Gamal Abdel Nasser
Biot Report #311: December 22, 2005 Printer Printer Friendly
Gamal Abdul Nasser (1918-1970), the greatest genius produced by Egypt in five hundred years, was the first Egyptian since the Pharaohs 2,500 years ago to govern Egypt. Nasser led the complete liberation of Egypt and the restitution of national dignity in a titanic struggle with both his 35 million mostly downtrodden people and numerous world powers that undercut his efforts at every opportunity.
Nasser had become “so present and so permanent in Egyptian life” that his sudden death at age 52 years on September 28, 1970, from heart disease and diabetes devastated his countrymen who grieved at his funeral five million strong.
Egypt’s Liberation: The Philosophy of the Revolution
Nasser wrote a short personal book titled “Egypt’s Liberation: The Philosophy of the Revolution” about his ideas and dreams. It reveals a sweeping yet deeply analytical mind and acute observer of human behavior whose periods of disillusionment and exhilaration were intense. First published in 1955, his book was all but ignored by the world. “What interest there was centered on the feeling that the author reflected a sincere desire to improve the lot of the Egyptian people through political and socio-economic reforms,” noted Thomas Troy in the book’s foreword.
Three years before publication of the book, Britain, France, Israel, the Soviet bloc, and most Western powers, including the United States, had duly noted the 1952 Nasser-led bloodless Army coup d’etat that resulted in the exile of Egypt’s corrupt and incompetent King Farouk. These powers were later caught by surprise by the furious path the exuberant Nasser forged for his beloved Egypt in the next 18 years. His colorful, if not always successful, deeds included nationalization of the Suez Canal (to help pay for the Aswan High Dam after the United States and Britain suddenly withheld promised financing) (1956); initiation of a policy of non-alignment with Western AND Soviet powers (1956); enactment of the Land Reform Law that eliminated feudalism; formation of the United Arab Republic of Egypt and Syria (1958); construction of the Aswan High Dam (1964) to provide electric power and continuous irrigation to the Nile Delta, which produced the crops to feed Egypt’s burgeoning population; mainstreaming the Druze, Alawis, and Shi’a into Egypt’s Islam family; and ignominious defeat in the Six-Day War with Israel (1967). “Philosophy of Revolution” contained the thought processes leading to these deeds. Nasser’s little book sold briskly after he told the West to “go choke on your fury” in a speech following nationalization of the Suez Canal. (2)
The 1948 Palestine War Debacle
In the first section of his book, Nasser discussed the beginning of the revolution in the minds and hearts of the youth of his generation, revolution in the history of Egypt, and the place of the July 23, 1952 Revolution in that history. Nasser was an officer in the Egyptian Army, which was sent to fight the “Palestine War” in May 1948 immediately following the withdrawal of the British forces by United Nations decree in that country (see also “The Making of Israel at: http://www.semp.us/biots/biot_161.html; accessed December 23, 2005).
Nasser wrote: “When I now try to recall the details of our experience in Palestine [in 1948], I find a curious thing: we were fighting in Palestine, but our dreams were centered in Egypt. Our bullets were aimed at the enemy in his trenches before us, by our hearts hovered over our distant country, which we had left to the care of wolves.” (p. 21) As one of Nasser’s fellow officers lay dying he told his comrades: “The biggest battlefield is in Egypt.” (p. 22)
Coup D’etat and Disillusionment with the Egyptian People’s Response
Nasser and his comrades returned to Egypt following Israel’s rout of the Arab forces in Palestine and planned and carried out the ousting of King Farouk. Having done so, Nasser wrote: “Before July 23rd, I had imagined that the whole nation was ready and prepared, waiting for nothing but a vanguard to lead the charge against the battlements, whereupon it would fall in behind in serried ranks, ready for the sacred advance towards the great objective. And I had imagined that our role was to be this commando vanguard. I though that this role would never take more than a few hours…I heard this all in my imagination, but by sheer faith it seemed real and not the figment of my imagination.
“Then suddenly came reality after July 23rd…For a long time [we] waited. Crowds did eventually come and they came in endless droves—but how different is the reality from the dream! The masses that came were disunited, divided groups of stragglers. The sacred advance toward the great objective was stalled, and the picture that emerged on that day looked dark and ominous; it boded danger. At this moment I felt, with sorrow and bitterness, that the task of the vanguard, far from being completed, had only begun.
“We needed order, but we found nothing behind us but chaos. We needed unity, but we found nothing behind us but dissension. We needed work, but we found behind us only indolence and sloth. It was from these facts, and no others, that the revolution coined its slogan.
