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Gamal Abdel Nasser

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Gamal Abdel Nasser

Gamal Abdel Nasser - Gamal Abdel Nasser (also - Gemal Abd-El Nasser and several variants) (Arabic: جمال عبد الناصر‎; Jamal ‘Abd an-Nāsir) was born January 15, 1918 in Alexandria Egypt and died September 28, 1970 in Cairo. Together with fellow officers, he overthrew the Egyptian monarchy in 1952 in a CIA backed coup, and then maneuvered himself into the Egyptian presidency. The rule of his Pan-Arab Nasserist Free Officers Movement was to have brought democracy, industrialization, socialism and agrarian reform to Egypt. Nasser successfully moved Egypt to the front and center of the Arab nationalist movement, but he instituted a despotic rule that brooked little opposition, embarked on military and diplomatic adventures and built up the Egyptian military at the expense of other development. He was the second President of Egypt from 1956 until his death in 1970. Despite his disastrous failings, Nasser is still revered in much of the Arab world.

Nasser was born to a postal worker  of peasant stock. His family were Fellahin peasants who lived in Beni Mur in the Asyut governate in upper Egypt. Nasser's mother, Fahima Hamad, died in 1926 when Nasser was eight years old. His father remarried and had seven more children.   Even in grammar school, he apparently participated in demonstrations against the English occupation. From age eleven, Nasser  attended the Ras-al-Tin, Nahaseen and an al-Nahda secondary schools in Alexandria.

In 1937, Nasser entered the military academy at Cairo. There he met Abdel Hakim Amer and Anwar Sadat, who were to be among his foremost associates. Nasser graduated in 1938 with the rank of second lieutenant, and, after serving hear his home town, he volunteered for a posting in Sudan. During World War II, Nasser and Anwar Sadat contacted agents of the Axis powers, primarily Italians, and planned a coup that would expel the British from Egypt. The coup was never carried out.(Stephens, Robert Henry. Nasser; A Political Biography. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1972, pp 50-54).

In 1943 Nasser became an instructor at the military academy and then at the army staff college. Nasser was part of the Egyptian force that invaded Israel in the 1948 Arab-Israel War  and was bitter about the poor organization and performance of the army. He was trapped along with other Egyptian soldiers in the Falluja pocket (in the area of Plugot and Qiriat Gat in what is now Israel) and taken prisoner by the Israelis. This experience was not the start of his political involvement, which already had a long history, but it most likely intensified it. In 1949 Nasser formally organized the "Free Officers group from among his friends and confidantes.

On July 23, 1952 the Free Officers seized all government buildings, radio stations, police stations, and the army headquarters in Cairo. The coup made General Muhammad Naguib, one of its leaders, President. Coup leaders deceptively assured Britain that it would respect British citizens and property in Egypt, preventing British intervention. The new government was backed by the US Central Intelligence Agency, though it is not clear that the CIA had backed the coup.  The Free Officers allowed the deposed King Farouk and his family to “leave Egypt unharmed and ‘with honor.’”

Following the coup, Egyptian and other historiography, cued by Nasser made King Farouk out to be a despot and a degenerate, justifying the coup and making it seem "inevitable." In recent years however, the Egyptian government has somewhat "rehabilitated" Farouk. The truth is difficult to evaluate.

Nasser's road to power after the coup was not directed. After the coup, the Free Officers passed power to Ali Maher who became Prime Minister and was charged with details of running the government. The Free Officers then formed the Egyptian Revolutionary Command Council, which was the real power in Egypt. Naguib was chairman and Nasser was vice-chairman. However, Maher opposed agrarian reform legislation "proposed" by  Revolutionary Council and was forced to resign on September 7, 1952.  Naguib became Prime Minister and in June 1953 he became President. On February 23, 1954, Nasser forced Naguib out of the Presidency and office of Prime Minister, proclaiming Nasser as President. However, seemingly spontaneous mass demonstrations forced the return of Naguib as Prime Minister.

