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force, at Nasser's request, had been withdrawn, and Egyptian guns blockaded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
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