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Makers of the Twentieth Century: Nasser

Robert Stephens looks 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.

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