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Makers of the Twentieth Century: Nasser

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Robert Stephens continues our series on the Makers of the 20th Century, with a look at how Nasser left his mark on nearly twenty years of Egyptian, Arab and world history. An anti-colonialist who extended his concern to the newly liberated countries of the Third World, he has been acclaimed as a nationalist liberator - and condemned as a warmonger.

'History will sentence him to death' was Nasser's valedictory comment on King Farouk when the Free Officers who led the 1952 Egyptian revolution were debating whether to execute or exile the deposed King.

What will be history's verdict on Gamal Abdul Nasser? How has the reputation of the Egyptian leader changed in the ten years since his death? How relevant are his ideas and his example to the problems of Egypt and the Arab world today? The reputations of great political figures, like those of great artists and writers, often suffer a slump after their death. Sometimes they recover, at least in part, in a later generation when the pain of their mistakes is less immediately felt and the problems they faced are more clearly understood. So it has been and may be with Nasser. Not surprisingly this decline in fame is especially true of political dictators who were able to stifle criticism or even public knowledge of their mistakes during their lifetime and whose idealised picture of themselves does not survive the demolition their successors may choose to carry out. Where the successors were closely associated with the former leader and derived their legitimacy from the continuity of the regime, as with Khrushchev and Stalin, Sadat and Nasser, the demolition may prove a tricky job, something like defusing a time-bomb. In trying to reform the unpopular aspects of the regime they have to be careful not to destroy themselves in the process.

Anwar Sadat, who took over the presidency of Egypt after Nasser died on September 29th, 1970, and has ruled ever since, has cautiously measured his treatment of Nasser according to his own political requirements. While attacking and reversing some of Nasser's key policies, especially his socialism – 'an utter failure', according to Sadat – his pan-Arabism and his close association with the Soviet Union, Sadat's treatment of Nasser personally has varied from a sepulchral silence meant to bury Nasser in oblivion to oblique denunciations and brief periods of more intense vilification in the controlled Cairo press. This 'de-Nasserisation' has been accompanied by claims to have inherited and improved on the main constructive achievements of the 1952 Revolution and the Nasser era. Sadat claims these improvements as the work of his own 'May 15th corrective revolution' when, in 1971, by a coup or counter-coup, he crushed the Nasserite group led by Aly Sabry, who were his chief rivals for power. This mixture of praise and burial – the obverse of Mark Antony's speech on the death of Caesar – is exemplified in Sadat's speech on the twenty-fifth anniversary of the 1952 revolution, a celebration during which no pictures of Nasser or slogans acclaiming him were publicly exhibited. After recognising that mistakes and injustices had been committed by the revolution Sadat went on: 'We all know of the false independence before the revolution and of the political corruption that prevailed, such as the frequent changes of government induced by enormous bribes. For the first time in a thousand years an Egyptian, Gamal Abdul Nasser, was the ruler of his country, through the success of the revolution which brought with it other benefits: the redistribution of the national wealth and termination of the monopoly and exploitation previously exercised by a very small percentage of the population; the nationalisation of the Suez Canal, which led to a direct confrontation with two majorpowers and eventually destroyed two empires that had dominated the world far several centuries. In view of all this it is unfair to compare these remarkable achievements with whatever errors and deviations might have occurred. It would be tantamount to comparing the Great Pyramid with a handful of sand'.

Nasser left his mark on nearly two decades of Egyptian, Arab and world history. In so doing he evoked strong and conflicting feelings. To some he was a nationalist hero, to others a war-mongering dictator and international troublemaker. He was in fact both a revolutionary and a stabilising influence in the Middle East. At a time: when Arab society was in danger of collapse and of leaving the field to the Communists, the reactionary fanaticism of the Muslim Brothers, a narrow nationalistic military fascism; or chaos, Nasser's provision of continuous, stable and relatively progressive government in the biggest and most developed Arab state, helped to ensure that in most cases change in Arab society took place in a comparatively bloodless way – the Yemen revolution and civil war were an outstanding exception.

Nasser was the most important statesman thrown up by the Arab renaissance. He was also a leading figure in the anti-colonial revolutions, one of the great world political movements of the twentieth century. An Egyptian, a Muslim and a self-proclaimed Arab, he was also a product and animator of the same anti-colonial, anti-imperialist and modernising revolution that produced Nehru and Mao Tse-tung, Sukarno and Nkrumah, Castro and Ho Chi Minh. He belonged to the heroic age of national liberation movements. But he also overlapped into the second stage of Third World concern with social, economic and unification problems – how to organise newly liberated nation-states, above all how to achieve economic as well as political independence, now the central theme of Third World politics in the movement for a 'new international economic order'.

Until his colossal blunder of the 1967 war, Nasser's reputation as a ruler of Egypt seemed to be securely based. He had achieved complete independence through the end of the British occupation and the removal of a subservient monarchy of foreign origins. He had accepted the independence of the Sudan. He had nationalised the Suez Canal Company and built the High Dam, carried out land reform and launched a broad programme of industrialisation, mass education and social reform. His relative and varied success in these respects was qualified by his failure to create a self-sustaining dynamic political system which would dispense with control through the army, secret police and press censorship; by the ineffectual restraints on Egypt's rapid population growth; by the persistence of massive unemployment and rural poverty and – as the most developed countries – the accumulation of a heavy foreign debt; and by the large sums spent on the armed forces and the intervention in the Yemen.

In the Arab world, despite the failure of the Egyptian-Syrian Union, the most serious attempt at unity between any Arab states, and despite the lack of progress towards solving the Israel-Palestine problem and the suspicion and hostility of other Arab governments, Nasser was still the most powerful symbol of radical Arab nationalism, with its aspirations to complete independence from foreign powers, Arab unity, modernisation and greater social justice. In the Third World Nasser had established himself, like Tito, as one of the leading exponents of non-alignment, but his deep commitment to the anti-colonial and. anti-imperial struggle in Afro-Asia led him to lean on Russian support where the West appeared to be the enemy.

The 1967 war seemed to destroy much of Nasser's earlier achievements. Having at last freed Egyptian territory from foreign military occupation with the departure of the British in 1956, Nasser little more than ten years later saw Israeli forces occupying the Sinai peninsula and its oilfields. Having gained full control of the Suez Canal, he now saw it closed and useless and with one bank occupied by the Israelis. Having rejected a Western alliance and protection in the pursuit of complete independence and non-alignment, he found himself relying heavily on Soviet military and diplomatic support. Having sought financial independence and economic aid without political strings, he was faced with a foreign indebtedness of 1,000 million pounds and dependence on subsidies from Arab governments, including his chief Arab opponent, King Feisal of Saudi Arabia.

But events since Nasser's death have confirmed that these setbacks were mostly of a transitory character and had not fundamentally reversed the changes that established Egyptian independence. Well before Sadat launched the 1973 war which led to the reopening of the Canal and eventually to the return of Sinai (not yet completed) under a peace treaty with Israel, it was evident that the Israelis would not stay in Sinai for ever. Even if they kept troops longer in Sharm esh-Sheikh (which they have now given up), the political weight of their presence would have been far less than that of scores of thousands of British troops in the Canal zone. The Russians were not able to turn Egypt into a satellite and their specialists, some fifteen thousand of them, were obliged to leave Egypt when Sadat asked them to go. Sadat has been able to secure Israel's withdrawal from Sinai, partly because he was ready to pay a higher price than Nasser to secure it. He was prepared to switch alliances from Russia to America; to deal directly with Israel and accept a full peace treaty with normal relations; and to risk the loss of Arab support and of Egypt’s leading role in the Arab world. In doing so he could count on the growing war-weariness among Egyptians and the popular feeling that Egypt could no longer go on pulling Arab chestnuts out of the fire.

Yet Sadat’s peace initiatives could probably not have been undertaken but for the 1973 war and the accompanying Arab oil embargo. The Egyptian successes in 1973 were won largely with the help of Soviet-supplied arms and by military preparations begun in Nasser’s time. And America's new readiness to press Israel for a step-by-step peace settlement was a result not only of Sadat's break with Russia but also of the demonstration through the oil boycott and OPEC price rises of the power which a united Arab world could now exercise. The Egyptian army's new-found ability to handle the advanced technology of the most modern weapons may also be seen as a spin-off from the massive expansion of higher education in Egypt under Nasser, however low the standards of secondary and university education had become.

Criticism of Nasser in his lifetime came from several sources, most of whom are now also opponents of Sadat. It came from the Muslim Brothers (who tried to kill Nasser and towards whom he was implacable); it came from the leftist youth who admired the Palestinian guerrillas rather than orthodox Communism. It came also from the educated middle class whose numbers Nasser had helped to swell, who called for more democracy and efficiency, instead of the new and sometimes corrupt bureaucracy of former army officers running the state economic institutions. A younger generation of Arabs were also seeking a more pragmatic approach to Arab unity, a Common Market type of association based on interest rather than on rhetoric.

