INTERVIEW: Mustafa Kamel El-Sayyed – Nasser's complex legacy lives on

Dina Ezzat , Sunday 14 Jan 2018

This month marks the centennial of the birth of Gamal Abdel Nasser, one of the most revered and also criticised of Egypt's modern leaders

Mustafa Kamel El-Sayyed (Photo: Al-Ahram)

It is almost 65 years since Gamal Abdel Nasser emerged as a political figure, being a member of the Free Officers Movement that removed King Farouk, Egypt’s last monarch. It is over 35 years since his death on an early autumn afternoon, and exactly 100 years since his birth in a village in Upper Egypt on 16 January 1918.

The 100th anniversary of the birth of Nasser, just like every other anniversary related to this highly admired and criticised leader of Egypt, prompts debate about the legacy of the man who could safely be described as Egypt’s most legendary modern leader.

“It is true that there is a debate on Nasser on the 100th anniversary of his birth, but it is also true that today the vast majority of Egyptians don’t really relate to the Nasser era,” argues political scientist Mustafa Kamel El-Sayyed.

He notes that, according to a recent poll conducted by Baseera (the Egyptian Centre for Public Opinion Research), most of those who relate to the Nasser era are those who lived through it or were around during the tail-end.

According to the same poll, most young men and women are more attuned to the eras of Anwar Sadat, who ruled from October 1970 to October 1981, and Hosni Mubarak, who ruled from October 1981 to February 2011.

According to El-Sayyed, those who have an association with the Nasser era were influenced by its major developments, from June 1956 to September 1970, like the construction of the High Dam, the mega-industrialisation scheme, and agrarian land reform, or the management of foreign policy on the regional and international levels, including the shocking military defeat of 1967 that derailed Nasser’s grand plan.

El-Sayyed adds that in the minds of those who lived the Nasser years, or who were born on the fringes of his rule, Nasser was a leader who was sensitive to the priorities of the vast majority of the population in his choice of economic policies and projects, which were designed to have a positive impact on the lives of Egyptians, something “missed after Nasser” in many ways.

Nasser legacy 

The socioeconomic and foreign policy outlooks of Nasser were only part of a larger legacy of the leader, who had an “unmatched” political presence at home and beyond in a way that allowed for Egyptian influence over crucial world developments, such as national-liberation movements in Arab countries, Africa and the Third World, El-Sayyed argues.

According to El-Sayyed, the findings of the recent Baseera poll about generational associations with Nasser do not contrast with the fact that during the 18 days of the January 2011 Revolution, some demonstrators carried pictures of Nasser.

“We cannot say that this was the attitude of most demonstrators. I think it would be fair to argue that those who carried Nasser’s picture during the days of the January Revolution were either those who fall into the category of association with his era or those who have political affiliation or even affinity to the policies he championed,” El-Sayyed suggests.

According to El-Sayyed, the true legacy of Nasser relates to his identification with the cause of uplifting the lives of Egyptians and the profile of Egypt as a leading state in the region, standing up to the leading powers of the time.

It is unfortunate, El-Sayyed opines, that some today try to reduce the legacy of Nasser to his policies toward political Islam, essentially the Muslim Brotherhood, which was subjected to a crack down early on in Nasser’s rule.

“If we examine the dramatic changes in the life of the late Sayyed Qutb, a leading figure in the radicalisation movement of the Muslim Brotherhood, we could see a man who changed from being a leading supporter of the Free Officers, a writer and art critic, into an advocate of a very radical position that rejected society for its poor faith and called for the renovation of this faith by a selected few whose genuine faith was purified,” El-Sayyed argues.

Muslim Brotherhood 'concept of jihad' 

Nasser’s coercion of the Islamists was mainly of the leadership of the group. El-Sayyed also notes, while analysing the radicalisation of the Muslim Brotherhood, “We also need to keep in mind a relatively similar coercion to which Egyptian communists were subject and did not prompt an equal reaction of radicalisation.”

“So we have to say that the radicalisation of Islamists that happened during the Nasser era was not just a function of their persecution but also a by-product of the concept of jihad [holy war] fundamental to their creed,” El-Sayyed says.

“This concept is not there in the creed of the communists who, on the one hand, believe in the possible evolution of society through an ideological approach, and on the other, could relate or even convert to the socialist line that Nasser himself was observing,” he adds.

