A century has passed since the birth of the late Egyptian president Gamal Abdel-Nasser (1918-1970), who was the de facto leader of the Free Officers Movement that started in the army and led the 1952 Revolution with far-reaching implications for Egypt both domestically and internationally.
Nasserist forces, as well as some other pan-Arab nationalist and leftist forces, in Egypt and in some other Arab and other countries have been celebrating this anniversary over the past two weeks in different ways, including by holding cultural and intellectual activities.
It is undisputable that Nasser’s rule was and will continue to be controversial, and it gave rise to supporters and opponents in his lifetime and after his death. Substantial parts of this controversy relate to Nasser’s personality and pattern of rule, in addition to his policies, once more both inside and outside Egypt, whether political, economic, social or cultural.
Despite the thousands of books, academic articles and other publications that have appeared over the past seven decades regarding Nasser, there is always room for more, and fresh insights and new approaches dealing with general or specific aspects of his rule are always welcome.
In fact, at least theoretically the more historically remote we become from the era of Nasser, the clearer and more objective such analysis can be, particularly if we bear in mind two factors: namely, the need to neutralise ideological affiliations as far as possible and the equal need to avoid applying the criteria of today when discussing an era that ended almost five decades ago.
This article focuses on one aspect of the debate regarding Nasser and his legacy, namely the question of the sustainability of what he achieved and the related question of the need for the continuous follow-up and review of these achievements in order to revise policies or projects that have not been functioning as anticipated or have not been realised as planned. This issue has not only been argued about among his opponents, but also among his supporters as well.
The question here is not about democracy in the strict definition of the word, but is more about institutionalisation and the degree of success Nasser enjoyed in producing participatory institutions that enabled the people or their representatives to revise what was achieved and to decide on, or at least to recommend changes to, existing policies.
Nasser adopted policies and took decisions aimed at achieving progress on social justice in favour of the lower and middle classes of Egyptian society, or what could be called in the jargon of the international community today the economic and social empowerment of those classes.
However, the interpretation of what was done varies according to the position of each observer or analyst towards Nasser and also according to the ideological affiliations of each of them. Some argue that the aim of such measures was to return to the lower and middle classes their equitable share in their country’s wealth, while others argue that the goal was to consolidate Nasser’s own grip on power, which required the elimination, or at least the weakening, of the Egyptian bourgeoisie.
The latter had constituted the backbone of both the quasi-democratic system that had existed in Egypt before the 1952 Revolution, despite its deficiencies and particularly the frequent intervention of the then British occupation authorities and the king in its functioning, and of the quasi free-market economy that had existed prior to 1952.
Shortcomings in establishing sound, transparent and participatory political institutions in Egypt, even if these only represented the social strata that benefited from the socio-economic policies and projects implemented by Nasser, constitute one of the main reasons for the short life of these policies after the passing away of their initiator, whatever their motivations.
The fact that the political organisations established during the period between 1952 and 1970 were simply created by administrative decrees of the political leadership turned them into vehicles for political mobilisation rather than genuine channels for political participation.
They thus did not contribute to the decision-making process or provide the institutional means for the leadership to receive feedback about its policies and projects from the broadest possible spectrum of the population, including from their beneficiaries. Particularly after the 1967 military defeat, these institutions faced serious difficulties.
Moreover, these organisations were replaced on several occasions during Nasser’s own lifetime with the same ease with which they had been established. The “Liberation Rally” was replaced by the “National Union,” which was then replaced by the “Arab Socialist Union”. Even the latter organisation underwent a number of restructuring exercises during Nasser’s lifetime, and a “vanguard organ” was created within it in an attempt to overcome its deficiencies.
Finally, the was again restructured after Nasser’s death on 28 September 1970 into a “general political framework” under which three forums representing the right, the left and the centre were established. Finally, it was dismantled altogether, and, again by presidential decree, this time by the late president Anwar Al-Sadat, the three forums were declared fully-fledged political parties in November 1976.
Although it is true that institution-building might have been successful in some areas during Nasser’s rule, it is largely agreed that this does not apply to institution-building in the political domain, particularly in terms of the political organisations established during his rule. Other areas of institution-building during that era deserve analysis using an appropriate scientific and objective methodology.
*This article was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly