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Nasser, Gamal Abdel

The Oxford Companion to Politics of the World

Joel Beinin

Nasser, Gamal Abdel. 

Born 15 January 1918 in the upper Egyptian village of Bani Murr, Gamal Abdel Nasser (Jamāl ‘Abd al-Nā˚sir) was educated mainly in Alexandria and Cairo. His father was a postal clerk. In November 1935, while a student at Cairo's al-Nahda School, known for its nationalist activism, Nasser was wounded by British soldiers during a demonstration demanding restoration of the constitution. He subsequently flirted with many political organizations and ideologies without committing himself fully to any of them, although he briefly joined the quasi-fascist Young Egypt.

In March 1937, Nasser enrolled in the Military Academy, opened to middle-class boys as a result of the Anglo-Egyptian treaty of 1936. There, and at his first posting in upper Egypt, he made friends with ‘Abd al-Hakim ‘Amir, Zakariya Muhyi al-Din, and Anwar Sadat—all future leaders of the Free Officers organization. Like many of Egypt's educated youths, these young officers had been radicalized by the failure of the leading nationalist party, the Wafd, to end the British military occupation of Egypt, and they were dismayed by Egypt's ineffective parliamentary democracy and its weak response to Egypt's economic and political crisis. Nasser and the others were particularly offended when British tanks surrounded ‘Abdin Palace on 4 February 1942 and forced King Faruq to install a Wafd government.

In 1943, Nasser became an instructor in the Military Academy, a post that enabled him to make contacts with future officers. Later, while commanding a battalion in the Arab-Israeli War of 1948–1949, his unit was encircled and besieged at Faluja. Like other nationalist officers serving on the same front, Nasser viewed this experience as a metaphor for Egypt's corrupt and inequitable internal regime, which he saw as the fundamental cause for the defeat. He was outraged by the lack of an adequate military plan, the political manipulation of the army by the palace, and reports that members of King Faruq's entourage had sold faulty weapons to the army.

Because the civilian nationalist opposition was too weak and disunited to take action, Nasser recruited discontented junior officers into the Free Officers organization—a disciplined and cohesive group that set as its goal the overthrow of the regime. The officers had only a vague program of national reform, influenced by the demands for social justice adopted by the post–World War II nationalist movement. On 23 July 1952 they executed a nearly bloodless coup and formed a Revolutionary Command Council (RCC) headed by General Muhammad Naguib. Three days later they deposed King Faruq.

On 9 September 1952 the RCC proclaimed a land reform that limited agricultural holdings, regulated rents, and promised to distribute land to poor peasants. The economic goals of the land reform—stimulating industrial development and providing land for the landless—were incompletely realized, but it symbolized a break with the old regime and curtailed the power of its dominant class, the large cotton growers allied with the monarchy and the British. The RCC also raised the minimum wage, encouraged the formation of trade unions, and enhanced job security, though it also imposed corporatist control over the labor movement and prevented independent political action by workers. In 1953 the regime banned the old political parties and abolished the monarchy.

Though it dismantled parliamentary democracy and limited political expression, the military regime won genuine popular support. In 1954, Nasser consolidated his personal power by eliminating Naguib from the government. He then successfully concluded a treaty with Britain in October of the same year, securing the evacuation of British troops from the Suez Canal Zone by June 1956. The popularity of the new regime—due in no small measure to Nasser's political style and personal charisma, which made common people feel they had a stake in politics—extended beyond Egypt to the entire Arab world.

Nasser became a symbol of independence and resistance to European colonialism and imperialism. He assumed leadership of the pan-Arab national movement and achieved international prominence as a pioneer in the nonaligned movement of Asian and African states. His dramatic nationalization of the Suez Canal on 23 July 1956, his support for Palestinian grievances against Israel, and his acquisition of arms from Czechoslovakia led to the Suez Crisis. On 29 October 1956 Britain, France, and Israel attacked Egypt and sought to overthrow his regime. Despite Egypt's military defeat, the attackers were forced to withdraw and Nasser emerged a hero. The war prompted the regime to nationalize all enterprises owned by foreign nationals in Egypt, a precursor to more extensive nationalizations in 1961 and 1962, as well as other populist redistributive economic measures known as Arab socialism.

Nasser's rhetoric intensified as his pan-Arab commitments increased after 1956, yet he avoided military confrontations with Israel. In May 1967, Syrian criticism of his passive response to Israeli raids on Syria and Jordan convinced Nasser to mobilize his army and blockade the Straits of Tiran. In response, Israel launched a preemptive strike and devastatingly defeated Egypt, Syria, and Jordan. Nasser resigned in the face of the defeat, but millions of Egyptians came out into the streets and persuaded him to stay on.

Nasser died on 28 September 1970. At his death, Israel still occupied Egyptian territory captured in the June War of 1967, and a deepening crisis gripped the economy. Military and economic failure described the limits of Nasser's efforts to assert Egyptian independence and highlighted the undemocratic aspects of his regime, which had become increasingly repressive in the late 1960s.

(See also Arab-Israeli Conflict; Arab Nationalism; Military Rule; Nasserism.)


Jean Lacouture, Nasser (New York, 1973).Find this resource:

P.J. Vatikiotis, Nasser and His Generation (London, 1978).Find this resource:

Joel Gordon, Nasser's Blessed Movement: Egypt's Free Officers and the July Revolution (New York, 1992).Find this resource:

Joel Beinin