Gamal Abdel Nasser
At the end of World War 1, Egypt claimed independence from Great Britain, as compensation for the political and material support to the final victory of the Allied Powers; London formally accepted such demand, but in practice it tried to negotiate a strongly conditioned independence to defend its own prerogatives on the Channel of Suez. This way, after three years of weary negotiations, in 1922 a British unilateral action recognized Egyptian independence, reserving itself however, besides the defense of Suez, also the military control of the Sudan (that the Egyptians had always considered integral part of their own national territory) and the protection of precise and substantial economic affairs.
It was guaranteed a Constitution, and the young Fahd assumed the title of King. But similar dispositions could not be certainly accepted by the Egyptian nationalistic movements: the British action was abruptly refused and this provoked great tension between the two Countries. The 1935 Ethiopian crisis and the Italian-German threat in the Mediterranean temporarily reconciled London and Cairo; two Agreements of Alliance, one political and the other military, recognized the full independence of Egypt and its admission to full title in the international community. In change, the British government got, without obstacles and hostility of any kind, the military defense of the Channel of Suez and the whole Egyptian-Sudanese territory. In such way, London assured once more, to the eve of World War 2, her “Way to India.”
But the situation was destined to last little. In the immediate postwar period, in fact, the Anglo-Egyptian relationships fell again: the proclamation of Faruk to new king of Egypt (1950) put again in motion the things. The new sovereign immediately denounced the two precedent Treaties, and he returned to vindicate heavy rights on the Sudan. But he could do well little in both the directions: his Kingdom poured in fact under disastrous conditions. The agriculture, leading sector of the economy, was passing a serious period of crisis; the political and social reforms didn’t take off; either the Crown either the traditional political strengths (including the nationalists of the WAFD) were by now centers of corruption, incapable to act or to give new stimuli to the Nation. In shortly time, the monarchy was deprived of the essential consent: on July 23 1952 high officers of the army liquidated the old regime and proclaimed the Republic after having organized a putsch.
The ascent of Nasser. National union and projects of reform: the Socialist Way
The new government, presided by the general Negib, immediately began negotiations with Great Britain to resolve the “warm” points of Suez and of the Sudan: but while an agreement was reached soon on the withdrawal from the important Channel (accords of July 1953: British total withdrawal within twenty months), the contrasts on the Sudan remained. The Sudanese parliament took advantage of such divergences to proclaim independence unilaterally; independence that had been recognized either from Cairo either from London. The Sudanese let-down marked the end of the political career of Negib: in November 1954 a new putsch removed, flattening the road to the Power to another exponent of the Armed Forces, the Colonel Jamal Abd en-Nasser.
The ascent of Nasser not only marked an important turn in the recent Egyptian history, but also in that of the largest part of the modern Islamic Countries: it marked the advent of the “panislamism” that, under a universalistic perspective, it sought solidarity over the limits of the Arabic world on the base of precise political-religious feelings. A new strength, able to become incarnate well soon in political movements “of mass”, provoking institutional upheavals in the Near East and in Africa, giving new sap to the contemporary Moslem doctrine: after the Nasser’s experience, in fact, this would not have had need of cultural loans and foreign intellectuals anymore (western or oriental), but it would have returned to its origins and principles, maturing its own emancipation/awakening purely within the Islam, out of which “salvation doesn’t exist.” But why did the “Nasserism”, as the political doctrines of the Egyptian Colonel would have been subsequently called, have a similar success? Which were its bases, its novelties? And how did Nasser apply such conceptions in practice, in the action of government? The discourse is long and not easy.
Indeed, it must be said, that initially Nasser had to govern with the support (decidedly uncomfortable) of the powerful “Association of the Moslem Brothers”: an integralist and reformist political movement that claimed the supremacy of the Islam and its traditional sources, developing at the meantime an interesting form of “Islamic socialism.” The Colonel accepted the forced collaboration but he came elaborating “his” doctrine, the golden book of the “Philosophy of the Revolution”, that is still today one of the ideological bases of the whole Islamic world: no true revolution could take place without the presence of the masses, and only these could legitimate power with their consent. Such modern practical political thought of strong socialist connotation was decidedly incompatible with the intolerance of the leaders of the association. Once sure of his own popular consent, Nasser got rid of the uncomfortable alliance and put standing a reforming politics turned to the compromise either inside either external.
