Nasser and Egypt's two revolutions
With comparisons being made in the international press between the 1952 and January 2011 revolutions, what lessons can be learned from the Egypt of Gamal Abdel-Nasser, asks Ahmed El-Tonsi
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The true heirs of Gamal Abdel-Nasser are youth born decades after his untimely death in 1970. The parallels between the 25 January Revolution and Nasser's 1952 Revolution are striking, yet the differences are similarly glaring. Posters of the late Egyptian leader were hoisted high by today's revolutionary youth reflecting Nasser's commit
"The Heirs of Nasser" was the title of a recent article by Michael Doran published in the US journal Foreign Affairs commenting on Egypt's 25 January Revolution. The title is striking in describing the youth as the "heirs of Nasser" and stating that "today's turmoil, then, is not unique; rather, it represents the second Arab revolution." By the first Arab revolution, Doran meant the pan-Arab revolution led by Gamal Abdel-Nasser, which generated a revolutionary spark sweeping the whole region. Doran, thus, made an analogy between the 1950s wave of revolutions among the recently independent Arab states and the revolutions of the Arab spring of 2011.
Important within this analogy is the fact that what Doran found common among the two waves was their common call for justice and dignity. What seems even more impressive was that in 1970, a few days after the death of Nasser, Time magazine stated that "despite his mistakes and shortcomings, Nasser imparted a sense of personal worth and national pride that they [Egypt and the Arabs] had not known for 400 years. This alone may have been enough to balance his flaws and failures."
Forty years have elapsed between the article in Time and that by Doran, and two other Egyptian presidents. However, the call for dignity was repeated in 2011, and this time it was raised by an entirely new generation that had barely heard of Nasser. Yet, many of the revolutionaries raised photographs of Nasser in the countries undergoing revolutions and not just in Egypt. Not unrelated here is the fact that during the recent visit of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to Cairo, comparisons were drawn between him and Nasser, especially following the assertive Turkish position vis-³-vis last year's Israeli attack on a Turkish vessel while en route to Gaza.
Two questions arise out of this link between Nasser and dignity. The first is why and the second is why the link has been remade after all these years. Before endeavouring to answer such questions, we have to remember that Nasser, together with his era, his political orientation and policies, have been subject to many hostile campaigns aimed at discrediting everything to do with him. During the rule of late president Anwar El-Sadat there was a well-orchestrated campaign in Egypt that embarked on stratagems to "de-Nasserise" the state and society.
While the 1970s witnessed the peak of such anti-Nasser campaigns, in the later years of the regime of former president Hosni Mubarak another wave took place, particularly with the rise of the new leadership of the former ruling National Democratic Party (NDP), basically businessmen who espoused a free-market economy. However, despite these campaigns and the many policies that have been diametrically opposed to Nasserite ideology, the 40th anniversary of Nasser's death, according to the London newspaper The Guardian, has coincided with a wave of nostalgia for some of the principles that the Nasser era espoused and promoted.
Yet, massive changes have impacted the post-Nasser political system and society. To mention just some of these, there have been measures undertaken to make Egypt endorse a more open political system and society. Many of these new measures could not have been adopted during Nasser's era, including a multi-party system, privately owned media, and a greater role for the private sector. No less important has been the turnaround in Egypt's foreign policy direction, particularly as a result of the peace treaty with Israel.
Why there has been a link made between Nasser and dignity is a crucial question that needs to be addressed. For many commentators, Nasser's main constituency was the impoverished lower classes that had been long denied their basic rights. The literature on this subject is extensive, and it reflects the failure of pre-1952 governments to address rising social and economic woes among the lower classes, particularly workers and farmers. Such failures can be appreciated in the fact that some of the Nasserite measures, like the agrarian reforms undertaken during the 1950s, had been rejected by the parliament in the 1940s. Even the High Dam project had been submitted to cabinet during the late 1940s.
