On July 26, 1956, the president of Egypt – Gamal Abdel Nasser proclaimed the nationalization of the Suez channel. In the 1960s, he became one of the most influential politicians in the Middle East. For millions of Egyptians Nasser became a symbol of the beginning of an era of true freedom and independency. He has been perceived as one of the most important leaders of the Arab world. His ideas became vital not only for Egypt but also for other Middle-Eastern and African countries. As Clevland and Bunton stated, Gamal Abdel Nasser was an independent leader the Arab world wanted to see for a long time, the leader ready to build a new society and lead it away from the imperial chains into a better future. Nasserism has currently become an ideology followed not just by the citizens but also by the leaders of other Arab states (Clevelend and Bunton 2009). This paper explains the influence of Gamal Abdel Nasser on the countries of the Middle East and on the world politics along with his image and how he was viewed in different countries. The achievements of the great Arab leader as well as the overview of mistakes he made while being Egyptian president are analyzed in detail.
The new leader emerged from the military formation called Free Officers that launched a coup on July 23, 1952 with intention of prosecuting King Farouk immediately together with some of his close surroundings. However, the king and other members of the government were exiled as Nasser was against the idea of execution. General Neguib became the head of the country, and Nasser acquired the position of the Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister, but in fact, all the governmental power was in Nasser’s hands (John 2016). Nasser and the other young officers in the Free Officers military formation were concerned with corruption within the system governed by King Faruk, foreign expansion and domination, and the level of life that most members of the society had to lead due to widespread poverty. In addition, the fact that Egypt suffered a defeat in the war with Israel in 1948 deepened the mistrust into the monarchial regime (Nedelcu 2016).
In October 1954, Nasser became a president of Egypt. Over 2500 years, Egypt did not have a ruler who was native to the country, as was Nasser. Moreover, he was a representative of common citizens, since he himself was part of the working class and came from a humble family. He addressed the people mistreated by the foreign domination and thus gave them some hope and inspired confidence in them. This was truly a turning point in Egyptian history. For the first time, a common citizen had a representation in the government and had ability to participate in the development of native country. Gamal Abdel Nasser gained such level of popularity that any other Arab leader did not have a chance to enjoy (“Arab Unity: Nasser’s Revolution”).
The Arab world viewed Nasser as a hero. He was so incredibly charismatic and influential that he managed to inspire Arabs outside of his own country to dream of a united Arab nation. Finally, the Arab world had a strong leader it always wanted to have. Nesserism was spread across Middle East and other Northern African countries bringing a set of revolutions inspired by Nasser’s ideas. For instance, in 1958, in Lebanon, a civil war between the current government and Nasserists started, and it resulted in the US forces landing in Beirut with the peace mission. Nonetheless, Nasser was the negotiator who managed to establish a political agreement between the adversaries. In spite of this, the biggest ideological expansion happened in Syria, the country that will later become a part of the United Arab Republic together with Egypt (“Arab Unity: Nasser’s Revolution”). Nowadays, Nasser remains an iconic figure within the Arab world similarly as he has been before.
In other countries, however, the perception of Gamal Abdel Nasser is less positive. In the Western world, he has been criticized for his authoritarian attitude, the violations of human rights which occurred during the time of his government, his populist ideology according to which the relations with citizens were built, and his inability to form a strong institutional system. It has been stated that the political and economic instability in Egypt in the modern times is the result of Nasser’s failure to properly incorporate the changes he was going to introduce. The institutions, which formed Syrian and Egyptian systems, were directly or indirectly created during the time of Nasser’s ruling (“How Nasser Shaped the Arab Spring”).
In media outlets of the countries that used to impose ruling over Egypt and Suez channel, namely Great Britain and France, Nasser was actively portrayed as a liar and propagandist after Egypt was defeated by Israel for the second time. Great Britain was leading a “counter propaganda campaign” (Podeh 2004). The image of Gamal Abdel Nasser in the US print media was aligned with fascist analogy. Nasser was actively compared to fascist leaders such as Mussolini or even Hitler. The appearance of such picture of the Arab leader appeared in the result of the public scare in the US after Nasser signed an arms deal with Czechoslovakia in 1955. The security of Israel, which was actively watched by the US, was under the question. This has contributed to the picture of Nasser as a fascist dictator who nourishes his ambitions of expansion. This narrative was flourishing in the US media, and it also influenced the US foreign policy in terms of strengthening connections with Israel and transferring the same view of Nasser to Israeli media (McAlexander 2011).
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Despite a depiction that closely resembled a monstrous one in the foreign informational outlets and being led by counter-propaganda companies, a high percentage of people consider Nasser’s politics to be helpful to the Arab world. This is for a reason that he imposed the idea of unity on the divided weak states of Arab world, where the European government established preventative measures against consolidation of national systems after the Second World War. The government was centralized and the majority of it was constituted by foreign elite. The Arab elite, on the contrary, was getting more and more disseminated (Nedelcu 2016).
However, after the failure in the Arab-Israeli War in 1948, the nationalist spirit came to rise. The ideas of Arabism developed in the 19th century gained popularity. It was strongly believed that the Arab world would only begin to develop and prosper after the end of foreign domination. The regaining of national consciousness was also sparked after Egypt had received its independence in 1936. Nevertheless, it was mostly a formal gesture, considering the fact that the government underwent little changes. Thus, the government representatives were viewed by the young as corrupt servants of British colonialism. The spirit of dissatisfaction was rising and Gamal Abdel Nasser managed to grasp it and become the leader of the revolutionary movement, because the society expressed its will and readiness (Nedelcu 2016).
