If Nasser were alive today he would be 100 years old. Although dead for nearly half a century, he is very much alive in the country he remade before he reached the age of 40. He is a true revolutionary, in the technical sense of the word, as a man who rearranged the power relations between the elites of the country. The arrangement he created remains very much in place today. Some have rebelled against it, others have tried to tinker with it, but the broad features remain intact and the majority seems willing to live in its confines or unable to escape them. This blogger has noted before that Nasser should not be viewed as a great thinker, nor as a capable administrator, nor as a wily politician, but as a masterful actor that strove to embody every major role the country was compelled to put forth. In a future and happier Egypt a Nasser-like man will be a great actor in plays authored by Pirandello or Tawfik Al Hakim, or their successors. Still, any anniversary with a sufficient number of zeros on the right is a good occasion to take stock and examine the balance of the ledger. What has the man born a century ago given his country and what has he taken from it?
For sixty five years, nearly two generations, Egypt has lived in his shadow. He had always insisted, theatrically enough, that every Egyptian is Nasser and that his own mortality is irrelevant as he will live through his people. But we can also insist that every Egyptian was represented in Nasser, and that both his vitality and decline affected his people deeply. He became a hero at a young age; he was 30 at the time of the 1948 war with Israel. The status of one junior officer was such that Um Kalthoum, the woman who became the voice of Egypt, offered to host a concert for him, before the 1952 coup which he turned into a revolution. Nasser went on to become a sponsor and a promoter of the popular arts. Arguably he was also a participant in them. His rallies and extended speeches were a performance art of the highest caliber. Whenever he spoke the people listened and all felt a close connection with each other through him. If great theater is catharsis for the audience, then Nasser provided a partial version for all the Egyptians, regardless of how they felt about him. This giant shadow forces a question: Does today’s Egypt represent Nasser’s success or his failure? An answer is difficult to come forth because the relationship between the man and his nation is fundamentally that of betrayal. Nasser’s errors betrayed the unreserved trust Egyptians placed in him. Similarly, Egyptians failed to rise to Nasser’s exhortation of their innate greatness, most of all by failing to hold him to account and to limit his power and hence the consequent damage of his errors. Nasser longed to be a great hero and he needed a great people to lead, while the Egyptians hoped for national greatness and signed up with the man who promised it. This is hardly a unique arrangement in the history of nations, and on many occasions such arrangements either work well or fail disastrously and thus force a reckoning and subsequent improvements. In Egypt’s case neither happened. Nasser’s project of national greatness was too farcical to be a tragedy and too grim to be a comedy. The drama he put forth provided no resolution, only an abrupt end. Nasser’s catharsis was incomplete, failing the Emile Durkheim final stages of integration and renewal of self-confidence and internal strength.
Five decades after the actor left the stage the theater lights have come on. The audience members stare at their neighbors scarcely able to discern what relations they might have with each other and what might have brought them together in the first place. They stare blankly at the empty stage and try to decide if this is merely an intermission or if the performance is truly over, in which case they should rush the doors and explore the freedom and chaos of the world outside them.
— Maged Atiya
I am not weak like Eden
The topic of conversation at breakfast that Tuesday was Nasser’s news conference. Tuesday is mid-week for Egyptian schools, with Friday being the normal day off. Schools were off that day to allow students extra time to study for the upcoming examinations. But few actually did. War was in the air and with that excitement blew in with the warm May winds.
The adults were utterly mystified by Nasser. Some thought he had it all figured out, and that we are living in the last days of Israel. Others thought he was a damn fool and that the Jews will give us a thorough thrashing. There was plenty in that news conference to support both points of view. On one hand “America is the enemy of the Arabs and had chosen to side with Israel“. On the other hand “America is a great country and we want it as a friend“. Nasser was sure of victory “We will not move one inch on the straits of Tiran“. But just in case things went badly “We will block the Suez Canal to world shipping“. As far as Israel was concerned “Negotiating peace was out of the question“. But the Palestinians need to have patience “wait a year or 10 or more until we restore your rights“. Egypt was willing to sacrifice for the Arab cause, but of course things couldn’t be better at the moment “look around, the country is full of bread and chicken“.
But the line that struck most people, and perhaps sedated them for some time, was Nasser’s declaration “I am fit. I am young. I am not yet 50. I am not weak like Anthony Eden“. Eden, 20 years Nasser’s senior, and famously sickly, survived him by 7 years.
