Gamal Abdel Nasser (Arabic: جمال عبد الناصر, Gamāl 'Abd el-Nāṣir; also transliterated as Jamal Abd al-Naser, Jamal Abd An-Nasser and other variants) (January 15, 1918 - September 28, 1970) was the president of Egypt from 1956 until his death in 1970.
Nasser is seen as one of the most important political figures in recent Egyptian history. Nasser was well-known for his Arab nationalist and anti-colonial foreign policy. Nasserism, the pan-Arabist ideology named after him, won a great following in the Arab World in the 1950s and 1960s.
Nasser is still seen by many throughout the Arab World as a symbol of Arab dignity and freedom. Many of his policies were a response to occupying the post-colonial space that invited reliance on Arab values, Arab ideas and Arab solutions to national problems. For some Egyptians and other Muslims, Nasser was too much of an Arab, not enough of a Muslim. For Islamist leaders such as Sayyid Qutb and for the Muslim Brotherhood, Nasser's regime compromised true Islam, and some argued that rebellion against him was justified. Initially they had supported Nasser, expecting him to establish an Islamic regime. In response to such criticism, he nationalized many Islamic institutions so that Muslims paid by the state would preach support of the state.
Like many leaders in the post-colonial context, he leaned toward socialism and the Soviet Union, associating Western capitalism with the imperialism that had dominated and exploited his nation. For some intellectuals in Egypt, these policies cut them off from the wider scholarly community in which they wanted to participate.
Anyone who spoke against his policies was placed under house arrest or silenced from speaking out. The ecological consequences of building the Aswan Dam, for example, were pointed out but ignored.1 Qutb and others were executed.
Despite his methods of dealing with those who disagreed with him, Nasser raised educational standards and did much to promote Arab culture and Arab pride. Trying to forge new, independent structures, systems and identities in the post-colonial context was a complicated challenge. Nasser had to deal on the one hand with those who wanted to stress Egyptian identity, on the other with those who stressed a pan-Arab identity that transcended nationalism, as well as with those who preferred a more secular society modeled on Western patterns and those who advocated that Islam was the answer, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, with its slogan, "Islam is the solution."
Nasser failed to balance these contesting modalities, but he is remembered as the father of his nation, who threw off the colonial legacy and earned Egypt a leading place within the Arab world. Others suggest that even though Nasser could not reconcile the competing philosophies, he was responsible for a type of Arab renaissance (nahda) that has laid the foundation on which others can built, encouraging a combination of "patriotism and tolerance, religious belief and rationalism, freedom and reformism."2 For his time, Nasser was a visionary in seeing beyond his nation to a regional association of of Arab-Muslim states. His successor, Anwar Sadat, pursued alternatively the visionary path of peace with the Israelis.
Early lifeGamal Abdel Nasser.
On January 15, 1918, Gamal Abdel tae was born in the Egyptian city of Alexandria, the son of a postal worker,3 with Asyutian ancestors. He first became interested in politics at the age of eleven when he began attending the Ras el Tin secondary school in Alexandria. He attended his first political demonstration while still in school. At that protest, Nasser “was hit in the face by a police baton.” He was then arrested and placed in jail.4
Nasser's political involvement lasted throughout his school career and became such a dominant part of his life that during his last year of secondary school, Nasser “spent only forty-five days actually in school.”5 During that same period, 1935-1936, Nasser was elected chairman of a committee of Cairo secondary school students interested in Egyptian political reform.6 Then, in March 1937, Nasser was admitted to the Egyptian Military Academy and, temporarily, abandoned his political activities in favor of studying to become an army officer.
