The two men can be seen together all over central Cairo, on banners, flags and on posters on sale to tourists and locals. One is moustachioed, square-jawed, handsome, with short greying hair and an enigmatic smile; the other is clean-shaven, open-faced, most often in dress uniform, a clutch of medals on his left breast.
The first man is the pan-Arab nationalist former Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser, hammer of the Muslim Brotherhood, who died in 1970. The second is General Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, head of Egypt’s armed forces and, since the July coup that ousted the Brotherhood-backed president, Mohamed Morsi, the supreme power in the country.
In the coffee shops of Cairo, where political discussions have bounced off peeling walls since Nasser’s death, a vigorous debate is taking place over whether Sisi has deliberately risen in the former’s likeness – and what parallels between the two men’s careers may mean for post-revolutionary Egypt.
While Sisi has pledged stability as a central plank of the military-led government he will shepherd towards elections in nine months’ time, he has also tapped into themes that Nasser used to enshrine his legacy as one of modern Egypt’s most celebrated figures.
“Despite 40 years of painting a bad portrait of Abdel Nasser, whenever there are bad times, people always conjure up his image,” said a Nasserist activist and leader of a political bloc that champions his tenure. “Sisi has not got the same hold on the Egyptian consciousness. Not yet.”
In his public appearances since the 3 July coup, Sisi has mirrored Nasser’s key messages of nationalism, scepticism of western intentions, Arab dignity and strong leadership.
“There is a craving for a strong leader,” said a western diplomat of Sisi’s popularity. “Nasser is still revered here, although I don’t think he deserves it. I’m not sure he did much good for the country. There is this misguided belief that only a strongman can sort out the mess that is Egypt.”
While Nasser was credited in the Middle East as a figure who did much for Arab unity, he was also criticised at home and abroad for leading through a cult of personality and for doing little to develop civil institutions, or advance human rights.
The parallels between him and Sisi run deep. Nasser had a background as an officer and became president with military support in 1956, after planning the revolution that had ousted Egypt’s last monarch, King Farouk. Sisi also has a revolution under his belt. And, while not currently an elected official, he is being talked about as a presidential candidate after the interim government ends.
“Nostalgia for Gamal Abdel Nasser is the result of the Egyptian people’s awareness that the army has embraced the people’s wishes and made sure that the revolution could take place,” said Hamdeen Sabahi, a presidential candidate in 2012 for a bloc of Nasserist parties, called the Popular Current. “Here the Sisi phenomenon is introduced. He has become very popular since 3 July.
Even among Sisi supporters there are those who doubt that he will extricate themselves from playing a decisive role in civil affairs after new presidential and parliamentary polls and a mooted constitutional referendum.
The deadly showdown with the Brotherhood, which remains bitterly disenfranchised and encamped in two parts of Cairo shows no sign of being conciliated. Sisi’s generals have repeatedly warned during the past week that both sites, at Raba al-Adawiya and near Cairo University, will be cleared imminently. Planning is underway to turn that warning into effect after the Eid al-Fitr festival, which ends on Sunday. More bloodshed would likely cast a pall over a legacy that remains very much in the making. Although some Egyptians feel that another showdown – two massacres have already taken place since 3 July – may be a price worth paying, despite almost certain condemnation from some western states.
“The thing that links the two is that Sisi, like Nasser rejects the west and wants national independence,” said Mohammed Fahim. Both men fighting the Muslim Brotherhood is not seen as a bad thing.”
Nasser, the man the Brotherhood wanted to forget is, however, very much part of the new Egyptian psyche. “It’s up to Sisi whether he leads by example, or just reflects in his glory,” said Fahim.