63 Years After Egypt's First Military Coup, al-Sissi Trying to Fill Nasser’s Big Shoes

Gamal Abdel Nasser and Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi may share military backgrounds and a common foe in the Muslim Brotherhood, but the current Egyptian president has a long way to go before being favorably compared to the legendary leader.

Jack Khoury
Jack Khoury
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Gamal Abdel Nasser, addressing the public on the fifth anniversary of the 1952 Egyptian coup.
Gamal Abdel Nasser, addressing the public on the fifth anniversary of the 1952 Egyptian coup.Credit: AP
Jack Khoury
Jack Khoury

Friday marks the 63rd anniversary of the coup led by Egyptian officers that ended royal rule in Cairo and started a new chapter in the country’s history. The anniversary has triggered a series of attempts to compare the leader of that revolution, Col. Gamal Abdel Nasser, with the current president, Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi, which only serve to highlight the enormous task facing the latter.

On the morning of July 23, 1952, the Free Officers Movement orchestrated a coup and declared six main aims for Egypt. These included the elimination of colonialism and feudalism, an end to control of the country and its resources by the rich; the establishment of a strong Egyptian army; plus social justice and the founding of a vibrant democracy. Ultimately, the movement didn’t succeed in achieving all its aims, but Nasser won a place as a national hero. Sixty-three years on, Sissi is facing a different world order and different challenges, but also one task identical to Nasser’s: to keep his promises to the Egyptian public.

After the 1953 revolution, the charismatic Nasser rose to the top of the pyramid and became de facto leader of the Republic of Egypt straight after. With his skills in rhetoric, he excited the masses, reshaped the Arab nationalist line and led Egypt into a new era. However, Nasser and his colleagues failed to lead the North African country to real democracy and the social justice they had promised. Instead, a new and narrow elite arose there and took control of the power centers.

Initially, the Muslim Brotherhood movement supported the officers’ coup and the deposing of King Farouk. But ideological differences quickly led to confrontation and violent conflict – the climax of which was an attempt to assassinate Nasser in 1954. That led to the outlawing of the movement, arrest of its members and execution of some of its top people – among them its supreme authority, Sayyid Qutb, in 1966.

Nasser officially ruled Egypt for 14 years, the first true Egyptian to rule his country for several millennia. Revered by the public, he died of a heart attack in September 1970. The public was shocked by his death at 52, unaware he had suffered two prior heart attacks in the 1960s.

Some Egyptians see clear lines of comparison between Nasser and Sissi, Egypt’s president since then-president Mohammed Morsi was removed by another army coup in 2013. However, other than the shared military background and head-on clashes with the Muslim Brotherhood, there are no significant points of comparison between the two leaders. The Egyptian army today is strong and sophisticated, but the fronts on which it is fighting are completely different to Nasser’s day. The world order has changed: Egypt is not facing off against Israel or colonialism, but terror groups that have arisen in Sinai and poor areas of the country as a result of generations of neglect.

The Egyptian public who took to the streets twice, in January 2011 and June 2013, supported the deposing of a sitting president out of aspirations for freedom, democracy and social justice. Today, that same public is grappling with a difficult economic situation, severe restrictions on freedom of speech and a deep social split. This manifests itself mainly in the shunting aside of the young generation that led this decade’s Arab Spring revolution.

Nonetheless, in the Egypt of 2015, they are still prepared to make sacrifices for the sake of a better future, and still await the implementation of Sissi’s big promises. The president is planning ambitious enterprises that will lead Egypt into a new era, he says. Among the president’s most notable plans are for a new Suez Canal, economic development of the Sinai Peninsula, and the advancement of Egypt to a position of leadership in the Arab and Islamic world.

On the basis of these promises, he still enjoys support on the street. However, both Sissi and Egypt’s citizenry know that the trust in him will not last forever, and only the transformation of words into deeds will enable him to be put on a par with Nasser.

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