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Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser Was a Towering Figure Who Left an Ambiguous Legacy

Fifty years after his death, the Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser still casts a long shadow over Arab politics. A symbol of defiance in the age of decolonization, Nasser transformed his country but never gave its people control of the system that ruled them.

President Gamal Abdul Nasser in Cairo. (Keystone / Getty Images)

Gamal Abdel Nasser, president of Egypt (1954–70) and champion of Arab nationalism, Arab Socialism, and anti-imperialism in the era of global decolonization, died fifty years ago today.

Nasser was the first indigenous ruler of Egypt since Cleopatra. He believed that he spoke for — and viscerally understood — the interests of its people. Addressing them in unembellished semi-colloquial language, the Egyptian leader urged them, “Irfa‘ ra’sak ya khuya” (“lift up your head my brother”).

The balance among consent, acquiescence, and coercion in the making of Nasser’s project was uncertain and shifted over time. Some — like his successor, Anwar al-Sadat (1970–81), and the renowned liberal litterateur Tawfiq al-Hakim — supported him in power yet denounced him as a dictator in death. Marxists labeled Nasser as a fascist in the early 1950s but acclaimed him in the 1960s and even after he had died.

An Officers’ Republic

Egypt’s political transformation from an aristocratic constitutional monarchy to an “officers’ republic” is Nasser’s most enduring legacy. This regime-form persists despite the realignment of Egypt’s domestic and foreign policies, and shifts in the balance of power among the elements of its ruling bloc — the army, the internal-security apparatus, the state bourgeoisie, and, since the 1970s, private-sector crony capitalists.

From the mid-1950s until (and even after) his death, Nasser’s personal charisma and appeal to pan-Arab nationalism cast a long shadow over Arab politics. Consequently, Egypt established the template for military republics that styled themselves as anti-imperialist or socialist in Syria, Iraq, Algeria, North Yemen, Libya, and Sudan — all authoritarian states with repressive internal-security apparatuses that policed society, culture, and intellectual life, and crushed all opposition movements.

Why did many Marxists in the era of decolonization consider Nasser’s Egypt and similar regimes of the global South to be progressive or even socialist? Decolonization was the principal historical dynamic of this era. The international left did not understand well the domestic social structures of anti-imperialist regimes or discuss this issue seriously. The Soviet Union promoted illusions about its Cold War allies, which encouraged a tendency to disregard the distinction between an anti-imperialist foreign policy and domestic authoritarianism.

In many countries of the global South, militaries were the largest, disciplined, modern, national-scale institutions. They often allied with (or even led) anti-colonial forces, and were well-positioned to seize power in their own names and then repress dissent in the name of unity against the imperialist enemy. Nasserists often deployed the slogan, “No voice louder than the voice of the battle” (against Israel) in this way. The deep divisions on the Left over how to understand Bashar al-Assad’s Syria today are an historical legacy of this dynamic.

Nasser’s Generation

Nasser belonged to the first cohort of lower-middle-class cadets who were admitted to the military academy in 1936. The Anglo-Egyptian Treaty of that year reduced the scope of the semi-colonial military occupation that had been installed following Britain’s 1882 invasion of Egypt. Nonetheless, British interests prevailed on the most critical issues, as the incident of February 4, 1942 revealed.

That day, as the troops of German field marshal Erwin Rommel were advancing towards Alexandria, British tanks surrounded the royal palace in Cairo. The British ambassador strode in and demanded that King Farouk either abdicate or dismiss the current cabinet, which the British considered too sympathetic to the Axis, and invite Mustafa al-Nahhas, leader of the staunchly anti-fascist Wafd Party, to form a new government. Farouk capitulated.

After World War II, British forces continued to occupy the Suez Canal Zone. Thus, Nasser and his generation came of age politically in the struggle to achieve the “total evacuation” of British forces and Egypt’s “full independence.”

Nasser believed that the army must take the initiative to expel the British, destroy the power of their local collaborators, and reform politics and society. To accomplish these goals, following Egypt’s humiliating defeat in the Arab-Israeli War of 1948, Nasser formed and led the Free Officers Movement.

On July 23, 1952, the Free Officers executed a nearly bloodless military coup against King Farouk; three days later, they ordered Farouk to abdicate and leave Egypt. With the exception of the ruling class — the monarchy, the large landowners, the local urban business class, and their legal and journalistic auxiliaries — most Egyptians welcomed the officers’ “blessed movement,” as it was styled.

Stress Tests

Nasser and the great majority of the Free Officers were resolutely anti-communist. Several, most famously Anwar al-Sadat (and briefly Nasser himself), had been members of the Muslim Brotherhood before joining the Free Officers. In contrast, one of the junta leaders, Khaled Muhyi al-Din, and several lower-ranking officers were close to the Marxist Democratic Movement for National Liberation (DMNL).

