The Nasser Playbook

The Future of the U.S.-Egyptian Relationship Is in the Past

Former Egyptian President Gamal Nasser greets a crowd in 1960 (Creative Commons)

When Hoda al-Nasser, the daughter of former Egyptian President Gamal Abdel al-Nasser, recently deemed the country’s current strongman, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the rightful heir to her father’s political legacy, it was worth taking her at her word. Just like Nasser, Sisi unapologetically seized power in a coup d’état. Also like Nasser, Sisi has followed a path in higher politics that began with a collaboration with the Muslim Brotherhood -- he seems to have conspired with President Mohamed Morsi in the removal of Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi in the summer of 2012 -- before changing course and doing everything in his power to crush the Islamist organization. Sisi’s crackdown has already resulted in the deaths and incarceration of thousands of Brotherhood activists, including Morsi, his erstwhile patron.

This historical parallel might seem to bode ill for the relationship between Egypt and the United States. After all, Nasser is remembered today for his unabashed, even chauvinistic patriotism, and most policymakers in Washington are taught that the close relationship that the United States currently enjoys with Egypt traces back to the Camp David accords signed by Nasser’s successor, Anwar Sadat. But Washington’s history with Nasser is more auspicious than is generally remembered. Indeed, with some minor adjustments, Washington’s establishment of relations with Nasser’s government can serve as the most promising template for a stable and productive relationship between the United States and Egypt today.

Sisi is no less nationalistic than his predecessor. Nasser spoke of a “role” in the Arab world “in search of a hero” -- a role that Egypt was destined to fulfill -- and Sisi makes essentially the same point in less poetic language. He asserts that Egypt must regain its position as a leader of the Arabs, and by so doing restore Arab power more generally. 

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