Note: I originally wrote this in response to a question from @GalalAmrG about what I thought of Gamal Abdel Nasser. I'm posting it today - 28 September 2012 - which coincides with the 42nd anniversary of his passing.
"What do you think about Nasser?"
It's always been a sensitive question. Before the Arab Spring (and even now) people often weigh you by how you feel about Nasser. When I was young I only knew what I heard from my father, who grew up in Egypt during Nasser's time and who was quite fond of him, and only recently changed his views.
But later on I started to wonder what the net effect of Nasser's time was. Was Egypt (and the Arab world) better off? I remember attending a dinner party in Jordan when I was 17 years old, when the topic was raised. I had said that even though he did not achieve much, at least he imbued Arabs with a feeling of honor and dignity.
Looking back now, and knowing what I now know, I wouldn't say his net effect was a slight positive. I'd say it's a strong negative.
So allow me to assess Nasser’s legacy, between his ascent to power in 1956 and his death in 1970.
Nasser’s Effect on Arab Unity
Let me get it out. Nasser’s obsession with Arab unity set the cause of Arab unity back by at least two generations.
Sudan gained its independence from the UK in 1956. Nasser could have focused on an achievable and strategically viable union such as in a Nile Valley Federation, but instead he chose a poorly planned and poorly managed union with Syria that ultimately failed, leaving a lot bad feelings, but more importantly leaving us with an impression that Arab unity is a just pipe dream that can't really be achieved.
Nasser’s involvement in Yemen was similarly destructive, not just for his army but for the cause of Arab unity. Would you advance Arab unity by dropping napalm on Yemeni villages? Or by ordering drove after drove of Egyptian soldiers to their death in a futile war? My impression has always been that unity can only be achieved peacefully, freely, and between responsible and independent entities.
Today, the most successful Arab unity (and the only one, for that matter) isn't one that happened with a lot of pomp and fanfare, but rather quietly. The United Arab Emirates turns 41 later this year.
Nasser’s Score Card on Economic Development
Egypt in 1956 was a developing country with a lot of potential. Unfortunately over the next two decades that potential would be squandered. Instead of getting a first-rate economy and industrial base, we ended up with a third-rate economy and a barely functioning industrial base.
And it didn’t take that long either. Egypt had to accept food aid in 1959. It may not sound so serious, until you realize that it’s the first time – ever – probably since the time of the Pharaohs – that Egypt needs to ask for food aid.
Nasser presided over the nationalization of Egypt’s industrial base – but rather than “giving the industries back to the people”, as nationalism is often marketed, this episode gave these industries to the army generals. In many cases they continue to run them to the day.
Instead of an industry that makes products and creates wealth, the focus was an industry that provides as many jobs as possible and provides an income for the army.
In the early 1950s Egypt's per capita GDP was around $500 – some five times greater than the GDP of South Korea ($103) and Taiwan ($170) at the time. Today Egypt's per capita GDP is $6600 while South Korea is soaring above $30,000 and Taiwan is above $35,000. How's that for disappointing?
What drove Nasser most, of course, was resistance to colonialism. But how necessary was that, really?
One lasting effect of the two World Wars was the final dissolution of all the old empires. The cost became just too high, and between 1945 and 1970 the UK quietly rolled back its empire; France tried to hold on (such as in Algeria) but faced the inevitable wrath of history.
Nasser's anti-colonialism, basically, came at a time of worldwide de-colonialization. He committed his life to fighting a monster that was already tired and had decided it was time to retire.
More than the old European empires, the rising powers of the USA & USSR were far more threatening to Arab independence – but who did Nasser side with?
By the end of WWII, Europe was pretty much divided between the US and the USSR. Over the next decade, the US handed over Germany, Austria, France, Japan, and Korea back to its people. During the same period, however, the USSR asserted its control over its own half of Europe. Who’s the anti-imperialist then?
Of course, Nasser claimed he was non-aligned and hence neither a US ally nor a USSR ally. But we all know the truth – Egypt's army used USSR-made weapons, and its economy followed Soviet-style organization.
