From the perspective of the British, Gamal Abdul Nasser, second President of the Arab Republic of Egypt, was nothing more than another post-colonial, nationalist leader, similar to politicians elsewhere at the time, such as Mohammed Mosaddeq in Iran. His legacy, to some, was wound up in the global socioeconomic flux of the era, which was defined most prominently by the fall of the British Empire and the emergence of independent states from its former colonies. Some might argue that his behaviour was antagonistic and, to some extent, extremist. To Arab politics and the nation-states of the Arab Middle East, however, Nasser represented a figurehead, one of the strongest characters of the Cold War period, whose determination and nationalist strength defined the course of the Egyptian state in the twentieth century. Historian Said Aburish went as far as to label him ‘the Last Arab’, for his profile is so unique, and so focused upon material action rather than idealised theory – unlike the great pan-Islamists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries such as Jamal al-Din al-Afghani – that there are few genuine comparisons. This article aims to outline Nasser’s political activities and discuss their impact upon wider trends, both local to Arab lands and worldwide.
The Individual and his Influences
Nasser’s childhood and education had a profound impact upon his outlook, politics and philosophy. Born in 1918 into a working class family, his father was a postal worker who moved around the country, taking his wife and sons with him. By moving around, Nasser developed an insightful, country-wide understanding of Egypt’s socioeconomic dynamic, which developed into a resentment for retained wealth and inequality. He also fostered a scholarly attitude during his studies, nurturing ideas of nationalism and self-determination through works on the exploits of Napoleon Bonaparte, Otto von Bismarck and Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. Nasser’s thoughts on Egyptian nationalism were influenced not just by the concept’s genesis, but by its development from a pan-Islamic notion to a secular one during the period of British occupation (1882-1922), an outline of which follows.
Before the 1890s, Egyptian nationalism existed almost entirely as an Islamic concept, as demonstrated in the works of famous pan-Islamist (and Iranian) Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, who tied the idea of national boundaries to that of Islamic modernism. The latter concept advocated borders only in so far as they protected Islam from the threat of imperialism. Between 1890 and 1910, however, more pragmatic theories came to prominence, especially in the works of Egyptian lawyer Mustafa Kamel, who was fundamentally influenced by the nationalist ideology of Khedive Abbas (the effective ‘King’ under British rule). These ideas combined constitutionalism, anti-imperialism and Islamic social theory to produce an ‘alliance’ of secular and divine forces that would strengthen the Islamic state. As the years went on however, and British rule in Egypt and the Sudan failed to waiver, even more pragmatic thoughts began to arise. Saad Zaghul, a bureaucrat and later Egyptian Prime Minister post-independence, promoted an entirely secular form of Egyptian nationalism, advocated by the Wafd Party, that included semi-Marxist notions of class organisation and anti-monarchism. This development, from religious, to hybrid, to secular, is crucial to understanding the Egyptian independence movement of 1922, and later, Nasser’s own thoughts and assumptions on the nature of the Egyptian state. A single theme runs throughout however – opposition to British imperialism.
The Coup and Nasser’s Rise to Power
Whilst serving as an officer in the Egyptian army, Nasser formed an anti-monarchist group known as the Association of Free Officers (AFO), which he spent two years building up. Their qualms focused mainly around the continued involvement of the British with the Egyptian King Farouk, but also touched upon the disastrous defeat of the Arab nations against the newly formed Israeli state in the First Arab-Israeli War of 1948. In 1952, Nasser installed General Muhammad Naguib as head of the AFO, and helped to overthrow King Farouk, forming what was effectively a military government at the head of the newly born Republic of Egypt. Naguib was empowered as the Egyptian President, partly because Nasser did not believe that the nation would accept a lieutenant colonel such as himself as their leader.
Nasser thus exerted influence from the deputy position within the new Egyptian government, pursuing a policy of neutralism in the newly formed international structure of the early Cold War. This catalysed suspicion from the US and UK towards Naguib’s government, given the semi-Marxist rhetoric of Egyptian nationalism in the decades prior to the 1952 coup, and the tendency of the USSR to seek allies in newly self-determined states in the post-WWII period. Such suspicion was further intensified after Nasser secured what was known as the Czech Arms Deal, which supplied Egypt with a significant amount of Soviet weaponry. The complications that came with the international diplomacy forced Naguib from power, and Nasser assumed the Egyptian Presidency in 1956.
The Suez Crisis
Anthony Eden’s British Prime Ministership will forever be defined by the nationalisation of the Suez Canal, which was set in motion by Nasser soon after he ascended the Presidency. The event was a theoretical turning point in the welfare of Arab Nationalism, and was drawn upon as a symbol of freedom and steadfastness in the face of European imperialism across the Arab world. For almost a century, the Suez Canal had been a crucial passage for commerce from the South and Far East back to Europe, and had been controlled by the European imperialists, namely the British, to ensure right of access. Upon Nasser’s decision to nationalise the canal, however, European hegemony was challenged full-on, and Britain and France, supported by Israel, confronted Nasser to retain their influence. A significant fear was the Egyptian nationalist potential to blockade European access to oil resources in the Middle East, which the British had already fought for in Iran early that decade after Mohammad Mosaddeq had nationalised the Iranian oil industry.
The US, USSR and UN were all required to intervene to sort out the diplomatic confrontation, after Britain, France and Israel exerted military force upon Egypt. Nonetheless, the political damage had already been done. Nasser had established himself as a nationalist hero, not just in Egypt, but across the Arab world. His rhetoric used in speeches during the Suez Crisis called upon Arabs to unite in solidarity, commenting that conflicts in Algeria and Palestine were as much an Arab problem as anything else. Such pan-Arabism led to the political union of Syria and Egypt between 1958 and 1961, as the United Arab Republic (UAR). This union could have potentially been the beginning of a regional Arab state – the true aim of the Arab nationalist movement, some have argued. However, the traditional faults with unionism came to light – namely, that, although the Syrians requested Nasser take charge of the UAR, social tension arose between the Syrians and Egyptians, on the basis that the former felt inferior to their southern counterparts – and the UAR failed to survive for more than three years.
There have been many proponents of Arab nationalism since its inception as a modern political ideology during the mid-nineteenth century. Islamic modernism was one, anti-imperialism another. Arab uprising in the form of the Intifada, another. The most contemporary perhaps is Islamic fundamentalism, in the form of global terrorism. None, however, had the positive impact that Nasser had upon the Arab peoples. His values and pragmatism, hampered perhaps in the end by the dogged determination of Israel and her allies to survive the Arab-Israeli wars of the 1960s and 1970s, are of a kind rarely seen in Arab politics. The military dictatorships of the Assad regime in Syria and Sadaam Hussein in Iraq do not compare, nor do the subsequent regimes of Sadat and Mubarak in Egypt – which of course have gone through significant turmoil in the last three years (see http://wp.me/p3g0mz-2S for a discussion of the latest coup d’etat).