If Gamal Abdel Nasser had led his Free Officers revolt in 2013, the aftermath would likely have resembled what is taking place in the wake of Egypt’s most recent military coup — an internet-age cult of personality. The public adulation and extreme loyalty Egypt’s iconic ruler inspired in his time can be seen mirrored in the current popular mania surrounding the figure of Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the army commander behind the ouster of Mohammed Morsi.
Though al-Sisi has only become a prominent figure in Egypt recently, the parallels between the army chief and Abdel Nasser are already striking. Aside from the similarity of their respective seizures of power, and their posturing against Egypt’s foreign enemies, al-Sisi has been able to channel Nasser-style charisma to push the country’s already powerful national pride machine into overdrive (while fueling support for his own political objectives). Sisi’s televised appeal to the Egyptian public last Wednesday, preceding a ferocious state crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood, shows the leader putting himself front and center in his pursuit of popular support for a military confrontation with the deposed president’s supporters: “I’ve never asked you for anything. I’m asking you to show the world if violence is sought, or terrorism is sought, the military and the police are authorized to confront this.”
The public response al-Sisi has been eliciting might not rival the rapturous one Abdel Nasser received decades ago across the region but it’s already mirroring its trajectory within Egypt — this time aided by the internet. Like Abdel Nasser, al-Sisi’s image has become omnipresent in public. And the rapid proliferation of adoring Sisi-based memes on social media following the coup is testament to the leader’s popularity as well as to a new form of engagement with the traditional cult of personality around military leaders in the region.
Al-Sisi’s image, paired with the national flag and other evocative Egyptian symbols, has taken on a life of its own on social media — in a way no other contemporary Egyptian political figure has. This emerging cult of personality around the military leader should worry those hoping for a speedy return to civilian-led government. While al-Sisi has publicly pledged a swift democratic transition, his ever-expanding political presence means his role in politics will not be curtailed any time soon.
The parallels with Abdel Nasser should also trouble those looking for a mediated solution to Egypt’s political crisis. There is every indication that al-Sisi and the military plan to follow in Abdel Nasser’s footsteps in brutally suppressing the Muslim Brotherhood — a move that would potentially further radicalize the group, as happened with the rise of Sayyid Qutb in the 1950’s and 60’s. Such a development would lay a minefield in front of any meaningful political development — and it would leave Egypt confronting the same complex of forces that led to its current political condition.