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The Problematic Continuity of Nasserism

[Egyptian Premier Gamal Abdel Nasser waves to a crowd of people as he stands in an open car moving through the streets of Cairo, Egypt on 19 June 1956. Nasser announced at a rally in Republican Square that martial law in Egypt is ended, that the revolution council which has ruled Egypt since King Farouk was deposed is dissolved, that Egypt's new constitution will be ratified and that a new president will be elected (AP Photo). Image and caption originally appeared on Flickr by pds209.] [Egyptian Premier Gamal Abdel Nasser waves to a crowd of people as he stands in an open car moving through the streets of Cairo, Egypt on 19 June 1956. Nasser announced at a rally in Republican Square that martial law in Egypt is ended, that the revolution council which has ruled Egypt since King Farouk was deposed is dissolved, that Egypt's new constitution will be ratified and that a new president will be elected (AP Photo). Image and caption originally appeared on Flickr by pds209.]

Since the beginning of the twenty-first century, the political scene in Egypt has always incorporated images of Gamal Abdel Nasser, as well as Nasserist vocabulary, politicians, and intellectuals. All of these elements were present in protests supporting the 2000 Palestinian Intifada as well as protests opposing the 2003 invasion of Iraq by the United States. These Nasserist elements then became part of the “Kefaya” movement and the accompanying spread of political and social protests in the final years of Mubarak’s rule. Reinforcing the rise of opposition to the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood during the short-lived Mohamed Morsi presidency—and particularly the popular uprisings of June and July 2013—was the recalling of the memory of Nasser, the discourse of his political system, his policies, and his era in general.

How, one might ask, did such recollections of the past aid these protests? The memories of Nasser and his time in office carry a heavy political weight that helped build a group identity for the people demonstrating against Morsi’s presidency and Brotherhood rule. Photos of Nasser were held high alongside those of Anwar al-Sadat and Egyptian flags, all of which carry a patriotic symbolism that unifies Egyptians. This was in stark contrast to the pan-Islamism that the Brotherhood was said to be promoting. For many of the Brotherhood’s opponents, pan-Islamism as an ideology stands in tension with the notion of national belonging.

This, however, was not the only symbolism present. Recalling Nasser and Nasserism brings to mind words like dignity and pride that emerged from the 1950s and 1960s era of national liberation and anti-colonialism, which Sherif Younis aptly described in his great work The Call of the People (Nidaa Al-Shaab). Dignity, of course, in the present era refers to the independence of the national will in seeing the army remove Morsi with popular support, in defiance of what is seen and portrayed as Western, and especially American, support for the Muslim Brotherhood.

Nasser and Nasserism provide further context for this most recent period of Egyptian history. One proof of this is the renewed salience of the images and symbols of the “Nasserist” social contract, which arose in the mid-1950s following national independence. This contract was based on a wide social alliance that the state built with mainly public sector workers, university students, state employees, army soldiers, and other members of the national workforce. There is no doubt that the popularly-imagined view of social justice that sparked the first socioeconomic-based wave of protests against Mubarak in 2004 was exceptionally Nasserist. These protests were against the constant and huge losses suffered by the aforementioned groups stemming from the beginning of the infitah (or open door) policy.

In addition to these three examples, recalling the memory of Nasser and the terminology of Nasserism in anti-Brotherhood demonstrations served a fourth purpose, namely as a symbol of modernity standing against the anti-modernist forces of Islamism. This kind of modernity, especially the claim that it can be reconciled with tradition, was one of the cornerstones of the ideology of the Nasserist system and is in keeping with many other postcolonial political systems that offer their people hopes of quick modernization, industrialization, social justice, public education, and women’s emancipation.

The presence of Nasser’s image and Nasserist terminology was not new or surprising. As previously mentioned, Nasserist intellectuals, journalists, and unionists never ceased to play a crucial role in forming the opposition’s political language in Mubarak’s final years. This brings to mind the writings of Abdul Halim Qandil, an example of a Nasserist journalist both in terms of his ideology and his party affiliation. Qandil was the first to dare to criticize Mubarak and his family openly in a number of his newspaper articles, some of which were later published as essays in a series of books. Qandil’s attacks against the Mubarak regime were based on its being an extension of the Sadat regime and a departure from Nasserism, especially with regard to foreign and economic policy.

