Liberating Nasser's legacy

Xxxx Xxxxx Xxxxxx xxxxxxxx at
Mon Oct 2 19:38:18 MDT 2000

Al-Ahram Weekly On-line 28 Sep. - 4 Oct. 2000 Issue No. 501

Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Liberating Nasser's legacy

By Hosny Guindy and Hani Shukrallah

 "We might begin by setting down an overall framework for dealing with
this question. First  of all, we need to understand that what is at
issue is not the business of privileging one page  of our history over
another; we are dealing with history, and history is a human product.
The object of our inquiry is a human experience, with all the successes
and failures that each and every human experience must encompass.

"Secondly, there is the polarity of the vendetta, on one hand, and
nostalgia -- and here we should note that nostalgia is a product of
alienation, the natural outcome of placing people at odds with their own
experience, and their awareness of that experience -- on the other.
This polarity has for too long plagued Egypt's attempts to come to terms
with its history under Nasser. Now, 30 years after Nasser's death, the
time has come to untangle the experience from both the feelings of
nostalgia with which its supporters envelop it and the vengeance that
its enemies continue to exact upon it.

"Thirdly, to understand any human experience, we must situate it within
its time; it is at once the product of a particular age, and of the
human agency that played a part in the shaping of that age. Fourth and
last, to put any kind of human experience to the test, we need to ask
about its results. Today, 30 years on, we are in possession of
sufficient data to provide the tools to measure the outcome of the
Nasserist experience.

"As it is, we have yet to look at and assimilate the experience with
anything resembling a healthy attitude. We have not come to terms with
anything. For political, strategic, even psychological reasons, we in
Egypt have been exposed to a  very peculiar phenomenon, one in which
memory itself is  subjected to a fierce onslaught, the object being the
erasure of memory. This may be explained partly by the character of
political authority in Egypt -- the Pharaoh as demi-god, the Caliph as a
semi-prophet, etc. For 30 years Egypt has been in a state of war with
its own history. Half the country, one might say, is at war with
Abdel-Nasser, half with Anwar El-Sadat. And in all cases this mindset of
total enmity marks each and every political action, across the political
spectrum. It is self evident, though, that animosity and bitterness is
no way to come to terms with anything.

"Let me explain further. Here we had an experience that occupied quarter
of a century of our life as a nation, only to  end with an attempt to
uproot it totally. A section of society found itself obliged to resist
this attempt. Moreover, the wave that hit Egypt after 1974 was one in
which the local, regional and international situation was ripe for an
onslaught on Abdel-Nasser and the Nasserist experience. Elements in
Egypt, in the region (Saudi Arabia) and  internationally (the US) were
settling outstanding accounts. Meanwhile, the various fronts to which
Egypt had been party were collapsing. Added to this is the tendency for
political authority in Egypt -- from the Pharaohs to the Mamelukes -- to
be characterised by attempts by the successor to eradicate the heritage
of his predecessor. Absolute enmity blinds those driven by it, while an
all out onslaught instils panic into the hearts and minds of those

 "And herein lies the crux of the malaise, and the sense of loss of
direction from which our society continues to suffer.  A people's memory
cannot easily be erased; the attempt to do so was always counteracted by
the fact that the people who lived the experience were still around;
they could remember. Enmity did not overthrow Nasser, though it created
a host of enemies for Sadat.

"This is a real tragedy. Had Sadat's eagerness to criticise Abdel-Nasser
taken a more positive bent -- to say for instance: 'Abdel-Nasser has
achieved such and such; it is not much, but I will build upon it' --
things might have taken a different course. The objective, however, was
not criticism but eradication, and a large section of society perceived
this as an assault against them. To try and erase the national memory is
a very dangerous game. People were being told the opposite of what they
knew as lived experience. People were being told that these were years
of impoverishment. They could recall, however, that they had been years
of extensive social welfare; that the great majority of the population
had never enjoyed such access to housing, education, health services and
nourishment. People were told that these had been years of darkness and
isolation; they could recall them as the years of the theatre of the
60s, the literature of the 60s, and so on. They are told that these were
years of ignorance and censorship, they recall them as the time in which
Naguib Mahfouz wrote his greatest works, for which he was to receive the
Nobel prize, and Tawfik El-Hakim published his most ruthless criticism
of social and political conditions in the country. Then Egypt was
producing over a hundred films a year compared to little over a dozen at

