Their Nasser

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” is how the prolific Dickens chose to remember the time of revolution in Europe. The same can be said about the age of Nasser in Egypt, where now there is a great yearning for at least a partial and selective return. It is not impossible to point out Nasser’s failures to Egyptians, merely useless. Their Nasser is not a man in their history, rather their history in a man. And who can blame them. Looking around the regions it is easy to get nostalgic. Nasser promised dignity where now there is failure and humiliation. He promised one unified “Arab Nation”, where now the Sudan has split into two, Iraq and Libya on the verge of splitting into three, and Syria into four. Never mind pointing Nasser’s failures to the Egyptians. It will not work, at least not now. Like all great conjurers Nasser demanded both absolute faith and suspension of disbelief. And also like all great con men, he sold the Egyptians their repackaged hopes in stirring language and vivid visions.

The trouble with Nasser is the trouble with Egypt. A country steeped in history retains a problematic approach to it. History is not a social science subjected to the rigor of facts, but a collection of myths constantly reworked on the lathe of current vanities. It is common for outsiders to make the contrast between current Egypt and the greatness of its past. An American  touring two years ago will echo the sentiment of a French general invading two centuries ago, who in turn echoes a Greek historian visiting two millenniums before. Ever conscious of how outsiders perceive them, Egyptians have responded to these claims. They have seen their future as the process of uncovering and recreating the glorious past. Many have sold them this vision. The Islamists have promised glory by return to a proud empire that once stood aggressively against the West. The proponents of “Egyptianism” promised a place among the advanced West by a return to ancient Egyptian glories. These promises are both new and ancient. Pharaoh Ahmose I, 3500 years ago, premised his new kingdom on a refurbishing of pyramids already ancient in his time.

The trouble is that anything resembling a factual study of Egyptian history will reveal an ambiguous picture of ever shifting national identity, and even religions. Yet it is the accepted myth in Egypt that there is a single unchanging identity, something akin to a rare metal which may tarnish but never adulterate, or a great temple, which can be covered in sand but never dissolve into it. Inevitably there will be an argument over which identity is the “true one”. Nasser played those strings masterfully. His propagandists made the expansive, and frankly silly, claim that he is the first “true Egyptian” to govern the country since the Pharaohs. The matinee idol looks made him every Egyptian’s brother, son, and more importantly father, whose protection is occasionally invoked.

The “father card” is played by all politicians in Egypt. A country that values the filial over the truthful is invariably prone to such talk. A culture that sees honor in extolling the hidden virtues of ancestors while covering their obvious nakedness will respond readily to such claims. Nasser was a master practitioner. Mubarak tried to play the same tune, with the added overtones of self-pity, in his last speeches as President. Even the hectoring Morsi made a clumsy and fat-fingered stab at it. The current phase of hyper-nationalism is but another manifestation.

It is doubtful that Egyptians will unshackle themselves from their history. The best we can hope for is that,with some sense,  history will be merely an anchor rather than a millstone, and that they can honor their fathers while seeing the flaws with each father, Nasser included.


— Maged Atiya

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