World War II
In 1939, shortly after graduating and being commissioned in the army, Nasser and a friend volunteered to serve in Sudan where they arrived shortly before the outbreak of World War II.7 During the war, Nasser and Anwar Sadat, another friend and political ally, established contact with agents of the Axis Powers, particularly several Italian ones, and planned a coup to coincide with an Italian offensive that would expel the British forces from Egypt; however, the plan was never executed.8 During the war, Nasser also began forming a group of other young military officers with strong Egyptian nationalist feelings who supported some form of revolution.9
At the end of World War II, Nasser had no combat experience, having never been stationed on an actual battlefield; he would gain battle experience during the first Arab-Israeli war, in 1948, in the Falluja Pocket and elsewhere. He soon secured a post as an instructor at the Military Academy in Cairo.10 For the next several years, Nasser worked to organize his group of other reform minded officers and recruit new members. After 1949, this group adopted the name “Free Officers,”11 and “talked of… freedom and the restoration of their country's dignity.”12
By 1952, "Egypt was ripe for revolution."13 Nasser and the Free Officers seized on this situation to launch a coup on July 23, 1952. That night, the Free Officers seized control of all government buildings, radio stations, police stations, and the army headquarters in Cairo. The coup installed General Muhammad Naguib, a hero from the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, as president. In an important move, the newly installed government immediately assured Britain that it would respect British citizens and property in Egypt, greatly diminishing the possibility of intervention against the coup.14 Nasser and his fellow revolutionaries also bowed to American pressure by allowing the deposed King Farouk and his family to “leave Egypt unharmed and 'with honour.'”15
After assuming power, Nasser and the Free Officers were not interested in undertaking the day to day administration of the Egyptian government. Thus, the Free Officers passed power to Ali Maher, a long-time political insider, whom they appointed as prime minister. The Free Officers then formed the Egyptian Revolutionary Command Council, which constituted the real power in Egypt, with Neguib as chairman and Nasser as vice-chairman.16 However, the Revolutionary Council actually had strong ideological notions, and Maher was forced to resign on September 7, 1952, because he refused to support Egyptian agrarian reform laws proposed by the council. At that time, Naguib assumed full leadership as the new prime minister.17
Conflict with Naguib
In June 1953, with land reform fully underway, Naguib announced the official abolition of the Egyptian monarchy and proclaimed himself president of the Republic of Egypt. After the establishment of the republic, Naguib and Nasser began to come into conflict with each other. These troubles culminated in Naguib's resignation on February 23, 1954 from his posts as both president and prime minister.18 The Revolutionary Command Council then “joyfully… proclaimed Nasser as Prime Minister”;19 however, they selected no president at that time. Next, the Revolutionary Command Council placed Naguib under house arrest, hoping to prevent any chance that he would return to power.20
The Revolutionary Command Council had overstepped its popular support in dealing with Naguib, and large numbers of citizens joined protests demanding that he be reinstated.21 As a result of these demonstrations, a sizable group within the Revolutionary Command Council demanded that Nasser allow Neguib to return to the presidency and then hold free elections to select a new president and prime minister. Nasser was forced to agree and Naguib reassumed the presidency. Several days later, Nasser was forced to resign as prime minister in favor of Naguib, effectively destroying all progress that Nasser had made toward leadership.22
Leader of Egypt
Although it gave him no permanent position, Nasser did use his brief time as prime minister to “purge… pro-Naguib elements in the army”23 and over the next eight months he gradually forced Naguib from power. Finally, in October 1954, Nasser formally removed Naguib from power and established himself as the effective leader of Egypt. Nasser remained in power over Egypt for the next 15 years with no major domestic challenges to his power.24
Nasser's place in the Egyptian national consciousness was secured following the failed assassination attempt of October 26, 1954 and his own defiant response in the immediate aftermath. During a speech in Manshia Square, Alexandria, a volley of shots rang out. Unharmed, Nasser was heard shouting his defiance over the screams of the crowd. This event provided the final pretext for the removal of Naguib on the grounds of his supposed collaboration with the Muslim Brotherhood who was accused of the failed attempt.
In the immediate aftermath, numerous members of the Brotherhood were rounded up. After Mahmoud Abdul Latif was found guilty of the attempt, the Brotherhood was, to all intents and purposes, crushed. There have subsequently been claims that the whole event was stage managed by Nasser and his supporters; claims say that Nasser put Naguib under house arrest for a long time as he doubted his loyalty to him and his supporters and also his doubts about Naguib taking sides with the British military and against Nasser, Naguib continued under house arrest through Anwar Al Sadat's rule and was released in the Hosni Mubarak's early ruling period.
