Brexit Britain and Egyptian nationalism: a comparative analysis

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There are a lot of things in the world today that seem utterly upside down: right-wing nationalists claim the mantle of ‘defenders of free speech’, Old Etonians and unscrupulous millionaires win elections by positioning themselves as champions of the people, lifelong anti-racist politicians are demonised as anti-Semitic, elites know the planet and a million species (including our own) face an existential climate threat… and yet do little about it. Truly, all that appeared solid is melting in to thin air.

In such a confusing, fragmented world, there are common threads to be picked out in unlikely places. As we close out the decade let us take, for example, Brexit Britain and the counter-revolutionary post-Arab Spring world. What do these two threads, and others, have in common? What insights might this comparison yield? In particular, I want to highlight as emblematic the post-revolution situation in Egypt, where an elected Islamist government was ousted by the military in 2013.

Although significantly different in degree and content, I think there are some similarities between the conservative, religious voting bloc in Egypt and the emergent nationalist, radical right-wing and traditional protestant agendas of Trump, Johnson and sections of the Brexit lobby. The liberal establishment and mainstream media in both Britain and Egypt reacted mostly with horror and disdain at these phenomena.

On the one hand are secular, educated Egyptians and hard remainers in metropolitan Britain, both of whom express their “nationalisms” in slightly different ways; they often see their integration with an international community as part of their nationalist duty.

On the other hand, there are the popular masses of more religiously conservative voters and the traditional working class of post-industrial England who prefer isolationism and a ‘Britain first’ policy in a manner similarly expressed by former-Islamist president Morsi.

The crucial mistake in analysing each situation is to take these nationalist expressions at face value. As distasteful as facets of these political phenomena might be, they must be understood less as one-off causes but rather as symptoms of something historically deeper.

One such intricacy is the contradictory approach of former-president Morsi in Egypt, who tried to simultaneously juggle pan-Islamist and nationalist sentiments – the latter being reconciled as a means to securing the former. In Egypt, as with much of the MENA region, the primary fear of many liberals and leftists is thus a manipulative religious extremism that takes advantage of national, democratic institutions only to later undermine them for a grander, theocratic vision.

For more than a century, a popular association has largely been held between the army and a strong state as defenders of secularism, with Nasser’s Egypt to Ataturk’s Turkey lauded as examples. Therefore, whilst Morsi and El-Sissi were both “nationalists” in their respective rights, Sissi’s iron fist can be seen as a reaction to the manipulative, religious conservative agenda of Morsi.

As such, with Mubarak’s departure, the political arena had been opened up and the secular establishment – quite understandably – didn’t like the mess that came with it. When the 2011 revolution gave way to the election of Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood, many on the liberal side of politics reverted to a realpolitik world-view which lent support to an autocratic state under Sissi in order to keep religious extremists at bay. This was equally tactical in nature.

Then, of course, is the post-colonial question: Britain colonised Egypt, and since, Egyptian leaders have taken to nationalist sentiments in order to mobilise populist support. This was especially prominent under Gamal Abdel Nasser who naively attempted to prevent Western nations from using Egypt’s vital naval route during the Suez Canal crisis of the 1950s.

One could argue that Egyptian nationalists inadvertently “learned” or “inherited” their Westphalian nationalist sentiment from Britain: after all, it was the colonial powers that drew the borders that Abdel Nasser considered so sacrosanct, later incorporating these post-colonial territorial definitions in a counter-cultural United Arab Republic with Syria.

Austere, fringe elements of the Brexit vote also believe the European Union is chipping away at Britain’s sovereignty and eating away its vital resources. They, too, are mobilised by nationalist sentiments that seem to run against the current trend of total globalism. As such, they are also letting globalism inadvertently define their next political move. A political decision delegated to the masses thus returned an answer utterly disagreeable to liberal, urban sections of society, cementing the “enemy” (the European Union) in the collective consciousness.

Serious undercurrents of racism and religious nationalism did spur both the leave vote and the Islamist government in Egypt, both of which presented threats to social freedoms as uncertain political agendas were redrawn. These events created the conditions for fascism to emerge.

One approach was to simply shut down the disagreeable voice and hope it goes away again. This means (as is happening in Egypt) supporting a military government and trading political freedoms for an ostentatious sense of security. In the UK, it meant pushing for a second referendum or even cancelling the leave vote altogether. These short-sighted options are neither wise nor effective in the longer term. They solve the problem by merely postponing, and probably exacerbating it.

In fact, it was the very same logic which led to such outbursts of political rage in the first place. Post-industrial England has been left to socially decay since Thatcher refused to facilitate any kind of transition for workers and communities from manufacturing. Tony Blair’s New Labour simply cemented the problem by throwing money at the provinces without articulating any possibility of a collective vision.

As such, communities were left without any means of making a positive political expression and (whilst things may remain stable during times of economic growth) people demand a voice when material decline hits. If one wanted to create the conditions for xenophobic nationalism and anti-immigrant sentiment to slowly take root, this would be the way to do it.

A similar story can be traced in the decline of the old Arab left in the 1960s and 1970s. With the repression and crushing of a secular left fighting for economic equality, the field was left open to a binary choice of religious extremism or military dictatorship: Daesh or Sissi.

In both the UK and Egypt, a socially liberal elite has been conflated with a corrupt establishment, and there is no shortcut to fixing this but to include radical economic redistribution in any progressive, liberal agenda. Without that, the periodic crises and eruptions of mass discontent are only ever postponed. The solution is not to step back from redistribution, liberalisation, or even revolution, but to ensure that these processes are not left unfinished.

In both Egypt and the UK, a failure to be radically egalitarian over a longer historical period has allowed darker political forces to hijack resentment, hopelessness and disillusion.

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