Damascus: Fifty years ago, on this day Gamal Abdul Nasser was putting an end to the war in Jordan, otherwise known as Black September. It had been fought on the streets of Amman between King Hussein’s army and the Egypt-backed Palestinian Liberation Organisation of Yasser Arafat.
After announcing success seeing off Arab kings and presidents to the airport, he suffered a heart attack and died at 6pm on September 28, 1970. He was only 52.
The date, September 28, had already been inscribed into Arab history books. It was on this same day back in 1961 that Nasser had faced the first defeat in his illustrious career, when Syrian army officers launched a coup in Damascus, toppling the Syrian-Egyptian Union that he had co-created with Syrian President Shukri Al Quwatli. Nasser hated that date, not knowing that it would become that of his passing just nine years later.
A career of much success, and failure
Until then, Nasser had encountered nothing but astounding success since toppling the Egyptian monarchy in 1952. He came to power in 1954, at the young age of 36. In July 1956 he successfully nationalised the Suez Canal and fought off a tripartite war launched against his country in October by Great Britain, France, and Israel.
In 1958, Syrian officers came to his doorstep, begging him to merge their coup-plagued country with Egypt. He promised that the union republic would last 100-years but it collapsed just 43-months later in September 1961.
September 28 would once again become a day to remember when in 2000, the second Palestinian intifada was launched after Ariel Sharon’s visit to the Al Aqsa Mosque in occupied Jerusalem.
“Nasser’s legacy continues to cast a long shadow” said Syrian historian Fadi Esber, explaining: “His overwhelming charisma and political machinations drove Syria into a union with Egypt. The fateful marriage had a lasting impact on Syria’s politics and economy. Nasser upended the economy of post-independence Syria through agrarian reform laws and nationalization, paving the way for a socialist system that would last for nearly half a century.”
Speaking to Gulf News, he added: “Many Syrians, nevertheless, especially those ardent Arab nationalists, mourned Nasser on September 28, 1970, and still mourn him today.”
Many Syrians blame Nasser for introducing hardline socialism into their economy, seizing private banks and factories while confiscating lands of the urban notability, which had ruled the country since Ottoman times.
Others remember him for making Egypt the bastion of Arab nationalism. “He introduced Arabism to Egypt” said Kamal Khalaf Al Tawil, a medical doctor, political analyst, and specialist on Gamal Abdul Nasser.
His promises to the nation included, according to Al Tawil, “sufficiency and justice, planning, equal opportunity, industrialisation, free education, national independence, Arab unity, and war on imperialism.” Those promises, he added, “still live within us.”
One of his most important achievements was striking at the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, which he prophetically expected to bring nothing but anguish and terrorism to the Arab World.
Six Day War
His biggest defeat, however, and without shadow of a doubt, was the Six Day War of 1967. That war led to the occupation of the West Bank, Sinai, and the Syrian Golan Heights. Historians disagree on who was to blame for the defeat, Nasser himself or his right-hand-man Abdul Hakim Amer, commander of the Egyptian Army who was subsequently arrested and died in prison in September 1967.
Nasser himself preferred to take personal blame for what happened in 1967, stepping down while setting a precedent in Arab politics. In what has now become an all-time classic in Arab speeches, he coined the defeat as a “naksa” or disaster, delegating his trusted colleague Zakariya Muhiddine to run the affairs of Egypt.
Spontaneous demonstrations broke out Cairo, Baghdad, Beirut, and Damascus, pleading Nasser to reconsider. King Hussein famously remarked: “Only Abdul Nasser got us into this and only Abdul Nasser can get us out.”
“The defeat of 1967 did not break Nasser but actually encouraged him to lead a war of attrition against Israel” said Al Tawil. “The three years of attrition were Nasser’s moment of glory,” he added. It convinced the Americans to unwillingly accept him as an interlocutor, on his terms, especially after he had invited the Soviets to Egypt and two of his allies to power in Libya and Sudan.”
Since then, many Arab leaders have tried walking in Nasser’s footsteps, inspired by his revolutionary rhetoric and Arab nationalism. Hafez Al Assad of Syria was one of those presidents, who came to power just two months after Nasser’s passing. So were Arafat and Muammar Gaddafi, who premiered in Libya back in September 1969, often citing Nasser as his role model.