A few years before the 1952 Revolution in Egypt, while describing the appalling situation of the Egyptian peasantry, British prime minister Winston Churchill said that, "it is a shocking thing how little progress has been made among the great masses of the Egyptian fellaheenÒê¦ Unhappily, Egyptian prosperity has been shared almost exclusively by the rich and well-to-do classes, while the peasantry seems to have remained in the very same conditions in which I saw them when I first went to Egypt as a young officer towards the end of the last century." In 1952, a few weeks after the revolution, Churchill wrote that "it is important that we should not appear to be defending the landlords and Pashas against the long overdue reforms for the fellaheen." These words from Churchill, who was not at all fond of Egypt, let alone of the Egyptian peasants, and who was also a staunch Zionist, are a clear depiction of the conditions of the Egyptian farmers at the time.
Many other sources have pointed to the seriously worsening social and economic conditions that prevailed in Egypt prior to the 1952 Revolution. The Great Cairo Fire in January 1952 was another scene in the drama of the fall of the ancien regime. Almost in all directions the regime was unable to address the pressing needs of the population, namely for national independence, political stability, and the evolving socio-economic crisis that had given rise to gross inequalities and rising poverty among the vast majority of Egyptians.
It was Nasser's accomplishment to make the peasants feel that life was worth living, giving them dignity through the transformation of Egypt's 4,000 villages. The same can be said about the workers, who benefited from many of the opportunities offered by the nationalised firms. Nasser's orientation was focussed on these poorer classes, whom he called those who had a stake in the revolution.
The 25 January Revolution was also fuelled by growing inequalities among the various social classes, impacting many of those whom Nasser had offered overdue reforms, as per Churchill's words. Social justice was one of the cardinal slogans of the January Revolution in as much as the masses have once again been denied their basic rights, rights that the July 1952 Revolution had once asserted via its progressive laws aiming at a fairer distribution of national wealth. Yet, under the laissez-faire economy endorsed by successive governments under the Mubarak regime, these classes were deprived of many of their well-established rights, such as the right to free education, an equitable healthcare system, and subsidised commodities and services. All these rights were Nasserite measures: despite their shortcomings and loopholes, they were directed towards transforming and developing these classes, while offering them subsidies to render their life more bearable.
The Nasser regime did not do these things as a form of charity or as part of an approach aiming at containing the masses. Instead, the whole socialist package emanated from a deep commitment towards these classes in view of their long-term deprivation prior to the 1952 Revolution. As such, these classes identified the socialist measures as acquired rights, not as the gift of a particular regime, and from here comes their feeling of dignity and its link to Nasser.
In contrast to the approach taken by the Nasser regime, the Mubarak regime viewed these classes as being made up of poor people who required the support of the government, as well as of wealthy people. Even the use of the term "poor people", instead of "low-income classes" was significant of the direction of the Mubarak governments' orientation towards the lower social classes and their role. One need only look at the projects endorsed by the Mubarak regime, and it will easily be observed how the terminology is indicative of the regime's orientation. Projects like the "poorest hundred villages in Egypt", personally endorsed by former president Mubarak's son Gamal, are a clear depiction of the charity-like orientation of government policy at the time.
By contrast, during the Nasser period there were projects that included the "productive families" project, a title that added dignity to the project's beneficiaries. Health treatment at government expense was another initiative hailed by the former regime. Once more, the words used pointed to how the regime thought of its role with regard to the poorer social classes. The Mubarak governments were not the guarantor of a free healthcare system, and instead the state acted as a provider that gave something to poorer patients. Another interesting, as well as funny, example of the Mubarak regime's orientation towards the poorer social classes, reflecting how it thought about its obligations, came in the way the regime addressed the priority of poverty alleviation.
In January 2003, while attending a financial congress in Egypt, many people were struck by the presentation made by the then prime minister Atef Ebeid. Using a colourful set of Powerpoint slides loaded with figures that had been tailored to reflect the supposedly unsurpassed progress that had taken place in the economy under his stewardship, Ebeid looked very excited about his performance. "In Egypt," he said, "nobody goes to bed with an empty stomach." Ebeid was confident that his economic policies had meant that all Egyptians went to bed on a full stomach, and capitalising on what he described as well-founded empirical formula addressing social and economic questions, he went further in his presentation, making other promises of the same kind.
