Analysis: Like Nasser, Al-Sisi is forgetting that brutality brings blowback

By John R Bradley, January 9, 2014
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Crackdown: Abdel Al-Sisi

Crackdown: Abdel Al-Sisi

This month, Egyptians vote on a new constitution that, under the veneer of popular democracy, cements military rule.

It seems certain to pass. That Defence Minister Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi will be elected president — if, as expected, he stands in elections slated for the summer — can likewise be taken for granted.

Mr Al-Sisi is the most popular Egyptian leader since Gamal Abdel Nasser. The latter, along with his fellow Free Officers, seized power in 1952, and established the military dictatorship from which Mr Al-Sisi hails.

What comes around certainly goes around in the Middle East; and few are more eager to remind us of the fact than Nasser’s son, Abdel Hakim.

Recently, he told the daily Al-Ahram newspaper that “the whole Nasserite current in Egypt” will endorse Mr Al-Sisi if he does indeed decide to stand, for in him they have found “the spirit” of his father.

There is some truth in that, albeit for reasons Mr Hakim would not be as keen to detail.

Like Nasser, Mr Al-Sisi has shut down the free media. He, too, has outlawed the political opposition, encouraged mindless xenophobia, and banned all criticism of himself and his policies.

Especially targeted, as they were during Nasser’s rule, are the Islamist critics, against whom Al-Sisi has launched a ferocious crackdown .

This week, the Qatari and Iranian envoys were separately summoned after questioning the wisdom of the ongoing slaughter. Egypt’s deposed Islamist government was meanwhile filing a complaint to the International Criminal Court, accusing Egypt’s military rulers of crimes against humanity.

Nasser’s own legacy shows that any future Egyptian president puts his country’s long-term stability in grave danger by resorting to such brutal repression. Nasser similarly suppressed the Muslim Brotherhood, and the result was a jihadi blowback that began in the early 1970s and lasted three decades.

Alas, most Egyptians, like Al-Sisi, appear more concerned with evoking the imagined glories of a more dignified, Nasser-dominated past than taking a sober reality check on the present.

But, oddly, it is here that the Al-Sisi-Nasser parallel is most difficult to justify. Nasser whipped up support chiefly by repeatedly attacking Israel, his popularity bizarrely not undermined by the fact that in doing so he led his country only to defeat after defeat. Mr Al-Sisi, though, has no intention of confronting the Jewish state.

Moreover, Nasser stood up to the repressive Gulf Arab monarchies, calling for revolution even in Saudi Arabia. In contrast, Al-Sisi approaches the Saudis humbly, cap in hand as he begs for billions more in aid.

The ultimate paradox, though, is that if Al-Sisi does become president, he will do so by doing something Nasser never even contemplated — stand for election.

John R Bradley’s books include ‘Inside Egypt’ and ‘After the Arab Spring’

Last updated: 4:45pm, January 9 2014