Gaza's volatile neighbour

April 15, 2014
Sarah Benton

The article by Rami Khouri on the Nasser-Sisi elision is followed by one from 2008 by Tarek Osman on the many faces of Nasser.

Campaign materials throughout Egypt picture Sisi (self-appointed Field Marshal since January 2014) next to former president Gamal Abdel Nasser. Courtesy of North Africa Post. From Stop the Nasser-Sisi comparison. Albawaba news.

Please Spare Us the Gamal Abdel Nasser Imagery

by Rami G. Khouri, Agence Global
March 29, 2014

NEW YORK—This week’s announcement by ex-Field Marshal Abdel Fattah Sisi that he will run for the presidency of Egypt was fully expected since the massive, sustained cult-like hero worship campaign for him first materialized last June. This coincided with his decision to use the armed forces to remove from office the ex-elected President Mohammad Morsi, whose year in office revealed the weakness of the Muslim Brotherhood as a governing party.

Sisi’s election is about as certain as the flow of the Nile River, especially if the presidential election campaign will follow the pattern of last January’s constitutional referendum, when those opposed to the constitution were routinely arrested or physically prevented from putting up their posters in public. Mostly supportive Egyptian reactions to Sisi’s ascendance to the presidency in the coming weeks will seal for now Egypt’s major missed opportunity to craft a genuinely pluralistic and democratic political system, in favor of very understandable mass demands for stability and security, and the comfort of a charismatic ex-military leader who can act as father and protector of a worried land.

Leaders of the 1952 Egyptian revolution. Seated, left to right: Constitutional lawyer and later interior minister Sulayman al-Hafez, President and Revolutionary Command Council Chairman Muhammad Naguib and Vice Chairman Gamal Abdel Nasser attending an event in Cairo November 8, 1952

I am not surprised by any of this because we witness two huge and universal dynamics in action. First is the persistence of a power structure that took 60 years to implant itself deeply in the Egyptian mindset, society, bureaucracy and military, and will not let go easily. Second is the reflexive demand by a worried citizenry for a strong leader who can make the world right. Egyptians are not abnormal people, but rather are perfectly normal people who are behaving abnormally because of the impact of the last 60 years on their mindset and their governance system.

If it were not Sisi, another charismatic leader would appear on the scene to promise to restore Egypt’s pride, stability and power. Ahmad Shafik, who was a Mubarak prime minister, almost did this when he nearly won the first post-Mubarak presidential election in 2012. So let us take these developments in stride, and see what the Egyptian people decide, and how Sisi performs as president. We can only wish them both the best, for Egypt is a great country that deserves only the best.

nasser anti colonialist poster
Poster of Nasser as leader of the pan-Arab anti-colonial movement.

What surprises and saddens me, however, is the manner in which Sisi supporters are using images of the late Gamal Abdel Nasser as a means to generate emotional support for Sisi. Anyone in Egypt who truly believes that Abdel Nasser is a historic figure worthy of emulation today is deeply and dangerously mistaken. I say this because in retrospect we see that the practices and the legacies of the Nasser decades were among the seminal catastrophes of the modern Arab World. Virtually everything that has led to the collective mismanagement, mediocrity, and, in most places, pauperization of the Arab world in the past two generations usually can be traced back to the perverse innovations of the Nasser years.

A Palestinian protester holds up a picture of late Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser as he and others demonstrate in support of the Egyptian people in the Deheishe refugee camp in the West Bank city of Bethlehem, Sunday, Feb. 6, 2011. Text on poster reads in Arabic: “The Arab leader Gamal Abdel Nasser.” Photo by Nasser Shiyoukhi/ AP

Nasser had a powerful impact on Arab psyches and the short-lived but largely emotional spirit of Arab nationalism, and he certainly did some positive deeds in improving socio-economic conditions and opportunities for Egyptian peasants and workers. That, too, though, was short-lived, because it was destroyed by the negatives that endure from his presidency: a ghastly concoction of incompetence, lying, mismanagement and corruption that became the norm across most of the Arab world since the 1970s.

Palestinian Salafists (caption says) chant slogans while hold a poster(in Arabic “Criminals and murderers”) depicting President Assad and Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi during a protest in Rafah Refugee Camp, southern Gaza Strip, Aug. 22, 2013. Photo by Adel Hana/ AP

The two most destructive phenomena that Nasser brought to Arab governance were military rule and ministries of information, both of which still demean and haunt us today. The permanent, non-accountable rule of military men that he established in Egypt has persisted there and across most of the Arab world. This remains in my mind the single most corrosive element that has led so many Arab states to their present condition of incompetent governance, which in turn has caused the mass desperation and revolt of hundreds of millions of Arabs today who are prepared to die in order to retrieve their rights and their very humanity.

The establishment of a ministry of information under Nasser was equally degrading to Egyptian and Arab citizens, because it acted like an Orwellian monster that sought to control what every citizen heard, saw and read in the national media. Arab ministries of information around the region were mostly run by incompetent autocrats, and they sought to have Arab citizens act like sheep and donkeys who see the world and themselves only as their government wants them to.

Above his head is the Arabic expression  يا رب, ya rab, meaning Oh Allah, not so much referring to al-Sisi as Allah but commending him to Allah or expressing a fervent wish for his leadership and trustworthiness.

I sincerely hope that this hysterical re-imagination of Nasser is only the passing sign of fearful men and women who do not know where to turn for succor. I pray that Egyptians will flourish and prevail because they will activate their own wisdom, and leave the Nasser ways where they belong—in the sealed rooms of history’s failures and horrors.

Field Marshal el-Sisi poses (centre, front row) with his Generals after one of their Cairo meetings.2014, AP.
sisi with generals

Rami G. Khouri is Editor-at-large of The Daily Star, and Director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, in Beirut, Lebanon. You can follow him @ramikhouri.
Copyright © 2014 Rami G. Khouri—distributed by Agence Global

Nasser’s complex legacy

By Tarek Osman, OpenDemocracy
January 15, 2008

Many aficionados of Arab cinema recall a famous scene in Nasser 56, the film made to commemorate the Suez war of 1956. An old Egyptian woman from Upper Egypt, the region from which Gamal Abdel Nasser hails, gets a chance to talk to Nasser in private. She hands him a wretched, flimsy pair of trousers which used to belong to her grandfather. She tells Nasser that the man was, like millions of Egyptian youths, taken from his village to al-sokhra (slavery) to join the brigades digging the Suez canal. And like many of those millions, he never returned; he died young, far away from his family and his home.

“Why did he die? For what? And who brought such death upon him?”, she exclaimed. Since then, generations had passed, yet the Suez canal – for which her grandfather had died – remained in the hands of the khawagat (foreigners). He, Nasser, having nationalised the Suez Canal Company, is now the rightful owner of the pair of trousers. He, to her and millions like her, has avenged the crimes inflicted on the exploited, broken masses.

The scene – filled with much more drama than the previous paragraphs – drew tears from millions of viewers, in Egypt and across the Arab world. Gamal Abdel Nasser at that moment in history was in their eyes doing much more than nationalising the vital economic asset the Suez canal represented, more than evening the score with yesterday’s powers. He was asserting national pride; standing up against the imperialist powers that had dominated the region for decades; emotionally freeing millions of oppressed Arabs; materialising in his act – and thus in his person – the rebirth of Arab dignity.

In a speech in Alexandria on July 26, 1956 Nasser declared that Egypt will nationalise the Suez canal . It was applauded with great excitement throughout the Arab world. “In the mid 1950s, Egypt decided to nationalize the Suez Canal and use the income from it to help their people out of poverty. They were willing to pay its British and French owners the full market value for their shares, but Western governments and Israel responded violently, invading and bombing Egypt into submission.”  From UprootedPalestinians

In that moment and in the high tide of his rule, Gamal Abdel Nasser was to millions of Arabs a classic example of Thomas Carlyle’s “hero”: “the man with savage sincerity”, “who comes into historical being to lead his people”, “who represents the aspirations of generations before and beyond him”, “the man whose valour is value”, and “whose work is achievements and calamities” (for only mediocre people yield mediocre results). No wonder that on his death, more than 6 million people from all over Egypt marched behind and around his coffin in tumultuous scenes; no wonder that at the depths of his defeat – after the “six-day war” of June 1967 – Umm Kalthoum, the Arab world’s grandest diva, sang to him, on behalf of millions: ebka fa’anta al-amal (“Stay, you’re the hope”).


