By Rasheed Hammouda and Mohamed Ibrahim
This article is the first of a three part series. The aim of this series is to dispel the increasingly widespread belief held by both supporters and detractors of Sisi that the circumstances he faces and the actions he takes are similar to those of his predecessors, specifically Gamal Abdel Nasser and Hosni Mubarak. By demonstrating these differences, we can open the floor for a more productive discussion about the state of Egyptian politics.
In the rhetoric of both supporters and opponents of the General, there exists a sense that Nasser’s rule is only a recent memory away. It is important to recognise what should be an obvious point: Hosni Mubarak ruled for 30 years; until his ouster, an entire generation of Egyptians had known no other ruler. This is not an insignificant fact when you consider that an estimated 70% or more Egyptians are under the age of 30. Of course, technically speaking, Sisi has only informally been in power for a little under a year. We must then give the disclaimer that there is a certain degree to which our opinions are speculative—the man is not yet president. That said, there is a great deal of data to work with, and it seems all but certain that he will assume presidency if the contentious elections move forward as planned.
Though many Egyptians herald Sisi as the new Nasser, an examination of contemporary Egyptian economics tells a very different story. The distinction here is in terms of both economic conditions faced and policies taken. There are very obvious points to be made about the broader economy in terms of technological advancement and the globalisation of capital. These massive changes are almost enough to dismiss the comparison of the two regimes outright. All the same, there are a few specific points we feel necessary to highlight.
First, General Sisi faces an economic crisis of a severity unseen in Egypt’s history. Poverty levels and inequality are at all time highs. In nominal terms, Egypt’s currency has devalued to unsustainable levels of around EGP 7 to the dollar. Under Nasser the exchange rate didn’t rise above EGP 0.4 to the dollar, according to historical data. These times were under vastly different monetary policies and international exchange conditions, but the EGP still was not truly devalued until the disastrous economic policies of Mubarak. In today’s economy, the currency crisis has very real consequences. The most significant of these consequences is the worsening of Egypt’s food crisis. Domestic wheat production has fallen below the national demand and foreign currency is becoming more expensive. The result is that the current Egyptian government is unable to effectively purchase foreign stocks to supplement dwindling national wheat supplies, and a potentially manageable crisis has become dire.
This is all to say very little about actual policy differences. During Nasser’s socialist regime, the government focused greatly on building Egypt’s domestic economic capacities. A litany of industries were nationalised and incorporated into the Nasserist economic development plan, most famously the Suez Canal. Significant steps were taken to provide for basic services from healthcare to education. These reforms have largely fallen to ruin since, and Sisi has inherited the policies that have directly led to the degradation and atrophy of whatever progress was made under Nasser. We would like to be able to say that, at the least, the current regime has put forth policies that make us hopeful about Egypt’s economy, but they have not. General Sisi may stir nationalist sentiment, but he does little to back this up with populist economic policies even remotely comparable to Nasser’s.
Unsurprisingly, the current Egyptian economic conditions are not the only point of departure for the two leaders. Nasser’s suppression of political dissidence took place away from the public eye, whereas Sisi has been as public as he has been severe. The distinction may seem trivial, but its implications are profound and telling. It is no secret that Nasser disliked the Muslim Brotherhood. He publicly denounced the organisation in speeches and cracked down on them through the use of the Mukhabarat. However, the control of the Brotherhood in Nasser’s time happened in secret. When Nasser discussed the Brotherhood publicly, he would make a farce of them. Alleged members of the Brotherhood were invited to police headquarters for questioning due to their suspected levels of religiosity. When bookstores were closed for publishing Brotherhood texts and materials, the police’s rationale for the closure would be blamed on, for example, a failure to meet building codes. Even though under Nasser, members of the Brotherhood faced relentless persecution, it was kept out of the public sphere.
On the other hand, in Sisi’s first year in power, we have seen mass violence against members of the Brotherhood, and increasingly, other political dissidence, which has become a mainstream part of Egyptian life. In addition, these acts of violence are being venerated by vast majorities of the Egyptian public and celebrated by mainstream Egyptian media. According to Human Rights Watch, more than 1,000 Brotherhood supporters were killed by the police and military forces in their joint crackdown on 14 August of last year. In the report, they conclude that this action taken by the state was the worst case of violence in Egypt’s modern history. The violence that took place that day was venerated by the media and condoned by the Egyptian public only days before, when Sisi asked supporters to gather in Tahrir Square to ask their permission to crack down on dissenters.
Moreover, we have recently seen the judiciary sentence 1,000 Brotherhood supporters to death over the course of only two trials. Though the convicted can appeal the verdict, the actions have been widely condemned by foreign press and considered by Egyptian judicial experts as one of the worst judicial debacles in the country’s history. In addition, in the past few months, we have witnessed the circle of what is considered political dissidence widening. Many leaders of other parties, such as the 6 April movement, have been arrested and are facing severe prison sentences. This will increasingly be the case with the new anti-demonstration laws.
Under Nasser, violence was externalised towards Israel and used as a tool for the unification of Arabs and Muslims against a common threat. However, under Sisi, we see the opposite. Violence is internalised, causing the fractionalisation of the Egyptian people, pitting them against one another creating a dangerous dualism. Thus, Egyptians are separated into two camps, the terrorists and the nationalists, us and them. The nationalism that Sisi has capitalised on may find its origins strongly rooted in the Nasser Presidency. We should not be lulled by its familiarity.
Rasheed Hammouda is an Egyptian-American researcher based in London with a focus on MENA economics and contemporary philosophy