Reference Entry

Nasser, Gamal Abdel 1918–1970 Former prime minister and president of Egypt and a leading proponent of Third World and pan-Arab unity.

Robert Fay

in Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African American Experience, Second Edition

Published in print January 2005 | ISBN: 9780195170559
Nasser, Gamal Abdel 1918–1970 Former prime minister and president of Egypt and a leading proponent of Third World and pan-Arab unity.

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Gamal Abdel Nasser is widely considered one of Africa’s greatest modern leaders. Although his leadership style was highly authoritarian and some of his foreign policy decisions had disastrous consequences, he was lauded not only for ending British Colonial Rule and implementing ambitious social reforms in Egypt, but also for his support for Third World independence movements worldwide. Nasser was born in Alexandria, Egypt. He went to primary school in the village where his father, a postman, worked, then attended secondary school in Cairo, where he participated in street protests against the British. He briefly attended law school before entering the Royal Military Academy, graduating in 1938, and receiving a commission as a second lieutenant. While serving in the Sudan, Nasser and three other officers formed the Free Officers, a secret organization that aimed to overthrow the British as well as the Egyptian monarch, Farouk I. In July 1952 the Free Officers deposed King Farouk and installed the Revolutionary Command Council, led by Nasser. He initially kept a low profile, naming the older and more experienced Major General Muhammad Naguib head of state. In the spring of 1954, however, Nasser deposed Naguib and declared himself prime minister. Nasser’s first major accomplishment was the 1954 Anglo-Egyptian treaty, which provided for the gradual British pullout of troops from the Suez Canal Zone. Later that year he survived an assassination attempt by a member of the Muslim Brotherhood who disapproved of the treaty’s terms; Nasser responded with a harsh crackdown on the group. Throughout his career he would repeatedly use this tactic to block opposition. Nasser won international renown at the 1955 Bandung Conference in Indonesia, where, along with other African and Asian leaders, he called for Third World decolonization and solidarity within the Non-Aligned Movement. Nasser first demonstrated his nonalignment to the West in September 1955, when he announced an arms purchase agreement with Czechoslovakia. The following year, a month after Nasser was elected president, the United States withdrew its offer of $270 million to subsidize construction of the Aswan High Dam; Nasser responded by nationalizing the Suez Canal. When Israel attacked Egypt in October 1956, British and French forces joined in and ultimately crippled the Egyptian air force. Nasser ordered the sinking of forty vessels, rendering the canal impassable. The United Nations, with the support of both the United States and the Soviet Union, subsequently arranged for the withdrawal of the British, French, and Israeli forces and undertook repairs to the canal, now an acknowledged Egyptian possession. The Suez Crisis, as it came to be called, enormously increased Nasser’s popularity among Arab countries. Although in his Philosophy of the Revolution (1954), he wrote of wishing to lead all the world’s Arabs, Africans, and followers of Islam, he was best known for his efforts to achieve Arab unity, creating the United Arab Republic, a union of Syria and Egypt, in 1958. Syria, however, split from the union in 1961. Within Egypt, Nasser’s regime brought a true revolution. The Free Officers ousted the landholding elites who, along with Europeans, had traditionally dominated the government and nationalized their land. Nasser’s land policies prohibited any individual from owning more than 100 feddans (104 acres). Crucial to his vision for improving the lives of Egyptians was the Aswan High Dam, completed in 1968, which provided for irrigation of the fertile Nile Delta as well as inexpensive hydroelectric power. Egypt’s industries, educational programs, and medical services all expanded during the Nasser era, and women gained more civil rights. Yet Nasser increasingly depended on repressive tactics, such as the prohibition of political parties, censorship, and detention of political enemies. Furthermore, the birth rate in Egypt remained high, thwarting the efforts to create a higher standard of living. Throughout the first half of the 1960s, Egypt disguised its moderate stance toward Israel with belligerent public rhetoric, though among Arab leaders Nasser urged restraint. By 1966, however, Palestinian raiders were launching attacks in Israel from bases in Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon. On November 13 1966, Israel struck a Palestinian base in Jordan, killing eighteen and wounding fifty-four. Nasser, under pressure from his fellow Arabs, requested the removal of UN troops, which had been stationed in the Sinai Peninsula since the Suez Crisis, and Egypt closed the Gulf of Aqaba to Israeli shipping. On June 6 1967, Israel launched a simultaneous strike at Jordan and Egypt in what would be called the Six-Day War, crippling Egypt’s air forces on the ground and routing its army. Nasser resigned, only to return at the urging of the Egyptian people, who took to the streets in a show of support. He never reclaimed the luster of his early years, however, and he began a conservative shift that his successor, Anwar Al-Sadat, continued.See also Islam in Africa; Nile River.

Reference Entry.  848 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: History

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