In search of a great Arab leader?

Forty years after his death, no Arab leader has been able to fill the role left vacant by Gamal Abdel Nasser.

gamal abdel nasser
Crowds of mourners take to the streets of Cairo during the funeral of Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1970 [GALLO/GETTY]

Forty years after the death of Gamal Abdel Nasser, the late Egyptian president, his position remains unfilled: No other leader has emerged as a symbol of pan-Arab unity and the struggle for independence from Western influence.

Nasser, who was the president of Egypt between 1956 and 1970, wielded great influence on the Arab intelligentsia and masses alike. His weekly speeches brought Arab streets to a standstill as the people listened, mesmerised, to his every sentence broadcast on Egyptian radio.

His words resonated in the alleyways of neighbourhoods across Arab cities and towns – at times in defiance of pro-Western governments in countries such as Jordan and Saudi Arabia, whose regimes viewed him with fear and suspicion.

His pull was so strong that his positions defined people’s outlook and moved them to oppose what they viewed as complacent and impotent governments.

There has never been an Arab leader in contemporary Arab history who was as capable of moving the Arab street or shaping Arab political thought as Nasser.

For many, then and today, Nasser personified anti-colonialist, modern Arab political thought and that made him one of the most influential world leaders of his time. His advocacy of Arab independence and support for revolutionary movements around the world placed him and the Arab world at the forefront of representing the emerging countries of the South against an imperialist North.

Product of his era

But Nasser’s unique place in modern Arab political history was not due solely to his personal attributes as a leader. Sure, he exuded charisma, confidence and power and his dazzling smile helped to penetrate hearts as his words empowered the millions of Arabs yearning for independence and freedom.

But, he was very much the product of an era – an era that helped him to loom large in a way that no leader from the South can in our time of pervasive US hegemony and the delegitimisation of resistance movements.

The 1952 revolution against the Western-backed Egyptian monarchy that eventually brought Nasser to power reflected a broader Arab and international trend towards rejecting European colonialist powers and the regimes they installed to maintain their influence in their former colonies.

It was influenced by – and in part a product of – the pan-Arab nationalism that had swept the region and the establishment of post-colonial nation states and governments that sought independence and greater control of their nation’s natural resources.

From Latin America to Africa, the struggles of national liberation movements raged – bringing new hope for a more equitable order to replace the harsh and unjust era of Western colonialism.

Friends and allies

Nasser’s emergence was not unique or isolated from the emergence of other nationalist leaders who challenged Western control over people and natural resources.

Patrice Lumumba, the Congolese prime minister, engaged in a fierce battle against the Belgian colonialists, while Osagyefo Kwame Nkrumah, the prime minister and then president of Ghana, fought against the global capitalist system’s attempts to control his country’s wealth.

In Cuba, revolutionaries battled and defeated the US-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista – offering new friends and models to Arab revolutionaries, including Nasser.

Nasser understood that these struggles were connected and forged alliances and friendships with Nkrumah, Fidel Castro, the Cuban leader, Che Guevara, the Argentine revolutionary, and General Vo Nguyen Giap, the Vietnamese army officer and politician, among others.

Like many other nationalist revolutionaries during the Cold War era, Nasser initially sought to avoid the pull of both competing superpowers. But, like others, he gradually moved towards the Soviet Union for support.

The international polarisation brought on by the Cold War both helped and hurt the nascent post-colonial states. On the one hand they became pawns in a merciless struggle between two superpowers. On the other, the Soviet Union became a source of political and military support and training as the national liberation movements found themselves confronting growing US influence.

Etched on Arab memory

But even before Nasser and other leaders thought of turning to Moscow, the socialist concept of nationalising private industries and national wealth had been embraced by the national liberation movements.

Nasser, who was as resentful of social inequality during his youth as he was of Western dominance, moved to nationalise the Suez Canal in what became the defining moment of his defiance of Western pressure and the Israeli-British-French invasion that followed.

While true that the withdrawal of the invading powers was partly a sign of the advent of US power and the end of French and British influence, Nasser’s refusal to submit etched his name in the collective Arab memory in a way that contrasts sharply with the perceived subservience of current Arab heads of state.

But Nasser’s nationalisation drive did not mean that he was a puppet of the Soviet Union. Keenly aware of the destructive effects of the Cold War power struggle, he joined others in seeking a third path for the countries of the South.

In 1961, Nasser, along with Josip Tito, the president of Yugoslavia, Jawaharlal Nehru, the Indian prime minister, and Sukarno, the president of Indonesia, established the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) to articulate an independent voice for the post-colonial nation states.

But it was not solely Nasser’s nationalisation of the Suez Canal or his support for national liberation movements that gradually galvanised old and new Western powers against him.

From the onset Israel saw Nasser’s leadership as a threat. After its establishment, Israel relied mainly on weak regimes either supported or installed by the West to ensure that there would be no struggle in support of the Palestinians.

But Nasser’s leadership of the Arab world – along with the existence of nationalist regimes in Syria and Iraq – fractured what Israel viewed as a barrier protecting it from the rejection of the Arab people who supported the Palestinians.

Greatest blow

When Fatah was founded, its leaders – most notably the late Yasser Arafat – looked to Nasser for support, which he provided.

But it was also the conflict with Israel that dealt Nasser and his brand of pan-Arabism its greatest blow. In 1967, the man who raised the motto “only force can defeat what has been usurped by force” was defeated in the first major confrontation between Israel and the Arabs since Israel was established.

That defeat marked the beginning of the decline of pan-Arabism and undermined the strength of popular opposition to pro-Western governments across the Arab world.

But Nasser survived this and regained popular support when he made a moving speech accepting responsibility for the defeat and declaring his resignation.

The reaction was swift. People in Egypt and capitals across the Arab world took to the streets to demand that he stay. The sense of devastation testified to the place Nasser occupied in Arab hearts.

The Egyptian leader consented and remained in power until he died at the age of 53 in 1970.

Dismissing democracy

Younger generations of Arabs are not as captivated by Nasser’s legacy as their parents and grandparents. Some do not understand the nostalgia that has poured forth in Arab newspapers on the occasion of the anniversary of his death. They feel that they have inherited defeat and that the glory of the past has brought neither victory nor democracy.

That is partly because the rulers that followed dismantled many of the achievements of Nasser and other leaders of popular movements from that era.

But it is also partly because Nasser and other pan-Arab leaders failed to establish democratic institutions and were themselves guilty of repressing – to different degrees – dissent and opposition.

Democracy was not the strongest component of pan-Arab thought. It was virtually absent from most of the writings of that era, in which struggles for liberation were placed ahead of consolidating democracy.

In hindsight, as many pan-Arab thinkers have since concluded, democracy may have been the key component that would have allowed the legacy of their struggle to take root in Arab culture and the secret to its continuity.

But it would be wrong to diminish or dismiss the lingering legacy of Nasser and his era on the basis of that failing.

And while Nasser remains a great inspiration, his legacy must also teach us that we should not place our hopes in the emergence of a larger-than-life leader to be our saviour.

Lamis Andoni is an analyst and commentator on Middle Eastern and Palestinian affairs.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.

Source: Al Jazeera