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Gamal Abdel Nasser

(1918 - 1970)

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 banned. In 1953 the monarchy was abolished and a republic proclaimed. It was first headed by General Muhammad Naguib, but in 1954 Nasser stepped out of the shadows to assume power. He subsequently negotiated a treaty with the British, by which Egypt was evacuated after 72 years of occupation. Nasser was officially elected president in 1956.

Following the Bandung Conference (1955), at which he emerged as a world figure, having espoused a policy of nonalignment. Nasser's relations with the West deteriorated. In 1956, Britain and the United States withdrew their financial support from his Aswan High Dam project. In order to obtain funds for the project, Nasser then nationalized the Suez Canal. This brought aggression from France and Britain in alliance with Israel. Under pressure from the U.S., however, the three were forced to withdraw, and a United Nations emergency force was subsequently placed as a buffer between Egypt and Israel.

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 After the UN peacekeeping force, at Nasser's request, had been withdrawn, and Egyptian guns blockaded the Gulf of Aqaba to Israeli ships, Israel attacked Egypt and occupied the entire Sinai Peninsula up to the Suez Canal.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, but the people took to the streets, demanding his return to government. He never, however, regained his previous stature. On September 28, 1970, he died suddenly of a heart attack.

Opinion about Nasser is sharply divided. His detractors stress his police-state methods and criticize his foreign policies, which also involved Egypt in a war in Yemen (1962-67). Others praise his internal reforms and see him as the man who wrested Egypt from the grasp of foreigners and a decadent monarchy and gave it back to the Egyptians. Beyond doubt, he was the foremost Arab leader of his time, who restored Arab dignity after the long humiliation of Western domination.

Sources: "Nasser, Gamal Abdel ," Microsoft® Encarta® Online Encyclopedia 2000 © 1997-2000 Microsoft Corporation. All rights reserved.