— Maged Atiya
The Cost of Dignity
On that day President Gamal Abdel Nasser, the leader who renamed a once and future Egypt as the United Arab Republic, made the decision to ask the United Nations to withdraw its peace keeping mission. We will never be able to assess his true reasons, but they are likely to have originated from the peculiarly Egyptian sin of seeking dignity at all costs. Shortly after the 1956 Suez Crisis, Nasser signed a memorandum with Dag Hammarskjold, then UN Secretary General, to de-militarize the Sinai and give the UN veto power over the withdrawal of its peace keepers. Nasser must have suffered this indignity only because the agreement was kept a secret. Anything less would have shattered the myth of the successful resistance to the Tripartite attack on Egypt. The Rotem Crisis of 1960 may have encouraged Nasser to think that the the memo has lost force and that there is room to give. The hot days of late May 1967 were a giant exercise in restoring his dignity, now tarnished by the costs of Yemen and poor economic planning. No one could pull him back from the brink, as any such effort amounted to an attack on his dignity, and by extension all of Egypt, which loved him for illusion of dignity he offered.
— Maged Atiya
For a few in Egypt who had access to external information, the June 5 1967 rapid success of Israel came as no surprise. The Jews had in less than two decades built a functioning state that acquired the underpinning of Western culture that many Egyptians envied. The claims and exhortation of “Voice of the Arabs” radio were hollow, and even for a young boy the Arabic language had acquired such a patina of empty bravado that it seemed less a native tongue than imposition by an evil step-mother. In any case, the evidence of defeat came rapidly with news that all military aircrafts around Cairo had been destroyed in less than one hour.
The true disaster began to unfold four days later as Nasser tendered his resignation in a short speech on Television. For a few minutes some imagined an escape under Zakaria Mohieddin; a silent man whom many in Egypt believed to be friendly to the West and hostile to the failing economic policies of the preceding few years. But those who listened closely to the speech heard a father’s assumption of responsibility for the failures of his children; a profoundly damaging and cruel sentence to inflict on those who worshipped him, and those who loved him, even when they feared him. It was also an effective one, for crowds rushed into the streets to demand the immediate return of the “Ra’is”. There has never been an evidence of orchestration on the part of Nasser, and Egypt’s trajectory since that day provides plenty of evidence that the reaction may have been genuine. But a genuine reaction is far more troubling than a coerced one. And indeed, subsequent history would reproduce its lamentable features.
We should note Rushdi Sa’id’s description of the 1967-1973 years as those of “Hope and Despair”. There were genuine openings and an attempt to bring the country together in a spirit of cooperation and “can-do”, but the presence of Nasser, and the “Free Officers”, at the helm meant that little of fundamental change could come to pass. The February revolution of 1968 was at attempt at genuine and liberal change, and it was snuffed out quickly by the wily Nasser who came to its aid as if he had not governed the country for 15 years.
There were bound to be introspection on “what went wrong”. The first, and probably least known, was a panel talk in early July 1967 at Cairo University, organized outside official supervision and thus sparsely attended. A professor of Engineering (later forced to emigrate) boldly suggested that the defeat had two underpinnings. First, Israel had a more educated population, skilled in science and technology which are the tools of modern warfare. Second, it effectively mobilized its population because they were free to voice their views and believed in the goal for which they might give up their lives. The myth of “little Israel” had blotted out the reality that on June 5 Israel had a fraction of the population but more troops, armor and aircrafts than the combined forces of Syria, Jordan and Egypt. Both points were to make it to the official and social conscience, but in grotesquely corrupted forms.
The official propaganda in Egypt began a campaign of promotion of “Science and Technology”, as a quick magic potion to overcome the defeat. But few were willing, even if able, to assert that science rested on the pursuit of truth, and to promote it, one had to rid Egyptian education of lies. In fact, the opposite came to pass. Commentators claimed that Science was an Arab contribution that the West has since appropriated and now it was time to claim it back in “authentic” form. The Israelis, understandably cocky, strutted on the world stage aided by admiring Western press. The psychic damage was severe, leading to a claim that the West had a fundamental aversion to Arab progress and an innate desire to keep the “East” under heel. This flammable discourse had existed since the 1920s and the days of the “Eastern League “in Egypt. (As an aside, the virus having acquired a systematic vector would eventually jump its host to settle in Western discourse of “post-colonialism”) This handicap meant that even the rise of impressively educated technical elite would not rid the country of habits of thinking that anchor authoritarianism deep into the social structure. A prime case is that of Dr. Mohammad Morsi, an American-educated rocket scientist, politician, and briefly a President of the Republic, who would issue bizarre and clearly incorrect speculations with a straight face. Nor is he an exception. Among his opponents there are many (in the acid words of an Egyptian scientist) “back-street obscurantists”.
