‘Seven decades since his coup, and more than half a century since his death, the Arab peoples have scarcely begun to shake off the legacy of “Father” Gamal Abdel Nasser,’ as the sweeping regional history of Egypt’s former president concludes. Nasser was certainly an iconic figure whose persona shaped modern Egypt, but his influence went well beyond his country and extended across the Arab world, as well as across Africa. The history of Nasserism as non-Egyptians experienced it, is not fully appreciated enough and Alex Rowell’s new book We Are Your Soldiers: How Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser Remade the Arab World ambitiously aims to give us a taste of what that history looks like. While Nasser is not the only factor, Rowell argues, he is a critical figure in the development of authoritarian systems across the Arab region. Not only did many Arab dictators model themselves on him but, during his reign, Nasser actively intervened in a number of Arab countries and helped to produce those governing systems, which the region is still dealing with today.
An interesting feature of Nasserism that survives in Lebanon today is the killing of journalists. Rowell opens with the story of Lokman Slim, who was assassinated in 2021, which many suspect Hezbollah of being responsible for. Slim was a firm critic of Hezbollah and involved in civil society organisation. Lokman’s mother likens her son’s murder to another murder – which her husband was involved in prosecuting in court – and that was the assassination of Kamel Mrowa in 1966. Mrowa died much the same way Lokman did: gunshots at close range and both were critics of the powers of their day. In Mrowa’s case, Gamal Abdel Nasser was involved in his murder due to Mrowa’s involvement in attempting to help create a new geopolitical alliance in the region, which Nasser found threatening. Mrowa was not the first journalist in Lebanon to be killed. In 1957, Ghandur Karam was killed by a Nasserite figure in Lebanon, who would go on to lead the pro-Nasser resistance in Lebanon as Rowell notes, ‘Slaying journalists, evidently, was a means of career advancement in the Nasserist world.”
The book covers a range of different countries from Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Libya, Yemen and, of course, Egypt. While Nasser’s influence and meddling went well beyond these countries, the idea of the book is to give us a sense of what Nasserism without borders looked like. The book opens with a biography of Gamal Abdel Nasser. Despite being in the military, he never saw action in the Second World War. His first real engagement would not happen until the 1948 war, the Nakba, which saw the establishment of the State of Israel. Nasser was stationed in the Palestinian village of Faluja, north-east of Gaza, where he experienced Israeli siege until the 1949 armistice agreement between Egypt and Israel. However, during his time fighting, he seemed more interested in Egypt, saying, ‘We were fighting in Palestine, but our dreams were all in Egypt’; and of the Israelis themselves, Rowell writes, ‘Nasser seemed to harbour a grudging respect, bordering on admiration.’ Nasser even admits to meeting with Israeli officers during the truce negotiations, even having dinner with a group of officers that included two future Israeli prime ministers, Yigal Allon and Yitzhak Rabin. Nasser quizzed them on how the Israelis beat the British, how to step up a resistance and, according to Rabin, said Egypt fighting Israel was the wrong war against the wrong enemy at the wrong time.
We Are Your Soldiers offers an important and critical glimpse into the complex world of Nasser and Nasserism. To suggest Nasser was the sole reason or main actor in the subversion of democratic development in the Arab world and the creation of the authoritarian order would, of course, be ludicrous. Rowell in no way does this; it is more about understanding the role Nasser played by zooming in on it. The legacy of Nasserism is something the Arab World is still dealing with and it is not just an Egyptian phenomenon, which Rowell lays out. There are, of course, issues with this approach – trying to understand the present by looking backwards into the past is something historians are wary of. Indeed, Nasser cannot be held responsible for everything that happened during his reign, let alone after it, a point Rowell is very clear about. My own impression from reading the book is that it strikes the right balance and is very conscious of not being presentist and anachronistic. We Are Your Soldiers is a fascinating and, at times, depressing but absolutely necessary read and would make for interesting discussion on the development of Arab politics.