Nasser's thinking about Arab unity had already been moving in a similar direction. Although his ideas seemed for a time very close to those of the pan-Arab socialist Baath party which had achieved power in Syria and Iraq, they had a different basis. The difference was not unlike that between the ideas of European unity as developed by General de Gaulle compared with the concept of a supra-national state embodying a resurrected historic 'European' community, the ideal which inspired such original 'Europeans' as Schumann, Adenauer and de Gasperi. Nasser's primary interest in Arab unity was the creation of a common front to preserve the independence of Egypt and the Arab area against outside powers. His secondary interest was to advance Egypt's economic development. The Arab world offered a wider market for the products of Egypt's new factories. The benefits to be gained from a large regional economy included jobs abroad for Egyptian specialists and workers and the hope of more investments from the Arab oil states.

Nasser was the first Arab statesman to grasp fully the geo-political potential of a united Arab world with a unified or co-ordinated control over the world's main oil reserves and the means of moving them through the Suez Canal and the pipelines. (Anthony Eden also understood this possibility and that was the main reason for his going to war over Suez. When Eden and Mollet denounced Nasser as another Hitter, Nasser retorted 'What they are frightened of really is the impact of the Afro-Asian revolution on their economic interests'.)

The 1973 war and energy crisis brought a display of Arab solidarity and of the power of the oil weapon – wielded ironically not by a hostile Egypt but by the West's best Arab friend, Saudi Arabia. But after the war, despite or because of their new oil wealth brought by the OPEC price revolution, the Arab states within a year or two had again lost their cohesion. Their conflicts were reflected in the Lebanese civil war in which all factions of the Arab world became involved, either directly or by proxy. A temporary unity, this time against, not with, Egypt, followed Sadat's Jerusalem peace initiative, the Camp David agreements and the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty. It was the sharpest inter-Arab division so far, with Egypt boycotted and banished from the Arab League which moved its headquarters from Cairo to Tunis. But soon the anti-Egyptian 'Rejectionist' front itself began to split; throats and Iraq launched on its own into a war against Iran.

The boycott of the eleventh Arab summit in Amman by Syria, the PLO, Algeria, Libya and South Yemen in November, 1980 demonstrated the scale of Arab disarray.

Unlike most other Arab states Egypt had a strong sense of its own identity as a nation-state. Although in modern times and in the past the centre in many respects of the Arab world, Egypt is at the same time profoundly Egyptian as well as Arab, It is natural for it to think in terms of unified action by a community of states rather than of merging into a supranational union. Nasser saw Arab political unity as the natural goal of people sharing the same language and historical consciousness. But he had no particular short-term interest in pursuing political unification beyond what was needed to ensure a common policy, especially after the collapse of his union with Syria. Perhaps on this basis new Arab political structures reflecting common interests might eventually emerge, but it would be a long process.

The Baathists, however, saw Arab unity as the urgently needed liberation of an already existing 'Arab nation' from political frontiers and pseudo-national divisions imposed on it by foreign interests. The Arab national states and governments were merely artificial obstacles to be swept away.

After 1967 Nasser subordinated his pan-Arab ambitions to the maintenance of a united front against Israel and the recovery of the occupied Arab territories. He buried the hatchet with his most powerful Arab enemy, Feisal of Saudi Arabia, by withdrawing Egyptian forces from the Yemen in 1968. At Arab summit meetings his role became that of a patient fatherly mediator. He was playing this role in the 1970 civil war in Jordan between King Hussein and the PLO when he died. But to the United States Nasser was still a dangerous radical anti-American friend of Russia. Nasser would have accepted a peace settlement with Israel based on Security Council Resolution 242 based on recognition of Israel, a state of non-belligerency and complete Israeli withdrawal from all the occupied territories. He accepted the Rogers peace plan, but he did not believe Israel would ever move back unless pushed by Arab force or American pressure.

The United States, under Nixon and Kissinger, was not prepared to let Israel be pushed by Soviet-armed Egypt and Syria and was not willing to press Israel on the Arab's behalf so long as Nasser pursued an anti-American foreign policy and gave the Soviet Union a predominant role in Cairo. In his memoirs The Wiite House Years Kissinger writes with professional puzzlement of Nasser's diplomacy: 'Nasser insisted on Israel's unconditional withdrawal from all the occupied territories but he never explained what incentive Israel had for withdrawal in the face of his ambiguous offers of non-belligerency.... Nasser counted on us to extricate himself from the consequences of his recklessness in 1967. But he was unwilling to relinquish his role as champion of radical Arab nationalism which forced him into a strident anti-American posture on almost all international issues'. Nasser, wrote Kissinger, wanted everything for nothing. 'Foreign policy does not work that way.' But Kissinger and Nixon were more concerned to stop Soviet influence and Arab radicalism in the Middle East than to press Israel to a peace settlement. During Nasser's visit to Moscow in 1970 and the despatch of Soviet anti-aircraft missiles to Egypt, Nixon wrote in a memo to Kissinger: 'But above all our interest is – what gives the Soviets most trouble – Don't let the Arab-Israeli conflict obscure that interest'.

