The 50th anniversary of the passing of the late Egyptian president and Arab leader Gamal Abdel-Nasser falls this year, and the occasion provides an opportunity to undertake a more distant, from a historical perspective, and therefore also hopefully more objective assessment of the Nasserist era.
The importance of such an assessment is relevant not only in the light of the need to read history, explain it and interpret it through the most impartial, realistic and scientific methodology, but also has ramifications regarding how to learn lessons from the Nasserist era that could be of use to both Egypt and the Arab world today half a century after the death of Nasser.
I will confine my analysis in this article, trying to answer one question that touches upon many aspects of the Nasserist experience, namely, why is Nasser still so popular today, 50 years after his death, both in Egypt and the Arab region, and even in other parts of the world, particularly in the Third World? The question has been repeatedly brought up by historians, political analysts, sociologists and media observers over the years, whether in Egypt, the Arab world or the world as a whole.
There have been confusing factors that have made some analysts unable to answer such a question, when they have tried to do so according to criteria usually followed in contemporary political science or political sociology.
The first factor has been the fact that in his lifetime Nasser encountered a number of major failures, domestically, in the Arab region, and at the global level. There was the scandalous form in which the secession of Syria from the United Arab Republic with Egypt took place in September 1961, the humiliating military defeat in the Six Day War with Israel in June 1967, and the failure to establish a participatory political system that would allow for pluralism, or at least would ensure some institutionalised linkages between the people and the leadership, in Egypt. All these things figure among Nasser’s failures.
The second factor that has confused such analysts has been the fact that ever since the passing away of Nasser, a number of influential figures in the media, culture, and the arts and other figures having an impact in either formulating or influencing Egyptian and Arab public opinion have expressed their disenchantment with the choices made and policies enacted by later Egyptian and Arab leader in various areas, whether economic, political, or social and cultural, and whether internal or external. This has definitely negatively affected the attitude of portions, even if limited ones, of Egyptian and Arab public opinion, including among the younger generations that were born after the death of Nasser, towards the Nasserist experience.
According to analysts, these two factors, as well as others, should have contributed to substantially diminishing the popularity of Nasser five decades after his death. However, they have found that this does not correspond to reality. In trying to answer this confusion, I will refer to two arguments that could contribute to explaining the continuing popularity of Nasser in Egypt and the Arab world today.
The first is related to the fact that Nasser symbolised for major sectors of the Egyptian and Arab people, and for many continues to symbolise, the notion of national, whether Egyptian or pan-Arab, dignity and pride. The importance of this lies in the fact that Egypt achieved its complete independence through the national liberation war conducted against the British occupation troops in the Suez Canal Zone. This war started in October 1951 after then prime minister Nahas Pasha’s unilateral abrogation of the 1936 Anglo-Egyptian Treaty, and was interrupted in January 1952 in the aftermath of the Cairo Fire and former king Farouk’s overthrow of the Wafd-led government that had a majority in parliament at the time. It was then resumed after the 23 July 1952 Revolution of the Free Officers led by Nasser, culminated in the signing of the October 1954 Anglo-Egyptian Evacuation Agreement.
Yet, the story did not end there, as Nasser considered that the independence and national security of Egypt would be incomplete unless the independence of the other Arab countries then also under foreign occupation could be secured. As a result, he used a lot of Egypt’s resources in actively supporting national liberation movements in the Arab countries that were fighting against European colonialism, the most famous case being his determined support for the Algerian struggle against French colonialism.
Moreover, the steadfast stand Nasser took in nationalising the Suez Canal Company in July 1956 and then refusing to surrender and insisting on resistance in the face of the Tripartite Aggression of the UK, France and Israel in October and November of the same year no doubt elevated his status in Egypt and the Arab world to an almost legendary one. It suffices to recall here that when Nasser travelled to the Sudanese capital to participate in the Arab summit after Egypt’s and the Arabs’ military defeat in the June 1967 War, hundreds of thousands of Sudanese people welcomed him and even carried his car on their shoulders through the streets of Khartoum.
The second argument is based on a central theme that made Nasser popular, particularly in Egypt, among many from the lower, lower-middle, and middle classes, whether during his lifetime or after his death. The reason was that the objective of achieving an advanced degree of social justice and equality in the country figured among the priorities of the Nasserist era. This priority was also not confined to simple rhetoric, but was translated into policies that were implemented in fact.
Although such policies have been subject to controversy regarding their economic viability, they definitely contributed to redrawing the social map of Egypt in the 1950s and 1960s. History has taught us that the majority of the rank-and-file in any society, particularly, but not only, in developing countries, have long accorded more priority to the achievement of social justice and economic equality than to acquiring more democratic and political rights.
In conclusion, I would like to underline that one methodological pre-requisite when assessing any human experience in past history, including the Nasserist era with both its achievements and its failures, is to judge it against the criteria that were prevailing at the time and not by the criteria of another era, including those of the present.
*The writer is a commentator.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 1 October, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.