In 1956 a new constitution was promulgated, approved by the people with referendum. Afterwards a unique party was created, the National Union, whose task was to operate for the realization of the purposes of the revolution and to encourage the efforts for the political, social and economic construction of the Nation. During the first reunion of the party, the principal lines of the new regime were fixed: the party was “democrat, socialist and cooperative.” The objectives to reach were “the reconstruction of the Country through the peace and the cooperation, the realization of the democracy and the true Islamic socialism, the struggle to the Zionism and the imperialism.” It was clear, from such concepts, an ideological proximity to the classical Marxist doctrines and, therefore, a relationship of liking and respect toward the Soviet Union. But this appeal had to be of brief duration.
The crisis of Suez and the military loses of the Second Arab-Israeli War immediately truncated the secular reformism of Nasser, done with the foundation of the National Union. Despite the Egyptian leader succeeded in preserving the Power and to affirm his own prestige internationally (the skilled diplomatic action of the Colonel transformed Egypt in a Country-hinge of the Block of the Not-lined-up Countries, together with Yugoslavia of Tito and India of Nehru; and made him pure one of the pillars of the Arabic League), the previously formulated projects of economic and political rebirth went in splinters with serious consequences. Agriculture collapsed; the industry and the manufacturing sector didn’t respond to the expectations of the planning. The technologies, that would have had to progress through investments and foreign transfers (mainly Soviet after the crisis of Suez) were completely absorbed from the military apparatus and they didn’t produce result. The getting worse of the economic situation, especially agriculture, brought to a wild exodus from the countries toward the largest cities (The Cairo, Port Said, Alexandria); cities that under the weight of a chaotic and macroscopic urbanization, with the consequent birth of an enormous under-proletariat with miserable life conditions and easy prey of the renascent fundamentalism of the association of the Moslem Brothers. But the Leader, the National Star seemed not to realize the disaster under his feet, involved as it was in the attempt to affirm his own ambitious political line in the whole Arabic east. However, this affirmation didn’t arrive at all, demolished by new and humiliating failures.
The abandonment of the Socialist Way: the return to the Islam. Failure of the Nasserism
The failure of the Syrian-Egyptian federation (the United Arabic Republic) in 1961 finally forced Nasser to modify his political line. The Socialist Way was gradually abandoned, and the Colonel tried new theories that succeeded in throwing the Country out from the serious situation in which had fallen. In the spring 1962 it met in Cairo the National Congress of the Popular Strengths, to which Nasser submitted a Project of Chart of National Action, a programmatic and doctrinal document, in which reached maturation the whole experience accumulated until that moment.
In the document the principal role of the Revolution is fixed in the political process of the Nation, “the only street that allows the Arabic struggle to abandon the past to turn to the future.” But the tone and the meaning are deeply different in comparison to his “Philosophy of the Revolution” of some years before. The revolutionary objectives are always the same (Democracy, Socialism and Cooperation), but the socialist term has clearly regressed: it is a mean in the search of the justice and the national efficiency now, not anymore a goal. The Islam and its doctrines return to be the vector of the revolutionary action and national reconstruction; purified from the superstructures and from the deviations that it had brought for centuries it become, in the Nasser’s thought, the pragmatic way toward the realization of the democracy and the national resumption. But not only: this return to the origins, to the doctrine of the association of the Moslem Brothers, it is the base that transforms the traditional Nasserism in Panislamism. Nasser and the “found again” Islam become the strengths capable to absorb all the particularisms and the individualism of the Arabic world in name of superior ideal, to wave above everybody and everything.
This ideal was firstly the struggle to the Zionism and the western imperialism; then, the union of all the Arabic people in a Great State including the whole Middle East; finally, the liberation from the chains of the poverty and the ignorance, toward the universal equality enacted by the Koran. But it is also the radical refusal of the Socialism, Marxist and not.
After the Congress, the Communist Party was immediately put outlaw in Egypt and submitted to violent persecutions. Also in the Countries that chose the new Nasserian Way (Iraq and Lebanon), the strengths of Left, till then near to the respective governments, were outlawed and pursued. The breakup with USSR appeared irremediable (even if Moscow continued to support the Egyptian regime, in an anti-American operation); but even more serious it was the breaking with Syria of the Baathist Socialism: this chose with decision to stay in the Soviet field and it broke up every relationship with the old ally. The large Arabic front of the second postwar period that had got independence from the colonizers French and English with the strength, and that had also put in danger for several times the existence of Israel, it didn’t exist anymore.
There were now Countries tied up to the west (Saudi Arabia and Jordan), to the east (Syria), and Countries that followed the newborn line of Nasser (as already said above, besides Egypt itself, also Iraq and Lebanon). A regional situation, therefore, unstable and heralding of tensions; tensions that would be well soon exploded, staining with blood whole people and nations again.
