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Revolutionary leader

Even 38 years after his death, Jamal Abdul Nasser lives on as a man who would stop at nothing to give a national face to the Arab world

  • By Dr Joseph A. Kechichian, Special to Weekend Review
  • Published: 00:03 January 25, 2008
  • Weekend Review

  • Image Credit: AP
  • A supporter holds posters of Jamal Abdul Nasser near his tomb in Cairo on the Egyptian revolution's 50th anniversary which brought him to power

Few Arab leaders marked the 20th century the way Jamal Abdul Nasser did.

On the day the Egyptian leader succumbed to a heart attack on September 28, 1970, grown-up Cairenese men wept openly for their leader.

The funeral procession marked Nasser's entry into a mythological sphere, when millions marched in the wake of his coffin to honour their hero.

Even if many suffered under his semi-autocratic rule, Egyptians admired Nasser for his courage, principles and convictions.

They remembered him for the 1952 revolution which toppled the monarchy and freed the land from British colonialism, heralding a significant advancement for Arab nationalism.

Nasser inspired his fellow citizens along with millions of Arabs. A vast majority of anticolonial Arab elites looked to him for guidance.

He was one of the key founders of the Non-Aligned Movement, along with India's Jawaharlal Nehru and Indonesia's Sukarno, which irked the East and the West alike.

Nasserism, which he summarised in The Philosophy of the Revolution, outlived him. His populist and radical egalitarianism earned him widespread support.

Even the stunning 1967 military defeat which crippled Arab armies in the Six Day War did not deter admirers from espousing his values.

He retained dignity when vanquished and even almost four decades after his death Nasser is regarded as one of the most charismatic Arab leaders whose opposition to Israel along with his outspoken criticism of the West echoed among the Arab masses.

During the Second World War, he made lifelong friendships — with Anwar Sadat, Zakaria Muhieddine, Abdul Hakim Amer, Abdul Latif Baghdadi, Kamal El-Din Hussain and Khalid Muhieddine — who later became his political allies.

These men, determined to oppose foreign occupation, hatched nationalist goals to free their land, starting with deployments on the battlefield during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War.

This first setback propelled Nasser to organise officers, who adopted the name “Free Officers'' in 1949, and prepare for an eventual coup d'état.

The 1952 revolution

Mired in inefficiency and corruption, the Egyptian monarchy under King Farouk was probably ripe for revolution, especially after an increasingly isolated ruler cavalierly dismissed the Wafd Party government.

This was the opportunity awaiting the Free Officers who launched their July 23, 1952 uprising.

With relative ease, the coup leaders installed General Mohammad Neguib, a hero from the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, as president.

Prudently, Neguib sought to assuage British fears, perhaps to diminish the likelihood of a countercoup.

Remarkably, the young revolutionaries allowed Farouk and his family to leave Egypt unharmed, as they quickly tackled Egypt's poor economic conditions.

Poorly prepared for the day after, the Free Officers appointed Ali Maher as prime minister, although the Revolutionary Command Council (RCC) constituted the nexus of power under Neguib.

By September 7, 1952, Maher and the RCC were on a collision course because the premier was not keen to introduce agrarian reform laws.

Maher was dismissed and Neguib assumed full leadership.

Simply stated, what the new regime wished to implement was a programme that promised to transform the Egyptian countryside and redistribute power.

The 1952 land reform law called for a land ownership ceiling of 200 acres per person.

Beyond those acreages, smaller tenants were given preference to purchase land at reasonable prices. This was a magical way out but was overtaken by pure politics.

In June 1953, Neguib announced the abolition of the monarchy as he proclaimed himself the president of the Republic of Egypt.

Whether Nasser knew what was coming, acquiesced or tolerated the fiat, it was not long before the two men collided.

In a classic tour de force, Neguib resigned on February 23, 1954, from his posts as both president and prime minister.

Not surprisingly, the RCC proclaimed Nasser the prime minister, which was a risky proposition given Neguib's popularity.

The fallen leader returned to his post but Nasser mounted a careful purge that forced Neguib from power on October 26, 1954.

This time, Nasser did not commit the same mistake — of limiting his option to the premiership — but followed a carefully arranged assassination “attempt'' on himself and displayed a rebellious response against Muslim Brotherhood supporters.

It is impossible to know whether Neguib collaborated with Islamist elements or resisted Nasser's ambitions.

Yet in the aftermath of the fake assassination attempt dozens of Islamists were rounded up and the Muslim Brotherhood crushed.

Although Nasser and the RCC worked in earnest on land reforms to empower millions of the downtrodden, this was not sufficient to improve living standards for the vast majority of peasants.

Additional investment projects were required to cater to the growing population, which prompted Cairo to embark on the construction of the gigantic Aswan High Dam on the Nile.

When the project was completed, arable land in the Nile valley increased by 15 per cent as Nasser boosted the country's industrial base, which was powered by electricity generated from the dam.

Whether it was Nasser's bombastic style or his systematic overtures to the USSR and several of the latter's Socialist-bloc states, Egypt's close relationships preoccupied major Western powers.

In July 1956, perhaps in a moment of utter confusion, Washington cancelled a promised grant of $56 million towards the building of the Aswan Dam, which shocked Nasser.

In retaliation, a furious Nasser announced that he intended to nationalise the Suez Canal on July 26, albeit after promises to the canal company's majority British and French shareowners of adequate compensation.

In a twist worthy of a seasoned economist, Nasser argued that revenues from the canal would finance the critical Aswan Dam.

1956 Suez War

If the Eisenhower Administration's bravado fell within the East/West prism, Britain and France reacted in pure colonial fashion even as the United Nations Security Council adopted a resolution recognising Egypt's right to control the canal as long as it continued to allow free passage to all traffic.