The New Constitution
The charter announced on January 16 was the government's second attempt to replace arbitrary rule with constitutional government. A previous draft of a constitution, which had been framed by a commission of distinguished jurists and other experts, was rejected by the government. The substitute version published in January greatly strengthened the powers of the president of the republic at the expense of the legislature. Accordingly, the chief executive was to be elected for a period of six years and could be reelected. He was to be nominated by a simple majority vote of the National Assembly and elected by a plebiscite. As part of his executive power, he was given the right to dissolve the assembly, as well as to propose, approve, and veto new laws. His veto could be overridden by a two-thirds vote of the legislature.
The new constitution envisaged free democratic elections. However, the old political parties had been dissolved and the formation of new ones prohibited. Candidates for the first five-year term of the National Assembly were chosen exclusively from the lists of the single party, the Liberation Rally, now called the National Union, which was controlled by President Nasser's associates. The constitution nominally protects the citizen from arbitrary arrest, but in 1956 the minister of the interior was given the power for a ten-year period to arrest anybody charged with counterrevolutionary activity and to order his confinement at administrative discretion. The rights of free speech and free press were guaranteed under the new charter and, on June 19, Nasser announced that the state of martial law which had been imposed at the beginning of the revolution was ended and that press censorship would be lifted.
However, Egyptian publications continue to be tightly controlled by the government. Press cables sent abroad must pass the censorship office and are screened for unfavorable news. The new Egyptian constitution in its preamble 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 declared Egypt to be a sovereign Arab state with Islam as its religion and Arabic as the official language of the country.
On June 24, a plebiscite was held to ratify the new constitution and it was overwhelmingly approved. Of a population of almost 22,000,000, a total of 5,697,467 persons registered and 5,488,225 or 99.8 percent voted in favor of the new charter. Only 10,045 voted "No." At the same time, Premier Nasser was elected president by a still greater majority. He received 5,496,965 ballots or 99.9 percent of the total vote. Those who marked their ballots with a red circle approved Premier Nasser's election to the presidency of the republic. A new election law, promulgated in March, made voting compulsory for all men and gave Egyptian women the option of voting. However, only 150,000 Egyptian women voted. The new election law, therefore, did little to improve the position of Egyptian women in public life and at home where, until now, their status has been little better than that of chattels.
A few days after his election as president, Nasser reshuffled his cabinet and replaced several military members with civilians. On this occasion, he bestowed on eight of his military associates the Grand Cordon of the Order of the Nile, Egypt's highest decoration.
Growing OppositionGamal Abdel Nasser and Musa Al-Sadr.
The opposition to Nasser's regime inside Egypt was high during the period from 1962-1967. The economic decline under Nasser's last years, as well as the suppression of the opposition, increased his unpopularity between the educated class and the Al-Azhar University religious scholars.
Nasser turned the country into a police state. Many of the oppositionists were either arrested or assassinated; it is not known exactly how many people were killed by the state security apparatus during Nasser's 16 years in power. Thousands of Egyptians were forced to flee the country to escape his regime. Two of the Al-Azhar grand imams were forced to resign because of their opposition to the regime. In 1961, Nasser issued a new Al-Azhar Law, limiting the power of the Al-Azhar imams and giving the government power to appoint the grand imam instead of having him elected by the Al-Azhar scholars.
In 1969, after a group of reformers and critics of the regime's authoritarianism won an election for the board of the Egyptian Judges Club, the direct challenge posed by the vocal judicial leadership proved intolerable to the Nasser regime. Nasser responded with a series of measures subsequently referred to as the “massacre of the judiciary,” including the dismissal of over a hundred sitting judges.
The Egyptian economy was dominated by private capital until the revolution of 1952, which replaced the monarchy with a republic. The new government began to reorganize the economy along socialist lines in the late 1950s. The state played an increasing role in economic development through its management of the agricultural sector after the land reforms of 1952 and 1961. These reforms limited the amount of land an individual or family could own. In the early 1960s the government nationalized much of the industrial, financial, and commercial sectors of the economy.
Egyptian industry progressed very much during Nasser's rule. Capital Investment in industry and mining increased considerably. The National Production Council allocated the equivalent of $36.7 million in 1954-1955 and $55.1 million in 1955-1956 for developing electric power, industry, and mining. Private local investment, as reported by the Federation of Egyptian Industries, rose from $8.5 million in 1953 to $18 million in 1954. Foreign investment amounted to $2 million in 1954, including $1.8 million in the petroleum industry.
