The legacy of Nasserism

Ahmed El-Tonsi, Monday 15 Jan 2018

Despite efforts to bury his legacy, the ideas and example of former president Gamal Abdel-Nasser have entered the collective memory of many Egyptians

Nasser, a genuine leader who has become a solid reference for many current issues as well as for future directions.

The final years of ousted former president Hosni Mubarak’s rule witnessed a new wave of harsh criticisms of former president Gamal Abdel-Nasser and of the Nasserite era, with many of its policies becoming the target for some older, as well as many newer, detractors working in different media.

Many such detractors had a long history of visceral hatred of Nasser and everything that related to his era. And it should not have come as a surprise that some of the private TV channels and newspapers were in the forefront of this new wave, some of their commentators repeating the same slogans that had become familiar in the 1970s with the wave of criticism of Nasser that accompanied president Anwar Sadat’s de-Nasserisation policies.

The neo-liberal economic policies adopted by the ousted Mubarak regime led to the emergence of a new social class with a vested interest in maintaining and further consolidating its sociopolitical domination of state and society. For such new elites, the negation of everything the Nasserite era represented was a priority in order to discredit any alternative to the prevailing neo-liberal economic order.

According to French historian Anne-Claire Kerbouef, the newer and older liberal elites have also been allowed to express nostalgia for the monarchy. Remarkable attention has been paid in certain media outlets to deceased members of the former royal family, with interviews highlighting their suffering and reactions to the events that happened during the Nasserite era, particularly the 1967 Naksa, or setback. There has also been a television series about king Farouk and a flood of books about his era. What has made the expression of such nostalgia easier has been the fact that some of the new business tycoons, Egyptians and Arabs, have expanded their activities to include the media, particularly the satellite TV channels.

Moreover, as the Anglo-American historian Roger Owen has pointed out, Mubarak himself was pushed during his later years towards a much more monarchial style of presidency. It can be argued that the grooming of Gamal Mubarak as heir apparent was one example of the changing style of the presidency during Mubarak’s later years. Beyond the changes in style were changes in the actual performance of the Mubarak regime, which tried to make Nasser’s ideas look like dissenting ones that had to be seen as part of history.

The Israeli historian Meir Hatina wrote at the time that “although the official and symbolic linkage to the 1952 Revolution was preserved, state policies in fact represented a continued process of de-Nasserisation.” Many of the Mubarak regime’s policies, both domestic and foreign, were diametrically opposed to Nasser’s main policy orientations. The sale of public-sector assets to groups of businessmen, for example, was a typical example of Mubarak’s abandonment of Nasser’s major emphasis in socioeconomic development.

Formal dissociation from the Nasserite heritage came in 2007 with the constitutional amendments that deleted or amended articles relating to socialism and the public sector. Perhaps the only constitutional legacy left untouched was that relating to the 50 per cent of farmers and workers that are supposed to sit in all elected assemblies. Ironically, and perhaps for the same electoral reasons, this ratio has continued to be included in the recently promulgated 2012 constitution.

However, among the surprises of the 25 January Revolution was the presence of Nasser across the political landscape, both during the events and in their aftermath. Many people at the time identified the cardinal slogans of the revolution, such as social justice and human dignity, as having been ramifications of Nasserite slogans and discourse. Photographs of Nasser were raised by some demonstrators. In other words, the continued presence of Nasser and all that he represented to certain sectors participating in the revolution were quite evident, despite all the formal and informal efforts to tarnish and bury his legacy.

That Nasser was linked to social justice is a fact in as much as his record in this domain was his major contribution to the transformation of Egyptian society. The younger generation, Generation Y, which represents over 60 per cent of all Egyptians, has witnessed the slow retreat of the state from the functions it performed during Nasser’s era, such as centralised planning, the provision of free education and access to healthcare. This generation was deliberately pushed out of public affairs by the systematic efforts of the ousted regime, yet Nasser nevertheless became an integral part of the collective memory of Egyptians and one that was passed from one generation to the next.

Evidently, many members of Generation Y have been able to grasp this collective memory while disregarding a great deal of the criticisms made by many of Nasser’s detractors. What such young Egyptians remember about Nasser are not his own projects, such as the expansion of the public sector, but rather their implications in terms of industrialisation, economic independence, employment opportunities, and a more egalitarian society. This is not to say that this generation has not also criticised Nasser’s mistakes and failures. Rather, it has been more ambitious than Nasser in that it has also demanded the kind of fully-fledged liberal democracy that Nasser himself did not believe could bring about the real transformation of Egyptian society.

Public memory, according to US historian John Bodnar in his pioneering work Remaking America, is a body of beliefs and ideas that “help a public or society understand both its past and its present and by implication its future.” In other words, collective memory entails some sort of perspective when it comes to future events, actions or decisions. During the revolution and its aftermath, there was serious debate about Nasser’s legacy and what could be extrapolated from his myriad successes and failures. For a variety of reasons, this debate was drawn into day-to-day politics, ending up in an over-simplistic generalisation about 60 years of military rule.

Yet, none of those who made such generalisations, including those in power, offered any new paradigm, whether economic, political or societal, that could be termed as reform let alone as revolution. No wonder, then, that social justice as a solid perspective drawn from Nasserism was totally missing in this debate about a common historiography, even though it was among, if it was not also the most important, objectives of the 25 January Revolution.

In a recent anti-Nasser book entitled Nasser’s Gamble, Israeli historian Jesse Ferris describes Nasser as having had a larger-than-life personality. This was something that was very much true of a genuine leader who has become a solid reference for many current issues as well as for future directions.

*This article was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly 

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