into a scorched land. No one will ever be able to prevent Egyptians from achieving what they want, as long as Egyptians remain united.”
El-Sisi’s words, perhaps not coincidentally, echoed the sentiments of a different president from nearly sixty years prior, one who had delivered similarly passionate declaration of Egyptian exceptionalism in connection to the Suez Canal:
“In these decisive days in the history of mankind, where powers of imperialism have prevailed, Egypt stands solidly and staunchly to preserve her dignity. We shall show the world how a small country can stand in the face of great powers threatening it with armed might. Egypt might be a small power, but she is great inasmuch as she has faith in her power and convictions.”
Whether by rhetoric or by policy, Egypt’s el-Sisi has attempted to bolster his legitimacy by reincarnating and cultivating the nationalistic nostalgia of the era and persona of Egypt’s second president Gamal Abdel Nasser. The irony of el-Sisi’s attempt to wrap himself in Nasser’s nationalist legacy is the crucial contradictions that exist between his and Nasser’s conception of Egyptian identity, and by extension, of Egyptian nationalism. Inherent tensions exist between Nasser’s inclusive pan-Arabism, which presented Egypt as the leader but not sole claimant of anti-Western resistance, and El-Sisi’s brand of Egyptian nationalism, which prioritizes Egyptian security interests over a more abstract ideal of Arab unity. El-Sisi’s focus on threats to national security, most of which he defines as Islamist forces, renders his vision of Egyptian nationalism more insular and militant than Nasser’s.
Important differences between the two presidents’ attitudes toward the West. Whereas Nasser propagated an anti-imperialist vision of Arab nationalism and sought to actualize such an ideal in his defiance of Western powers, el-Sisi has no such pretensions of independence from the U.S. and its ilk. El-Sisi has sought to reinforce and strengthen Egypt’s truce with neighboring Israel and restore diplomatic relations with the U.S. The U.S. under the Trump Administration has reinstituted its 1.5 billion dollars of annual aid to the Egyptian military, after its brief lapse between 2013 and 2015 during the Obama Administration. And President Donald Trump has embraced el-Sisi, who has successfully pitched himself as a symbol of stability in a region of tumult and even recently granted him the Oval Office invitation that President Barack Obama denied him.
But it is important to note that Nasser, for all of his railing against Western powers, was very often more than willing to cooperate with them. In fact, the early years of Nasser’s rule were marked by a collaborative relationship with the U.S., which approved of his coup. Worsening Egypt-U.S. relations in Nasser’s later years turned him towards the Soviet Union. As a result, Nasser placed himself in the tricky situation of attempting to build relations with the opposing blocs of the Cold War. His embrace and pioneering of the “non-aligned” movement, an international coalition of states unaligned with or opposed to any superpowers, allowed Egypt to build relations with either side of the Cold War as it saw fit. El-Sisi’s present-day dealings with both the U.S. and Russia, therefore, does not differ significantly from the similar pragmatism showcased by Nasser.
The key difference between them, then, lies not in the technicalities of their foreign policies so much as it does the symbolic significance of said technicalities. Nasser very pointedly conceptualized Egypt as the harbinger of a pan-Arabist revival that would restore Arab civilization to its former glory and bring about a single Arab nation. In other words, Nasser’s Egypt derives its distinguished status by virtue of how it relates to entities external to itself: defiance of the Western bloc, use of the Eastern bloc, and unity with the Arab countries. Egypt enjoys the privileged status that justifies its nationalism because of its international leadership. Nasser’s conceptualization of Egyptian identity, therefore, is inseparable from its regional context. Accordingly, his Egyptian nationalism occupies the unorthodox position of self-glorification via concern with other nations. This logic explains why Egyptian identity, and thus Egyptian nationalism, was in Nasser’s view subordinate to Arab unity, a view best exemplified in his willingness to merge Egypt with Syria to create the United Arab Republic from 1958 to 1961. To Nasser, Egypt mattered more as a gateway to a better world than a completed world in and of itself. Its boundaries were to be dissolved, not maintained.
El-Sisi’s understanding of Egyptian exceptionalism is diametrically opposed to Nasser’s. Both idolize Egyptian autonomy, but whereas for Nasser that meant Egypt’s unique ability to lead others to a better (Arab) world, for el-Sisi it’s Egypt’s freedom to act primarily in its self-interest. To him, Egypt is special not for its international leadership but for its national independence. He is only concerned with the affairs of other Arab nations insofar as they enable him to elevate Egypt above them, proving its special genius by reclaiming its glorious past and creating an equally glorious future. Accordingly, el-Sisi’s nationalism is inherently more insular than that of Nasser. His Egypt looks inward to celebrate its own history and culture, cultivating a specifically Egyptian pride that cannot accommodate alternate identities, Arab or otherwise. Unsurprisingly, el-Sisi has enacted his foreign policy on the basis of an “Egypt first” mindset not dissimilar from Trump’s “America first,” willingly alienating allies like Saudi Arabia and allying with former enemies like Iran if he believes it would benefit his country and his rule.
But el-Sisi’s abandonment of pan-Arabism necessitated the construction of a new enemy by which to reinforce Egyptian nationalism: Islamist radicals. Nasser had pioneered the movement of Arab nationalism not just by touting Arabs’ achievements, but by framing their rise as a rebellion against the Western powers that had subjugated and humiliated them for decades. El-Sisi, by openly embracing the U.S. and Europe, could not rely on the same boogeyman. El-Sisi’s solution: rely on the West’s. Modeling himself as a fighter in the “war on terror” not only wins el-Sisi international credibility but also helps to boost Egyptian pride by demonstrating its ability to put down apparent threats to its safety. Crucial to understanding el-Sisi’s policies is his loose definition of “terror,” which he liberally expands beyond the carnage of radicals like ISIS to more moderate Islamists like the Muslim Brotherhood. From el-Sisi’s perspective, an organization’s mere subscription to political Islam renders it a civilizational threat in need of annihilation, whether at home or abroad.
Ironically, in many ways el-Sisi’s hostility to Islamism in a long-forgotten inheritance from Nasser, whose successors Sadat and Mubarak allowed a limited political space for the Brotherhood. In spite of his significant divergence from Nasser’s ideology, then, el-Sisi has managed to genuinely reclaim parts of the strongman’s legacy by reincarnating and magnifying Nasser’s stringently secular tendencies.
During Nasser’s rule, the Muslim Brotherhood’s political Islam represented a two-pronged threat: it was both the chief philosophical rival to Nassar’s secular Arab nationalism and the chief political rival to his military regime. Nasser’s socialist pan-Arabism subordinated Islam to the private sphere and thus could not accommodate the Brotherhood’s ambitions for a religious public sphere. His brutal suppression of the Brotherhood was, therefore, a function of both ideological purity and political pragmatism.
And yet Nasser’s brand of secular nationalism was at odds with itself, as it often depended on religion as an instrument for its success. Nasser himself professed Islam, and the religion constituted one of the three pillars upon which he built his understanding of Egyptian identity, alongside African and Arab heritage. More so, he recognized the religiosity of broad swaths of the Egyptian populace and so frequently invoked Islam to mobilize support for his secular nationalist-socialist agenda, as when he chose to rail against the 1956 tripartite aggression from the religiously charged symbol that is the pulpit of Al-Azhar, the most prestigious Islamic university in the world, or when he argued that “religion is social justice…[and] you become a socialist [if] you establish social justice.” Nasser’s obvious concern with rhetorically and rationally demonstrating Islam’s compatibility with socialism betrays an awareness of the need to justify his secular policies on religious grounds.
But Nasser went beyond demonstrating the philosophical consistency of socialist ideology with Islam to portraying socialist Islam as the only valid understanding of the religion. In practice, this meant the relentless demonization of the Brotherhood’s more conservative and orthodox strain of Islam, exemplified by Nasser’s portrayal of the Brotherhood’s vision of Islam as exploitative, self-serving, and ultimately illegitimate via appeals to stereotypes of backward and ‘bearded’ religious men out of touch with modernity. To ensure that the Brotherhood’s politically dangerous Islamism did not secure a societal foothold, Nasser sought to create and perpetuate a state-mandated version of Islam compatible with his vision of a socialist military state.