Nasser Takes Power

In October 1954 however, Nasser had solidified his position in the army sufficiently to oust Naguib. His popularity was also consolidated by a failed assassination attempt carried out by the Muslim Brotherhood. That organization had originally supported the coup, but turned against it when it was clear that the Free Officers had a secular agenda. Naguib, accused of complicity in the assassination, was under arrest or house arrest during the entire period of Nasser's reign. He was eventually freed by Anwar Sadat. Nasser's rule had trappings of democracy, but it was essentially a one party dictatorship with a controlled press and elaborate secret state police (Mukhabarat) apparatus.

The government had asked a commission of distinguished experts to frame a constitution, but it was too democratic and was rejected by the ruling junta. The new constitution was announced on January 16 1955. There was a single party, the National Union party (originally the "Liberation Rally"), and a national assembly. The President was to be elected for a term of six years, with indefinite re-election allowed. The President had the right to dissolve the Assembly, and to propose, approve, and veto new laws.

The constitution nominally protected citizens from arbitrary arrest, but in 1956 the Minister of the Interior was given the power to arrest anybody charged with counter-revolutionary activity and to order their confinement at administrative discretion. Though  free speech and free press were guaranteed,  Egyptian publications were put under tight government control.  In its preamble, the  Egyptian constitution proclaimed as its objectives "the eradication of imperialism, the extinction of feudalism, the destruction of capitalistic influence, and the establishment of a strong national army, of social justice, and of a sound democratic society." It declares that Egypt is a sovereign Arab state with Islam as its official religion and Arabic as its official language.

Voting was made compulsory for men but optional for women. On June 24, Nasser was elected President by a margin of 99.9% in a referendum, and the constitution was approved by a margin of 99.8% and the ca plebiscite was held to ratify the new constitution and was overwhelmingly approved. A total of 5,697,467 persons registered to vote and 5,488,225 or 99.8 per cent voted for the new charter. Only 10,045 voted "No." The vote for Nasser was even more overwhelming.

Nasser and the British

Nasser's most spectacular moves were on the foreign policy front. Egypt interfered with Israeli shipping, but most important, even before he had fully assumed power, Gamal Nasser moved to expel the British from Egypt. That would establish his credentials as an anti-imperialist leader.  Nasser signed an agreement with Britain that provided for the withdrawal of the British army from the Suez Canal Zone. A small civilian force was allowed to remain. Rather than opposing Nasser's moves, the British and Americans rewarded Egypt with a $40 million economic grant. 

In 1955, the United States was to have supplied fifty-six million dollars and an additional  two-hundred million dollars through the World Bank, to  finance the construction of the Aswan High Dam, which Nasser and his allies had begun planning shortly after the revolution. The dam would create the largest man-made lake in the world, generate electric power for much of Egypt, provide water for irrigation, and control flooding along the Nile River. The United States under Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, and with the guidance of the CIA, was seeking to undermine and supplant British influence in Egypt.

Nasser and Suez

However, Nasser had an ambitious rearmament plan which the west refused to back.   In September 1955 Nasser shocked the West by signing an arms deal with Communist  Czechoslovakia - actually, a disguised deal with the USSR. In July 1956, the Western Powers announced that they would not finance the Aswan dam, and Nasser searched for other backing. The dam was financed by the Soviets. On July 26, Nasser announced the nationalization of the Suez Canal.

Meanwhile, the Egyptians had been encouraging increasingly daring 'Fedayeen' raids from Gaza into into Israel, while Israeli retaliations infuriated the Egyptians and caused them to escalate, sending in Egyptian troops rather than just Palestinians. 

The increasingly frequent terror raids were creating an impossible situation for Israel, and the arms deal had caused alarm. If the Egyptian army was given time to absorb the arms properly, they could inflict a devastating below. The Egyptians had acquired jet aircraft and relatively modern tanks. Israel was still using B-17 bombers and World War II vintage Sherman tanks. Israel hurried to get weapons that would be at least comparable from the French. The nationalization of the canal angered Britain and France. In October of 1956 Israel, in coordination with Britain and France, launched the Suez Campaign, invading the Sinai peninsula and reaching the Suez Canal in a few days. The brilliant military success was a diplomatic and geopolitical blunder, especially for France and Britain. Nasser's skilful diplomatic manipulation turned his defeat into victory. The United States and the USSR, both anxious to reduce French and British influence in the Middle East, forced the Israelis, British and French to leave Egypt. Egypt would not leave until it had gotten what it thought was a US guarantee to ensure freedom of passage for Israeli shipping through the Straits of Tiran and the Suez Canal, as well as a UN peace keeping force in Sinai that would prevent Egypt from menacing Israel. The border was to be quiet for the next 11 years, but Israel, Britain and France had had to withdraw and were humiliated, and Nasser could claim a victory.  

