By - Victoria Akindele
Gamal Abdel-Nasser was born on Jan. 15, 1918, in a mud-brick house, on Qanawat Street in Bacchus, a suburban district in Alexandria. He was an Egyptian army officer, prime minister (1954 to 1956) and then president (1956 to 1970) of Egypt who became a controversial leader of the Arab world.
Gamal joined the nursery school of Muharram Bek in Alexandria. He was the eldest son of Fahima and Hussein Abdel-Nasser. His dad, Hussein was in charge of the local post office in Alexandra. From Alexandria, Gamal’s father was transferred to Al-Khaṭāṭibah, a squalid delta village, where the boy got his elementary schooling.
In 1925, he moved to Cairo where he stayed with his paternal uncle, Khalil Hussein for three years where he joined El-Nahassin Elementary School in Gamalia. On weekends, Gamal would travel to Khatatba to visit his family. On one of his visits in 1926, during the summer vacation, he learned of the death of his mother to whom he was greatly attached. After completing his third year at El-Nahassin School, his father sent him to Alexandria in the summer of 1928 to stay with his maternal grandfather where he spent his fourth year of elementary school at El-Attarin School.
In 1929, Gamal gained admission into Helwan High School where he stayed for one year and then moved to Ras El-Tin High School where his national sentiment was shaped. Constantly in trouble with schoolteachers, some of them British, Gamal took part in many anti-British street demonstrations and in one of them, he received a blow on the forehead that left a lifelong scar.
In 1933, Gamalr joined Al-Nahda Secondary school at El-Zaher district in Cairo where he pursued his political career and became head of El-Nahda schools student union. During that time, his passion for reading on patriotic and history-related literature led him to read about the French Revolution, Rousseau, Voltaire, Napoleon Bonaparte, Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Gandhi and some others. He even wrote an article entitled “Voltaire, the Man of Freedom” which was published in the school magazine.
In 1935, Gamal also witnessed a great revolutionary student-led movement calling for the re-installation of the constitution and for independence. Two months later, on Nov. 9, 1935, after British Foreign Minister, Samuel Hoare declared Britain’s refusal to re-install the Egyptian constitution, several student and worker demonstrations broke out.
On Nov. 13, 1935, Gamal led a demonstration by secondary school students in which he sustained injuries to his forehead from a shot by the British police forces. He was rushed by his colleagues to the nearby Al-Jihad publishing house. Although, his wound was superficial, but it won him mention in the following morning’s edition of the nationalistic newspaper Al-Gihad. Later on Dec. 12, 1935, under public pressure, a royal decree was issued to re-install the 1923 constitution.
After completing his secondary education and receiving his baccalaureate, Gamal decided to join the army. Following his experience with politics and his contact with politicians and political groups whom he despised, Gamal realised that Egypt will not regain its freedom by rhetorical speeches and believed that force must be faced with force.
After his application to and rejection by the Royal Military Academy, Gamal joined the Faculty of Law, Cairo University, in October 1936 for six months until the 1936 Treaty was formed. This increased the demand for officers regardless of their social rank or wealth and as a result, the Military Academy accepted more students in the fall of 1936 and early 1937. With the help of General Ibrahim Khairy, secretary of the Ministry of War, who admired Gamal’s openness, nationalist spirit and insistence on becoming an army officer, Gamal was accepted into the Military Academy.
Gamal focused on his military career from then on, and had little contact with his family. At the academy, he met Abdel Hakim Amer and Anwar Sadat, both of whom became important aides during his presidency. After graduating from the academy in July 1938, he was commissioned a second lieutenant in the infantry, and posted to Mankabad. It was here that Gamal and his closest comrades, including Sadat and Amer, first discussed their dissatisfaction at widespread corruption in the country and their desire to topple the monarchy.
In February 1942, British tanks surrounded the royal palace and forced King Faruq I, to replace the government with a pro-British one. Many Egyptian officers then left the army since they had failed to protect their own king. Gamal was not one of those officers since he believed that such a king deserved no protection and that he should be overthrown. Gamal vehemently rejected the British influence in Egypt (which had also extended to the Egyptian armed forces).
While serving in the Egyptian army in the Sudan, Gamal met three fellow officers (Zakariyyā Muḥyi al-Dīn, Abd al-Ḥakīm Āmir and Anwar el-Sādāt) who together, planned a secret revolutionary organisation, the Free Officers Movement. In 1947, he attended the General Staff School and from 1948 to 1949 he took part as a captain in the Palestine War. As a member of the Egyptian delegation, he participated in the ceasefire negotiations with Israel on the Greek island of Rhodes.
Attainment of power
On July 23, 1952, Gamal and 89 other Free Officers staged an almost bloodless coup d’état, ousting the monarchy. Sādāt favoured the immediate public execution of King Farouk I and some members of the establishment, but Gamal rejected the idea and permitted Farouk and others to go into exile. The country was taken over by the Revolutionary Command Council (RCC) of 11 officers controlled by Gamal, with Major General Muḥammad Naguib as the marionette head of state. For more than a year, Gamal kept his real role so well hidden that astute foreign correspondents were unaware of his existence, but in the spring of 1954, in a complicated series of intrigues, Naguib was deposed and placed under house arrest, and Gamal emerged from the shadows and named himself prime minister.
That same year, an Egyptian fanatic allegedly tried to assassinate Gamal at a mass meeting in Alexandria. When the gunman confessed that he had been given the assignment by the Muslim Brotherhood, Gamal cracked down on this extremist Muslim religious organisation. In January 1956, Gamal announced the promulgation of a constitution under which Egypt became a socialist Arab state with a one-party political system and with Islam as the official religion.