If such propositions are true, thanks should go to God, not to any of the former regime's key leaders and their army of overpaid advisors. In fact, Ebeid was so consistent in carrying out his neo-liberal economic policies that they left the vast majority of people with limited, if any, social safety net. The need to do so was totally lacking from the agenda of both the Ebeid and Nazif governments. The latter in a famous speech stressed that the government could not be expected to continue in its old role as the "nanny" of the people.
For the Mubarak regime, the poorer classes were made up of the poorer members of society, and the government was not obliged to care about their healthcare, education, and so on. There was no commitment on the part of the former regime towards these people, who were seen as a liability not an asset. As a result, the masses lost a great deal of their original sense of dignity. Alienation became inevitable, and once the vanguard started to move in the direction of revolutionary protest increasing segments of the deprived joined in order to redeem their denied rights. The January Revolution was not a bread and hunger uprising, as anticipated by commentators influenced by the former regime's phobias. Instead, it was a fully-fledged revolution that crossed the boundaries of the different social classes, and many of the well-to-do participated in its events, restoring part of the integrity of the torn social fabric and giving the lower social classes a sense of purpose and worth beyond the expected cries for food.
Successive Egyptian constitutions have stipulated that 50 percent of the membership of the country's legislative assemblies is to be made up of farmers and workers, and this has been another factor that has added pride to the neglected classes. Anomalies have come out of these famous articles that are still stirring debate. Yet, again, even the articles' abuse by many non-farmers and non-workers has signified the deep cultural change that has taken place among many from the country's elites, who have not perceived any stigma in being designated farmers or workers.
Despite his popularity as a towering Egyptian and Arab leader, Nasser resorted to many traditional repressive measures against what were called the "enemies of the revolution", most of them ancien regime politicians, Marxists and members of the Muslim Brotherhood. Many of these measures tarnished the regime's reputation, and they have been exploited by Nasser's adversaries to discredit the whole Nasserite era. Many of Nasser's opponents, save for some Marxists, have not been able to contain their hatred of Nasser and his regime, and they are still unable either to forgive or to forget. What concerns us here is that such measures contradicted the regime's emphasis on human dignity. Michel Oren, Israeli ambassador in the United States, summed up this contradiction in a statement that combined Nasser's strengths and weaknesses, saying that he was "ruthless at times and cunning but also incorruptible, charismatic and committed to the good of his people".
Interestingly, some of Nasser's main opponents are still active, and many of them participated in the January Revolution, such as the Wafd Party and the Muslim Brotherhood. These two blocs, particularly the Brotherhood, have not changed their views of Nasser and his revolution, pointing to his ideology and policies as being the major reasons behind the catastrophic conditions that preceded the January Revolution. Yet, historically this is not correct, as many of Nasser's policies were reversed decades ago, and the newly adopted policies have not proven to be better alternatives to Nasser's original policies. Moreover, 41 years after his death, one should not assume that Nasser, were he in power today, would continue to pursue the same policies. Nasser was a pragmatist, not an ideologue. For example, he had the courage and the vision to change the political system in use in Egypt during his rule three times and even to propose the introduction of a controlled two-party system in his worst years after the 1967 setback.
Nasser always had certain constants in the paradigm he used. Yet, were he in power today, his tactics would have been different. His commitment to the welfare of the poor would have continued, but he would have developed a modified version of the subsidies on basic commodities and services. The pan-Arab nationalism would have persisted as the cornerstone of his ideology. Yet, he would not have chosen to go for another union, like that signed with Syria, as a result of experience. In fact, Nasser was reluctant to join the United Arab Republic, and he only signed the Tripoli Charter, leaving it up to Sadat to sign the union agreement against the resistance of old Nasserite figures, thus provoking the events of May 1971.
Nasser's imitators in Iraq and Libya failed because they could not grasp Nasser's ability to innovate in view of the changing environment. Moreover, it could be argued that whatever the case about the absence of leaders of the January Revolution may be, among other reasons their apparent absence was partially related to people's perceptions of Nasser as a charismatic leader. This idea of the charismatic leader has become so distorted that it is difficult for a new generation of leaders to emerge with different leadership styles. As such, many commentators, including Nasser's adversaries, have been tempted to link leadership to the charismatic type, of which Nasser was evidently the Egyptian archetype.
