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Egypt's President Gamal Abdul Nasser speaking to a crowd in Mansoura, Egypt in the 1960s. Image Credit: AFP

Cairo: Fifty years after the death of iconic Egyptian president Jamal Abdul Nasser, his charisma and oration remain vivid in the memory of Ali Chahin, now aged 74.

Chahin, a native of the southern province of Fayyoum, said as a child he used to listen attentively along with his village fellows to the speeches of the “eternal leader” on the radio. Nasser, who died on September 28, 1970, was famous for his riveting rhetoric and improvisation in public speeches.

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“I used even to learn by heart paragraphs from his speeches in order to quote them the following day in the morning line at school and write them in Arabic composition pieces,” recalled Chahin, as his eyes gleamed with pride. “Abdul Nasser’s words directly entered the heart because they were simple, full of determination and to the point. Therefore, his speeches were often interrupted by long applauses from listeners.”

Nasser is lashing out at the Muslim Brotherhood in a 1965 speech

Nasser ruled Egypt for 14 years, starting from 1956, with his supporters crediting him with drastic transformation of the country. A mantle in his 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 peasants.

“People still remember Abdul Nasser and appreciate what he left behind because he was one of them, being a son of a postal worker, and worked hard to fulfil their dreams. His words matched his deeds,” Chahin said. “He made the poor landlords after they and their ancestors were treated as slaves by the feudalists. He also launched a great industrialisation movement across the country, building factories for textiles, steel and sugar,” added Chahin, an ex-worker at a steel plant in Helwan south of Cairo.

Shattering military defeat

Chahin briefly stretched his head as he quoted Nasser once saying in one of his popular addresses: “The poor have a share of the paradise, but shouldn’t they have a share of life in this world? They want you [the wealthy] to give them a small share in this life and in return they’ll give you a share in the paradise!”

Another speech that could not slip from Chahin’s memory was that delivered in the aftermath of Egypt’s crushing military defeat by Israel in the 1967 war. In the June 9, 1967 speech broadcast on television, Nasser said he would step down, triggering an outpouring of street rallies.

Nasser declares his resignation in the wake of Egypt’s military defeat by Israel in June 1967.

“Though Egyptians were devastated by the naksa [setback], they were stunned to see their leader so broken and wants to go,” remembered Chahin. Naksa was the Egyptian term commonly used in reference to the 1967 rout. “He looked too old for his age of 49 at that time.”

Chahin was one of millions of Egyptians who thronged the streets, demanding Nasser to stay in power. In response, Nasser backtracked on his resignation and 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.

Secret of enduring charisma

Several experts argue that Nasser’s enduring charisma, long decades after his departure, is mostly attributed to his socio-economic agenda that empowered millions of Egyptians and allowed them to move up the social ladder.

“His oratory skills were enchanting. His personality was charismatic because he was close to and sincere with the people,” said Mohammed Abdul Aleem, an expert at the Al Ahram Centre for Strategic Studies. “He liberated millions of farmers from extreme poverty. The words he uttered to landless farmers while giving them title deeds of their new plots of land could not be forgotten by them and their offspring because they were sincere,” he added.

“His words matched his action plans. At home, he focused on the evacuation of the British occupation forces from Egypt, distribution of farmland to peasants and the nationalisation of the Suez Canal and private companies, “Abdul Aleem added.

On July 26, 1956, Abdul Nasser 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.

The move angered Britain and France, which together with Israel unleashed a military attack on Egypt in October 1956, branded by Egyptians as the “Tripartite Aggression”.

Under international pressure, the triumvirate were eventually forced to withdraw from Egypt. The so-called Suez Crisis catapulted Nasser to immense popularity and made him an iconic liberator from colonialism in the Third World. Cairo became a hub for liberation movements mainly from Africa.

Soaring to international renown

Since the Suez Crisis, Nasser had become an international name. In 1961, he founded with Jawaharlal Nehru of India, Yugoslav leader Josip Broz Tito and Sukarno of Indonesia the Non-Aligned Movement with the aim of espousing neutrality in the Cold War era, promoting world peace and cementing links among the developing countries. Nasser steered the bloc’s helm for six years starting from 1964.

