Hundreds gathered on Monday at the grave of former Egyptian president Gamal Abdel-Nasser to mark his birthday 100 years ago, surrounding his family members and leaders of Nasserist parties who continue to defend his legacy. Many came from Arab countries, including Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, Algeria and Yemen, dubbing Nasser the “champion of Arab unity”.
There were also dozens of ordinary Egyptians who came carrying black and white photos of the charismatic leader waving to the masses or with a close-up of his shining eyes that added to his charisma. One man spoke directly to his grave. “Where are you Nasser? We need you so much nowadays. We the poor have no one to defend us,” he said.
In Egypt and the rest of the Arab world, there is one common factor which binds those who gathered to mark the birth of Nasser: mostly elderly people who still remember what they considered to be glories of the past. Considering that Nasser passed away nearly 50 years ago, on 28 September 1970, the new generations of younger Egyptians hardly know much about the late leader.
According to the latest population census, nearly 70 per cent of Egyptians are less than 35 years old, and those younger generations were not part of Nasser’s struggles, wars or controversies. Thus, there were hardly any young people at many celebrations held this week by the government and Nasserist political leaders to mark the occasion.
President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi delivered a speech on Monday, praising Nasser as the “leader of national independence who placed Egypt at the centre of international attention through his support of international liberation movements in the Arab world, Africa, Asia and even Latin America.” Al-Sisi also reminded Egyptians of Nasser’s record as the man who fought for social justice, free education and free healthcare.
“Whether you like Nasser or hate Nasser, there’s one thing you can’t dispute,” says Abdallah Al-Senawi, 65, a prominent Nasserist writer who strongly defends the late leader. “He rewrote Egypt’s history in a way that no one can ignore, and he will always be remembered, whether 100 years after his birth or 200 years after his birth.”
Nasser will always be remembered as the political leader who changed the course of history in Egypt by overthrowing the long-established monarchy on 23 July 1952, and engraving his name as the first Egyptian to rule the country in thousands of years. But sharp differences over the consequences over this move and Nasser’s record will also likely remain forever.
For Al-Senawi and leaders of the Nasserist Karama Party, Nasser was the champion of Egypt’s independence from British occupation, the man of the poor who radically shifted social and economic relations through land reform laws and nationalisation of private businesses, and who led the confrontation against Israel’s occupation of Palestine.
However, each of these achievements was seen as a disaster by those who oppose Nasser and those who were harmed by his economic policies. Big landowners whose massive properties were confiscated, foreigners who were forced to leave Egypt and liberal politicians whose political parties were shut down by a presidential decree in 1954, hold deep grievances towards Nasser. Supporters of turning Egypt into a democracy, even if they call for social justice, will never forgive Nasser for establishing what they describe as a “security state” where security agencies had the upper hand, preventing citizens from speaking freely and banning political parties for many years.
Even after former president Anwar Al-Sadat allowed the return of political parties in 1977 while seeking to reverse Nasser’s policies and alliances from the socialist former Soviet Union to the United States, this remained a cosmetic change. Both Sadat and former president Hosni Mubarak, who ruled Egypt for 30 years, maintained the rule of the single party and sole leader that marked Nasser’s era. Mubarak was forcibly removed from office following a popular revolt against his rule on 25 January 2011.
The timeline on social media websites Facebook and Twitter clearly reflected the deep divisions over Nasser’s legacy. “Of course we have to celebrate Nasser’s record, especially that he never won a single war he fought,” commented one man sarcastically.
Even hardline supporters of Nasser, such as Al-Senawi, cannot deny that the biggest blow to Nasser, if not the practical end of his ambitious projects, was Egypt’s defeat by Israel on 5 June 1967. Besides the humiliating defeat of Egypt’s army in only six days and Israel’s occupation of Sinai, the West Bank, Gaza Strip and Syria’s Golan Heights, what made the defeat much worse for Al-Senawi’s generation was the extremely high sense of expectation that the war would be more like a picnic, and that Egypt’s victory was near certain.
Nasser’s control over the media, mainly through nationalisation of all the private press turned them into a propaganda tool, conveying only positive messages to Egyptians. While Israel destroyed all of Egypt’s fighter jets while they laid on the tarmac hours after the war broke out on 5 June 1967, the government press was claiming that Egyptian air defences downed dozens of Israeli planes, and that the army was pressing its way towards Tel Aviv.
“The shock was very hard for anyone to absorb,” admits Maasoum Marzouk, a former army officer and diplomat who supports Nasser. “However, what was fascinating was the way Egyptians refused defeat, and called it a setback, after which we resumed building our army and the fight against Israel until victory was achieved in 1973,” Marzouk added.
A two-day workshop was held at the Nasserist Karama Party last week, with dozens of experts from Egypt and other Arab countries taking part to discuss how to revive Nasser’s “project” while coping with modern times. “Certainly we need to benefit from Nasser’s policies favouring the poor and social justice. Yet, we also have to admit his mistakes, while putting them into context,” Marzouk added.
At the Karama workshop, Mohamed Said Idriss of the Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic studies, said Nasser’s shortcomings “have to be taken within the historic context of the period during which he ruled Egypt”. Idriss argued that the model Nasser presented was not uncommon during the era of liberation movements and the Cold War between the US and the former Soviet Union. “When we had one war after the other against Israel, it made sense to place control over the media and public freedoms. But right now, many years later, democracy and human rights must be at the core of any attempt to revive Nasser’s legacy,” said Idriss.
“We need Nasser’s commitment to the Arab world, his pride in Egypt’s independence and defence of the country’s poor. But we also need to stress democracy and the rule of law, especially that it is unlikely that we will see a charismatic leader such as Nasser anytime soon in Egypt or the rest of the Arab world.”
*This article was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly