Militaristic Egyptian Nationalism, from Nasser to el-Sisi: PART 1
On Saleh Salam Street, at the center of Heliopolis, Cairo, sits a thick sandstone-colored rotunda surrounded by metal sculptures of jets, tanks, and cannons. The 6th of October Panorama, built in 1983 under former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, memorializes efforts of the Egyptian military during the 6th of October War of 1973 (known as the Yom Kippur War in the Western world). On that day, Egyptian soldiers crossed the Suez Canal in a surprise attack on Israeli forces and won back the Suez territory.
The monument stands as a towering reminder of military might and national pride in the minds of many Egyptians today. But the decisive victory it celebrates never happened.
The panorama’s narrative is at best highly misleading and at worst an outright fabrication. Although the Egyptian army did take Israeli forces by surprise and successfully beat them backward in the initial days of the conflict, Israel eventually recuperated and struck back with the help of U.S. aid. Egypt, soon overwhelmed, surrendered shortly after. And while Egypt did succeed in inflicting heavy casualties and negotiating the return of the lost Sinai territory by 1982, the war ended in an undeniable Israeli victory.
The October War Panorama thus represents one of the Egyptian state’s most prominent, and effective, forms of nationalistic propaganda. It achieves its narrative of decisive Egyptian victory by omitting the entire second half of the war, recounting the success of the Egyptian army’s initial strike but neglecting to mention Israel’s counterattack.
What’s more: the Panorama reduces the war to a strictly Egypt-Israeli conflict, erasing the important role that Syria played. These distortions are part of a broader state effort to rewrite the history of the 1973 war. Monuments like this one elevate a modestly successful draw to an era-defining military victory.
Maintaining such myths is a cornerstone of the nationalist jingoistic ideology that sustains Egypt’s authoritarian regime. While the 6th of October War and its subsequent memorialization occurred when presidents Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak were in power, it was the second Egyptian president, Gamal Abdel Nasser, who established this kind of nationalistic dogma. Nasser planted the seeds for nationalism in 1954 that General Abdel Fatteh El-Sisi would later cultivate and update in 2013. El-Sisi would preserve the element of Nasser’s nationalistic ideology that most entrenched state power: ardent militarism.
The military is a nationalistic symbol in many nation-states, but Egypt’s army enjoys an unusually exalted status due to the government’s fundamentally militaristic character. With the notable exception of Mohammed Morsi, every Egyptian president since the army-led coup of 1952 has served prominently in the military prior to taking office.
Egyptian law mandates one to three years of military service for all men aged between 18 and 30, with exceptions made for single sons and dual citizens. Eligible Egyptian males are not allowed to work or travel abroad until completing their time. Drafted recruits are subjected to harsh living conditions during their service, but they serve an important purpose for the government: The Egyptian military’s conscription policy legitimizes and reinforces its national prestige because it produces an institution comprised of common, everyday Egyptians that hail from every demographic: rich and poor, urban and rural, and Muslim and Christian. As such, the military can claim to embody the Egyptian people even as it function as an elite institution responsible for damning said people.
The army has a stranglehold on Egypt’s economy, dominating nearly every industry by manufacturing everyday items like kitchen appliances and clothing (which it sells in the civilian market and at a discount to military personnel), while also constructing highways, bridges, schools, and even hotels. In addition, the military runs a network of dairy, poultry, and fish farms, the products of which are distributed and sold to civilians. Top officers live in luxurious condos and make profits in the billions of dollars, many from shady dealings with private companies. No civilian oversight of the military budget exists, and in fact no oversight of military activities exists period. The institution is deeply entrenched in the state system and operates beyond the jurisdiction of the law. The president and his inner circle, all closely associated with the military, abet its rampant corruption.
In Egypt, the military is the state.
In light of the institution’s domination of Egypt, it is unsurprising that the most revered political figure in modern Egyptian times is Gamal Abdel Nasser, a former Army Free Officer and staunch nationalist who led the country as its second President from 1956 to 1970. For many, he represents the golden age of Egypt, a time of cultural revival, peak international influence, and dignified national sovereignty.
