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Gamal Abdel Nasser

Gamal Abdel Nasser
Gamal Abdel Nasser

Gamal Abdel Nasser (Arabic: جمال عبد الناصر) (January 15, 1918 - September 28, 1970) was the second President of Egypt after Muhammad Naguib and is considered one of the most important Arab leaders in history. He was the foremost exponent of Arab Nationalism during the 1950s and 1960s.


Early Life

Nasser was born in Alexandria, the son of a postal official. He spent part of his childhood living with a revolutionary uncle in Cairo. Serving with a major's commission, he fought in the 1948 war against Israel; for several months at the war's end he was trapped in the so called "Faluja pocket", together with his men. When a cease-fire was reached, he was allowed to return to Egypt.

Rise to Power

Nasser, a lieutenant colonel in the army, founded and served as leader of the Free Officers Movement, a group of young members of the military all under thirty-five and all from peasant or lower middle-class backgrounds, dedicated to overthrowing the British-backed King Farouk I of Egypt. On July 23, 1952, Nasser led the military coup against King Farouk, which nominally brought to power General Muhammad Naguib, as a figurehead in order to keep the armed forces favorable to the coup organized by such junior officers. However, Nasser, the minister of the interior, was the real force behind the coup.

In early 1954 Nasser arrested Naguib, accusing him of supporting the Muslim Brotherhood and knowing of the attempt on his life, and on February 25 became the Egyptian premier. A brief power struggle broke out for control of the military and of Egypt, won by Nasser. Two years later, Nasser was the only candidate in presidential elections and subsequently became the second President of Egypt.

Nasser centralized the Egyptian state under his rule, aggrandizing the power of the president, nationalizing industry, pursuing land reform, and committing himself to building large public works projects, such as the Aswan Dam.

Nasser's tendency towards dramatic manipulation of politics is highlighted by his handling of the October 26, 1954 attempt on his life. While delivering a speech to a crowd, Nasser was shot at eight times by Mahmoud Abd al-Latif, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. Though the shooter was at close range, all of the shots missed. Nasser continued speaking without pause, delivering a fiery and instantly legendary oration: "Let them kill Nasser. What is Nasser but one among many? My fellow countrymen, stay where you are. I am not dead, I am alive, and even if I die all of you is Gamal Abdel Nasser." (The complete address is available in RealAudio from the government of Egypt.) Nasser's perfect execution of this speech and his bodyguards' lack of protective action in response to the shots led to speculation that the entire event had been staged. Whether or not it was, Nasser used the national anger against the Muslim Brotherhood that resulted to launch his program to eradicate the group.

Suez Crisis

In spite of initially good relations with the Western powers, Nasser gradually began to lose their favor and inclined more and more towards the Soviet bloc. On January 16, 1956, Nasser vowed to 'liberate' Palestine and, in summer 1956, after the U.S. and Great Britain pulled out of an agreement to help finance the Aswan Dam, he announced the nationalisation of the Suez canal, in order to finance construction of the dam. This inspired anger from the United Kingdom and France, who had shares in the Canal. With the help of Israel the United Kingdom and France waged war upon Egypt. The allied coalition overran the Sinai and much of Port Said within the course of a week, sending the Egyptian military into retreat. However, due to pressure from both the United States and the Soviet Union, the British and the French had to withdraw with their demands unanswered.

Though Israel did achieve the cessation of fedayeen raids (in return for Israeli withdrawal from the Sinai peninsula), Nasser was hailed as having achieved a victory for the Arab world and having stood up to the "imperialist enemy." After Suez, Nasser emerged as a force in the Middle East and served as inspiration for a generation of nationalists throughout the region. After the Suez Crisis Nasser inclined closer to the Soviet Union but continued to play the Soviets and the West off of each other in order to win power for Egypt.

Arab Leader

Nasser, with his penchant for decisive action against the West, developed a following throughout the Arab world, inspiring "Nasserist" political parties dedicated to aggressive Arab nationalism. Many saw Nasser as the leader of the Arab world, the representative of a new, defiant era in Arabic politics. Nasser's policies became associated with the ideology of Pan-Arabism, which promoted strong, aggressive government action on the part of the Arab states in order to confront the "imperialist" West, and urged that the resources of the Arab states should be used for the benefit of the Arab people and not the West. In a 1967 speech, Nasser declared, "We can achieve much by Arab action, which is a main part of our battle. We must develop and build our countries to face the challenge of our enemies."

In 1958, Nasser merged Syria and Egypt into the United Arab Republic in an attempt to create a pan-Arab state. Attempts were also made to include Yemen, but the United Arab Republic was dissolved in 1961, though Egypt continued to use the name until 1971. The attempts to include Yemen involved using soldiers and chemical weapons against the people of Northern Yemen.

Six Day War

Gamal Abdel Nasser of , backed by other Arab states, throws Israel, and all the , into the sea. Pre-1967 War cartoon. Al-Farida newspaper, Lebanon
Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt, backed by other Arab states, throws Israel, and all the Jews, into the sea. Pre-1967 War cartoon. Al-Farida newspaper, Lebanon

Nasser, who had long urged the destruction of Israel, was a leading actor in provoking the Six Day War in 1967. Nasser sought the remilitarization of the Sinai peninsula and demanded that U.N.E.F. evacuate the Sinai, a request with which UN Secretary-General U Thant complied. Nasser proceeded to began re-militarization of the Sinai. On May 23, Nasser closed the Straits of Tiran to Israeli shipping, blockading the Israeli port of Eilat, at the northern end of the Gulf of Aqaba, Israel's only access to the Indian Ocean. The closure of the straits was considered by Israel to be a casus belli. Nasser convinced Jordan and Syria to join him in united Arab action against Israel and declared in a speech, "The battle will be a general one and our basic objective will be to destroy Israel." However, Israel's offensive in the Six Day War routed the Arab states.

After a defeat in the 1967 Six-Day War against Israel, Nasser sought (probably symbolically) to resign from his position. However, widespread calls from the Egyptian people for Nasser to remain convinced him to remain in power. He consequently led Egypt through the War of Attrition in 1969-1970. Nasser died of a heart attack only a few weeks after the war ended, on September 28, 1970.

He was succeeded by Anwar Sadat.


For many people, Nasser was a leader who reformed his country and re-established Arab pride both inside and outside it. As others perceive it, his policy was one of forceful militarism that led Egypt to grave defeats and losses rather than peace and prosperity. Nasser's role in inciting the Six Day War, which led to tremendous losses for the Arab states, tarnished his legacy and led to a diminuation of his power in the Middle East. In the last years of his rule, Nasser came to rely increasingly on aid from the Soviet Union.

Aswan Dam

One of the most controversial of Nasser's achievements was the creation of the Aswan Dam and the lake that bears his name in southern Egypt. Built to provide electricity for heavy industry and reduce the risk of flooding along the Nile River, the dam submerged most of Nubia's archeological remains (except the ones saved by UNESCO). It also created major ecological problems. The huge surface of the lake lets a significant part of the Nile's water evaporate in vain, while the dam prevents sediment from enriching the delta soil. According to some agronomists, the Nile valley's agricultural productivity subsequently dropped below its previous levels.

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