We are now in the second half of July, a time when ten days or so before the 23rd of the month Facebook in Egypt erupts with people feeling an urge to express their views on former president Gamal Abdel-Nasser, the modern Egyptian state, on what went wrong, what went right and who was better – Nasser or his successor Anwar Al-Sadat.
Some people also say we should not forget Mohamed Naguib or king Farouk, individuals who are rightly thought of as Nasser’s victims. As a result, they are sometimes wrongly sanctified, Farouk especially so.
I’ll try to be more accurate about the people I mean. I am now 60 years old, and among my generation and my parents’ generation everybody wants to have their say. This is inspired by our experiences and is grounded in our recollections, as we all lived under Nasser and his heirs.
Memories of our parents doubtless plays a role. During the 1970s and 1980s, we used to spend hours with friends and schoolmates debating the question of how 1967 had been possible. People exchanged stories, shared recollections, and tried to stick to “lessons learnt”.
Of course, we also tried to figure out what happened in 1973, to assess how Sadat had managed the war, and to establish the accuracy of general Al-Shazli’s narrative of it, and so on.
However, our generations are now in a minority in Egypt. What about today’s young people? I do not have an answer to this question as we lack recent and reliable polls. However, I have a sample, definitely not representative, made up of my students and Facebook friends.
All my students speak foreign languages and almost all belong to the upper-middle classes with some exceptions.
According to some polls taken in 2011 or 2012, Nasser emerged as the clear number one among Egyptian political preferences, though he did not reach the threshold of 50 per cent. Sadat came a strong second.
When I lecture my students on “theories of revolution,” with Egypt’s as case studies, they show great interest, a willingness to read and learn, and some sometimes surprising twists.
For instance, though this is not related to Egypt, a brilliant student of mine with strong leftist inclinations once told me that the ultra-reactionary Roman Catholic writer Augustin Cochin was her preferred author. “I have finally read something really new and inspiring,” she said.
I cannot claim I have had discussions with all of them, but I can give some examples of what they say. Those who belong to very conservative families cannot understand how I can say that Nasser was a great man. He was a megalomaniac who crushed dissent and led Egypt to disaster, they say.
Liberals, on the other hand, tend to say that “what you are saying is very interesting, but it is so remote. However, it is interesting as it helps us to understand your world view.” By this, they mean “ferocious belief in independence and autonomy” and sceptical attitudes towards the West.
Others have told me they do not like Nasser and his brand of nationalism. After some discussion, it seems to me they think Nasser’s discourse sounds pretty much like the diatribes of some of those who call themselves “nationalists” today and who keep on imagining world conspiracies, horrible plots and lecture everybody on foreigners’ and fifth columnists’ misdeeds.
Most of my students tend to consider Nasser as the father of the “July state,” which is alive and kicking, powerful, authoritarian and unable to adapt itself to democratic needs. Many admit that this state has achieved many things and accomplished great deeds.
They differ on the question of whether we need it today.
Lastly, I have some students and acquaintances who think of Nasser’s era as a lost paradise. Egyptians trusted the leadership, had a lot of things in common including a grand design, did not need to pay attention to their daily needs as the state took care of them, and could devote their time to heroic deeds and sacred causes.
Of course, not all Nasser’s fans are as naïve as that. Many simply think of him as an honest patriot who dedicated his life to a grand design that should be an inspiration to all of us.
It should be noted that I think these young people do not necessarily see Nasser through their parents’ lenses. Rightly or wrongly, they believe they know the pros and the cons of the case, and they have their own opinions. However, it seems to me that many of them believe their parents’ views on Sadat.
Many are surprised when I evoke what his opponents have had to say about him.
Reviewing such themes could be very instructive, not for understanding Nasser and Sadat, but for understanding contemporary Egyptians.For now, I prefer to describe something that has surprised me, however.
Many students have said that Nasser was a “crypto-communist” and many others have thought he was a “crypto-Muslim Brother.” For them, Nasser agreed on the essentials with his “political family,” whether communist or Islamist, and the real clash was not about ideology but about who would seize power.
They underline the fact that Nasser was a Muslim Brother before the revolution and that he had had close contacts with HADETO, the Democratic Movement for National Liberation, a communist faction.
This is very unsound, however. Instead, we should say that Nasser was something like a centrist. This may sound paradoxical, except that French historian Fabrice Bouthillon has said in one of his best books that there are two opposite kinds of “centre,” a centre that excludes the extremes and a centre that includes them. Nasser excluded both extremes from the relevant circles of power, but he also borrowed many ideas from them and fitted them into his own doctrine.
This is one way to explain the problem. Another one stems from Nasser himself, especially as he once said that he read Marx with the Marxists and against them.
This meant that he thought it was necessary to analyse the social system using Marxist tools, but that he did not accept a scheme predicting or advocating an exacerbation of class struggle and culminating in revolution.
He was also too much of a nationalist to accept internationalism, especially as this was a cover for Soviet hegemony at the time. His own recipe was to “nationalise” the class struggle.
With Political Islam, the problem was different. Nasser shared some strong dislikes with the Brotherhood. He thought they were good on education, as they educated young people to become good Muslims and they disciplined them.
But he thought they totally lacked political or common sense and that they could not accept the logical consequences of the need for a united country fighting for its independence.
*The writer is a professor of international relations at the Collège de France and a visiting professor at Cairo University.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 25 July, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Nasser and the Facebook republic