Commemorating Nasser: His legacy and its uses

It has been a week in many ways dedicated to the memory of Gamal Abdel Nasser. In the last seven days, Egyptian radio, TV and press, state-run and private, have given tremendous attention to remembering in the eyes of some — reselling in the eyes of others —Nasser 44 years later.


Starting 27 September, the eve of the shocking death of one of the nation’s most heroic and/or disputed leaders, announcements were made in the press, as by radio and TV channels, that special coverage would be dedicated to the 44th anniversary of the end of Nasser.

“A day for the leader of the nation”, “Remembering the leader and the dream”, and “A leader who lives with us despite his death” were some of the key lines in the promotion announced.

The special coverage on radio included the airing of rare recordings of songs produced during the Nasser years (1956-1970). Also aired on radio and TV were extracts from his speeches, with firm prominence given to a few minutes out of hundreds of hours where Nasser criticised the leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood.

The papers, throughout the week, carried classic Nasser pictures: upon the announcement of the nationalisation of the Suez Canal; the launch of construction of the Aswan High Dam; meetings with farmers and workers and with world leaders.

Special pages, dedicated in a way almost unprecedented, reminded readers of a leader who enjoyed the support of his people and whose mission was to bring prosperity to the nation he led.

On 1 October, the day of the burial of Nasser in 1970, it was time for pictures of the massively attended funeral, with Egyptian men and women dressed in black and grieving bitterly over the loss of the leader they supported for better or worse.

It was a funeral all papers agree — including those owned by members of the business community, who in many ways are opposed to what Nasser stood for, at least socially and economically — was one of the largest attended events in Egypt’s 20th century history, with six out of a then-population of 33 million Egyptians present to pay their respects for a man whose death at 52 until now prompts speculation over its exact cause, including theories of conspiracy and effective assassination.

Nasser commercialised, oversimplified?

“It was the end of a fair to resell Nasser; or let me say an element of what Nasser was, which is something much bigger and much more encompassing than what he was made to come across as,” argued Ayman El-Sayyad, journalist and commentator.

On 28 September, “when the off-putting commercialisation of one of the deepest and most sincere moments of the history of this nation had started,” El-Sayyad said, he tweeted his dismay: “Is there a way to protect the dead from what the living are doing to them?”

On 1 October, El-Sayyad, who grew up admiring Nasser and joined the grief over his death when still an early teenager, tweeted again, this time quoting poet Nizar Kabbani’s verse that accused some of those who came to Nasser’s funeral of having brought with them the daggers they were ready to stab him with. “The allusion here is made to those politicians who despised Nasser but were all the same willing to pretend they followed in his footsteps,” El-Sayyad explained.

“I thought he was being commercialised and really oversimplified; not that I liked him or could ever do so, but still,” said a 22-year-old Alaa.

A woman whose grandfather, associated with the Muslim Brotherhood, was jailed and humiliated during the Nasser years and whose other grandfather’s property was largely sequestrated, Alaa grew up in a house “where not a single kind word was said about Nasser; he was called all the appalling things anyone could ever think of: a killer, a butcher, a narcissist and a president who brought his country defeat.”

But as Alaa recalled this week during a family conversation, none of the above oversimplified what the man did, even if it condemned him.

“We did not like him. No, we hated him, and we will, but we knew he was not just a man who was there to put the Muslim Brotherhood in jail — even if my own grandfather and many of his friends were in there — nor to pick fights with the US, even though he entered into one at some point,” she said.

An image summoned, a path discontinued

“Nasser has been summoned not as an idea, not as dream and not as a national leader who pursued development and independence,” said lawyer and commentator Mohamed Essmat Seif Al-Dawla.

But as Seif Al-Dawla hastens to add, this week’s accentuated tribute to the memory of Nasser is not the first time this legendary leader has been summoned.

“Obviously, this time, as the case has been before with the current authorities, it was all orchestrated to try and suggest a certain fidelity between the ruling regime and Nasser, with the objective of promoting this regime as one that championed the people,” Seif Al-Dawla argues.

There are other moments, he adds, when Nasser is summoned in a much more spontaneous way, as was the case in Tahrir during the days of the 25 January Revolution when some demonstrators carried his picture, “if only to signal the hope for a truly independent country.”

Seif Al-Dawla acknowledges, meanwhile, that it is not just the regime that is overdoing the attempt to draw a parallel in the minds of people between the rule of Nasser and the current regime.