There was also considerable growth in industrial production. Electricity consumption increased from 978,000,000 kW in 1952 to 1,339,000,000 kW in 1954. In the 1950s, several important power projects were under construction. Their total ultimate cost was estimated at $166 million.The cotton yarn output increased from 49,200 to 64,400 tons, and cotton fabric output increased from 157.8 million meters to 241 million meters. Cement production reached a new high of almost 1.5 million tons.
On the other hand, construction of the giant steel mill at Helwan, 20 miles south of Cairo, was proceeding very slowly. It was supposed to have an initial output capacity of 220,000 tons of steel. The plant was scheduled to start operation in 1957, but construction work had been lagging behind considerably because of engineering difficulties in the location chosen.
Egypt's petroleum refining industry produced approximately 2.2 million tons in refined products in 1956, but Egyptian domestic consumption amounted to 3.4 million tons. There had been reports of new petroleum reserves discovered in the Sinai Peninsula and in the Suez desert at that period.
In 1955, the country had a large deficit in its foreign trade balance, amounting to $126 million as compared to $63 million in the preceding year. As a result of this unfavorable trade balance, Egypt's gold and currency reserves dwindled rapidly, falling from $732 million in 1954 to $594 million in August 1956. The blocking of Egypt's sterling accounts abroad, after Nasser's seizure of the Suez Canal, aggravated the currency situation. In 1955, Egypt's balance of payments showed a deficit of $95.2 million. However, during the first half of 1956, Egypt increased its exports to $255 million as compared to $186 million during the corresponding period of 1955 and accordingly reduced its deficit to $40.8 million as compared with $51.5 million in 1955.
Egypt continued to spend lavishly on the modernization of its armed forces. The Egyptian budget for the year 1955-1956 foresaw an outlay of £75 million or $216 million for defense, compared to £53 million in 1954-1955. The Egyptian army of 200,000 had 50,000 first-class combat troops.
Financial hurdles considerably delayed the progress of the much publicized land reform, which was the cornerstone of Nasser's social program. The land reform as promulgated by the Revolutionary Command Council in 1952 proposed two basic steps to improve the lot of the Egyptian peasant:
- dramatic reduction of agricultural rents
- expropriation of all landed property-holdings above 200 feddâns (1 feddân = 1.038 acres)
By the end of 1955, of the total of 567,000 feddâns subject to sequestration, 415,000 feddâns had been expropriated by the government. However, only a part of this land had been distributed among the small landholders, and the government held most of the expropriated land. By the end of the year 1955, 261,000 feddâns had been reallocated from the government reserve. In addition, 92,000 feddâns had been sold by large to small landowners just prior to the requisition. The government was attempting to organize the beneficiaries of this plan in cooperatives and also to continue the maintenance of the existing irrigation and drainage systems. The land reform of the revolutionary government had undoubtedly benefited the Egyptian peasantry. An Egyptian government source estimated that the new farmers had doubled their incomes, and that setting a limit on rents had reduced the total amount of land rent by $196 million.
