Al-Ahram Weekly On-line   Al-Ahram Weekly On-line
28 Sep. - 4 Oct. 2000
Issue No. 501
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Liberating Nasser's legacy

By Hosny Guindy and Hani Shukrallah

"We might begin by setting down an overall framework for dealing with this question. First of all, we need to understand that what is at issue is not the business of privileging one page of our history over another; we are dealing with history, and history is a human product. The object of our inquiry is a human experience, with all the successes and failures that each and every human experience must encompass.

"Secondly, there is the polarity of the vendetta, on one hand, and nostalgia -- and here we should note that nostalgia is a product of alienation, the natural outcome of placing people at odds with their own experience, and their awareness of that experience -- on the other. This polarity has for too long plagued Egypt's attempts to come to terms with its history under Nasser. Now, 30 years after Nasser's death, the time has come to untangle the experience from both the feelings of nostalgia with which its supporters envelop it and the vengeance that its enemies continue to exact upon it.

"Thirdly, to understand any human experience, we must situate it within its time; it is at once the product of a particular age, and of the human agency that played a part in the shaping of that age. Fourth and last, to put any kind of human experience to the test, we need to ask about its results. Today, 30 years on, we are in possession of sufficient data to provide the tools to measure the outcome of the Nasserist experience.

Mohamed Hassanein Heikal"As it is, we have yet to look at and assimilate the experience with anything resembling a healthy attitude. We have not come to terms with anything. For political, strategic, even psychological reasons, we in Egypt have been exposed to a very peculiar phenomenon, one in which memory itself is subjected to a fierce onslaught, the object being the erasure of memory. This may be explained partly by the character of political authority in Egypt -- the Pharaoh as demi-god, the Caliph as a semi-prophet, etc. For 30 years Egypt has been in a state of war with its own history. Half the country, one might say, is at war with Abdel-Nasser, half with Anwar El-Sadat. And in all cases this mindset of total enmity marks each and every political action, across the political spectrum. It is self evident, though, that animosity and bitterness is no way to come to terms with anything.

"Let me explain further. Here we had an experience that occupied quarter of a century of our life as a nation, only to end with an attempt to uproot it totally. A section of society found itself obliged to resist this attempt. Moreover, the wave that hit Egypt after 1974 was one in which the local, regional and international situation was ripe for an onslaught on Abdel-Nasser and the Nasserist experience. Elements in Egypt, in the region (Saudi Arabia) and internationally (the US) were settling outstanding accounts. Meanwhile, the various fronts to which Egypt had been party were collapsing. Added to this is the tendency for political authority in Egypt -- from the Pharaohs to the Mamelukes -- to be characterised by attempts by the successor to eradicate the heritage of his predecessor. Absolute enmity blinds those driven by it, while an all out onslaught instils panic into the hearts and minds of those targeted.

"And herein lies the crux of the malaise, and the sense of loss of direction from which our society continues to suffer. A people's memory cannot easily be erased; the attempt to do so was always counteracted by the fact that the people who lived the experience were still around; they could remember. Enmity did not overthrow Nasser, though it created a host of enemies for Sadat.

"This is a real tragedy. Had Sadat's eagerness to criticise Abdel-Nasser taken a more positive bent -- to say for instance: 'Abdel-Nasser has achieved such and such; it is not much, but I will build upon it' -- things might have taken a different course. The objective, however, was not criticism but eradication, and a large section of society perceived this as an assault against them. To try and erase the national memory is a very dangerous game. People were being told the opposite of what they knew as lived experience. People were being told that these were years of impoverishment. They could recall, however, that they had been years of extensive social welfare; that the great majority of the population had never enjoyed such access to housing, education, health services and nourishment. People were told that these had been years of darkness and isolation; they could recall them as the years of the theatre of the 60s, the literature of the 60s, and so on. They are told that these were years of ignorance and censorship, they recall them as the time in which Naguib Mahfouz wrote his greatest works, for which he was to receive the Nobel prize, and Tawfik El-Hakim published his most ruthless criticism of social and political conditions in the country. Then Egypt was producing over a hundred films a year compared to little over a dozen at present.