Since coming to power in 2013, el-Sisi has adopted the basic framework of Nasser’s secularism and reconfigured it in the context of the twenty-first century’s War on Terror, shrewdly co-opting the vocabulary of the fight against Islamic extremism to make himself a more palpable ally to the West. He has portrayed himself as a ‘moderate’ Muslim in contradistinction to his most threatening political enemies, the Muslim Brotherhood. Like Nasser, el-Sisi has relegated Al-Azhar to a propagandistic arm of the state. In 2015 his Ministry of Religious Endowments closed over 27,000 small mosques and revived a Nasser-era law to fire 12,000 non-certified imams. The Ministry also announced control of all religious training centers and even pushed to standardize Friday sermons. Through these efforts the state is attempting to act as the absolute arbiter of acceptable Islamic practice, an echo of Nasser’s 1961 law de facto enabling the President to police the Al-Azhar’s religious teachings. And like Nasser, el-Sisi has employed theological language to justify his rule and his policies.
El-Sisi’s so-called ‘moderate’ Islam, then, is a resurrection of Nasser’s state-mandated religion, intended to delegitimize alternative Islamic expression philosophically incompatible with, and politically dangerous for, militaristic nationalism.
El-Sisi has extended the spirit of this domestic policy (repression of Islamism) to his foreign policy. His redefining of terrorism as threats to state entities rather than civilians has justified his consistent support for authoritarian status quos even when doing so places him at odds with allies, as with his open support for the murderous Assad regime. El-Sisi’s fight against radical Islamists abroad is meant to secure regional stability and so exterminate threats before they reach Egyptian borders, even if doing so entails restoring brutally oppressive governments. Leaving aside the inefficiency of Egypt’s operations and the self-destructive results of violent repression of moderate Islamists, el-Sisi’s policies are pitched to Egypt and the world as those of an aggressive strongman preserving the peace. This image of strength is critical to legitimizing el-Sisi’s capacity as a leader (and thus his right to power) as well as the Egyptian nationalist fervor he has sought to revive and harness.
But because el-Sisi’s foreign policy is grounded in national security generally, and in the war against Islamist terrorism specifically, his brand of Egyptian nationalism is fundamentally more militaristic than that of Nasser. Keeping fear of terrorism foremost in the mind of the Egyptian populace via alarmist rhetoric and policy decisions almost inevitably feeds into a fixation on military prowess as a means of eliminating the threat. The Egyptian army, aside from its democratic makeup and historical significance, is idolized by many because its strength represents both national autonomy and national safety in a climate of fear and uncertainty. Love for the military doubles as love for the state, as the two have become as indistinguishable as ever under el-Sisi.
El-Sisi has bolstered this image with popular culture. Much of the patriotic music produced by the Egyptian entertainment industry since el-Sisi’s rise to power has been thinly veiled military propaganda that conflates love for country with love for army. Consider “Message from the Egyptian Children to the Whole World,” which ties its narrative of national unity to militaristic imagery. The result is an unsettling fusion of jingoistic fetishism and childish innocuousness. Students sing of national pride even as the viewer is treated to glorified images of child actors draped in military garb undergoing rigorous physical training and welding semi-automatic machine guns. The children sing of their eagerness to sacrifice for their country, a sacrifice which in the context of the film’s iconography can only mean military service. In a similar vein, Teslam el-Ayadi extensively glorifies the military’s historical exploits and their sacrifices in protecting the country.
Whether el-Sisi’s conception of Egyptian identity will endure as a model for future generations remains to be seen. If he fails to actualize the stability and prosperity he has promised the Egyptian people, his persona and its associated ideology may well suffer from the same damaged credibility that heralded the decline of Nasserism following Egypt’s crushing defeat in the 1967 Six Day War. El-Sisi would do well to remember that for all the legitimacy that invoking Nasserist nationalism has earned his regime despite their key differences, Nasser’s movement had ceased to be a viable force in Egyptian politics for the four decades that preceded the 2011 revolution. If increasing domestic unrest is any indication, El-Sisi may yet go the same way.
Ahmed Elbenni is a sophomore in Timothy Dwight College.