Egypt marked the 50th anniversary of the death of president Gamal Abdel-Nasser on Monday with a plethora of television channels, newspapers and magazines reviewing his policies and raising the question of whether his legacy is still relevant today.
According to prominent historian Assem El-Dessouki, Abdel-Nasser is still remembered in Egypt and the Arab world a leading advocate of social justice, Arab nationalism and political independence.
“To achieve these objectives, Nasser fought battles that became an integral part of Egypt’s modern history,” said Al-Dessouki. “Nasser’s decisions to nationalise the Suez Canal, build the High Dam, and join the Non-Aligned Movement were some of the policies which made him a seminal figure throughout the third world.
Nasser was born in Alexandria on 15 January 1918. His first experience of politics came when he was just 12 years old.
“In 1930 he was one of hundreds of schoolboys who protested against the decision of Ismail Sedki’s government to scrap the liberal constitution of 1923,” said Hoda Nasser, the late president’s daughter. “In 1935 he led a demonstration from Cairo’s Al-Nahda School demanding complete independence from Britain. While many students were arrested Nasser was lucky to escape with a scar on his forehead.”
Many date Nasser’s first step towards power to 1937, the year he joined the Military Academy.
“After the Anglo-Egyptian treaty in 1936 a few Egyptians were allowed to enter the academy,” says Hoda. “In 1936 Nasser joined the Faculty of Law but when the Military Academy decided to open the door to another batch of young Egyptians he decided to apply.”
In 1948 Nasser joined the war in Palestine. When the conflict ended, he and a handful of officers began to meet regularly to discuss how to change the regime. During the period between 1948 and 1950 the Free Officers Movement began to take shape. Khaled Mohieddin, a member of the movement, wrote in his book Now I Talk that the first meetings of the group who would take power in 1952 were held in Nasser’s home in East Cairo.
“Our slogans at the time were to liberate Egypt from the British occupation, get rid of the monarchy and the feudal regime, and modernise the country,” wrote Mohieddin.
On 23 July 1952 Nasser led the revolution against the monarchy. The early years of the new regime, between 1952 and 1955, were a time of intense power struggles.
“In these years Nasser began to implement a social justice agenda, heralded by the Agrarian Reform law of September 1952 which restricted ownership of cultivated land to 200 feddans per family,” says historian Assem Al-Dessouki.
The year 1955 was a milestone in Nasser’s ascent to power. Nasser’s main rival, General Mohamed Naguib, was placed under house arrest at the end of 1954, and the Muslim Brotherhood group, which had tried to assassinate Nasser in October 1954, was outlawed and its leaders interred. “In 1955 Nasser also reached a successful agreement under which Britain would acknowledge the independence of Egypt and withdraw its troops within a year,” says Al-Dessouki.
Nasser fought his first battle with the West in 1955. His decision to buy weapons from the Soviet Union had angered the US and the UK and in response the US decided in early July 1956 to withdraw its offer to finance the High Dam project. “This was not a problem in itself, but Nasser saw the manner in which US secretary of state John Foster Dulles declared the decision was intended to humiliate him. Within days, in a speech on 26 July 1956 in Alexandria, Nasser, who had been elected president a month before, announced his decision to nationalise the Suez Canal Company.”
In Nasser’s words: “Everything which was stolen from us by the imperialist International Suez Canal Company, that state within a state, when we were dying from hunger, we are going to take back. The government has decided on the following law: a presidential decree nationalising the company. In the name of the nation, the president of the republic declares the International Suez Canal Company an Egyptian Limited Company.”
In the West, Nasser’s nationalisation of the Suez Canal Company was viewed as an act of political defiance. After almost three summer months of tension the UK, France and Israel joined forces to attack Egypt on 29 October. The attack left Britain and France in control of the Suez Canal and Israel occupying the Sinai Peninsula.
Undeterred by the attack, Nasser chose to go to Al-Azhar Mosque in Cairo on 2 November to rally the people.
