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

- Written by Anne Alexander

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joking tone of Nasser’s speech jarred with the recent news that US Secretary of State John Foster Dulles had abruptly withdrawn an offer of funding for the Aswan High Dam project, humiliatin­g the Egyptian leader.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.”

 ??  ?? Nasser meets with Libyan leader Colonel Gaddafi in 1970. Both men came to power on a wave of Arab nationalis­m
Nasser meets with Libyan leader Colonel Gaddafi in 1970. Both men came to power on a wave of Arab nationalis­m
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 ??  ?? Nasser speaks in Damascus to mark the second anniversar­y of the UAR
Nasser speaks in Damascus to mark the second anniversar­y of the UAR
 ??  ?? A Cairo crowd cheer Nasser and Naguib after Egypt is proclaimed a republic
A Cairo crowd cheer Nasser and Naguib after Egypt is proclaimed a republic
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 ??  ?? Nasser celebrates the seizure of the Suez Canal
Nasser celebrates the seizure of the Suez Canal

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