Gamal Abdel Nasser, the Egyptian leader who died four decades ago this month, dreamt of pan-Arab unity but suffered a humiliating defeat in trying to achieve it. But as Alasdair Soussi reports, the handsome, charismatic figure remains beloved by his people.
He arrived like a hurricane, but in the final analysis power was not kind to Gamal Abdel Nasser. In the aftermath of the 1967 Arab-Israeli war - a war in which Arab dreams of a glorious victory over the state of Israel were shattered in a mere six days - the Egyptian president became a haunted figure, a man in the death throes of a celebrated era, which he himself had fashioned from the time he led the bloodless coup that toppled the country's monarchy in 1952.
His various ailments - diabetes, diabetic neuritis and arteriosclerosis - worsened considerably, he visibly began dragging his right leg and he developed boils all over his back. A sustained period of rest might have eased his physical troubles - even if his familiar refrain that "people like me do not live long" suggested that he knew otherwise - but no amount of rest could erase or nullify the consequences of the 1967 conflict, Nasser's very own "End of Days" in which his convictions of pan-Arabism - the dream of uniting Arabs under one banner - died, too.
But his people still loved him. They loved him before his humiliating defeat, and in the grim aftermath - perhaps even more so - and begged for his return when he resigned live on air following the Six Day War. Return he did, but Nasser and the Nasser project were no more. As the Arab-American journalist and author Said K Aburish stated in his book, "Nasser: The Last Arab": "After 1967 his celebrated and undisputed leadership of the Arabs receded almost imperceptibly until it became nothing more than a memory. Nobody spoke of the dignity and pride of the Arabs after the 1967 setback. Nobody does now."
Yet Nasser, who died 40 years ago this month, was the primus inter pares, the chief of chiefs, of the Arabs, for much of his 14 years as president. And, unlike today's politicians, he was a leader who occupied this position with the overwhelming consent of the Arab people from far across the Arab world. That he died in 1970 a failure - a broken man whose shortcomings were, in the end, so painfully exposed - mattered little to the four million or so Egyptians who packed the streets of Cairo that September. They came to mourn the loss of an Arab statesman who had come closer than anyone else to emulating the 12th-century warrior Saladin or even the powerful ninth-century Caliph of Baghdad Harun al-Rashid. And, for many Egyptians today, it matters little still.
"I still miss Abdel Nasser," says 63-year-old Ahmad Taymour, a Cairo-born physician and renowned Egyptian poet. "Arabs and Egyptians miss Abdel Nasser, of course, as he was, in his period, the symbol of the Egyptian man who could fulfil some sort of achievement. Nasser won us our independence - for me and others he brought us a feeling of dignity. I was very sad when Nasser resigned after the defeat in 1967 and I was one of the people who took to the streets to ask him to return as the leader of our people, which he did. And, I remember when he died in 1970 - there was the Quran on the radio and then his successor, Anwar Sadat, stated that we lost one of the biggest and bravest men, that Abdel Nasser was dead. I was shocked."
But, four decades on from his death, what is his legacy? And, indeed, was Nasser, then the new "Saladin of the Arab world", the last true, great Arab statesman, notwithstanding his critical failures? Such questions can be answered only in the context of a figure who was, even to his many detractors, bold, ambitious, charismatic and, comparatively, at least, a genuine man of the people. For a man who was renowned for his sparkling eyes and his dazzling smile, Gamal Abdel Nasser began life as a brooding, rather intense, young man, who, by all accounts, was always too preoccupied with devouring books - reading in English as well as Arabic - to enjoy the more frivolous aspects of life.
He was born on January 15, 1918, in the poor district of Bacos in Alexandria to Fahima and Abdel Nasser Hussein, a postal clerk. Like many teenagers of his generation, Nasser resented the corrupt monarchy of the 1930s, which, as a symbol of Egypt's wealth, stood only to deny dignity and pride to the vast majority of Egyptians, living in poverty and squalor. Great Britain, Egypt's colonial power, was also the target of the future president's ire. "Oppose them with all the force you can muster," wrote Nasser to his closest secondary school friend, Hassan al-Nashar, in 1936. Clearly an educated revolutionary in the making, Nasser had his first major brush with the more anarchic affairs of state in February of that year when he was wounded - albeit superficially - during an anti-British protest and subsequently jailed for two days.
Attempts to enter military college and then the police academy in 1937 failed due to a lack of contacts, but, undeterred, Nasser soon reapplied for the former and, after mysteriously managing to secure the ear of Egypt's then secretary of state, Ibrahim Kheiry Pasha, was accepted into Obassia Military College. From then on, Nasser didn't look back, and as he rose through the ranks, his political character began to form, his hatred of the British hardened and, after experiencing first-hand the defeat by Israel in the 1948 Arab-Israeli War when he was the deputy commander of an Egyptian army brigade, he formed the so-called Association of Free Officers in 1949. He had two major aims in mind: forcing the British out of Egypt and ending corruption in government.
What followed, of course, was to shake Egyptian and Arab society to its core. After the Free Officers instigated the 1952 revolution, unseating the ineffectual King Farouk and turning Egypt into a republic, Nasser's accession from prime minister in 1954 to president in 1956 was swiftly followed by a number of events and policies that were to quickly cement his place as a bona fide Arab statesman. Not least of these was the 1956 Suez crisis, when he turned a military defeat into a dramatic political victory and finally fulfilled his ambition to humiliate the British.
