Wednesday, June 11, 2008
Who doesn't love Nasser?
June 5th, 1967- In an unprecedented event, thousands of Egyptians marched in Cairo's streets to the presidential palace demanding him to return to office. Nasser agreed to return and started rebuilding the army until he passed away three years later.
When the movie 'Nasser 56' was released in 1996, 26 years after president Gamal Abdel Nasser (1918-1970) passed away, thousands of Egyptians who were too young to catch up with Nasser's time headed to the country's cinema houses to see their hero. The movie as the CNN described, "has struck a special chord among Egypt's disenchanted youth."
For the generations of Egyptians who lived Nasser's era, and for the generations that came after him, Nasser was not just a president, but also a prophet of freedom and social Justice. Despite releasing the drawbacks of his time, Nasser is still the man who kept for Egyptians their dignity and pride and who always worked for the dream of the Arab unity to come true.
"For all his faults, Nasser helped to give Egypt and the Arabs that sense of dignity which for him was the hallmark of independent nationhood. Egypt and the whole Arab world would have been the poorer, in spirit as well as material progress, without the dynamic inspiration of his leadership," diplomat Anthony Nutting, who knew Nasser and wrote a biography of him told the www.washington-report.org on July 1996.
When Nasser died of a heart attack on September 29, 1970, Egyptians and Arabs felt it was another major loss after the 1967 war against Israel. For the African and Asian nations, they lost a great leader who supported revolutionary movements across the world.
"It was an unforgettable day. It was a shock for all Egyptians, those who liked him and those who did not agree with him. I remember that day very well. I was accompanying a number of ministers on a visit to the front near the Suez Canal when we heard the news. All the way back to Cairo, we saw millions of Egyptians who left their villages and towns heading to Cairo. They were weeping and crying the loss of Nasser," a former officer at the army's public relations unit said.
"When we reached the presidential palace in Cairo, it was very difficult to find a path to the entrance with hundreds of thousands occupying the square and surrounding the place," he added. "Nasser's funeral was the biggest Egypt ever saw. Millions of Egyptians, Arabs, Africans, and even those who didn't agree with him, were there to pay their final respect."
Such great love to Nasser, which extends from a generation to another, is the fruits of his courageous decisions that surprised the world. From leading a coup on July 23 1952 overthrowing the monarchy and establishing the first Egyptian republic, nationalizing the Suez Canal, heading the United Arab Republic which united Egypt with Syria, his resignation after 1967 defeat to his sudden death at age of 52, Nasser had always been a very unusual president.
Born in January 1918 in Bacos, a small suburb in Alexandria, to a middle class Upper Egyptian parents, Nasser felt the suffering of the majority of Egyptians under a corrupted monarchy and British dominance over the country's resources. His early age experience motivated him to lead a revolution that changed the political history not only of Egypt, but also of the Arab and African countries.
Nasser graduated from the military college in 1938 and joined the army where he became more aware of the King Farouk's corruption. As he fought in Palestine in 1948 War, he believed more in the Arab cause. With a group of army officers who shared the same thoughts, Nasser formed the Free Officers movement. They managed to win the army's support and in months they led a bloodless coup overthrowing King Farouk.
Although Nasser was the actual leader of the coup, General Mohammed Naguib was appointed a president for two years until the Free Officers disagreed with some of his policies and decided to appoint Nasser a president.
When Nasser came to office, he started a social and economic revolution. He made education free for all Egyptians. He put an end to an over hundred year feudal system where Egyptian peasants suffered poverty and discrimination by the landlords. He nationalized the country's major financial institutions. Nasser's internal policies shocked some domestic groups as well as the Western countries, especially after he nationalized the Suez Canal.
Internally, Nasser was a controversial leader. His political, social and economic amendments were praised by the mass, but some groups did not appreciate them especially with political repression and censorship were used to control the country.
Nasser founded a powerful intelligence service, which helped him keep control over the country and chase his opponents. Political opponents were exposed to all sort of intimidation and many respectable journalists like Mostafa Amin, the founder of the country's leading paper, Akhbar Al Youm, were jailed. The Muslim Brothers group was banned and many of them were also jailed. Such a closed political atmosphere pushed the Muslim Brothers to engage in a failed assassination attempt when Nasser was giving a public speech in Alexandria.
Externally, Western countries were not also happy with Nasser's policies. "The coming to power in Egypt of the energetic young warrior sent shock waves through Britain, France and Israel. Leaders in all three countries feared him as a galvanizing ruler who had the potential to unify the shattered Arab world at the expense of the West and Israel," Donald Neff said in his article 'Nasser comes to power in Egypt frightening Britain, France and Israel' published by the on-line Washington Report on Middle East Affairs on July 1996.
In a demonstration of their rejection to his policies, the USA and Britain withdrew a promise to finance the project of the Aswan High Dam in Aswan, a matter that encouraged Nasser to nationalize of the Suez Canal Company.
In retaliation for Nasser's bold decision, Britain, France and Israel attacked Egypt, but the invading forces were faced by a fierce guerrilla war in the canal area and pressure from the UN. In few months, they retreated.
As he was hated by Western countries whose interests in the region were threatened by his policies, for many other countries in Asia and Africa, he was a friend and a hero.
Along with Nehru of India and Sukarno of Indonesia, Nasser founded the Non-aligned movement, which played a significant role in the political areas of the world's developing countries.
On the Arab level, Nasser, indeed, was the pioneer of Arab nationalism. Although it did not survive for long, Egyptian and Syrian Unity was the first attempt to unify the Arabs in the modern history of the region.
"In 1958 Egypt and Syria formed the United Arab Republic, with Nasser as the head. This was considered as the first step towards Arab unity. When it broke up in 1961, after a coup in Syria, Nasser kept on to the name as a symbol for his aspirations of Arab unity (the name was changed the year after his death),'stated Tore Kjeilen in his Encyclopedia of the Orient.
Such a powerful position as an Arab and international leader raised fear among the world's superpowers and Israel. It made Nasser a real threat to the Jewish state.
"I always feared that a personality might rise such as arose among the Arab rulers in the seventh century or like [Kemal Ataturk] who rose in Turkey after its defeat in the First World War. He raised their spirits, changed their character, and turned them in a fighting nation. There was and still is a danger that Nasser is this man," Israel's David Ben- Gurion said, according to Washington Report on Middle East Affairs in 1996.
His threats to throw Israel in the sea were always stressed in his speeches. Backed by the Western superpowers that were not happy with Nasser, Israel strongly attacked Egypt on June 5, in 1967. The fight continued for five days until it succeeded to put its hands over the Gaza strip and the Sinai Peninsula.
As Nasser felt the defeat was a shock for Egyptians and Arabs, who believed in him, he stepped down in a speech he delivered shortly after the war.
In an unprecedented event, thousands of Egyptians marched in Cairo's streets to the presidential palace demanding him to return to office. Nasser agreed to return and started rebuilding the army until he passed away three years later.