In this April 7, 1956 file photo, police try to clear a path, as farmers cluster around then Egyptian Prime Minister Gamal Abdel Nasser as he visits an Egyptian village. Image Credit: AP

Cairo: Octogenarian Ahmad Dahshan credits late Egyptian president Jamal Abdul Nasser with transforming his life. Dahshan, now aged 85, was among millions of Egyptian peasants whom Nasser turned into land owners.

“I still remember that day as if it were today,” Dahshan, originally a native of the southern province of Sohag, says. “It was in 1961 when Abu Khalid shook hands with me before giving me the title deed of five feddans [acres] in my village,” he adds, using an affectionate nickname of Nasser.

 We squeezed ourselves among thousands, who packed Al Azhar mosque [in old Cairo] in order to listen to Abdul Nasser there where he delivered a fiery speech against the aggressors.”

 - Ahmad Dahshan, land owner

“Thanks to him, I became an owner of farmland after long years of working for others,” adds Dahshan as tears well up in his eyes in gratitude.

“It was not a mere piece of land. No, it meant dignity for the poor in Egypt. It meant opening the door wide for me and other poor farmers to be real human beings, who could earn money without humiliation and educate their children like the rich,” the father of six told Gulf News.

Dahshan, who is now staying with a son in Cairo, is among many Egyptians who vividly remember Nasser, more than 48 years after his death.

Jamal Abdul Nasser stretches his arms to greet fellow Egyptians during a stop at one of the stations en route from Alexandria to Cairo, on July 28, 1956. Photo: AP

A mantle in Nasser’s legacy was an ambitious programme to establish social justice for Egyptians. Part of the plan was to expropriate certain portions of farmland from wealthy owners and distribute them to landless farmers.

Nasser ruled Egypt for 14 years, starting from 1956. He died in 1970 at the age of 52.

His popularity reached the pinnacle in Egypt and other parts of the Arab world when in July 1956 he nationalised the Suez Canal, a major waterway, in order to use its revenues for building the hydro-electric High Dam in Upper Egypt after the World Bank refused to finance the construction that he deemed necessary for the country’s agro-industrial development.

Nasser’s move angered Britain and France, which together with Israel unleashed a military attack on Egypt in October 1956. Under international pressure, the triumvirate were eventually forced to withdraw from Egypt.

The turbulent event has not escaped from Dahshan’s memory despite his old age.

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“When the tripartite aggression started, I left my village along with many young men and came to Cairo in support of the leader [Nasser],” he remembers.

“We squeezed ourselves among thousands, who packed Al Azhar mosque [in old Cairo] in order to listen to Abdul Nasser there where he delivered a fiery speech against the aggressors.”

Afterwards Dahshan and his companions joined popular resistance groups, who were trained to support the army in fighting the invaders.

“We’ll go to war! This was the slogan that spread across Egypt and shook the ground under the feet of the aggressors. Abdul Nasser’s determination made all the 20 million Egyptians soldiers behind him,” Dahshan says, referring to the number of the country’s population at the time.

“Abdul Nasser’s image is still engraved in our hearts because he loved this country and worked sincerely for its people and elevation.”

Centre of controversy

For Hoda Mumtaz, a schoolteacher, Nasser is closely linked to her life. “I was born on June 9, 1967, that’s a few days after the naksat,” she says, using an Egyptian term referring to a crushing military defeat by Israel. “I later learnt from my parents that when I was born, the whole Egypt was in a state of extreme grief because of the naksat and Abdul Nasser’s declaration of resignation. My father, who staunchly supported Abdul Nasser, named me Hoda after one of his leader’s daughters,” the 51-year-old mother of four adds.

Later, Nasser revoked his resignation after Egyptians poured into the streets, demanding him to stay in power. He embarked on a mission to rebuild the army, who three years after his death was able to avenge the defeat and rout Israel in a surprise attack ordered by his successor Anwar Al Sadat.

 He succeeded in fulfilling social justice that included good, free education, health care and decent life. These conditions helped many Egyptians to move up the social ladder.”

 - Hoda Mumtaz, teacher

Hoda, who teaches math at a Cairo school, is not surprised that Nasser’s memory lives on long years after his departure.

“He succeeded in fulfilling social justice that included good, free education, healthcare and decent life,” she says. “These conditions helped many Egyptians to move up the social ladder. In his time, children of poor farmers, workers and civil servants got educated and became judges, prosecutors, officers and even ministers. There were no restrictions on social mobility. Therefore, he was known as the father of the poor,” adds Hoda, whose father was a worker at a textile factory. “Thanks to Abdul Nasser’s social justice policy, my father was able to educate me and my two elder brothers. One of them became a police officer and the other a university professor.”

Years after his death, Nasser’s legacy is still at the centre of controversy.

Detractors accuse his regime of committing massive rights abuses, muzzling free media, adopting counter-productive social policies, and sending the Egyptian army beyond the borders to fight in devastating wars.

Abdullah Al Sennawy, a noted commentator with Nasserist leanings, sees the situation differently.

“Everyone is free to criticise Nasser’s experience. However, no one should deny that throughout its history, Egypt did not witness social justice on the scale achieved in Abdul Nasser’s time,” says Al Sennawy. “He built hospitals, schools and factories. In his era, clean water and electricity reached every house in Egypt,” he told Gulf News.

“Significantly, Egyptians chanted at his funeral: ‘After you, we’ll see humiliation’. And this was actually what happened to them later,” he says, citing social disparities under Nasser’s successors.

Al Sennawy praises Nasser for turning Egypt into a hub for pan-Arabism. “The Egyptian role in liberating Algeria and Yemen reflected Abdul Nasser’s realisation of Egypt’s commitment to its Arab nation. The millions, who used to take to the streets in each Arab capital to welcome Abdul Nasser, did this out of their deep belief that he embodied their dreams.”

According to Al Sennawy, Nasser reshaped international relations.

“By nationalising the Suez Canal, he succeeded in putting Egypt at the heart of regional and international interactions. He also turned Cairo into the capital of Africa’s liberation movements. He founded with Jawaharlal Nehru of India and Yugoslav leader Josip Broz Tito the Non-Aligned Movement in order not to bow to the superpowers of the time: the US and the Soviet Union.”