Gamal Abdel Nasser
In this article, we shall explore the history regarding Gamal Abdel Nasser, who was the leader of Egypt from 1952 until 1970. We shall discuss the rise of Nasser politically, his military background, his role in the Free Officers, as well as his policies once in power. Specifically, we will examine his domestic policies, which include but are not limited to economic reform under various socialist/nationalist positions. In addition, we shall discuss the importance of Arab nationalism as a political ideology, and how this was evident in Nasser’s foreign policies. Furthermore, we will also examine his relationships with other international states such as the United States, the U.S.S.R., his ties to allies in the region, as well as his tension with states that he did not have ties to.
The Rise to Power
Gamal Abdel Nasser has been viewed as one of the most important leaders in the Arab world. In fact, according to scholars, “During the period from 1952 to 1967, Gamal Abd al-Nasser was the embodiment of what the Arab world wanted to be: assertive, independent, and engaged in the construction of a new society freed of the imperial past and oriented toward a bright Arab future. His initiatives were copied in other Arab states, and so dominant was his stature and such tens as Nasserism and Nasserites became common political currency” (Cleveland & Bunton, 2013: 280). His ideas were emulated by many other political leaders throughout the Middle East and North Africa.
In order to understand the rise to power for Nasser, it is critical to think about the domestic political situation in Egypt in the years leading to his role in government, as well as the ideas permeated throughout society in the 1940s and 1950s. In the late 1940s, Britain maintained control over Egyptian affairs. Supporting King Fuad earlier, in 1942, Britain forced the King to give the power to his son, King Faruk, who also had to share this power with Wafd Party. The Wafd, historically quite critical of Britain and the King, were now in the government halls of power, and did little to address citizens grievances. As a result, many Egyptians were quite upset with this, both that a popular democratic movement was willing to give up some of their ideals for political power, as well as the fact that heading into the 1950s, Britain was still in control of the politics and policies of the Egyptian state. Add this to the fact that there were stark economic differences between economic classes. While they offered “independence” in name, they still had a great deal of influence in Egypt, and continued to control the Suez Canal.
But along with British influence, there were also many other domestic problems in Egypt. For example “[b]y 1952 about 0.4 percent of Egyptian landowners possessed 35 percent of the country’s cultivable land. At the other end of the scale, 94 percent of landowners possessed a mere 35 percent of the cultivable land” (Cleveland & Bunton, 2013: 281). As scholars explain: “[t]he massive inequality in land distribution created growing wealth for the large landowners and led to the impoverishment of the small proprietors, who were forced, with greater and greater frequency, to sell their holdings to meet their debts. The landless peasants, who neither owned nor rented land but relied solely on their labor for income, faced even harsher conditions in the years after World War II. Making up more than half of the rural population, they saw their wages constantly depressed as their numbers decreased” (Cleveland & Bunton, 2013: 281).
As a response to these domestic economic conditions, little political changes in the 1950 elections, and Britain’s interest in continuing to control Egypt, on July 23rd, 1952, a group of military officers carried out a coup d’etat against the government. Amongst those military officers was the leader of the coup, Gamal Abdel Nasser. During his youth, Nasser was very active in protesting British presence in Egypt. Shortly after high school, Nasser went to study at the Egyptian military academy (Cleveland & Bunton, 2013), where, following the end of his studies, served in Sudan, as well as the Western Desert. In addition, Nasser was an active officer in 1948, when Egypt, as well as other states, fought Israel after Israel declared itself as a state.
Nasser as Leader of Egypt
After coming to power in the coup, the Free Officers set up the Revolutionary Command Council (RCC), and then began setting up various initiatives, which included but were not limited to ending British imperialism, taking any allies of Britain out of influence, re-orchestrating the current landholder situation in Egypt, fighting foreign influence in the country (which included economic power), as well as calls for justice, notions of democracy, along with a stronger military (Cleveland & Bunton, 2013). As we shall see, some of these goals were more successful than others.
On the issue of democracy, after coming to power, Nasser not only rid of King Faruk (by exiling him), but they also ended the 1923 constitution, and prohibited political parties, other than Nasser’s Revolutionary Command Council (RCC). Furthermore, the RCC stated that former office members (from 1946-1952) were unable to run again. Thus, there were little direct electoral opposition from former members of government. However, to say that Gamal Abdel Nasser was unchallenged politically in Egypt would be a mistake. Despite the purging of political power, Nasser, at least early in the 1950s, had to deal with the Muslim Brotherhood.