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Nasser in New Delhi with Yugoslav president Marshall Broz Tito and Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi in 1966. Image Credit: AFP

At home, Nasser initiated in the early 1960s a large-scale nationalisation programme that targeted privately owned business and the media. His aims were to give the working class and the poor access to free public services as part of his socialist policy.

Critics, however, say that the move harmed Egypt’s economy, which became centrally controlled and overstaffed.

Body language in tandem with eloquence

Nasser’s body language enhanced the influence of his public speeches, according to Salah Al Hadi, a political analyst.

“His speeches were among the most effective ever made by heads of state in the world due to his use of simple-but-strong language and his brilliant use of the body language. Abdul Nasser had a voice that combined powerfulness and softness with each appropriately used,” Al Hadi said.

“One example is his memorable address in [the coastal city of] Alexandria in 1956 when he declared the nationalisation of the Suez Canal. His body language in that speech reinforced his message of resolve and defiance,” argued Al Hadi.

In that address marking the third anniversary of the 1952 revolution, Abdul Nasser said: “We will never repeat the past. We will eliminate the past by restoring our rights to the Suez Canal. This is our money. This canal belongs to Egypt. It was dug up by Egypt’s sons; 120,000 Egyptians died while digging it up.”

Having recalled the history of the major waterway, he proclaimed amid rousing applause: “In the name of the nation. The President of the republic. The Universal Company of the Maritime Suez Canal is nationalised as an Egyptian company and all its money and rights as well as obligations are transferred to the state.”

Many of Nasser’s addresses were believed to have been written by his confidant, veteran Egyptian journalist Hassanein Heikal, who passed away in 2016.

On collision course with Brotherhood

Another historic speech, according to Al Hadi, was that in which Nasser exposed the Muslim brotherhood and branded them as “misleading merchants of religion”.

In the 1965 speech, Abdul Nasser looked vivacious and displayed a sense of humour as he chronicled troubled ties between the revolutionaries, who toppled the monarchy in Egypt in 1952, and the Brotherhood.

“In 1953 I met the supreme guide of the Brotherhood, who offered demands. What were these demands? He demanded that the hijab be imposed on women in Egypt,” Nasser said. “I told him that his daughter, who was a medical student, did not wear the hijab,” he remembered. “If you can’t make a single daughter wear the hijab, how come you want me to impose it on 10 million?” Nasser added, referring to the number of women in Egypt at the time.

He also accused the Islamist group of seeking power and of religious fascism.

In October 1954, Nasser survived an assassination attempt while he was delivering a speech in Alexandria. The gunfire missed Nasser, who continued his speech with a fiery improvisation. “Oh people! Oh, free men! Jamal Abdul Nasser belongs to you. My blood is for you. I’ll live for you and die for your service. I’ll live in order to struggle for your freedom and dignity,” he said, further inflaming his audience.

The assassination attempt was blamed on the Muslim Brotherhood, which was banned and became the target of a draconian security crackdown in the aftermath. Thousands of Brotherhood followers were rounded up.

Many of them were later released from prison. However, the outlawed group was again the target of a new clampdown in 1964 after Nasser’s government uncovered a Brotherhood plan to carry out a series of assassinations and bombings in the country. The swoop forced many Brotherhood members to flee Egypt to other countries.

Nasser is believed to have come into contacts with the Brotherhood in the late 1940s when he set up a group of young army officers known as the Free Officers that toppled the monarchy in 1952.

Later, Nasser distanced himself from the Brotherhood because he found out that their agenda was different from his nationalist objectives, according to some historians.

The ban on the group persisted until after the 2011 uprising that forced then president Hosni Mubarak resign down. The Brotherhood had their first taste of power in 2012 before they were ousted by the army a year later after mass protests against their rule. The ban on the group has since been reimposed after its was charged with involvement in a string of deadly attacks in Egypt.