Qandil was not alone in seeing the later days of the Mubarak regime in a light similar to that of the monarchy before the July 1952 revolution/coup: a corrupt king/president, surrounded by a corrupt family, accompanied by a severe deterioration in Egypt’s regional and international standing (Palestine war/invasion of Iraq) and a compounding of social crises in the form of worker strikes and anti-regime demonstrations. It was not hard to glean Qandil’s understanding of the solution to this dilemma—namely, another move by the army to destroy Mubarak’s “inheritance project,” which was meant to extend the lifetime of his corrupt regime by handing over power to his son, Gamal. There is no doubt that Qandil’s view demonstrates farsightedness and deep understanding of the interactions of the state and society in Egypt. The country truly was at the cusp of a revolution, and its success would have been impossible had the army not abandoned Mubarak. This is why it is possible to say that Qandil had predicted that “the people and the army [would be] one hand” against Mubarak and his regime many years before this slogan was set in the present tense in Tahrir Square. Other Nasserists, such as Mustafa Bakri, reflected this view through their interpretation of the January 25 Revolution as both a military coup and a popular revolution simultaneously, in spite of the contradictions surrounding this view and the resulting potential for historical inaccuracy.

In the run-up to the events of June and July 2013, Nasserist intellectuals played a crucial role in forming the anti-Brotherhood political rhetoric, aiding in the formation of a nationalist Egyptian rhetoric opposed to the language of political Islam and pan-Islamism. They also played a crucial role in phrasing the country’s political struggle as yet another struggle for national independence (from the United States and the West chiefly, with snippets of Sadat-inspired anti-Palestinian—as represented by Hamas and the Gaza Strip—rhetoric). They also played a significant role in the media, talking about the army’s removal of Morsi on 3 July 2013 as being a move in support of a popular revolution, or what may be considered a corrective coup to put the revolution back on track after power was lost to the Muslim Brotherhood. This new Nasserism shone through, so to speak, in a number of statements that created the political framework for removing the Brotherhood from power through army intervention supported by the mass revolutionary uprisings that filled the country’s various squares. These statements included saving the modern/civil state in Egypt from the Brotherhood and their supporters and saving the country from civil conflict and strife. With the rising political conflict both before and after the clearing of the Rabea al-Adaweya sit-in, the Nasserists, along with others, pushed the image of then-General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi as a representative of the Egyptian army on the one hand and of the popular, army-backed (or the other way around) movement on the other.

Naturally, accompanying the above was the prominent presence of Nasserist politicians and unionists in the political scene. These included Hossam Eissa (as Minister of Higher Education) and famous unionist Kamal Abu-Eita (as Minister of Labor), both of whom deployed the organizational and cultural capital that they had acquired during Mubarak’s rule (and the transitional period that ensued) in support of the transition roadmap laid out by the army. They also stood up to what many saw as the Brotherhood’s efforts to push the country to the brink of chaos with its constant striving to “overturn the coup” and “return to legitimacy.” Here, early on, Nasserist terminology was used alongside that of a “war on terror” and standing up to chaos to justify the state taking back vast areas of the public sphere that had been freed up after the fall of Mubarak’s security state following the January 2011 revolution. Abu-Eita spoke of the necessity of abstaining from strikes until stability ensues, reminding workers of their national duty. This brought to light the stark contradiction that was there all along between his being a Nasserist (rising from an experience that undermined independent union action in favor of promoting economic profits for public sector workers) and—ironically—his being a unionist (as a champion of the independent unions movement that rose against the very Nasserist structures that Mubarak inherited, such as the government-sponsored General Federation of Trade Unions of Egypt). This scene was repeated no less dramatically with Eissa, who found himself standing against the independence of the very same universities and student movements (some of which are supportive of the Brotherhood) for whom he had been a champion since the end of the Mubarak era.