Despite this and later setbacks, Nasser continued to lead the Arab world and even gained in stature. He was an active leader of the "non-aligned" block as well and was elected Secretary General of the Non-Aligned Movement from 1964 until his death. Posters of Nasser proliferated throughout the Arab and Muslim world, adorning offices and shop windows. His powerful Saut al Arab ('Voice of the Arabs") radio transmitter broadcast the message of radicalism to the entire Middle East.

Nasser and the UAR

In 1958, Nasser attempted to form a union between Syria and Egypt. The dream of Arab unity had existed for many years, and Pan Arabists believed it had only been prevented after World War I by the machinations of the imperialists. This union would, in Nasser's view, provide him and Egypt with unquestioned supremacy in the Arab world. Syria, which shared Egypt's anti-Western stance, was considerably weaker, facing both external threats and an unstable internal political situation. Members of the Ba'ath party also favored federation with Egypt. On February 1, 1958, Nasser joined Syria's president, Shukri al-Quwatli, in announcing the formation of the United Arab Republic (UAR). A plebiscite approved the union and Nasser's presidency later that month. The capital of the new republic was Cairo. In effect, Egypt had taken over Syria.

In March of 1958, Egyptians Abd al-Hakim Amir and Abd al-Latif al-Baghdadi and two Syrians, Akram al Hawrani and Sabri al Asali, were appointed vice presidents. Amir also was commander of the joint UAR military.  In March 1960, Nasser created a new National Assembly. He appointed its delegates. As in Egypt, only Nasser's National Union party was legal. The UAR caused anxiety to many because it threatened to upset the balance of power in the Middle East. Nasser had even succeeded in adding another state, Yemen, to the union, and was negotiating with the Iraqi government. This certainly caused consternation in the West.

However, Baathists in Syria, who had perhaps thought to gain control of Egypt, were disappointed in the union, which gave most of the power to to Egypt and Nasser. Baathists were gradually dismissed from the government.  In August 1961, Nasser further  centralized his control. He abolished the two councils of ministers and the cabinet, and added three new Egyptian vice presidents, outnumbering the Syrians 5 to

The armies of the two countries were never really integrated. Syrian army units staged a coup on September 28 1961, ending the UAR.

Nasser and the Egyptian economy

Nasser and his apologists are fund of pointing to economic and social progress made under his regime. Nasser did achieve some agrarian reform, and some progress in industrialization. It is difficult to know how much of the increase in electric output and other measures reported under Nasser's rule was real.  However, high birth rates and military spending evidently prevented real economic progress. The Egyptian economy remained abysmal under Nasser's rule. From 1960 to 1970, per capita GDP grew from $150 to $218. Literacy was less than 50% (source). Infant mortality in Egypt was an appalling 200 per thousand live births in 1950-55, worse than other North African countries. By 1965-1970 it had reached 170 per thousand live births, about the same rate of improvement or less than that seen in other North African countries, and still the highest rate in North Africa (source).

Nasser in Yemen

Nasser's quest for pan Arab leadership led him to support revolution in Yemen. With the failure of the UAR, the need to support a new pan-Arab exploit became more urgent. In January 1962, Nasser began supporting the anti-Royalist Free Yemen Movement. This also served to combat the Saudis, who Nasser saw as his rivals for Arab leadership. Nasser thought that a small Egyptian force, perhaps two brigades would secure victory in Yemen. Soon however, Nasser had about a division in Yemen, 15,000 troops. By the end of 1963, there were nearly 40,000 troops, and by the end of 1964, 50,000. Yemen was to Egypt as Vietnam was to be to the Americans and Afghanistan to the Russians - a trap.  

