Hoda Abdel-Nasser, daughter of the late president, has spent her professional career as a historian gathering the materials for a just assessment of her father’s life and legacy, as she explains to Gamal Nkrumah
Nasser with Hoda and her family; A close family friend of the Nkrumahs, Nasser holds the writer’s, his namesake’s, hand with mother Fathia and siblings
Professor Hoda Abdel-Nasser, the late president’s eldest daughter, heads the Egyptian Revolution Research Unit of Al-Ahram and sees her main task as being to safeguard her father’s legacy. Indeed, Nasser has devoted the past two decades to this ambitious task, seeing her mission intensify tremendously over the past five years. To meet this increased workload, Nasser has selected a team of mainly young researchers to assist her. A hard and exacting worker, she expects, and gets, the best from her staff. Nasser’s task, she says, is to ensure that the various archives, both Egyptian and foreign, chronicling the history of the July Revolution are within easy reach of Egyptian researchers and scholars. And Al- Ahram’s Egyptian Revolution Research Unit, she says, also has an obligation to use the latest technologies in order to ensure that accurate knowledge of the July Revolution reaches into the hearts and minds of as many young Egyptians as possible, winning them over to what she sees as having been the revolution’s goals.
As a professor of political science at Cairo University, she is particularly well positioned to safeguard her father’s legacy. Though her own work currently focuses on primary source material, including Nasser’s public speeches, presentations and other documented comments and actions, there is also a vast array of secondary and tertiary sources that she and her staff are sifting through and cataloguing, dealing with the history of the revolution, its impact on the Third World and the Arab World, its theoretical impact, and other matters. Most important of all, Nasser says, is the fact that she has received a great deal of positive feedback on her work from people from all walks of life and from throughout the world.
What taxes her judgment and professional skills as a historian is knowing how to walk the fine line between simply assisting researchers in learning more about the revolution and avoiding any comment that might seem biased in her father’s favour.
“Faithfully documenting the past is never an easy task,” Nasser comments, but she is “determined to fulfill her mission” all the same.
“Even though I was a child at the time of the revolution, and I hardly remember the event itself, the 50th anniversary of the July Revolution caused me to think hard about it,” Nasser says. Most people, perhaps, are familiar only with her father Gamal Abdel- Nasser’s book Philosophy of the Revolution, in which the late president sets out his aims for Egypt, but, his daughter adds, there are also “many unpublished works, including correspondence with heads of state, friends, family and political associates,” that cast fascinating light on all stages of her father’s thought. These documents, she adds, should be made available for students and researchers to examine, in order that such people might “judge the man and the revolution he set in motion for themselves.”
The many years of effort that Hoda Abdel-Nasser has devoted to this task, however, sometimes very hard and though always rewarding sometimes not seeming to be so, has often exhausted Nasser both “mentally and emotionally.” The past few years, in particular, she says, have been a time of “deep searching.”
On balance, has Nasser found happiness, satisfaction or pain in retracing her father’s footsteps and safeguarding his legacy? And has her work, done on behalf of others and for future generations, given her a sense of fulfillment?
In answer to such questions, Nasser emphasises above all the satisfaction she has found in her work. She has often felt, she comments, that she has been carrying out a sacred responsibility, or deep-seated duty, in cataloguing the material that comes to her, her love of her father and of his legacy often expressing itself best precisely through her work documenting the minutest details of his life and thought.
“I have learnt many lessons since embarking on this work,” Nasser says, adding that she is working for the future, not for the past. The next step for the research unit will be the creation of an on-line database and archive of documents on her father’s life and political career which will be open to all researchers and interested persons.
Gamal Abdel-Nasser, his daughter says, “taught me that self- worth comes from within, and he was always proud of his humble beginnings” and roots in the remote village of Bani Murr in Upper Egypt. Nasser also taught his children to be proud of their origins, saying, his daughter recalls, “I am all the more proud to be a member of a poor family from that village, and I say these words as history is my witness that Nasser was born of a poor family and I promise that he will live and die a poor man.”
