Gamal Abdel Nasser

(January 15, 1918- September 28, 1970)


Nasser was born in Alexan­dria on January 15, 1918, to a relatively poor family, and he was deeply affected by the poverty in which the people of his neighborhood lived. When he was three, his father, a minor gov­ernment functionary, was transferred to the postal administration of Asyut, a town in Upper Egypt, where he had been born in 1888. Later, when he discovered the widespread corrup­tion among well-to-do families, he equated richness with corruption and contended that wealthy people scould not possibly be honorable or patriotic.


After he seized power, he began to take pride in his humble origin and identified himself with the "common man," for whose welfare and dignity he dedicated his life. "I always glory," he said, "in being a member of a poor family . . . and I take an oath that I will continue to remain poor until death."


Ref.:Nasser, "Man Ana" [Who Am I?], al-Musawwar Yuqaddim Jamal 'Abd ai-Nasser [al­Musawwar Presents JamaI 'Abd ai-Nasser], ed. Nasim Ammar (Cairo, 1957), p. 9.


Nasser was sent away from home to continue his schooling because of his father’s frequent transfer from one town to another. He went to live first with an uncle in Cairo to complete his primary education. When he was eight, his mother died, and he went to Alexandria to live with his mother's family and pursue his high school education. After he lost his mother, his relations with his father became less affectionate, especially after his father re­married.


In the 1930s, there were many student demonstrations protesting British colonialism in Egypt. In 1933, Nasser participated in his first political demonstration in Alexandria. In 1935, he took a leading part in a demonstration in Cairo demand­ing the restoration of the Constitution of 1923.


In his spare time, he read history and literature; he was particularly inspired by the careers of historical figures like Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, and others who distinguished themselves in great events. He once played the role of Caesar in a school presentation of the play “Julius Caesar". He was attracted to Voltaire’s writings and to Egyptian writers who criti­cized social conditions.


He applied to the Military Academy in 1936, but his application was rejected because of his record as a student agitator. He entered the Law College, where he spent one term, then applied again to the Military Academy in March 1937 and was admitted.He graduated as a second lieutenant in 1938, and was posted first to the Mankabad in Asyut province, and then to Sudan for three years. His experiences as an officer confirmed his belief about widespread corruption government service, and he was determined to oppose these practices. At Asyut he was able to resist some of his superior's orders which appeared to ­him partial and arbitrary. While still a second lieutenant, he met some officers including Anwar al-Sadat.


When World War II broke out, Nasser was still in the Sudan. He began to follow the course of military operations and to speculate about their possible effects on the future of Egypt. He read the debates in the British Parliament about shortages in British military ­preparations and noted the reverses in the battlefields. From all this he noted England's weakening hold on an extended empire and concluded that there was an opportunity for Egypt to obtain na­tional freedom if her leaders knew how to take advantage of it. He was in favor of quick action while Britain's position was still weak, but the Egyptian government under King Faruq showed no sign that it was prepared to move. Faruq yielded to British pressure and poor advice from the politicians thereby losing the respect of his countrymen. When the officers seized power in 1952, they insisted that Faruq abdicate, even though he was prepared to accept the demands of the military, and they insisted on complete evacuation of British forces, even though Britain was ready to recognize Egypt's full independence.


In 1942 Nasser was promoted to the rank of captain; and in 1943 he was appointed an instructor at the Military Academy. As a teacher he found an opportunity to intensify his efforts to win supporters and disseminate revolutionary ideas. He got to know the young cadets and their political opinions and invited some of them to join his secret military organization.


Nasser's participated in Egypt’s army in the first Palestine war of 1948-49 and gained experiences that proved invaluable to him in later life. This war, which Arab soldiers from Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Jordanfought in and lost, demonstrated to him the failure of Egypt's ruling class to defend the country and protect her national interests. After their return from Palestine, Nasser and his fellow Free Officers began to speed up the revolutionary movement.


For Nasser, Egypt's independence and security required the strengthening of the army, and Nasser, who carried out the Revolution of 1952 by a military coup, felt his power was dependent on the army. When he came to power, the officers were treated as a favored class and given special conveniences-houses, cars, and other items. Those close to him were given key positions in the administration and later in the Cabinet. At first, the military was able to inspire efficiency in the administration and to reduce corruption and ir­regularities, which enhanced the prestige of the new regime, but later this new ruling class developed its own corrupt practices which he tried to but could not completely control. 