Nasser did have discussions with leaders from the Muslim Brotherhood, but many of them were unhappy that Nasser was not implementing their ideas into his governance; their ideas of laws were not supported by Nasser, who did not want to move towards a shariah based system. Nasser was in a bit of a difficult position because he not only understood the power and influence that the Muslim Brotherhood wielded in Egypt, but there were many Free Officers who had closer ties to the Islamist organization (Cleveland & Bunton, 2013)
The situation that seemed to push Nasser to remove the Brotherhood from Egyptian society was the accusation that the Muslim Brotherhood was behind an assassination attempt on Nasser in 1954. However, after the failed assassination plot in 1954, Gamel Abdel Nasser officially banned the Islamist organization, as well as killing six of the top figures in the Muslim Brotherhood (Cleveland & Bunton, 2013).
Along with attempting to dissolve the Muslim Brotherhood as a political organization in Egypt, Nasser also tried to consolidate political powers against any other political organizations. For example, in the 1956 Constitution, the President was given special powers, powers that came at the expense of checks and balances; the legislature’s influence and power was weakened (Masoud, 2014). Along with giving himself more powers in the 1956 Constitution, “In 1958 Nasser passed the so-called emergency law, which restricted political freedoms–and it remained in more or less continuous application from 1967 to 2012” (Masoud, 2014: 454). These moves gave Gamal Abdel Nasser strong authority in Egypt, something that he attempted to use to further his ideology and vision as it related to the direction he wanted to take Egypt.
Domestic Politics of Gamel Abdel Nasser
Nasser’s domestic policies were very much predicated on the idea of Arab Socialism. Nasser and the RCC went forward with a number of new policy initiates. To begin, the government, under Nasser, nationalized many of the private sectors. For example, the government controlled banks, construction, insurance companies, hotels, communications, etc… Here, the government also began offering land redistribution for Egyptians. Specifically, “[i]n 1961 the allowable landholdings per family were reduced to 100 feddans, and in 1969 to 50 feddans” (Cleveland & Bunton, 2013: 295).
Along the lines of nationalization, “the government required new industrial firms to be licenses, barred any person from being a director of more than one corporation, placed thirteen public utility companies under the state audit department, nationalized the large banks, [and] subjected most newspapers and publishing houses to the National Union…” (Goldschmidt, 2004: 136). However, these initial laws seemed to only be the beginning of Nasser’s nationalization and redistributions of land and wealth. For example, as Goldschmidt (2004) explains, the following July Laws of 1961 went much further on these fronts. Looking at the July Laws of 1961,
“[f]eatured among those laws were (1) the regulation of most industries; (2) the nationalization of such businesses as textiles, tobacco, pharmaceuticals, shipping, and all banks and insurance firms not already under state ownership; (3) income redistribution, whereby no Egyptian could receive an annual salary above ₤E5,000 (then worth US$11,500) and incomes above ₤E10,000 were to be taxed at 90 percent; and (4) land reform, under which the maximum individual landholding was reduced from 200 to 100 fed dans, with the excess to be distributed among the landless peasants, and all future peasant loans would be free of interest” (Goldschmidt, 2004: 136).
And because of this, it has been argued that “[t]he real July Revolution took place in 1961–not in 1952, as Egyptians claim” (Goldschmidt, 2004: 136).
In addition to the high level of state nationalization of industries, there were new investments in agriculture (Cleveland & Bunton, 2013), something that Nasser believed was important if Egypt would have balance within the economic classes. In fact, he was quite upset with the gross economic imbalances between his country, and thus, this was one way to help resolve the discrepancies in the country.
Foreign Policy of Gamel Abdel Nasser
Gamel Abdel Nasser may be best known for his foreign policy positions, particularly with regards to Britain, and then the U.S.S.R. and the United States during the Cold War. In fact, looking at when Nasser came to power, it was evident that even before the 1952 coup, and then well afterwards, the Free Officers and the RCC were very interesting in the relations between Britain and Egypt. There was tension of Sudan, where Nasser called for Britain to remove any influence in the country. Succeeding, Nasser now turned to Britain’s presence in Egypt. Nasser was upset that Britain still have troops in the Suez Canal. And thus, the two sides agreed in 1954 that Britain would leave the base no later than in twenty month following the agreements (Cleveland & Bunton, 2013). And Britain did in fact remove their troops in 1956.
