Egypt has a long history of populism, and this history has shaped its modern identity. Post-Arab Spring, the dictatorship-turned-pseudo-democracy of el-Sisi has been using his brand of nationalism to weed out two other streams of populism. First, he has disbanded and now persecutes the ideologically Islamist populist parties by depicting them as “extremists.” Second, more recently he has successfully demonized the populist liberal factions as “anti-state” and “foreign-sponsored.” Using highly draconian methods, el-Sisi has curbed all forms of opposition and now uses the populist tool of inciting “fear of instability” in his efforts to retain power.
The Arab Republic of Egypt is a transcontinental nation connecting Africa and Asia. It spans the northeast corner of Africa and is connected with the southwest corner of Asia through the land bridge of the Sinai Peninsula. The region comprising modern-day Egypt has been inhabited by humans around the Nile Delta as far as the back as the 6th–4th millennia BCE. In addition to being shaped by the ancient Egyptians, the region has seen Greek, Persian, Roman, Nubian, Ottoman, and British influences, making it a culturally rich country; it also has a diverse religious population – mostly Muslim, but with various sects, and a significant number of Christians who still reside in the modern-day Republic.
In carving out its independent identity and taking its present form in 1971, Egypt has gone through several conflicts, both internal and external. Between 1867 – when Ottoman control over the region began to dwindle – and 1953, the Egyptian people experienced the tumult of different regimes seeking control over the country. During and after World War I, Imperial forces increased their presence in the region; the final defeat of the Ottomans led to pro-British rule in Egypt. This was heavily influenced by the British military during the 1930s and 40s.
A wave of pan-Arab populism was kindled amongst the increasingly discontent and alienated subjects. This movement was led by General Muhammad Naguib and Gamal Abdel Nasser during the 1952 Revolution, an uprising instigated by the Free Officers Movement (FOM) (Roll, 2016). This populist wave was conceived by a band of junior military officers in the Egyptian army during the 1948 Arab–Israeli War. The rebellion gave a populist voice to a middle class that had felt economically isolated by the King’s policies and demanded an end to British influence over their country. This growing middle class supported an ideal of Arab nationalism and socialism as opposed to Western ideals imposed by European powers (Roll, 2016). The struggle was framed as a fight between “imperialists,” who were the elite, and the “nationalists,” who sought freedom for everyday people from the corrupt rulers.
Gamal Abdel Nasser, a populist leader, used nationalism, socialism, and pan-Arabism to usher Egypt into an era of great socio-economic improvement. Using his single-party-rule to establish the Arab Socialist Union (ASU), he was able to institute sweeping nationalization and the creation of the short-lived United Arab Republic with Syria. However, by the end of the 1960s, the country’s economy was on the verge of collapse, liberties such as freedom of speech had been curtailed under regressive laws, and Nasser’s appeal to the people had considerably dissipated (Johnson, 1972).
His death in 1970 paved the way for Vice-President Anwar El Sadat to assume power. Sadat again instilled a single party-rule in Egypt under the National Democratic Party (NDP). He promised greater freedoms, and under his leadership, Egypt aligned itself with the United States and thus went through a process of privatization. Despite Sadat’s promises, the legacy of passing draconian laws to curb the opposition continued. This led to another surge of populism. In 1977, the “bread riots” were quashed, but after Sadat’s assassination, Hosni Mubarak – under the banner of the NDP – came to power. Mubarak’s regime continued to control the opposition through repressive measures, ensuring the survival of the one-party rule.
The Egyptian people were again stifled by the ruling elite. A confluence of political and economic crises – including economic inequality, political oppression, and tensions amongst various factions of civil society – led to the Day of Rage, in January 2011 (Anderson, 2018). In addition to oppression, people were outraged by rampant corruption, a growing trade deficit, sluggish economic growth, and high levels of unemployment (especially amongst the youth), and rises in prices of staple foods (Anderson, 2018). Considering these circumstances, the Egyptian Revolution of 2011 shouldn’t have been surprising. Through social media networks like Facebook and Twitter, the revolution soon gained national momentum; traditional opposition parties soon joined the movement, which featured two populist factions: the socialists and liberals, who echoed Nasserist ideals through the Dignity Party (DP) and National Progressive Unionist Party (NPUP); and right-wing populists like the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) of the Muslim Brotherhood. In a historic and unique moment, the liberals and conservatives set aside their differences and united to topple the corrupt elite rulers of the Mubarak regime. Mubarak resigned, and the NDP dissolved.
FJP gained a majority in the 2012 elections – the first vote following the Arab Spring – by securing 25 percent of the national vote. Morsi gained populist support from a pro-Islam faction while also maintaining his image as a moderate. He narrowly won the election, as the independent candidate Ahmed Shafik, a former Air Force member and a suspected Mubarak loyalist, gained 24 percent of the votes. Shafik’s voter base was strengthened by Coptic Egyptians, who saw him as a better alternative to the conservative FJP. Some believe Shafik’s success was the result of irregularities and vote-rigging, a last gasp by the ruling elite to beat back the revolutionary forces (Greene, 2012). Hamdeen Sabahi, the populist leader of the Nasserist factions who had been jailed 17 times by the Mubarak regime and who played a central role in the Revolution, ran under the banner of the Dignity Party and captured 21 percent of the vote (Bayoumi, 2014).