“I know that some Nasserits are also onboard with the game. Their argument is that it is better to try and prompt the current regime into following Nasserism than to leave it to be overtaken by interest groups that surrounded Mubarak and that would, if they could, turn this regime into a replica of the Mubarak regime,” he said.

Seif Al-Dawla is finding it hard, nonetheless, to find any deep similarities between the current regime and Nasser’s rule.

“Even in terms of his confrontation with the Muslim Brotherhood, his premises were different. He had a concept about the political makeup of the country, where there was no room for the Muslim Brotherhood, nor the communists,” Seif Al-Dawla argued. He added: “I am not attempting to excuse his mistakes. All I am saying is you cannot reduce all of Nasser, and the Nasser years, to the confrontation with the Muslim Brotherhood.”

“When I compare the two regimes on relations with the US or Israel for example, and I am doing this acknowledging regional and international political developments, I see no similarity between Nasser and the current regime. When I look at the economic aspect of the speech delivered by [President Abdel-Fattah] El-Sisi in New York, I find no resemblance to the economic line that Nasser was offering,” Seif Al-Dawla argues.

The fact that Nasser has been so reduced is not just a function of a public relations machinery that is trying take advantage of the legacy of Nasser to serve a limited image lifting operation, Seif Al-Dawla adds. It is also, he says, a function of the declining state of Nasserist parties and groupings.

The older Nasserists, Seif Al-Dawla suggests, failed to “build a coherent second generation. So when one looks around one is confronted only — and unfortunately — with older Nasserists, as opposed to, say, with the Marxists or Islamists.”

Mistakes overlooked, deliberately

And as much as admirers of Nasser refuse to accept his reduction to “the man who put Muslim Brotherhood leaders in jail and should have had them all eliminated,” as some have been suggesting, Nasser’s critics are not impressed by what they say is “the promotion” of Nasser’s pitfalls.

Lawyer and human rights activist Ahmed Hishmat finds it “very disturbing that almost half-a-century after his death, Nasser’s big mistakes are not approached with a critical eye.”

According to Hishmat, these “big mistakes” include a substantial record of human rights violations and limitations on democracy.

“Half-a-century [after Nasser’s death], the current regime is trying to make us believe that liberties and rights have to be compromised to prioritise socio-economic rights. This is something that Nasser failed to sustain during his life,” Hishmat said.

He added: “Not to mention that the current rule has a very long way to go before it reaches the level of commitment to socio-economic rights that is associated with the rule of Nasser.”

According to Amir Ramsis, writer and director of the two-volume film “Jews of Egypt”, which documents the decline of Egyptian Jews in the 1950s and 60s, as part of the wider exodus of Egyptians of foreign origin, as well as foreigners in general, the downsides of Nasser’s nationalism are still to be broached.

Leaving the mistakes unaddressed is tantamount to leaving them unacknowledged, Hishmat argues. Or worse, “to have them repeated over and over again.”

Borders and limitations

In the week’s “festivities” there was very little said about Nasser’s foreign policy parameters, or his outreach to liberation movements in Africa, or Egypt’s one-time leadership of the Arab world. Nasser’s influence in such matters was hardly subject to mention.

“Things have changed a great deal. The world we are living in today is very different from the one that was there when Nasser was alive,” says political science professor Moustafa Kamel El-Sayed.

According to El-Sayed, the world, the region, Arab countries and Egypt have all changed, “way beyond all attempts to draw parallels between now and the way things were during the Nasser years.”

Two key changes, he said, are relations with Israel and relations with the US. “It is all very different. We now have a peace treaty with Israel … and our relations with the US, and with the financial organisations, are central,” he explained.

A third key fact, he added, is that the dream of Arab unity is no longer a centrepiece of political life. “It is very sad really, but the dream now is more of keeping some Arab states from being dismembered,” he said.

For Egyptians and for Arabs, El-Sayed argued, Nasser would be remembered as a leader who inspired change and who pursued a dream.

According to Seif Al-Dawla, this dream could still be partially pursued — especially when it comes to national independence and social justice.

According to Amr El-Choubaki, a prominent political scientist, regardless of whether some still pursue what Nasser pursued, meaning his dream, the aim should not be to “clone Nasser.”

“Nasser had a dream and a comprehensive vision. This is something to find inspiration in, but not something that could be copied. It is undoable anyway, and it would be very unfortunate to even try.”

He adds that it was an impossible exercise 44 years ago, when Nasser had just died, and would be all the more impossible today, perhaps more than ever before.


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