Relationship with the Soviet Union
The Suez Crisis also drove Egypt into a closer relationship with the Soviet Union.25 As a part of this new relationship, the Soviets agreed to provide approximately one-third of the cost of the Aswan High Dam and provided four hundred technicians to aid in the construction.26 Construction of the dam began on January 1, 196027 and was completed in 1970. Its reservoir was named Lake Nasser, honoring Nasser. As it was hoped, the dam produced substantial electric power-2.1 gigawatts-and is still standing today.26
The Aswan Dam was not the only result of the Egyptian relationship with the Soviet Union. As a result of Soviet influence and domestic factors, Nasser gradually began to move Egypt toward a socialist economic system, at least somewhat shaped by Marxism and Leninism. By 1962, this had led to a minimum 51 percent government ownership of virtually all Egyptian business.28 During his official visit to Egypt on May 9-26, 1964, Nikita Khrushchev awarded Nasser the title of the “Hero of the Soviet Union” and the Order of Lenin.29
Most historians agree that Egypt under Nasser never truly reached socialism, and under Nasser's successor, Anwar Al Sadat, the economy moved back to a more firmly capitalist system.30
Shortly before his full assumption of power, Nasser signed an agreement with Britain that provided for the withdrawal of all British uniformed military personnel from the Suez Canal Zone, although a small civilian force was allowed to temporarily remain. This agreement finally gave Egypt true full independence and ended tensions between Britain and Egypt.31 Shortly after the treaty with the British, Nasser won $40 million in combined financial aid for economic development from the British and Americans.32
The next year, 1955, the United States promised $56 million, along with $200 million through the World Bank, to aid in financing the construction of the Aswan High Dam,33 which Nasser and his allies had begun planning shortly after the revolution. The planned 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.34 In September 1955 Nasser shocked the West by signing an arms deal with Czechoslovakia. Consequently, in July 1956, the Western powers retracted their financial offers, forcing Nasser to search for alternate methods to finance the dam.35 On July 26, as part of a plan to raise money for the dam, and as a powerful reminder to the west that Egypt would do as it pleased, Nasser announced the nationalization of the Suez Canal.36
Nasser realized that the nationalization of the canal would provoke a strong reaction from the West, especially Britain and France, which had major shareholdings of the Suez Canal. However, Nasser believed that Britain would not be able to intervene militarily for at least two months after the announcement, and dismissed Israeli action as “impossible.”37 In early October, the United Nations Security Council met on the matter of the Suez Canal and adopted a resolution recognizing Egypt's right to control the canal as long as it continued to allow passage through it for foreign ships.38 After this agreement, “Nasser estimated that the danger of invasion had dropped to 10 percent.”39
France approached Israel and Britain secretly with a plan to gain control over the Suez Canal. The plan involved an Israeli counterattack to the daily attacks from the Egyptian-controlled Gaza Strip. The Israelis were to seize the Sinai Peninsula, and when they reached the Suez Canal, British and French forces would enter as a buffer zone between the two countries and thus retake control over the canal. On October 29, Israeli forces moved into the Sinai Peninsula, and on October 31, a joint force from Britain and France entered the Canal Zone. U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower, however, was enraged by this secret plan he was not aware of, and the American government urged the three nations to withdraw their forces. On November 5, 1956, the Soviet Union issued an ultimatum demanding the withdrawal of all foreign forces from Egypt. Britain, France, and Israel complied, after Britain was forced "into a corner" by the United States' threat of destabilizing the British economy, and gradually removed their forces, ending what became known as the Suez Crisis.40 Nasser was perceived as the hero and winner, this heightened his status as the leader of the Arab world.
Yemen War and Six-Day War
Nasser had wanted a regime change in Yemen since 1957. Seeing an opportunity in January 1962, he finally put his desires into motion by giving the Free Yemen Movement office space, financial support, and radio air time. Nasser saw opportunities in Yemen to settle a score with the Saudi royal family, who Nasser felt had undermined his union with Syria.
Ambassador Ahmed Abu-Zeid, who served as Egypt's ambassador to Royalist Yemen from 1957 to 1961, warned Egyptian officials in Cairo that the Yemeni tribes were difficult and had no sense of loyalty or nationalism. The ambassador was against sending Egyptian combat forces, arguing that only money and equipment should be sent to the Yemeni Free Officers. Abu Zeid warned that the Saudis would flood Yemen with money to combat Egyptian presence and turn the revolution in Saudi favor. Nasser refused Abu-Zeid's ideas and was adamant about the need to protect the Arab nationalist movement in Yemen with Egyptian military force.
Nasser was convinced that a regiment of Egyptian Special Forces and a wing of fighter-bombers would be able to secure the Yemeni Republican coup d'etat. Within three months of sending troops to Yemen, Nasser realized that this would require a larger commitment than anticipated. By early 1963, he would begin a four-year quest to extricate Egyptian forces from Yemen, using an unsuccessful face-saving mechanism, only to find himself committing more troops. A little less than five thousand troops were sent in October 1962. Two months later, Egypt had 15,000 regular troops deployed. By late 1963, the number was increased to 36,000; and in late 1964, the number rose to 50,000 Egyptian troops in Yemen. Late 1965 represented the high-water mark of Egyptian troop commitment in Yemen at 55,000 troops, which were broken into 13 infantry regiments of one artillery division, one tank division and several special forces as well as paratroop regiments. Egypt paid a very high cost in Yemen and the Egyptian army sustained high losses during this war.