However, what happened shortly after ignited a major international relations conflict that involved Britain, France, Israel, Egypt, the United States and the U.S.S.R. At the time, Egypt was looking to bolster their military. And while they wanted weapons such as those the U.S. was giving to allies in the reign (namely Turkey, and the Shah in Iran), Nasser was not treated the same way due to his criticism of the Baghdad Pact, an agreement that the U.S. offered a number of states in the Middle East–which would give them support in exchange for the alliance with the United States and in turn against the Soviet Union. And because these weapons were not available to Nasser, he attempted to acquire them through the Soviet Union.
Meanwhile, Nasser was looking to construct another dam at the Suez Canal, and was looking for funding. He approached the World Bank in hopes that they would support this project. In fact, the World Bank did approve the loan in 1955, but then, in 1956, the United States decide to change their position on the loan. This upset Nasser very much. In fact, he viewed this action as a sign an insult (Range, 1959). And, as a response “On July 26, 1956, the fourth anniversary of King Faruk’s exile, Nasser appeared in Muhammad Ali Square in Alexandria where twenty months earlier an assassin had attempted to kill him. An immense crowd gathered, and he began a three-hour speech from a few notes jotted on the back of an envelope. When Nasser said the code word, “de Lesseps,” it was the signal for engineer Mahmud Yunis to begin the takeover of the Suez Canal” (Library of Congress, in CountryStudies.us).
This action infuriated Britain, as well as France. Furthermore, it also upset Israel, who saw Nasser as a threat. Thus, “While efforts to reach a negotiated settlement of the crisis were under way, Britain, France, and Israel concluded a secret agreement for joint military action against Egypt. Each country had its own reasons for approving the action, but they all shared a common desire to overthrow Nasser. Their agreement was activated on October 29, 1956, with an Israeli strike into Sinai” (Cleveland & Bunton, 2013: 290). Then, shortly after, Britain carried out a bombing campaign, and then, France and Britain sent in paratroopers. However, these actions upset the United States and the Soviet Union, who, through the United Nations, were able to organize and establish a cease-fire agreement (Cleveland & Bunton, 2013).
As a result, Britain, France and Israel ended their campaign, and Britain retreated from the Suez Canal for good. In addition, Gamel Abdel Nasser’s reputation in Egypt and much of the Middle East increased greatly, as he was seen as fighting off the colonialist powers of Britain and France, as well as political rival Israel. Moreover, against what the United States wanted, Egypt improved their ties with the Soviet Union, who were not only willing to criticize the invasion on behalf of Egypt, but also supplied Egypt with weapons after the war. This was seen as a clear victory for Nasser (Cleveland & Bunton, 2013), who then used this event to further advance his political objectives of anti-colonialism and Arab nationalism.
Nasser and the Soviet Union
Despite the military support by the Soviet Union, Nasser did not see them as an ally, but rather, as another actor looking to push its own agenda onto Egypt and neighboring states. He was concerned about the lack of religion in the Soviet Union’s message, and was also upset that they did in fact sell weapons to Israel during (and also prior to) the 1948 war in Palestine (Range, 1959). Moreover, to him, the Soviet Union was also acting as an imperialist state; in 1956, they quelled a revolution in Hungry, something that did trouble Nasser (Range, 1959).
Nasser and the United States
To Gamel Abdel Nasser, the United States was not viewed as the imperialist state that was Britain or France, for example. However, Nasser was also skeptical of the United States’ activities and interests in the region. There were in fact many attempts by the United States leadership to get closer to Nasser and Egypt. This is not only with attempts to have states in the region sign the Baghdad Pact–that would show the U.S. the states’ willingness to back America and not the U.S.S.R., but U.S. leaders tried to build relationships with Gamel Abdel Nasser. Just one example of this is with U.S. President John F. Kennedy, who was in office from January 20th, 1961 until his assassination on November 22nd, 1963. Kennedy viewed Nasser as a leader who wanted to help his people, and wanted to move away from any outside influence, whether it was the United States or the Soviet Union. And Nasser, in turn, did make some outreach to the U.S., with correspondence between Kennedy and Nasser. Furthermore, some called for more aid to Egypt, whereas others were not sure about whether it would have positive effects for U.S. interests (Little, 1988) (For a detailed discussion about Kennedy’s relationship with Nasser and Egypt, see Little, 1988).
