Gamal Abdel Nasser was born in Alexandria on January 15, 1918, the son of a postman. After secondary schooling in Cairo, he entered the Royal Military Academy and graduated in 1938. There and in subsequent service, he formed friendships with a few fellow officers and, with them, created a secret revolutionary society, the Free Officers. Egypt was ruled at the time by a small landowning class that possessed one-third of the land and dominated parliament; the British presence was all-pervasive, and the king, Faruk I, was an irresponsible playboy. The Free Officers plotted to rid Egypt of the British and the king, and the disastrous campaign against Israel in 1948 strengthened their resolve. On July 23, 1952, they staged a coup and ousted King Faruk. Although he was the real leader, Nasser initially remained in the background.
Radical measures were soon instituted: landownership was limited and political parties were banned. In 1953, the monarchy was abolished, and a republic was proclaimed. It was first headed by General Muhammad Naguib, but in 1954 Nasser stepped out of the shadows and was appointed prime minister on April 17 at the age of 36.
Nasser tried to get the two superpowers to compete for his friendship. He had let it be known in 1954–55 that he was considering buying weapons from the Soviet Union to pressure the Americans into selling him arms. To the surprise and anger of the United States, Nasser announced on September 27, 1955, that Czechoslovakia would supply heavy Soviet weaponry to Egypt. Following the Bandung Conference (1955), he emerged as a world figure, having espoused a policy of non-alignment. Nasser’s relations with the West subsequently deteriorated.
As he built his arsenal, he adopted a new tactic to continue the war Egypt had started in 1948 with Israel, training and equipping Arab terrorists, or fedayeen, to engage in hostile action on the border and infiltrate Israel to commit acts of sabotage and murder. The fedayeen operated mainly from bases in Jordan so that the country would absorb Israel’s retaliation, which inevitably followed.
He negotiated a treaty with the British, by which Egypt was evacuated after 72 years of occupation. Nasser was officially elected president in 1956.
In 1956, Britain and the United States withdrew their financial support from his Aswan High Dam project. To obtain funds for the project, Nasser then nationalized the Suez Canal. The French and British desperately wanted to put Nasser in his place and recapture their strategic asset. Exploiting Israel’s fear of Egyptian aggression, the Europeans convinced Israel to attack Egypt with the promise they would subsequently deploy their troops to “protect” the Canal. This led to the 1956 Suez War.
By this time, Nasser had become a hero in the Arab world. In 1958, Syria and Egypt united under his presidency, forming the United Arab Republic. The union, however, broke up in 1961 after a coup in Syria. Nasser subsequently espoused a program of Arab socialism in which banks and utilities were nationalized to finance a program of industrialization.
By 1967 the Arab-Israeli situation had deteriorated. After the UN peacekeeping force, at Nasser’s request, had been withdrawn, and Egyptian guns blockaded the Gulf of Aqaba to Israeli ships, Israel attacked Egypt and occupied the entire Sinai Peninsula up to the Suez Canal. Nasser, taking responsibility for the debacle, resigned on June 9, 1967, but the people took to the streets, demanding his return to government.
Egypt began shelling Israeli positions near the Suez Canal on July 1, 1967, marking the beginning of what became the War of Attrition, which lasted until August 8, 1970. In the midst of the war, a deranged tourist set fire to the al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem. Nasser saw the incident as an opportunity to unify the Arab world against Israel. Though he was known for his “secular nationalist approach and his obsessive enmity towards Islamists,” Nasser said in a message to the Egyptian Army on August 23, 1969, that “the coming battle would not merely be for the liberation of Palestine but also the ‘purging of the holy land of God’s enemy.’” He added, “Our armies shall return to the al-Aqsa Mosque plaza, and Jerusalem shall be restored to its pre-colonialist state.”
Following the humiliation of the Six-Day War, Nasser never regained his previous stature. On September 28, 1970, he died suddenly of a heart attack.
Nasser, Gamal Abdel, Microsoft® Encarta® Online Encyclopedia 2000, © 1997-2000 Microsoft Corporation. All rights reserved.
Mohsen M. Saleh, “The Arson of al-Aqsa Mosque in 1969 and its Impact on the Muslim World As Reflected in the British Documents,” Dirasat, Human and Social Sciences, Vol. 33, No. 2, (2006), pp. 418-419.
Jeffrey Haynes, Ed., Handbook on Religion and International Relations, (Edward Elgar Publishing, 2021), p. 277.
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