97 years after Nasser the great Arab nationalist was born he is still making waves in Egypt.
On a warm evening in late July 1956, Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser is addressing a crowd of 200,000 in Egypt’s northern city of Alexandria: “It is an attitude of such arrogance towards other people. We will not be manipulated. Today we are going to get rid of what happened in the past.” The president is promising his people an end to British imperialism, a force that has haunted the country for some 40 years.
Nasser turns his attention to the Suez Canal. Hidden in his speech, broadcast over the radio, is a code word – Ferdinand de Lesseps, the architect of the waterway. Upon hearing his name the Egyptian army has been instructed to storm the offices of the Suez Canal Company and begin the seizure and nationalisation of the canal.
When they hear the news the crowds carry Nasser on their shoulders to the Presidential Palace. Back in London the mood was more sombre. The canal carried oil to the west and was controlled by the colonial powers Britain and France, who were scooping up tens of millions of dollars’ worth of revenues. Egypt received nothing though 125,000 men died building it.
In conversation with Clifton Daniel for the New York Times, Nasser explains his decision to go ahead with plans to nationalise the canal: he was offended by the insulting attitude with which western powers refused loans to build the Aswan Dam. His believed plans to build the hydroelectric power station would provide electricity and alleviate poverty in Egypt and in fact building the dam would later be defined as one of the crowning moments of his presidency.
Shaking off foreign influence was Nasser’s forte. He prepared the ground for his anti-imperialist agenda on the 23 July, 195,2 when he headed a group of officers within the army, known as the Free Officers, who overthrew the British-backed monarchy in charge and established a republic. This moment in history is referred to by his supporters as “the Revolution”. According to his wife’s biography, in the years preceding this event Nasser kept guns at home she admitted were “used against the British in cities like Suez”.
Rewind four or so years to 1948 and Nasser has travelled to Palestine to fight in the Arab-Israeli war. Many say the Free Officers’ coup was driven by Nasser’s frustration over the defeat of the Arab armies during this battle.
Across the Middle East many rallied behind Nasser’s anti-colonial sentiment. After Gaddafi ousted Libya’s pro-western king, expelled up to 25,000 Italians occupying the country and ousted US and British military bases, the late Libyan leader named a cathedral in Tripoli the Gamal Abdel Nasser Mosque. The Libyan leader is said to have fainted twice at Nasser’s funeral.
Nasser’s concerns stretched outside the borders of Egypt, which made him hugely popular at home and away. He believed that the liberation of Palestine should be an Arab duty and he supported Algeria’s struggle for independence from France. In 1958 the Iraqi Free Officers’ Movement toppled their monarchy, whilst in Lebanon revolutionaries were influenced by Nasser’s ideas. Although a brief affair, in 1958 Egypt and Syria joined to form the United Arab Republic, over which Nasser presided.
At home, Nasser was also loved. In a black and white photograph Tahia Abdel Nasser, his wife, is wearing a summer dress, beads, a white hat and holding matching gloves. She is smiling and looking towards someone off camera; it is the picture that once sat on the desk of the late leader. In an interview with the American University in Cairo press, Tahia Khalid Abdel Nasser, his granddaughter, said his wife was always at his side. As a father he was said to be kind, supportive and loving.
Accounts of the late president describe him as a charismatic, powerful leader and a handsome man who knew how to speak in public. In his own time he liked to go to the cinema or watch films at home. He liked taking his own photographs, making his own films and listening to Umm Kulthum. His presidency has been dubbed the “golden age” because culture flourished throughout.
Part of Nasser’s appeal was that he was seen as a man of the people, who came from modest beginnings. He was born on 15 January, 1918, to a postal clerk in the village of Beni Murr in the Nile Delta. Perhaps this is why he set about improving life for the “ordinary man” by introducing land reforms, free education programmes and improving access to medicines, jobs and housing. He built schools and helped provide clean drinking water and famously told the common man: “Raise your head fellow brother, the end of colonialism has come.”
If it is widely accepted that Nasser is best remembered for the nationalisation of the Suez Canal it is similarly acknowledged that his biggest failure was his country’s defeat in the 1967 war. In six days Israel seized the Sinai Peninsula and Gaza from Egypt, the Golan Heights from Syria and the West Bank and East Jerusalem from Jordan. In the years that followed, Israel settled thousands of people on this captured land.
In six days Nasser’s grand ideas of pan-Arabism were crushed. Yet in a remarkable testament to his popularity Egyptians poured onto the streets to show their support for their leader and he agreed to stay in power. He may have helped lose the war but to this day he is held up as a champion of the Palestinian cause.
For all the grandiose descriptions and accounts of Nasser that dominate, he was essentially an authoritarian leader who resented opposition or a difference in opinion. In this video he can be seen ridiculing the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood for suggesting it be mandatory for women to wear the headscarf. It is not widely documented but Nasser himself was once a member of the Muslim Brotherhood – or at the least had close connections to the movement. What is clear, though, is that their relationship soured over the years.
In 1954, Nasser claimed the Muslim Brotherhood attempted to shoot him whilst he addressed a crowd assembled in Alexandria. Some reports say this attempted assassination was staged as a pretext under which Nasser could crush the movement, which he went on to do. In a series of events which echo the political situation in Egypt today, Nasser denounced the Supreme Guide Hassan Al-Hudaybi and many members of the movement were executed and imprisoned.
It wasn’t just the Muslim Brotherhood he despised. The Wafd Party was crushed and in fact free media, fair elections and civil liberties were virtually non-existent under his rule.
Nasser died of a heart attack on 28 September, 1970, having ruled Egypt for over 10 years. Five million people attended his funeral, which lasted 40 days.
Forty-five years after his passing, Nasser is still making waves in the Middle East. During the February 2011 revolution, protestors held up pictures of the leader and the demands “bread, freedom and social justice” were reminiscent of Nasser’s social justice reforms. Yet though Nasser instilled aspirations for an independent Egypt, free from outside interference, he laid the foundations for the military dictatorship which rules the country today.