Nasser, not willing to cut off any ties with the United States, but also not looking to give into their demands for shutting out the Soviet Union, took a “positive neutralism” position with America (Cleveland & Bunton, 2013). However, again, this does not mean that Nasser had not issues with the U.S. government. In fact, as Range (1959) writes at the time of Nasser’s power,
Nasser makes three complaints agains the United States. First is the oft-heard one that she has become an accomplice in the perpetuation of European colonialism due largely to her desire to appease European allies she needs in the cold war…His second complaint is that the United States is a major supporter of the Zionist movement and is, therefore an accomplice in the “monstrous injustice” of the creation and perpetuation of Israel. United State policies, he asserts, have been enormously influenced by American Zionists whose pressure on both the White House and Congress have been remarkably effective. In her well-meaning attempt to help solve the problem of the European Jews, therefore, the United States has created a worse problem in the Middle East. Nasser’s third charge against the United States is that American policymakers are stupid…American policy-makers, Nasser has stated repeatedly, has failed to understand the psychological complexes of the Arabs–and of most formally dependent peoples, for that matter. They have failed to grasp both the deep-seated yearning of such people for national equality and their almost pathological suspicion of anything that appears even remotely as an attempt to maintain supervision or control over them” (1008-1009).
Nasser’s Neutralism During the Cold War
While he clearly took issues with United States foreign policy, and while he was clearly hesitant to get close to the Soviet Union (and their communist ideology and how Muslims in Egypt might interpret it), it is important to note that Nasser did not dismiss either the United States or the Soviet Union entirely. Gamel Abdel Nasser needed both countries in order to increase his own political and military position in the Middle East and North Africa. As Ferris (2012) explains: “Transforming Egypt into the preeminent power in the region required a strong military nourished on a steady diet of advanced weaponry; a healthy, independent economy; an ideology of transnational appeal; and a reliable source of leverage on the world stage. The Cold War provided just the constellation of opportunities for the fulfillment of all four conditions. Soviet geostrategic needs supplied the rationale for arming the Egyptian military, US interests demanded the pacification of Egypt through economic aid, decolonization offered a suitable context for the development of a specifically Arab doctrine of national liberation, and the stiff competition between the superpowers afforded ample scope for manipulation and maneuver” (5). So, while Nasser made sure to not become fully reliant on either side (Ferris, 2012), he did use both countries for his own person gain, something that could be argued also took place by the US and USSR towards Nasser and Egypt.
Nasser did a great job of gaining benefits by both the United States as well as the USSR. Ferris (2012) goes on to say that
to maximize foreign aid and political clout in the context of the Cold War it was necessary to steer clear of dependence on either of the two com- peting powers, and instead to play one off against the other. For Nasser everything depended on navigating the tightrope of neutralism. Bereft of oil, short on arable land, and weighed down by a rapidly growing (and mostly illiterate) population, Egypt operated on narrow margins even without the added burden of hegemonic ambitions. Although its rulers had two major cards to play, the first—Egypt’s cultural and politi- cal centrality—was intangible, while the second—Egypt’s strategic real estate—was nonnegotiable. In order to maximize the potential of this mixed hand, considerable dexterity and resourcefulness were required (5).
He clearly stated his position of neutrality through his role in the non-aligned movement. However, as we shall see, as the years progressed, Nasser’s actions in Yemen and then in Israel began to push the United States away, given their alliances with Israeli, and also Saudi Arabia.
Gamal Abdel Nasser and Yemen
While Gamal Abdel Nasser was viewed as one of the most influential leaders of the time–and possibly ever–in the Middle East, scholars have argued that some of his foreign policy decisions–particularly in Yemen–are what led to a decline in his international influence, and part of the factor that led to a weak showing against Israel in the 1967 Six Day War.
The civil war in Yemen–that turned international–was a result of varied rival states looking to cement their own positions as top powers in the Middle East. Namely, Saudi Arabian leaders and Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser both felt they could influence the domestic politics in Yemen, and in turn help spread their own respective ideologies, and increase their webs of power in the region. More specifically, there was a coup against the existing monarchy of Muhammad Al-Badr in Yemen. Those who carried out the overthrow put in place a model of governance modeled off of Nasser and the Free Officers in Egypt. This importance of Arab nationalism was essential to Nasser as he advocated this position in Egypt and elsewhere in the region. However, despite Nasser’s acceptance of this news, monarchies in the Middle East were less than thrilled. Specifically, Saudi Arabia began providing support to Zaidi Shia forces in the north in an attempt to reinstall al-Badr to power (Ferris, 2015). There was a concern that what happened in neighboring Yemen might potentially happen elsewhere (Ferris, 2012).