After the Soviet Union informed Nasser of Israeli plans to attack Syria (which were doubted by most of the Egyptian army generals), Nasser sought to manipulate the situation to increase his declining popularity. He sought the re-militarization of the Sinai Peninsula and demanded that the United Nations Emergency Force evacuate the Sinai, a request with which UN secretary-general U Thant complied. Nasser then began to re-militarize the Sinai. On May 23, he closed the Straits of Tiran to Israeli shipping, blockading the Israeli port of Eilat, at the northern end of the Gulf of Aqaba, Israel's only access to the Indian Ocean.
During this period, Nasser continually stated his intention to attack Israel, and declared that other Arab nations should support him. Israel responded preemptively to the imminent attack in what became known as the Six-Day War. The first wave of attacks by the Israeli air force destroyed most of the Egyptian air forces on the ground. A withdrawal order was issued by the defense minister Abdel Hakim Amer which was a disaster to the Egyptian troops, as most of the Egyptian losses were sustained during withdrawal. The loss in the Six-Day War was one of the most disastrous political blows in Egyptian history and a humiliation to the leaders and people of Egypt. Abdel Hakim Amer tried to overthrow Nasser in a coup days after the war ended but he failed and was forced to commit suicide by taking poison.
With his rhetoric and the Suez success, Nasser developed a following throughout the Arab world, inspiring "Nasserist" political parties dedicated to Arab unity. Many saw Nasser as the leader of the Arab world, representing a new, defiant era in Arabic politics. Nasser's policies became associated with Pan-Arabism, which promoted aggressive action by Arab states to confront the "imperialist" West, and urged that the resources of the Arab states should be used for the benefit of the Arab people and not the West. In a 1967 speech, Nasser declared, "We can achieve much by Arab action, which is a main part of our battle. We must develop and build our countries to face the challenge of our enemies."
In 1958, Syrian military and civilian leaders requested a merger of Syria and Egypt. Somewhat surprised by the sudden request and unsure as to whether the time was ripe, Nasser nevertheless agreed and the United Arab Republic came into being. Many saw it as the first step toward the establishment of a pan-Arab state. Attempts were also made to include Yemen. However, the UAR was not a success; In Syria, Egyptian bureaucrats and officers were seen as acting dictatorially, and the rapidly expanded secret police harshly repressed opposition groups including the Muslim Brotherhood and the Syrian Communist Party. Meanwhile, the Syrian bourgeoisie did not gain the access to Egyptian markets that it had hoped for. Discontent among the Syrian bourgeoisie and officer corps led to secessionists taking control in Damascus, and the UAR was dissolved in 1961, although Egypt continued to use the name until 1971. Egyptian intervention in Yemen involved the UAR in a bloody civil war in that country.
Resignation and aftermath
The humiliating defeat in the Six-Day War was so devastating that it compelled a domestic political reaction. On the evening of June 9, 1967, Nasser's resignation statement was broadcast live on Egyptian television and radio, leaving office to his vice president Zakaria Mohiedin.
I have taken a decision with which I need your help. I have decided to withdraw totally and for good from any official post or political role, and to return to the ranks of the masses, performing my duty in their midst, like any other citizen. This is a time for action, not grief… My whole heart is with you, and let your hearts be with me. May God be with us - hope, light and guidance in our hearts."41
No sooner was the statement broadcast, however, than millions were pouring into the streets in mass demonstrations not only in Egypt but in streets across the Arab World. Their rejection of Nasser's speech was expressed in a battle cry: "We shall fight." As a consequence, Nasser led Egypt through the War of Attrition in 1969-1970.
In 1969, after a group of reformers and critics of the regime's authoritarianism won an election for the board of the Egyptian Judges Club, the direct challenge posed by the vocal judicial leadership proved intolerable to Nasser regime. Nasser responded with a series of measures subsequently referred to as the “massacre of the judiciary,” including the dismissal of over a hundred sitting judges.42