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Egypt's Nasser: Beneath the nostalgia, a repressive ruler Open in fullscreen

Amelia Smith

Egypt's Nasser: Beneath the nostalgia, a repressive ruler

Sisi has taken advantage of much of the repressive infrastructure laid down by Nasser [Getty]

Date of publication: 27 September, 2016

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Comment: Wednesday marks the 46th anniversary of the death of Nasser - a leader who established the aggressive police state we see at work in Egypt today, writes Amelia Smith

On 23 July 1952, Gamal Abdul Nasser headed the Free Officers from within the army, overthrew the British-backed monarchy in charge of Egypt and established a Republic. It marked the beginning of an anti-imperialist agenda that still defines the late president's rule, 46 years after he died.

If that day laid down the groundwork for what was to come, the pinnacle of his anti-colonial stance came four years later, on a warm evening in late July in Egypt's northern city of Alexandria.

As the president of Egypt addressed the Egyptian people, a code word was hidden in his speech - Ferdinand de Lessops, the architect of the Suez Canal. Upon hearing "Lessops", the army stormed the offices of the Suez Canal Company and set about seizing and nationalising the waterway.

It's easy to see why this won Nasser so much approval from his people. One hundred and twenty five thousand Egyptian men had died building the Suez Canal, yet it was the two colonial powers controlling it - Britain and France - who were taking home the revenues and receiving the oil shipped through the waterway.

In an act that highlighted his popularity and support for the move, crowds carried Nasser on their shoulders back to the Presidential Palace. In fact there were many public displays of affection which made it hard to deny Nasser's popularity - some five million people attended his funeral, an event that lasted for 40 days.

Humiliating the old colonial powers in his country gained Nasser respect not just at home but abroad and across the region people rallied behind his anti-colonial fervour.

Iraq's Free Officers Movement usurped their monarchy in 1958; Gaddafi, who had been expelled from school for organising a strike in support of the Egyptian leader, ousted Libya's pro-western king, expelled some 25,000 Italians occupying the country and kicked out US and British military bases from the country.

Humiliating the old colonial powers in his country gained Nasser respect not just at home but abroad

Nasser supported liberation movements from Algeria and Yemen to the Congo and it is said that even Che Guevara visited the leader for inspiration. His supporters remember that he fought in the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, that he championed the Palestinian cause, and forgave him for losing so much territory during the Six Day War. 

It is Nasser's anti-colonialist, pan-Arab, pro-Palestinian rhetoric which tends to dominate obituaries and reflections on the leader, and when he is judged according to these policies it’s easy to see why he gained so much support on the Arab street.

He was a man from humble beginnings - the son of a postal clerk in a village on the Nile Delta, and introduced land reforms and free education programmes; he built schools and improved access to medicine, jobs and housing.

But behind his nationalist,"man of the people" gloss, Nasser was essentially a repressive leader who did not oversee any free and fair elections during his 14 years in power and who crushed opposition to his rule. After an assassination attempt in 1954, which he believed was orchestrated by the Muslim Brotherhood, Nasser denounced the Supreme Guide Hassan Al-Hudaybi and imprisoned and executed members of the movement.

It is Nasser's anti-colonialist, pan-Arab, pro-Palestinian rhetoric which tends to dominate obituaries and reflections on the leader

He used censorship and state propaganda to silence and discredit his enemies, and established the aggressive police state we see at work in Egypt today.

Nasser may have overthrown the British-backed monarchy in the early fifties but he was essentially an army officer who militarised the country and laid the groundwork for the deep state - the rule of the army that not even the 2011 revolution could dethrone.

Every president of Egypt after Nasser had a military background and it eventually became clear that Mohammed Morsi, who did not, had never stood a chance. 

Nasser was essentially a repressive leader who did not oversee any free and fair elections during his 14 years in power

Other policies implemented by Nasser still have an impact today. When Egyptians are sentenced to death their papers are passed on to the Grand Mufti of Al-Azhar who decides which rulings accord with Islamic law before issuing the final verdict. As Egypt's highest religious authority, the rulings they proffer give the regime legitimacy for placing hundreds of Egyptians on death row.

Today Al-Azhar is seen as an institution that works closely with whichever strongman is in power, and it is Nasser who is responsible for consolidating its relationship with the government. In 1961 he passed Law 103, which placed Al-Azhar's budget under state control, ensured the Ministry of Religious Endowments oversaw the institution and that the Grand Sheikh would be appointed by the president.  

As the current military-backed ruler of Egypt, Sisi, sought to consolidate his rule over Egypt in the aftermath of the Brotherhood's downfall, many compared him to the late Gamal Abdul Nasser. There are obvious similarities - censorship, the crackdown on opposition for example - but there are too many differences to make this a credible comparison. Nasser did not liberate Palestine, but neither did he work with Israel in the way Sisi does.

Egypt's latest military strongman may not have followed in Nasser's footsteps, but he has certainly taken advantage of much of the repressive infrastructure laid down by the leader.

 
Amelia Smith is a London-based journalist who has a special interest in Middle East politics, art and culture. She is editor of The Arab Spring Five Years On. Follow her on Twitter: @amyinthedesert

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff. 

  

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