“We were not ready. So we set about seeking the views of leaders of opinion and the experience of those who were experienced. Unfortunately we were not able to obtain very much.
“Every man we questioned had nothing to recommend except to kill someone else. Every idea we listened to was nothing but an attack on some other idea. If we had gone along with everything we heard, we would have killed off all the people and torn down every idea, and there would have been nothing left for us to do but sit down among the corpses and ruins, bewailing our evil fortune and cursing our wretched fate.
“We were deluged with petitions and complaints by the thousands and hundreds of thousands, and had these complaints and petitions dealt with cases demanding justice or grievances calling for redress, this motive would have been understandable and logical. But most of the cases referred to us were no more or less than demands for revenge, as though the revolution had taken place in order to become a weapon in the hand of hatred and vindictiveness.”
“If anyone had asked me in those days what I wanted most, I would have answered promptly: To hear an Egyptian speak fairly about another Egyptian. To sense that an Egyptian has opened his heart to pardon, forgiveness and love for his Egyptian brethren. To find an Egyptian who does not devote his time to tearing down the views of another Egyptian.” (pp. 34-36) Nasser was especially disillusioned with the professors at universities who did not advance any ideas to him and instead, “each confined himself to advancing himself, pointing out his unique fitness for making miracles. Each of them kept glancing at me with the look of one who preferred me to all the treasures of earth and heaven.” (p. 37).
Two Revolutions in Egypt
To complete the picture in the first section of the book, Nasser shared his acute awareness that his country had to pass through two revolutions simultaneously: a political revolution by which Egypt wrested from others the right to govern itself, and a social revolution, “involving the conflict of classes, which settles down when justice is secured for the citizens of the united nations.” (p. 40) Nasser, who was a voracious reader (in English), noted that other peoples in other nations passed through these revolutions centuries apart.
The Evolution of the “Positive Action”
In the second section of “Philosophy of Revolution”, Nasser spoke about the need to articulate a “positive action” and his despair about what that action should be. He reminisced that at one time a positive action meant his own enthusiasm and zeal. Then he realized that his personal enthusiasm was insufficient for the cause; rather he had to learn to inspire enthusiasm in others. So, while in high school, he and his classmates shouted from their hearts, but “our shouts only raised dust which was blown by the wind, and produced only weak echoes which shook no mountains and shattered no rocks.” (pp. 50-51)
Then he believed that his positive action should be “to demand that the leaders of Egypt unite to agree upon a single policy.” So he and his friends “went around in groups, shouting and excited, to visit their houses, demanding in the name of Egyptian youth that they agree on a single policy. But their agreement, when it came, dealt a severe blow to [his] expectations. The policy upon which they decided was the Treaty of 1936.” This treaty was a military agreement between Britain and Egypt that gave the British exclusive rights to equip and train the Egyptian military, thus enabling the British to protect their economic interests in Egypt and the Suez Canal as well as build as many air bases as they wished.
Rule of Blood as a Curative for Egypt’s Problems?
During World War II, Nasser determined that his positive action would be political assassination. He moved beyond thinking to planning such attacks. He wrote: “So many were the projects I made in those days and many were the sleepless nights spent in preparing this long-awaited positive action!” (p. 52) “Our life during that period was like a thrilling detective story. We had dark secrets and passwords. We lurked in the shadows; we had caches of pistols and hand-grenades, and firing bullets was our cherished hope. We made many attempts in this direction, and I can still remember our emotions and feelings as we dashed along that melodramatic path to its end.”
Eventually, he soured on political assassinations and spilling blood as his positive action. “I remember particularly a night which marked a turning point in the course of my thoughts and dreams in this respect,” he wrote. “We had planned a course of action and decided that a certain man should cease to exist. We studied his movements and habits before carrying out our plan, which was perfected in all respects. The plan was to shoot him by night on his way home. An execution squad was appointed to do the shooting, covered by a second squad for protection, and a third squad for the get-away.
“The appointed night came, and I went out with the attack group. Everything went according to plan. As we expected, the field was clear. The squads concealed themselves in their assigned positions, waiting for our man. As soon as he was sighted, he was met with a volley of bullets. The execution squad then withdrew, covered by the protective force, and we hurried to safety. I started the motor of my car and drove away from the scene of our carefully planned ‘positive action.’