London feared that Cairo intended to form an Arab alliance that would cut off oil supplies to Europe and, with Paris, prepared a secret attack on Egypt.

Complicating matters, Britain and France called on Israel to join in.

On October 29, 1956, the Israeli army invaded Egypt and, within two days, British and French bombers destroyed several Egyptian airfields.

Western troops landed at Port Said, at the northern end of the Suez Canal, on November 5, while the Israelis captured the Sinai Peninsula.

US President Dwight D. Eisenhower was enraged by this secret action and insisted that all three nations withdraw their forces.

On November 7, invading troops were replaced by UN peacekeepers to police the Egyptian frontier, but blocking the canal transformed Nasser's status.

He urged Arab nations to reduce oil exports to western Europe. Both London and France were significantly weakened.

Overnight, Nasser became the acknowledged leader of the Arab world and even took the decision to form the the United Arab Republic (UAR) with Syria.

In March 1958, Yemen joined the UAR to form the United Arab States (UAS), although the experiment did not last long.

In the aftermath of the Suez War, Nasser, at the height of his power, called for revolution in Iraq and encouraged Arab nationalism in Jordan and Lebanon.

Baghdad fell to the Ba'athists and only the deployment of American and British forces to Amman and Beirut prevented coups d'état there.

Nasserism — the quest for pan-Arab unity — became the overriding theme of the Arab world from the late 1950s to 1967.

Yet, for all his oratory skills that galvanised the masses, Nasser was an Egyptian nationalist.

This was the reason the UAR and the UAS experiments failed, although Nasser's gravest error came after Egypt entered the Yemen civil war against the monarchy.

Yemen War

In January 1962, Egypt extended Yemeni opposition officials financial support and radio air time to settle a score with the Saudi ruling family.

The animus between Cairo and Riyadh stemmed from Nasser's close ties with the USSR and Riyadh's pro-Western preferences.

Moreover, Nasser felt King Faisal was responsible for undermining the Egyptian-Syrian union, which further compelled him to deploy Egyptian forces against Yemen's monarchy.

If Cairo believed that Egyptian troops could easily secure the Yemeni Republican coup d'état, it must have been surprised by the long deployments that ensued.

Nasser's adventure turned into a quagmire as more than 50,000 Egyptian troops were deployed in Yemen in late 1965.

Egyptian losses were high, including serious political setbacks, as King Faisal Bin Abdul Aziz's aura skyrocketed in the Arab world.

The 1967 war

The Suez and Yemen wars drove Egypt closer to the Soviet Union and Moscow positioned itself rather well to guide the Arab world's leading power.

Full funding for the Aswan High Dam, hundreds of military technicians, the wherewithal of a socialist economic system and systematic nationalisation of leading businesses sealed the Moscow-Cairo bond.

Yet Nasser was not a communist, did not believe in communism and had no qualms about imprisoning thousands of Egyptian communists during his rule.

Nevertheless, the USSR was now part of the elite decision-making circle in Egypt and it was Moscow that informed Nasser of Israel's plans to attack Syria.

Nasser responded by planning to remilitarise the Sinai Peninsula and demanded that the United Nations Emergency Force troops, deployed after the 1956 war, be evacuated.

UN secretary-general U Thant complied with this request and, on May 23, ordered the closure of the Straits of Tiran that threatened to blockade the Israeli port of Eilat.

Israel perceived the closure as a casus belli and prepared for war.

The Six Day War witnessed the destruction of the Egyptian, Syrian and Jordanian air forces. Nasser lost everything, especially in political terms.

Undermined by senior officers, with chief of staff Abdul Hakim Amer trying a failed coup only to commit suicide, Nasser resigned on June 9, 1967.

Demonstrations supporting him reversed this decision but the damage was done. Israel occupied Syria's Golan Heights, the Gaza Strip, the West Bank in Palestine and the entire Sinai.

Worse, Jerusalem was no longer under Arab control as the hatred for Israel and its chief supporter, the United States, reached new heights.

Nasser's legacy is immense. The Ra'is, as he was affectionately known, was a well-liked reformer who committed egregious political errors.

He re-established Arab pride with the 1952 revolution after debasing colonialism and introducing long-term economic adjustments for the peasants.

Reforms for uplift

His agrarian reforms revamped the education system and offered free schooling to the poor.

He supported the arts and introduced major infrastructure projects such as the Aswan High Dam, which became the founding features of the modern Egyptian economy.

His military excursions proved to be grave errors as did his systematic suppression of both the political and religious opposition.

It was under his rule that Egypt was transformed into a police state, a legacy exploited by every successor.

His equally powerful legacy was the role he played in the Arab world as a whole, as he inspired several Arab leaders and nationalists, including Muammar Gaddafi of Libya, Saddam Hussain of Iraq, Ahmad Ben Bella of Algeria and George Habash of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.

Nasser supported the formation of the Palestine Liberation Organisation and inaugurated a new, defiant era in Arab politics which was associated with pan-Arabism — to confront “imperialist'' powers — and targeted Arab leaders inclined to harbour nationalist preferences.

Ironically, and notwithstanding his pan-Arab penchants, Nasser lost the support of a significant segment of the Egyptian population as Al Azhar University clerics opposed his regime.

A 1961 law limiting the power of Al Azhar religious leaders drove a wedge between Nasser and the clerics.

His support was galvanised by emotional outbursts, especially among those who lost most.

A charismatic leader, Nasser foundered because his ambitions were larger than his means, although his ultimate bequest rested on his ability to awaken Arabs from a centuries-long slumber.

Dr Joseph A. Kechichian is a Middle East affairs analyst and the author of several books on the Gulf.

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