"And there is the music. The music of a particular period is possibly
the most eloquent testimony on the nature of that period. We can hear a
great many things  in the music of an age -- freedom and repression,
politics, the economy, culture and society, everything. Let us set our
minds back to the music of the fifties and  the sixties; Umm Kulthum and
Abdel-Wahab, together; the remarkable wave represented by such musical
giants as Riyad El-Sonbati, Kamal El-Tawil, Mohamed El-Mougi, Baligh
Hamdi... Nothing expresses the soul of a nation during a particular
stage of its history as freely or as fully as music.

 "Subsequently a nation was made to live in contradiction with itself;
people were put in a situation of conflict with their own collective
memory, with their own awareness.

 "How then can we begin to understand and come to terms with the
experience of Nasser's Egypt? No less important, what remains of
relevance of that experience today? First, we need to recognise that the
fundamental aims of a people remain constant, while the mode of
realising those aims varies from one age to another -- whether in terms
of the means made available by the age in question, or in accordance
with the personal characteristics of the leaders whose task it is to
achieve them.

 "What were the fundamental demands of Nasser's Egypt? In essence these
could be summed up as follows: some form of expression of Egypt's Arab
identity, of its inexorable link with the Arab world; some sort of
development and progress; some degree of social justice, and greater
access by the majority of the population to state-power and
decision-making -- i.e. democratisation.

"In my view the Nasserist experience achieved successes in all these
areas save the last, where it failed. This, however, needs to be viewed
in the context of a number of considerations: first, genuine
democratisation is contingent upon the ability of the great majority of
the people, across all classes, to participate effectively in the
political process. To do so, they must possess a minimum access  to both
economic power and knowledge. Gamal Abdel-Nasser believed that through
such programmes as agrarian reform, industrialisation, the Aswan High
Dam, free universal education, universal health insurance etc., we could
set the necessary groundwork for the building of democracy. He made some
achievements in this respect, but  nevertheless they fell short of
democracy. It might be said, however, that although Nasser's failure in
this regard has been a major weapon in the onslaught on his heritage,
the problem of democracy in Egypt has not been resolved by the
subsequent regimes -- it remains with us to this day.

"Nor can anyone plead not guilty as far as human rights violations are
concerned. But take, for example, the case of militant Islamism. The
number of detainees from that trend in subsequent times far exceeded
anything that happened under Nasser. This does not justify the
violations that did take place, which I have criticised, but it
underlines the fact that the confrontation between the state and
militant Islamism, which uses religion as a means to win political
power, goes well beyond the Nasserist experience.

"But let us turn, in our attempt to assess the experience as a whole, to
Nasser's Arab and foreign policies. Let us, indeed, examine these
policies not at their moments of greatest triumph, such as in the wake
of the nationalisation of the Suez Canal or after the Suez War of 1956,
but at their bleakest moment, the June 67 debacle. Recall the amazing
spectacle of the hundreds of thousands of Sudanese who went out on the
streets of Khartoum to pay tribute to Nasser when he went there to
attend the Arab summit that was held in the wake of the military defeat.
Newsweek captured this incredible image on its cover page under the
title: Hail the conquered. How are we to understand the phenomenon in
which this man, defeated before the whole world, is acclaimed by the
Arab masses everywhere as a leader who continued to express their will
to resist. They say that the millions of Egyptians who went out on the
streets on 9 and 10 June to reject Nasser's resignation and to call on
him to continue to lead them in battle were prodded by the Arab
Socialist Union. Fine. But what about the millions in Khartoum, Beirut,
Amman; everywhere in the Arab world?