Nasser and Israel

Nasser established the pattern that the leader of the Arab and Muslim world had to take charge of the task of destroying Israel. Pan-Arab ideology had inculcated the idea that all the ills of the Arab world were due to colonialism, and that Israel, or the "Zionist Entity" was the spearhead and symbol of Western colonialism. The failure of the Arabs in 1948, after all, was one of the central accusations leveled by the Free Officers against the old regime. Rectifying that failure was an essential part of their mission.  Since he achieved no visible progress on this front, Nasser was vulnerable to charges by his Syrian rivals that he had failed the Arab cause. Both Egypt and Syria had to take up the cause of Palestine. Arab summits in 1964 and 1965, they had resolved on a plan to destroy Israel. Nasser, with Syrian cooperation had set up the Palestine Liberation Organization, ostensibly in order to "liberate" Palestine through terror attacks, but also to allow Nasser to control the Palestinian national movement and channel it in directions to his advantage. Syria and Egypt resolved to hamper the construction of the vital Israeli National Water Carrier. Egypt could not really take the lead in this, as the irrigation project was close to the Syrian border.

The Soviets, for their part, encouraged both Syrian belligerency and Nasser's aspirations as a means of gaining leverage on the Arab countries and excluding the United States. The Soviets had sold Nasser a huge stockpile of modern weapons, which the Egyptian army was supposed to be absorbing. In April and May of 1967, a series of escalating Israeli-Syrian border incidents provided the Soviets with an opportunity. Israel had responded to Syrian shelling of border settlements and irrigation works by bombing raids. Syrian jets had scrambled, and Israel had shot them down. The Syrians could show themselves as defenders of Palestine and the Arab cause, left in the lurch by the supposed cowardice and hesitancy of the Egyptians. The Soviets thought to embarrass the United States and force concessions from Israel. They deliberately manufactured a false claim that Israel was massing troops in preparation for an attack on Syria. Nasser responded by mobilizing his army, dismissing the UN peace keeping forced from the Sinai peninsula and calling repeatedly for the annihilation of Israel. Historians differ on Nasser's planning for the war. According to one theory, he was simply "playing it by ear." He had created a new reality. If the Israelis did not challenge it, he would have won a great victory in prestige at the very least. Nasser gambled that the United States would restrain Israel, and that Israel would be forced to grant some concessions such as acquiescing in the closing of the straits of Tiran. However, Michael Oren ("Six Days of War") presents evidence that the Egyptians were in fact planning to attack Israel. The Israelis got wind of the intended surprise attack, Operation Fajr, and the Soviets warned the Egyptians against it, forcing the attack to be called off on May 27, just as it was to be launched.  

The United States essentially reneged on its commitment of 1956 to guarantee freedom of navigation in the straits of Tiran. Reluctant to engage itself in the Middle East while fully involved in Vietnam, the Johnson administration tried to put off Israel with a series of hopeful but empty ruses about an international armada that would open the straits of Tiran. Israel had mobilized its army and could not keep it mobilized indefinitely, as the Israeli army consisted of almost the entire able-bodied male population. It would either have to stand down and admit defeat or fight. The situation escalated another notch when King Hussein of Jordan signed a defense pact in Cairo to great fanfare, subordinating Jordanian forces to Egyptian command.

US delaying maneuvers succeeded as long as the mission of negotiating was entrusted to Abba Eban, who was unable to either get the Americans to take action or to get permission for Israel to take action.  However, at the end of May, there were changes of personnel in the  Israeli government. The public had lost confidence in Prime Minister Levi Eshkol. A unity government was set up with Moshe Dayan at its head. The mission of ascertaining American intentions, and announcing Israeli intentions, was entrusted instead to Meir Amit, head of army intelligence. Amit understood that what was needed was not to ask permission, but to make Israeli plans clear to the Americans without demanding any guarantee of backing. The Israeli army was equipped with French weapons and was not beholden to the United States. Amit returned from Washington with a silent mandate that could be loosely interpreted as American acquiescence in an Israeli attack, if one wanted to interpret it that way. Israel struck on the morning of June 5, 1967, beginning the Six day war. In two hours, the Israeli air force destroyed most of the Egyptian air force on the ground. In two days, the Israeli army had chased the Egyptians from the Sinai desert with huge loses. The Israelis had also dealt with Jordan, conquering the entire West Bank and by June 10, they had taken the Golan Heights from Syria.

