“Nasser was the hero of the Arab world”

Fifty years ago, on September 28, 1970, the Egyptian Gamal Abdel Nasser, whose name is still associated with the nationalization of the Suez Canal, died. For the Arab street, the man embodies the freedom and regained dignity of the Egyptian people.

On July 23, 1952, a group of high-ranking soldiers calling themselves the “Movement of Free Officers” came to power in Cairo and overthrew the corrupt monarchy, the puppet of the British imperialists. Nasser, who was the junta’s strong man, will rule Egypt with an iron fist for almost eighteen years. Passionate modernist, champion of pan-Arabism and co-founder of the non-adapted movement, the man has deeply influenced the imagination of Egyptians and the Arab world despite his authoritarian leadership and his numerous military failures. Go back to the extraordinary courses of the Egyptian raïs with Alain Gresh¹, a specialist in the Arab world. Interview.

RFI: On October 1, 1970, at Nasser’s funeral in Cairo, all the great powers of the day were represented by Kosygin of the Soviet Union, the French Prime Minister Jacques Chaban-Delmas, King Hussein of Jordan, and all the heads ofArab states. How was the deceased perceived by his peers, many of whom had fought against him during his lifetime ?

Alain Gresh: Nasser’s funeral was primarily an Egyptian popular funeral. There were millions of people taking to the streets to communicate with whom they considered their undisputed leader. Popular emotions were intense with a human tide that we have never seen since. We are talking about 5 million people who would have accompanied the funeral procession. Internationally, tribute was unanimous in greeting the greatness of the deceased. The outlook for the Egyptian president in Western chancelleries had changed over the years.

In the 1950s, Nasser was the West’s dead man. When did this perception change?

In fact, Nasser has long been considered an enemy in Europe, especially by the French and British, because he questioned European domination over his country and more broadly over the Arab world. The British still occupied Egypt when Nasser took power in 1952, while the country had been formally independent since 1922. He demanded real political and economic independence for his country and in the midst of the Cold War he had refused to withdraw. side with the Western powers by not signing the Baghdad Pact with Britain and the United States, which Iraq, Turkey, Pakistan and Iran had yet to sign. The man was particularly disgraced in France, where he was accused of being a “Hitler on the small foot”, a phrase we owe to Guy Mollet, leader at the time of SFIO², because of his support for the Algerian separatists. The French view of Nasser changed in the 1960s with the power of De Gaulle and the independence of Algeria. We are then at the beginning of the Arab policy in France, in whose name Paris will go so far as to condemn the Israeli aggression in 1967. This development had created conditions favorable for new relations with Egypt, even though they did not exist . was not free of tension at any point.

According to observers at the time, Nasser was not much wanted by the right because of the help he had provided to the Algerian national liberation front, nor because of his hatred of Israel. Will this hatred not be the cause of the blindness he displayed during the Six-Day War, which will be a terrible defeat for the Raisers??

In my opinion, it’s a bit sketchy to talk about “hatred of Israel”. The firing of Israel was common to the entire Arab world after the defeat suffered by the Arab armies in the first war against Israel in 1948. As for Nasser, when he comes to power, he does not discuss the Israeli issue. a priority issue. The Nasser regime’s hostility to the Hebrew state will grow when this country, in alliance with France and Britain, pursues an anti-Egyptian policy. Opposition between the two countries was certainly strong, but that did not stop them from starting secret negotiations in 1953 on the border issue and on the Palestinian issue, which was central to the Arabs. It was Israel’s irreconcilability with the issue of returning Palestinians to their homes, from which they had been driven, that snatched at the bud any possibility of understanding between the two countries. With regard to the French left, there was no common position for all the left parties in relation to Nasser. While it is true that the French Socialists, who had entered into a strategic alliance with their Israeli counterparts, were wary of Nasser, this distrust was not shared by the Communists, who were as important a political power in France as the Socialists in the United States. 1960s-70s. The Communists had condemned Nasser for his violent attacks on the Egyptian Communist Party after he took power in the early 1950s, but after the Bandung Conference in 1955 and the nationalization of the Universal Suez Canal Company in 1956, will have a much more positive view of man. The Communists were quite pleased with its desire to assert a policy of national independence and its alliance with the Soviet Union.

No leader has marked the Arab world as much as Gamal Abdel Nasser, who came to power on July 23, 1952.“You wrote. How can we explain the prestige that Nasser had in the Arab world, despite his military defeats against Israel and Yemen and his other mistakes??

