In this June 18, 1956 file photo, Egyptian Premier Jamal Abdul Nasser waves in response to cheering supporters as he moves through Port Said to raise the Egyptian flag over the Navy House. Flag-raising was part of ceremony in which Egypt formally took over guardianship of the Suez Canal Zone after British occupation of more than 70 years. Image Credit: A

Cairo: For the past 45 years, September 28 has been a momentous day on the calendar of Sabri Abdul Fattah (left), an Egyptian truck driver living in Cairo.

September 28 was the day when Egyptian president Jamal Abdul Nasser, an icon of Arab nationalism, died in 1970.

“Since the leader’s departure, I’ve been keen to visit his grave every year on the anniversary of his death and read verses from the Quran in his memory,” Abdul Fattah, now 62, says, referring to Islam’s holy book.

“I haven’t let circumstances of life or my liver disease prevent me from making this annual visit. The man deserves more than this for what he did to this country and all Arabs.”

Nasser is buried in a grave annexed to a mosque on the side of a major road in Cairo.

Abdul Fattah recalls that he was 16 years old when Nasser died aged 52.

“It was a day that I could never forget. The news of his death struck Egyptians with grief. At the time, I felt as if my father was the one who died. Millions of others had the same feeling,” he remembers. “This was not strange as Abu Khalid was a man who lived and died for the poor,” he adds, using a nickname for Nasser.

“The leader felt the sufferings of the poor because he himself came from a poor family. He took farmland from the rich and distributed it to the poor farmers. He also built big factories across Egypt and provided jobs for millions. No one has done that much for the poor since his departure. May God reward him for what he did.”

A prominent member of the Free Officers, a group of young military who toppled the monarchy in Egypt in 1952, Nasser initiated the Agrarian Reform Law that turned millions of Egypt’s impoverished peasants into landlords. The move set the scene for far-reaching steps aimed at achieving social justice in Egypt.

In 1954, Nasser became prime minister and Egypt’s de facto ruler after the country’s first president Mohammad Najeeb stepped down following a row with other comrades at the Revolutionary Command Council over democracy and the role of the military.

In June 1956, Nasser was inaugurated as Egypt’s second president. A month later, his leadership soared when he nationalised the Suez Canal to use its revenues in financing the construction of the High Dam in Upper Egypt.

The nationalisation movement angered Britain and France which together with Israel launched in October 1956 tripartite attacks on Egypt. Nasser emerged so politically victorious from what came to be known as the Suez Crisis that he became immensely popular across the Arab world.

“Many years have passed, but I could not forget the first time I saw Abdul Nasser in a motorcade near Hadayek Al Quba [in eastern Cairo) when I was about nine years old,” says Ala’a Abdul Wahed (left), a technician at the Cairo subway.

“His achievements could not be forgotten. He built schools and hospitals for the poor. He also paid attention to making Egypt an industrial country by building factories for textiles, iron, cooking oil and aluminium. But, unfortunately, those who came after him did not preserve these factories. They sold them for few pounds and consequently turned millions of Egyptians into jobless,” adds 57-year-old Abdul Wahed.

During the rule of president Hosni Mubarak, toppled in a popular uprising in 2011, several state-owned enterprises were privatised. Mubarak’s opponents accused his government of cutting shady privatisation deals. They went to courts that scrapped some of the sales and ordered factories’ return to the state ownership.

“Even enemies of Abdul Nasser respected him because he was clean, loved his country and the whole Arab nation,” says Ebrahim Khalaf (left), a farmer-turned-greengrocer.

“He made the Egyptian highly respected everywhere. My father always told me that Abdul Nasser’s years were the best years for farmers. He made them owners of land and set up agricultural [cooperative] societies for them. Since his death, everything has gone bad for farmers. Many of them have left farming because it is no longer worth it,” added Khalaf, aged 43.

“Although I didn’t live in Abdul Nasser’s good days, I know that his death plunged Egypt into massive mourning. My grandpa lost his eyesight because of his sadness over his death.”

Nasser’s supporters credit him with espousing Arab nationalism and socioeconomic policies that benefited millions of his compatriots.

“The greatest thing about Jamal Abdul Nasser was that he had a rich humanitarian life that lived on the ground and thrived in the midst of people,” his confidant writer Mohammad Hassanain Haykal, who died in February this year, once wrote about Nasser.

Championing calls for Arab unity, in 1958 Nasser merged Egypt and Syria, forming the United Arab Republic. The bid fizzled out three years later.

However, Nasser’s advocacy of pan-Arabism did not wane, as reflected in his controversial dispatch of Egyptian troops to fight in Yemen.

Nasser’s detractors accuse his regime of committing massive rights abuses, muzzling free media, adopting counterproductive social policies, and embroiling Egypt in draining wars beyond its borders.

Hamed Ahmad (left), a history schoolteacher, shrugs off these accusations.

“Certainly Abdul Nasser was not democratic. Many intellectuals were jailed in his era,” Ahmad says. “But this should not make us forget his biggest achievement that he lived and died for the poor by providing them with free education and health services that have deteriorated since his death. His pictures are always raised in protests for a dignified life because he was a sincere champion of social justice,” adds the 31-year-old teacher.

“Abdul Nasser also supported liberation movements in the Arab world and Africa. A leader with such a record cannot be forgotten even hundreds of years after his death.”