Nasser's complex legacy

Tarek Osman
15 January 2008

Many aficionados of Arab cinema recall a famous scene in Nasser 56, the film made to commemorate the Suez war of 1956. An old Egyptian woman from Upper Egypt, the region from which Gamal Abdel Nasser hails, gets a chance to talk to Nasser in private. She hands him a wretched, flimsy pair of trousers which used to belong to her grandfather. She tells Nasser that the man was, like millions of Egyptian youths, taken from his village to al-sokhra (slavery) to join the brigades digging the Suez canal. And like many of those millions, he never returned; he died young, far away from his family and his home.

"Why did he die? For what? And who brought such death upon him?", she exclaimed. Since then, generations had passed, yet the Suez canal - for which her grandfather had died - remained in the hands of the khawagat (foreigners). He, Nasser, having nationalised the Suez Canal Company, is now the rightful owner of the pair of trousers. He, to her and millions like her, has avenged the crimes inflicted on the exploited, broken masses.

The scene - filled with much more drama than the previous paragraphs - drew tears from millions of viewers, in Egypt and across the Arab world. Gamal Abdel Nasser at that moment in history was in their eyes doing much more than nationalising the vital economic asset the Suez canal represented, more than evening the score with yesterday's powers. He was asserting national pride; standing up against the imperialist powers that had dominated the region for decades; emotionally freeing millions of oppressed Arabs; materialising in his act - and thus in his person - the rebirth of Arab dignity.

TarekOsmanis an Egyptian investment banker covering the Gulf and United Kingdom markets

Also by Tarek Osman in openDemocracy:

"Egypt: who's on top?" (7 June 2005)

"Egypt'scrawl from autocracy" (30 August 2005)

"HosniMubarak: what the Pharaoh is like" (16 January 2006)

"Canthe Arabs love their land?" (22 May 2006)

"Egypt'sphantom messiah" (12 July 2006)

"Mahfouz'sgrave, Arab liberalism's deathbed" (23 November 2006)

"ArabChristians: a lost modernity" (31 August 2007)

"Risk in the Arab world: enterprise vs politics"(9 November 2007)

In that moment and in the high tide of his rule, Gamal Abdel Nasser was to millions of Arabs a classic example of Thomas Carlyle's "hero": "the man with savage sincerity", "who comes into historical being to lead his people", "who represents the aspirations of generations before and beyond him", "the man whose valour is value", and "whose work is achievements and calamities" (for only mediocre people yield mediocre results). No wonder that on his death, more than 6 million people from all over Egypt marched behind and around his coffin in tumultuous scenes; no wonder that at the depths of his defeat - after the "six-day war" of June 1967 - Umm Kalthoum, the Arab world's grandest diva, sang to him, on behalf of millions: ebka fa'anta al-amal ("Stay, you're the hope").

Even today, ninety years after his birth on 15 January 1918 and thirty-eight years years after his death on 28 September 1970, Nasser remains - again, to millions all over the Arab world - the unfulfilled dream, the saviour who died while preaching, even (as Nizar Qabbani, the Arab world's most prominent modern poet, described him) "the last prophet".

The elusive leader

But this is only one Gamal Abdel Nasser; for there are others. Arab cinema is again the best conveyor of a sharply different version. In Al-Karnak, an Egyptian film produced in the mid-1970s, the leading Egyptian actress Souad Hosni brilliantly exposed what a broken soul would look like, after her character- an aspiring postgraduate student - was humiliated, tortured, and raped in "Nasser's prisons". Filmgoers remember her slow walk on Cairo's Nile Cornice, a silent tear on her cheek - a grief-filled representation of the crushing of Egyptians under a cruel police-state: Nasser's own.

The same Nasser is for millions of onlookers the man who single-handedly crushed Egypt's budding democracy, inculcated a sense of fear of the authorities among its masses, and slowly but steadily transferred Egypt from a Mediterranean country aiming - and for decades succeeding - to emulate Europe into an Arab backwater malnourished for years by dependence on hollow ideological notions (most prominently Arab nationalism). Almost four decades since he died, people in that camp invoke his legacy as the prime cause behind many of Egypt's ills today.

Between the "two" Nassers, no objective version emerges. This is a loss, not only from the standpoint of cool historical analysis, but to young Egyptians and Arabs born decades after the death of the man. His legacy still influences those young Egyptians and Arabs today, yet they are denied - by hero-worship and anathema alike - the tools and the material with which to "see" and evaluate him properly.

Nasser's legacy is complex enough to deter any rational writer from aiming to digest it in a single article. If as little as a preliminary sketch is possible, however, it might proceed by trying to go beyond this simple polarity and present a more rounded portrait of this complex figure. Here, then, are three more key "Nassers"whose lasting impact and shaping influence on the attitudes of his successors towards his legacy deserve to be highlighted.

Nasser the revolutionary

Nasser led the first successful coup d'etat in Egyptian history. It was bloodless, swift, and within days had become a true revolution, supported by the people. In less than two weeks, an insignificant, junior army officer was transformed into the de facto ruler of Egypt. In any country in the world, such a quick ascent to power and toppling of an entire, established regime would have been extremely significant; in Egypt, where pharaohs have long been literally adored, it was monumental.