The Muslim Brotherhood and the DMNL initially supported the coup (all the other Marxist organizations opposed it). However, both groups became its enemies within a year and their members consequently suffered repeated imprisonment and torture.

The new regime’s first stress test was a bloody encounter with striking textile workers at a large mill fifteen miles south of Alexandria, which exposed its fear of popular initiatives. On August 13, 1952, the army intervened to quash the strike. Soldiers responded to shots of unknown provenance by firing on demonstrating workers who were chanting slogans in favor of the new regime, resulting in casualties on both sides.

The military junta, anxious to assure the US Embassy that they were not communists, hustled twenty-nine workers before a hastily assembled military tribunal. Two of them, Mustafa Khamis and Muhammad al-Baqari, were convicted of premeditated murder and of being communists. The court sentenced them to death. Khamis may have been a Marxist, but he was not present when the shots were fired; al-Baqari was not an activist. Both men were executed on September 7, 1952.

Land Reform

In 1952, Egypt was an overwhelmingly agricultural country. Its principal source of wealth was the cultivation and export of premium-quality cotton. The great majority of the rural population were malnourished, illiterate, and afflicted with disease — especially schistosomiasis, which they contracted from parasites inhabiting the still waters of irrigation ditches where they worked barefoot for hours at a time.

In the last years of the monarchy, wealth and political power were concentrated in the hands of twelve thousand large landowning families who comprised less than 0.5 percent of the rural population and owned about 35 percent of the arable land. At the bottom of the agrarian class structure, 60 percent of all rural households neither owned nor rented land and worked as wage laborers, while two million families, 72 percent of all landowners, owned plots of less than 1 feddan (1.04 acres), barely enough for subsistence.

The Free Officers’ program promised to eliminate “feudalism,” an imprecise term for the economic and political power of the large landowners. To accomplish this, they decreed a modest land reform — less radical than comparable post–World War II measures adopted under US supervision in Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan.

The Land Reform Law of September 9, 1952 limited individual ownership to 200 feddans and 300 feddans for a family — very large holdings by Egyptian standards. Initially, some 1,700 landowners, including 425 members of the royal family, lost 10 percent of Egypt’s arable land.

By 1970, 15 percent of the arable land had been redistributed. The landless population had declined to 43 percent of rural households, and the share of the agricultural income received by wage workers and owners of less than 5 feddans had doubled.

Medium and rich peasants with access to credit to buy additional land were the main beneficiaries of the land redistribution. The key provisions of the law that raised the rural standard of living were a limit on agrarian rents, to no more than seven times the value of the annual tax on the land, and an agricultural minimum wage.

A World Leader

The land reform and the banning of the political parties of the old regime in January 1953 broke the power of Egypt’s monarchy-era ruling class. Now seeing itself as a revolutionary leadership, the junta began calling itself the Revolutionary Command Council.

However, the revolution had no coherent economic policy or political ideology. It had not been installed in power by a popular social movement or party; nor was it accountable to any such movement. Nasser consolidated power in his hands by outmaneuvering his rivals in March 1954. He secured his supremacy several months later when he fulfilled a major promise by signing a treaty securing the evacuation of British forces by June 1956.

Nasser’s role as a leader of the Arab world and the struggle of the global South — then more commonly referred to as the Third World — to forge an alternative to the Cold War framing of international politics was arguably more historically consequential than his domestic accomplishments.

He unhesitatingly supported Algeria’s National Liberation Front (FLN) when it launched a war for independence from France on November 1, 1954, providing the movement with an office in Cairo, a radio station, training, and arms. Using Egypt’s powerful “Voice of the Arabs” radio station, in early 1955 Nasser broadcast direct appeals to the Arab peoples, over the heads of their governments, urging them to reject the Anglo-American sponsored anti-Soviet Baghdad Pact. This intervention scuppered the planned adherence of Jordan, Lebanon, and Saudi Arabia (although Turkey and Iraq did join).

Nasser first appeared on a global stage at the April 1955 Bandung Conference of Asian and African countries. The inspiration for the Bandung gathering came from the principles of “positive neutralism” promoted by Indonesia’s president Sukarno and the prime ministers of India and China, Jawaharlal Nehru and Zhou Enlai. Positive neutralism proposed a world order based on anti-colonialism, non-aggression, and mutual non-interference in domestic affairs as an alternative to the Cold War blocs.

Although the Bandung Conference is commonly remembered as being more radical than it actually was, it did symbolize the advent of the Third World as an international political force. Nasser contributed to the formation of this historical current and rode the wave successfully for over a decade.

