Nasser in 2012
Like Hamlet's dead father in Shakespeare's play, the ghost of former president Gamal Abdel-Nasser haunts the Egyptian political scene, but to what end, asks Ahmed El-Tonsi
Click to view caption|
Egypt's former president could whip up frenzied but friendly masses. Below, he met Che Guevara and visited Syria. His funeral, 42 years ago this week, remains one of the biggest in history
EU foreign policy representative Catherine Ashton made a statement recently about the late Egyptian president Gamal Abdel-Nasser that was stunning in terms of its content, particularly since the West in general has not had a positive judgement or opinion on Nasser. Moreover, the statement came at a time when some of our own political analysts and leaders have been bitterly criticising Nasser, ascribing to his era all the negatives that eventually led to the current debacle in Egypt and particularly his establishment of military rule.
Surprisingly and almost unrelated to the topic of the rest of her speech, Ashton said that "the whole of Europe respected Abdel-Nasser because he was an honourable opponent who took over the presidency of Egypt in the darkest hours of Egyptian history. Even if he lived for Nasser, Egypt was a superpower greater than Russia in the Middle East" at the time. A similar comment about Nasser's unaccomplished promise and continued legacy was made by US academic Margaret Litvin in her recent book Hamlet's Arab Journey, where she says that "Nasser's death in 1970 cast the dead leader as Hamlet's father, a ghost whose moral demands could neither be fulfilled nor ignored."
In fact, the ever-present legacy of Nasser has come to the forefront yet again in terms of a popular longing for a leader with genuinely charismatic leadership qualities. Such a leader would be able to make the masses follow his leadership, as Max Weber, the theorist of such leadership, said "out of a sense of duty and blindly submit their loyalty to him". A shortage of leaders, let alone charismatic ones, has been cited by many commentators as a global characteristic of contemporary politics. Yet, in the Egyptian case such a deficiency cannot only be used to explain the current state of nostalgia for a leader of this sort, since the leaderless 25 January Revolution has exposed the weaknesses of the country's political elites and their inability to amass broad popular support.
Moreover, the revolution's events and their aftermath have illustrated the massive need for new cadres with new competences and a new vision. As such, the scarcity of leaders and the rising need for their emergence have both accentuated the feeling of nostalgia for a charismatic leader in Egypt. In other words, this popular longing for a leader is partially related to the masses' aspirations and dreams of a better life in the aftermath of a popular revolution that represented a new era in Egypt's history.
Great leaders have always personified the aspirations of their nations at particular moments in their history. Nasser was an archetypal example of such a leader, who reflected the specific historical era of Egypt at the time in its different local, regional and global contexts. As a leader, Nasser's uniqueness stemmed from his embodiment of the dreams and aspirations of the vast majority of Egyptians, or more specifically of those representing the mainstream regardless of their social class, religion, or identification with different political trends. According to Gabriel Ben-Dor of the University of Haifa in Israel, "Nasser's acute sense of what the people wanted and needed allowed him to communicate with them better than practically anyone before him or since. This is a rarity in political history that should be properly appreciated."
For many Egyptians, a new leader would be the only panacea for the current disarray prevalent across the whole political landscape. Moreover, such a leader should be able to redeem the long-denied rights of much of the population to a share in the established sociopolitical order. Nasser's history and his legacy with its ups and downs should be seen as experiences that should be impartially scrutinised in order to extract the critical success factors as well as the inherent inadequacies that sometimes let down Nasser's steps in the pursuit of transforming Egypt.
Some of these experiences are relevant to the current political scene, and immense lessons could be learnt from them despite the massive changes that have taken place since Nasser's death 42 years ago. Two dimensions of the Nasserite experience deserve further analysis in terms of their interest to the present political and economic status quo.