Gamal Abdel Nasser’s military leadership was divided on the ease of military intervention in Yemen. For example, one official states the ease in which Nasser could show control in Yemen. However, Mahrizi, a senior military leader, completely disagreed. As Ferris (2015) writes: “Yemen, he reminded the general, had consumed four Turkish divisions in the 19th century. No force would ever suffice. In their native mountain habitat, the warlike tribesmen of the north, armed with knives and rifles, were more than a match for Egypt’s trained infantrymen. The Egyptians’ tanks would be useless in the highlands of Yemen, and their air force ineffective. They could expect ambushes everywhere. The 1,200 miles separating Egypt from Yemen, meanwhile, would make resupply of the fighting forces a logistical nightmare.”
Nasser decided to not heed the advice of Mahrizi, and went into Yemen. This decision proved to be quite costly. Nasser sent more and more troops in, to no avail. They were unable to crush the rebellion. Not only that, but other factors continue to increase the difficulties for Nasser. Ferris (2015) writes:
Three factors drove the escalation. First, the Saudis were able to send supplies to Imam al-Badr’s men over Yemen’s porous borders faster than the Egyptians could interdict them. To prevent supplies from reaching royalist supporters, the Egyptians deployed considerable air power to Yemen and launched airstrikes on Saudi territory to the north and on the British-controlled Aden Protectorate to the south.
Second, Yemen’s winding mountain roads afforded seemingly unlimited opportunities for ambush. Keeping arteries of communication open required the deployment of considerable manpower to the surrounding countryside and reliance on airdrops to supply remote outposts.
Third, the mere declaration of a “republic” over the ruins of al-Badr’s imamate was a far cry from the establishment of a centralized modern state capable of containing Yemen’s powerful centrifugal forces. Accordingly, an army of Egyptian administrators descended on Yemen, where they succeeded mainly in replicating Egypt’s police state.
In terms of military numbers, “Over the course of the five-year war, from 1962 to 1967, Nasser lost more than 10,000 men, squandered billions of dollars, and painted himself into a diplomatic corner from which the only way out was through war with Israel. As Nasser himself would realize by the war’s end, Yemen was to Egypt what Vietnam was to the United States — and what Afghanistan was to the Soviet Union, what Algeria is to France, and what Lebanon is to Israel” (Ferris, 2015). Nasser himself called it his “Vietnam” (Ferris, 2015). While he tried to find a solution to ending Egypt’s involvement in Yement, attempts at diplomatic agreements did not materialize. Moreover, it was costing him through relationships with the United States (Ferris, 2015). Furthermore, it hurt him greatly domestically in Egypt, both in terms of Egypt’s economy and public opinion. Thus, because of the costs in soldiers, financially, and in reputation, Nasser had to find a way to retreat (Ferris, 2015). His answer to this would be to focus on Israel (Ferris, 2015).
Cleveland. W.L. & Bunton, M. (2013). A History of the Modern Middle East. Boulder, Colorado, Westview Press.
Goldschmidt Jr., A. (2004). Modern Egypt: The Formation of a Nation State, Second Edition. Boulder, Colorado, Westview Press.
Ferris, J. (2015). Egypt’s Vietnam. Foreign Policy. April 3, 2015. Available Online: http://foreignpolicy.com/2015/04/03/egypts-vietnam-yemen-nasser-sisi/
Library of Congress (in CountryStudies.us). The Revolution and the Early Years of the New Government: 1952-1956. Available Online: http://countrystudies.us/egypt/32.htm
Little, D. (1988). The New Frontier on the Nile: JFK, Nasser, and Arab Nationalism. The Journal of American History, Vol. 75, No. 2, (September 1988), pages 501-527.
Masoud, T. (2014). Egypt, Chapter 11, in The Middle East, Thirteenth Edition, Edited by Ellen Lust. Washington, D.C.: CQ Press.
Range, W. (1959). An Interpretation of Nasserism. The Western Political Science Quarterly, Vol. 12, No. 4 (December 1959), pages 1005-1016.