In addition, he oversaw the union of Egypt and Syria into the United Arab Republic (UAR) in 1958 as a first step towards Arab unity. And his alliance with the Soviet Union and pursuit of socialist principles in which he introduced agrarian reforms, redistributed land and developed the economy along socialist lines in the late 1950s, fulfilled his long-standing wish to cede power back to the masses.
"There were four very important elements in Nasser's policies, which he pursued for some 18 years," says Professor Walid W Kazziha, chairman of the political science department at The American University in Cairo. "The first was his pan-Arab outlook, the second was his socialist ideals, the third was his stand as a pan-Arabist against Israel and western influence in the region and the fourth was his attempt not to associate religion with politics.
"On his pan-Arabist outlook, Egypt today as a state continues to try to play a role of leadership, but it has conceded the frontline role to others who seem to be important in the region. These include Saudi Arabia, which, because of its oil revenue, has become a significant Arab power, and Turkey, which has been trying to play a leadership role. Under Nasser, Egypt was capable of projecting its economic and military power outside its own borders. However, since his death in 1970 or even since 1967 it has been more inward-looking and has been unable to play that (frontline) role in a significant way. So, that part of the legacy has declined enormously."
So too, says Prof Kazziha, have Nasser's socialist principles, which, he says, "have been downgraded, though not completely eradicated". "Nasser expanded the public sector, the advantages of which by law were passed on to the workers and peasants. Much of that has been frozen or even reduced. The inability to eliminate it completely is due to the social problems that may result from it."
in Israel, the rise of Nasser was treated with some trepidation. As Israel's founding father, David Ben-Gurion, declared: "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 into a fighting nation. There was and still is a danger that Nasser is this man."
Yet Leslie Susser, the diplomatic editor of The Jerusalem Report, says the man who once struck fear into the hearts of many Israelis has faded almost into obscurity. "Nasser's name doesn't mean as much today as it did back then in Israeli society, though there are still among Israeli-Arabs pan-Arabists who would refer to themselves as Nasserites. But, for Israeli society as a whole, Nasser, Nasserism, pan-Arabism doesn't mean much as it's no longer around. The Arab world is seen by Israelis as very much splintered and weakening, and the real power-brokers today are not Arab societies at all, but the non-Arab Iran and the non-Arab Turkey, rather than the Arab hegemony that we had two or three decades ago."
That being the case, is the Arab world in need of another figure in the mould of Nasser if the Arabs are ever to regain any kind of supremacy? Not so, says the BBC's Middle East editor, Jeremy Bowen. "I'm not sure the Arab world needs someone like Nasser because I'm not sure how good Nasser was for the Arab world quite frankly," says Bowen, who is also the author of Six Days: How The 1967 War Shaped The Middle East. "Overall, and although he was idolised and he gave the Arabs a great sense of pride and united them, his career ended in failure."
For Bowen, Nasser's legendary status in the Arab world rests on two planks. "He was a film star - just look at his pictures. His fantastic suits, his wonderful smile that would light up the room, light up the stadium. He was a remarkably charismatic man. "And in 1956 he scored his greatest triumph when he humiliated the imperialist powers, losing the military battle but winning the political fight. Now this wasn't just because of him; the Americans had a great deal to do with that, and they were no friends of Nasser.
"But the Arab world has had very few victories in the past 60 years and in 1956 Israel was forced to withdraw from the Sinai and Britain as an imperial power was humiliated and in many ways broken. And, that had as much to do with President Eisenhower as Nasser but Nasser took a great deal of the credit." Yet, for many of those in Egypt and the rest of the Arab world who long for a figure like Nasser today, Prof Kazziha is one who believes that the time for the emergence of such figures has long since passed.
"Somehow in the present circumstances, I cannot foresee another Nasser figure. The age is a different age. Back then, it was an age of two giant superpowers (the United States and the Soviet Union) with two blocs and emerging nations in the Third World who were trying to find a place for themselves and succeeded in forming the non-aligned movement. It was a time for the great leaders - a historical epoch. But, after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the dominance of the United States and the West, the urgency and the pulse and the circumstances for some great leaders championing a great cause was somehow diluted. Today, there is no cause, no ideology. You are either with the West or outside the game. And either choice is a pretty miserable one."
Examined critically, Nasser's reign was one of abject failure. The UAR between Egypt and Syria ended in disaster (Syria withdrew in 1961), as did his costly intervention in the Yemeni civil war in the 1960s in which the power of the Egyptian military was seriously depleted. The 1967 Arab-Israeli War - or the naxa (setback), as it is known in Arabic - was a humiliation from which he never recovered. Three years later, on September 28, Nasser suffered a massive heart attack and died. But, as his successor, Anwar Sadat, wrote: "He didn't die in September 1970; he died on 5 June 1967, exactly one hour after the war broke out."
Yet, his failures aside, Nasser can, says Prof Kazziha, claim one element of political success during his time in office, which, he adds, is sadly lacking in today's Egypt. "Despite everything said about Nasser's shortcomings and catastrophic failure in 1967, Nasser projected a charismatic leadership that maintained a bridge between the state and the majority of the people. If he were looking at Egypt today, he would lament at how far the people are from the state and the complete alienation that exists - that is a public that does not see itself related to the state nor to any symbol in that state. Nasser undoubtedly created a privileged state apparatus, but he was successful in bridging that gap and had an ability to communicate with the masses."