“And, indeed,” she remarks, “he did die a poor man.”
President Nasser acted as his daughter’s mentor and first boss, even at a time when he was himself “physically ill and emotionally strained.” In his final years, following the 1967 defeat, Hoda Abdel-Nasser acted as her father’s simultaneous secretary and nurse, working for someone for whom was there neither “rest nor respite.” Her father was a driven man, she remembers, a self-confessed workaholic, and he never took a holiday, even refusing the short breaks recommended by his doctors.
Even worse, in these latter years Nasser was facing growing regional and domestic concerns: the Jordanian civil war in September 1970, when King Hussein acted against the Palestinian fighters then in Jordan provoking terrifying bloodshed and loss of life in events that were later called “Black September”, was just one of the many sad events then weighing on Nasser’s mind. Almost miraculously, Nasser managed to secure peace between the Jordanian authorities and the Palestinians, ending the bloodshed through a series of strenuous interventions. Shortly afterwards he collapsed out of exhaustion, Hoda then having served as his secretary for little more than a year.
Hoda Abdel-Nasser remembers the home in which she spent her formative years as a young woman as also being her office and place of work. Indeed, she had been selected for the task of secretary precisely because she could work “from home.” Her father, provided a lot of practical guidance, giving her a firm sense of his thinking about the political issues that confronted him, his strong sense of social justice forming the sound moral structure that was the basis of their working relationship.
Those were very difficult days for, recently married and a young wife, she had to sacrifice more and more of her time with her husband in order to work long hours with her father. Thankfully, Hoda’s husband proved understanding, himself fully won over to her father’s cause.
Gamal Abdel-Nasser officially became prime minister of Egypt in 1954, being sworn in as president on 23 June 1956. Yet, Hoda’s memories of her childhood do not at all dwell upon the figure of her famous father — she was raised, she says, as just an “ordinary Egyptian girl of my generation.” Nevertheless, she remembers becoming aware of her father’s special status in her late teenage years, following a happy and carefree childhood in which the momentous public events of the 1950s barely figured.
One thing that Nasser does remember being impressed upon her at a very tender age was her father’s great desire to rid Egypt of British occupation and military presence. Stationed in Egypt since 1882, British troops provoked widespread feelings of national humiliation and shame, and though Hoda was too young to understand fully the implications of her father’s informing her, as a result of the Anglo-Egyptian Suez Agreement reached on 19 October 1954, that the 80,000 British troops previously stationed in the country had now left for ever, she nevertheless remembers feeling overjoyed at the news. Shortly afterwards followed the nationalisation of the Suez Canal Company in 1956, leading to the Tripartite Aggression against Egypt.
When, later in life Nasser had to choose a subject for a doctoral dissertation in history it is little wonder that she was drawn to the subject of Egypt’s relations with Britain. Nevertheless, her thesis, entitled Britain and the Egyptian Nationalist Movement 1936-52, ends in precisely the year that her father took power, something which causes her to chuckle today.
Her father, she stresses, was only 34 years old when he took power in July 1952, going on to rule Egypt for the following 18 momentous years, a period that has left an indelible mark on the country. Few today would care to dispute the claims Hoda Abdel-Nasser makes for the importance of her father’s rule, or for his personal importance as a great 20th-century leader, yet, until now few scholars or researchers have had the resource material at hand to assess fully and critically the true importance of the July Revolution for Egypt and the Arab World.
Today, debate is raging in the Egyptian People’s Assembly between those who would like to see unfettered freedom of public access to historical records and those who want to bury all official documents in closed state archives. Nasser is deeply concerned about the outcome, for, if those who want to keep the public records secret have their way, the whole success of her project and life’s work to study her father’s life and legacy will be jeopardised.
Nasser explains that restricting historical records is not an all-or- nothing process, arguing fiercely that the records should be divided “into two groups — unrestricted official documents and secret government files, the latter themselves being subdivided into documents first on Egyptian and then on foreign affairs.”
