An interview with writer Youssef El-Qaeid sheds light on Egyptians’ obsession with having a ‘savior-leader’ and explains why, 45 years after his death, Nasser is still a key figure
“The man was at one with the poor; he aligned his mission to their interests and aspirations. Today the poor and the destitute constitute the large majority of Egypt’s populace, and for that reason Gamal Abdel-Nasser lives on in the hearts and minds of many despite 45 years passing since he left this world,” says Youssef El-Qaeid, a prominent Nasserist writer and novelist.
45 years ago today millions of grieving Egyptians – not the entire population but a considerable majority – woke to find the leader they had longed trusted, for better or worse, was gone. Back then, as El-Qaeid and others have observed, it was unclear who would see out Nasser’s dream of social justice and national independence.
When Anwar Sadat took office some of the questions thrown up by Nasser’s sudden death seemed to be answered.
“With the 1973 Arab-Israeli War and the armed forces’ achievements, three years after Nasser had passed away, one could argue that Sadat handled an issue Nasser left unresolved when he died in the middle of a war of attrition designed to reverse the 1967 military plot to undermine Nasser as an Arab leader and Egypt as a promising Arab country,” El-Qaeid says.
However, El-Qaeid quickly adds that this was “a partial moment” and was followed by what a “clearly unpopular” bout of political and military negotiations with Israel.
“Apart from that [military success] Sadat did nothing to live up to the expectations of most Egyptians, involving social justice and national independence. Instead Sadat opted for socio-economic and political choices very different to Nasser’s promises,” El-Qaeid asserts.
He adds that “when Sadat used to stay he was walking on the same path as Nasser, we would mock him, saying Sadat is walking with a rubber on Nasser’s path and rubbing out everything he did”.
“The social welfare that the vast majority of Egyptians were hoping for seemed highly unlikely in the second half of Sadat’s  years in office.” When Sadat was assassinated, El-Qaeid asserts, the public discourse of the state had veered away from social welfare “almost completely”.
In October 1981 Sadat’s successor Hosni Mubarak took office and promptly in announced he was “neither Nasser nor Sadat”. Mubarak told the world early on in what turned into a three-decade reign: “my name is Mubarak”. He was never going to be a Nasser or a Sadat, El-Qaeid notes.
Mubarak retrieved a few lines of Nasserite jargon about the poor, and he certainly toned down the state-run media attack on Nasser that Sadat initiated following the 1973 War, but that was as far as he went, El-Qaeid says.
“Mubarak opted mostly to build on Sadat’s socio-economic and political choices, not siding with the poor or pursuing real national independence and leadership of the Arab world. Those were causes Nasser left in Egypt’s collective consciousness, enduring in a generation who never experienced Nasser first-hand,” El-Qaeid explains.
El-Qaeid believes this Nasserite collective consciousness is why Nasser continues to be a figure of affection and respect for Egyptians, to the extent that pictures of him were held up by the first groups of demonstrators who took to the streets in January 2011, some four decades after Nasser’s death.
El-Qaeid points out that most of the songs and slogans that dominated Tahrir Square and other public spaces were coined during the Nasser years.
The failure of Mohamed Morsi during his one turbulent year as the Muslim Brotherhood’s first president in 2012 to establish a welfare state, something that had crept back into the public’s desires, was “another factors that caused the nation to remember and to miss Nasser,” according to El-Qaeid.
This sentiment was exacerbated by the repeated references by state-run media to Nasser’s “firm approach”. El-Qaeid rejects the idea that what he calls “gross violations of human rights” is the “only way to deal with political Islamic groups”.
El-Qaeid says the aggressive tactics employed against Islamist groups could explain “a good part of the original popularity that [now-president] Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi acquired. He acts staunchly against the Muslim Brotherhood, and shares a background with Nasser; middle class army officers who resist the hegemony political Islam seeks”.
Soon enough El-Sisi public committed to Nasserite socio-economic and political discourse of and “more people came to see El-Sisi as the new Nasser they had been looking for,” El-Qaeid said.
“And when El-Sisi went to pay his respects at Nasser’s grave on the anniversary of his death in September 2013, just months after outlawing the Muslim Brotherhood, Hoda Abdel Nasser told El-Sisi he reminded her of her father. El-Sisi replied that he could only hope to be a student of Nasser,” remembers El-Qaeid.
Two years on, El-Qaeid reluctantly admits that El-Sisi has not yet lived up to Nasserite expectations, either on the socio-economic front or in diplomatic terms.
Just hours after El-Sisi finished a speech in New York calling for an Arab-Israeli reconciliation based on the controversial Egypt-Israel peace treaty signed by Sadat in 1979, El-Qaeid argues that today’s foreign relations are more complex than during Nasser’s years.
Nevertheless El-Qaeid acknowledges that until now El-Sisi’s choices in the field of foreign affairs have not satisfied some Egyptians, but “we must remember the man has been in office for only a year”.
On socio-economic terms El-Sisi is yet to act in a way that benefits “social justice” says El-Qaeid. “It would be unrealistic to think things could be done today the way they were done half a century ago. But the objectives remain vital and must be achieved,” he said.
It is not enough for a leader who want to retain public support to concentrate solely on eliminating the Muslim Brotherhood from the political scene, El-Qaeid thinks. “In the absence of any actions to strive for social justice, discontent could re-surface. So far I would say that many still hope the issue of social justice and welfare will be addressed in full,” he added.
If that continues to be illusive then it might not be long before the public consciousness starts acutely to feel the absence of a “saviour-leader”.
“We must acknowledge the culturally inherited notion that our leader has to be our savior. It’s why we disregard some of our society’s accomplishments, like the pursuit of modernity and civility, because they came about during Nasser’s time and we attribute them to a departed saviour-leader,” El-Qaeid believes.
In addition, the Nasserite writer says, “in our culture we celebrate and mark the death of great figures, like Nasser, rather than their birth”.
“But when all is said and done… we will for generations remember Nasser. His life and times were legendary. Legends are not easily forgotten, and almost never replicated,” El-Qaeid concludes.