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.
Gamal Abdel Nasser
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
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
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
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
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
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)
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
October 14, 2008
Synonyms and alternate spellings:
History of Egypt
Brief History of Israel and
Pan-Arabism Aflaq, Michel