Why the link between Nasser and the people's dignity has persisted over all these years is another question. The answer is that successive regimes have not offered viable alternatives that could make the people feel positive results. This is not to say that Nasser's socialism was flawless in ideology or practice. There were many problems in the practice of Nasserite ideology. Robert Stephens, for example, writes that "Nasser's Arab socialism also could not solve Egypt's immense problems of poverty, but it had a greater organised concern for the underdog than Sadat's policy of the 'Open Door' -- of encouraging foreign investment and the liberalisation of foreign trade."
Obviously, there was a further deterioration during Mubarak's rule, which witnessed an unprecedented level of poverty, as well as growing social inequalities. On the other hand, the foreign policy shifts have not yielded their expected benefits either, particularly the peace treaty with Israel. The masses' expectations were not met, while the Mubarak regime's pro-Israel stance further galvanised inevitable frustration among a growing number of people. For the masses, as well as for the political elites, the continued Israeli aggression in the region has been the result of the Mubarak regime's declining abilities to assert Egypt's role as the leading Arab country, a fact that is in direct contradiction to the country's role during Nasser's rule. A nation's memory is not static, and nations always have the ability to recall old memories, whether for good or bad. Accordingly, people have been longing for Egypt to reassert it leading role. What has accentuated this longing has been the impact of the media, with its live broadcasts of the Israeli aggression, while Arabs in many countries have been reiterating their desire for Egypt to play a leading role as if to remind them of the Nasser era.
Nasser was a great leader who symbolised the dreams of his nation within the historical context of his time. His experience, with all its successes and failures, is now a part of history that should be scrutinised in order to identify a more nuanced leader and a more complex era. Flaws, as with any human action, were always part of the picture, though they should not be allowed to obscure the horizon. The 1967 setback represented the peak of Nasser's mistakes, for which he admitted he was fully accountable. However, the people mandated Nasser to re-establish the army and restore Egypt's territorial integrity after the June defeat.
Despite the magnitude of the military defeat and its extensive use against Nasser for more than 40 years, Nasser's name is still linked to dignity. Some of Nasser's detractors have even decried the use of unflattering terms in describing people's attitudes towards Nasser's responsibility for the setback.
Yet, to think that it is possible today to adopt a copy/paste approach to the Nasser era, simply applying its historical experience to today, would be a grave mistake that ignored two basic facts: the absence of a comparable leader and the different historical context. Nevertheless, what is needed today is for us to re-examine the January Revolution in the light of Nasser's, and his two successors, successes and failures.
Specifically, we need to assess the reasons that led to the January Revolution. The slogans of the revolution -- change, freedom and social justice -- reflect the fact that the revolution sought to assert new rights and redeem others. Nasser's personal style of rule is among those to be categorically eliminated when we think of lessons that should not be learned from his period of rule. Under any circumstances, the call for the restoration of a charismatic leader should be rejected, and the destiny of Egypt should not be at the discretion of any single person, whatever his capabilities, orientation or good intentions.
Such cries legitimised much of Nasser's revolutionary cant, and they should not be repeated. Many of Nasser's adversaries directly or indirectly paved the way for his adoption of personal rule, only becoming aware that they had done so after the event. Today, with the ongoing media coverage of the excesses of the ousted Mubarak regime, we can easily feel a sense of d³©j³ vu, since many of the statements from the political elite remind one of previous denunciations of Nasser's rule made in the mid 1970s by people who had spared no effort in praising him during his years in power. The same kind of metamorphosis took place in the early days of the 1952 Revolution: in fact, the Free Officers only used the term "revolution" after it had been adopted by the elites, many of whom later described it as simply a military coup.
Such reflections are important as we rebuild the state and its institutions in the wake of the January Revolution, particularly for the youth and the military, the major partners in the January Revolution. Social justice is the most important objective of the January Revolution that coincides with Nasser's transformational contribution to Egyptian society, and its absence radicalised the masses into joining the revolution. More important still is the fact that social justice is the most pressing objective that we should urgently pursue.
In general, Nasser's experience is our experience, with all its ups and downs, and the younger generation should re-assess its potential contribution to a nascent future. The youth are in a better position to grasp what is needed from Nasser's experience, while keeping their distance from an exceptional charismatic leader, with all his successes and failures.