Hoping to Channel Nasser, Egypt’s Sisi Provokes a Backlash

The former general has previously succeeded in casting himself in the iconic leader’s image, but the public no longer seems impressed

Hoping to Channel Nasser, Egypt’s Sisi Provokes a Backlash
Egyptians hold a poster bearing portraits of the late President Gamal Abdel Nasser (right) and then-Defense Minister Gen. Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in Cairo in 2014. (Mahmoud Khaled/AFP via Getty Images)

On Monday, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi formally confirmed that he would run for a third term in office. The upcoming presidential election, scheduled for December, is widely seen as a foregone conclusion in his favor. Reelection would see the former army general remain president until at least 2030.

The announcement itself was no surprise, yet the occasion was made memorable by a series of unusual statements from the president during a televised three-day conference leading up to it, which aimed to drum up public support for his campaign by showcasing the accomplishments of his nine years in power.

He had the ability, he declared at one point during his wide-ranging remarks, to “destroy” Egypt “in 10 weeks” by distributing opioids to 100,000 citizens. The hypothetical scheme would cost only $30 million, he said, seemingly amused, adding, “There are people who spend that on a party.”

At another moment, addressing the steep inflation, collapsed currency and other profound economic woes suffered by Egyptians in recent times, Sisi had the following to say:

Listen, if the price of building, development and progress is hunger and deprivation, don’t you dare not progress, Egyptians! Don’t you dare say, “It’s better that we eat”! By God almighty, if the price of the nation’s progressing and prospering is that it doesn’t eat and drink as others do, then we won’t eat and drink.

The spectacle produced an eruption of public outrage uncommon in Sisi’s Egypt, where dissent is punished without pity and an estimated 60,000 political prisoners languish behind bars in appalling conditions. One of the few candidates permitted to oppose Sisi in the forthcoming election, Ahmed Altantawy, issued a bold and scathing statement addressed to the incumbent directly, saying Egyptians had indeed already gone hungry under his presidency, without seeing any of the development of which he spoke. On Monday night, after Sisi’s official announcement of his reelection bid, video footage emerged on social media showing hundreds of protesters in the northwestern port town of Marsa Matruh tearing down his election banners and chanting the slogan made famous by the 2011 Arab Spring: “The people want to topple the regime!”

What was Sisi thinking? If his remarks now appear needlessly incendiary in retrospect, they nonetheless bore echoes of the most popular leader in modern Egyptian history. In the 1960s, the country faced economic challenges not dissimilar to those of today: severe inflation, sluggish growth, a yawning trade deficit and an acute shortage of cash, exacerbated by wasteful government spending. By 1964, such basic goods as rice, sugar, cooking oil, soap, tea, light bulbs and shoes had disappeared from store shelves. In December of that year, rationing was introduced, banning the sale of meat for three days per week. That same month, the charismatic, larger-than-life President Gamal Abdel Nasser took to the podium in Port Said to tell Egyptians that these were all trifling sacrifices for the greater good of the nation:

If today we drink tea seven days a week, we’ll drink it five days, until we build our country. If we used to drink coffee seven days, we’ll drink it four days. If we used to eat meat four days, we’ll eat it three days.

It is not the first time Sisi has sought to summon the ghost of Nasser. He has welcomed and encouraged the comparison between himself and the iconic leader since 2013, when their portraits were held up side by side by his supporters in the streets and Nasser’s own son, Abd al-Hakim, gave a speech in Cairo’s Tahrir Square endorsing Sisi’s putsch against the democratically elected President Mohamed Morsi.

And there are, indeed, similarities between Sisi and Nasser. Both are, or were, former army officers who seized power in military coups in the month of July. Both are, or were, fond of spending precious state resources on grandiose mega-projects of questionable utility. Both rule, or ruled, with an iron fist, strangling free speech and other civil liberties, muzzling the press, purging the state and gutting the judiciary and legislature. Both have in common a penchant for jailing and torturing their political opponents, the similarities evident down to the fine details: The New Lines contributor and former political prisoner Abdelrahman ElGendy has written of the “tashrifa” (welcoming ceremony) he underwent upon arrival at prison in 2013, where he was forced to pass through two long parallel rows of soldiers beating him with whips and batons before reaching the entrance. This is precisely the same experience recounted by the left-wing novelist Sonallah Ibrahim and other dissidents jailed under Nasser in the 1950s and ’60s.

