There is not a single Arab, regardless of sex, age or nationality, who does not hold an opinion regarding the beleaguered Egyptian ruler. Perhaps it is the collection of all these opinions, which continues to span the decades since his death in 1970, that have come to judge the legacy of Gamal Abdel Nasser. Perhaps this is the inescapable fate of any leader as large as Nasser, dubbed, justifiably or not, “Hero of the Arab nation.” For no other person in our modern history has touched our destinies or lives as deeply or as indelibly as Gamal Abdel Nasser.
The following article will attempt with utmost humility and...
unavoidable limitations to shed light on the most influential leader the Arab world has known in modern times.
“People do not want words - they want the sound of battle - the battle of destiny.” – Gamal Abdel Nasser
Destiny does not happen spontaneously, nor is it mutually exclusive to the events and actions within which it occurs. Neither is it an excuse – simply one of many explanations for the way history unfolds. In order to truly grasp the context of the decades that inevitably lead to the 1952 July Revolution in Egypt, it is imperative to speak first and foremost of the concept of destiny as it pertained to the actors and agents involved.
Originally from Beni Mur near the city of Asyut and born on January 15, 1918 in Alexandria, Gamal Abdel Nasser, the second President of Egypt and son of a post office clerk, realized early on that Egypt’s social and political destinies were determined far from its shores and out of its proverbial hands. Egypt’s fate had been historically decided, and steered, by its conquerors and colonizers. From the Greeks to the Romans, Arab conquests, Ottomans and, finally, the British, its geo-strategic location had lured and entranced surrounding civilizations for centuries.
The last of its conquerors, the British Empire, granted Egypt its independence in 1922. The reality however, was that Egyptian foreign affairs, defense against foreign enemies, communications with the rest of the British Empire and the Suez Canal were still under British control. The years that followed were filled with much civilian and political unrest as people clamored behind various factions and groups that advocated for complete autonomy from British influence. One of these groups, the Free Officers, of which Nasser was a founding member and leading figure, came to dominate the fight for independence against British control and the Egyptian monarchy.
Nasser and his comrades grew up during the political turmoil of the 1930s. Much like the current generation, which grew up listening to stories of the heyday of Arab nationalism, these young men who would eventually grow up to shape the modern history of Egypt were nurtured on the glories and failures of the Liberal Order that came into power after the 1919 Revolution. During their youth, they participated in street demonstrations and political protests against King Farouk, the feeble parliamentary system and the overarching influence of the British in Egyptian national affairs. They had originally been associated with the Muslim Brotherhood, but had broken off and formed their own club when government crackdowns on the latter began in 1949.
It was not that the Free Officers necessarily ascribed to the Brotherhood’s theological agenda, but in the years leading up to the 1952 July Revolution, it provided the best organized structure within which the future Officers could articulate their grievances and form a common political voice and mission – and they had much to discuss.
Between 1939 and 1945, the cost of living in Egypt had nearly tripled. In the late 1940s, 12,000 families owned 35% of Egypt’s fertile land with fewer than 2,000 owning estates of 200 feddans or more (1 feddan is equivalent to around 1.038 acres). Another 35% of the land was shared by approximately 2.5 million families who occupied five feddans or less. Sixty percent of the rural population was landless – 1.6 million families.
And then there was Farouk.
King Farouk I of Egypt lead an allegedly glamorous lifestyle brimming with palaces, cars and travel. One particular incident during World War II was cause for much criticism when he reportedly kept the lights burning at his palace in Alexandria at a time when the rest of the city was experiencing a black-out in anticipation of German and Italian bombing.
Nonetheless, Egypt continued to develop economically under Farouk’s rule and several prestigious educational institutions of higher learning were founded. However, education was generally limited to the elite. Before the 1952 Revolution, fewer than 50% of children at the primary level attended school, and the majority of those enrolled were boys. Additionally, greater than 90% of females in this age bracket were illiterate, in addition to nearly 75% of the population above the age of 10.
The fiasco of the 1948 Arab-Israeli war also did not help the deteriorating situation. As a unit commander in the army at the time, Gamal Abdel Nasser reflected: “We have been duped – pushed into a battle for which we were unprepared. Vile ambitions, insidious intrigues and inordinate lusts are toying with our destinies and we are left here under fire unarmed.”