The 1952 events changed the Egyptian political psyche completely. No longer were Egyptians subjugated by foreigners, be they English, French, or Turks. Egyptians now ruled themselves. Not only that! An ordinary saiidi (a man from poor Upper Egypt) without any claim to aristocracy or richness can become the pharaoh.

It was that epic shift that inspired the dreams of latter-day political schemers and plotters, from Sayyid Qutb to Ayman al-Zawahiri. Nasser, through his success in taking over the oldest kingdom in the world in such an easy way, inspired many others who believed - and others who continue to believe - that their visions for Egypt and its people are better than the prevailing one. It can be argued that Nasser was the real (if, clearly, unintentional) catalyst of the birth of modern dissident political movements aiming to overthrow regimes across the Arab world.

Nasser the civic Arab nationalist

The political identity Nasser wished to promote was clear, straightforward and singular: Arabism. It accommodated no Islam, no Christianity, no mosques, no churches. His advocacy, moreover, was not conducted via the classic means of the remote, boorish leader: hectoring bombast. His multi-faceted command of rhetoric included a particular ability to employ an intimate, familiar, tantalising tone that entered the hearts as well as the ears of millions of listeners throughout the Arab world. The medium of radio was a vital instrument of Nasser's influence in this respect; but his voice and presence was transmitted via many other cultural artefacts - films, studies, novels, plays, songs, even operas.

Nasser's Arab nationalism became so strong, soe ntrenched in the modern Arab psyche, that even today - when for several decades its dysfunctional character and performance has been repeatedly demonstrated - it remains a force in the Arab political scene: albeit weak and deranged, and a distant second to the currently potent political Islam.

Nasser the socialist

If Nasser's Arab nationalism represents a potential alternative to political Islam, Nasser's socialist thinking is a ghost at the feast of today's severe capitalism in Egypt and other parts of the Arabworld. True, the analogy would be void of sense to the intellectual elite, for whom liberal capitalism and free markets have certainly won the ideological, historical struggle. But for the millions of peoples who are scarcely able to secure food for their families, who suffer daily deprivations of employment or healthcare, and who are yet to experience any of the gains that the champions of free markets and liberal economics claim, today's capitalism is vastly inferior to the good old days of Nasser. The contrast in life-chances that the modern variety allows or generates is evident in the at times shocking disparities in income between the haves and have-nots in Egypt and other parts of the Arab world.

The next generation

These five Nassers - the hero, the oppressor, the revolutionist, the civic Arab nationalist, the socialist - indicate why this protean figure remains a nagging figure in the background of today's Egypt. He resists, it seems - for all the efforts of his admirers and detractors - being pressed into the service of a convenient political orthodoxy. In Nasser's very variety and uncategorisability, and for all the authority he wielded at the time he ruled, he represents a challenge to contemporary values, trends and dominant powers in Egypt and the Arab world. And it is this open, dissentient, contrary element in relation to the current social, political and economic order that lends his legacy both allure and peril.

Nasser's successors decided, almost immediately after his death, that such a powerful legacy and image in the national psyche could not be left to dramatists and historians; it had to be shaped and moulded. One result was that these rulers, and the institutions and bureaucracies that depended on them, sought - indeed, were virtually forced by instincts of self-preservation - to place their own policies within a Nasserite lineage, and draw to themselves some of the aura that still surrounded him.

The results of this effort by later generations of Arab leaders to establish legitimacy by linking strategies and policies to those of Nasser himself were, however, contradictory - even comically so. At times, for example, these leaders claimed to be standing up for Arab dignity, championing the Arab struggle against Israel, and representing the needs and wants of the poor, oppressed Arab masses. At other times, however, they were forced to explain that though the objectives remain the same, each era requires both its own policies and necessarily different means - hence the need to abandon socialism and embrace free-market economics, to shift from the Soviet Union's orbit to becoming a solid member of the American camp. At yet other times, the leaders sought to use sympathetic language to portray the gap between Nasser's day and their own as one between brave but doomed confrontational policies and today's mature, pragmatic approach to international relations. If all such efforts to conscript Nasser in their support failed, he could be safely ignored as a relic of days gone by.

It is equally interesting, however - though perhaps not surprising - that it was not only Nasser's official successors who aimed to shape - or tame - his legacy and its impact on the Arab public. The political opposition (of various stripes) has tried the same thing. At times, it has portrayed him as the quintessential 20th-century Arab hero, whose successors have betrayed his legacy - leaving the opposition to claim his true mantle. In its religious guise, this opposition has at times projected him as the enemy of Islam, whose secular and nationalist ideas provoked God's wrath and caused Egypt's descent into poverty and defeat. At other times, the opposition has regarded him as the instigator of a corrupt, defunct system that is still in place and remains to be overcome.

These contrary perspectives, as much as the richly varied aspects of Gamal Abdel Nasser's life and personality, indicate the immense complexity of the man and his political achievement. This complexity has been consistently simplified, homogenised and flattened by his fans and foes. Nine decades after he was born and almost four since he died, it is time for members of a new Egyptian and Arab generation - one with no direct experience of him or his rule, no entanglements of love or hate - to take a long, fresh look at Nasser. In doing so, they would not only engage with one of the richest political legacies in modern Arab history, but begin - as Nasser himself once did - to write a new chapter in the history of Egypt and the Arab world.

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