Mohamed Hassanein Heikal
'Gamal Abdel-Nasser continues to inhabit Egypt because, like Bonaparte, he is the representative of an age of certain national glory, despite the mistakes and the military debacle. But there is more to it than this. Above all, he symbolises for Egyptians the expression of their independent national will. It is this that remains. It is in this that we must seek our project for the future' Photos: Mohamed Mos'ad


"And there is the music. The music of a particular period is possibly the most eloquent testimony on the nature of that period. We can hear a great many things in the music of an age -- freedom and repression, politics, the economy, culture and society, everything. Let us set our minds back to the music of the fifties and the sixties; Umm Kulthum and Abdel-Wahab, together; the remarkable wave represented by such musical giants as Riyad El-Sonbati, Kamal El-Tawil, Mohamed El-Mougi, Baligh Hamdi... Nothing expresses the soul of a nation during a particular stage of its history as freely or as fully as music.

"Subsequently a nation was made to live in contradiction with itself; people were put in a situation of conflict with their own collective memory, with their own awareness.

"How then can we begin to understand and come to terms with the experience of Nasser's Egypt? No less important, what remains of relevance of that experience today? First, we need to recognise that the fundamental aims of a people remain constant, while the mode of realising those aims varies from one age to another -- whether in terms of the means made available by the age in question, or in accordance with the personal characteristics of the leaders whose task it is to achieve them.

"What were the fundamental demands of Nasser's Egypt? In essence these could be summed up as follows: some form of expression of Egypt's Arab identity, of its inexorable link with the Arab world; some sort of development and progress; some degree of social justice, and greater access by the majority of the population to state-power and decision-making -- i.e. democratisation.

"In my view the Nasserist experience achieved successes in all these areas save the last, where it failed. This, however, needs to be viewed in the context of a number of considerations: first, genuine democratisation is contingent upon the ability of the great majority of the people, across all classes, to participate effectively in the political process. To do so, they must possess a minimum access to both economic power and knowledge. Gamal Abdel-Nasser believed that through such programmes as agrarian reform, industrialisation, the Aswan High Dam, free universal education, universal health insurance etc., we could set the necessary groundwork for the building of democracy. He made some achievements in this respect, but nevertheless they fell short of democracy. It might be said, however, that although Nasser's failure in this regard has been a major weapon in the onslaught on his heritage, the problem of democracy in Egypt has not been resolved by the subsequent regimes -- it remains with us to this day.

"Nor can anyone plead not guilty as far as human rights violations are concerned. But take, for example, the case of militant Islamism. The number of detainees from that trend in subsequent times far exceeded anything that happened under Nasser. This does not justify the violations that did take place, which I have criticised, but it underlines the fact that the confrontation between the state and militant Islamism, which uses religion as a means to win political power, goes well beyond the Nasserist experience.

"But let us turn, in our attempt to assess the experience as a whole, to Nasser's Arab and foreign policies. Let us, indeed, examine these policies not at their moments of greatest triumph, such as in the wake of the nationalisation of the Suez Canal or after the Suez War of 1956, but at their bleakest moment, the June 67 debacle. Recall the amazing spectacle of the hundreds of thousands of Sudanese who went out on the streets of Khartoum to pay tribute to Nasser when he went there to attend the Arab summit that was held in the wake of the military defeat. Newsweek captured this incredible image on its cover page under the title: Hail the conquered. How are we to understand the phenomenon in which this man, defeated before the whole world, is acclaimed by the Arab masses everywhere as a leader who continued to express their will to resist. They say that the millions of Egyptians who went out on the streets on 9 and 10 June to reject Nasser's resignation and to call on him to continue to lead them in battle were prodded by the Arab Socialist Union. Fine. But what about the millions in Khartoum, Beirut, Amman; everywhere in the Arab world?