Confrontation Over Suez

Despite Nasser’s anti-communism, the Dwight D. Eisenhower administration refused to sell arms to Egypt. Zhou Enlai encouraged Nasser to turn to the Soviet bloc, and on September 27, 1955, Egypt announced an arms deal with Czechoslovakia, the first weapons sale by any non-Western power to a Middle Eastern country.

Hoping to woo Egypt back to the Western camp, the United States and Britain agreed to finance construction of the Aswan High Dam, a top-priority development project comparable to the Tennessee Valley Authority. But the Manichean worldview of Secretary of State John Foster Dulles could not tolerate Nasser’s continued advocacy and practice of positive neutralism. On July 18, 1956, Dulles retracted the US offer in an intentionally insulting note to Egypt.

Nasser countered more boldly than anyone had anticipated by nationalizing the Suez Canal. The Canal was a concessionary company owned and operated by a multinational firm headquartered in Paris in which the British government held 44 percent of shares. His announcement electrified the Egyptian people, the Arab region, and the entire Third World:

The Suez Canal was a symbol of despotism, a symbol of rape, and a symbol of humiliation. Today, citizens, the Suez Canal has been nationalized . . . the income of the Suez Canal is 35 million [Egyptian] pounds — $100 million a year, or $500 million in five years. So we don’t need to consider the $70 million in US or British aid. With this, we feel pride, we feel dignity, and we feel that we are really building our homeland as we want . . . we build what we want, and we do what we want.

France had been supplying Israel with tanks, aircraft, and nuclear technology since 1954, partly because Egypt’s support for Algeria’s independence had aroused its ire. In retaliation for the nationalization of the Canal, the French government persuaded Britain to join a Franco-Israeli alliance in attacking Egypt on October 29, 1956 — the “tripartite aggression,” as Egyptians call it.

Israel easily conquered the Gaza Strip and Sinai Peninsula and proclaimed its intention to annex these territories. But US and Soviet pressure forced Israel and its European allies to withdraw. Despite its military defeat, Egypt emerged from the war unbowed and in control of the Suez Canal — an enormous political victory. Nasser towered over the Arab rulers who meekly accepted Western colonial or postcolonial domination.

Syria’s political leaders sought to leverage Nasser’s prestige by offering to unite with Egypt. Nasser reluctantly assumed responsibility for a fractious Syria; he felt obliged to agree to the proposed union to preserve his leadership in the Arab world and the ideal of pan-Arab unity. The United Arab Republic (UAR) was established in February 1958.

Arab Socialism

Nasser began, with no plan at first, to build a large public sector by nationalizing the property of all British, French, and Belgian nationals after the tripartite aggression. Then in 1960, because the local business classes refrained from investing in industry, Nasser nationalized Bank Misr and all its associated industrial, financial and commercial concerns and adopted a five-year plan.

The July 1961 “socialist decrees” nationalized most non-agricultural enterprises and lowered the ceiling on agricultural land ownership for an individual to a hundred feddans (then fifty feddans in 1969). In 1962, the National Charter proclaimed Arab Socialism as the official ideology of the state and established the Arab Socialist Union as its sole party.

Arab Socialism, like African Socialism and other anti-Marxist varieties of socialism in the Third World, pursued economic development following the Soviet model of rapid industrialization while also raising the level of consumption of the popular classes. Egypt did not have sufficient capital to realize this project without expropriating the large landowners and pursuing a more radical agrarian reform. But Nasser opposed mobilizing the peasant majority for a class struggle against the pillars of the old regime.

Egyptian Arab Socialism mimicked many other aspects of Soviet rule, including its most unsavory anti-democratic practices. High-ranking officers with little economic experience became managers of large public-sector firms, forming an often inept or corrupt state bourgeoisie.

Arab Socialism bettered the lives of workers in public enterprises and the state bureaucratic apparatus, who obtained stable employment and social benefits like health care and pensions. All Egyptians received subsidized basic commodities and free public education from kindergarten to university level, while children of workers and peasants gained much greater access to higher education.

Limits of Nasserism

However, vast inequalities of wealth remained. Relations of production on the factory floor did not change much; in some instances, militaristic authoritarianism replaced private-sector paternalism. Rich peasants dominated the countryside, often exercising nominally illegal coercion against poor peasants and agricultural wage workers.

The Egyptian Marxists were too few, too disunited, and too distant from the peasant majority to pose an alternative to Nasser’s regime. Several Egyptian Marxists living in France published book-length critiques of Nasserist Arab Socialism, such as Anouar Abdel-Malek, Samir Amin, and Mahmoud Hussein. But a combination of repression, wishful thinking, and adherence to the Soviet line that Egypt was on a “non-capitalist path of development” disabled the critical faculties of those living in Egypt itself.