The use of the Nasserist experience as a storehouse of recyclable ideas in the Egyptian political struggle did not stop with the formation of anti-Brotherhood rhetoric before and after 30 June. It then moved to supporting the army’s efforts, along with those of the 30 June alliance, in forming a new political authority. This was most clear in the insistence on drawing parallels between Sisi and Nasser and the role of the army in 1952 (when the July regime was formed) and its role in 2013 (when the post-Mubarak and post-Brotherhood regime was formed). Undoubtedly, these efforts by Nasserist and Nasserist-minded groups mixed with the efforts of other factions in the ruling alliance that bet on the return of the security state and the re-confiscation of the public sphere in light of the “war on terror” and the containment of the Brotherhood’s efforts to destabilize and hinder the post-Morsi transitional path.

It is also undoubtable that there is a certain contradiction between the two political projects (if either of them can be classified as such). Securing control of the public sphere may be a common factor between the Nasserists and the security and intelligence bodies of the Egyptian state—itself a child of the Nasserist regime since 1954—in terms of confiscating the public sphere and putting it under state censorship and management. However, there remains a tremendous difference between resurrecting the July regime in a new Nasserist formula (with all the wide-scale social and economic reforms that would justify the confiscation of the public sphere once again), and resurrecting the Mubarak regime (with its social and economic biases and its foreign policy). This may be a real source of tension among those Nasserists who can make peace with the return of the security state and the development of a political scene constrained by military/judicial oversight under the new constitution in return for reforms that would achieve at least some of the economic and social demands that would guarantee the resurrection of the old Nasserist alliance and the creation of a social system with greater legitimacy and public support. The legislation for minimum and maximum wages may be interpreted in this light. At the crux of the matter, however, remains the army’s stance on wide-scale economic and social reforms that would, without a doubt, lead to a conflict between the military institution and the strong interests that developed inside the state apparatus and the economy during the reign of Mubarak (and, perhaps to a lesser extent, Sadat).

In 1968, Anouar Abdel-Malek published his famous book Egypt: Military Society, which provides a Marxist analysis of the July 1952 coup/revolution. The basis of his analysis is that the army moved to save the general framework of Egypt’s social system, leading to what may be called a “top-down” or “conservative” revolution. Naturally, the term revolution here does not mean much beyond indicating the real and wide-ranging reforms that newly-founded military political leadership carried out. These changes included agrarian reform, the extension of free education, the achievement of national independence, and the “Egyptianization” and later on the nationalization of major national projects. All of these reforms were in demand since the end of the 1940s among the working and middle classes both in the cities and in the countryside, as al-Wafd Party failed to deliver these measures. In the wake of these reforms, the military institution (or the political authority that arose from its intervention) confiscated the political sphere and destroyed al-Wafd and political party life before going on to crush the far right (the Muslim Brotherhood) and the far left (communists). As Sherif Younis put it, the army removed the King only to take his throne and to address the contradictions plaguing the political system between 1923 and 1952 by disbanding al-Wafd, shutting down politics, forcing out the British, and forming a political system based on an extended bureaucracy operating in a one-party system.

The critical question facing both projects is whether or not the tools needed to re-confiscate the public sphere are in fact available. It may seem that the reemergence of the Mubarak regime is inevitable. Yet the matter seems less certain because it is that same regime’s mode of organization that provides the impetus for continued political and economic protests. The three years following the January 25 Revolution, moreover, have proven that suppression alone is insufficient, as it can only yield a political system with negligible stability. Therefore, there is no recourse but to provide social concessions to guarantee the rise of a socio-political alliance for the post-Mubarak regime. The matter hangs, however, on the possibility of creating an achievement-based air of legitimacy that matches that of Nasser and his regime in the 1950s and 1960s. Such legitimacy will be necessary to justify the confiscation of the public sphere  à la Nasser. Another necessary factor pertains to whether or not there is a vision and sufficient commitment within the military to carry out a wide range of social and economic reforms in light of the violent current political divide, which is expected to persistent. This divide is reflected in the polarization between a nationalist camp, which brings together a diverse set of actors who have little in common beyond a fear of the Brotherhood (or a desire to eradicate it from political life), and an Islamist camp, which views its own struggle as existential.