Looking at the turbulent and divided state of the Arab world and the Middle East today, except for the peace between Egypt and Israel, the question naturally arises: is this turmoil something Nasser helped to create, part of his political and economic legacy – or is it partly due to his absence from the scene? In examining this question one must beware of making the kind of mistake that was often made by Western observers about Nasser in his lifetime. This was to attribute to him personally developments which were, in fact, part of a broad historical movement which Nasser understood, encouraged, exploited and sometimes suffered from, but which he did not create. This movement is the revolutionary process of national liberation and modernisation which has been shaking the Arab world, the Islamic countries and the whole of the Third World since the Second World War. The Islamic revolution now dominant in Iran, and making itself felt in other Muslim countries, is at first sight a simplereaction against modernism. But it is itself part of the attempt to balance the two elements in the process. It seeks to ensure that modernisation is not carried out in such a way as to hamper national liberation and destroy cultural identity by re-introducing Western or Soviet political domination indirectly through cultural, economic and technological independence.

Nasser was a practising Muslim and in his Philosophy of the Revolution he recognised that Egypt had three main spheres of action: the Arab world, the Islamic countries and Africa. But his Arab nationalist ideology was essentially secular and both at home and abroad he was wary of using Islam politically. His fiercest opponents inside Egypt were the Muslim Brothers. He was also aware of the divisive effect of politicised Islam on inter-communal relations in Egypt where the Christian Copts form a substantial minority of some four million. One of Nasser's chief reforms was the abolition of special religious courts administering the Sharia Islamic law in matters of personal status. When Sadat himself, partly under pressure from Saudi Arabia but also in response to conservative Muslim opinion in Egypt, introduced new Sharia-based legislation, it provoked a violent reaction from the Copts.

Under Nasser, Sadat had been secretary-general of the Islamic congress, Nasser's sop to international Islamic sentiment. Nasser saw attempts by Saudi Arabia to set up an Islamic alliance as an American- inspired move to undermine and replace the Arab League under his leadership. He also politely resisted attempts by Pakistan to promote Islamic political unity because of the effect on his relations with India, as a leader of the non- aligned movement. His influence among the non-aligned was more important to him than Islamic solidarity.

In the struggle in the Arab world between Islam and secularism, between Right and Left, between America and Russia, between Arab unionists and Egyptian nationalism, Nasser held a central point of balance in which his personal authority made Egypt's weight felt as the biggest and most developed Arab country. It is arguable that such authority might have prevented such follies and tragedies as the Lebanese civil war or the war between Iraq and Iran.

In Egypt, Sadat's peace achievements are popular and so is the partial political liberalisation. Nationally, the economy has improved, with heavy American and – until 1978 – Arab aid, as well as foreign currency earnings from the Canal, oil, tourism and the remittances of more than two million Egyptians now working abroad, mostly in the Arab oil states. But the average Egyptian is not getting enough of the new national cake to compensate for the new inflation, the ending of basic food subsidies and the control of rents. The dissatisfaction of the Egyptian poor was shown in violent demonstrations in Alexandria and Cairo in January, 1977.

Nasser's Arab socialism also could not solve Egypt's immense problems of poverty, but it had a greater organised concern for the underdog than Sadat's policy of the 'Open Door' – of encouraging foreign investment and the liberalisation of foreign trade.

It is perhaps this seriousness of social purpose and a greater self-confidence in facing the modern world that form Nasser's main legacy to the Arabs today. A new generation is looking for a new ideology, but is sceptical of authoritarian personality-based regimes which give them no share of power and responsibility and make too little use of their talents and education. As they try to avoid the increasing polarisation of the Arab world between Islamic fundamentalism and Marxism, between West and East, they may find in a study of Nasser's career some guide-posts as well as warnings.

Robert Stephens is Diplomatic Correspondent of The Observer.

Further reading: 
  • Gamul Abdul Nasser, The Philosopher of Revolution (Cairo, 1953)
  • Anwar Sadat, In Search of Identity (London, 1979)
  • Robert Stephens, Nasser - A Political Biography (London, 1971)
  • P. Vatikiotis (ed), Egypt Since the Revolution (London, 1968)
  • Mohammed Heikal, The Road to Ramadan (London, 1975)
  • Peter Mansfield, The Arabs (London, 1978)
Historical dictionary: Nasser, Gamal Abdel


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