History of Egypt - Nasserist rule (1956-1970)

History of Egypt - Nasserist rule (1956-1970) Last updated on Thursday 15th April 2010

Gamal Abd-Al Nasser was a charismatic and brilliant political leader who achieved unprecedented popularity both in Egypt and throughout the Arab world. He was admired for his rousing support of Arab Nationalism; his domestic social programmes (which, for the first time in Egypt's history, sought to better the lot of the peasant majority); his dramatic nationalization of the Suez Canal; and also because of Egypt's heroic stand against the British invasion.

However Nasser's vehement opposition to Israel and his outspoken criticism of the West lost him US and European support for the building of the Aswan High Dam, forcing the Egyptian president to turn to the Soviets for aid. The need for capital to build the High Dam is cited as one of the reasons for nationalizing the Suez Canal.

Whatever Nasser's initial intentions, the Suez Crisis propelled him to the forefront of the Arab Nationalist movement. Pan Arab unity became the overriding theme of the Arab world from the late 1950s up to 1967 and Nasser became its chief advocate and spokesman. The most dramatic display of Pan-Arabism took place in 1958 when Egypt united with Syria to form a single country, the United Arab Republic. But Nasser, for all his oratory, was essentially an Egyptian nationalist. The practical interests of the two countries never meshed and the union came to nothing.

But Nasser's revolutionary pan-Arabism was not all talk. Egypt entered the Yemeni civil war against the monarchy on the side of leftist guerrillas, further alienating the west and Saudi Arabia. At the same time he strengthened Egypt's ties to the Soviet Union, relying on the communist bloc for technical and military assistance to build an army to fight the US-supported Israeli army. Nasser also supported the formation of the Palestine Liberation Organization, further alienating him from the West.

Nasser's relations with the West were complex. He knew that he could never develop Egypt without large infusions of foreign aid and he knew that the West was the most reliable source of this aid. Yet he came to discover that the more anti-Western his stance appeared to be, the more foreign aid he was offered by western countries to buy his moderation. When at one point in his regime he became more conciliatory to the west, his foreign aid dropped dramatically. As a founding-leader of the Non-aligned movement Nasser could have it both ways. Along with India's Nehru and Indonesia's Sukarno, Gamal Abd-Al Nasser became a major international power-broker in the politics of the developing world.

Nasser's pan-Arab politics of the period tend to overshadow the achievements of his regime. Land reform was put into effect, breaking up the large feudal estates into smaller parcels of land and redistributing land to the fellaheen who for millennia had been an underclass of serfs. When the Aswan High Dam was completed, arable land in the Nile Valley increased by 15%. Nasser also built the country's industrial base, powered by electricity generated from the High Dam.

Prior to the revolution, Egypt had been an elitist society with few, if any, state-sponsored benefits to the large majority of the population. The new government established extensive free educational programmes for both boys and girls and developed the country's medical infrastructure.

The country had to pay a heavy price for much of this development. Political repression and censorship increased. The educated classes and political elite who could have contributed to the building of the country were disenfranchised and persecuted. They were replaced by an under-educated socialist bureaucracy which provided Nasser with his power base, but which was grossly incompetent, setting the lowest possible standards for the administration of a great country. Economic stagnation and industrial and agricultural inefficiency subverted real development. Rhetoric had replaced reality.

The Six-Day War of June 1967 marked the end of Nasser's Pan-Arab dream. The Arab world's ignominious defeat by Israel ended in the Israeli occupation of Syria's Golan Heights, the Gaza Strip and the West Bank in Palestine and, most painfully for Egypt, the Sinai. However, the greatest symbolic humiliation for the Arabs was the fall of Jerusalem. The bombastic rhetoric of Arab leaders now seemed like so much hot air. Hatred of Israel and its chief supporter, the United States, reached a pinnacle.

The defeat of the Egyptian army and the loss of Sinai would have destroyed the political career of an Arab leader of lesser stature and indeed, Abd-Al Nasser offered to resign as president. Such was his extraordinary popularity that the Egyptian people staged massive spontaneous demonstrations in support of the president and he remained in power. His death in 1970 of a heart attack sent shock waves throughout the Arab world. In a stunning display of emotion, millions of Egyptians followed his funeral procession through the streets of Cairo.

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