Nasser based his legitimacy on the Suez Canal Agreement of 1954, which led to the evacuation of British troops, the nationalization of the Suez Canal, and the political victory he scored in the aftermath of the 1956 Tripartite Aggression. His legitimacy was also grounded in the four waves of agrarian reform, which created a large class of small and medium landowners who were supportive of the political regime and loyal to its ideologies and policies. Also central to this legitimacy were the creation of a public industrial sector along with the Aswan High Dam, and the extension of free university education and guaranteed employment for college graduates. Nasser’s regime and its social alliance, or at least the social contract upon which it rested, exemplified a kind of populist authoritarianism (per Robert Bianchi’s classification in the 1980s). The system was based on an understanding that traded political rights for economic gains. Can any party today create economic gains in the medium (not short) term in a way that would result in a strong social alliance such as the one that emerged in post-colonial Egypt? The answer is a resounding “no,” because the international context today would not allow for the rise of such social alliances or the economic and political arrangements that can support them. It is these same international conditions that ultimately led to the demise of the regimes of Sadat and Mubarak by forcing the two leaders to adopt liberal economic policies. These measures undermined the regime’s legitimacy, setting it on a path of slow disintegration and leading it to a standoff with a growing protest movement, which eventually destroyed the regime in January 2011.

All this, however, does not allow us to ignore an obvious reality in Egypt, namely that the prevalent notion of social justice remains purely Nasserist. Nasserism may not be as coherent and consistent of an ideology as political Islam or Marxism, and it may not enjoy the organizational force of a party or union force. Yet it is without any doubt a foundational element of the political culture and the political imagination of the urban and rural working and middle classes of Egypt. Moreover, the quick failure of the Muslim Brotherhood was due to the fact that its Islamic identity project was more divisive than unifying, leading to violent social divisions during the group’s short-lived reign. The framework of Egyptian nationalism (with its Nasserist and Sadatist manifestations), on the other hand, is more inclusive and accommodating of diversity among Egyptians. The Egyptian nationalist framework, therefore, presents a stronger ideological basis for a new authoritarian alliance. It is for this reason that the army and the 30 June alliance today are relying on a nationalist framework in their efforts to counter the Brotherhood and to redesign the political sphere by excluding the group from it.

From here, it seems that the source of the problematic that Egypt faces today is that the only social contract present in the imagination of many Egyptians is purely Nasserist, one that dates back to the postcolonial context. Meanwhile, recreating the Nasserist alliance is impossible in light of the changed international context, which demands that Egypt integrate into a unified, broad international system. This is required not only economically—due to dependence on the flow of goods and capital from abroad—but also culturally and politically, because there is no longer room for the previous postcolonial formulas of nations, the traditional nationalist left, or a nationalized economy.

This, of course, does not mean that there is no room for economic and social transformation in Egypt. The current situation is negotiable and subject to rearrangement in order to create a social system (and not just a political-procedural system) that is more popular and legitimate in the eyes of the majority of Egyptians, which is the only way to guarantee its longevity and stability. The basic conditions for this negotiation, however, make the old Nasserist formula (or its new manifestation) effectively impossible despite major efforts to promote it.

Does this mean that Nasserism is dead and that we stand with no framework to rebuild the social system in Egypt? The answer, again, is “no.” Nasserism may remain as a reference of sorts for the state and political powers, but it can be only a short-term reference pending movement toward a post-Nasserist phase. Its purpose as a short-term reference would be to formulate a social alliance that guarantees a larger role for the state in the distribution of income and wealth and to enable more citizens to participate in production and to receive benefits from economic growth (as opposed to the state of affairs during the last years of the Mubarak era). The role of the state here would not mean taking the place of the private sector through nationalization or expansion of the public sector, and it definitely would not mean replacing the political field with bureaucracy by circumscribing union, student, and party freedoms. It would mean, however, preparing for social justice by defining the role of the state in a pluralistic economy and political sphere, thus pushing Nasserism in this case closer to the “new left” that rejects neoliberal capitalism but does not move too far towards the realm of socialism or state capitalism.

This article neither seeks to lay down a particular formula for post-Nasserism nor does it intend to suggest a singular way to read the Nasserist experience in the post-Mubarak and “post-post-Mubarak” eras. It aims, rather, to start a public dialogue about this issue and then to embark on an open discussion of the economic, social, and political grounds necessary to create a more legitimate and stable social system in the coming years.

[This article was first published in Arabic on Jadaliyya. It was translated to English by Amir Beshay in partnership with The Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy. A version of the article appeared in the print edition of Mominoun without Borders.]

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