Following the elections, socialists and liberals loudly voice their concerns over the Islamist outlook of the FJP government due to its affiliation with the Muslim Brotherhood. The people of Egypt were hungry for results, but the lack of transparency and freedoms under the FJP government brewed resentment. The Salafist al-Nour Party (Party of Light), an ultra-Islamic party, withdrew its support from the Brotherhood due to ideological differences. Once again, there were widespread protests. A power struggle with the military-led to the FJP’s unraveling. The party was disbanded, and Brotherhood members were jailed and executed following the 2013 coup d’état led by General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.
With the Muslim Brotherhood disbanded, Nasserist Hamdeen Sabahi ran against el-Sisi, an “independent,” in the 2014 presidential elections. Sabahi only won 4 percent of the vote, though there were widespread reports of irregularities. Still, it seemed the tide of populism had been stemmed. Disappointed by Islamist and socialist populism, the people elected a member of the very elite leadership they had opposed in 2011 (Bayoumi, 2017).
El-Sisi has tapped into populist rhetoric to boost his own support. This new populism has crippled Egypt’s pro-democracy groups by painting them as the “elites” who are “out of touch” with reality and loyal to “foreign agendas” such as human rights and democracy while forgetting about core issues such as hunger. El-Sisi and the military claim they can address such basic issues for the masses (Bayoumi, 2017). Marginalizing the pro-democratic leaders of the Revolution in less than a decade, Egyptian authorities have once again used populism to reassert their control over the government. As el-Sisi put it, “The public opinion is asking me to fix the situation, to be decisive, and not to deal with mercy and compassion as I am doing now… people want to eat and drink and live. This is a major issue” (Bayoumi, 2017).
The 2015 Egyptian parliamentary election represented a similar a tug of war between two factions: the Free Egyptians Party (FEP) and the New Wafd Party (NWP), liberal and socialist parties, came in first and third respectively in the House of Representatives; second place went to the newly formed pro-establishment party, Mostaqbal Watan or the Nation’s Future Party (FNP).
Between 2015 and 2018, Egypt witnessed deteriorating democratic conditions combined with severe human rights violations. These trends continue today (Berdikeeva, 2020). In 2018, el-Sisi secured a second term as president, when he defeated Mousa Mostafa Mousa; other major political parties boycotted the elections due to transparency issues. Mousa was largely seen as a “puppet” of the state placed as the opposing candidate by the establishment to secure another term for el-Sisi (Ibrahim, 2018). The FNP has become for el-Sisi what the NDP was for Mubarak. It has galvanized populist support through the use of state-sponsored and controlled media to repeat populist narratives in public against pro-democracy and revolutionary voices by labeling them “elitist” and “foreign agents” (Bayoumi, 2017).
By introducing his own version of populism, El-Sisi has successfully weeded-out Islamist and Nasserist populism from Egypt, at least for the time being. How long he retains his grip on power might depend on how well he addresses the grassroots, developmental issues that have plagued Egypt for decades (Berdikeeva, 2020). Egypt’s past indicates that populism bolsters tyrannical regimes only to erupt and dismantle the status quo. It seems until, and unless, the freedoms and rights of the people are guaranteed, this cycle of populism is likely to continue.
By Ihsan Yilmaz
October 9, 2020.
Anderson, L. (2018). “Bread, dignity and social justice: Populism in the Arab world.” Philosophy & Social Criticism, 44(4), 478–490. https://doi.org/10.1177/0191453718757841 (accessed on September 30, 2020).
Bayoumi, Alaa. (2017). “Tyranny Grants Populism a New Life in Egypt.” The Arab News. August 23, 2017. https://english.alaraby.co.uk/english/comment/2017/8/23/tyranny-grants-populism-new-life-in-egypt (accessed on September 30, 2020).
Bayoumi, Alaa. (2014). “Profile: The many faces of Hamdeen Sabahi.” Aljazeera. May 12, 2014. https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2014/05/12/profile-the-many-faces-of-hamdeen-sabahi/?gb=true (accessed on September 30, 2020).
Berdikeeva, Saltanat. (2020). “The State of Human Rights in Egypt Under President Al-Sisi.” Inside Arabia. February 4, 2020. https://insidearabia.com/the-state-of-human-rights-in-egypt-under-president-al-sisi/ (accessed 30 September 2020).
Greene, A. Richard. (2012). “Ahmed Shafik: Egypt’s ‘counter-revolutionary candidate’.” CNN. July 16, 2012. https://edition.cnn.com/2012/06/15/world/meast/egypt-election-shafik/index.html (accessed on September 30, 2020).
Ibrahim, Arwa. (2018). “Egypt ‘election’: Is Mousa Mostafa Mousa a ‘puppet’ of Sisi?” Aljazeera. 23 March 2018. https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2018/03/23/egypt-election-is-mousa-mostafa-mousa-a-puppet-of-sisi/ (accessed on September 30, 2020).
Johnson, P. (1972). “Egypt Under Nasser.” MERIP Reports, (10), 3-14. doi:10.2307/3011223 (accessed on September 30, 2020).
Roll, Stephan. (2013). “Egypt: The Failure of the Muslim Brotherhood.” German Institute of International and Security Affairs. July 2, 2013. https://www.swp-berlin.org/en/point-of-view/egypt-the-failure-of-the-muslim-brotherhood/(accessed 30 September 2020).
Roll, Stephan. (2016). “Managing change: how Egypt’s military leadership shaped the transformation.” Mediterranean Politics, 21, 23-43. DOI: 10.1080/13629395.2015.1081452 (accessed on September 30, 2020).