This was not the first nor, as Nasser would find out nearly 20 years later, the last time that “insidious intrigues and inordinate lusts” would toy with the nation’s destiny and bring Egypt’s political order to the brink of extinction.
The Destiny of a Nation and Leader
“I am Gamal Abdel Nasser, of you and for you ... I will live until I die for your sake, on behalf of you and on behalf of your freedom and your honor ... If Gamal Abdel Nasser should die, I will not die – for all of you are Gamal Abdel Nasser – Egypt’s well-being is linked not to Gamal Abdel Nasser but to you and your struggle.” – Gamal Abdel Nasser in a speech an instant after an assassination attempt on his life (October 24, 1954, Alexandria, Egypt).
Whether these words were spontaneous or scripted, sincere or adulterated, they worked. And whether or not Nasser connived and schemed to become the sole leader of Egypt and the hero of the Arabs, he was.
Nasser believed that Egypt’s destiny lay in its becoming an industrial nation, and for this he needed to find funding for the Aswan High Dam project – an ambitious plan to generate electricity and provide water for farming across Egypt. Because of the frantic transferring of private funds out of the country by Egyptian businessmen in the previous decade due to fear of nationalization programs, domestic financing was unavailable. At first, the United States was more than willing to fill this gap as it was actively seeking to create inroads and allies against the growing dominance of the USSR. Nasser, however, was also courting the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia and communist China – resulting in the almost immediate withdrawal of US funding.
This may have been a blessing in disguise for the ambitious leader. Nasser nationalized the British and French controlled Suez Canal and inextricably changed the history of the Arab world. The outcome was the 1956 Suez crisis in which British, French and Israeli plans to invade and recapture control of the canal were thwarted. As a result, Nasser and his comrades emerged, albeit through American intervention, unscathed and, in the eyes of their fellow Arabs and the Third World, the victors and defenders against imperialist aggressions.
Whether through sheer luck or strategic ability, the result was the beginning of the end of the already disintegrating British and French colonial empires. Nasser’s seeming victory was like a tidal wave that swept throughout Africa and the Third World and buoyed anti-colonial struggles for independence wherever it went.
It has been said that Nasser had “many rivals, but few peers” in the Arab world. First with Muhammad Naguib at the helm and then with himself as indisputable leader, Nasser lead Egypt through the most contentious and formative years the Arab world has known. He influenced and enflamed anti-colonial and pan-Arab revolutions in Algeria, Libya, Iraq and Yemen; and also played a central part in the international Non-Aligned Movement of the Third World. Maybe his rise to fame was coincidence and simply contingent upon the fact that he was one of the first to overthrow a pro-western puppet regime in the Arab world. Maybe it was because of the image he perhaps cultivated of himself as an Arab hero. Whatever the reasons, he was loved and worshipped by millions across the region – to the disgruntlement of many Arab leaders who could never quite claim equal adulation and esteem among their people.
Nasser was everywhere: Statues, posters, key chains, fountain pens, commemorative coins, stamps, comic strips, and pictures festooned with the image of the rayyes (as he was known) adorned the walls and spaces of public and private spheres all over Egypt and the Arab world. His name was chanted, sung and evoked in poems, songs and anthems throughout the region. Egypt’s finest lyricists, composers and artistic directors all vied for the prime spot at official festivals and parades to sing, recite and play their works dedicated to the leader. The anthem, Ya Gamal Ya Habib al-Malayin (Gamal, Beloved of Millions), sung by Egypt’s brightest new star, Abd al-Halim Hafiz, the “Brown Nightingale,” echoed the hopes and dreams of the era:
We’re awakening the East in its entirety – its valleys and mountains.
Founded on its people, its heroes.
With the hero of the Arab nation – we’re the millions.
In light, blessing and freedom – we’re the millions.
Gamal, beloved of millions.
And what an awakening it was. Since the 1930s, the state had controlled and limited media outlets, but they were greatly expanded under the Nasser regime. Egypt’s music, film, theater and media industries, which had made it the entertainment hub of the Arab world, continued to flourish throughout the 1950s under official state patronage. Egypt became known as the “Hollywood on the Nile” as its studios began producing 50 to 60 movies a year. Government censorship predated the Nasserist regime and continued to be heavily and widely employed after the July Revolution. However, although rife with revolutionary allusions, directors and filmmakers were granted new freedoms to scrutinize and produce movies on previously forbidden subjects such as rural poverty, crime, traditional cultural practices, sex, and gender issues. The most famous stars and starlets of that era flocked to Egypt to participate and take part in the revamping of the Egyptian film industry. Soon, others followed their lead – international art exhibitions, orchestras, dance companies and musical bands were all actively encouraged to come and perform by Egypt’s Ministry of Culture.
