Gamal Nkrumah reflects on Nasser’s legacy 40 years after his passing
Hoda Abdel-Nasser has an admission to make about the politics of her father, Gamal Abdel-Nasser who died 40 years ago this week. He is the man with whom her name will forever be linked, not only because she is his biological daughter, but because she believes in his ideological conviction.
“His legacy lives on to this day. His memory is alive. His tireless effort to uplift his people from poverty is an exemplary effort in self-sacrifice. It is for this reason that I am busy documenting his works, deeds and speeches. I am his literary executrix and I have a historic duty to immortalise his name.”
Her substantial archive does necessitate occasional excursions to London, New York, Washington and other cities. “People around the world are now appreciating his mission more than ever.” The aura that surrounds his name continues to radiate hope for the world’s underdogs.
The Nasserist period, to be sure, still holds our imaginations. Yet the paradox remains that while Nasser remains enormously popular, almost a saint, among the broad masses Nasserism draws few contemporary political enthusiasts. Nasser continues to inspire Arabs and Egyptians as a bulwark against the oppression of Western imperialism and Zionism, but where is his movement?
The task of Nasserists now is to explain where their strategy is leading. What does Nasserism mean in this day and age? “Nasser is considered the greatest Arab leader in modern times. He was a courageous fighter until he breathed his last. Yes, his regime lacked democracy and freedoms of expression and association. But Egypt was facing monstrous enemies and was in a state of war. Yes, we lost Sinai under Nasser but we should not evaluate leaders by their sad end,” Mustafa El-Feki told Al-Ahram Weekly.
“The importance of Nasser and his legacy to the contemporary generation of Egyptians is that he was trying hard to establish social justice. Not everyone sees eye-to-eye with Nasser’s brand of socialism. He understood that he led a poor and underdeveloped country like Egypt and therefore poverty alleviation meant a great deal to him. We might not agree with his tactics today, but he meant well. He tried to uplift the poor peasantry of the Egyptian countryside and fulfil their aspirations for a better life and standard of living. He tried to eradicate illiteracy and improve medical care for all. He was for equality,” El-Feki, head of the Foreign Relations Committee at the People’s Assembly, stresses.
The experience of war cannot be explored with validity without taking into account the serious social and economic challenges Egypt faced when Nasser was at the helm. El-Feki notes that while he did not necessarily agree with Nasser’s hardline intolerance of the Muslim Brotherhood and the imprisonment, torture and execution of his opponents, especially the Muslim Brothers, yet El-Feki is convinced that the best way forward for Egypt was to ensure that it was a secular state. “Nasser was right on this score. This is one of the most important issues that face us now. We must strive to continue Nasser’s legacy of strengthening a secular and civil state where religious matters are relegated to the private domain,” insists El-Feki.
Sorting Nasserist sheep from the goats is long overdue. The old guard of Nasserists is a dying breed and there isn’t an infusion of new blood to strengthen the Nasserist cause because of the paralysis in the political process.
The failures and shortcomings of Nasserists serve as a recruiting sergeant for militant Islamists. The policies of Nasserists are self-defeating, their detractors argue.
It is hard to argue with the criticism that proponents of Nasserism have a serious problem, a crisis of credibility. There has been a debate over the intervening decades that Nasserism as propounded by Nasser himself is dead — that it died soon after the man himself passed away.
A salient feature of the Nasserist period was his curtailment of the political and social influence of the Muslim Brotherhood on Egyptian society. To Nasser, securing a secularist character for his regime constituted a necessary strategic resistance to the reactionary forces that besieged the country and hindered revolutionary and progressive forces from realising the aspirations of the Egyptian masses.
His interests were piqued when the Brotherhood attempted to assassinate him in 1954. We now must leave the Free Officers and the Muslim Brotherhood at their loggerheads, for we have a considerable body of texts to overhear them endlessly wrangling about.
The Nasserist era is often described as a “Golden Age” for the Coptic Christian community of Egypt. Yes, Copts were diligent participants in the post-Revolutionary political establishment of Egypt. Editor-in-Chief of the Coptic weekly Watani Youssef Sidhom looks back at the period in the context of the political dynamics of the July 1952 Revolution. “Nasser was a firm believer in the freedom of political belief and religious affiliation. He insisted that Copts have full political and citizenship rights. The only drawback, as far as Copts were concerned, is that all Egyptians regardless of their religious affiliation were subject to restrictions on citizenship rights in the contemporary definition of the term. The confiscation of personal property affected prominent Coptic families. Still, Copts felt far more secure under Nasser,” Sidhom stresses. “There is no doubt the Nasserist clampdown on the Muslim Brotherhood was a boost to Coptic political morale.”
Some proponents of Nasserism even claim that there is a backdoor Nasserist comeback. The love affair with Egypt’s greatest icon has yet to fade.