Egypt celebrated Monday, 15 January, the 100th anniversary of late president Gamal Abdel-Nasser’s birth, the Egyptian leader who reshaped Egypt in the second half of the 20th century. The way the traditional and social media covered this historic occasion reflected his legacy. Wide coverage of his life and accomplishments, coupled with a certain nostalgia for his times and the driving principles and ideas that had governed his 16-year rule from 1956, the year he was chosen president, till 28 September 1970, the day he passed away.
Three main themes were stressed; namely, social justice and ensuring equality of opportunities for every Egyptian regardless of where he stood on the social ladder; social and economic development with massive industrialisation programmes; and free and independent foreign policy in a highly polarised international system at the height of the Cold War years, with an emphasis on his Arab and African policies.
On the other hand, it should not come as a surprise that certain articles dealt with what they termed the failures of the Nasser era, mainly the lack of democracy and public liberties, as well as the military defeat in the Six-Day War in June 1967. Nonetheless, most of the coverage was on the positive side, in particular on social and economic policies in the Nasser era.
The coverage of the Nasser centennial came not only as a historic exercise, but also in the midst of growing social and economic discontent due to the destabilising fallout of the government’s reform programme and the results of floating the Egyptian pound, a decision that has exacted a heavy price on most Egyptians. Some government critics used the occasion to criticise governmental policies. Others, mainly the Islamists and the so-called “liberals” — in particular those who had come to the fore after the January uprising of 2011 — dealt, in critical terms, with the role of the military in society and politics in Egypt since July 1952, when the military had overthrown the former monarchy and established the Egyptian Republic on 18 June 1953. Their target was not Nasser as such, but rather political developments in the country post-July 2013.
Media coverage of the centennial of Nasser’s birth has coincided with the official announcement of the conditions and timetables of the presidential elections in Egypt in March. The final results are scheduled to be announced in the first week of May. Writers and commentators who elaborated on the pluses and minuses of the Nasser era had these elections in mind when assessing Nasser’s policies. Some writers and commentators tried their best to analyse Nasser, the leader and the person, and his policies in an objective way in the context of his times, and the problems and challenges that had confronted Egypt in the first half of the 20th century.
For Nasser, in the final analysis, was the son of that Egypt. His leadership reflected and embodied the aspirations of most Egyptians — his visions and political philosophy were not widely different from those the majority of Egyptians had held. To assess his legacy in the light of today’s world would greatly miss his highly-significant contributions to the general betterment and welfare of the “toiling masses” within Egypt, let alone his vast popular appeal to Arabs and Africans, an appeal that still resounds today.
The social and economic model that he planned and implemented has proved its perpetual popularity with Egyptians, despite the fact that it has come under constant and fierce attacks in the last four decades. This model contrasts sharply with that of the present government, and previous ones prior to January 2011.
Egyptians don’t question the very idea of economic reform as such, but what they do question is who should bear its cost, as well as its pace. Maybe the debates that will ensue among the various candidates in the presidential campaign in the country shortly will deal with these issues. They should. That’s what Egyptians are waiting to hear. In this context, the celebrations of Nasser’s centennial gains in importance and relevance in light of these popular worries and concerns, not only at present but also concerning the future, near and far. I doubt if the candidates, including the incumbent president, could leave these worries and concerns behind without charting new roads to economic welfare and political stability.
Similarly, Nasser’s centennial occurred one year exactly before another centennial of historic proportion; that is the 1919 Revolution, that had inaugurated the dawn of present-day Egypt. Nasser himself and his generation were the sons of this national revolution and its leaders, foremost among them Saad Zaghloul. During the Nasser era, the 1919 Revolution was recognised as a historic event of great impact in the political and economic development of Egypt, but it had been lacking in social and economic terms. The July Revolution of 1952 that had brought Nasser to power happened as a reaction to these failings.
The year that stands between the two centennials should be an opportunity for Egyptians to reflect back on Egypt of the 20th century that had seen two mass revolutionary movements to bring Egypt into the modern world. Egyptians are called upon to draw inspiration from Nasser’s centennial, and the centennial of the 1919 Revolution in March 2019, to bring Egypt, once again, into the world of today, an independent and free Egypt, that is economically-thriving and politically-pluralist based on good governance and the rule of law. It is challenging, without doubt, but it is worth trying.
Revolutions succeed and deliver when they mobilise the people behind their ideals and goals. The two Egyptian revolutions of the 20th century, the 1919 and 1952 revolutions, are two examples from our modern history that went a long way in this respect.
May the two centennials, taken together, be an inspiration in the years to come.
May you rest in peace, president Gamal Abdel-Nasser.
The writer is former assistant to the foreign minister.
*This article was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly