Egypt has been witnessing a tidal wave of conservative nationalism since June 30 and particularly as the new regime of Abdel Fattah al-Sisi takes hold. Conservative nationalism cuts across regime discourse on local politics, the economy, and foreign relations. The usage of the term discourse here goes beyond mere rhetoric that may refer to the employment of empty words and slogans in a way divorced from actual political practice. Conversely, discourse is an analytical tool that intimately links rhetoric with practice. It depicts how the new military-backed regime constitutes itself vis-à-vis its supporters as well as its rivals and how it perceives itself, both internally and externally. As the term “regime” refers to power relationships between the state and society, self-identification and self-constitution are inherently communicative actions. The regime is defined and redefined continuously through actions and practices that reach out to the general populace and especially to its actual and potential constituencies.
Conservative nationalism is a complex and multifaceted discourse that is being produced by the Egyptian state and its allies. It is an interpretation of the long tradition of Egyptian nationalism that stretches back to the early twentieth century. This discourse is nationalist in being centered on saving and restoring the Egyptian state authority and sovereignty from chaos and external conspiracies. Meanwhile, it is conservative in being supportive of the reestablishment of the old paternalistic authoritarian state, the adoption of conservative fiscal and economic policies, and the absence of any substantial anti-colonial or anti-imperialist elements often associated with more traditional iterations of Egyptian nationalism.
Since the beginning of the twentieth century, Egyptian nationalism has been historically anti-colonial. It is hardly possible to understand the intellectual and political formation of contemporary Egyptian national identity pre- and post-1952 without close consideration of the struggle against British colonialism. This element continued through the 1950s and 1960s with more stress on anti-imperialism, Arab unity, and non-alignment in the context of the Cold War. Egyptian nationalism gave way for a more pronounced Pan-Arabism, which was no less anti-imperialist or anti-colonial and was more radical on socio-economic questions. Interestingly enough, Egyptian nationalism was brought back in the 1970s by Anwar Sadat as a means to justify the breakup with the Arab world in the wake of the broad opposition to the Camp David Accords with Israel. That was the first instance when Egyptian nationalism abandoned its anti-imperialist dimension. This was exacerbated by the peace treaty, which was coupled with significant foreign policy realignment in favor of Egypt’s admission into the Western bloc. Egyptian nationalism even began to garner anti-Arab sentiments.
The recent wave of Egyptian nationalism seems very much in line with Sadat-era redefinition of nationalism, albeit with some differences. Current nationalism in Egypt combines Nasserist anti-Western undertones with explicitly anti-Islamist overtones. Here the local fight against the Brotherhood and Jihadi militant groups in Sinai is portrayed in terms of fighting and aborting a Western scheme aimed at dividing Egypt and embroiling it civil strife. This position gained credence by Western reticence to openly support the ouster of the Brotherhood-backed president in July 2013.
Both crisis and conspiracy have been integral components of conservative nationalism. On the one hand, the regime has developed a discourse centered on a sense of deep, prolonged, and multifaceted crisis on the national as well as regional levels. Long before his presidential candidacy, al-Sisi was open about how bad things are and how the Egyptian state has “nothing” (mafeesh in Egyptian dialect) financially speaking, to offer. He even referred to living under his rule in March 2014, in a talk before some military commanders as naar we aa’dhab (“fire and torture”) while tackling the necessity to remove subsidies. Many pro-regime talk-show presenters echoed this discourse by stressing the need to give to Egypt rather than to take from it.
Nationally, the crisis has been evident in the shortage of economic resources, marked by daily electricity outages, high unemployment, and depleted foreign reserves. Regionally, the broader context is marked by civil strife and sectarian war, namely in the conflicts in Syria, Libya, Yemen, and Iraq. Crisis-based discourse provides the government with a good justification to lower expectations in general and to project an image of stability against the backdrop of regional tumult. Al-Sisi’s continuous invocation of the slogan Misr lan tasqut (“Egypt will not fall”) often comes in juxtaposition with the situation in surrounding Arab countries where the state fell victim to various forms of civil strife.
The crisis discourse also conveniently lends itself well to conspiracy. The state’s official discourse—which is also expressed by its allies in the local media—often portrays Egypt as a “Noah’s arc” that is navigating through the dark and perilous waters of chaos induced by international conspiracies. For instance, in an August meeting with journalists, al-Sisi expressed his belief that Egypt and the region as a whole are a target of the “fourth generation wars” (H’urub al gil al rabe’). “Fourth generation wars” is the a term popularized by some counterrevolutionary writers and public figures in the aftermath of the 2011 revolt. It refers to wars that are no longer based on external aggression but rather on the instigation of internal conflict using international and social media, rumors, and other means. Of course, the Arab revolts of 2011 can be framed as falling under this category of wars.
