Gamal Abd El Nasser – Method Actor

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Marlon Brando, who saw his acting talent as an undesired gift, explained his method as inhabiting the character so thoroughly that all his actions were produced by its logic rather than his thinking. The intimate link between politics and theater has always been with us, Shakespeare wrote of it, the Greek dramatists never missed it, and even the ancient rulers dressed for maximum effect. We speak regularly of politics on the “public stage”. Few men in modern Egyptian history have embodied that link better than President Nasser. A protean man and a motherless child, he left a giant imprint on his nation and beyond, not because of belief in any specific philosophy or ideology, but because he lacked any and was able to inhabit the character of the hero so thoroughly that it defined his rule and his policies, leading to his rise and ultimate fall, in an arc that any dramatist would instantly recognize. Egyptians, and others beyond the Nile, were his audience, his fans, the people who loved him because of what they projected onto him, and what he reflected back on them, rather than for his political legacy, most of which was ultimately disastrous. It is not hard to imagine Nasser in a different setting, as a matinee idol in 1950s Egyptian movies, always the dashing man who solves all problems, projects masculine kindness, leaving younger women swooning and older ones grinning in maternal delight. All the meantime, men would hold back envy and imitate every move.

The camera is said to recognize and love a great actor. A day after the 1952 coup the Free Officers posed for a photograph. It was a stiff and public pose, with the senior officer, General Naguib sitting behind a desk surrounded by his subordinate men. He should have been the center and focus of the camera, instead, inexplicably, the camera drifted to focus squarely on Nasser, making him the center of the photograph. No one knew his future role, save the the prescient camera. Nasser’s fate was sealed. He would act out every nuance of his role regardless of his better instincts, including those of survival. In Manshiya Square October 24 1954, on a cool night, shots rang and bullets flew toward him. He did not do the sensible thing and duck, instead he stood erect and declared that “I live for you and die for you. Nasser will not die because every man is Nasser”. This is history imitating drama. Almost exactly two years later, in the darkness of a Cairo night, his closest comrades urged him to surrender to the invading British forces and be the conscience of the nation from prison, like so many colonial leaders of the time. But that could never have been in any script that any producer would approve. He stood erect, and the improbable happened, as it would in any melodrama; the American President, Eisenhower, abandoned his erstwhile friends and allies to side with Nasser. The hero was born, again.

There was a darker side too. When Syrian wily villains approached him for a union with Egypt in early 1958 his sound judgement was to say “No”. But that was not the logic of the character, the great Arab leader. So he overruled his own good judgement and plunged in, going even as far as erasing Egypt’s eternal name, a move that sealed his political fate with many. Even worse, he authorized “limited” interference in the affairs of Arab countries as part and parcel of his role. They all rebounded badly on him, as Egyptian intelligence in those days was more farcical than most with its Clouseau-like ineptitude. Once the union with Syria failed in 1961, Nasser found himself needing to prove greatness within Egypt. He embarked on a series of economic reforms, all along socialist-realist lines, that made panoramas worthy of Diego Rivera, but crippled Egyptian growth to this very day. The great Arab leader also had to support an inept Yemeni general to the tune of 20,000 Egyptian lives.  Such was the constraints of the character written for him. Nor could he back away from brinkmanship in 1967 that was to lead to a great military disaster. The most powerful argument he gave for his actions in May 1967 was a single line, Beckett-like, “I am not Anthony Eden”. The hero lives on. In the darkest hour love brings salvation. It was the genuine love of the people, as well as their bafflement, that buoyed him on June 9 1967.

Death comes once to men, but is enacted over and over again by great actors. His almost fatal heart attack in 1968 did not slow him down, but moved him to action. His greatest and most peripatetic two years were ahead of him. The great Arab hero did not die until his role dictated it. Nasser would pass away only when his Arab world would burst into the violence of “Black September”. Arab “brothers” battled each other in Jordan within earshot of their common enemy. Within hours the curtain fell on Nasser the man, but the role lives on, waiting for a new actor to take up the mantle.

— Maged Atiya


The 6 Hour War

It is too early for history to pass judgement on the horrifying events of August 14 2013 at Rab’a El Adawya square. While some have compared it to Muhammad Ali’s 1811 massacre of Mameluke notables which ended their 500 years of power forever and set Egypt on the road to modern statehood, the mind drifts to a different analogy; that of June 1967.

Just as Nasser massed Egyptian troops in the Sinai for purely political reasons and with no comprehensive plan for an all out war with Israel, the Muslim Brotherhood packed its followers in the square with no clearly planned end point. Nasser saw the closing of the straits of Tiran as a leverage to extract some concessions from Israel and enhance his domestic standing, eroded by economic sluggishness and the war in Yemen. Similarly the Brotherhood also saw the rally as a forum to extract political concessions and to voice its opposition to the removal of President Morsi. Both events followed serious and strenuous negotiations between the two sides. In 1967 UN Secretary General U Thant did the bulk of the work, while in 2013 there were various international actors, including a free wheeling effort by US senators McCain and Graham. In 1967 Nasser did not grasp that Israel had little interest in negotiations and was eager to deliver a serious blow to the Arab armies to bring the states to a more concessionary mood. The Brotherhood made the mistake of assuming that while negotiations were ongoing they can continue to demand concessions and avoid bloodshed. Both were wrong. As Israel struck suddenly in 1967, the military gave the order to the police to clear the square with minimal warning. The deaths of Egyptian troops in 1967 and the protesters in 2013 owe as much to the bumbling of their leaders as to the firepower of their attackers. In less than 6 hours on a summer morning Egyptians woke to a new reality, with all that followed being brutally inevitable. 

We do not know if the military in 2013 was as surprised by the scale of destruction as Israel was in 1967. What we do know is that, just as in 1967 with the Arab states, the Muslim Brotherhood assumed a posture of resistance in face of a massive loss. The weekly demonstrations and attacks at various universities are the Brotherhood’s version of the famous “3 Nos” of Khartoum. As the Arab states refused negotiations with Israel until all land captured in 1967 is returned, the Muslim Brotherhood insists on no public negotiations with the military until Morsi is restored to power.  If these similarities are accurate, do they tell us anything about the shape of events in Egypt in the upcoming years? Some will argue that the comparison is specious, since the 1967 war was between recognized states, while the 2013 events are between political actors. This is true enough, except in the minds of many Egyptians who came to accuse the Brotherhood of begin an alien body to the nation, and who saw in the Brotherhood’s clumsy and failing attempt to capture the instruments of the state as the equivalent of an invasion by an outside force. The Brotherhood was helped little by its international supporters in places such as Turkey and Qatar. Their noisy but ineffectual support simply firmed up the worst in Egyptian minds. Just as importantly, what lessons will members of the Brotherhood draw from these events? Almost all pundits insist that cadres will be radicalized and resort to violence. Some undoubtedly will. But will a significant segment of the Brotherhood see the errors of the leaders and seek a revamping of their tactics? Time will answer these questions, but it is important to view this struggle correctly, not as merely over prerogatives and power, but also over identity.

After 1967 and its echo in 1973, Israel grew powerful and prosperous and increasingly had little to fear from the Arab armies. It did not however grow more peaceful, nor has it resolved the contradictions between being a Jewish and democratic state and an occupying power.  It may turn out that Egypt will no longer have to contend with the Brotherhood post 2013. It may even manage to improve its economic situation and perhaps join the ranks of rapidly growing developing nations. But whether the killings at Rab’a will resolve its identity crisis remains an open question.

— Maged Atiya