Nasser: A national hero or founder of a military state?

Dina Ezzat , Monday 23 Jul 2012

60 years after the 1952 revolution, it remains difficult to categorise Nasser definitively; many continue to see him as a hero, while others especially since the January 25 Revolution have started to question his legacy

Gamal Abdel-Nasser
Gamal Abdel-Nasser

"Gamal Abdel-Nasser! There was never anyone like him! He was a true leader, a man that the people genuinely loved and believed in," said Gamal, a company driver in his mid 50s working in Cairo.

Gamal was named after Nasser by his father. "I was born a few years after the Revolution and my father who was also from Upper Egypt like Gamal Abdel-Nasser decided to name me after him. I have always been always proud of my name".

Like many of his generation and socio-economic bracket, Gamal sees Gamal Abdel-Nasser not simply as the uncontested hero of the July Revolution but of contemporary Egyptian history.

"Nasser was the man who knew that Egyptians are predominantly poor and who decided to act with this fact in mind," said Ismail, an agricultural planner. "He was the leader who knew that Egypt has to be a strong and leading country and acted accordingly."

From a relatively well-off background, Ismail is "convinced hundred per cent that without social justice, no nation can make or secure development. A nation is like the land; there has to be equitable distribution of water if all the crops are to grow in a healthy way," he said.

Nasser's rule started two years after the July Revolution, when Nasser all but forced Mohamed Naguib the first president of the Republic to resign. For Gamal as for Ismail, the accounts of the violations of human rights that were committed under Nasser's regime Nasser's rule may very well be true.

"The fact of the matter," says Ismail, "is that when you assess the Nasser years, you have to do so with the negative and positive taken into consideration; and all in all the Nasser experience was something that many people benefited from. And that's despite the many shortcomings, including of course the humiliating defeat of 1967."

It is 60 years since the 23 July Revolution – a political earthquake that changed the way of life and politics, not just for Egypt but for the entire region. And six decades later, the name that remains most closely associated with this revolution is that of Nasser.

"Naguib was more of a symbol but the true leader I think was  Gamal Abdel-Nasser," said Gamal. He added, "And after he died came Anwar Sadat who was not all like him and of course (Hosni) Mubarak was very very different".

In his remarks on the 60th anniversary of the 23 July Revolution, Mohamed Morsi, Egypt's first non-military president since the July Revolution, dropped the traditional reference that his predecessors made to Nasser as the uncontested hero of this revolution.

"What Morsi says or does not say is not really important. Gamal Abdel-Nasser is Gamal Abdel-Nasser and Morsi would never ever have half the popularity that Nasser enjoyed and is still enjoying," Gamal said emphatically.

The popularity of Nasser, who passed away in September 1970 when he was in his early 50s, certainly persists. However, this popularity has, especially after the 25 January Revolution, been subject to a scrutiny. This scrutiny is particularly prompted by the growing criticism of "the rule of the military" from 1952 until the beginning of this month. At the start of July Morsi took over from the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) that has run the country since Mubarak, the last de facto military ruler of Egypt, stepped down on 11 February 2011.

"The state of Mubarak against which the 25 January Revolution turned against was the extension of the state of Nasser that was originally established by the July Revolution," said Ahmed Ragheb, a political and human rights activist.

According to Ragheb, the current debate over the status of the army in the constitution is only an outcome of the supremacy of the military that was firmly established with the July Revolution "especially after Nasser took over in 1954".

"Many people like to refer to Nasser as the national hero of the 1950s and 1960s and I myself as a teenager used to think of him in those terms," said the activist, born in 1980. "When you have a close look though at what really happened you cannot deny the basic fact that Nasser, despite the benefits he offered to the poor – as donations from the state and not as established citizens' rights – was the man who introduced the devastating role of security to eliminate his political adversaries. He labelled all his adversaries as enemies of the revolution and of the nation".

"It is true that things got incrementally worse under Sadat and later under Mubarak but the fact remains that the beginning was with Nasser," Ragheb argues. "Yes, there were individual differences between the character of Nasser and say Sadat that was reflected in the style of rule. But in essence it was the same: an uncontested ruler who decides for the nation and not a president who works for the nation."

For Ragheb there is hardly any difference between the "Kafr El-Dawar factor workers, Khamis and El-Baqari, who died at the hands of security a few weeks after the July Revolution during a protest against the administration arbitrary decision to remove them from their factory, and Khaled Said or Mina Daniel who died under the rule of Mubarak and that of SCAF."

Today, with the ascension of Morsi to power as the first elected non-military ruler, even if from the ranks of the Muslim Brotherhood, Ragheb added, "it is the moment when the image of the all powerful and coercive but just leader that was for years associated with Nasser is being questioned and effectively defeated".

As far as Ragheb is concerned there is hardly anything that could be really labeled Nasserism. "Nasser led a call and a move for the liberation of occupied Third World, especially Arab countries, this is true. And as he did so, he adopted a progressive discourse about the role of women and the right of Copts, but in fact this was not a cohesive policy but sporadic positions," he argued.

Activist Wael Khalil says, "If we are talking about social justice and political independence then we all subscribe to this, irrespective of the political label we associate ourselves with," Khalil said.

Today, Khalil argues it remains very difficult to put in one box – black or white because that particular leader was a man of many shades.

"And it is not very true to say that the 25 January Revolution concluded the debate against Nasser on the basis that the January revolution ended the military state that the July Revolution and Nasser in particular established because it was not just about the military rule or the elimination of the chances for democracy," Khalil suggested.

For political scientist Moustafa Kamel El-Sayed, Nasser "was and remains a national hero despite his many mistakes including his failure to opt for democracy and despite the 1967 defeat."

"It is very unfair to attempt to assess Nasser or the July Revolution on the basis of what has been going on since 1970 when Nasser passed away," El-Sayed argued. "What has been happening since Sadat and until the day Mubarak stepped down had nothing to do with the July Revolution, in fact it was the anti-thesis to the July Revolution," said El-Sayed.

And while acknowledging the shortcomings of Nasser, El-Sayed believes that the achievements of Nasser which related essentially to the concepts of social justice, sustainable development and independence were really what the people hoped for and wanted at the time"

"There were mistakes of course but at the end of the day Nasser was the leader that the vast majority of people truly related to; he was the strong leader that people looked up to. And," El-Sayed adds.

"under Nasser and despite the defeats and challenges, Egypt was the strong nation whose decisions were never taken lightly by any world power."

Short link: