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What Egypt needs, according to the Guardian’s Seamus Milne, is a 21st century Nasser. This is hardly suprising. Since the process of upheaval began in Egypt, the figure of Nasser has loomed large over the hopes that many hold for Egypt and the wider region. In contrast to Mubarak, and to the army council regime that succeeded him, Nasser bravely stood up against imperialism, and in doing so became a genuinely popular Arab leader. Meanwhile, according to Milne, and to many others, Nasser’s secular nationalist politics offered an inclusive alternative to the sectarian strife which today threatens Egypt’s minority Christian community.
Attitudes towards the Middle East are often dominated by this duality: between “sectarian” religious politics and “inclusive” secular nationalism. The reality of course is more complex. The desire to turn the Middle East into a new Caliphate may well ride roughshod over the interests of minorities. But the same can also be true of pan-Arabist politics – when the fiction of an “Arab” Middle east is imposed upon the actually existing ethnic patchwork. Thus while Nasser may have offered some protection to Egypt’s Copts, he was nonetheless happy to ethnically cleanse Egypt’s Jews, and to preside over the persecution and mass exodus of thousands of ethnic Greeks. The experience of Kurds, in Iraq, Turkey and elsewhere illustrates all too well the danger of presuming that secular nationalism represents a cosmopolitan alternative to religious sectarianism.
More broadly, there is a limit to what the Nasserite brand of radical nationalism can offer the Egyptian revolution today. Like many of his contemporaries in the developing world, he combined forthright opposition to imperialism with a domestic politics that did little to challenge Egypt’s existing class structure. When Che Guevara visited Nasser, he complained that the Egyptian premier had created too few refugees – that the pre-existing elites were all to comfortable under the new regime. Like Indonesia’s Sukarno, with whom Nasser had a great many parallels, Nasser laid the groundwork for a capitalist economy dominated by the military elite. Despite the popularity of his many stands against imperialism, he never created a class-based politics capable of cutting across the religious-secularist divide.
And this really is the nub of the issue. Since Nasser didn’t bother with elections, he was never compelled to come up with a strategy for dealing with the uneven contours of Egyptian society: with the fact that for millions of Egyptians, groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood were the obvious and logical choice of government. Yet this is the crucial challenge facing Egyptian leftists today. Whilst the Nasserite candidate Hamdeen Sabahhi may have garnered the most votes in Cairo and Alexandria, outside of the big cities, Egyptians voted en masse for Morsi. These are circumstances under which Egypt’s revolutionaries need, urgently, to find a way forward. And in this respect, there is a limit to what NasserStalgia can offer them.
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