Many Nasserites seem to ignore the fact that it was the USSR, and not the US, that was the first country to formally recognize the state of Israel, seen by them as a Western colonial project in the heart of the Arab world.
Nasser, of course, was a great and beloved “popular” authoritarian leader - which I now recognize as the worst kind ever.
Between 1956 and 1970 Nasser had a chance to build a first-rate, highly organized state, and an army to go with it - but instead he built one heck of a personality cult.
“Great” populist dictators "prove" the system. The meta-message is, “this works”. You don't need a democracy, you only need a great leader. You don't need to build institutions and systems and industries, you only need a great leader.
So in effect Nasser did not just give us a military dictatorship. He gave us a military dictatorship that was so charismatic, that it justified military dictatorship as a model – and so popular, that it justified torture, imprisonment, and executions of dissenters without so much as a peep of a complaint.
The lowest of all low points was in the aftermath of the 1967 catastrophe, when in response to Nasser’s resignation, Egyptians took to the streets asking for him back. When my father retold these events to me as a teenager, all I thought was, “Really?” Egypt was a country of 30 million people – and it couldn't find even one leader other than the very person who led it to catastrophe?
Leaders are only truly great when their vision outgrows them, sometimes even in their own lifetimes – when what they build becomes bigger and more important than them, and goes on after them. How does Nasser compare, then? I’ll leave that answer to you.
Nasser’s & “Arab Dignity”
Back when I was young, I thought Nasser's faults may be forgiven because he gave us dignity and pride. But now I see that it was empty and meaningless, and directly contributed to the disaster in 1967.
Dignity comes from self-sovereignty and individual rights, and pride comes from achievement and success. A military dictatorship with few achievements can’t give dignity or inspire pride, it can only fake them.
It's no wonder, then, that for the first four days of the Six-Day War, Arabs were told that Egyptian troops were “advancing deep into Israeli territory”, having “downed 70 Israeli jets”, and “completely wiped out the enemy's forces.”
It was fake dignity and fake pride. It was a big lie. Arab dignity and pride was just a balloon filled with Nasser's hot air, that popped in 1967 and never recovered until 2011.
Nasser’s Military Scorecard
I won’t get into the direct military effects of Nasser's stewardship of Egypt, because they are obvious and too painful. The proud Egyptian soldier was sent to an Egyptian Vietnam in Yemen in 1962, and then sent back home to have his bones crushed under Israeli tanks in 1967.
What's most infuriating, of course, is Nasser's cavalier and empty brinkmanship. He was warned about an impending Israeli attack by both the USSR and Jordan's King Hussain. His reaction was to ask the UN peacekeepers to withdraw from Sinai, close the Straits of Tiran to Israeli shipping, and openly declare that he seeks nothing less than the destruction of Israel. Nasser gave Israel a clear pretext to attack.
You all know how this story ends – with 15,000 Egyptian soldiers killed, 80% of Egypt's army destroyed, and with a popping of that "Arab dignity & pride" bubble that Nasser had inflated.
If you’re a Nasserite reading this, I bet you must have already muttered under your breath: “We couldn't achieve anything because of Israel and the imperialist conspiracy.” In fact among the Nasser era's most enduring legacies is this tendency to blame any of our failures on our Jewish cousins in Tel Aviv.
It's as though the presence of a conspiracy is the grand vindicator. If there's a conspiracy, then you don't have to succeed. You only have to act like you did your best, and then blame your underachievement on the conspiracy.
Let’s get this straight – your enemies will conspire against you. That's pretty much their job. But does that clear you of all responsibility? Of course it doesn't. You can't ask your enemies to lay off with the conspiracies while you build yourself.
Just think: What if the Israelis had fallen into the same “conspiracy” trap? What if they had destroyed their own economy and armed forces while blaming an Arab conspiracy? Can you now see how silly it sounds?
Nasserites will of course point to such accomplishments as the Aswan High Dam and the nationalization of the Suez Canal. They'll also tell you that these were great victories against imperialism. They may well be so, and I'm more than happy to count them on the "pro" side of the scale. But do they really vindicate Nasser?
I'll leave the answer to you.
Last Updated (Friday, 28 September 2012 17:28)