What Syria Means for Egypt: Pro-Assad Mood Marks Return of Arab Nationalism

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Hassan Ammar / AP

A man flashes a victory sign and waves an Egyptian flag at an Egyptian military helicopter flying over the presidential palace in Cairo on July 26, 2013

As the Arab League convened in downtown Cairo on Sunday to discuss the crisis in Syria, several blocks away some 200 demonstrators assembled to denounce possible U.S. military action against Damascus.

In the late afternoon glow, two demonstrators held a large plastic banner picturing former Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser alongside the red, white and black flag of the Syrian government run by embattled President Bashar Assad. Some spoke of their support for Syrian government forces against a U.S. attack. Others chanted to a drumbeat, “Syria and Egypt are one hand!” Though tiny by Egyptian standards, the protest also attracted dozens of television cameras, photographers and newspaper reporters. And it wasn’t long before a scuffle broke out on the edge of the crowd, where a small group opposed to Assad appeared.

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“I want them to say they’re against Assad!” shouted Ahmad Muhammad Said, 30, an anti-Assad protester who works in a computer company. He said he lived in Syria until May 2011, after Assad’s regime launched a brutal crackdown on a pro-democracy uprising, sparking a civil war that has killed tens of thousands. “I’m Egyptian,” he said, flashing his identification card. “I know what happened in Syria.” A protest organizer, wearing a T-shirt from the Nasserist Popular Current coalition, took him by both arms and led him back a few meters from the crowd.

The prospect of U.S. strikes against Syria is further stoking a surge of militaristic nationalism that has gripped a large portion of Egyptian society since the armed forces removed Muslim Brotherhood–affiliated President Mohamed Morsi from power on July 3 following huge protests. Morsi, who owed his presidency to the wave of Arab uprisings that began in 2011, enthusiastically supported the Syrian opposition and called for international intervention in the crisis.

Since taking power, the military-backed government that supplanted Morsi has changed Egypt’s official stance with regard to Syria, sternly rejecting military intervention and arguing against international action at the Arab League. Inside Egypt, riding high on public support, the military rulers have pursued a forceful clampdown on the Brotherhood under the slogan of “fighting terrorism,” killing more than 1,000 people and jailing at least 1,000 others. Morsi himself is in custody, and on Sunday he was referred to trial on charges of inciting the murder of protesters during demonstrations outside the presidential palace last December.

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Last week, with the U.S. edging closer to an attack on Syria, nationalist rhetoric inside Egypt reached an even higher pitch. Hamdeen Sabahi, the leader of the Popular Current who came in third in last year’s presidential election, told a television interviewer, “If Egypt is going to be attacked, it will come from the north, from Syria. An attack on Syria is an attack on Egypt.”

The youthful activists who launched the campaign to unseat Morsi joined in the posturing. Mahmoud Badr, the spokesman for the Tamarod (Rebellion) Campaign, released a statement calling on Egypt to close the Suez Canal to warships involved in a potential strike on Syria, saying he “supported the Syrian Arab army in the face of the upcoming U.S. military strike against Syria.” Anyone who supported foreign intervention, he said, is a “traitor.” The group’s Facebook page is emblazoned with an image of an American flag in flames.

Sabahi, the protesters in downtown Cairo and some of Tamarod’s founders have something in common: their nationalism is infused with nostalgia for Nasser, who as a charismatic young army lieutenant colonel led the Free Officers in deposing Egypt’s British-backed monarchy in 1952. As President, he transformed the Egyptian state and brought Egypt into a short-lived union with Syria (a fact to which Sabahi explicitly referred last week). Though distinct from the Assad family’s Baathism (another variant of Arab nationalism), Nasserism is a current that still runs deep in Egyptian politics and has made something of a comeback in recent months. Some have drawn a direct comparison between Nasser and General Abdul Fattah al-Sisi, the 58-year-old army chief who, despite reportedly enjoying a good relationship with Morsi early in his term, carried out the July 3 coup against him. At Sunday’s demonstration against intervention in Syria, protesters held posters depicting al-Sisi and Nasser side by side.

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Seeing more of Nasser’s portraits hanging from buildings in Cairo and hearing his name mentioned in the same breath as al-Sisi’s also casts a new light on the political crosscurrents that led to Morsi’s ouster. Standing among the crowd at Sunday’s demonstration was Mohamed Haikal, one of the five founders of Tamarod. By his reckoning, the impetus for the anti-Morsi campaign came not in May 2013 but in June 2012, when in a speech in Tahrir Square, the newly elected Morsi referred to the “long oppression” suffered by Egyptians in the several decades leading up to the 2011 revolution. “He said a sentence about the time of the ’60s, which was the years of Nasser,” Haikal said in an interview a week earlier. “We felt that we have been humiliated by the new President, that he is against our beloved leader and icon, Nasser.”

Others are wary of the apparent Nasserist revival. Though he was loved for his populist reforms and for the national pride he instilled in his people, many Egyptians have deeply conflicted memories of Nasser, who also set in motion many of the authoritarian practices that remain the foundations of the Egyptian state. Like the current government, Nasser’s regime also violently suppressed political opposition, including the Brotherhood (particularly following a failed 1954 assassination attempt by a Muslim Brother against him).

Nasserist rhetoric was notably absent in the months after the 2011 uprising that deposed dictator Hosni Mubarak, according to Khaled Fahmy, chair of the history department at the American University in Cairo. The Jan. 25 revolution was, he argues, a rejection of Nasser’s formula of stability and economic security at the expense of political rights. That changed last year during protests against Morsi’s centralization of power, when Nasser’s portrait started appearing more frequently in demonstrations. “It is the fear of the Brotherhood. It is also the fear of a breakdown of law and order,” Fahmy says. “It’s in a sense, revolution fatigue.”

“The revolution broke out specifically against that formula: either stability or freedom,” says Fahmy. “We wanted both stability and freedom. We knew that freedom effectively would mean asking important questions about the military, a military that has been enshrined in Egyptian politics because of Nasser, a military that has been given this impunity because of Nasser. So in the end, to ask for Nasser to come back, effectively, is a setback for the revolution.”

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