A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

40 Years Later: Appraising Gamal ‘Abdel Nasser

I noted the date last September 28, and will not repeat some of my remarks which may still be read there, but this is a more notable milestone: today marks the 40th Anniversary of the death of Gamal ‘Abdel Nasser. It is an anniversary that will be commented upon not only in Egypt, but throughout the Arab world, for Nasser's appeal was broader than any subsequent aspirant for the title of "leader of the Arab world." Love him or hate him, no one could ignore him. Yet many of those in the Arab world who have grown up since his death may wonder why their parents and grandparents were so fascinated by him.

After 40 years, the term "Nasserism" is still sometimes heard, and people even self-identify as Nasserists (Egypt has a Nasserist Party). No one hears the term "Sadatism," and I suspect that "Mubarakism," if the word is ever invoked, will be seen as a pejorative rather than a compliment. But then, Nasser was only 52 when he died. You may recall this Egyptian commentary I posted earlier this year:

explained here: "The high one built the High Dam; the low one built the Low Barrier [in Gaza]: fair or not, it shows Nasser's persisting image.

Of course, most Westerners never "got" Nasser's appeal. Anthony Eden saw him as Hitler and the Suez Canal crisis as Munich; Western leaders generally (except to some extent JFK) saw Nasser as an adversary (which he often was), a dictator (which he was), and a demagogue (which he was, though more effective at it than most). I remember Nasser only from his later years, and like many my knowledge of his oratory is dependent on old videos, for I was in my first year of Arabic when he died. But I want to try to offer some interpretations today.

He quarreled a lot with other Arabs: with King Hussein, the Saudis, the Syrians when the United Arab Republic broke up. Yet every Arab leader, and five million of his own people, attended his funeral in 1970. When Sadat was assassinated in 1981, three former US Presidents attended his funeral, but only one Arab head of state, Ja‘far Numeiri of Sudan. showed up. (Egypt was then outcast from the Arab League for its peace with Israel; Oman and Somalia did send lower level representatives.) And Sadat's funeral was held in a closed military zone. Here is a YouTube of the Nasser funeral:

When (or perhaps, if) Husni Mubarak does prove to be mortal, does anyone, even he, think he will get that kind of a sendoff? Will his successor trust the Egyptian people to assemble in such numbers?

In Nasser's era, Cairo's Sawt al-‘Arab radio ("Voice of the Arabs") was listened to across the Arab world (and Egypt helped make cheap transistors available at home and abroad), and one saw his picture on kiosks, on T-shirts, and elsewhere in countries far from Egypt.

So what was Nasser's appeal? And why, even today, does he evoke images in the Arab world unlike those of any of the Nasser wannabes who have proliferated since? As I've said before, too often they emulate the worst aspects of Nasserism (the Mukhabarat state, political prisoners, suppression of democracy) and few of the good ones (populism, land reform, inspirational leadership). But other elements of his popularity with the Arab masses as a whole (if not with those who found themselves in his prisons) have to do both with the man and, I think, with the times in which he flourished.

Let me suggest several elements.

First, the man himself was something new. In a country which had been long ruled by Kings, and whose Prime Ministers were wealthy men with "Pasha" after their name, here was an Army colonel who was the son of a minor civil servant (a postal worker). Though he was not the first military ruler: he quickly overshadowed Muhammad Naguib, however, and like Ahmed ‘Orabi long before, he came from a humble background. He pioneered the now routine approach of beginning his speeches in classical Arabic, but shifting into colloquial Egyptian, which even the illiterate could understand. He portrayed himself as a man of the people, and with Nasser, it worked much better than it did when Sadat tried the same image. The latter went for the paternalistic, village elder image, while Nasser sought to appear as more one of the people.

Whether Nasser really led a "Revolution" or just another military coup is still debated today, but he did go through some of the motions of social revolution: breaking up the big landholders' estates, promoting cooperatives at the local level, making "workers and peasants" key symbols of the country, and creating a sense that things were better for those workers and peasants. At a symbolic level, the standard depiction of the "average Egyptian" in political cartoons shifted from "Misri Effendi," a Fez-wearing caricature whose name means "Mister Egyptian" but with a sense of an established gentleman, to "Ibn al-Balad," "son of the country," a galabiyya-clad fellow from the workers or peasants. The fez disappeared, and while many Egyptians kept addressing each other as "Pasha" or "Bey", it became taboo to use such terms officially. And of course, he was a stunning orator who knew how to rouse his people; last year I quoted the old Classical aphorism:"When Aeschines finished speaking, people said, 'what a great orator.' But when Demosthenes finished speaking, people said, 'Let us march against Philip.'" Nasser was of the "march against Philip" school.

But in addition to the man, there were the times in which he lived. The colonial period was winding to an end, and Nasser supported independence movements in Algeria and elsewhere, but more importantly, his confrontation with the colonial powers, Britain and France, over Suez became a potent symbol of defiance and independence. The Cold War rivalry and the willingness of the Soviet Union to back Nasser (despite his destruction of the Egyptian Communist Party) made such posturing possible, in ways it would not be today. It was a heady period of new nationalism, and Arab nationalism, often seen as outmoded today, seemed the wave of the future.

Even the emotions accompanying Nasser's funeral were dependent on the time. It was September 1970, the "Black September" of Jordan's showdown with the PLO, and in the midst of that period of explosive inter-Arab tensions, Nasser hosted an emergency summit of the Arab League in Cairo. His role as effective leader of the Arab world seemed to have recovered from its 1967 defeat, and he had just seen off the last Arab head of state when he was stricken with his fatal heart attack. He seemed to have died in the saddle, in the midst of leading the Arab world through a period of internecine struggle.

Nasser made many mistakes, some disastrous; the 1967 war, which he seems to have never intended, was a disaster for Egypt and haunts the region still. The aspiration for pan-Arab leadership diverted the Revolution from domestic reform and economic progress into a military buildup. The national security state apparatus which he put in place is there still, and is replicated in most Arab countries, long after the land reforms and social welfare innovations were lost or abandoned. Even his remaining admirers tend to find fault with some of his policies today.

But in his day he seemed something more to many, and when he died four decades ago, the mourning extended beyond the valley of the Nile. For all his flaws and weaknesses, he still seems to have played a bigger role, on a larger stage, than any of his later imitators. Aspirants to fill his shoes have ranged from the erratic (Qadhafi) to the despotic (Saddam Hussein), and while Nasser could display both of those characteristics, he had something else as well. Perhaps it is as hard to define as it has been to replicate, or perhaps it is merely a true talent for leadership that shines through even his more reckless and ill-advised blunders. Perhaps even Nasser's enemies would agree with what Lord Clarendon meant when he called Oliver Cromwell "a great, bad man," or the sense that lies behind the enduring British fascination with Napoleon (they have produced nearly as many biographies as the French). He has been dead more than twice as long as he ruled, but his name is still invoked. He still fascinates.

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