Thirty-six years ago, I used to discuss politics with the late Father Maurice Martin, a Jesuit and subtle observer of political life in Egypt and Lebanon, combining an insider’s understanding with deep knowledge of the countryside. I needed to hear the advice of a wise man like him, able to transcend his preferences without betraying them.
And as a product of Egypt’s schooling system, and despite my frequent readings of historical books, I tended to strongly overestimate the might and the role of Egypt. As a newcomer in journalism, I frequently heard diplomats explaining to me Egypt is the only nation-state of the area (I later understood this not to be true), the oldest country, producing the brightest and most open-minded elite, the most important books and movies, the only serious Arab army, and a successful model of interreligious coexistence (in 1979/80, nobody in my circles thought confessional strife would last).
I read a lot of books elaborating on these notions of Egyptian exceptionalism. And at the same time, everybody thought the country was on the verge of collapse, would not be able to sort out alone its amazingly deep economic and political problems (parts of Sinai were still occupied). Fortunately, Sadat’s genius (this is not my terminology; I did not like the former president) gave the US an enormous stake in Egypt’s survival and it would not let the country go down. Egypt had to be a success story, to prove peace with Israel brought dividends, and if this proved an impossible goal, then at least things should not worsen.
I was always struck by this analysis, seemingly contradictory: a very powerful country, but on the verge of collapse.
Father Martin had another opinion and he stated it bluntly. Look, Egypt is basically a weak country that turned out to be exceptionally important because Nasser and Sadat had amazing international stature, exerted considerable influence, and were an inspiring model for a lot of different people.
“They were much more important than Egypt, and some of their speeches are key moments in world history, for instance Nasser’s nationalisation of the Suez Canal, or Sadat’s speech in Jerusalem.”
This was as shocking as it was stimulating. It was easy to dismiss by saying Nasser and Sadat were the “products” of Egypt’s education system, the sons of this country, and to repeat the conventional wisdom we all know on Egypt’s strategic importance and might.
I could also quote a top French diplomat, who served in Egypt during the second half of the 1970s and who returned as an ambassador at the end of Mubarak’s long reign: he told me how much he was impressed by Egyptian achievements. “if somebody had told me in 1976 that Egypt would some day look as it looks now, I would have laughed and I would have considered hime a stupid inveterate nationalist.”
Our terrible difficulties should not lead us to forget our achievements, and these achievements are the fruit of an impressive and relentless collective effort (like the 1973 war).
But Martin’s blunt statement led me to think about the economic costs and benefits of Nasser’s stature. The case against Nasser’s dreams and activism is well known: decisions, we are told, were taken without serious study and his adventurism proved terribly costly, whether the results were positive (the nationalisation of the Suez Canal), or mixed (the Yemen war: success was achieved at a very high price), or disastrous (the 1967 defeat). And, of course, we do not forget the number of victims – tens of thousands.
An important book titled The Politics of Miscalculation in the Middle East, by Richard Bordeaux Parker, a respected retired American diplomat, brilliantly proves this is a distinctive feature of Middle East politics.
And, of course, proving the decisions were more or less seriously pondered aggravates the problem. I already showed in my works Nasser’s choices after the Yemen coup were narrow. In September 1962, he was isolated in the Arab world, with no allies, with the exception of newcomer Algeria. And his influence in world affairs would terribly suffer, with incalculable consequences, if he let down the Yemeni coup. He would lose his considerable leverage over Third World liberation movements. And Egypt had a long term interest in seeing Britain leaving Aden.
On the opposite side of the balance, he could no longer count on American “indifference” if he had serious problems with their key allies in the region: London, Riyadh and Tel Aviv.
Charismatic leadership can easily destroy itself, as the legitimacy, the influence and the leverage of the leader permanently need to be sustained and fed by new great deeds and seemingly impossible exploits. At at some point during this permanent fight forward, disaster awaits.
On the other hand, what were the benefits for Egypt of Nasser’s stature? Between 1956 and 1967 (at least), during Western meetings — for instance in NATO, but not only NATO — no issue related to the Third World could be discussed without somebody asking quickly, "What is Nasser going to do?" We forget the main powers went to great lengths to placate our superman.
Nasser was able, at least at some points, to count on both superpowers’ financial support. For a very long time, Egypt could also rely on the support of all the Third World.
We can go even further, though it might sound provocative: if Sadat was able to gather so much support, and exert so great an influence, this is not only because he mastered the difficult arts of manipulating the media, of seducing wide audiences, of diplomatic surprises; it is also because relinquishing the legacy of Nasserism was a crucial issue for an important number of regional and international powers, which fervently supported Sadat’s de-Nasserisation.
To be continued.