Remembering Nasser: Arab renaissance to endless war
BEIRUT - Forty-six years after the death of Gamal Abdel Nasser on September 28th, 1970, opinion is divided as never before over what to make of the iconic Egyptian leader and his legacy of Arab nationalism. Much of this is due to the turbulence gripping Egypt and with the collapse of authoritarian states that were once perceived as “Nasserist”.
Some people say that if it were not for Nasser, we would not have had five solid decades of military rule in Syria, Iraq, Egypt and Libya.
Nasser’s times were very different from those of today, yet the similarities are shocking to a new generation of Arabs who never knew the effect he had on the Middle East.
As a young Egyptian Army officer and decorated hero of the 1948 Palestine war, Nasser’s rise to power began when he came into contact with other officers in the Iraqi and Syrian armies who, like himself, were furious about their collective defeat by the newly established state of Israel.
These men were roughly of the same age and military rank, hailed from rural backgrounds and had grown up in colonial times under the British and French. Colonialism, capitalism and imperialism, they claimed, were the source of all their woes.
All of them blamed civilian regimes for the fiasco in Palestine and vowed to take revenge against the moneyed and landed urban elite in their respective countries.
The first to act was the Syrian army commander, Husni al-Zaim, who staged a bloodless coup in Damascus in March 1949. This undoubtedly inspired the so-called Free Officers in Egypt, who toppled King Farouk in July 1952 and set up a ceremonial figurehead named Mohammad Naguib until 1954, when Nasser officially assumed the Egyptian presidency.
Other coups quickly followed in Baghdad, where pro-Nasser officers seized power and overthrew the monarchy in 1958, and in Tripoli, where a young Muammar Qaddafi toppled the Libyan monarchy in September 1969, publicly proclaiming himself the “next Nasser”.
Since then, most military rulers have admitted that they were inspired by the ambitious Egyptian leader, including the late Hafez Assad, who rose to power in Damascus in November 1970, two months after Nasser’s death, and Saddam Hussein, who became president of Iraq in the summer of 1979.
Watching Nasser nationalise the Suez Canal in 1956 and ward off an invasion by Britain, France and Israel was a life-changing experience for these young officers, who hoped that one day they would achieve similar feats and walk in Nasser’s footsteps.
Empowering the poor and building a socialist economy focused on industry and agriculture were high on their priority list and so were broader goals such as eradicating the state of Israel and combating Islamic parties, including the Muslim Brotherhood, which tried and failed to assassinate Nasser in 1954.
Nasser retaliated with an iron fist, sending Brotherhood members to the gallows. So did Assad, Qaddafi and Saddam. The crackdown led these parties to move collectively into the Arab underground, only to emerge with a vengeance after the outbreak of the “Arab spring” in 2011.
This time, they were more prepared, hardened by years of operating secretly. They were also better armed by regional allies such as Qatar, Turkey and Saudi Arabia.
In Syria, they formed the backbone of the Syrian National Council and its successor, the Syrian Coalition, and in Libya, they took over the state after toppling and killing Qaddafi in October 2011.
The same happened in Egypt itself, with the stunning victory of Brotherhood leader Muhammad Morsi. But he ruled for only one year, from June 2012 to July 2013, before he too was toppled by a Nasserist officer, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.
It seemed as though Egypt had come full circle, from Nasser to Sisi. The two leaders spoke the same language and had identical goals regarding the Egyptian Brotherhood.
Syria and Egypt waged war against Israel twice, in 1967 and 1973. During the first conflict known as the Six-Day war, Syria lost the Golan Heights and Egypt the Sinai peninsula. The armies of both countries were crushed, putting them at daggers drawn with the United States, which was accused of backing Israel, and firmly in the lap of the Soviet Union.
Nasser was a frequent guest at the Kremlin and a firm ally of powerful Soviet premiers. Despite a constant flow of Russian arms, money and military experts starting in the 1960s, Moscow’s backing failed to secure the return of even an inch of land seized by Israel.
Egypt, under Nasser’s successor, Anwar Sadat, parted ways with the Soviets in the early 1970s, then signed a historic peace agreement with Israel in 1978. Syria remained allied to Moscow — a link that bore fruit with Russia’s September 2015 intervention in Syria’s civil war that prevented the downfall of Hafez Assad’s son, Bashar.
On the Arab street, ordinary people remember Nasser fondly, particularly the poor who romanticise about the days when bread was cheap, housing was affordable and class divisions were less visible. But the educated elite eventually lashed out against him, branding him a brutal autocrat who established a police state in Egypt, an example followed by Syria, Iraq and Libya.
If it were not for the emergence of these autocracies, there would have been no uprisings in the Arab world in 2011 — and none of the vicious wars ravaging the region today.