Nasser: A Personal Appreciation

On the centenary of the late, great Egyptian leader’s birth

By Abdel Bari Atwan

Back in 1995, I was invited to take part in a panel discussion at Paris’ Institut du Monde Arabe marking 25 years since the death of the late Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser. The six panellists included three former French ministers. I was the youngest and least distinguished of them all, and unfortunately for me, was given the last turn to speak.

The other speakers left me with nothing new to add to what they said.  They discussed Nasser’s personal and leadership qualities, his charisma and his achievements.  While mildly criticising his failures and mistakes, they generally accorded him the respect he deserves. When my turn came to speak, all the points contained in my prepared paper had already been covered.  So I told the audience I would set it aside and talk about my personal experience.

I said that if it had not been for Nasser, I would never have been among them on that platform on that day in that renowned institute. For it was thanks to him – to his sense of Arab solidarity, his humanity, and his siding with the the poor and deprived — that the doors of Egypt’s universities were thrown open to Palestinian refugee-camp dwellers like myself to study for free. We gained degrees which enabled us and our families to rise out of poverty and need, to earn a decent living, and to go on to make our ways in the world.

 I never had the honour of meeting President Nasser personally.  But I did receive a letter from him, or from his office. This was sent in reply to an admiring letter I mailed to him – the first I ever wrote in my life —  when I was in the second grade of the elementary school for refugees I attended in Dair al-Balah refugee camp in the Gaza Strip.

My admiration for Nasser and his legacy has not diminished over the years. Indeed, it has increased, and continues to do so, though I do not in any way deny that while trying his best the man made many mistakes.  The worst of these he admitted himself, when he took responsibility for Egypt’s defeat in the June 1967 war and offered to resign.

Nor would I ever claim he was a democrat or leader of the ‘free world’.  He imprisoned his opponents and threw them in jail. Yet even his fiercest enemies would not deny his achievements, such as his agrarian reform that constituted the biggest social and moral revolution in the region’s modern history, ending feudalism in Egypt and giving the land to those who deserve it.  Let us also not forget the nationalization of the Suez Canal, the building of the High Dam, the development of military and other industries, the drive towards self-sufficiency in food and locally-produced consumer goods, as well as many other accomplishments.

Yet Nasser and his political and ideological outlook are under ferocious attack these days. In his recent book, former Egyptian foreign minister Amr Mousa claimed that Nasser used to have special foodstuffs imported for himself from Switzerland. Yet everyone who knew him closely use to say that his favourite meal was the Egyptian peasant dish of white cheese and tomatoes, and that luxuries were the last thing on his mind.

I happened to be in Alexandria when Nasser suddenly died, and I swear I have never seen anything in my life to match the sight of hundreds of thousands of people spontaneously pouring onto the streets and crying tears of genuine anguish – women, children and men; old and young. This continued all night and for several days. The city’s seafront and main roads became devoid of cars and were taken over by masses of people with grief etched into their faces, seemingly in a collective state of shock. This lasted for a whole week.

That was the biggest referendum imaginable on the man, his leadership and his achievements  – a spontaneous, sincere and heartfelt referendum of ordinary people, rich and poor alike. The same spectacle was seen in cities and villages throughout Egypt.

Nasser had a vision and project based on reclaiming the stature and dignity of Egypt and its people along with that of all the other Arab peoples. He wanted to put the Arabs back on the world map as a nation with an independent identity committed to fighting colonialism and supporting the peoples who resist it in Asia, Africa and Latin America, and of course in the Arab world –notably the Palestinians, Algerians and Tunisians. 

I will not discuss present-day Egypt and the condition it has reached under Nasser’s successors.  Nor will I compare the state of the Arab world to how it was in the time of Nasser and his counterparts in other Arab countries. The contrasts are too obvious to need explaining.

Let us only pay tribute to the late, great President Nasser. After he died it was found that he only had a few hundred Egyptian pounds in his bank account. He did not bequeath fortunes, palaces or estates to his heirs. But he left us all with a legacy of dignity and self-respect, and of standing up for oppressed nations and their rights against colonialism, which is infinitely more precious.