Egypt’s Nasser still a polarizing figure, 50 years on

Known for his colloquial charisma and pan-Arab populism, but also his authoritarianism and questionable policies, former leader remains controversial

Gamal Abdel Nasser, president of Egypt, addresses a huge crowd gathered in Republic Square, Cairo, Feb. 22, 1958, from a balcony of the National Union building, after he was elected the first president of the United Arab Republic (AP Photo)
Gamal Abdel Nasser, president of Egypt, addresses a huge crowd gathered in Republic Square, Cairo, Feb. 22, 1958, from a balcony of the National Union building, after he was elected the first president of the United Arab Republic (AP Photo)

CAIRO, Egypt (AFP) — Fifty years since Gamal Abdel Nasser’s death, controversy over the legacy of the charismatic Egyptian president who championed Arab unity lives on in Egypt as deep divisions beset the Middle East.

Best known for his colloquial charisma and pan-Arab populism, he enraptured listeners with his radio broadcasts and inspired enormous pride inside the North African country and well beyond its borders.

Nasser was feted as a bulwark against Israel, colonialism and poverty during much of his 16 years in power, first as prime minister and then president.

Early successes included the thwarting, albeit thanks to US influence, of an invasion by Britain, France and Israel in 1956 after Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal.

Critics, however, saw him as a symbol of populist authoritarianism, economic folly and geopolitical imprudence which significantly compromised his standing by the time he died on September 28, 1970.

A picture released on July 16, 1964, shows Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser (L) welcoming Emperor of Ethiopia Haile Selassie I upon his arrival in Cairo to attend the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) summit conference (Various sources / AFP)

To mark 50 years since his death, his oldest daughter, Hoda, published a book giving new insight into the life of the divisive leader.

“Nasser: Secret Archives” includes excerpts of his journal while he fought the Arab-Israeli war in 1948, known in Israel as the War of Independence, and exchanges with US president John F. Kennedy, as well as Soviet ruler Nikita Khrushchev.

“All I did was recount the events as they happened, and explained the principles he followed by showing documents he wrote while an officer in the army and during his presidency,” she told AFP.

“It is up to people how they perceive his rule.”

A senior army officer, Nasser led a group of officers who toppled British-backed King Farouk in a 1952 military coup that later came to be known as the “July 23 revolution.”

Lt. Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser, 36-year-old leader of the Revolutionary Command Council of Egypt, is seen during a public appearance to win support for his governing revolution council, on August 1, 1954, at an unknown location. (AP Photo)

He served as prime minister from 1954 to 1956, when he became president, until his death.

During his rule, Nasser dismantled the privileges of a landowning aristocracy that had thrived under the old monarchy, and pushed socialist policies including free education and substantial subsidies.

Although very popular, his efforts to establish social equality proved increasingly difficult to fund.

He initiated costly mega-projects like the building of the Aswan High Dam and nationalized the Suez Canal, a move that prompted the 1956 attack by Israel, Britain and France, who were forced to withdraw under US pressure.

“He boosted people’s sense of dignity, and that is what Arab peoples miss as they recall Nasser,” said Mustapha Kamel, political science professor at Cairo University.

President Gamal Abdel Nasser addresses Egyptian troops on parade during ceremonies to raise the Egyptian flag over Camp Shalupa in the Suez Canal Zone, March 22, 1955 (AP Photo)

Political parties were abolished under Nasser, while authorities launched a severe crackdown on opponents, including the Muslim Brotherhood.

And Nasser ushered in decades of military rule, characterized by extended emergency powers and the army’s significant, often opaque, influence within the economy.

“While he sought to abolish classism, his regime initiated the concept of the police state, and instilled a culture of fear of authority,” said Said Sadeq, political science professor at Nile University.

Kamel added: “He did not believe in democracy and used to declare that openly.”

“He is a historic leader, who represented key features of the 1950’s to 60’s — from battling colonialism and seeking social equality to undermining political and economic liberalism,” he added.

In his public speeches, Nasser assumed a populist tone and used simple Arabic to openly lampoon colonial powers and Israel.

But his assertiveness on the international stage sometimes amounted to imprudence, according to critics.

In 1962, Nasser dispatched troops to back revolutionaries in Yemen against Saudi-backed royalists, draining Egypt’s resources in a years-long quagmire.

But the decimating blow to Nasser was defeat in the 1967 Six Day War, during which Egypt, Jordan and Syria lost key territories.

Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser announces the nationalization of the Suez Canal Company in order to use its revenue to build Aswar high dam, July 26, 1956, in Alexandria. (AP Photo)

Israel occupied Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula before withdrawing 15 years later, but still holds the West Bank and parts of the Golan Heights.

“It was by all accounts a disaster and the Arab world is still paying the price,” said Sadeq.

Arab leaders have for years been urging Israel to withdraw to the pre-1967 borders to allow for the establishment of a Palestinian state.

Nine years after Nasser’s death, his successor Anwar Sadat signed a peace treaty with Israel.

The 1979 pact was the first Arab-Israeli peace treaty.

Egypt’s President Abdel Fatah el-Sissi, who hailed Nasser as a “patriot” said in an interview in 2018 that Egypt could not have remained at war with Israel forever.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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