All of the above, however, pales in comparison to the broadcasting behemoth that was Sawt al-Arab.
In 1953, the radio station, Sawt al-Arab, initiated broadcasts for half an hour each day across Egypt. This rapidly mushroomed to nearly eight hours per day across the Arab region. A forerunner to modern-day satellite television, Sawt al-Arab permeated and filled regional airwaves with multi-lingual news and information from its correspondents all over the Third World reporting on local struggles for national independence. Additionally, the haunting performances of Egyptian singer and patriot, Um Kulthum, “Star of the East,” were also broadcast to millions of her adoring fans in the region. It was even said that Nasser, who was a great devotee of hers, used her popularity to help bolster his political agenda by broadcasting his speeches and government messages directly following her radio concerts.
As the 1960s drew to a close, the shining star of Nasser, however, began to fall with ever increasing speed. His attempt to create an Arab federation with Syria in 1958, a decision he was rushed into by combined external and internal forces, failed with the disbanding of the ineffectual United Arab Republic in 1961. His nationalization policies also failed to yield the expected economic growth and development in Egypt that he and his comrades had originally anticipated. None of this compared, however, with the total and absolute disaster that was the 1967 Six-Day War with Israel in which Egypt lost over 80% of its armed forces and suffered more than 11,000 battlefield deaths.
The Nasserist dream slowly began to unravel as al-naksa (setback), as the war came to be known, began to reveal itself in every corner of society. Waves of people across Egypt, disillusioned with the socialist experiment and the suffocating surveillance of the police, started to question and doubt as they wept along with Um Kulthum as she sang:
Give me my freedom, unbind my hands,
I have given all, held back nothing.
Oh, your chains cause my wrists to bleed,
Why do I keep them – why do I accept this?
Till when shall I remain captive,
When I could have all the world?
– Al-Atlal (The Ruins)
Despite al-naksa, the Star of the East, along with her fans, raised over a million Egyptian pounds to rebuild Egypt’s army. Nasser was still their hero.
Just as the reasons behind his widespread popularity and unconditional devotion among the Egyptian and Arab peoples were irrelevant, so were the events and pressures that lead Nasser to enter this war. In the end, this was the trap in which he had set himself up in taking on the mantle and burden of Arab leader – whether intentionally or unknowingly.
“He left no political heritage behind him. Nasser depended on the support of the Arab people more than any Arab leader of modern times – even in the hours of his darkest defeat.” – Palestinian journalist and author Said Aburish.
He died on September 28, 1970 of a heart attack. Or as romantically stated by Chinese premier, Chou En-Lai: “He died of sorrow, he died of heartbreak.” Over five million people flooded the streets during his funeral, angry, scared, crying and shouting at their collective loss.
“The world will never again see five million people crying together,” Sherrif Hattata, Egyptian political activist.
“I hope he comes back from the dead so we can kill him again!” – an Egyptian taxi driver speeding down the modern-day streets of Cairo.
“He wasn’t up to the position he had, he became an Arab hero by default!” – a 61-year-old Egyptian woman.
“He came at the right time for Egypt to create change. He had good intentions and he was honest.” – a 58-year-old Kuwaiti man.
“He was ahead of his time – the Arabs’ one chance at greatness. They didn’t deserve him!” – a 48-year-old Palestinian woman.
There are many versions of Nasser: the soldier, the patriot, the loving father and husband, the Arab hero, the champion of the poor, the oppressor... There is one, however, that remains constant and ever engraved in the hearts and minds of millions – Nasser the failure.
As Aburish put it in his book about Nasser, The Last Arab:
“He failed. He failed in Egypt. He failed in the Arab world. He failed in his confrontation with Israel. He failed in building institutions that would outlast him. [...] The eventual dictator was a victim of the people who failed him, the Arabs.”
In the end, all that remains is the once untarnished image and illusion of greatness that once was Gamal Abdel Nasser.
This article has been an assortment of thoughts and recollections about a leader few liked, many loved, and who no one will likely forget. As far as this writer is concerned, this article leaves you with exactly what you began – an opinion.
By: Siham Nuseibeh