Fifty years since the death of Gamal Abdel Nasser, controversy over the legacy of the charismatic Egyptian president who fought for Arab unity is raging in Egypt as deep divisions found in the Middle East.
Best known for his everyday charisma and pan-Arab populism, he caught up with listeners with his radio broadcasts and inspired immense pride inside the North African country and far beyond its borders.
Nasser was hailed as a bulwark against Israel, colonialism, and poverty for much of his 16 years in power, first as prime minister and then president.
Early successes included thwarting, albeit thanks to American influence, an invasion of Britain, France, and Israel in 1956, after Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal.
Critics, however, saw him as a symbol of populist authoritarianism, economic folly, and geopolitical carelessness, which significantly compromised his position when he died on September 28, 1970.
To mark 50 years since his death, his eldest daughter, Hoda, published a book that provided new insights into the life of the divisive leader.
“Nasser: Secret Archives” includes excerpts from his journal as he fought the Arab-Israeli war in 1948 and exchanges with US President John F. Kennedy as well as Soviet ruler Nikita Khrushchev.
“The only thing I did was tell the events as they happened, and explain the principles he followed by showing documents he wrote while serving in the army and during his presidency,” she told AFP.
“It’s up to people how they perceive his rule.”
A senior officer in the army, Nasser, led a group of officers who overthrew the British-backed King Farouk in a 1952 military coup, later known as the “July 23 Revolution”.
He served as Prime Minister from 1954 to 1956, when he became President, until his death.
Under his rule, Nasser abolished the privileges of a land-owning aristocracy that had thrived under the old monarchy, and pushed socialist policies including free education and substantial subsidies.
Although very popular, his efforts to create social equality became increasingly difficult to fund.
He initiated expensive mega-projects such as the construction of the Aswan High Dam and nationalized the Suez Canal, a step that led to the 1956 attack by Israel, Britain and France, which was forced to withdraw under American pressure.
“He increased people’s sense of dignity, and that’s what Arab people miss when they remember Nasser,” said Mustapha Kamel, a professor of political science at Cairo University.
Political parties were abolished under Nasser, while the authorities launched a serious breakdown of opponents, including the Muslim Brotherhood.
And Nasser ushered in decades of military rule, marked by expanded emergency powers and the army’s significant, often opaque, influence in the economy.
“As he sought to abolish classicism, his regime initiated the concept of police state and instilled a culture of fear of authority,” said Said Sadeq, a professor of political science at Nile University.
Kamel added: “He did not believe in democracy and used to declare it openly.”
“He is a historical leader who represented key functions in the 1950s to the 60s – from the struggle against colonialism and the search for social equality to the undermining of political and economic liberalism,” he added.
In his public speeches, Nasser adopted a populist tone and used simple Arabic to openly pamper the colonial powers and Israel.
‘Still paying price’
But his criticism on the international stage sometimes constituted carelessness, according to critics.
In 1962, Nasser sent troops back to revolutionaries in Yemen against Saudi Arabian royalists, draining Egypt’s resources in a year-long bog.
But the decisive blow to Nasser was defeat in the Six-Day War in 1967, in which Egypt, Jordan and Syria lost key territories.
Israel occupied Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula before retreating 15 years later, but still occupies the West Bank and parts of Syria’s Golan Heights.
“It was, after all, a disaster, and the Arab world is still paying the price,” Sadeq said.
Arab leaders have for years called on Israel to withdraw to its pre-1967 borders to allow for the establishment of a Palestinian state.
Nine years after Nasser’s death, his successor, Anwar Sadat, signed a peace treaty with Israel.
The 1979 Pact was the first Arab-Israeli peace agreement.
Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, who hailed Nasser as a “patriot”, said in an interview in 2018 that Egypt could not have been at war with Israel forever.