Nasser crystallized for a period of time the ambition of the Egyptian people and wider the Arab people for political, economic, diplomatic independence … The raïs themselves were the result of ten years of struggle by the Egyptian people and of the Arab people for this independence. Man was able, at a fateful moment in history, to represent it, to symbolize it, especially through the nationalization of the Suez Canal. We cannot imagine today the extent to which this decision to take over the Channel was a shock, perceived as an unimaginable challenge to European dominance. Following the proclamation of the Egyptian government on July 18, 1956, announcing the nationalization of the Suez Canal, there were spontaneous demonstrations of support throughout the Arab world. The reprisals did not take long. The joint operation led by Israel, France and Britain will defeat Nasser militarily, but it will be a diplomatic victory for the latter with the UN soon condemning military action under joint pressure from the United States and the United States. USSR. Nasser had become the hero of the Arab world.

It seems to me that Nasser’s prestige is as much linked to his anti-colonial bravado as his economic actions and reforms that modernized Egypt.

In the coming years, Nasser will in fact use his prestige to develop a dual strategy at regional level, on the one hand by creating the United Arab Republic, which brings together Egypt and Syria, and on the other hand at national level, by building an independent economy based on heavy industry. He launched the country’s electrification project, made possible by the construction of Aswan High Dam. At the same time, he strives to respond to a range of ambitions for the well – being of the entire population by launching a new phase of agricultural reform, which began when he came to power in 1952, then by nationalizing the economy. with very important rights for workers. It will establish a progressive social policy that expands health and education to include layers previously deprived of it. Very soon, however, these ambitions were to be crushed by diplomatic and military failures, especially against Israel in 1967 and Yemen, where the expeditionary force sent in 1962 to come to the aid of the Allies was put into a bloody and long civil war. . The United Arab Republic is disbanded following the withdrawal from Syria. Internally, nationalization of the economy as it is done generates a heavy and inefficient bureaucracy that leads the country to recurring economic crises. Despite these mistakes and these mistakes, the legend of Nasser continues in Egypt as in the Arab world in general. Keep in mind that the candidate for a party claiming Nasserism finished third in the Egyptian presidential election in 2012. This is proof that Nasser remains an admired figure, a model for the Egyptians.

In 1954, Nasser was the victim of an attack in Alexandria, committed by an activist of the Muslim Brotherhood, as this influential religious organization had supported the rebellion of the free officers against the monarchy. As their paths parted?

The movement of “free officers” included men with very different sensitivities, ranging from Marxist activists to Muslim fundamentalists close to the Muslim Brotherhood. However, this religious brotherhood had been banned during the monarchy. When he was in power, Nasser restored her to his rights and tried to rally her to his regime. Their paths were very quickly separated on the political-economic project of the new government, which wanted to be pan-Arab and socialist. Nasser himself was a believer, but the laws published by his regime had no religious dimension as such. They noted the de facto secularization of Egyptian society. After the assassination attempt against Nasser, he again decided to ban the fraternity. The movement’s activists were severely oppressed, subjected to torture, and some of them were executed, as was the case in 1966 by the movement’s ideologue, Saïd Qutb. It must be said that Nasser, on the question of the inhuman treatment of opponents, had nothing to envy other Arab dictators.

Nasser was also one of the founders of the unadjusted movement. But that did not stop him from getting closer to the Soviet Union. One has the impression that lack of alignment with him was rather a facade and does not stem from a deep conviction.

This is not correct. Nasser had attended the Bandung Conference in 1955 and placed great emphasis on his connections with the Indian Nehru, the Yugoslav Tito or the Chinese Zhou Enlai who were present at this rostrum. In his book Profession of Faith Philosophy of the Revolution, he defines his diplomacy as a shaky strategy in three circles: African politics, pan-Arabism, and international politics. In the years 1950-1960, his African policy consisted of supporting the struggles against colonialism across the continent, from Algeria to South Africa, via Congo and Cameroon. He had invited the anti-colonial movements to establish branches in Egypt. Some of the mainland liberation movements were established in Cairo.

Would you say that Nasser was a dictator? If so, what sets him apart from a Saddam Hussein or a Mouamar Gadhafi?

I would say that unlike a Saddam Husayn or Gaddafi, Nasser enjoyed the respect and trust of his people. This, of course, did not prevent repression, often in retaliation for real maneuvers of destabilization, assassination attempts, and Western interference, which the regime tried to combat as best it could. But adherence to Nasser’s project, which consisted of giving the Arabs their dignity back, was true to his persona, as evidenced by the strong human flow of millions of Egyptians who followed the raisers on the day of his funeral to his place. funeral. On the other hand, there were only a hundred people at the funeral of his successor Anouar el-Sadat, though hailed by Westerners.

LAlain Gresh is the director of the online newspaper Orient XXI and former editor-in-chief of Le Monde diplomatique. SFIO or the French branch of Workers’ International (1905-1969) was the former name of the French Socialist Party.