“But suddenly there rang in my ears the sounds of screaming and wailing. I heard a woman crying, a child terrified, and a continuous, frightened call for help. While speeding away in my car, I was overwhelmed and excited by a multitude of emotions.” That night he smoked cigarettes filling his room with smoke and he did not sleep. He determined that his method must be changed. Assassination as a curative to the problems of Egypt was not the positive action to which he and his friends were dedicated. “The problem has roots that are deep, and is too profound to be approached in this negative way,” he wrote (p. 57) He began to hope the man whose assassination he had dearly wanted 24 hours earlier would survive. He did and Nasser wrote that he was relieved.
The Root Cause of Egypt’s Troubles
Nasser eventually reached the conclusion that “whatever the problem is that must be faced, the right way to effect its solution is to trace its elements back to their origins and by such analysis get the true root of the matter through discovering the causes. It would have been unjust to institute a rule of blood without regard for the historical circumstances through which our people have passed, and which have give us those characteristics which make us what we now are.”
Nasser then poured out the very difficult and memorable history of his nation. The passage is reproduced in its entirety here.
“It fell to Egypt that she should be the geographical crossroads of the world. So often were we a channel for the invader! So often were we the prize of covetous adventurers! It is impossible to account for the many factors involved in the psychology of our people unless we carefully analyze the many circumstances that have historically beset us.
“To my mind, it is not possible to disregard the Pharaonic history of Egypt, or the interaction of Greek culture and our own. Then there came the Roman invasion and the Islamic conquest, together with succeeding Arab [from the Arabian peninsula] wave of immigration.
“I believe that we must also dwell at length on our history through the Middle Ages, since it was the vicissitudes of that period which contributed so much to what we think and how we act today.
Tyranny of the Mameluks
“If the Crusades were the beginning of the Renaissance in Europe, they were the beginning of the dark ages in our country. Our people alone bore most of the sufferings of the Crusades, out of which they emerged poor, destitute and exhausted. In their exhaustion there were simultaneously destined by circumstances to submit to and to suffer further indignity under the hoofs of the Mongol and Caucasian tyrants. They came to Egypt as slaves, murdered their masters and became masters themselves. They were driven into Egypt as Mamelukes (i.e., owned) but shortly they became kings in our good and peaceful land.
“Tyranny, oppression and ruin characterized their rule in Egypt, which continued for many dark centuries. During that period our country was transformed into a jungle ruled by wild beasts. The Mamelukes considered it an easy prey, and they struggled ferociously among themselves about the sharing of the booty. The booty was our souls, our minds, our wealth and our land.
“Sometimes when I re-read the pages of our history, I feel a tearing grief because of that period—a period during which we were the victims of a tyrannous feudalism which did nothing for us except suck the life-blood from our veins. Nay, even worse—it robbed us of all sense of strength and honor. It left in the depths of our soles a complex which we will have to fight for a long time to overcome.
“In fact, it is that complex, in my estimation, that is responsible for certain aspects in our political life. Many people, for example, stood to one side as mere spectators, observing our revolution, as though they had nothing to do with it [as Nasser noted in part 1 of his book]. They only waited for the result of a struggle between two opposing forces, neither of which concerned them.
“Sometimes I resent this. Sometimes I demand of myself and my comrades: why don’t these people come forward? Why don’t they come out of their hiding places to speak up and to act? This is only to be accounted for, in my opinion, by the numbing effects of the Mameluke rule. The Mameluke rulers had fought each other, and their warriors had met in fierce battles on the streets, while the people would stampede to their houses, locking themselves in, and thus avoiding a struggle which was not their concern.
“It sometimes appears to me that we content ourselves overmuch by wishful thinking. In flights of fancy we fulfill our desires and enjoy in imagination things which we never bestir ourselves to realize. Some of us are still susceptible to such daydreams. Such people have not yet fully realized that the land is actually theirs, and that they, and none other, are their own masters.
“Once I tried to find out the meaning of a chant which I had so often shouted in my childhood, whenever I saw an airplane in the sky: “O, Almighty God, may disaster take the English!” (Ya ‘Azeez, Ya ‘Azeez. Dahiya takhud al-Ingleez). Later, I came to know that that phrase had come down to us from the days of the Mamelukes. Our forebears of that day had not used it against the English, but they used a similar one against the Turk: “O God, the Self-Revealing! Annihilate the Turk!” (Ya Rabb, Ya Mutajell, Ahlike al-‘Uthmanli). My use of it was but an adaptation of an old form to express a new feeling. The underlying constant continued the same, never changing. Only the name of the oppressor was different.
“With the same unchanged spirit we used to express the same meaning, and it did not make much difference if the work ‘English’ was substituted for the word ‘Turk’ in accordance with the unhappy political fortunes that overtook Egypt in the interim.