Gamal Abd – Nasser during a press conference in May 1967, “The existence of Israel has continued too long. We welcome the Israeli aggression. We welcome the battle we have long awaited. The peak hour has come. The battle has come in which we shall destroy Israel” announced Cairo Radio on May 16th. As Nasser controlled all information, this announcement presumably had his blessing. He resigned after defeat by Israel in the six-day war, but resumed office following popyular demoonstratioons.Photo by Aimg’venk / GettyImages

Even today, ninety years after his birth on 15 January 1918 and thirty-eight years years after his death on 28 September 1970, Nasser remains – again, to millions all over the Arab world – the unfulfilled dream, the saviour who died while preaching, even (as Nizar Qabbani, the Arab world’s most prominent modern poet, described him) “the last prophet”.

The elusive leader

But this is only one Gamal Abdel Nasser; for there are others. Arab cinema is again the best conveyor of a sharply different version. In Al-Karnak, an Egyptian film produced in the mid-1970s, the leading Egyptian actress Souad Hosni brilliantly exposed what a broken soul would look like, after her character- an aspiring postgraduate student – was humiliated, tortured, and raped in “Nasser’s prisons”. Filmgoers remember her slow walk on Cairo’s Nile Cornice, a silent tear on her cheek – a grief-filled representation of the crushing of Egyptians under a cruel police-state: Nasser’s own.

Poster for Al Karnak portraying the violent repression of students who meet at the Al Karnak cafe 1975.

The same Nasser is for millions of onlookers the man who single-handedly crushed Egypt’s budding democracy, inculcated a sense of fear of the authorities among its masses, and slowly but steadily transferred Egypt from a Mediterranean country aiming – and for decades succeeding – to emulate Europe into an Arab backwater malnourished for years by dependence on hollow ideological notions (most prominently Arab nationalism). Almost four decades since he died, people in that camp invoke his legacy as the prime cause behind many of Egypt’s ills today.

Between the “two” Nassers, no objective version emerges. This is a loss, not only from the standpoint of cool historical analysis, but to young Egyptians and Arabs born decades after the death of the man. His legacy still influences those young Egyptians and Arabs today, yet they are denied – by hero-worship and anathema alike – the tools and the material with which to “see” and evaluate him properly.

Nasser’s legacy is complex enough to deter any rational writer from aiming to digest it in a single article. If as little as a preliminary sketch is possible, however, it might proceed by trying to go beyond this simple polarity and present a more rounded portrait of this complex figure. Here, then, are three more key “Nassers”whose lasting impact and shaping influence on the attitudes of his successors towards his legacy deserve to be highlighted.

Nasser the revolutionary

Nasser led the first successful coup d’etat in Egyptian history. It was bloodless, swift, and within days had become a true revolution, supported by the people. In less than two weeks, an insignificant, junior army officer was transformed into the de facto ruler of Egypt. In any country in the world, such a quick ascent to power and toppling of an entire, established regime would have been extremely significant; in Egypt, where pharaohs have long been literally adored, it was monumental.

The 1952 events changed the Egyptian political psyche completely. No longer were Egyptians subjugated by foreigners, be they English, French, or Turks. Egyptians now ruled themselves. Not only that! An ordinary saiidi (a man from poor Upper Egypt) without any claim to aristocracy or richness can become the pharaoh.

It was that epic shift that inspired the dreams of latter-day political schemers and plotters, from Sayyid Qutb to Ayman al-Zawahiri. Nasser, through his success in taking over the oldest kingdom in the world in such an easy way, inspired many others who believed – and others who continue to believe – that their visions for Egypt and its people are better than the prevailing one. It can be argued that Nasser was the real (if, clearly, unintentional) catalyst of the birth of modern dissident political movements aiming to overthrow regimes across the Arab world.

Nasser the civic Arab nationalist

The political identity Nasser wished to promote was clear, straightforward and singular: Arabism. It accommodated no Islam, no Christianity, no mosques, no churches. His advocacy, moreover, was not conducted via the classic means of the remote, boorish leader: hectoring bombast. His multi-faceted command of rhetoric included a particular ability to employ an intimate, familiar, tantalising tone that entered the hearts as well as the ears of millions of listeners throughout the Arab world. The medium of radio was a vital instrument of Nasser’s influence in this respect; but his voice and presence was transmitted via many other cultural artefacts – films, studies, novels, plays, songs, even operas.