Indeed, Nasser sometimes feels that she has been let down in her quest to make public the tools for assessing her father’s career and historical legacy by precisely those people who might have been expected to have Gamal Abdel-Nasser’s best interests at heart — his former close associates and colleagues. These men shared Nasser’s political outlook, believing fully in the revolution and in what it was trying to achieve, and yet, Hoda Abdel-Nasser says, those still alive have sometimes been unhelpful in supporting her campaign for public access to the archives.
Sometimes government officials and bureaucracy have been equally unhelpful. She cites the example of her trying to gain access to the archives held at Abdin Palace in Cairo, a sizeable quantity of state archival material having been housed there both during the monarchy and at certain periods after the revolution. What is even more galling, for Nasser, than her own failure to gain access to these important holdings is that permission has been granted to other scholars.
These scholars, Nasser says, have informed her that 42 of her father’s files, each sealed with his presidential stamp, as well as a number of letters sent by ordinary citizens to the late president, are contained in the Abdin archives.
Nasser points out that past state documents are usually made available to the public in most Western nations, and she would like to see concrete steps taken in this direction in Egypt.
The fact that British official documents from the period have now been declassified, for example, enabled Nasser to examine those that deal with her father and the Egyptian Revolution in 1980 when she was preparing her dissertation. Nasser has since been to London several times to examine further British public documents from the period, and she notes that many such records, still classified in 1985 and therefore inaccessible to the public, have since been declassified, becoming an important source of information for historians and researchers of the Nasserist period.
In examining such documents, Nasser was careful to document the comments and remarks from the time that she found on them, mostly “naturally from a British perspective.” The British were incensed by their loss of power and prestige in Egypt, enjoyed when they held sway in the country before the revolution, and Nasser comments that many remarks reflecting this loss are to be found in the British records of the period.
Nasser has also examined US State Department papers from the 1950s and 60s that relate toEgypt, as well as documents from the archives of the US Central Intelligence Agency. The presidential papers of the US presidents who held office between 1952 and 1970 — Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon — have also yielded valuable information on US attitudes to Nasser.
Other important sources of information on the revolution, Nasser says, include French government documents, Soviet documents, and those belonging to the now-defunct German Democratic Republic (East Germany) and other formerly Communist Eastern European countries. Nasser and other Egyptian researchers are currently examining many of these “vitally important” documents, Nasser says.
The conditions under which such public records are held in these countries, Nasser says, whether or not they have been declassified and made available to the public, contrasts with the conditions under which such records are kept in Egypt. Ideally, public records of this type should be housed at the Dar Al-Kutub, Egypt’s National Library, but unfortunately all too often they are dispersed among different ministries and government departments, and since there is no central record or catalogue, it can be very difficult, if not impossible, to know who holds what, or where.
Egypt does not have legislation on this matter, Nasser says, meaning that there are currently no guidelines on how state records are to be kept or where, or on who should have access to them and when. However, it will only be when these documents are properly catalogued and placed in the public domain, Nasser argues, that any proper evaluation of the Revolution by scholars and researchers can commence. A draft law on this subject is currently being debated in Parliament.
For Nasser, the contentious question of whether “we should continue to leave our history to be written by foreigners” is also of paramount importance, and she sees her own work as part of an effort to encourage young and aspiring Egyptian scholars to undertake research on the Nasser period, a defining one in their country’s modern history.
Nasser is especially proud of her seven-volume publication Minutes of the Meetings of the Higher Central Committee of the Arab Socialist Union (ASU). The first five volumes deal with the 25 official meetings of the ASU, while volumes six and seven list the names and positions of those who participated at the meetings.
This publication, Nasser says, will be of vital importance to future generations of Egyptian scholars and researchers interested in finding out more about her father and the regime he led between 1952 and 1970.
© Copyright Al-Ahram Weekly. All rights reserved
18 – 24 July 2002
Issue No. 595