All About History
Hero or villain?
The British establishment saw him as ‘Hitler on the Nile’ but Nasser’s vision for Egypt had a long-lasting impact
What impact did Gamal Abdel Nasser have on Egypt and the wider world?
It was a hot summer’s evening in July 1956 and Alexandria’s Mansheya Square was packed with thousands of people listening to Egypt’s president, Gamal Abdel Nasser. It was a long speech filled with the leader’s typical shifts in register and tone, switching between the rhetoric of classical Arabic and chatty colloquialisms.
The joking tone of Nasser’s speech jarred with the recent news that US Secretary of State John Foster Dulles had abruptly withdrawn an offer of funding for the Aswan High Dam project, humiliating the Egyptian leader. The punchline of the speech set the crowd roaring, however: “Everything which was stolen from us by that imperialist company, that state within a state, when we were dying of hunger, we are going to take back […] The government has decided on the following law: a presidential decree nationalising the International Suez Canal Company.”
The drama in Mansheya Square was only the prelude to a much greater performance — in November 1956, Nasser held his nerve in the face of an attack by Britain, France and Israel. Known today as the Suez Crisis, British troops seized Port Said and Israeli forces entered Sinai. But diplomatic intervention from the US and the USSR turned what looked like military defeat into a diplomatic and moral victory for Nasser, making him a hero of the anti-colonial struggle.
Besides these moments of triumph, there was also defeat and tragedy. Alongside the Nasser who won the respect of millions around the Arab world and beyond for standing up to the bullying tactics of the old colonial powers, there was also the Nasser who oversaw the ruthless repression of his political opponents. Alongside the Nasser whose lack of interest in personally profiting from his political success endeared him to many ordinary Egyptians, there was the Nasser who was prepared to sacrifice one of his oldest friends, Field Marshal Abdel-hakim Amer, who was reported to have killed himself in mysterious circumstances after Egypt’s catastrophic defeat during the Six-day War in 1967.
Nasser was born to a sub-postmaster and a coal merchant’s daughter on 15 January 1918. During his early childhood, the relationship between Britain and Egypt would be reshaped through the creation of an Egyptian monarchy and with it the trappings of independent nationhood.
The contradiction between the formalities of statehood and the reality of continued colonial power was nowhere more painfully evident than in the Egyptian Army, which Nasser entered in 1937 as one of the first generation of native Egyptians to join and train for a career as an officer.
After World War II, Egyptian politics took a tumultuous turn with the emergence of a mass protest movement calling for the withdrawal of British troops. Among the small group of likeminded officers who were inching towards the first steps of rebellion, Nasser argued against formal affiliation with existing political parties so the loose network gave itself a name — the Free Officers. Its leaflets addressed to the officer corps began to appear in 1949 or 1950, echoing the rising frustrations felt by many in Egyptian society with the monarchy, which they saw as corrupt, ineffective and in thrall to the British.
The catastrophic outcome of the 1948 war in Palestine was a turning point for Nasser and his comrades — their first experience of combat was a disaster. Poorly led and ill-equipped, they were unable to turn the military tide against the forces of the new Israeli state. Nasser later recalled an exchange of words with an Egyptian soldier who was fleeing the battlefield: “I said to him, ‘Why are you running away?’ He said, ‘In Egypt I don’t even have an inch of ground to my name.”
Nasser’s discussions with the peasant conscripts showed him that the problems with the monarchy ran deeper than the incompetence of the army’s general staff. The regime’s reliance on the support of large landowners was a block on progress in general, he would later conclude. Without land reform to give small farmers a real stake in
Egypt’s economy, the agrarian economy would stagnate and the millions trapped in poverty could neither produce or consume enough to kick-start the next phase in economic development. It was no accident that the first significant reform enacted by the Free
Officers following their seizure of power in
July 1952 was to break up some of the big landed estates.
The coup that brought the Free Officers to power on 23 July 1952 was bloodless. The young men who had plotted its course in secret chose an older colleague, General Mohammed Naguib, to be the public face of their junta but Nasser was quickly emerging as the real leader behind the scenes. After a year and half in power, the group split as differences between Naguib and Nasser over whether to restore parliamentary life boiled over into open conflict.
Nasser won the battle and settled scores with the Muslim Brotherhood in the aftermath, arresting thousands of the movement’s members following a failed attempt to assassinate him in October 1954. This wave of repression would have a long-lasting impact. One of those arrested was Sayyid Qutb, whose experiences of jail and torture led him to formulate a set of justifications for armed struggle against the ‘barbarism’ of the state, which inspired later generations of radical Islamists.
The Suez Crisis gave Nasser the opportunity to build a popular base for himself in a country where the memories of the crackdown that followed the
1954 attempt on his life were still fresh. It set Nasser, and Egypt, down the route of attempting to play Great Power politics as a way to solve the problems of economic underdevelopment.
Overnight, Nasser was transformed into a hero of Arab nationalism, the nebulous ideology that inspired movements similar to the Free Officers in a host of Arab countries. In Syria, the major Arab nationalist organisation was the Ba’th Party, a mass movement then locked in bitter competition with the Communists. The leaders of the Syrian Ba’th initially saw Nasser as a kindred spirit, whose sudden popularity after Suez would allow them to isolate their left-wing rivals. The leadership of the Syrian Army also feared the growing influence of the communists and flew to Cairo to propose a union between Egypt and Syria, the United Arab Republic (UAR), in 1958. This collapsed only three years later, reflecting Nasser’s inability to impose the agenda for political and social change he was advancing in Egypt on Syria.
The final major drama in Nasser’s life ended in bitter defeat with the catastrophe of the 1967 war with Israel. The use of Great Power politics did nothing to help. Israeli fighters obliterated much of the Egyptian
Air Force on the runway in the first hours of the war and Israeli troops took control of Sinai, the Gaza Strip, the Golan Heights and the West Bank.
Most painful of all was the failure of leadership by his own comrades in the Army High Command, led by Abdul Hakim Amer. In the aftermath of defeat, Amer was arrested and accused of plotting a coup. He was said to have swallowed poison in prison before the case could come to court, while the newspapers were allegedly fed lurid ‘revelations’ about his alleged womanising and drug-taking. In private, Nasser acknowledged that something was rotten in the heart of the regime: “These days it is being said throughout the country that we are eating each other and that the system is eating itself.”
Despite the signs of discontent, millions across the Arab world mourned his death from a heart attack three years later at the age of 52. As one of his contemporary biographers put it, Nasser’s legacy could not be reduced to his role as a military leader: “He was rather the man who had overthrown the King, ended the British occupation, given Egypt full control of the Suez Canal, begun to build the High Dam, carried through the land reform and tried to control rents, built more factories and schools, brought clean water and electricity to many more villages, begun social insurance for workers and within limits given many more Egyptians a say in the running of their own affairs.”