An abiding image of much of the Arab world now would be members of an indiscriminate and unconscionable violent Islamist terror group, but it was not always like that. A few decades ago, the model was a hugely charismatic and genuinely popular ruler (despite coming to power by revolution) who inspired hope and dignity in his own countrymen and the region — but was reviled and undermined by the West.
Egypt’s travails may have started under the rule of Gamal Abdel Nasser (1918-70), whose 100th birth anniversary is on January 15, but he also deserves credit for ending the rule of a ruinous “foreign” elite, finally evicting the British colonisers (and cutting them to size) and striving for social justice, modernisation, and a cultural revival — a famous TV clip shows him laughing at the Islamist demand that women should be compulsorily veiled.
During his nearly decade-and-a-half rule, he was always accessible to all, at home among the people in a way that his contemporaries — or even present statesmen — can rarely imagine.
Nasser made mistakes too, like laying foundations of authoritarian rule but especially leading his country and the Arab world into a ruinous war in 1967, subsequently seen as the root of West Asia’s problems — but, to be fair, it was one he never wanted.
And while his legacy was long sought to be discredited by his successors as well as detractors in West Asia and elsewhere, it has endured. During the Arab Spring, protesters not only in Cairo but other Arab capitals too brandished his pictures — making him possibly the only Arab statesman to be so honoured.
Born in Alexandria in the family of a postal employee, Nasser was politically active from his student days, getting injured while leading a protest in 1935. Due to his police record as an agitator, his first application, in 1937, to enter the army was rejected but he succeeded the second time.
He saw action in the First Arab-Israeli War of 1948, in which the performance of his unit in the battle of Falluja pocket — where he was also wounded — cemented his reputation and led him to be promoted. He was a prominent leader of the Free Officers, though the more well-known General Mohammed Naguib was its “face”, that deposed King Farouk and proclaimed Egypt a republic.
He himself came to the forefront after the October 26, 1954, assassination bid on him by a Muslim Brotherhood activist in Alexandria when he was delivering a speech, broadcast across the Arab world, to celebrate the British withdrawal. The gunman, who was only a few feet away, fired eight shots at him, but all of them missed.
Amid the tumult, Nasser remained composed, and loudly appealed for calm and emotionally said: “My countrymen, my blood spills for you and for Egypt. I will live for your sake and die for the sake of your freedom and honour. Let them kill me; it does not concern me so long as I have instilled pride, honour, and freedom in you. If Gamal Abdel Nasser should die, each of you shall be Gamal Abdel Nasser… Gamal Abdel Nasser is of you and from you and he is willing to sacrifice his life for the nation.”
That was a turning point. Naguib was soon placed under house arrest (though he ended up outliving his junior) and his supporters sidelined. Under Nasser, Egypt made enormous strides — the Aswan Dam and Helwan City, and his Pan-Arabism united the region, or most of it, quite effectively — and the 1956 Suez Crisis made him a global figure.
But it was 1967 that finished him off — though Nasser angled for a political resolution to the Palestine issue despite his assessment of Israeli obduracy, his “sabre-rattling” led to a war that thoroughly tarnished all modernist, secular nationalist Arab leaders and left the way open for radicals and Islamists.
The final nail in his coffin came when Nasser attempted to broker an end to the Palestinian-Jordan infighting at the Arab League summit in 1970, despite the intransigence of both sides. His deputy (and successor) Anwar el-Sadat recalled him upbraiding Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat that “I haven’t done all this for you… wrecked my health in this manner… to be rewarded with such ingratitude”.
He was soon dead of a massive heart attack, aged only 52.
For Indians, the burly, broad-shouldered but graceful and photogenic Nasser will be remembered as towering over Jawaharlal Nehru and Marshal Tito, as the three steered a new “nonaligned” course in global affairs. Unfortunately, the Egypt of Nasser is long gone, and so has Tito’s Yugoslavia, while attempts are being made to revile Nehru and change the India he built.
We should draw the necessary lessons.