In February 1954, Gamal Abdel Nasser, the Arab leader who a generation of Israelis saw as their most formidable enemy, became Egypt’s prime minister. But if he wasn’t adored in the Jewish state, Nasser was idolized in Egypt and across the Middle East, where he epitomized the hopes of millions.
Nasser’s assumption of Egypt’s premiership was essentially a formality. Two years earlier, the Free Officers coup d’état had toppled King Farouk and taken Egypt on a path from a conservative monarchy to a revolutionary republic.
Although ultimately becoming the most consequential of the Free Officers, at first Nasser was an anonymous lieutenant colonel. He thought the public would be circumspect about his leadership and Mohamed Naguib, a renowned and decorated general, was chosen to head post-monarchical Egypt.
But by June 1956 the new regime was confident enough to abandon pretenses, and after an internal power struggle, Nasser became Egypt’s president, a position he would hold for the next 14 years.
Nasser and the Suez Crisis with Israel, Egypt, UK and France
Quite possibly, the high point of Nasser’s presidency occurred during his first months of office. In July 1956, before an applauding crowd of thousands in Alexandria, he declared the nationalization of the Suez Canal. The decision came after the United States and Britain had refused to help Egypt finance the construction of the Aswan Dam, and Nasser proclaimed that income from the newly nationalized waterway would be used to fund the project.
The announcement had immense popular support; the government was seen as standing up to Egypt’s formerly omnipotent British colonial masters. No longer acting as an imperialist vassal, Egypt was demonstrating that it was truly independent and rightfully taking full control over its sovereign territory.
Nasser was much acclaimed – the embodiment of the global anti-colonialist struggle – and the subsequent strategic folly of Britain and France only further cemented his international standing.
In October 1956, Israel’s Sinai Campaign provided the two European powers with an alibi to attack Egypt. Despite colluding with Israel’s offensive, Britain and France publicly professed their desire to safeguard the Suez Canal by separating the warring Egyptians and Israelis – their real goal being to regain control of the vital international maritime artery, and in the process bring Nasser down. They failed dismally.
The US, the Soviet Union and the UN all condemned the attack; under intense American pressure, London and Paris withdrew their forces in humiliation. Nasser was seen as defeating the hated imperialists and his star shone brightly.
Everything went downhill for Nasser after Suez, his promised revolution stayed elusive
However, after the euphoria of his dramatic Suez victory, it was almost all downhill for Nasser: the celebrated 1958 political union with Syria was an abject failure; the misjudged 1960s military intervention in Yemen divided the Arab world; and the ill-considered removal of UN peacekeepers and the blockading of the Straits of Tiran triggered the 1967 Six Day War with Israel. The latter spawned the Arab states’ greatest ever military debacle, with Egypt losing the Gaza Strip and the Sinai Peninsula, Jordan the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and Syria the Golan Heights.
Nasser died in office in September 1970. Some five million grief-stricken Egyptians attended their president’s Cairo funeral.
HOWEVER, DESPITE his genuine widespread veneration, the promises of Nasser’s revolution remained elusive. Instead of freedom, Egypt had become a repressive police state; far from being united, the Arab world was fractured and fragmented; the espoused policy of nonalignment had deteriorated into a diplomatic and military dependency on the Soviet Union; and the Egyptian economy was in tatters – the country’s resources either channeled into the ongoing conflict with Israel or squandered on Nasserist socialism with its bombastic planning, autocratic bureaucracy and swollen public sector.
The enormity of Nasser’s failure can be judged by examining the trajectory of his contemporary international partners.
Where Egypt failed, China and India succeeded
In April 1955, Nasser and fellow prime ministers Zhou Enlai of China and Jawaharlal Nehru of India were the preeminent leaders behind the creation of the Afro-Asian bloc of newly independent states - the new global grouping being the precursor of the Non-Aligned Movement.
Modern India, China, and Egypt were each born in tribulations. India finally achieved its sovereignty from Britain in August 1947, experiencing the violent upheavals of partition and war with Pakistan. The People’s Republic of China was founded in October 1949, after the defeat of Japan in World War Two and the ensuing civil war between communists and nationalists.
Egypt’s revolution came in July 1952, following decades of colonial stagnation and the army’s defeat by Israel. Crucially, all three countries faced the mammoth challenges of nation-building while dealing with deep, pervasive poverty.
Fast forward to the twenty-first century: After instituting comprehensive reforms, China and India are significant global players and economic success stories. China is the world’s second largest economy, its strategic prowess challenging US hegemony in Asia and beyond.
India is the world’s sixth biggest economy, its friendship eagerly courted by the West to counterbalance China’s expanding influence. Both China and India have expansive middle classes that are changing global demand for consumer products.
While China and India have raced ahead, Egypt has become increasingly indebted, its growing population making ever-expanding demands upon the already overburdened national infrastructure.
From Israel’s perspective this is bad news. Cairo has been Jerusalem’s partner in peace since Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat signed the historic Egypt-Israel peace treaty in 1979, and Israel wants to see its southern neighbor stable and prosperous.
The International Monetary Fund (IMF) has asked Cairo to deal with Egypt’s structural economic challenges, including decreasing the state’s role in the marketplace, reducing government expenditures, and advancing liberalization and privatization.
Much of this isn’t easy for Cairo. For instance, IMF recommendations to cut subsidies and float the Egyptian pound may lead to price rises for consumers that will negatively impact upon the poor – potentially creating political fodder for extremists.
Cairo sees the achievements of Beijing and New Delhi and acknowledges the necessity to move forward, yet simultaneously understands that economic policy cannot be divorced from Egyptian political realities.
In navigating a course that advances much-needed reform while safeguarding social stability, Egypt deserves the international community’s backing, and Jerusalem has been encouraging its friends to be supportive of Cairo. Ultimately, Egypt is too important to be neglected.
Today, China and India are members of the prestigious G-20 forum of leading global economies – where the sole Arab member is not Egypt, but Saudi Arabia. Perhaps Cairo’s current circumstances would be much improved had Nasser focused on nation-building at home instead of pursuing grandiose regional and global aspirations.
The writer, formerly an adviser to the prime minister, is chair of the Abba Eban Institute for Diplomacy at Reichman University. Connect with him on LinkedIn, @Ambassador Mark Regev.