Please Spare Us the Gamal Abdel Nasser Imagery

This week’s announcement by ex-Field Marshal Abdel Fattah Sisi that he will run for the presidency of Egypt was fully expected since the massive, sustained cult-like hero worship campaign for him first materialized last June.

This week’s announcement by ex-Field Marshal Abdel Fattah Sisi that he will run for the presidency of Egypt was fully expected since the massive, sustained cult-like hero worship campaign for him first materialized last June. This coincided with his decision to use the armed forces to remove from office the ex-elected President Mohammad Morsi, whose year in office revealed the weakness of the Muslim Brotherhood as a governing party.

Sisi’s election is about as certain as the flow of the Nile River, especially if the presidential election campaign will follow the pattern of last January’s constitutional referendum, when those opposed to the constitution were routinely arrested or physically prevented from putting up their posters in public. Mostly supportive Egyptian reactions to Sisi’s ascendance to the presidency in the coming weeks will seal for now Egypt’s major missed opportunity to craft a genuinely pluralistic and democratic political system, in favor of very understandable mass demands for stability and security, and the comfort of a charismatic ex-military leader who can act as father and protector of a worried land.

I am not surprised by any of this because we witness two huge and universal dynamics in action. First is the persistence of a power structure that took 60 years to implant itself deeply in the Egyptian mindset, society, bureaucracy and military, and will not let go easily. Second is the reflexive demand by a worried citizenry for a strong leader who can make the world right. Egyptians are not abnormal people, but rather are perfectly normal people who are behaving abnormally because of the impact of the last 60 years on their mindset and their governance system.

If it were not Sisi, another charismatic leader would appear on the scene to promise to restore Egypt’s pride, stability and power. Ahmad Shafik, who was a Mubarak prime minister, almost did this when he nearly won the first post-Mubarak presidential election in 2012. So let us take these developments in stride, and see what the Egyptian people decide, and how Sisi performs as president. We can only wish them both the best, for Egypt is a great country that deserves only the best.

What surprises and saddens me, however, is the manner in which Sisi supporters are using images of the late Gamal Abdel Nasser as a means to generate emotional support for Sisi. Anyone in Egypt who truly believes that Abdel Nasser is a historic figure worthy of emulation today is deeply and dangerously mistaken. I say this because in retrospect we see that the practices and the legacies of the Nasser decades were among the seminal catastrophes of the modern Arab World. Virtually everything that has led to the collective mismanagement, mediocrity, and, in most places, pauperization of the Arab world in the past two generations usually can be traced back to the perverse innovations of the Nasser years.

Nasser had a powerful impact on Arab psyches and the short-lived but largely emotional spirit of Arab nationalism, and he certainly did some positive deeds in improving socio-economic conditions and opportunities for Egyptian peasants and workers. That, too, though, was short-lived, because it was destroyed by the negatives that endure from his presidency: a ghastly concoction of incompetence, lying, mismanagement and corruption that became the norm across most of the Arab world since the 1970s.

The two most destructive phenomena that Nasser brought to Arab governance were military rule and ministries of information, both of which still demean and haunt us today. The permanent, non-accountable rule of military men that he established in Egypt has persisted there and across most of the Arab world. This remains in my mind the single most corrosive element that has led so many Arab states to their present condition of incompetent governance, which in turn has caused the mass desperation and revolt of hundreds of millions of Arabs today who are prepared to die in order to retrieve their rights and their very humanity.

The establishment of a ministry of information under Nasser was equally degrading to Egyptian and Arab citizens, because it acted like an Orwellian monster that sought to control what every citizen heard, saw and read in the national media. Arab ministries of information around the region were mostly run by incompetent autocrats, and they sought to have Arab citizens act like sheep and donkeys who see the world and themselves only as their government wants them to.

I sincerely hope that this hysterical re-imagination of Nasser is only the passing sign of fearful men and women who do not know where to turn for succor. I pray that Egyptians will flourish and prevail because they will activate their own wisdom, and leave the Nasser ways where they belong—in the sealed rooms of history’s failures and horrors.

Rami G. Khouri is Editor-at-large of The Daily Star, and Director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, in Beirut, Lebanon. On Twitter: @ramikhouri.

Copyright © 2014 Rami G. Khouri—distributed by Agence Global