On January 1, 1959, the Nasser regime imprisoned nearly every Egyptian communist, subjecting them to harsh tortures until their release in 1964. Nonetheless, from their desert prison camps the communists hailed the “socialist decrees.” By adopting Arab Socialism without their participation, Nasser successfully outmaneuvered the communists and rendered them superfluous. The two parties dissolved themselves in 1965, just when the Nasserist project had reached its limits.

The socialist decrees prompted an alliance of Syria’s business class and its military to rebel and secede from the UAR in September 1961. The following year, to shore up his standing in the Arab arena, Nasser encouraged a coup by the North Yemeni Free Officers against the Imam-King and sent the Egyptian army to back them up when Saudi forces intervened to restore the monarchy. North Yemen became Egypt’s Vietnam, with up to seventy thousand soldiers and airmen engaged there until 1970.

Because of the army’s poor performance in North Yemen, Nasser and Abdel Hakim Amer, chief of staff of the army and Nasser’s closest friend since the 1930s, knew that Egypt was unprepared for a war. Amer had undermined military discipline and preparedness by plying the officer corps with privileges and perks and building a patronage network more loyal to him than to Nasser.

Nasser’s affection for Amer and his apprehension that the army would obey Amer in a crisis, not him, prevented the Egyptian leader from holding Amer to account for the failures of the army. In May 1967, acting without Nasser’s approval, Amer recklessly dispatched two divisions into the Sinai Peninsula.

This ultimately provoked Israel into attacking Egypt, Syria, and Jordan on June 5. Israel’s victory in the June War of 1967 devastated the Egyptian forces to an even greater extent than in their previous two wars.

A New Era

On June 9, Nasser offered to resign and retire from politics. In response, masses of Egyptians poured into the streets of Cairo demanding that Nasser remain as their president — although there is reason to believe that Nasser’s lieutenants orchestrated these demonstrations.

While ostensibly a show of support, the demonstrations highlighted Nasser’s greatest weakness. He convinced or coerced the Egyptian people to entrust all major decisions to him. In a moment of crisis, they had no confidence in their own agency.

Egypt’s defeat in the 1967 war squandered the country’s international standing, overburdened its economy, and heralded the demise of Arab Socialism and pan-Arab nationalism, exacerbated by Israel’s crushing of Egypt’s wartime ally, Syria. An Arab new left sought to fill the political void, inspired by the Palestinian armed resistance that was led by Yasser Arafat’s Fatah and its (at least nominally) Marxist rivals, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine.

The March 1968 Battle of Karameh popularized this new political horizon: fighters from Fatah and the Jordanian army inflicted heavy losses on an Israeli force that had penetrated deep into Jordan. This Arab victory, although it was tactical rather than strategic, inspired hundreds from all over the Arab world to volunteer to fight with Fatah against Israel.

Nasser effectively relinquished Egypt’s former leadership in the struggle for Palestine to the armed Palestinian resistance. In July 1968, he brought Arafat to Moscow with him and introduced him to the Soviet leadership; six months later, Nasser acquiesced to Arafat becoming the chairman of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) Executive Committee.

Nasser’s Legacy

On February 21, 1968, Egyptian workers and students launched the first large demonstrations against the Nasser regime since 1954, prompted by the lenient sentences handed down to commanders of the air force on trial for their incompetence in the 1967 war. Ultimately the protesters articulated more fundamental demands for freedom of expression, democracy, and restraints on the power of the internal security forces.

The demonstrations continued for nearly a week: two workers were killed and sixty-seven civilians were wounded in clashes with the police. Whether or not Nasser personally ordered the air force to fire on students in Alexandria to quash the demonstrations — as at least one writer, Hisham al-Salamuni claims — those shots underscored the failure of Nasser’s Arab Socialist project.

Nonetheless, Nasser’s personal prestige remained substantial enough for him to mediate the November 1969 Cairo Agreement. The agreement gave the PLO responsibility for Lebanon’s three hundred thousand Palestinian refugees and set the terms on which the Lebanese authorities would tolerate Palestinian attacks on Israel. At the September 1970 Arab League summit, he worked long hours to secure a ceasefire which ended the Palestinian-Jordanian civil war and arranged the evacuation of the armed Palestinian groups from Jordan to Lebanon.

The intensive diplomacy of that effort over-taxed Nasser’s health, which, unknown to the public, had been poor for years. The strain resulted in a fatal heart attack on September 28, 1970.

Gamal Abdel Nasser exemplified the aspirations of the formerly colonized countries of the Global South to assert their sovereign interests in a non-bipolar world. His international achievements simultaneously defined and were enabled by the historical era of decolonization and its limits. Nasser established an emotional bond with the Egyptian people and bettered many of their lives. But his lack of confidence in them led to his failure as their leader.