The second corruption was even more dangerous. The observation that in 1967 Israeli troops were more willing to die for their cause than the Arab troops was twisted horribly toward a culture of death rather than freedom. What the professor meant was that the average Israeli soldier was a citizen with a stake and a voice in his polity, while the Arab soldiers felt coerced, intimidated and ultimately not valued as either citizens or free men. The resurgence of political Islam post 1967 twisted this logic into building a desire to protect and die for Islam. It was but a short step to the grotesque and alien world of suicide vests and decapitation videos.
Many will correctly try to link the setback of June 5 1967 to the current disasters in the Arab world. The hinge remains June 9 1967, when reality, having shone a light on profound deficiency, caused a retreat to the comfort of myths and repose of death within them.
— Maged Atiya
Egyptian President Nasser (1918-1970) is frequently hailed as the epitome of the great Arab leader. His nemesis for much of the 1960s, Faisal Ibn Abdel Aziz, not so secretly believed that Nasser was an unscrupulous Egyptian out to swindle many of the Arab lands out of their natural resources. Nasser’s desire to unify the Arabs under his leadership, and by extension Egypt’s, would have greatly helped Egypt and disadvantaged the Arabs, as the union with Syria amply demonstrated. Yet in this season of Arab state collapse few are advancing the thesis that Nasser is the man who struck the first blow that led to today’s horrors. Let us remember four elements, all of his creation, that arguably cooked up today’s toxic brew.
Creation of the Security State. Between 1952 and 1954 Nasser created a template for state structure that would be followed by several other Arab nations. The rough outline of it is simple. Overthrow a monarchy; declare a populist Republic; base its institutions on the primacy of the military and security services; and finally proclaim such an entity as a forward-looking and revolutionary. If the formula barely held in Egypt, it is because of its history of cohesion and Statism. The other Arab countries that emulated this model, Libya, the Sudan, Syria, Iraq and Yemen have all collapsed.
Adoption of trans-national goals. Arab nationalism gave Nasser a justification for meddling in the affairs of other Arab states. His real reasons were probably base (vanity) and narrowly nationalistic (advantaging Egypt). But the formula became a handy tool for more principled, and far more dangerous, true believers, namely the Islamists. His diatribes against the Sykes-Picot accord, most of which were nonsense, have been adopted by a wide range of wild Jihadis, who sing his lyrics but to a very different tune.
The demonization of Israel. Nasser’s trial-by-fire in the Faluja enclave convinced him that the Arab armies are no match for Israel. He never really wanted to fight Israel, and at one point even sought a reapproachment with Ben-Gurion. He was forced into one war, 1956, and bumbled into another, 1967, both verifying his hunch and destroying his dreams and ultimately his life. Yet, his constant taunting of Israel, and the demonization of the country, did little to help the true victims of the Jewish national dream, the Palestinians, and much to embroil the Arabs in failing enterprises.
The corruption of Education. Within a month of the 1952 coup, Nasser had taken Sayed Qutb’s advice to radically alter the educational system. The result was a drop in the intellectual output in Egypt, and as its teachers traveled into the Arab countries, they carried the virus along. Today the entire Arab world publishes fewer books than a decent size University Press in the US.
The Arab masses, and their leaders, are the authors of this collapse. But they were also willing students of a capable tutor. Nations have no epitaphs, but states do. When that of the Arab states is written Nasser should be accorded the dubious title of the “Destroyer of the Arabs”.
— Maged Atiya
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
It is likely that Nasser would never have lost an election in Egypt. Yet every referendum he ever proposed or starred in had results that would be the envy of the six-sigma preachers of corporate America . The final figure always had a profusion of the digit “9”, as if the government printing press had no other digits at hand. The 1956 referendum was won by a margin of 99.9%, other referendums featured additional nines. Nasser wore his nines with elegance as he was always assured of the people’s love, less can be said about the garish and bloody imitators in the region.
Historians have generally accepted this as the expected behavior of dictators. Yet Nasser was hardly a vicious dictator in the mold of Saddam, for example. His power rested on a wide acceptance by many forces in Egypt, although with stiff resistance as well. Nor can it be said that it was born of his early association as a callow youth with various totalitarian groups in Egypt. He managed to outgrow all of these associations, and in time crack down on most of them. Also, we should note that this practice set the stage for other imitators (primarily Sadat and Mubarak in Egypt), who lived and governed differently and in different circumstances. There may yet be another explanation for that obsession with overwhelming and ridiculous winning margins.