Nasser’s Arab nationalism became so strong, so entrenched in the modern Arab psyche, that even today – when for several decades its dysfunctional character and performance has been repeatedly demonstrated – it remains a force in the Arab political scene: albeit weak and deranged, and a distant second to the currently potent political Islam.

Nasser the socialist

If Nasser’s Arab nationalism represents a potential alternative to political Islam, Nasser’s socialist thinking is a ghost at the feast of today’s severe capitalism in Egypt and other parts of the Arabworld. True, the analogy would be void of sense to the intellectual elite, for whom liberal capitalism and free markets have certainly won the ideological, historical struggle. But for the millions of peoples who are scarcely able to secure food for their families, who suffer daily deprivations of employment or healthcare, and who are yet to experience any of the gains that the champions of free markets and liberal economics claim, today’s capitalism is vastly inferior to the good old days of Nasser. The contrast in life-chances that the modern variety allows or generates is evident in the at times shocking disparities in income between the haves and have-nots in Egypt and other parts of the Arab world.

The next generation

These five Nassers – the hero, the oppressor, the revolutionist, the civic Arab nationalist, the socialist – indicate why this protean figure remains a nagging figure in the background of today’s Egypt. He resists, it seems – for all the efforts of his admirers and detractors – being pressed into the service of a convenient political orthodoxy. In Nasser’s very variety and uncategorisability, and for all the authority he wielded at the time he ruled, he represents a challenge to contemporary values, trends and dominant powers in Egypt and the Arab world. And it is this open, dissentient, contrary element in relation to the current social, political and economic order that lends his legacy both allure and peril.

Nasser’s successors decided, almost immediately after his death, that such a powerful legacy and image in the national psyche could not be left to dramatists and historians; it had to be shaped and moulded. One result was that these rulers, and the institutions and bureaucracies that depended on them, sought – indeed, were virtually forced by instincts of self-preservation – to place their own policies within a Nasserite lineage, and draw to themselves some of the aura that still surrounded him.

The results of this effort by later generations of Arab leaders to establish legitimacy by linking strategies and policies to those of Nasser himself were, however, contradictory – even comically so. At times, for example, these leaders claimed to be standing up for Arab dignity, championing the Arab struggle against Israel, and representing the needs and wants of the poor, oppressed Arab masses. At other times, however, they were forced to explain that though the objectives remain the same, each era requires both its own policies and necessarily different means – hence the need to abandon socialism and embrace free-market economics, to shift from the Soviet Union’s orbit to becoming a solid member of the American camp. At yet other times, the leaders sought to use sympathetic language to portray the gap between Nasser’s day and their own as one between brave but doomed confrontational policies and today’s mature, pragmatic approach to international relations. If all such efforts to conscript Nasser in their support failed, he could be safely ignored as a relic of days gone by.

It is equally interesting, however – though perhaps not surprising – that it was not only Nasser’s official successors who aimed to shape – or tame – his legacy and its impact on the Arab public. The political opposition (of various stripes) has tried the same thing. At times, it has portrayed him as the quintessential 20th-century Arab hero, whose successors have betrayed his legacy – leaving the opposition to claim his true mantle. In its religious guise, this opposition has at times projected him as the enemy of Islam, whose secular and nationalist ideas provoked God’s wrath and caused Egypt’s descent into poverty and defeat. At other times, the opposition has regarded him as the instigator of a corrupt, defunct system that is still in place and remains to be overcome.

These contrary perspectives, as much as the richly varied aspects of Gamal Abdel Nasser’s life and personality, indicate the immense complexity of the man and his political achievement. This complexity has been consistently simplified, homogenised and flattened by his fans and foes. Nine decades after he was born and almost four since he died, it is time for members of a new Egyptian and Arab generation – one with no direct experience of him or his rule, no entanglements of love or hate – to take a long, fresh look at Nasser. In doing so, they would not only engage with one of the richest political legacies in modern Arab history, but begin – as Nasser himself once did – to write a new chapter in the history of Egypt and the Arab world.

Tarek Osman is an Egyptian writer. He was educated at the American University in Cairo and Bocconi University in Italy. He is the author of Egypt on the Brink: From Nasser to Mubarak (Yale University Press, 2010)

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