A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Monday, September 28, 2009

Nasser's Death, 39 Years On

When Aeschines finished speaking, people said, "what a great orator." But when Demosthenes finished speaking, people said, "Let us march against Philip."

— Classical proverb. (In Roman times often quoted as "Cicero" instead of "Aeschines," Demosthenes' actual historic opponent.)
On September 28, 1970, I was beginning my second year of graduate school. I had not yet visited the Middle East. An Arab summit had been taking place in Cairo. To the surprise and shock of everybody, we suddenly heard that Gamal Abdel Nasser had died. (Though the Journal still likes to call him Jamal ‘Abd al-Nasir, I'm going to write this so you know who I'm talking about.) It was stunning. Nasser had been the central figure in the Arab world, and I was just beginning my studies of Arabic and had no real memories of a pre-Nasser Arab world. (I also recall that this was the exact same day, in the evening, that an old friend from college called from the Andrews AFB hospital to inform me that he'd been evacked after being shot in Vietnam.)

Nasser dominated the Arab world for his generation. Egyptians born in that era are often named Gamal, and I suspect that's how Gamal Mubarak got his name. My July 23 post noted the ambiguities and uncertainties with which Egyptians and others view the 1952 revolution today, but Nasser was an extraordinary figure, though an ambiguous one. He had that charismatic power that Demosthenes had in the quote above, but of course, so did Mussolini and Hitler. He had that ability to embody a national identity that we see in Atatürk, de Gaulle, and a few others. He was the first Arab leader to master a rhetorical skill of beginning his speech in Modern Standard Arabic and shift into more and more colloquial Egyptian as he got deeper into rallying his audience. He used the radio as later leaders have used television. He saw to it that transistor radios, and later, TVs, showed up in every coffeehouse up and down the Nile, so that the fellahin could be rallied and informed of what their leader was doing.

Was he a dictator? Of course. A demagogue? Par excellence. Did he make mistakes? Enormous ones, including the 1967 war, for which he resigned and, while not entirely spontaneously, his people demanded that he stay. And he created the first true national security state in the Middle East, the mukhabarat state that remains, unfortunately, more the norm than the exception still today. Each of his successors has begun office by trying to dismantle it, but retained office by reinforcing it. Nostalgia for the great days of Arab nationalism may cloud the memories of the "dark side" (plus the fact that today most Arab states have all the bad elements of Nasserism and few of the good ones).

While he has never been an "unperson" in the Orwellian sense in Egypt, he faded a great deal in the Sadat era (Sadat even, in his second version of his autobiography, insisted he, not Nasser, actually founded the Free Officers), but enjoyed a limited renaissance under Husni Mubarak. But elsewhere in the Arab world one can still find his picture widely pinned to bulletin boards or taped to walls. He made the Arab world feel like they could stand up to the outside world, the Britain and France and Israel at Suez, to Israel over Palestine.

Nasser was a phenomenon of his time, but he died young, at 52, though he looked older. His legacy was soon sullied by a De-Nasserization effort by Anwar Sadat, but Egyptians did not forget him, and other Arabs mourned his passing. His October 1 funeral brought an estimated five million mourners into the streets of Cairo (Anwar Sadat's funeral was held in a restricted military zone, attended by foreign dignataries — rare in Nasser's funeral except for the East Bloc and the Arabs — with only selected Egyptian invitees). Here's the video of Nasser's funeral:

I opened this with the quote about Aeschines and Demosthenes. Demosthenes' "Philippics," though they became a synonym for personal attacks, did not stop Philip of Macedon, and of course, Philip's son conquered an enormous empire. But while Alexander is remembered, so is Demosthenes (though Alexander's fame is far greater), but not Aeschines. When Nasser spoke, people said, "let us march." But when they marched, they were defeated. Nasser is still warmly remembered, but his legacy, like that of his revolution, is mixed.

But on September 28, 1970, the Arab world was shocked in ways that can scarcely br imagined today. Nasser had no real precedents, and few real successors, though many have aspired to that position. I suspect those coming to Middle East studies today will have trouble understanding exactly what his appeal was.


LJ Marczak said...

'Andi kitabun 'ajilun ilayk

David Mack said...

Nasser's death is even more vivid in my memory than JFK's. I was head of the U.S. Embassy Branch in Benghazi, Libya at the time. Having been a Fulbright Scholar in Cairo in 1964-65, when Nasser was at the height of his leadership powers, I had even joined Egyptian students in a demonstration for his reelection. (I did so more as a lesson in Egyptian politics than out of conviction, but I can still recite the chants!) Although we had no diplomatic relations when Nasser died and a request by me for permission probably would have been denied, I decided to pay a condolence call on the Egyptian Consul General in Benghazi. He thanked me in a very emotional way and invited me to join the memorial march for Nasser, which I did. Even then, after all of his failures, he still had a strong grip on the imagination of Arabs of that generation. After decades of hard experience, I fear he may have done more harm than good to Egypt and the Arab world. He does not hold up well, compared to several less charismatic Arab leaders who married wisdom to realism in serving their countries.