At the beginning of the Revolution, Nasser thought that within a decade the Egyptian people might be able to develop a democratic system of their own, but later he doubted the feasibility of reform through democratic processes and began to think in terms of developing an alternative to democ­racy. He held that in free elections unscrupulous leaders would be able to manip­ulate the elections to their advantage. Until the social structure was completely reorganized and the present gener­ation, brought up in deprivation and servitude, was replaced by another more content and molded under the guidance of the regime's new leadership, he felt the public would not be free or able to control democratic processes.


He held that a single-party system might achieve this end. In practice, however, the one-party system-the Liberation Rally and the National and Socialist Unions-only provided legitimization for his authoritarian regime; it did not train the people in political participation or pre­pare the way for transfer of authority from military to civil hands.


Nasser was preoccupied with problems of national security and defense, which diverted most of his efforts from do­mestic to foreign affairs. The Soviet arms deal in 1955, nationali­zation of the Suez Canal Company in 1956, and nonalignment brought more national enthusiasm than the enactment of the Agrarian Reform Law of 1952, the socialist decrees, or even the completion of the Aswan High Dam. on July 21, 1970. On the other hand, the Yemen war which Nasser instigated in 1962 to settle a feud with the monarchy in Saudi Arabia came at a high price to Egypt. Another short lived experiment was the United Arab States a confederation of Egypt, Syria and North Yemen from1958 and 1961.


In his policy of neutrality towards the East-West conflict, Nasser attempted to play one power off against another in order to obtain what he needed. He sought Soviet military assistance in 1955, and again in 1964 and 1965. From 1959 to 1964 and again in 1966, Nasser leaned toward the United States.


The Arab-Israeli conflict of 1967 brought Egypt closer to the Soviet Union than ever before. However, Nasser's oscillations between East and West were never intended to mean a commitment to either side.


In his dealings with foreigners, Nasser had an ability to make them feel at ease. Tall, handsome, and powerfully built, he made a very good impression. He talked in a relaxed man­ner in fluent, though not perfect English, rarely raising his voice or losing his temper. He could be very charming and warm, and he often carried the conversations for hours, entertaining his visitors with anecdotes and witty remarks. But he could also be very ar­rogant and difficult to deal with when he was faced with an affront or suspected a plot, as in the case of Dulles' sudden withdrawal of financial assistance to the Aswan Dam or Ba'thist opposition to his Arab leadership.


In public speeches in Arabic, Nasser was very different; he spoke with emotion and indulged in oratory, and he excelled in rhetorical speeches full of colloquial phrases and sarcastic remarks about opponents. The manner in which he spoke was deliberately intended to excite the masses, who re­sponded with great enthusiasm and often with applause, although most of his speeches were verbose and repetitious. After 1967, his addresses became shorter, more balanced, and directly to the point. On June 9, 1967, after the humiliating defeat of the 1967 war, Nasser broadcast live his resignation statement. However, millions of people demonstrated not only in Egypt but in streets across the Arab world, rejecting his resignation


Nasser's ability to overcome internal opposition and defy foreign interventions confirmed his sense of "destiny", which often prompted him to take firm positions­ even against decisions made at the Cabinet level. When he succeeded despite overwhelming adverse circumstances, as in the case nationalization of the Suez Canal, his sense of destiny was deepened and he was no longer prepared to listen to counselors. His major decisions, when they were announced to the people in public speeches, were often taken by the masses as prophetic.


Nasser had a practical mind. Though he held certain firm convictions about public af­fairs and was ideologically committed to certain objectives, he applied himself to Egypt's immediate needs. Some of his social goals, which can be traced back to childhood, were very broad; they did not really begin to take concrete shape until he felt the time had come to carry them out. He improvised his methods and was willing to learn from experience and adapt his approaches to solutions.


 He was devout Muslim and performed his religious duties without fail.  His wife, the daughter of an Iranian carpet dealer, was devoted to him and their five children, and he lived in a modest house and did not indulge material advantages. He was a charismatic leader and his legacy is still debated.


Nasser died of a heart attack on September 28, 1970, in Cairo,  at the conclusion of a meeting of Arab leaders.


Reference: Majid Khadduri. Arab Contemporaries. The Johns Hopkins University Press, Balimore and London, 1973.