Disclaimer: Please note that the views expressed in this and all my blog entries are my own personal views and not representative of Ashoka, ADEW or any organisation with which I am affiliated.
Gamal Abdel Nasser was the first Egyptian ruler since the times of the Pharoahs, 2500 years ago, to really govern Egypt. No other leader has emerged before or since to become such a symbol of pan-Arab nationalism and the struggle against European colonialism and dominance. There has been no other Arab leader in our modern history capable of mobilizing people, capturing the interest of and commanding respect from a cross-section of societies across the Arab world or shaping Arab political thought like Nasser. He exuded charisma and power; his honest and simple smile penetrated the hearts of his followers and his speeches fired up and empowered millions of Arabs who sought freedom and dignity. But Nasser was also the product of his era. At this time, from Africa to Latin America national liberation struggles were raging, bringing with them hope for greater social justice and dignity following decades of humiliating foreign colonial rule.
Gamal Abdel Nasser had a vision and a national project for Egypt, therefore he surrounded himself with men who shared this vision or at least worked with him to achieve it. After his success in nationalizing the Suez Canal in 1956, he adopted a national project that had three main pillars:
1- To continue to increase Egypt’s economic independence through nationalizing and Egyptianizing industries and institutions previously owned by foreigners.
2- To operationalize and implement executive five-year economic development plans to ensure Egypt’s equal access to global markets, restructuring world order.
3- To redistribute income and wealth across Egypt’s different social and economic classes.
Nasser was more a benevolent dictator than a modern democratic leader but he was not corrupt. He lived and died in the house he and his family inhabited before the 1952 revolution. He and his wife were modest in their style of living. They died without accumulating any wealth and all efforts to discredit his integrity were met with failure. It was clear and proven that Nasser did not make personal gains out of his position, either political or financial. A family man, he lived and dressed quite modestly, taking pride in wearing Egyptian made clothes and insisting that his children not be accorded any special privileges and be treated like their peers from ordinary families.
His behavior influenced his entourage and was reflected in their lifestyles as well. Nasser would not have tolerated or accepted anyone making personal gains at the expense of public interest and money. Therefore fear of him in many cases and respect towards him by several of his peers and members of his entourage prevented them from abusing their positions for personal financial gains (there were some cases of course, but they were very rare). Stories about Nasser told by those who worked closely with him repeatedly recounted how he refused to allow his children to enjoy imported electronic equipment that was not available and accessible to all Egyptians.
The middle class during Nasser’s time lived in a state of severe austerity, without access to any goods except those manufactured in Egypt, which reduced rivalry and jealousy and therefore reduced the need to be corrupt. Those who managed to subvert the system by breaking the rules and bringing luxury goods with the use of bribery or their positions of influence were met with disdain and made to feel embarrassed. This was in contrast to what happened later, during the times of Sadat and Mubarak. Because of such austerity, any incident of corruption was noticed and met with contempt. Such incidents included not paying customs on imported gifts and products or having access to subsidized goods which one was not eligible for using one’s authority. Therefore not only were incidents of corruption few, they were also limited in scope.
It is true that Nasser’s own behavior set the rule and benchmark, especially if we see how certain officials significantly changed their behavior after his death and under the rule of Sadat. However, there was also a widespread sense of pride and ownership and hope in the country that prompted people to accept such austerity measures. This feeling of pride and belonging to a national project made people more willing to sacrifice their personal needs for the sake of public well-being.
It is true that the revolution, people’s expectations of the victories and achievements of Nasser’s regime and the fact that he was the first Egyptian to govern Egypt in centuries played an important role and was a major factor in the feeling of pride among the Egyptians. But I personally believe that leaders set the tone and are the trendsetters within their countries. Nasser’s character influenced how the Egyptians viewed Egypt and themselves, at least until 1967.
Sadat’s character on the other hand and his desire to show off and live comfortably in a Western style, which was reflected in Egypt’s internal and external politics followed the same logic of leading by example. Therefore his peers and entourage were altered and began to pursue the same goals. It is thus not surprising that Sadat opted to open the doors to US political and economic hegemony and to adopt what he called the “open door” policy which meant the sudden liberalization of a consumer-led and controlled economy.
Nasser also placed education at the top of national priorities. He believed that education should be available and accessible to all Egyptians; hence free. He created a system of education that acknowledged the right of the masses to a better future through improving themselves through education (not wealth and money grabbing, as during Sadat’s time). Subsequent governments after Nasser paid lip service to the principle of free education, but in reality they left it to wither away like an aging invalid, hoping it might die by itself. According to Galal Amin, the weak state which started forming in 1975 and its withdrawal from doing its main job of protecting and enforcing the infrastructure was a major reason for the spread of corruption which evidently reached the educational sector. It is thus not a surprise that free governmental education is now equated with receiving no education at all, producing generations who were taught not to think.