"Is this not a test of the true worth of Egypt's Arab belonging. Let us look at this question even in material terms. Arab support, including those states hostile to Nasserist Egypt, was vital to the war effort and the rebuilding of the Egyptian armed forces after the defeat. A single country, Libya -- and I have criticised Gaddafi a thousand times -- gave us a billion dollars in 1973 to purchase military equipment, including the landing craft which the Egyptian forces used to cross the Suez Canal. Following the October 1973 War, and during the period between 1974 and 1977, when Sadat made his visit to Jerusalem, Egypt received Arab aid estimated at between $17-22 billion. Up to today, Arab aid continues to play a vital part in Egyptian development plans.

"On another note. They say that Nasser unnecessarily made an enemy of Israel, which sought peace. At the end of Nasser's reign and the beginning of Sadat's, such a claim might have carried some weight. It had not, after all, been put to a sufficient test. Now we have clear evidence of Israel's true intentions. Before our very eyes Israel is building a regional empire, an empire, moreover, whose fundamental strategy is to blockade Egypt, to confine it in Africa, so that Israel can enjoy a free hand in the Arab east, and -- first and foremost -- in the Gulf. The fact that Egypt is sometimes called upon to take part in the peace process should not mislead us as to the nature of Israel's intentions. On these occasions Egypt is, after all, not being called upon to play a role, but to perform what others hold as its function. The collapsing of a role into a function is an insult.

"And what of the US? Our interests in the region and those of the US are in contradiction, though I believe, and so did Nasser, that it is not one that should be expressed in confrontational terms. But we must be on our guard. America is not exactly a reliable friend. It wants regional hegemony, it wants Israeli supremacy and it wants the oil. These are the aims of American foreign policy in the region. Do what you will to win American friendship, profess eternal friendship, but whatever you do remain aware that the US will continue to look towards Israel, and not to you, as its strategic ally. For the US Egypt is an object of history, while Israel is an instrument for the making of history.

"Ultimately, Nasser's Egypt was part of a very special historical period. The time of Abdel-Nasser was also the time of Kennedy, De Gaulle, Nehru, Tito, Mao and Pope John XXIII. Egypt's experience was part of a global tendency that had a distinctive flavour. We were not bystanders. Egypt was an active and effective participant in the making of that tendency -- the movement of national liberation, Bandung, the movement of the non-aligned nations, the African unity movement, Afro-Asian solidarity. It was a time of vigour and tremendous vitality the world over. We belonged to the age, interacted with it and acted upon it as equal partners.

"These are just examples of the kind of questions we need to address if we are to come to terms with our recent past. In doing so we need to rid ourselves of this state of enmity in which every aspect of Egyptian politics, domestic or foreign, is perceived in terms of either animosity to Nasser or animosity to Sadat. Failure to do so means we will continue to live surrounded by ghosts; the ghost of Abdel-Nasser, the ghost of Sadat; the whole Egyptian horizon swarming with ghosts that will not go away, nor take their rightful place in the nation's history. Three decades have passed since Nasser's thesis, so to speak. There was a negation, and now we are witness to the negation of the negation; all that was fundamental to the Nasserist experience is today being verified in the most dramatic of ways.

"Finally, we need to ask ourselves why do so many Egyptians, many of whom were not even born while Nasser was alive remain so devoted to his memory, despite systematic attempts at eradication, despite the grave mistakes and despite the fact that he died while part of the country was still under occupation?

"Gamal Abdel-Nasser continues to inhabit Egypt because, like Bonaparte, he is the representative of an age of certain national glory, despite any mistakes or setbacks. But there is more to it than this. Above all, he symbolises for Egyptians the expression of their independent national will. It is this that remains. It is in this that we must seek our project for the future."

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