The dim-light, broken furniture and cracks on the walls at the headquarters of the United Nasserist Party in downtown Cairo stand as reminders of how far away the Nasserist legacy has become. But a paintjob, seemingly long awaited, points to a possible comeback.
Since the popular-backed military coup, which ousted President Mohamed Morsi alongside the Muslim Brotherhood on July 3, Nasserist parties and groups have been increasingly active. They were spurred on both by a renewed popular taste for their politics and support from the military.
Although protests during the January 25 revolution in 2011 were not short of posters of former President Gamal Abdel Nasser, it was not until the June 30 anti-Morsi protests of this year that his iconic image visibly proliferated in protests, streets, and local media.
“As a Nasserist myself, I was thrilled to see the resurrection of Nasserist icons and imagery throughout Egypt at the June 30 anti-Morsi protests” says Farida al-Shobashi, a prominent journalist and media personality.
At the state level, military backing for Nasserists after June 30 has meant their augmented presence in the constitutional committee and the Cabinet.
While many especially from the left and Islamist camps feel inadequately represented in the 50-member committee tasked with rewriting the constitution, prominent Nasserists figures are members. These include Sameh Ashour, the head of the Lawyers’ Syndicate and of the Nasserist Party, Mohamed Sami, head of the Karama Party and Mahmoud Badr, co-founder of the anti-Morsi Tamarod, or rebel, movement and member of the Nasserist-leaning Popular Current led by former presidential hopeful Hamdeen Sabbahi.
The recently reshuffled Cabinet also witnessed the appointment of several prominent Nasserists such as Kamal Abu Eita, minister of manpower and co-founder of the Karama party, as well as Hossam Eissa, deputy prime minister and minister of higher education.
Several observers describe this backing of the military to Nasserist groups as an alliance of convenience. Sherif Younis, history professor at Helwan University, describes it as win-win — at least for the time being.
“Nasserists have lost public appeal and need the support of a popular leader such as [Armed Forces Commander-in-Chief Abdel Fattah al-]Sisi,” he says. “Meanwhile, the military can, in return, be assured it will have undisputed support from them.”
Sisi has been seen as reproducing Nasser’s legacy especially in the creation of a perceived need for a strong leader to counter an impending threat. But while this threat for Nasser was initially external, decades later, it unfolds through the ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood. The removal of Morsi took place amid a renewal of nationalist and pro-military sentiments. “The Muslim Brotherhood made Egyptians realize who is truly patriotic in this country,” says Shoubashi.
After playing a pivotal role with the Free Officers in the military-led 1952 revolution, Nasser boasted a charismatic public persona and pseudo-socialist agenda, which garnered him widespread support from the masses. Standing against Western imperialism, Nasser’s grand pan-Arab nationalistic project idealized the notion of “the people” and placed Nasser himself as their undisputed spokesperson. Repeated wars with Israel helped fuel the appeal for a strong militaristic leader such as Nasser.
Today, the spell of that past appears to have befallen the country after a decades-long de-Nasserisation process that began during the rule of President Anwar al-Sadat. Amid a resurgence of political Islam, Nasserist parties had witnessed continual decline in their popularity.
“While Nasserists were popular as individuals, they were unsuccessful in creating an efficient electoral machine like that of the Muslim Brotherhood,” says Tewfik Aclimandos, a historian and researcher at the College de France.
But during the presidency of Hosni Mubarak, tensions arose between the old and new student-led guard of the Nasserist Party, and thus Sabbahi and other young activists left the party and formed the Karama Party in 1998: A milestone in the resurgence of a Nasserism that had a more youthful and grassroots presence.
Nasserist parties, like other political groups, benefited from the opening that the 2011 uprising created and began to re-emerge. Both the Nasserist and the Karama parties joined the Democratic Alliance headed by the Freedom and Justice Party — the political branch of the Muslim Brotherhood — during the November 2011 parliamentary elections. While the Karama Party remained in the alliance until elections, winning six seats, the Nasserist Party left a month before and ran on its own independent list , winning one seat.
After the June 2012 presidential elections, the Egyptian Popular Current, a mostly Nasserist grassroots political movement, was created around Sabbahi who had contested the elections, ranking a solid third in the contest.
Sabbahi’s strong showing in the elections crystallized the potential of Nasserism in Egyptian politics today. “In recent years, Nasserist groups have shown that they can construct a nationalist political movement, with roots in the streets, with youth support and with links to the state,” says Paul Kingston, Middle East specialist and director for the Center of Critical Development Studies at the University of Toronto.
Support for the Popular Current was exemplified when thousands turned out for the movement’s public launch on September of last year.
During Morsi’s rule, Nasserist parties entered an alliance with liberal and leftist parties, forming the National Salvation Front to oppose the Muslim Brotherhood and its presidency. Meanwhile, on January of this year, the United Nasserist Party was created by merging the Nasserist, Karama, Wefaq and Nasserist Popular Conference parties. An alliance of parties, the idea is that it runs as a single party in the upcoming elections.
Morsi’s successful ouster through a military intervention, alongside mass protests, has meant the Nasserist forces’ declaration of allegiance to the military elites today.
For one, Nasserist figures and spokespersons, such as Badr from Tamarod and Sabbahi, have on numerous occasions declared unconditional support for the military crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood.
“We can only have reconciliation with nationalistic personalities,” says Magdi al-Maasarawy, member of the Karama Party and former member of the Shura Council during the 2012 elections. “This excludes Islamist and Mubarak-era groups which committed violence and were corrupt.”
However, in spite of the alliance between Nasserists and the military, they remain two separate entities whose interests are intersecting. Several scholars believe that it is unlikely that the military will remain in the front seat of politics as it did during Nasser’s presidency.
Kingston believes that the military is interested primarily in maintaining its security and economic interests and crushing Muslim Brotherhood dissent. “We are living in very different times, compared to the Nasserist era when British occupation, wars with Israel and the extreme need for an army meant ultra-nationalism and a subsequent authoritarianism.”
Younis believes that the military and Sisi would be unable to establish total control of all the syndicates, workers unions, parties and opposition as Nasser did. However, the military seeks to ensure that a friendly civilian government is in place, while Younis explains, the Nasserists will possibly encourage a candidate with a Nasserite background, Younis claims.
But what does the Nasserist politics of the 1960s post-colonial era mean in the early 2000s?
“The Nasser project is timeless and must be revived, not only in the streets of Egypt, but also with an organized, united and political movement,” argues Shobashi.
With the merger between the more youthful Karama Party and the more traditional Nasserist Party, the alliance may boast a link between the young and the old.
Unlike the Nasserist Party — which initially demanded an explicit return to the 1952 regime and had many defectors including Sabbahi — the Karama Party has adapted by advocating political pluralism, and at times even aligned with Islamists. The party has also held a position of encouraging the reform of centralized institutions and the decentralizing of governmental power to local councils.
And in a move away from Nasserism that emphasized the role of the leader, the Karama Party advocates a hybrid presidential-parliamentary system. Similar political evolution has been seen in other groups that take inspiration from the Nasser legacy such as Tamarod and the Popular Current.
Economically, an adapted version of socialism marks the thinking of today’s Nasserists. For example, Maasarawy believes that while ending privatisation is unrealistic, it should be limited and the private sector should not exceed the power of the state. “The Mubarak era has proven that privatization is not short of corruption.”
In its platform, the Karama Party insists that the party has adapted from total state-controlled economy and instead advocates a so-called “social market economy” – a form of market capitalism combined with a social policy favouring union bargaining and social insurance. Meanwhile, the party still believes the state should play a role in controlling and maintaining basic services.
Salah al-Desouky, member of the newly established Nasserist Popular Conference party, points out that the nationalization that took place during Nasser was mostly aimed at foreign companies or local companies working with foreign ones.
“The state should play a fundamental role in safeguarding social services by returning them to the way they were in the 1960s,” says Desouky.
He adds that part of that includes further nationalising education and discouraging private foreign-language schools. “Education needs to have a nationalistic component and must have certain standards throughout the country.”
In a deeply different environment, it remains to be seen whether these propositions can find ground beyond the current, and yet reminiscent, political juncture of a military regime standing against that of the Brotherhood.