Nasser’s vision included a strong and central role for Egypt in the Arab region and also in the Southern countries. Not only was Nasser one of the first leaders to foresee the fall of the model of the sovereign nation state and the need to replace it with regionalism or regional unions that would be economically and politically independent and powerful. He was also one of the first leaders of his time, at least in our region, to look to the Southern hemisphere and developing or third-world countries for collaboration and cooperation. He envisioned a strategy where Northern and Western know how would be effectively substituted by Southern experiences. He wanted to fight the trend of total reliance on importing the know-how from the North and to diversify the source and the support and transfer of knowledge to include Southern countries. Before the “south to south” trend of international development agencies came into being, Nasser believed that their experiences would be more relevant to our conditions.
Nasser’s Pan Arab ideology and the dream of creating an Arab nation, though communicated through emotional rhetoric, was in reality an attempt to create a regional source of economic and political power that would transcend the sovereignty of the nation state, which had begun by the 1950s to weaken with the rise of large geographic economic and political entities such as the USA and the USSR after World War Two. According to Richard D. Robinson’s article on Nasser in the late 1950s “Virtually every Western student of Middle Eastern affairs agreed that the prime prerequisites for really significant economic development of the Arabs States are some kind of regional union and an honest, reform-minded government”. Looking at our history, especially with regard to political and social events, Western powers had managed to keep the Arabs divided among and against ourselves and this resulted in blocking the general potential for development of the area.
As I said earlier, Nasser in his nationalism was not alone; he was a product of an era. All across Southern countries, new nationalist liberation movements emerged which shared Nasser’s dream of independence from Western influence. Nasser understood that these struggles were connected and so forged alliances and friendships with Nkrumah, Fidel Castro, Che Guevara and others. He and these leaders refused to become pawns to either of the leading camps during the Cold War era and wanted to forge their own space. In 1961, Nasser along with Tito of Yugoslavia, Nehru from India and Sukarno of Indonesia, established the non-aligned movement to articulate an independent voice for the postcolonial nation states.
Therefore, Nasser helped create the non-alignment movement with the aim of creating a balance of power while the rest of the world was divided between the allies and followers of the Western Camp, led by the USA, or the Eastern Camp, led by the USSR. It was an attempt to create new allies and support mechanisms for growing economies away from the Western or Eastern monopoly.
Many condemned Nasser for several of his economic and political decisions decades later. But in designing and evaluating projects I have learned that you must measure achievements or failures against their original objectives and within the original context and conditions. For in making any judgment, one must measure past regimes not against an ideal that might not have been attainable or realistic at that time but against its possible alternatives. For example, his revolution could have ended in a Communist takeover or a similar situation to what we are now facing in Egypt: the usurpation of power by religious fanaticism.
For many years, the establishment of the Aswan High Dam was berated and criticized by Sadat’s cronies in order to continue his campaign to discredit Nasser. However, when drought hit Africa and brought harsh effects for several years, it was the High Dam that saved Egypt, as the Nile is our lifeline. Now that Ethiopia is threatening to cut our water supply through establishing their new dam, we are reminded that under Nasser our ties with Africa were so strong that no African country would have dared lose our friendship. We were the supportive big brother to many other African states, but decades of estrangement and arrogance by Sadat and Mubarak towards sub-Saharan Africa has rendered us paralyzed in front of a major blow to our survival by the establishment of the new Ethiopian dam.
Egypt’s July Revolution was an inspiration to people who were living under colonial rule across the world, especially for Arabs and Africans. For the first time in centuries, Egypt was ruled by an Egyptian leader who was proud of his African heritage. In Nasser’s book The Philosophy of the Revolution he described Egypt’s identity as stemming from three circles: Arab, Islamic and African. He was the first Egyptian leader to put Egypt firmly within an African context.
As Gamal Nikrumah puts it “whenever Arab-African ties come into question, one cannot help remembering the days when colonialism was the threat closer to home and one Arab leader was always at hand to lend support to those Africans who wished to throw off its yoke. That was the time of solidarity, of a common Arab-African dream, of nations taking their first step to freedom. That was Nasser’s time” (October 3 2002). It was Nasser’s commitment and dedication to the cause of African liberation that endeared him to like-minded African leaders. He supported and had close ties with Ghana’s first ever President, with Guinea’s President Ahmed Toure and former Congolese President Lumumba. As comrades they developed a sense of personal solidarity within the larger context of African liberation. Nasser believed in the simultaneous coexistence of these identities and was proud to be an Egyptian and Arab and African. He did not suffer the inferiority complexes of other Southern leaders who wanted to be Western because they believed it to be better. He had pride in his cooperation and solidarity with Southern leaders. No one before Nasser had ever had such conviction on this subject and no other leader has since, although it would have been the way out of the “well” of corruption all these countries fell into after the demise of these great national leaders.
