Two days ago was the 95th anniversary of President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s birth (1918 – 1970). The man who said, “He who cannot support himself, cannot make his own decision,” in his historical attempt to grant Egypt complete independence in its decision making.
At any occasion, or even without an occasion, lovers and worshippers of Nasser visit his grave, pay their respects and cry on an age of Arab pride and the betrayed project of a welfare state that sided with the marginalised.
Two days ago, hundreds went to where he is buried in Cairo and cried. A few other million Arabs between the Atlantic Ocean and the Arab Gulf did as well. They all remembered with agony the loss of a leader that represents all what they miss nowadays, or this is what they believe in.
On the other hand, almost equal numbers of others would do the exact opposite as a reaction, whenever Nasser is remembered. For those who hate him, he represents oppression, and all the sufferings and miseries the region currently experiences are a result of his irrational dreams. At least according to his opponents.
They accuse him of founding the police state mentality, destroying the economy, unfair wealth nationalisation, losing the Sinai Peninsula and above all dragging the region into a miscalculated confrontation with the west, which in total is actually true, or at least almost.
But let us ask ourselves this question! Has there been anyone since Muhammad Ali (1805 – 1848) who did better than Nasser? The answer is no! I don’t mean that this is what Arabs deserve or that he is the role model. I am just trying to put historical and social facts in their rational context.
For those who might not know enough details about Muhammad Ali’s land reforms, it was actually one of the bloodiest and most violent land confiscation process from farmers in Egypt’s modern history, whom they had to work as slaves in their own confiscated lands, or face being killed, or if they were lucky, whipped.
For those crying for the days of monarchy, remember that the concept of Izbah and Weseyya – private village – was first introduced by Khedive Ismail and later developed by his son Tawfik in the 19th century, where the made up class of land lords (foreigners, Turks and top loyal officials) were Gods that owned lands, decided peoples destinies, and acted as judge jury and executioner with an open license from the Khedive or the kind.
In his masterpiece book Rule of Experts, Timothy Mitchell refers to a group of French scholars in the 1930s describing the Izbah as “a private village, where the proprietor is the absolute master. The houses are his private property…” In his own words Mitchell describes the Izbahs as “concentration camps”. This is the kind of glory and economic performance you are nostalgic for.
A few decades later Nasser and his group The Officers Movement came to power by a military coup in 1952. Often this is described with exaggeration as a revolution. Many corrections have been made to this nightmare that the average Egyptians had to live for 150 years. He simply wanted to give land back to the people. However, I agree it was not a well thought act and witnessed significant violations.
Nadia Ramses Farah in her book Egypt’s Political Economy: Power Relations in Development, describes the Nasserist attempt to establish a welfare state: “A free public educational programme was extended to cover all phases of education including universities. The government initiated other programmes for public health, where it committed itself to provide free healthcare to all those who cannot afford private treatment. It also subsidised a system for basic food commodities, especially bread, where low prices of most produced food commodities were made fixed.
The regime also committed itself to employ all graduates of vocational schools and universities. Minimum wages and generous labour laws were granted for securing workers’ economic rights. All of these strategies participated in narrowing down the forms of income inequality. The ratio of poor families has fallen from 35 percent in 1958-59 to 27 in 1964-65 for rural families, and from 30 percent to 27.8 for urban families – same year. In addition to this, the ratio of wages to national income increased from 38 percent in 1950 to 50 in 1967-68.”
Well, now back to those whipping Nasser on his anniversary, do not be deceived by the elegant old pictures of beautiful royal Egypt and the “golden oldies” films. It was just the tiny upper class in a state of extreme injustice. Do not, as well, undermine the achievements of Nasser’s state despite all mistakes, as there was no leader that sided with the poor as much as he did in the past few centuries.
And remember that he represented a serious threat to the imperial powers, where several western intelligence agencies had to coordinate a whole operation called “Hunting the Turkey”, in order to bring him down in whatever way possible (according to declassified western intelligence archives). Having a strong Arab state was the last thing they desired to happen.
And for those worshipping Nasser, you are sadly trapped in an imaginary world of a savior that will come down from heaven and build a promised glory for you. The deification of Nasser or any ruler is actually a chronic disease Egypt and the Arab World suffers from. Nasser was just a human being with a dream of justice and equality. He made many mistakes, intolerable mistakes, but what makes him different is that he was the only one so far true to the dream he had and the people he sided with.