“For every one of us, among the Armed Forces and the people, our slogan will be: we will fight and we will not surrender… I and my family are here in Cairo and I will fight with you against any invasion. We will defend our country, our history and our future.”
Nasser’s daughter Hoda said her father received news of the tripartite attacks on Sinai, the Suez Canal cities and Cairo while celebrating the birthday of his son Abdel-Hamid.
“We were celebrating my brother’s birthday in the garden when someone came and spoke to my father. He then asked us to leave the garden and go inside the house. This was on Monday 29 October, 1956, and few hours later we knew that Israeli forces were storming Sinai.”
Hoda Abdel-Nasser says the aggression was brought to a halt by Washington’s objections to the action and Russian intervention in support of Egypt.
“Britain and France agreed to leave, and by the end of December their troops had withdrawn from Suez. The Israelis were forced to leave Sinai in March 1956,” says Hoda. “Then came the fallout from the aggression. British prime minister Antony Eden resigned in January 1957, and the two old colonial empires of Britain and France began to crumble.
“In 2000, when I visited South Africa and met Nelson Mandela,” recalls Hoda, “he told me my father’s victory against the Tripartite Aggression in 1956 was a great inspiration in the fight against racial discrimination in South Africa.”
Nasser became the undisputed leader of the Arab world, says Al-Dessouki, “a hero who was able to stand up to superpowers and even humiliate them”.
Another milestone in Nasser’s political life came in 1958. “It was a year of great victory for Nasser, the tide of Arab Nationalism and the peak of Egypt’s influence,” argues Al-Dessouki. “In February Egypt and Syria opted to become one state, and in July, five months after the United Arab Republic was formed, the UK-led Baghdad Pact, established to stand up to Soviet infiltration into the Arab world and the Middle East, collapsed.”
The 1960s, however, saw a reversal of the gains made in the previous decade. In September 1961 the United Arab Republic was disbanded. Nasser blamed “Arab reactionary forces and imperial powers for the collapse of the union with Syria, as well as powerful landowners and local capitalists.
“As a result,” says Al-Dessouki, “Nasser embarked on a massive programme of nationalisations and another wave of land reform in Egypt. In 1965 a second five-year development plan was launched focusing on heavy industries.”
The greatest fiasco in the 1960s came when Nasser decided to intervene in Yemen. The war cost Egypt’s financial and military resources dearly, paving the way for Egypt’s defeat in the Six Day War in 1967.
Al-Dessouki views the 1967 War as an extension of the confrontation between Nasser and the West.
“Israel, and the US under president Lyndon Johnson, engineered the war because of Nasser’s persistent defiance of American policies in Africa, the Middle East and Asia and his refusal to reach a peace agreement with Israel,” says Al-Dessouki.
“The 1967 defeat was an enormous blow to Nasser’s leadership and regime. The three years between 1967 and 1970 were very painful for Nasser as he was forced to rebuild the army from scratch.”
Hoda concurs that the three years between 1967 and 1970 were very hard for her father.
“There was the Israeli occupation of Sinai, closure of the Suez Canal, economic crises and street protests. But Nasser stood firm, refusing to compromise and insisting on rebuilding the army to recapture the occupied land.”
After Nasser’s death on 28 September 1970, Anwar Al-Sadat was elected as president of Egypt. At first Sadat appeared to be continuing Nasser’s legacy.
“But soon after the October War in 1973 Sadat railed against Nasser’s socialist policies and directed a blow at Arab nationalism by holding peace talks with Israel and opting to become an American ally,” says Al-Dessouki. “The anti-Nasserist policies continued under Sadat’s successor Hosni Mubarak. During this long period Islamist movements flourished and socialist policies were scrapped.”
Hoda says her father’s socialist and Arab nationalist policies are still admired in Egypt and across the Arab world: “While the abandoning of Arab nationalism led to the collapse of states like Syria, Libya and Yemen, the adoption of neoliberal economic policies provoked protests on the Arab street asking for Nasser’s model of social justice.”
*A version of this article appears in print in the 1 October, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.