Although nearly half a century has passed since the death of Gamal Abdel Nasser, the memory of that great man has remained alive and vivid in the hearts and minds of millions, including today’s generation of youth who, while never having experienced the Nasserist era directly, will have read of Nasser and the Nasserist experience. Does this mean that there is a national or pan-Arab consensus over Nasser’s historical role? Not necessarily.
In fact, the assessment of that role has been the subject of a long and still unresolved controversy. While some glorify the Egyptian leader to saint-like proportion, others vilify him and regard him responsible for the current state of deterioration in the Arab region, the seeds for which, they say, were sown in the Nasserist era. While such a sharp polarity has always existed, the close observer of the debate today will have observed that most of those who defend Nasser use their defence as a means to justify the renewed prevalence of the military establishment in political life on the grounds that the army is the sole guarantee of the safety of the state in this tumultuous region that is so vulnerable to foreign designs.
Observers will simultaneously have noted that most of the fiercest critics of Nasser use their attacks as a means to justify the political ambitions of Islamist groups, which they claim reflect the will of the people as expressed in the ballot box.
When the controversy over Nasser and his historical role assumes such a character, it seems as though the peoples of this region are trapped in a vice-like dilemma.
On one side is the army that seeks to impose its hegemony in the name of the state, on the grounds that it is best equipped to protect the state against the conspiracies that seek to dismantle it; on the other are the groups and organisations that seek to impose their hegemony in the name of Islam, on the basis of the claim that they are best qualified to protect the faith and apply divine law. Such a dichotomy is very misleading. It confuses issues, contains gross generalisations, warps historical facts and distorts the actual roles played by major political and military leaders.
It therefore seems appropriate, as we commemorate the anniversary of Nasser’s death, to put an end to the deliberate obfuscation and try to derive the correct lessons from the Nasserist experience.
There were two sides to Nasser that have often been deliberately confused. One is the bright side on which we find his role in forging and steering the political project of the July 1952 Revolution. By “project” here I refer to the totality of domestic and foreign policies that expressed the July Revolution’s stances on such questions as national independence, autonomous development, Arab unity and nonalignment.
As the general outlooks on such issues underwent radical changes following the death of Nasser we would not be greatly wrong to hold that Nasser, himself, through his ideas and stances, embodied the spirit and values of the political project of the July Revolution.
On the other, darker side, we find the political regime that took shape under Nasser’s rule. As this aspect did not undergo substantial changes between Nasser’s death in 1970 and the January Revolution in 2011, we can say that that regime was more a manifestation of the political, economic, cultural and historical realities of Egyptian society than it was a reflection of Nasser’s personal political choices and thinking.
Nasser was not a mere aspiring youth who enrolled in the military academy en route to using the army as a means to seize control of power and satisfy his personal ambitions. His biography indicates that he became politically aware at an early age and this led him to become involved in the concerns of his nation. He began to take part in student demonstrations while only 13 years old.
He joined political parties and unconventional political groups for short periods of time. He was a voracious reader in various branches of knowledge. When he failed in his first attempt to enrol in the military academy he enrolled in the faculty of law in which he remained for six months until his second application to the military academy succeeded.
This brief account of his early life indicates that Nasser’s political vision had nearly matured before he joined the military academy and that he had concluded from his experiences that the political parties at the time were not commensurate to society’s nationalist aspirations and that the army offered hope for realising the desired changes.
We can also deduce from his readings in the military sciences and the biographies of historical political and military leaders that he had begun to contemplate preparing himself for a historic role. This helps explain why he became an active member of secret cells in the army until he became the elected chairman of the executive committee of the Free Officers Movement, the group that succeeded in seizing power in Cairo on the evening of 23 July 1952.
It is important to draw attention to two significant facts here. Firstly, Nasser’s command of the Free Officers organisation had never been questioned or disputed by any of his colleagues before or after the revolution. This is testimony to his charismatic power. Secondly, the structure of that organisation reflected the overall ideological and political outlooks that prevailed among the ranks of the Egyptian national movement in all their diversity.
The organisation became a natural extension of that movement without becoming officially or organisationally linked with any of its parties or factions.
During his period of rule, Nasser was able to fundamentally alter the face of life in Egypt and the Arab region and he played no small part in changing the world as a whole at the time. Although he made some grave mistakes that sometimes had catastrophic consequences, such as the collapse of the unity between Egypt and Syria in 1962 and the military debacle that led to the Israeli occupation of Sinai, the Golan and what remained of Palestine, no one ever questioned the genuineness of his patriotic motives or his personal integrity.
This explains why the Egyptian and Arab peoples rallied behind him even during the most painful moments of defeat and despair. Testimony to this is to be found in the Syrian crowds that escorted his car on their backs during his first visit to Damascus after the declaration of unification between Egypt and Syria in 1958, in the outpouring of Egyptian crowds on 9 and 10 June 1967 to urge him to retract his resignation following the defeat in the 1967 war, in the huge and warm popular reception he received in Khartoum in November of that year despite the defeat, and in the massive attendance at his funeral procession in 1970.
Nasser’s huge and almost fanatic popularity in Egypt and elsewhere in the Arab region clearly reflected a widespread grassroots support for the political project of the July Revolution, which enabled Nasser’s bright side to shine. However, the Nasserist experience also produced a system of government characterised by a security apparatus that committed many abuses and by a curious and complex relationship between the head of the executive authority — Nasser — and the head of the military establishment — Field Marshal Abdel-Hakim Amer.
This would cast into relief Nasser’s dark side and exact a heavy toll on the revolution’s political project. As the system of government produced by the July Revolution paved the way to power for such individuals as Anwar Al-Sadat and Hosni Mubarak it would not be excessive to say that that revolution’s political regime is what caused the decline and defeat of its political project.
Since the July Revolution to the present day, the military establishment in Egypt has produced three modes of historic leadership, each of which met a different fate. The first is the revered leader — epitomised by Nasser — who led the country for 16 years during which Egypt underwent major domestic and foreign battles that brought both great achievements and disastrous defeat. When Nasser died of a sudden heart attack he was still widely loved and respected even though he had been unable to liberate Sinai.
The second is the adventurous or risk-taking leader. This was epitomised by Sadat who, during his 11 years in power, led Egypt through a successful war that led to a separate peace treaty that failed to bring peace. Sadat would meet his end by assassination in one of the most horrific incidents of political violence in the history of Egypt.
The third type is the civil service leader epitomised by Mubarak, who ruled the country for nearly a third of a century. Egypt experienced no major battles or major accomplishments during that era which was brought to an end by a massive grassroots revolution that overthrew the Mubarak regime while Mubarak himself would ultimately be sentenced to three years in prison.
If there is a proper lesson to be learned from the Nasserist experience it is that only democratic government is capable of sustaining any national project and safeguarding the gains it promises the people in the long run. This is the lesson that President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi should learn well.
*The writer is professor of political science at Cairo University.
*This article was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly