My Nasser

It is now 43 years since the death of Egyptian President Nasser, and there is a revival underway. Nasser’s continuing popularity is proof that in Egyptian eyes a failed project is better than none. Many see him as the embodiment of a “proud” Egypt that stood for “resistance” and “social justice”. It was that, and much more, and it is the “more” that has a sour taste in the mouth. A brief boyhood under Nasser leaves many impressions beyond the stirring speeches, massive rallies and official mendacity.

Nasser frequently visited everyday places, elementary schools included. The memory stands of his handlers arriving a couple of hours before him and instructing every student to address him as “Baba”. It was an overt and expensive act of defiance for a boy to use the more traditional “Siadat El Rais” as a greeting, even if beaming while shaking the nicotine-stained fingers. This small incidence looms large because it encapsulates the many qualities that made Nasser a tyrant beloved by his people. There is the sense of ownership of Egypt’s direction, the all-enveloping and oppressive patriarchy of a country boy who made good, and the persistent dissembling, usually meant to save face, but ultimately becoming state policy.  More than anything else, the age of Nasser was the age of lying. To live in his over-extended shadow was to live inside the lie, to paraphrase Vaclav Havel.

A boyhood under Nasser was invariably a fractured self. The official history taught in school was a lie, and one learned to keep several versions of history concurrently while passing exams by putting down as answers the properly approved lies of the day. Everything was contingent. Today’s approved lies can quickly change and the public is asked to believe the new lies with equal fervor, and frequently it did. There was insouciance about official lying that betrayed a certain psychopathy. The first days of the June 1967 war were ones of great success for the Arab armies who were valiantly marching toward Tel Aviv. God may have rested on the seventh day, but Nasser stopped lying on the fourth and resigned on the seventh. It was on the fourth day of the war that the infamous “Voice of the Arabs” nonchalantly pointed out that there had been “reversals” and the Israelis were now near the Canal. It remained a theoretical exercise for the listeners to figure out how the Egyptian army made a several hundred mile retreat from the gates of Tel Aviv to the banks of the Canal in the blink of an eye. Yet when Nasser tendered his resignation, massive crowds rushed to the streets to demand his return. By then the accumulated acts of incompetence, dissembling and dereliction of duty were no longer cause for dismissal. Few could imagine Egypt not led by Nasser, nor of the great man paying for his errors in any way. His errors had become synonymous with the nation’s hopes. Nasser was back at the helm after a couple of hours. Three years later the nation would be offered his final departure without the possibility of further negotiations. And again, the masses rushed to the streets. By now, thousands of miles away, it was possible to see the disheveled crowds filling a neglected city with less anger, as the product of a pained history.

In any revival of Nasser we need to see a face-saving device to hide Egypt’s troubles. His photograph is held aloft, and occasionally kissed, in the manner of a saint. But only a damaged nation will see fit to canonize a con man.

— Maged Atiya


3 Comments on “My Nasser”

  1. mustafa el sahli says:

    These memories remind me of George Lucas Classics of Star War, where bad Sith is nearly always tell the truth ,while good Jedi often tell lies ,,,,in fact we r in need to a bad Sith ,,a leader who is telling us the truth not lies ,in need to a leader who is not living in his over-extended shadow,,,,a leader who is able to embody this truth above the ground ,,,,in fact Nasser,s age is over, and we have to go forward not backward

  2. […] will be bracketed on both ends by authoritarian populism, or as I have called it elsewhere “the lie”. The language is different, the images are in vivid color, not black and white, but the content […]


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