Gilbert Ramsay and Moutaz Alkheder

In late 2011, a short black-and-white clip from a speech delivered by President Gamal Abdel Nasser, in 1965, went viral on YouTube among Egyptian viewers. The clip shows the Arab nationalist leader on top form, relaxed and charismatic, working a raptured audience with the practised timing of a stand-up comedian. With mock solemnity, the president of the United Arab Republic announces:

In 1953, we genuinely wanted to cooperate with the Muslim Brotherhood, so long as they went about things in the right way. I met the supreme guide of the Muslim Brotherhood, and asked what his demands were. What did he ask? He said that every woman who walks in the street should wear a headscarf …

The audience erupts in laughter at the absurdity of this proposal. One man heckles: ‘Let him wear it himself!’. Nasser goes on: 

So, I said to him, ‘Well, if that’s what you say, then you want us to return to the days of Al-Hakim bi Amr Allah, who wouldn’t allow people to walk by day, but only by night. I am of the opinion that each person in his own house can decide his own rules’. But he said, ‘no, you are the ruler, you are responsible’. So, I said, ‘well, sir, what about your own daughter in the faculty of medicine? She’s not wearing a veil. If you couldn’t get one girl to wear a veil, how am I to get ten million of them to do it by myself?’ 

It isn’t hard to see why the video struck a chord with many Egyptians in 2012. As one Egyptian comedian observed, it conjures up nostalgia—among liberals, at any rate—for an apparently more secular past, one in which Islamists were treated not as serious political contenders but as people whose ideas and demands could be regarded as ridiculous.

In 2012, Egyptians with secular inclinations had reason to hanker for this apparent golden age. Following the 2011 revolution, the country’s first ever free and fair elections ushered in a parliament overwhelmingly dominated by Muslim Brotherhood and Salafi candidates. Some months later, voters would bring another Muslim Brother, Mohammed Morsi, to power as president. 

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