The first dimension of that experience is the building of national consensus. Political scientist Noha Al-Mekkawi in her pioneering work "The Building of National Consensus in Egypt's Transition Process" concludes that "the Egypt of the liberal age had three competing world views, each with its own set of values: a cosmopolitan liberal, a cosmopolitan socialist and an Islamic world view. What came out of that quagmire of dissent was a populist, nationalist experiment where Nasser created a synthesis of all of Egypt's rival identities and forged a consensus" from them.
This consensus rested on Nasser's charismatic personality, populist policies and the record of success he achieved in addressing the national cause, pan-Arabism, foreign policy issues, and so on. According to French writer Jean Vigneau, Nasser's "approval rating was above 80 per cent for the duration of his career". This popularity enabled Nasser to rule the state relatively unchallenged and to withstand inevitable setbacks, including the catastrophe of June 1967. Despite such an unparalleled national consensus behind Nasser's rule, coercive measures were also used by the various state security apparatuses against the regime's actual or potential opponents. Furthermore, Nasser did not succeed in establishing a political organisation that could continue his legacy. Accordingly, Nasser's national consensus was an ephemeral one that was essentially linked to his own physical presence at the top of the regime.
Today, the newly elected president should thoroughly ponder the pros and cons of the Nasserite experience of building national consensus, and people should see this as the foundation for the democratisation process, if not for the establishment, of the new state. President Mohamed Mursi's need to build a broader national consensus has been necessary, particularly given the narrow majority he gained in the elections that led to his presidency. During his first 100 days in office, Mursi has had a mixed record in terms of national consensus building. Obviously, the ongoing political polarisation, as reflected in the recent presidential elections, means that Mursi will need to start a form of national reconciliation that can help to reintegrate the country's many political trends within the new political system.
Engaging all the political trends in the political process is of extreme importance, and this needs to be genuine rather than consist of the current selective and ceremonial gestures of involving some elements as consultants or assistants. The monopolising of the drafting of the new constitution by the Islamists while excluding many other competent stakeholders is a serious mistake that should be personally addressed by Mursi. Paradoxically, Mursi and his camp have deepened the social polarisation in the country, pushing the other political trends to form new pacts or coalitions.
Nasser's populist policies were the cornerstone of his project for social transformation. Such policies emanated from his deep conviction of the need to establish social justice, which was neglected by almost all the different governments that ruled the country prior to the 1952 Revolution. It is no wonder, then, that some of Nasser's earliest decisions, like the agrarian reform law, were intended to address the growing inequalities in Egyptian society before 1952. Some commentators have described these "welfare-state" policies as the Nasserite social contract and highlighted the fact that they were a kind of trade-off between socioeconomic services and loyalty to the regime, citing the food subsidies as an example of such measures.
However, to think of Nasser's populist policies or even his redistributive measures as simply tools intended to buy off dissent would be to obscure the actual transformation that took place among the middle and lower social strata as a result of such policies, including the expansion of free education and healthcare. Such redistributive measures broadened the popular base of the Nasserite regime, and a measure like the agrarian reform law had immense sociopolitical repercussions in rural Egypt. Many such measures and policies were not immune to criticisms of inefficiency and mismanagement, and the fact remains that Nasser's major orientation was centred on the mainstream of Egyptians who wanted to have their share of national wealth.
Many have said that the insidious retreat of the Egyptian state from its previous role during the 1960s was one of the causes of the January Revolution. Social inequalities had become enormous during the last years of Mubarak's rule. Accordingly, social justice has become a high priority for the newly elected president, and it has something of the same urgency that it had for Nasser in the early days of the 1952 Revolution. Yet, the issue of social justice has not so far received the priority it deserves from Mursi, even though it was a cardinal slogan of the January Revolution.
Some 42 years after his death, Nasser continues to cast a shadow on the political scene. This is not just in terms of the endless debates among his admirers or detractors, since instead Nasser's legacy, as mentioned by Israeli academic Meir Hatina, has become "a historical prism for interpreting the country's present experience. Like any myth appropriated from its archaic timeframe, it makes its presence felt in relation to abiding concerns that the political structure has been unable to resolve."