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North Africa

Defining the nation

Egypt is in crisis. To tighten his grip on power, President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi claims to be its saviour. He tries to discredit any dissent as anti-national. His idea of the nation, however, does not include every Egyptian.
Personality cult: the president’s face on a sweet. Tödt/picture-alliance/ZB Personality cult: the president’s face on a sweet.

El-Sisi likes to make grand nationalist statements. “Egypt is the mother of the world and will be as great as the world,” he said in 2013, after the military had toppled President Mohamed Morsi. At the time, el-Sisi was a high ranking general, member of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) and defence minister. He later won presidential elections in May 2014, but those elections were not free because candidates of the main opposition forces were not allowed to run.  

Egypt is a nation in crisis. In 2011, the Arab Spring uprising set an end to the military dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak. In the event, the armed forces turned against their leader. Free presidential elections were held in 2012. The winner was Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brothers. He only got a little more than a quarter of the votes in the first round, but the other  candidates fared worse. Morsi won 51.7 % in the second round.  

Morsi became the head of state, but he was soon very unpopular, because he tried to entrench the power of his party without doing much to tackle the country’s serious economic and social problems. Many Egyptians appreciated the coup in which el-Sisi ended his presidency. The sad truth, however, is that the economic situation remains desperate today. Inflation is high, jobs are scarce and many people cannot find a decent livelihood.

In this complex political scenario, it is interesting to consider how different players use the term “nation”. A revolutionary slogan in early 2011 was “bread, freedom and social justice”. It united the people, whether they were Sunni, Shia or Christian. The sense of unity reminded people of anti-colonial solidarity under British rule. The meaning of “the nation” was plainly “all Egyptians”.   

The military leadership adapted to the new situation fast. The SCAF backed off from Mubarak, took power and cast itself as “the guardian of the revolution”. It heavily relied on terms like “fortress of security” and “safety shields”. A poster showing a soldier carrying a baby became very popular, with the baby symbolising the need for national solidarity.

By taking sides with the uprising, the SCAF prevented mass violence, but it also managed to safeguard the militaries considerable privileges. Unsurprisingly, its stance was always a bit  ambiguous. Generals were soon calling those who supported them “honourable citizens”, while tarnishing the youth activists that propelled the uprising as “thugs”. In SCAF eyes, not every Egyptian is a worthy member of the nation.

Elections had to be held; SCAF rule could not last forever. To the military’s horror, the Muslim Brotherhood won in 2012. What followed was an odd 12 months with the SCAF controlling the armed forces and Morsi trying to monopolise his party’s grip on state agencies.

Morsi’s divisiveness

The Muslim Brotherhood is based on the Sunni faith, and Morsi’s attitude proved divisive. There was a growing sense of “us” versus “them” in media discourse. “Us” was the Muslim Brotherhood and their supporters, while “them” were the supporters of the old regime, secular revolutionaries, the Christians, who make up about 10 % of the people, and the small Shia minority.

Morsi did his best to project the image of a “beloved faithful ruler” who goes to dawn prayers unaccompanied by bodyguards. He surrounded himself with clerics who told the media stories about “dreams” and “visions” that involved Morsi and the Prophet Mohammed. The topic of the last major public event he attended before being overthrown in June 2013 was solidarity with Sunni insurgents in Syria. A hardline Sunni cleric said Shias were “filthy” and called for “jihad” (holy war). Syria’s dictator Bashar al-Assad, belongs to a small Shia sect.

Instead of tackling Egypt’s problems of poverty and inequality, the Muslim Brothers relied on identity politics. They hoped the fervour of their supporters would keep them in power in the long run. In free elections, about one quarter of Egyptians reliably voted for the Brotherhood, which showed that the idea that Egypt should be a nation for Sunni Muslims resonated with a substantial share of the people. The majority was never convinced, however.

By the end of June 2013, Morsi opponents had collected 20 million signatures of citizens who demanded the president’s resignation. At that point, the SCAF toppled him, arguing it was fulfilling “the people’s request”.

Hero worship

Today, el-Sisi wants to be seen as the “hero” who saved the country from the kind of civil war that rocks Syria and Iraq. A strong personality cult has emerged. The president’s face is not only displayed on street banners, but also on T-shirts, necklaces and even cakes. He equates whatever the military does with the common good. Observers feel reminded of Gamal Abdel Nasser, the military leader who ran Egypt from 1952 to 1970 (see box). 

At the same time, the regime systematically distinguishes “the nation” from anyone who opposes it. El-Sisi is governing Egypt in an even more despotic and repressive manner than Mubarak did, hounding the Muslim Brothers and their supporters as “terrorists”. To judge by government propaganda, they do not differ from ISIS or Al Qaida.

Repression is harsh. According to Human Rights Watch, security forces killed at least 817 people when they raided the Muslim Brothers’ non-violent protest camps in Cairo on 14 August 2013. There have been other killings. Many have been sentenced to death, and masses are behind bars. Such state repression is driving some previously moderate Islamists into the arms of terror organisations. Moreover, it is depriving pro-democracy groups and civil-society organisations of the space they need.  

While el-Sisi constantly speaks of Islamist threats, he is careful not to alienate Sunnis in general. “We are God-fearing people,” he said on TV after removing Morsi. “If anyone thinks they can defeat those who fear God, they are delusional.” Once more, dreams matter. El-Sisi has said that former President Anwar El-Sadat, who was prominently religious, told him in a dream he would be president.

El-Sisi has asked Muslim clerics to support the anti-Islamist campaign. He wants mosques to standardise their prayer summons, using language proposed by the Ministry of Religious Endowment’s website. As in Nasser’s time, the state is supposed to control the faith.

Since summer 2013, Egypt has witnessed severe human-rights abuses, including killings, forced disappearances, detention and torture. There is no freedom of expression, and many of the young revolutionaries of 2011 have withdrawn into private life (see Basma El-Mahdy in D+C/E+Z e-Paper 2017/01). The economic crisis has gotten worse. The demand for “bread, freedom and social justice” is as relevant as ever. Grand nationalist promises do not improve matters, especially if “the nation” does not include every Egyptian.  

Ingy Salama is an Egyptian journalist. She would like to thank Ahmed Abd Rabou of Cairo University, Khalil Al Anani of the Doha Institute and Hosam El Sokkari formerly of the BBC for their advice and input.  


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