Economists have criticized also Nasser’s socialist policy, and industrial nationalization. I cannot deny that many Egyptian capitalists were unfairly treated and their lifelong investments were lost. But likewise one cannot deny that at that time only 0.5% of the inhabitants of Egypt controlled over 90% of our country’s wealth and economy. Many of these people were not even Egyptians and all looked down on the Egyptian peasants with disdain. Only a limited number of Egyptians were elevated to the middle class and truly given opportunities, especially with regard to education in the pre-Nasser era.
The huge gap and rift between the rich and the poor and the disregard of and disdain towards the majority of the Egyptians, described as “the masses” and “peasants” by the ruling class in the pre-Nasser era was very similar to what Egypt turned into during Mubarak’s last ten years in power. No wonder that the 1952 and 2011 revolutions came about as a cry by the people or for the people because Egypt was experiencing very similar economic, political and social conditions both times.
One main reason for Nasser’s popularity is his closer identification with genuine social and economic reform that has not been found in other Arab leaders before or since. Nasser was the first Arab leader in modern history to face up in a realistic way to such problems as land reform, industrial development, integrity in government, mass education and so on.
Agricultural reforms made by Nasser and the division and distribution of agricultural land to landless Egyptian peasants are seen as bad economic and agricultural decisions by many. They might have been so from the technical side but from a social and political point of view they were important for Egyptians to ensure that they could share and own their own land and not be slaves and serfs all their lives. The recent demonstrations in Spain, Greece and on Wall Street are evidence that this trend is once again emerging and in my opinion foreshadows the beginning of a people’s revolution, even in these Western capitalist countries. No matter what the form of government, the people must feel a sense of ownership and must participate in decision making and share in the wealth of their country.
Incidentally, Egypt’s current President might not have reached where he is if his father had not been given a lot of land by Nasser which not only offered him economic independence but elevated his social status and sense of pride as well.
The majority of Egyptians in the pre-Nasser era were extremely poor, ignorant, uneducated and even walked around barefoot in the city and in rural areas. Upward social mobility was rigid, at times stagnant, and poor peasants were born into serfdom. It is true that in the last decade before the 1952 revolution education became more accessible and was the means for upward social mobility for many peasants but they were few; most increased social mobility was felt by the middle class.
In my opinion, Nasser’s main and biggest mistakes were the wars in Yemen and the 1967 war. Both were emotionally fueled and consumed our resources. Both wars were entered into without proper planning or assessment of our capabilities. Both depleted our wealth and our potential for meaningful economic growth. If Nasser had focused only on internal economic growth using all available resources at that time, he might have later been able to implement and achieve his political goals of creating the Arab nation or in modern terms a united Arab state. I believe he should have postponed involvement in wars to help other Arab countries become independent until Egypt’s own economic and social status was consolidated.
We could have still given space and a platform for expression to all and any revolutionary Arab group that sought freedom and independence. But I believe our direct, financial involvement should have been postponed. We should not have been so easily irritated by Israel and others as to be cornered into a war that we were not prepared for, such as the war of 1967. Saying that, I am not sure whether the West and Israel would have allowed a strong Egypt to emerge and survive. From the beginning, Israel saw Nasser’s leadership as a threat. After it was established, Israel relied on weak regimes which were either allies or lackeys of Western powers to ensure that there would be no support to the Palestinian struggle. Therefore, Nasser’s leadership within the Arab world shattered what Israel viewed as a barrier, protecting it from the rejection of Arab people who supported the Palestinians. This was how Nasser assessed the situation and he believed that his and Egypt’s (and the Arabs’) way out was to create a united, regional power.
I believe that Nasser’s vision was based on an understanding that Western powers would not have allowed a strong Egyptian state. We all remember how the British and the French did not allow Mohamed Ali to make a strong state of Egypt and when they felt he was crossing the line they attacked.
One modern example of manipulation or coercion of Arab leaders from Western powers in order to prevent the emergence or pre-eminence of a strong Arab state is Iraq. The fact that Saddam Hussein was a despot of whom many lived in fear cannot be denied; still under his rule Iraq benefitted from an excellent education system, healthcare, infrastructure and it was developing nuclear power. Although the invasion of Kuwait in the 1990s was Saddam’s idiotic decision alone, I still agree with others that his craziness and sense of self importance was cleverly manipulated and fueled by certain powers and that he was encouraged to invade Kuwait, though later attacked for doing so. The weakness of the Egyptian state at that time (as a stabilizing force) and the increased strength and power, wealth and education in Iraq meant that the country was seen as a threat by Israel and therefore by USA and its ally Britain at that time.