On June 24, 1956, 99.948 percent of the five million Egyptians voting marked their ballots for Gamal who was the only candidate for president. As Gamal took titular as well as actual control, Egypt’s prospects looked bright. A secret contract had been signed with Czechoslovakia for war matériel, and Great Britain, together with the United States (U.S.) had agreed to put up $270 million to finance the first stage of the Aswān High Dam project. Then, on July 20, 1956, the U.S. secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, canceled the U.S. offer and the next day, Britain followed suit. Five days later, addressing a mass meeting in Alexandria, Gamal announced the nationalisation of the Suez Canal, promising that the tolls Egypt collected in five years would build the dam. Both Britain and France had interests in the canal and conspired with Israel (whose relations with Egypt had grown even tenser after the first Arab-Israeli war in 1948 to 1949) to best Gamal and regain control of the canal. According to their plan, on Oct. 29, 1956, Israeli forces invaded the Sinai Peninsula then, two days later, French and British planes attacked Egyptian airfields. Although the Israelis occupied the Sinai Peninsula to Sharm al-Shaykh and the Egyptian air force was virtually destroyed, Gamal emerged from the brief war with undiminished prestige throughout the Arab world.
In Philosophy of the Revolution, which he wrote in 1954, Gamal told of heroic and glorious roles which never found heroes to perform them and outlined his aspiration to be the leader of the 55 million Arabs, of the then 420 million followers of Islam. On Feb. 22, 1958 Gamal became President of the United Arab Republic after the union between Egypt and Syria, which Gamal hoped would someday include the entire Arab world. It remained that until their separation on Sept. 28, 1961 as a result of the conspiracy arranged by members of the Syrian Army but Egypt continued to be known as the United Arab Republic until 1971. That was as close as Gamal ever came to realising his tripartite dream. Gamal, however, remained President of the United Arab Republic until his demise.
Resignation and Resistance
On June 9, 1967, Nasser appeared on television to inform Egypt’s citizens of their country’s defeat. He announced his resignation on television later that day, and ceded all presidential powers to his then-Vice President Zakaria Mohieddin, who had no prior information of this decision and refused to accept the post. Hundreds of thousands of sympathizers poured into the streets in mass demonstrations throughout Egypt and across the Arab world rejecting his resignation, chanting, “We are your soldiers, Gamal!” Nasser retracted his decision the next day.
On July 11, 1967, Gamal replaced Amer with Mohamed Fawzi as general commander over the protestations of Amer’s loyalists in the military, 600 of whom marched on army headquarters and demanded Amer’s reinstatement. After Gamal sacked thirty of the loyalists in response, Amer and his allies devised a plan to topple him August 27. Gamal was tipped off about their activities and, after several invitations, he convinced Amer to meet him at his home on August 24. Gamal confronted Amer about the coup plot, which he denied before being arrested by Mohieddin. Amer committed suicide on September 14. Despite his souring relationship with Amer, Gamal spoke of losing “the person closest to [him]”. Thereafter, Gamal began a process of depoliticizing the armed forces, arresting dozens of leading military and intelligence figures loyal to Amer.
The era of Gamal’s reign is regarded as a time where ordinary citizens enjoyed unprecedented access to housing, education, jobs, health services and nourishment as well as other forms of social welfare, while aristocratic influence waned. The national economy grew significantly through agrarian reform, major modernisation projects such as the Helwan steel works and the Aswan HighDam and nationalisation schemes such as that of the Suez Canal. The Aswān High Dam, built with the help of the Soviet Union, began operating in 1968; twentieth century life was introduced into many villages, industrialization was accelerated, land reforms broke up Egypt’s large private estates, a partially successful campaign was conducted against corruption and women were accorded more rights than they had ever had, including the right to vote. Gamal’s outstanding accomplishment was his survival for 18 years as Egypt’s political leader, despite the strength of his opponents: communists, Muslim extremists, old political parties, rival military cliques, dispossessed landowners, supporters of Naguib, and what was left of the foreign colony.
Also, during his time in office, Egypt experienced a golden age of culture, particularly in theater, film, poetry, television, radio, literature, fine arts, comedy and music. Egypt under Gamal dominated the Arab world in these fields, producing singers such as Abdel Halim Hafez, Umm Kulthum and Mohammed Abdel Wahab, literary figures such as Naguib Mahfouz and Tawfiq el-Hakim, actors like Faten Hamama and Rushdi Abaza and the release of over 100 films yearly, compared to the production of just more than a dozen annually during Hosni Mubarak’s presidency (1981 to 2011).
Although, on the negative side, Gamal made Egypt a police state, in which, the communications media were strictly censored, the chief newspapers were nationalized, telephones were tapped, and visitors’ rooms were searched. Political democracy in the Western sense was nonexistent, political enemies were herded into concentration camps in the desert and birth rate remained so high, defeating attempts to increase the living standard.
Personal life and Demise
In 1944, Gamal married Tahia Kazem, the daughter of a wealthy Iranian father and an Egyptian mother. They had two daughters and three sons: Hoda, Mona, Khaled, Abdel Hamid, and Abdel Hakim. Gamal’s personal hobbies included playing chess, American films, reading Arabic, English, and French magazines, and listening to classical music. He was a chain smoker. Gamal maintained 18-hour workdays and rarely took time off for vacations. The combination of smoking and working long hours contributed to his poor health and was diagnosed with diabetes in the early 1960s.
Gamal died on Sept. 28, 1970 from a heart attack. Despite the complexity and revolution in his public life, privately Gamal was conservative and simple.
Although, Gamal’s faultfinders criticize his authoritarianism, his human rights violations and his dominance of military over civil institutions, establishing a pattern of military and dictatorial rule in Egypt, but he remains an iconic figure in the Arab world, particularly for his strides towards social justice and Arab unity, modernization policies and anti-imperialist efforts.
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