Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt was born in 1918 and died in 1970. Nasser was a pivotal figure in the recent history of the Middle East and played a highly prominent role in the 1956 Suez Crisis. Nasser has been described as the first leader of an Arab nation who challenged what was perceived as the western dominance of the Middle East. Nasser remains a highly revered figure in both Egypt and the Arab world.
Nasser was born in Alexandria in January 1918. At the age of fifteen, he took part in anti-British demonstrations. Those who protested also targeted some in the royal family who it was believed tacitly supported the power Britain still maintained over Egypt by its joint-ownership of the Suez Canal. It was felt by some that the Royal Family was willing to accept this as long as no attempt was made by the British to weaken the family’s power within Egypt itself. In 1935, Nasser was wounded in the head by the British during an anti-British demonstration. In 1938, Nasser graduated from the Royal Military Academy and joined the Egyptian Army. Within the army, Nasser continued with his anti-British activities.
Nasser fought in the 1948 war against the newly formed Israel. During this war, Nasser held his first ‘proper’ meeting with those officers who were willing to support his ideas for Egypt. The defeat of the Arab nations in the 1948 war, gave an added impetus to their anger especially as the Egyptian Army had to fight with faulty weapons which was linked to a supply scandal that implicated some members of the Royal Family. Nasser was clear in his own mind – the Royal family had to go and Egypt needed a new form of government. He believed that the army had to take a lead in this.
The defeat in 1948 strongly affected Nasser. On top of the humiliation of losing the war, Nasser was angered by the apparent corruption within certain sections of the Royal Family which it was thought hindered any chance of victory. Nasser decided to basically plot against the king for the sake of Egypt’s future.
On July 23rd 1952, Nasser helped to organise a revolt against the Royal Family and King Farouk was overthrown after a few days of bloodless rebellion. The actual figure head for the rebellion was General Neguib. Farouk fled to Italy and Neguib took over control of the nation.
Despite his status within the army, Neguib lacked any political skill and he lost the support of the younger army officers – those who were so pro-rebellion. In November 1954, Neguib resigned and retired from public life.
Nasser had a very clear vision for modernising Egypt. He identified five targets that he wanted to address:
The most obvious source of a foreign power being dominant in Egypt was the British/French control of the Suez Canal. Completed in 1869, the canal was designed by Ferdinand de Lesseps. However the vast bulk of the physical labour required to build this engineering marvel was done by Egyptian nationals. Britain had a 40% holding in the company that ran the canal. However, despite the fact that the canal was on Egyptian ‘soil’, the benefits it brought the people of Egypt were minimal. In 1956, Nasser nationalised the canal – provoking an attack on Egypt by the French and British. This attack was condemned at an international level and the British and French had to withdraw their forces when it became clear that America did not support what they had done. In fact, the American president, Eisenhower, was openly critical of Britain and France.
Nasser’s stand against two major European powers brought him huge popularity not just in Egypt but also in all Arab nations. After this success, Nasser set about the ‘Egyptianisation’ of his country.
Neither Britain nor France could have been asked to assist in the project. Asking America – who openly supported Israel – was politically impossible for Nasser. Hence he turned to America’s Cold War enemy – the Soviet Union. The USSR provided the capital and the engineers for the huge project.
Egypt and the USSR were curious bed-fellows. One was a Muslim nation while the other, a communist nation, had banned all forms of religion and had shut down all places of religious worship. However, for Nasser, the Russians provided Egypt with what they needed after the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development had withdrawn its financial support for the project after 1956. For Russia, there was the opportunity to gain a foothold in the Mediterranean Sea – the Black Sea Fleet was ‘trapped’ in the Black Sea and its movements were easily made known to the Americans. Egypt offered a way around this problem.
Nasser also made gains in other areas of domestic policy.
Under Neguib, civilian titles as associated with the Royal Family, were banned. Privileges associated with the ‘old way’ were also banned. Laws were brought in that limited the amount of land someone could own and they also widened the opportunities for land ownership. In 1961, Nasser nationalised a number of corporations so that the wealth that they generated could be used to improve the lifestyle of the Egyptian people. One year later, a decision was announced that Egypt would be run on Arab socialist lines. During Nasser’s time in office, the Aswan High Dam was completed. This was a project that generated world-wide attention. However, iron and steel mills, aluminum plants, car and food factories were also built. In total, over 2000 new factories were built in Egypt in Nasser’s time.
However, Nasser suffered a major blow when Egypt and other Arab nations were beaten by Israel in the Six-Day War of 1967. By this year, Egypt was seen as the leading Arab nation and the Arab people looked to Egypt for leadership. For Nasser, the comprehensive defeat by Israel was a serious blow and he offered his resignation. This was rejected by the people who took to the streets in June 1967 to demonstrate their support for Nasser. After the war, Nasser went to great efforts to modernise the Egyptian military and this remained one of his primary aims until his death in September 1970. His death was followed by an outpouring of national grief in Egypt. Nasser was succeeded by Anwar Sadat.