Gamal Abdel Nasser, the charismatic ruler of Egypt, died 50 years ago on Sept. 28, 1970. During his 18 years in power, 1952-70, he dominated the Middle East and, even now, he remains an intense topic of interest.
According to Google’s Ngram, the word “Nasserist” has steadily appeared more often in English-language books since 1970. A Lebanese newspaper article announced last week that “Nasser is the future,” called him the “immortal leader,” and proclaimed that he remains “a necessity to face current challenges even as his ideas and choices provide a solid bridge to deal with the future.”
Reporting on Nasser’s death, headlines in The New York Times succinctly conveyed both the benign, positive coverage he enjoyed among Westerners and their belief in his universal popularity among Arabs: “Blow to peace efforts seen,” “U.S. officials see period of instability in Mideast,” “The Arab world is grief-stricken.” The real story, however, was quite different, with Nasser’s rule bringing disaster to Egypt in the form of political, economic, and cultural decline.
A 34-year-old colonel when he took over through a coup d’etat in 1952, Nasser was the first indigenous Egyptian to rule the country since the pharaohs. His ambitions were as immense as his ideas were delusional. He overthrew a king and installed an oppressive military rule that still endures 68 years later. He dispossessed grand landlords and small merchants alike, then chased out Levantine entrepreneurs — mainly Italians, Greeks and Lebanese — who fueled the economy. He persecuted the small but thriving Jewish community of 75,000 to the point that it now consists of 10 (at last count) elderly women.
He aligned with the Soviet Union, industrialized Egypt along Soviet lines, and ruled with post-Stalin-like brutality. Bewitched by the mirage of bringing all Arabic-speaking countries under his control, Nasser unified with some of them and made war with others. More than anyone else, he installed anti-Zionism as the mainstay of Middle Eastern political life and transformed the Palestinian refugee issue into Palestinian irredentism. Along the way, he initiated the Six-Day War of 1967 and dispatched his armed forces to the most lopsided military defeat in recorded history.
Nasser proved to be a master artist of deceit. He pretended to become a civilian while extending the military’s monopoly of power over economic, security, legislative and judicial affairs. He imposed a socialism that administered city buses with two classes of service while enriching his cronies. His mock unity with Syria concealed a crude drive to dominate. His ostensible enmity with Islamists masked a sordid struggle for booty.
I arrived in Egypt a few months after Nasser’s demise, in June 1971. It was an exciting time of witness as his successor, Anwar al-Sadat, opened up the country by cutting back on socialism, the Soviet connection and the foreign adventures. Each day felt brighter than the one before.
And yet, Egypt has never escaped Nasser’s legacy. The regime persists in a casual brutality toward dissidents and a dogged hostility to Israel that outlasts the peace treaty signed 41 years ago. It lags economically, with retired military officers more important than ever and the country unable to feed itself or produce goods the world wants. A population of 100 million stuffs itself almost entirely into the 8% of Egypt that comprises the Nile Valley and Nile Delta.
Constant expansion onto agricultural land and the prospect of diminished Nile River water portend future crises. Even the famed Egyptian cotton is no more.
Thus did Egypt slide from its old status as the foremost of 20 Arabic-speaking countries to an afterthought.
Those New York Times headlines symbolized the West’s cluelessness about the deeply malign nature of Nasser’s rule. Blow to peace efforts? Hardly: Only post-Nasser could Sadat yank Egypt away from its debilitating confrontation with Israel. Period of instability? No, Nasser’s death removed the region’s most disruptive element. Arabs grief-stricken? Some, yes; but many others felt relief.
Egypt’s modern history reconfirms that when a country falls into the hands of a despot the return to normality can take a very long time. Russia, China and Iraq provide other past examples; Venezuela, North Korea and Iran provide more current ones.
Given Egypt’s lugubrious immobility under Gamal Abdel Nasser’s half-century-long shadow, I pessimistically predict that another 50 years hence, the Egypt of 2070 will yet suffer under his influence. Rulers will come, rulers will go, unable to break the boundaries he set so long ago.
• Daniel Pipes (DanielPipes.org, @DanielPipes) is president of the Middle East Forum.