For others, though, Nasser symbolizes crushing oppression and the establishment of the militantly authoritarian state that still haunts Egypt today. Either way, the prestige—or infamy—that Nasser enjoys in Egyptian national memory has made it necessary for his successors to define their visions, and themselves, in relation to him. Nasser is usually cited to legitimize others’ agendas, whether as a model to aspire to or as a failure to avoid.
The Egyptian and international media has been quick to herald the rise of el-Sisi as the second arrival of Nasser, and the general himself has sought to cultivate this image. But while the two share some similarities—like leading coups and harnessing nationalistic fervor—there are important differences between them. Nasser executed his coup against a monarch whereas el-Sisi did it against a democratically elected government. And whereas Nasser’s actions were genuinely revolutionary, in that they shifted the Egyptian governmental model from monarchy to (in theory, if not in practice) democracy, El-Sisi’s are essentially conservative, in that they signal a return to the pre-2011 status quo: government by military dictatorship.
But these differences have not prevented el-Sisi from laying claim Nasser’s legacy. Perhaps no other project best embodies el-Sisi’s attempt to remake himself in Nasser’s image than his 8 billion dollar expansion in 2015 of the Suez Canal, a potent symbol of both Egyptian nationalism and Nasser-era nostalgia. While the Egyptian government justified the project in economic terms, claiming that the expansion would increase canal traffic which would, in turn, generate healthy capital, el-Sisi’s speech during the opening ceremony of the canal betrayed a different purpose: proving to the world that the Egyptian people can “still accomplish something.” In other words, el-Sisi was attempting to recapture the supposed glory of the Nasser era by demonstrating Egypt’s enduring sovereignty and special genius.
Decades earlier, in 1956, Nasser provoked the wrath of Britain, France, and Israel by nationalizing the Suez Canal, which had been built by the French in 1869 and used by Western powers ever since. Nasser’s move, justified by him as necessary to fund the construction of the Aswan Dam, was correctly understood as a rebellion against Western influence in Egyptian affairs, and his actions incited an international crisis that could have escalated into open war had the U.S. and the United Nations not convinced the tripartite forces of Britain, France, and Israel to eventually withdraw their troops.
Nasser’s success in defying the will of the world’s greatest superpowers increased Egypt’s stature on the global stage and solidified the president’s image as the embodiment of Egyptian independence. Nasser’s nationalization of the Suez Canal transformed it and himself into enduring symbols of Egyptian autonomy. The act granted him an infallible prestige and popular credibility the likes of which no Egyptian leader since has been able to match.
El-Sisi might have been trying to win political capital by linking himself to a waterway charged with nationalistic significance and associated with the most popular leader in modern Egyptian history. And indeed, the lavish opening ceremony of the canal was saturated with patriotic imagery and patriotic music, layered with a healthy dosage of military demonstrations of might. El-Sisi donned military garb as he rode a ship across the canal.
The entire performance, and the entire project itself, paradoxically cultivated an image of modern Egyptian power by grounding itself in nostalgic iconography. El-Sisi presented the occasion as the resurrection of Nasserite Egypt, and himself as the reincarnation of Nasser. Both were inextricably bound to the abstract ideal of Egyptian nationalism.
But recent events suggest that the explosion of Egyptian nationalism that accompanied el-Sisi’s ascension to power is fading, and its capacity to sustain the current military regime waning. El-Sisi, once regarded as a savior for Egypt’s persecuted Coptic Christian minority, has fallen out of favor with the community. Civil unrest has grown in the wake of a tanking economy, and el-Sisi’s approval ratings have witnessed a steep drop.
Even if the tide of fierce nationalistic sentiment slowly dies away in the face of a worsening reality, Egypt’s state and media institutions are unlikely to stop churning out loving odes to the noble patriotism of its military. Like el-Sisi and the past glories he has promised to resurrect, the object of such odes’ adoration is but an illusion.