Gamal Abdel Nasser

Gamal Abdel Nasser (1918-1970) was an Egyptian political leader and hero of much of the Arab world. His devotion to Arab unity and a strongly anti-imperialist ideology came to be called "Nasserism."

The family of Gamal Abdel Nasser were well-to-do Moslem peasants who lived in Beni Morr near Asyût (Upper Egypt). His father was a post-office employee. Gamal was born on Jan. 15, 1918, in Alexandria. As early as his grammar school years, he participated in demonstrations against the English occupation of Egypt. In 1937 he entered the military academy at Cairo; he left the following year with the rank of second lieutenant.

In 1943, after several years of service in Upper Egypt and the Sudan, he became an instructor at the military academy and then at the army staff college. During 1948-1949 he took part in the unsuccessful campaign against the new state of Israel. In this conflict he commanded a position from the "pocket of Faludja," south-west of Jerusalem, where three Egyptian battalions were surrounded for more than 2 months by Israeli forces. Nasser resisted gallantly with his troops until the cease-fire was declared. This was the only comparatively successful Arab exploit of the war.

Overthrow of King Farouk

For many years Nasser had been in contact with some of the army officers who were indignant over the corruption in the royal Egyptian government. These young radicals were strongly nationalistic, but they could not agree on an ideology or on an alliance with other forces. However, under the impact of the defeat by Israel in Palestine, the secret "movement of free officers" was organized (1949), with Nasser as one of the principal founders. This group overthrew King Farouk on July 23, 1952.

Behind the new government, nominally headed by Gen. Mohamed Neguib, Nasser was chairman of the Revolution Command Council (which held the actual power), headed the new "Liberation Rally," and then was deputy premier and minister of the interior. Meanwhile, Neguib had begun to alienate most of the officers by his involvement in efforts to reestablish parliamentary rule. Early in 1954 Nasser displaced Neguib, taking the title of prime minister in April (and in 1956 he was elected first president of the Egyptian republic).

The regime was at first pro-Western and respected the free-enterprise system. It obtained an agreement for the English to surrender control of the Suez Canal in July 1954. However, the Nasser government reacted strongly to the West's attempting to organize Egypt into an anti-Soviet bloc and yet refusing to support Egypt against Israel (Israeli troops raided into Gaza in February 1955). Then, in the face of the West's refusal to supply arms unless Egypt entered into a coalition under the direction of Turkey and Iraq (Baghdad Pact, February-April 1955), Nasser moved toward neutralism.

Nasser became friends with Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru of India and President Tito of Yugoslavia, participated in the "Third World" Conference at Bandoeng in Java (April 1955), and purchased arms from Czechoslovakia. America's unwillingness to finance the High Dam of Aswan, a project essential for the development of Egypt, led Nasser to nationalize the Suez Canal in July 1956. A combined Anglo-Franco-Israeli expedition (October-November 1956) tried to reestablish control over the canal, but it failed, thanks largely to American and Soviet pressures to withdraw.

United Arab Republic

Nasser then began to strengthen his neutralist position. Under request from the Syrian Baath party, which was fearful of a Communist seizure, he presided over the incorporation of Egypt and Syria into the United Arab Republic (Feb. 1, 1958). But on Sept. 28, 1961, Syria seceded from the union. Nasser, convinced that this was a reactionary move, instituted several socialistic measures in Egypt, free enterprise being deemed unable to promote a self-directed development.

The accomplishments of the Nasser regime (agrarian reform, mobilization of the people, industrialization, vast social measures) were carried out despite both internal and external opposition. The leftist elements were integrated into the regime; the rightists were put under control. Abroad, support was obtained from the Soviet bloc of nations without breaking all ties with the West. The crisis of the third war with Israel, in June 1967, reaffirmed Nasser's popular support and led to a certain amount of internal liberalization.

Nasser was a pragmatic politician, faithful above all to Egyptian patriotism. He disliked violence and extreme revolutionary activities. Although he was attracted for a time by the dream of political hegemony over the Arab world, his desires were nevertheless tempered by the needs and circumstances of the moment. His primary goal was always the development of Egypt into a modern nation with no sacrifice of complete independence. He died on Sept. 28, 1970.

Further Reading on Gamal Abdel Nasser

Nasser's political views are presented in his own work, The Philosophy of the Revolution (1959). Joachim Joesten, Nasser: The Rise to Power (1960), contains useful details but has many errors and is incomplete. A fine book is Robert Stephens, Nasser: A Political Biography (1971). Miles Copland, The Game of Nations (1969), is very useful.

Solid studies of Nasser's Egypt are available. They include Jean and Simonne Lacouture, Egypt in Transition (1956; trans. 1958), an excellent account of the early phases of the revolution; Tom Little, Modern Egypt (1967; originally published as Egypt in 1958); and P. J. Vatikiotis, The Modern History of Egypt (1969), with a useful bibliography. Anouar Abdel-Malek, Egypt, Military Society: The Army Regime, the Left and Social Change under Nasser (1962; trans. 1968), is a notable sociohistorical analysis. Peter Mansfield, Nasser's Egypt (1966), is a readable general survey. For background on foreign affairs, particularly Arab affairs, see Malcolm H. Kerr, The Arab Cold War, 1958-1964: A Study of Ideology in Politics (1965), and Maxime Rodinson, Israel and the Arabs (1967; trans. 1968). For further background see P. J. Vatikiotis, ed., Egypt since the Revolution (1968), and the chapter in Jean Lacouture, The Demigods: Charismatic Leadership in the Third World (1969; trans. 1970).