Despite the personal charisma and the extremely seductive political doctrines, Nasser was destined to see broken his own ambitions: the sensational Israeli victory in the War of the Six Days and the Yemenite crisis (1962-1967) marked the heavy defeat of the PanArab and revolutionary strengths, which the Colonel needed to strengthen the shake Egyptian hegemony. The resumption of the old antizionist standard, of easy emotional understanding for the masses of the whole Islamic Church, didn’t succeed in saving the situation. Rather, the military disaster of the War of the Six Days traced an ulterior, deep split between Egypt and the other Arabic countries: some broke the intransigent line and they reapproached to the Jewish State, opening direct and indirect negotiations of peace with it to resolve the knots of the occupied territories and the Holy Places of the Islam in Jerusalem (now under total Israeli control); other collapsed internally, hardly succeeding in saving their own stability (Jordan of king Hussein was between these); finally, others didn’t give up the hard line against Israel, but they chose new strategies and objectives of struggle (Syria nearer and nearer to USSR, accenting its own laic and socialist element, and it began largely to employ the weapon of the terrorism to strike the “hostile Zionist”). Egypt remained alone, diplomatically isolated and with an international prestige in free-fall.
The last years of Nasser were dramatic and solitary, not only marked by the total failure of his own international objectives but also of internal ones. Egypt, in fact, didn’t succeed in changing from paternalistic democracy to democratic republic; the political regime remained fiercely coercive, incapable to set out toward the market and the economic development. The increasing social discomfort found shiny outlet in the numerous Islamic associations, heirs of the association of the Moslem Brothers, born as mushrooms at the end of ’60 and in the first ’70. They were also formed less extremist and radical movements of opposition, especially in the universities, that asked definite reforms either in inside politics either in foreign politics.
In this last field: opening to the west and its economic investments, approach to Israel and the United States, process of peace to resolve matters of the whole area. Gradually, the weight of both types of organizations (radical-Islamic and democrat-moderate) grew enormously. The death of Nasser (1973) saw the failure of all the political ideal of the Star; the Nasserism, also giving a fundamental contribution and a well studied realistic model to the independence of many Arab and African countries during ’60, didn’t also succeed in realizing his own more ambitious expectations.
The new Egyptian president, succeeded to Nasser, Anwar el-Sadat, after a first period of transition (in which looked for following the tracks of his predecessor, without success – War of the Yom Kippur), gave a clear political turn to the Country. Egypt definitely broke the bonds with the Soviet block, it approached to the United States and it abandoned every hegemonic velleity in the Middle East. The historical peace with Israel, enacted in the memorable Agreements of Camp David (1978), enacted a change for the whole contemporary Mediterranean area. The brave effort of Sadat for the peace was paid to dear price: the Egyptian leader was killed from an Islamic integralist commando in 1981. But his efforts were destined to be crowned by the success. Egypt was now a country integrated in the international reality, with a new and important role of diplomacy and peace, on its way toward the economic development. A Country still in unstable balance, but with concrete hopes to win its struggle against poverty. The Sadat’s presidency definitely closed the Nasser’s political discourse, and it opened the road to new ideas and movements: not only in Egypt, but also in the whole Middle East and in Mediterranean Africa. The Star waned and he left the field to new and young strengths.
Sources: “Processes of decolonization in Asia and in Africa”, published by ISU (Catholic University in Milan), edited by Valeria Fiorani Piacentini; “Islam: analysis of the risks and possible reflexes on the Mediterranean safety”, published by ISU (Catholic University in Milan), edited by Valeria Fiorani Piacentini; “The military thought of the Moslem world”, by Valeria Fiorani Piacentini, Franco Angeli Publications, Milan 1995
Bibliography in English (signaled in the aforesaid texts): E. Gallagher, “Islam versus Secularism in Cairo…”, in Middle Eastern Studies, n.2, 1989; Kritzech J., Lewis William H., “Islam in Africa”, London, Nostrand Comp., 1969; Tibawi A., “A modern history of Syria, including Lebanon and Palestine”, London, McMillian, 1969; Sharabi H., “Nationalism and Revolution in Arab World: the Middle East and North Africa”, Princenton, 1965
Bibliography in French: Besides the integral text of The “Philosophy of the Revolution”, interests the study of contemporary Egypt the book by Abd el-Malik, “Egypte, militare société” (Seuil, Paris, 1962)