Nasser, during his rule, felt that the Arabs needed to unite because each country alone would not be able to withstand the Western powers who would not want a strong state to emerge and challenge Israel’s safety in the area. He therefore believed that Arabs should unite and defend their own existence. He also believed that many Arab rulers at that time were allies of the West and the USA and were working against the interests of their own people, hence he believed that it was his role and that of Egypt, which was emerging as the leader of sister Arab countries, to support revolution movements in other countries. Many Arab leaders at that time, he believed, showed callous disregard for the welfare of their own people and any halfhearted reforms they carried out in the 1960s was done due to their fear of Nasserism and its spread among the youth across the region.
Therefore, Pan-Arab leadership carried heavy responsibilities, including more than anything the defense of the Arab world and the championship of the Arab and Palestinian cause against Israel. Such responsibilities entailed huge economic burdens and uncalculated security risks which in my opinion led to the 1967 defeat. Although Nasser did not seek war with Israel, he allowed circumstances to push him into war unprepared. Although younger generations and Sadat’s propaganda highlight this defeat, still Nasser’s project of launching a major overhaul and expansion of the armed forces and the war of Attrition (1969-70) which contested Israel’s hold on the Sinai Peninsula, is usually ignored and not reported.
My only comment is that we could have helped without getting physically and financially involved. If we had invested the money used in our own development plans, who knows we might have been. A South Korea perhaps, or China. One should not forget that Nasser tired to improve our fields of science and technology and brought renowned East German scientists to work on our nuclear power, though they were allegedly assassinated by the CIA.
I am saying this in order to demonstrate that the conditions and context of Nasser’s decisions were as important as the decisions themselves and that we cannot assess his choices without understanding the context.
Nasser was a charismatic leader who loved Egypt and all Egyptians. Recently, when the Coptic cathedral was attacked by thugs and alleged Islamic terrorists while state police stood aside watching the murder of innocent bystanders and Morsi made no attempt to intervene, stop the violence or even go to offer his condolences to the Christian martyrs, a picture spread like wildfire on all social media outlets of Nasser standing beside the Coptic Pope of that era, celebrating the building of the cathedral itself. One should not forget that Nasser himself contributed financially to the building of that large Coptic cathedral, an act that none of the Presidents who followed him ever did. The period of Nasser’s rule was described as a “Golden Age” for Coptic Christians. In an article by Gamal Nikroma, he quotes the editor in chief of the Coptic weekly Watani who said “Nasser was a firm believer in the freedom of political belief and religious affiliation. He insisted that Copts have full political and citizenship rights” (Weekly Ashram-Oct 2010):
Nasser loved Egypt and all its people and was secular and refused the MB leaders’ request to make the veil obligatory, stating that it was a personal choice. To Nasser, having a secular regime was a necessary strategic resistance to the reactionary forces that surrounded Egypt and obstructed progressive and revolutionary plans for the Egyptian masses. Nasser believed in strengthening a secular, civil state, where religious matters were relegated to the private domain.
Nasser’s regime made labor laws that respected women and gave them three months leave after giving birth and the opportunity to take a two-year period of unpaid leave after giving birth three times during their careers because to him reproducing was a public affair, not a private one, as women deliver the next generation. He did not think that women should be penalized for performing their reproductive role. His labor law gave women the right to have two years maternity leave without pay but with social and health insurance to take care of their children who were the future soldiers and citizens of the country. His labor laws forbade the firing of pregnant women and forced institutions which had more than 100 employees to open day care centers so that women could work and be productive citizens without making their children an excuse to exclude them from the labor market and public life. It was during Nasser’s time that women were given the right to vote and to run for office, twenty years before Switzerland.
For all these reasons, I love Nasser: the only Egyptian leader in my opinion who loved Egypt more than himself. An honest man who was true to himself. Naïve in some cases and inexperienced as a political leader for sure – as he was the first Egyptian leader to rule Egypt after centuries of foreign rule. A man who loved Egypt and Egypt loved him in return. If you have any doubts of this, go on YouTube and see footage of his funeral, when millions of Egyptians from all over the country came by train, car, bus and even on foot to tell him goodbye. On the streets of Egypt on the 28th September 1970 there were more people who came with love to see Nasser for the last time than there were in the streets of Egypt even in January 2011.