Nasser aimed to improve a number of policies to benefit people of Egypt at least. He initiated the construction of Aswan High Dam on the Suez channel and accomplished it with the aid of USSR. The Dam started operating in 1968 and together with nationalization of the Suez Channel became a symbol of Arab peoples’ determination to dethrone the foreign government and built their own one along with a better country free of colonization. Other important achievements realized by Nasser were acceleration of industrialization, the land reform which was set against the large private estates in Egypt, and some social steps toward equality. Women were given more rights than they ever used to have before in the Arab world, including the right to vote. Nasser conducted campaigns against corruption, although they turned to be only partially successful. Representatives of the local-born middle class could now occupy the politically and economically important positions that were earlier mostly held by people of other origins. Moreover, foreigners were encouraged to leave the country. In the course of eighteen years, Nasser managed to hold his leading position despite the fact that his opponents were quite strong. Among the adversaries of Nasser’s government, one could notice communists, foreign colonizers, Muslim extremists, and former landowners who lost their estates due to the land reform (John 2016).
The decisions and actions of Gamal Abdel Nasser’s government had a strong impact on the world processes at that time. Nasser was one of the founders of the Non-Aligned Movement which appeared in the result of decolonization after the World War II. The movement was also started with the participation of the Yugoslavian leader Josip Broz Tito, Indian ruler Jawaharial Nehru, the leader of Ghana Kwame Nkrumah and Sukarno, and the leader of Indonesia. The first statements of the movement were proclaimed at the Bandung Conference in 1955, when leaders of the countries, the majority of which had recently gained independence, agreed that in the context of the Cold War, their countries should remain neutral and should not serve the interests of any big power (John 2016). Instead, they have suggested a way of future development for their countries in national self-determination, international cooperation, and equity in the world economic order, aiming to eradicate all forms of imperialism and colonialism.
In 1958, Egypt and Syria decided to unite under the pan-Arabic and anti-Communism movement and jointly agreed to merge their sovereign and independent countries into one state under the name of the United Arab Republic (UAR). The unification lasted for only three years and ended in 1961. The union was led by Gamal Abdel Nasser, who was still at the position of the president of Egypt. He concentrated the power of government completely in his hands (John 2016). Nasser hoped to involve more Arab nations into the union. In 1958, he supported the military coup in Iraq. However, since then, the American government was taking measures to discourage other leaders of the Arab world to join UAR. The neighboring Arab states started to view the UAR as a threat. In 1961, a coup in Damascus was organized by the Syrian officers, and it was followed by the withdrawal of Syria from the United Arab Republic. Despite some tensions between Syrian and Egyptian elite during the union, the two countries still maintained good relationships. In essence, Syria and Egypt united to fight together against Israel in several wars. Two of them had been fought before the union, namely in 1948 following the founding of Israel and in 1956 (“Relations with Other Nation-States”). Since that time, these two countries have been considered strong political, economic, and military partners.
With all the governmental power and support of the nations that Nasser gained during the time of his presidential term, he still made a number of mistakes which led to a shift in the mood of the masses. Egypt became a police state under Nasser’s governance. There was no room for privacy and cases of human rights violation. All the media channels had to undergo strict censorship before they could publish anything. What is more, opened mail and tapped telephone conversations were a must. Despite the fact that masses once were confident in their ability to participate in the development of the government, it soon became obvious that democracy was very limited or even non-existent during Nasser’s leadership. In the ballots, you could often see only one option to leave a vote. In addition, Nasser himself picked many of the governors. Political rivals were imprisoned or sent into concentration camps. The attempts to increase living standards of the nation were not very successful. In 1967, Egyptian troops were heavily destroyed during the six-day war with Israel, and the military situation around the Suez began to worsen. The enthusiasm of the people was decreasing and in attempt to maintain it, Nasser was leading a campaign of propaganda, trying to convince Arabs of collusion theories in his anti-Israel or anti-US speeches. Even the Egyptian textbooks used at schools often told the story of Israel leading the war against Egypt with US and Grate Britain’s support, although it has been proven to be a myth (Podeh). However, the general mood and background had changed, and Gamal Abdel Nasser had to face a failure.
Nasser made a mistake which indicated that a defeat was worse than launching propaganda campaigns and lying to Egyptians regarding the situation with Arab-Israel war. The fabricated story of the military aid for Israel from the US and the Great Britain did not have any strategically useful outcome. The army of Israel had French weapons at its disposal and underwent negotiations with the US government to reduce the liability for the attack and not to be kept by the US forces at the time of the strike. Israel was much better prepared to lead the war than Egypt or Syria as it had a better strategy. On June 5, 1967, Israel attacked the Egyptian forces. By June 10, they gained victory along with the captured Syrian Golan Heights territory (Isseroff).
After Egyptian army faced the defeat, the truth could no longer be concealed. Gamal Abdel Nasser delivered a speech on Egyptian television, which was broadcast live. In this speech, he resigned, after revealing that the US aid to Israel was a fabricated story. Back in 1956, Nasser refused to recognize the defeat, which led him to spending a vast amount of resources on military instead of investing them into social and economic development. He tried to repeat the same mistake in 1967, however, this time it proved to be fatal not just for thousands of soldiers who died in battles but also for his career (Isseroff).
In conclusion, Gamal Abdel Nasser was an important political figure of the twentieth century. He changed the way of thinking of Arab nations, contributed to their independence and self-governance, led the colonial governors away from the leadership and power, inspired the idea of unity among Arab nations, and restored national pride in the Arab world. Furthermore, he remains a popular historical figure and is considered a hero by many followers until this day. At the same time, in reality, his program was never implemented to such an extent that it would have a significant influence on the standards of living within the countries. The rates of poverty remained high and numerous people’s lives were lost in the Arab-Israel wars. Nevertheless, Nasser managed to become the most influential leader in the Arab World in the middle of the twentieth century. He succeeded in uniting at least two Arab nations with each other and held governmental power over both of them.
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