Nasser may have realized early on the fragility of the Egyptian state. From the outside, the structure of the Egyptian state seems mighty and oppressive. But its oppression might owe less to might than weakness. He, and subsequent rulers, maybe have been in touch with the anarchist streak in the Egyptian soul (traffic patterns are the best hint there), and feared its eruptions. Anything less than an overwhelming, even silly, win might spark a protest that will quickly mushroom into outright rebellion. Subsequent history does not show them entirely wrong. In fact, stare long enough at the three nines and the current situation in Egypt becomes clearer. 2011 was the year that the brittleness of the seemingly mighty state was laid bare for all to see. 2012 was the year it became absolutely clear that the Muslim brotherhood sees elections as the means to acquire power, rather than the method for safely alternating it among different hands. Neither winning power by peaceful means nor losing it by extra-legal ones is likely to alter the Brotherhood view of governance as simply a means to repress and eliminate opponents. Pundits who talked knowingly of the “moderate Brotherhood” now intone about the “return of the regime”. 2013 is the year it also became clear that the “regime” can never return, as one of its components was the presence of the Brotherhood as peaceful and beaten opposition, useful to narrow the social and intellectual space and as a convenient patsy in the ring.
The notion of dissent as rebellion has taken hold in Egypt with dangerous consequences. It is not merely those in power that view dissent as a rebellion. More alarmingly, dissidents also see dissent as a means to overturn the political order. Much of the confusion in the reaction of Western observers to the current protest law lies in the different understanding of “dissent”. In a functioning liberal and plural system dissent is a means to alter the behavior, rather than affect the removal, of leaders. Yet listen to all factions in Egypt and you will see that dissent is seen as simply a way toward radical change of leaders and even rules. This sets a dangerous feedback loop of repression and dissent that must be broken in some fashion or a more open system can never be established in Egypt. The intellectual sphere in Egypt has narrowed considerably under the onslaught of religious fundamentalism and societal disrespect for differences. It is not surprising that in such an environment there is an obsession with total approval, for that indicates total control as well.
The best contribution toward stability in Egypt is to further the understanding that a regime is not illegitimate if it has the approval of only 51% of the people, or even if it has the approval of a minority. A regime is legitimate because it acquired power by the rules and maintains power by strict observation of these rules. The rules need to include respect for the natural rights of the individual and communal need for law and order. Until that understanding animates the politics of Egypt, look forward to further repressions fueled by the belief that anything short of total approval constitutes a loss of legitimacy. The 99.9% solution is Egypt’s millstone.
— Maged Atiya
To study the history of the 1952 coup in Egypt is to know what a near thing it was. But for the flutter of a few wings Nasser and the Free Officers would have earned a stint in jail followed by life as disgraced ex-officers, instead of ruling Egypt for decades. But the success of the coup created a template for power transition in the region and beyond. The recipe is easier than oven-baked popovers. An ambitious officer, some followers, tanks in the streets, and the ruler ushered out politely, or killed brutally, depending on the local customs. Nasser was for Middle East governance what Madonna is for pop music. He established new rules by brazenly breaking the old ones, even if he wholly lacked the requisite craftsmanship. A paranoid man to his very core, he set about establishing a new rule by coup-proofing his regime. And it worked. Sadat followed him in a constitutional manner and no backroom maneuvering by the military old guard would dislodge him, even with his knack for skydiving minus a parachute. Mubarak would take it even further by virtually eliminating the ability of the military to take exceptional steps in politics, and in so doing he would sleep walk through his last decade in power.
But a new coloring book for the transition of power in Egypt emerged, written not by officers or rulers, but by the Egyptian people themselves. A lovable lot who run their lives by the twin faiths in the benevolence of God and the healing power of chaos, they invented a “revolution”. In the waning days of January 2011 it was possible to see this emerging, and those who took pause were a minority, up against the bully pulpit of the media, US presidency, and academics who dubbed it “Arab Spring”. The pages of that book are easily numbered. Massive crowds in the streets, waving signs and flags, followed by tanks rolling, the military bowing to the will of the people by turning off the cell phone of the ruler and forcing him to sleep on the office couch. What follows is given high sounding names, such as “transition” and “road map”. Someone once remarked that God broke the mold after making the Egyptians. More likely it was the Egyptians who trampled it in their haste to show gratitude to their maker. What worked well in January 2011 would work equally well in June 2013, especially given that Morsi is far more hapless than Mubarak.
Is this the new “normal”? Perhaps. But it would be well for the doubters to voice their belief loudly now. To point out that democracy is not the objective, but the natural result of constitutionalism. Constitutionalism before democracy, or Egypt is condemned to an ugly cycle of chaos and repression.
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 third and resigned on the fourth. 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