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Gamal Abdul Nasser

Gamal Abdul Nasser came from a rural notable family. His father was from a small village in Upper Egypt and worked as a postal clerk. In 1915 the senior Nasser moved to Alexandria, where on January 15, 1918, his first son, Gamal, was born. At the age of seven, Gamal was sent to Cairo to live with his uncle and to attend school. He went to a school in Khan al Khalili, the old quarter of the city near Al Azhar Mosque, where he experienced firsthand the bustling, crowded quarters of Cairo and the poverty of many in the city. Between 1933 and 1938, he attended An Nahda (the Awakening) School in Cairo, where he combined studying with demonstrating against British and Egyptian politicians. In November 1935, he marched in demonstrations against the British and was wounded by a bullet fired by British troops. Identified as an agitator by the police, he was asked to leave his school. After a few months in law school, he joined the army.

When World War II began, the Egyptian army was poorly prepared and had no plan for coordination with the other Arab states. Although there were individual heroic acts of resistance, the army did not perform well, and nothing could disguise the defeat or mitigate the intense feeling of shame. After the war, there were scandals over the inferior equipment issued to the military, and the king and government were blamed for treacherously abandoning the army.

One of the men who served in the war was Gamal Abdul Nasser, who commanded an army unit in Palestine and was wounded in the chest. Nasser was dismayed by the inefficiency and lack of preparation of the army. In the battle for the Negev Desert in October 1948, Nasser and his unit were trapped at Falluja, near Beersheba. The unit held out and was eventually able to counterattack. This event assumed great importance for Nasser, who saw it as a symbol of his country's determination to free Egypt from all forms of oppression, internal and external. Nasser organized a clandestine group inside the army called the Free Officers. After the war against Israel, the Free Officers began to plan for a revolutionary overthrow of the government. In 1949 nine of the Free Officers formed the Committee of the Free Officers' Movement; in 1950 Nasser was elected chairman.

On 22 July 1952, the Free Officers realized that the king might be preparing to move against them. They decided to strike and seize power the next morning. On July 26, King Faruk, forced to abdicate in favor of his infant son, sailed into exile on the same yacht on which his grandfather, Ismail, had left for exile about seventy years earlier. In 1954, the army overthrew King Farouk of Egypt whereby Lieutenant ColonelGamal Abdul Nasser was subsequently made President of Egypt.

Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, the Arab world continued to undergo unrest and political instability. King Faisal II of Iraq was assassinated in 1958, civil war broke out in Lebanon (in which the U.S. military had to intervene), and King Hussein called for British military to help stabilize the civil unrest in Jordan. President Nasser of Egypt became a focal point for Arab unity but was also the instigator of much of the region's trouble. Nasser pursued a militant agenda, vowing the destruction of Israel which culminated in the 1967 War with more territorial gains by Israel and the total defeat and humiliation of the regional Arab armies.

By 1970 Nasser was a tired and sick man. He had been suffering from diabetes since 1958 and from arteriosclerosis of the leg. He had treatment in the Soviet Union, and his doctors had warned him to avoid physical and emotional strain. He had ignored their advice and suffered a heart attack in September 1969. The strain of the summit was too much. He felt ill at the airport on September 28 when bidding good-bye to Arab leaders and returned home to bed. He had another heart attack and died that afternoon.

When news of Nasser's death was announced, Egyptians took to the streets by the tens of thousands to express shock and grief at the death of their leader. In spite of the doubts that many Egyptians may have felt about the path on which Nasser had taken Egypt, the sense of loss was overwhelming, and there was great uncertainty about the future. It has been argued that Nasser's rule was not a great success; that there were almost as many landless peasants in 1970 as when the Free Officers took over in 1952 because it was the wealthier peasants who had profited and still controlled the villages; that the army had done no better in 1967 after fifteen years of the revolution than it had done in 1948 or 1956; that nationalization had caused inefficiency and corruption; and, finally, that repression was so pervasive that Egyptians were less free than they had been in the past. It was under Nasser that Egypt finally succeeded in ridding itself of the last vestiges of British imperialism; that Egypt attempted to steer a middle course between the Western countries and the Soviet Union and its allies and in so doing became a founder of the Nonaligned Movement that exists to this day; that Egypt moved out of the isolation the British had imposed on the country and assumed a leadership position in the Arab world; and that Egypt became the "beating heart" of pan-Arabism and the symbol of renewed Arab pride. Internally, Nasser destroyed the political and economic power of the old feudal landowning class. Education and employment opportunities were made available to all Egyptians regardless of class or sex. Women were encouraged to get an education and go to work as part of the national struggle for economic progress and development. After the revolution, women were at last granted the right to vote. Nasser emphasized social programs to improve the living and working conditions of the peasants and workers, such as the electrification of villages, worker housing, minimum wage laws, decreased working hours, and worker participation in management. Industrialization intensified, and the country became less dependent on the export of cotton. The economy grew at acceptable rates in spite of some problems. After the June 1967 War, however, the military expenditures began to absorb about 25 percent of Egypt's gross national product (GNP). Also, the population increase that had begun in the 1940s began to overtake the economic advances. It is true that Nasser never really opened up his rule to popular participation. He once admitted that he had become so used to conspiracy, by necessity, that he tended to see a conspiracy in everything, a view that prevented him from conducting an open rule. He wanted to establish a basis of support for his regime but one that would not require the regime to give significant power to the public. He felt that an ideology such as socialism might accomplish this, but at the same time he feared that the commitment would be to the ideology and not to him. Thus, when Nasser died in 1970 he left behind an imperfect and unfinished revolution.

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Page last modified: 09-07-2011 02:38:45 ZULU