"Is this not a test of the true worth of Egypt's Arab belonging. Let us
look at this question even in material terms. Arab support, including
those states hostile to Nasserist Egypt, was vital to the war effort and
the rebuilding of the Egyptian armed forces after the defeat. A single
country, Libya -- and I have criticised Gaddafi a thousand times -- gave
us a billion dollars in 1973 to purchase military equipment, including
the landing craft which the Egyptian forces used to cross the Suez
Canal. Following the October 1973 War, and during the period between
1974 and 1977, when Sadat made his visit to Jerusalem, Egypt received
Arab aid estimated at between $17-22 billion. Up to today, Arab aid
continues to play a vital part in Egyptian development plans.

 "On another note. They say that Nasser unnecessarily made an enemy of
Israel, which sought peace. At the end of Nasser's reign and the
beginning of Sadat's, such a claim might have carried some weight. It
had not, after all, been put to a sufficient test. Now we have clear
evidence of Israel's true intentions. Before our very eyes Israel is
building a regional empire, an empire, moreover, whose fundamental
strategy is to blockade Egypt, to confine it in Africa, s that Israel
can enjoy a free hand in the Arab east, and -- first and foremost -- in
the Gulf. The fact that Egypt is sometimes called upon to take part in
the peace process should not mislead us as to the nature of Israel's
intentions.  On these occasions Egypt is, after all, not being called
upon to play a role, but to perform what others hold as its function.
The collapsing of a role into a function is an insult.

"And what of the US? Our interests in the region and those of the US are
in contradiction, though I believe, and so did Nasser, that it is not
one that should be expressed in confrontational terms. But we must be on
our guard. America is not exactly a reliable friend. It wants regional
hegemony, it wants Israeli supremacy and it wants the oil. These are the
aims of American foreign policy in the region. Do what you will to win
American friendship, profes eternal friendship, but whatever you do
remain aware that the US will continue to look towards Israel, and not
to you, as its strategic ally. For the US Egypt is an object of history,
while Israel is an instrument for the making of history.

"Ultimately, Nasser's Egypt was part of a very special historical
period. The time of Abdel-Nasser was also the time of Kennedy, De
Gaulle, Nehru, Tito, Mao and Pope John XXIII. Egypt's experience was
part of a global tendency that had a distinctive flavour. We were not
bystanders. Egypt was an active and effective participant in the making
of that tendency -- the movement of national liberation, Bandung, the
movement of the non-aligned nations, the African unity movement,
Afro-Asian solidarity. It was a time of vigour and tremendous vitality
the world over. We belonged to the age, interacted with it and acted
upon it as equal partners.

"These are just examples of the kind of questions we need to address if
we are to come to terms with our recent past. In doing so we need to rid
ourselves of this state of enmity in which every aspect of Egyptian
politics, domestic or foreign, is perceived in terms of either animosity
to Nasser or animosity to Sadat. Failure to do so means we will continue
to live surrounded by ghosts; the ghost of Abdel-Nasser, the ghost of
Sadat; the whole Egyptian horizon swarming with ghosts that will not go
away, nor take their rightful place in the nation's history. Three
decades have passed since Nasser's thesis, so to speak. There was a
negation, and now we are witness to the negation of the negation; all
that was fundamental to the Nasserist experience is today being verified
in the most dramatic of ways.

 "Finally, we need to ask ourselves why do so many Egyptians, many of
whom were not even born while Nasser was alive remain so devoted to his
memory, despite systematic attempts at eradication, despite the grave
mistakes and despite the fact that he died while part of the country was
still under occupation?

 "Gamal Abdel-Nasser continues to inhabit Egypt because, like Bonaparte,
he is the representative of an age of certain national glory, despite
any mistakes or setbacks. But there is more to it than this. Above all,
he symbolises for Egyptians the expression of their independent national
will. It is this that remains. It is in this that we must seek our
project for the future."


Xxxx Xxxxx Xxxxxx
PhD Student
Department of Political Science
SUNY at Albany
Nelson A. Rockefeller College
135 Western Ave.; Milne 102
Albany, NY 12222

____________NetZero Free Internet Access and Email_________
Download Now
Request a CDROM  1-800-333-3633

More information about the Marxism mailing list