At the time, El-Sayyed argues, “The communists had an issue with one social class, not with the entire society, as was the case with the Islamists.”

Further to the legacy of Nasser, El-Sayyed is willing to acknowledge what some Coptic movements today say was exaggerated credit given to Nasser for observing equal rights for Copts and Muslims. He agrees that, for the most part, there was a much larger presence of Copts in top government and political positions before 1952 than after.

“And, of course, needless to say that there was not a single Copt amongst the Free Officers,” he says.

El-Sayyed agrees that, throughout Nasser’s rule of close to 15 years, there was always only very humble Coptic representation in the cabinet, as well as some leading state bodies, “although this was not necessarily the case with important bodies like the police, judiciary and foreign service.”

However, he adds that, “While it is true that under Nasser we did not see a Copt assuming a leading ministerial post, as was the case prior to 1952, we cannot be certain on the exact picture, because there has not been an accurate study on the matter.

“The call that Nasser committed himself to, and believed in, was one of true modernisation with solid cornerstones of better access to essential services like education and health. And this was not an environment conducive to the promotion of much deliberate religious discrimination,” he suggests.

“For example, Nasser’s policies of nationalisation would not exclude either Muslims or Copts. The same goes for the application of agrarian reform measures,” he says.

Nasser and minorities 

In general terms, El-Sayyed argues, Nasser’s era could not be qualified as a tough one for minorities.

“Even if we talk about the Nubians, whose cultural heritage did suffer upon the construction of the High Dam on the land where they had their villages, we cannot argue that this was an act of ethnic discrimination against a minority,” El-Sayyed says.

“We are rather talking about an unfairness to a cultural heritage,” he adds.

It is perhaps with the Jews of Egypt that El-Sayyed would qualify the general conclusion of fairness. But he insists on relating the developments of the time to their wider political context.

The exodus of Jews from Egypt, El-Sayyed insists, was a development subsequent to the involvement of some in attacks that targeted foreign interests, “especially American interests in order to prompt a crisis in relations between Cairo and Washington, as we saw with the Lavon affair” of 1954.

In a similar context, El-Sayyed says, one should see state apprehension in the 1950s and 1960s against the Baha’is of Egypt, whose national loyalty was questioned due to their association with a religious ritual that used to be conducted in Haifa – already Israeli-occupied by the 1950s and 1960s.

In the analysis of El-Sayyed, while there are certainly things for which Nasser can be blamed, from an objective point of view, not least of which is the devastating defeat of 1967, Nasser’s entire legacy cannot be labelled a failure, as some Nasser critics would argue.

One example of unfair generalised blame, El-Sayyed says, was “the public sector”.

“Advocates of the free-market economy and unconditional liberalisation argue that it was always a failed model of ownership, but this is not the case, because it did serve the interests of a large segment of society, even if it had its share of mistakes, which by the way were acknowledged by the state,” he says.

Nasser himself, El-Sayyed says, talked about the issue in a public speech in which he approached a comparison between successful management of the Suez Canal and unsuccessful management of the public sector.

Moreover, El-Sayyed argues, “Nasser should not be fully blamed” for an exaggerated engagement of the armed forces in otherwise civilian tasks.

“In some cases, Nasser liked to lean on some of the officers he knew and trusted. But this was not done away from a large pool of experts in all top fields who provided advice to the president; and the president often acted upon this advice,” he insists.

As for the charge of Nasser’s failure to allow for democracy, El-Sayyed argues that this was not something Nasser alone could be blamed for. “After 1952, in fact, Nasser was among the very few in the Free Officers who was sceptical about dissolving all political parties."

El-Sayyed adds that the performance of political parties at the time was not successful — not just after 1952, where they were firmly opposed to the cause of social justice, but even before 1952, “where their excessive and damaging political haggling seem to be deliberately underestimated by some today.”

“I am not trying to justify the choices that Nasser made there, but again I am trying to preach that we need to put things in context. These were the 1950s and 1960s when the call all across the Third World was one for independence and liberalisation rather than democratisation, and when the examples were not those of the West, but rather those like Yugoslavia’s Josip Tito, who managed to start a process of modernisation, despite what we saw later of the practices of his rule,” El-Sayyed concludes.

*The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the interviewee's and do not necessarily reflect the position of Ahram Online.

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