The events of the 25 January 2011 revolution in Tahrir Square, and the consequent 2013 military overthrow of Egypt’s first democratically-elected president Mohammed Morsi, capture the sentiment of King Farouk’s last words to those who overthrew him in 1952: ‘It isn’t easy, you know, to govern Egypt.’
The current President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, widely considered to be a man of the military, is another Egyptian leader who struggles to find his way around the complex state structures of the regime. The tension between political-military apparatus and Islamists has been at the heart of a 67-year-old power struggle and continues to be so today. In fact, the Free Officers Coup of 1952 that catapulted Nasser to power also arose from the military establishment. This is one of the reasons why many commentators compare the leader of the Coup, Gamal Abdul Nasser, with current president El-Sisi. However, the question remains: to what extent is this comparison adequate and what are the intricacies of such an analogy?
Nasser enjoyed widespread popularity during his rise to power in the early 1950s. The general rode a wave of Arab nationalism that had been slowly developing during the period of British occupation. In his Philosophy of the Revolution, Nasser outlined his revolutionary ideology and motivations for the 1952 Coup. In this text, he discussed the disappointment he endured in the aftermath of the 1919 Revolution against the British that failed to bring about any substantial change in Egypt. After leading the 1952 Revolution, and his subsequent premiership, Nasser became a globally recognized revolutionary figure. Few dispute that he also changed Egypt’s social fabric by implementing new economic and social policies – agrarian reform, education policy, rural development, and experiments in housing schemes all played an important role in Nasser’s vision of modern Egypt. He also understood Egypt as a regional leader and believed it should become the center of the Arab world.
Underlying these economic and social reforms, however, was the regime’s authoritarian nature. Many university professors whose opinion did not suit the government had to resign. Officers who participated in the revolution were perceived as creating ‘their own privileged class’ and the religious establishment, Al-Azhar, was seen as an instrument for carrying out government’s policy. This means that Al-Azhar would often issue fatwas that directly suited Nasser’s politics. Despite these shortcomings Nasser is often described as a ‘man of the people’, a result partly attributed to his effort to equalize society and his impact on improving overall living conditions in Egypt.
While Nasser saw Egypt as the center of the Arab world, El Sisi, on the other hand, singularly focuses on ideas of the Egyptian nation. As Girgis Naiem argues, El-Sisi’s strategy focuses more on strengthening Egyptian national identity on antagonistic principles rather than Nasser’s more unifying idea of pan-Arabism.
The two main similarities often invoked when comparing El-Sisi to Nasser are their shared persecution of the Muslim Brotherhood and similar repressive practices. Firstly, few would dispute these presidents have had complicated relationships with the Muslim Brotherhood. It is an organization which both would outlaw in the latter stages of their premierships. It was under the leadership of El-Sisi that the coalition to remove the President of Egypt deposed the Brotherhood’s Mohammad Morsi from power and declared the Brotherhood a terrorist organization. Since the outlawing of the Islamic political party, hundreds of the Brotherhood’s leaders and supporters have been sentenced to death or ‘‘are languishing in prisons’’. Nasser, on the other hand, initially let the Brotherhood operate between 1952-1954. He deemed it too powerful to dissolve during the early stages of his regime. Therefore, his 1953 ban on all political parties initially excluded the Brotherhood. It was not until January 1954, following the assassination attempt on Nasser in Alexandria, that the group was officially dissolved and became Nasser’s principal political enemy. The Brotherhood was crushed completely, eventually leading to the persecution of its members, one of whom was Sayid Qutb, a former government employee who would become an inspiration for generations of terrorists to come.
However, there are also important differences between the two when considering the Muslim Brotherhood. Nasser’s regime combined secularism with a blanket ban on political parties, whereas El-Sisi openly positions himself as a moderate Muslim and allows moderate Islamic parties to contest elections. He tries to use religious backing as a tool to bolster legitimacy for his policies (El-Sisi is officially backed by the Al-Nour party and his policies are often supported by Al-Azhar and the Coptic Orthodox Church).
The second similarity between the Egyptian rulers is their use of repression. As Barbara Zollner discusses, the late-Nasserist regime after 1965 directed an increased level of repression, especially towards the Muslim Brotherhood. Techniques, the scale of repression, and underlying narratives are very different when it comes to El-Sisi. The current President uses repression to bolster his efforts to combat the deteriorating security in Egypt caused by an Egyptian branch of the Islamic State Wilayat Sinai (WS). He is trying to create an image of the enemy in order to strengthen the national unity through ‘rally around the flag effect’. Giuseppe Dentice argues this is one of the reasons behind El-Sisi’s mass arrests, suppression of the opposition, and growing media-oppression, as he is trying to divert the attention from stagnating economy and poor security.
While it might be fair to compare the two leaders in their personalities – both are charismatic figures using populist techniques to win over public opinion – there are apparent differences in their ideological and strategic approaches. There is substantial evidence that Nasser was aware of Egypt’s overreliance on his persona, and this is likely the reason he appointed Sadat as his successor one year before his death. This move was meant to assure continuity in case of Nasser’s sudden death. McDermott argues that Egyptians under Nasser developed an ‘ingrained habit of leaving him to make decisions’, an argument often used in describing Egypt’s predisposition for a strong leader. However, El-Sisi’s effort to concentrate power into his hands while engaging in repeated mass-arrests seems to run counter to popular sentiment.
To conclude, Nasser emerged as a leader with a new vision for Egypt strongly rooted in his ideological belief about the role Egypt should play in the world. While his persecution of the Muslim Brotherhood proved to be highly authoritarian in its execution, social revolution and gradual liberation of the society still played an important role in vision for Egypt. El-Sisi shares Nasser’s enmity towards the Brotherhood, which is rooted in both leaders’ pragmatic approach. Otherwise, any type of analogy between the two is misleading and oversimplified, ignoring regional dynamics while at the same time usually serving higher political purposes.
Barbara Kelemen is a research fellow at the Institute of Asian Studies (IAS) writing on China-Middle East relations and a graduate candidate at the LSE-PKU Double Degree Program in International Affairs. Her current research focuses on the Saudi-British relations during the Grand Mosque Seizure in 1979. She tweets at @KelemenBarbara.
 Anthony McDermott, Egypt From Nasser to Mubarak: A Flawed Revolution (Croom Helm, 1988), p. 15.
 Gamal Abdel-Nasser, Philosophy of the Revolution (Mondiale Press, 1955), p. 25.
 Keith Wheelock, Nasser’s New Egypt: A Critical Analysis. (Foreign Policy Research Institute: University of Pennsylvania, 1960).
 Ibid, p. 134.
 Girgis Naiem, Egypt’s Identities in Conflict: The Political and Religious Landscape of Copts and Muslims (McFarland & Company, 2018).
Barbara Zollner, ‘The Muslim Brotherhood’s Internal Struggle during Gamal Abdel Nasser’s Persecution, 1954 to 1971’, International Journal of Middle East Studies, 39:3 (August, 2007), pp. 411-433.
 McDermott, Egypt From Nasser to Mubarak, p. 15.