Nasser made the defeat worse by lying to the Egyptian public initially, claiming continued victory, and by angering the Americans. Together with King Hussein of Jordan, he fabricated a story claiming that the American sixth fleet had aided Israel. This was supposed to explain the swift Israeli victory and at the same time make the Americans hated in the Arab world. This story is still taught in Egypt. However, the Israelis intercepted a call between Nasser and King Hussein, in which Nasser explained how they would fabricate and spread the falsehood. The deception made the Americans furious.

After the Egyptian defeat could no longer be concealed, on the evening of June 9,  Nasser made a dramatic speech to the nation broadcast live on Egyptian television in which he resigned. He repeated the fabrication about the United States aiding Israel and exclaimed bitterly, "The Sixth Fleet runs on Arab Petroleum." An apparently orchestrated mass public demonstration immediately called him back to office.

Israel and the United States had expected that the Arab countries would now sue for peace. Instead, Nasser led the Arab world in rejecting UN Security Council Resolution 242, which called for Israeli withdrawal from the newly conquered territories in return for peace.  Likewise led by Nasser, the Arab states announced the "three no's" of the Khartoum summit: No peace with Israel, no negotiations and no recognition. Though some commentators have lately tried to spin the Khartoum resolutions as implying a peaceful stance, nobody interpreted them as such at the time, and there is nothing to suggest that the Egyptians had any peaceful intentions. Nasser's goal was to force a humiliating Israeli withdrawal without any concessions or peace treaty. That was necessary in order to retain Arab honor and his prestige as head of the Arab world. He launched a war of attrition across the Suez canal, which quickly escalated from artillery duels to aerial combat. The Egyptians got Soviet radar and missiles to protect their aircraft. The Israelis got F-4 phantom aircraft. Repeated attempts by the United States to negotiate a solution found both sides obdurate. The Israelis were saved from American pressure by the fact that the Egyptian stance was patently unreasonable - they would make no concessions whatever in return for Israeli withdrawal.

On September 28, 1970 Gamal Abd El Nasser died of a heart attack. He reportedly suffered from hemochromatosis, a hereditary condition. His funeral on October first was attended by millions and involved dramatic weeping of announcers and crowds sweeping over soldiers. An icon had passed.

Nasser's Legacy

Gamal Abdel Nasser changed the way the Arab world thinks and remains a figure of high popular regard. At the same time, most of his practical program was never really implemented. Egypt did not industrialize or achieve a socialist economy. Differences between the few rich and the many very poor fellahin remained huge. Perhaps 20,000 or more Egyptian lives were lost in his senseless wars.  Nasser's pragmatic successor, Anwar Sadat, paid lip service to Pan Arabism. He broke with the USSR, launched a brilliantly planned attack on Israel in October of 1973 and then proceeded to make peace. Since then, the Egyptian economy made modest but steady progress.  The failure of Pan Arabism or Nasserism lead to the rise of Islamism. The popularity of Islamism is the best objective indicator of what the Arab world really feels about Nasser and his legacy. 

However, "Nasserism" lives on as an ideology that challenges the West and "imperialism." Hugo Chavez, the Venezuelan radical president, told Al-Jazeera in 2006:

Someone talked to me about his pessimism regarding the future of Arab nationalism. I told him I was optimistic, because the ideas of Nasser are still alive. Nasser was one of the greatest people of Arab history, to say the least, a Nasserist, ever since I was a young soldier.


Ami Isseroff

October 14, 2008

Synonyms and alternate spellings:

Further Information: History of Egypt Brief History of Israel and Palestine  Ba'ath Pan-Arabism Aflaq, Michel

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