Civil strife and sectarian wars in the region are seen as the result of some Western (predominantly American)–Zionist conspiracy aiming to destroy the social fabric of Arab societies and leading to the breakdown of Arab states. Local Islamists, ranging from the Brotherhood all the way to Jihadists passing through militant Shiite groups backed by Iran, are seen as mere instruments in instigating and perpetrating internal conflicts.
The conspiracy discourse generally lacks coherence and often ends up with very unlikely allies as parties to the same conspiracy—such as Iran and Israel as collaborators, or the United States working alongside Hamas and Hezbollah. It also contradicts the facts on the ground where Hezbollah and Hamas are sworn enemies of Israel and the United States, while Egypt is actually the only party with official ties with the Hebrew state and the second largest recipient of United States military aid in the world. The same incoherence appears in the claim of fighting Islamist extremism while being closely allied to Saudi Arabia, the historic beacon of Wahhabism.
However, and despite its inconsistency and incoherence, the conspiracy discourse is generally helpful in making some sense of the social anomie and overwhelming chaos across the region. It is also instrumental in justifying the suppressive measures that the state (particularly its coercive apparatuses) has taken against the Muslim Brotherhood as well as other opponents and the effective preclusion of the political opening that initially started with the January 25 Revolution in 2011.
Economically, conservative nationalism invokes a nationalist rhetoric based on the need to sacrifice one’s economic gains for the sake of the nation. The state uses this rhetoric to justify fiscal restructuring in the form of subsidy cuts and more taxes, and hence imposing more pressure on the broad base of middle and poor social strata. The sacrifice-based and crisis-ridden discourses are mutually reinforcing. They enable al-Sisi to paradoxically combine a populist seemingly-Nasserist rhetoric with fiscal austerity, creating an odd mix of what can be labeled right-wing populism. Right-wing populism is a practice where the leadership bases its discourse on the glorification of the ordinary citizen and stresses national uniqueness and unity together with a strong sense of belonging while downplaying income redistribution and economic needs.
Politically, this stripe of nationalism is equally conservative as it largely serves the counterrevolutionary stance aimed at containing the January revolution and the reestablishment of the authoritarian paternalistic state. It is basically antagonistic to political and social change at large. Instead, it practically yearns for the reproduction of some viable version of authoritarianism be it that of Mubarak for some or ideally that of Nasser for others.
Yet, conservative nationalism has its own limitations. Whereas it may prove to be a valuable tool for the newly-established regime in the short-term, it is not likely to furnish a strong ideological platform adequate enough for the longer-term process of reestablishing political authority and regaining legitimacy. Yet, that does not imply that the new military-backed regime is going to be short-lived or that it will lose its relevance to internal and external sponsors. To the contrary, it may well persist into the future. However, that would happen without overcoming the legitimacy crisis from which the Egyptian state has been suffering for decades and that culminated in the January 25 revolution and the political turmoil that followed it.
On the one hand, conservative Egyptian nationalism cannot feed for too long on solely anti-Islamist overtones or anti-Arab and anti-Palestinian undertones. It will prove more and more difficult to claim its descent from earlier, more established and more legitimate historical versions of Egyptian nationalism that have been essentially anti-imperialist. Any future regional role for Egypt in fighting terrorism or Islamist militancy will assume some partnership if not a full-fledged alliance with the NATO as is the case with the alliance fighting ISIS and the Egyptian attempts to extend the global war on terror to Libya.
On the other hand, conservative nationalism has hardly any social progressive content. Unlike Nasserism of the 1950s and 1960s for instance, the current version of conservative nationalism is at its heart pro-capitalist and in harmony with neo-liberalism. This limits any serious restructuring of the socio-economic model and thus precludes social mobility or income redistribution as a means to cultivate support bases. It can at best serve the immediate needs for economic recovery and political stabilization. Politically, conservative nationalism can justify more draconian measures and continuous repression against opponents. Economically, and in parallel, it may justify the need for economic austerity by framing such reforms as national sacrifice. However, it can barely constitute a set of sustained policies, practices, and meanings on which to rebuild state authority in post-revolutionary Egypt. Again, the current political setting may prove resilient and may linger for years against many odds. However, that may be a recipe for a prolonged and protracted socio-political crisis at the same time. What is important here is whether or not the new military-backed regime would be successful in cultivating a broad social alliance that may overcome the legitimacy crisis that once led to the recent political turmoil. Conservative nationalism does not seem to serve that end.
[The author would like to express his gratitude to Yasser El-Shimy and Dina El-Khawaga for their invaluable ideas and suggestions.]