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Gamal Abdel Nasser: History Figure of the Month (September 2012)

Gamal Abdel Nasser
Who was Gamal Abdel Nasser Hussein? A colonel in the Egyptian army in the early 20th century.

Why is he notable? Because he led the 1952 Egyptian Revolution that overthrew the Muhammed Ali (not the boxer!) dynasty and by doing so, drastically changed the Middle Eastern political scene forever.

He was an Arab Nationalist and believed in Pan-Arabism (that is, the unification of Arab states into a single country). During his terms in office, he oversaw the outbreak of the Suez Crisis, the Six-Day war and the "War of Attrition".

He co-founded the Non-Aligned Movement (group of states which are not aligned formally with or against any major power bloc) alongside Yugoslavia's Tito Indonesia's Sukarno, Ghana's Kwame Nkrumah and India's Jawaharlal Nehru.

He was also the president of the short-lived United Arab Republic (a union with Syria that lasted from 1958-1961).

Life, the Revolution and Egyptian Presidency:

Gamar Abdel Nasser was born in Bakos, Alexandria, Egypt, on the 15th of January, 1918. He was educated at the Cairo Military Academy and eventually became an instructor at the institution. During the Second World War Nasser developed republican views. He secretly recruited cadets and young officers into what became known as the Free Officers Movement.
Egypt's first president, Najeeb (l) next to Nasser (dated 1950)

The failed 1948 Palestine campaign reinforced Nasser's view that the government of King Farouk I was inefficient and corrupt. In 1952 General Mohammed Najeeb and Colonel Nasser forced Farouk to abdicate. After the Egyptian Revolution Najeeb became commander-in-chief, prime minister and president of the republic whereas Nasser held the post of Minister of the Interior.  In April 1954 Nasser replaced Najeeb as prime minister. Seven months later he also became president of Egypt.

Over the next few months Nasser made it clear he was in favour of liberating Palestine from the Israelis. He also began buying fighter aircraft, bombers and tanks from the Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia.  Nasser redistributed land in Egypt and began plans to industrialize the country. He also began the building of the Aswan Dam. Nasser was convinced that this would extend arable lands in Egypt and would help the industrialization process. He also advocated Arab independence and reminded the British government that the agreement allowing to keep soldiers at Suez expired in 1956.

The Suez Crisis

President Dwight Eisenhower became concerned about the close relationship developing between Egypt and the Soviet Union.

In July 1956 Eisenhower cancelled a promised grant of 56 million dollars towards the building of the Aswan Dam. Nasser was furious and on 26th July he announced he intended to nationalize the Suez Canal.

The shareowners, the majority of whom were from Britain and France, were promised compensation. Nasser argued that the revenues from the Suez Canal would help to finance the Aswan Dam.  Anthony Eden, the British prime minister, feared that Nasser intended to form an Arab Alliance that would cut off oil supplies to Europe. Secret negotiations took place between Britain, France and Israel and it was agreed to make a joint attack on Egypt.

On 29th October 1956, the Israeli Army invaded Egypt. Two days later British and French bombed Egyptian airfields. British and French troops landed at Port Said at the northern end of the Suez Canal on 5th November. By this time the Israelis had captured the Sinai peninsula.

Location of the Suez Canal
President Dwight Eisenhower and his secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, grew increasingly concerned about these developments and at the United Nations the representatives from the United States and the Soviet Union demanded a cease-fire. When it was clear the rest of the world were opposed to the attack on Egypt, and on the 7th November the governments of Britain, France and Israel agreed to withdraw. They were then replaced by UN troops who policed the Egyptian frontier.  Nasser now blocked the Suez Canal.

The United Arab Republic:

 He also used his new status to urge Arab nations to reduce oil exports to Western Europe. As a result petrol rationing had to be introduced in several countries and two months after the invasion Anthony Eden resigned from office.  Nasser was now acknowledged as leader of the Arab world. Egypt now joined with Syria to form the United Arab Republic.