The French Smash Egypt’s Iron Curtain
“And then what happened to us after the Mamelukes? The French expedition came and smashed the iron curtain which the Mongols had erected around us. New ideas flowed in, and new horizons opened up before us, of which we had been unaware.
“Mohammed Ali’s dynasty took over all the habits of the Mamelukes, but did attempt to clothe them in garments that were a little better suited to the nineteenth century. Thus our contact with Europe and with the whole world began anew. And thus the modern reawakening began—but it was accompanied by a new crisis.
“As I see it, we were like a sick man who had been shut up in a closed room for a long time. The temperature of the closed room rose high until he was almost choked. All of a sudden a storm blew and shattered the door and windows. The currents of cold air rushed in and the perspiring sick body shivered with chill. The sick man was, to be sure, in need of a breath of air, but it was a powerful gale that blew over him. The frail and exhausted body succumbed to fever.
“This was exactly what happened to our society. For us, it was a perilous experience, whereas the Europeans had evolved by an orderly process, gradually bridging the gap between the Renaissance which followed the Middle Ages and the nineteenth century. The stages of evolution there came naturally.
“But with us everything came as new and strange. We had been living in isolation, cut off from the rest of the world, especially after the trade with the East had changed routes and traveled via the Cape of Good Hope. Then, suddenly we were coveted by the countries of Europe, since we became for them to be crossed for their colonies in the east and the south.
Egypt Five Centuries Behind
“Waves of thoughts and ideas came over us while we were not yet developed enough to evaluate them. We were still living mentally in the captivity of the 13th century, in spite of a few manifestations of the nineteenth, and afterwards of the twentieth century. Our minds tried to catch up with the caravan of human progress, although we were five centuries or more behind. The pace was fearful and the journey exhausting.
“There is no doubt that this situation is responsible for the lack of a strong and united public opinion in our country. The differences between individuals are great, and between generations they are still greater.
“I used to complain that the people did not know what they wanted and could not agree on any program to be followed. Then I realized that I was demanding the impossible and that I had disregarded the circumstances of our society.
“We live in a society that has not yet taken form. It is still fluid and agitated and has not yet settled down or taken a stabilized shape. It is in the process of an evolution, striving to catch up with those other nations that have preceded us on the road.
“With no intention of flattering, I believe that our people have nonetheless achieved a miracle. It is quite possible that any other nation, under the same conditions, would have faded away, drowned by such currents as have but submerged us. But we have stood firm against the violent flood. It is true we have almost lost our balance on certain occasions, but it is our destiny never to have fallen but that we rose again.
“Sometimes I examine the conditions of an average Egyptian family among the thousands of families living in Cairo. It may be that the father is a turbaned farmer who has been born outside the city, in the heart of the countryside. The mother is a descendant of a Turkish family. The sons are being educated at an English style school, while the daughters attend schools run on the methods of the French. And all this is being backgrounded by a curious mixture of thirteenth and twentieth century ways of life.
“I consider all this, and feel a deep understanding of the confusion that besets our national life and of the disorder form which we plan escape. Then I reflect: this society will develop form, consolidate and become a strong, homogeneous and unified whole. But first we must make ourselves ready to survive and make growth through the period of transition.
Monstrous to Impose a Rule of Blood
“These are the origins of our present conditions. These are the sources from which our difficulties flow. Add to these many social and economic elements, the circumstances under which we ousted Farouk, and our natural desire to liberate our country from foreign troops—then you will realize how extensive is the scope of our necessities. Our position is blown upon by the wind from all directions. We are on a field roaring with hurricanes, dazzled by lightning and shaken by thunder. On top of all this, it would be monstrous to impose a rule of blood.” (pp. 61-70)
In summary, Gamal Nasser was a giant of the twentieth century who curiously is not well-remembered today. He was ahead of his times. The world powers that constantly opposed his attempts to mainstream Egypt into the world while he was alive may long for his forward-looking pragmatic and logical approach compared to the backward-looking Islamist extremism rife in the region today. He accomplished much in spite of his short life.
1. BBC “On This Day” Francis Hope Video of Nasser’s Funeral on October 1, 1970. Available online at: http://news.bbc.co.uk/onthisday/hi/dates/stories/o…; accessed December 23, 2005.
2. Said K. Arburish: “Nasser: The Last Arab.” Thomas Dunne Books, 2004, p. 104.
3. Another good book written about Nasser during his time as President of Egypt is: Peter Mansfield’s “Nasser’s Egypt” (1965), Penguin African Library.