But if it’s a second Nasser whom Sisi really seeks to be, he should perhaps be careful what he wishes for. In the ’60s, at the same time Egypt’s economy was falling into deep crisis, the United States was selling Cairo wheat on favorable terms under the “Food for Peace” program, accepting payment in Egyptian currency, to the point that Egypt was sourcing 99% of its wheat imports — more than half its total wheat consumption — from Uncle Sam. In spite of this, Nasser was increasingly turning against Washington politically, attacking it rhetorically in speeches and opposing its allies on the ground in conflicts from Yemen to Congo. Why, a growing chorus of voices in Washington began asking, was the U.S. showing such munificence to a man who seemed to repay their generosity so poorly? And why — as one member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee put it at the time — was Washington doing this at the very moment Nasser was committing “mass murders” with banned chemical weapons in Yemen?

The breach came at that same speech in Port Said in December 1964, when, just before telling Egyptians to eat less meat and drink less tea and coffee, Nasser invited the Americans and anyone else upset with his policies to “drink from the sea” — a more polite way of telling them to go to hell — adding that, if the Mediterranean did not suffice for them, “We’ll give them the Red Sea to drink as well.”

The following month, the Lyndon Johnson administration suspended wheat sales to Egypt, and Nasser was compelled to enforce harsh austerity measures, raising taxes and slashing subsidies and imports in a bid to improve state finances, further compounding Egyptians’ socioeconomic miseries.

Today, wheat is once again a factor in Egypt’s crisis — this time because of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which sent the commodity’s price soaring globally and complicated purchases for import-dependent economies such as Egypt’s. And while there may not be an anti-American gladiator at the helm in Cairo anymore, relations with Washington are nonetheless under renewed strain, not least after the explosive allegations that the New Jersey senator and chair of the Foreign Relations Committee, Democrat Robert Menendez, took bribes in the form of gold bars, a Mercedes-Benz convertible and over $480,000 in cash in exchange for political favors to Sisi.

Even before these accusations, the Biden administration had withheld $85 million in military aid to Egypt, citing human rights concerns, while Democratic senators led by Chris Murphy of Connecticut — chair of the Foreign Relations subcommittee on the Near East — pressed for larger amounts to be blocked. Now, in the wake of the Menendez claims, calls for further reductions in aid have multiplied. “I would hope that our committee would consider using any ability it has to put a pause on those dollars, pending an inquiry into what Egypt was doing,” Murphy told reporters last week. With President Biden’s own reelection bid looming, the question is raised: How much longer can the president provide what he once termed “blank checks for Trump’s ‘favorite dictator’” while that same dictator allegedly subverts U.S. democracy and, at home, faces street protests calling for his overthrow?

More pertinently, perhaps, even if Sisi does pull through the present debacle and win reelection until 2030, where does his “brand” go from here? Nasser survived a constant series of failures and setbacks over the course of his 18 years in power, and he did so in part by deftly reinventing himself and the causes he championed: first Egyptian nationalism, then Arab nationalism, then, after an ill-fated union with Syria collapsed in 1961, hitting upon “Arab socialism” as the new gospel before that, too, dissipated after the humiliation of the 1967 Six-Day War and anti-regime protests in 1968. In the end, looking back, his supporters could always still point to a handful of concrete achievements: the expulsion of the British, the nationalization of the Suez Canal Co., the construction of the Aswan High Dam, agrarian reform, improvements in literacy and education. What has Sisi done with his decade in power thus far that bears any comparison? Small wonder, then, that his act as the heir to Nasser’s mantle no longer appears to impress the audience.

Alex Rowell’s latest book, “We Are Your Soldiers: How Gamal Abdel Nasser Remade the Arab World,” will be published in November by W. W. Norton and Simon & Schuster.

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