Despite the economic difficulties, what truly produced the demise of the UAR was Nasser's inability to find a suitable political system for the new regime. Given his socialist agenda in Egypt, the Ba'ath should have been his natural ally, but Nasser was hesitant to share power. Though Amer allowed some liberalization of the economy in order to appease Syrian businessmen, his decision to rig the elections of the National Union (the single party which replaced the Ba'ath), with the help of Colonel Abdul Hamid Sarraj (a Syrian army official and Nasser sympathizer), sent Ba'ath leaders into a frenzy. The Ba'ath won only five percent of the seats on the higher committees, while the more traditional conservative parties “won” a significant majority.

Nasser signing the Syria-Egypt union pact alongside Shukri al-Quwatli
 Sarraj was appointed head of the National Union in Syria, and by the spring of 1960 had replaced Amer as the chair of the Syrian Executive Council. Under Sarraj Syria was ruled by a brutal security force designed to suppress all opposition to the regime.  The immense increases in public sector control were accompanied by a push for centralization. Nasser abolished regional governments in favor of one central authority, which operated from Damascus February through May and Cairo the rest of the year. As a part of this centralization, Sarraj was relocated to Cairo, where he found himself with little real power. On September 15, 1961 Sarraj returned to Syria and resigned his post on September 26. Without any close allies to watch over Syria, Nasser was blind to the growing unrest of the military.

 On September 28 a group of officers staged a coup and declared Syria's independence from the UAR. Though the coup leaders were willing to renegotiate a union under terms they felt would put Syria on an equal footing with Egypt, Nasser refused such a compromise. He initially considered sending troops to overthrow the new regime, but chose not to once he was informed that the last of his allies in Syria had been defeated.In speeches that followed the coup, Nasser declared he would never give up his goal of an ultimate Arab union, though he would never again achieve such a tangible victory toward this goa.

 In March 1958 Yemen and the United Arab Republic formed the United Arab States. Nasser also encouraged Arab nationalism and revolution took place in Iraq.

The Six-Day War:

In early 1967, Soviet premier Alexei Kosygin sent Nasser a warning through Sadat, who was visiting Moscow, that Israel was about to carry out a large-scale assault against Syria. More warnings followed in the next few months, and King Hussein, aware of the intelligence situation, cautioned Nasser in April not to be dragged into a war.

That same month, pressure on him to act by Syria, Saudi Arabia, and the PLO, as well as the general Arab populace, mounted after an aerial battle between Syria and Israel resulted in the downing of six Syrian planes. Convinced that Israel was determined to attack Syria, he asked UN Secretary-General U Thant to withdraw UNEF forces from Sinai.

On 23 May, Egyptian troops moved into Sharm el-Sheikh and Nasser ordered the Straits of Tiran closed to Israeli shipping. On 27 May he stated "Our basic objective will be the destruction of Israel. The Arab people want to fight."After the blockade, he gave a speech to the United Nations General Assembly on 29 May saying, "the issue was not UNEF or closing the Strait of Tiran; the issue is the rights of the Palestinian people."This was the same message delivered a week earlier during a visit to an air base in the Sinai.

The speeches signaled that Nasser believed war was inevitable. King Hussein arrived in Cairo on 30 May and committed Jordan to the United Arab Command—an alliance which also included Egypt and Syria— under the command of Egyptian general Muhammad Sidqi. Amer anticipated an Israeli attack and advocated Egypt launch a preemptive strike. He was backed by former Syrian prime minister Amin al-Hafiz.

Due to assurances, however, from the American administration and the USSR that Israel would not attack, Nasser refused Amer's suggestion, insisting that Egyptian forces in the Sinai should only act defensively. In addition, he questioned the Egyptian military's readiness since the air force lacked pilots, the army reserve lacked training, and Nasser doubted the competence of Amer's hand-picked officers. Simultaneously, Egypt was facing a financial crisis leading him to believe that the country could not afford a war that would last even a few days. Nonetheless, Nasser eventually began changing positions from avoiding war to giving speeches claiming war was inevitable.

On the morning of 5 June, the Israeli Air Force (IAF) struck Egyptian air fields, destroying much of the Egyptian Air Force. Before the day ended, Israeli armor had cut through Egyptian defense lines, capturing the town of el-Arish.

According to Sadat, it was only when they captured el-Qantarah el-Sharqiyya, cutting off the Egyptian garrison at Sharm el-Sheikh, that Nasser became aware of the gravity of the situation.

Conquest of Sinai during 7-8 June
After hearing of the attack, he rushed to the army headquarters to inquire about the military situation. It was here that the simmering conflict between Nasser and Amer came into the open when, according to present officers, they burst into "a non-stop shouting match." Nasser accused Amer of giving unsatisfactory answers to his questions, while Amer asked Nasser for more time to launch a counterattack against the Israelis.

The Supreme Executive Committee, set up by Nasser to oversee the conduct of the war, attributed the repeated Egyptian defeats to the Nasser-Amer rivalry and to Amer's overall incompetence.

Despite the extent of Israel's quick military gains, for the first four days the general population in the Arab states believed the fabrications of Arab radio stations which claimed an Arab victory was near. On 8 June, Nasser appeared on television to inform Egypt's citizens of their country's defeat

Nasser status was undermined by the heavy losses suffered during the Six-Day War. He resigned on 9th June 1967 but following large demonstrations supporting him he reversed this decision.  Gamar Abdel Nasser remained in office until dying of a heart attack in 1970. He was replaced by his friend Anwar Sadat.


On 28 September 1970, at the conclusion of the summit and hours after escorting Emir Sabah III of Kuwait, Nasser suffered a heart attack. He was immediately transported to his house and was pronounced dead soon after. His wife Tahia, Heikal and Sadat were present, the last reading the Qur'an at his deathbed.
Nasser with Yasser Arafat and Faisal of KSA, a day prior to his death
Following the announcement of Nasser's death, Egypt and the Arab world were in a state of shock. It was not publicly known at the time that he had previously suffered two heart attacks. According to his doctor al-Sawi Habibi, Nasser's likely cause of death was arteriosclerosis, varicose veins, and complications from long standing diabetes. Nasser was a heavy smoker and there was also a history of heart disease in his family; two of his brothers died in their fifties from the same condition.

His funeral procession through Cairo, on 1 October, was attended by at least five million mourners. The 10-kilometre (6.2 mi) procession to his burial site began at the RCC headquarters with MiG-21 jet fighters flying overhead. His flag-draped coffin was attached to a gun carriage pulled by six horses and led by a column of cavalrymen.

 All Arab heads of state attended; King Hussein of Jordan and PLO leader Yasser Arafat cried openly while Muammar Gaddafi of Libya reportedly fainted twice. Although no major Western dignitaries were present, Soviet Premier Alexei Kosygin showed up.

Anwar Sadat would later succeed him as Egypt's president. The era of Nasserism was over. 


Nasser's legacy is much debated today. To his sympathizers, he was a leader who reformed his country and re-established Arab pride both inside and outside of it. They testify that under him, Egyptians enjoyed unprecedented access to housing, education, health services, and nourishment as well as other forms of social welfare.

A young Muammer Qadaffi with Nasser, in 1969
Nasser is credited for severely curtailing British influence in Egypt, elevating it to upper world circles, and reforming the country's economy through agrarian reform, major modernization projects such as Helwan and the Aswan High Dam, and various nationalization schemes.

While Nasser was president, Egypt experienced a cultural boom, particularly in theater, film, literature, and music. Nasser's Egypt dominated the Arab world in these fields, producing singers such as Umm Kulthum and Mohammed Abdel Wahab, literary figures such as Naguib Mahfouz and Tawfiq el-Hakim, and producing over 100 films a year compared to just more than a dozen in recent years.

Time magazine stated that despite his mistakes and shortcoming, Nasser "imparted a sense of personal worth and national pride that they [Egypt and the Arabs] had not known for 400 years. This alone may have been enough to balance his flaws and failures." Until the present day, he serves as an iconic figure throughout the Arab world.


  1. Good post, thank you for the funeral video. Been looking for it.


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