Nasserism: History and Politics

There is no reason why we should not look objectively at Nasserism. This is how George Lenczowsky, who is regarded as the founder of Middle Eastern area studies in the US, begins his book “The Arab World: Paths to Modernisation” (1965).  As for the study of other political ideologies, Nasserism has strongly divided the academic community. This article analyzes post-1952 Egypt, taking into consideration the political, economic, and social traits of Nasserism. In doing this, the influence of Nasserism on the Middle Eastern geopolitical structure will also be investigated. Nasserism does not just stand for the revolutionary regime established in Egypt after July 23rd, 1952, when Colonel Nasser’s Free Officers deposed King Farouq and abolished the monarchy. Instead, Nasserism stands for a complex set of historical junctures.  Looking at it implies the necessity to analyse a broader scenario made of social, political, and external factors, all of which have participated in the reshaping of the Middle Eastern geopolitical agenda. Nasser’s corpus of policies, in both the economic and socio-political fields, cannot be synthesized in a precise political doctrine whose assumptions could forecast the actions. Instead, researchers have studied it as a belief, of which the boundaries have remained blurred over time, up to the present days.  In order to achieve its goals, Nasser’s regime has relied on favorable contingencies in the broader international context, playing as an intermediate actor between the liberal and the communist bloc and exploiting their opposition.  Hence, because of the multiple – and contradictories – ideological aspects of Nasserism, it is convenient to portray it over time, dividing its ideological and political development into four main phases, characterized by changes in Nasser’s propaganda, domestic measures, and, ultimately, foreign policy.

The first period of the post-revolutionary Egypt is usually defined as that of Egyptocentrism, lasted around two years and extended from King Farouq’s deposition to 1954. This period is best defined as a “de-constructive phase”, whose aims were the eradication of the previous political elite, the rejection of its institutional legacy, and the establishment of a renewed political system. As all newly established regimes, Nasser’s Egypt needed to gain popular legitimacy to guarantee its political continuity and strengthen its grasp over Egyptian economic, political non-governmental actors. To do so, Nasser’s propagandistic machine worked on the concepts of social justice and equality before the law. However, as George Lenczowsky pointed out “the remedies proposed by the new rulers were so general and vague as to appear as slogans rather than as a real program” (G. Lenczowksy, The Objects, and Methods of Nasserism, 1965). Notwithstanding the vagueness of these slogans, three capital questions captured the attention of the regime: the land question, civic parity, and economic growth. Nasser made the first point the highest priority. The most important measure to remember is that of imposing a maximum ceiling of 200 feddans per landowner (C. Boeck, Reforme Agraire et structure sociales en Egypte nasserienne, 1971). Class privileges and titles were also abolished. To compensate for the economic losses due to the fragmentation of land ownership, the regime focused on attracting foreign investment to enhance productivity. The latter was a change of primary importance in the economic policies of the country, as the past government was hostile to inflows of foreign capitals. The Egyptocentric phase of Nasserism comes to an end with the establishment of a set of general provisions for the country’s future foreign policy, among which it is of utmost importance the so-called theory of the “three concentric circles”.

The latter consisted of the three primary levels of activity of Nasserist Egypt, thought to be the most suitable ones to improve both the domestic conditions and Egypt’s role within its geopolitical scenario. It included: the Arab level, as it was Egypt’s natural ethnocultural dimension, the Islamic, as it represented Egypt’s religious dimension, and the African, as Nasser thought Africa to be the geographical starting point to build a diplomatic network based on mutual solidarity. The very base of Nasser’s grand strategy was, however, the central importance of Egypt, around which the foreign policy and the diplomatic agenda had to be built. The second phase “may be traced to the moment when Nasser projected himself from the purely domestic role of Egyptian reformer into the role of an all-Arab leader” (G. Lenczowksy, 1965). The reputation of Egypt’s Prime Minister started spreading in 1955, when he firmly and explicitly criticized the Baghdad Pact, a military alliance between Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Pakistan, of which the aim was to create a filo-American bloc to contain the Soviet Union in Central Asia. In Nasser’s vision, the Pact could draw the Arab world into the Cold war, undermining the international subjectivity of the Arab countries and depriving them of their right to remain neutral (non-aligned).

The opposition to the Baghdad Pact increased the Arab countries’ consensus for the Egyptian regime. Nasser’s fast-growing reputation, and his fame as the hero of all Arabs, allowed Egypt to cover a major-relevance role in the international conference of Bandung (1955), where the Twentynine participant countries (almost all of them under former colonial rule) drafted a ten points declaration “On the promotion of world peace and cooperation”. During this so-called second phase, Nasser’s Egypt expanded its range of influence by dialoguing with the Saudi monarchy and gaining support from the Yemeni government, whose leader Mohammed Bader launched a policy of close cooperation with Egypt and the Communist countries. Diplomatically speaking, Nasser’s Egypt was merging the socio-political instances of several Middle Eastern countries, creating the premises to build a common political program. To do so, Nasser centered his rhetoric on anti-western propaganda. In doing so, he hoped to create a Pan-Arab multilateral system to unhook Arab countries from both the communist and the western bloc.

Importantly, in 1955 Nasser made arms deal with the Soviet Union, while, the following year, declared the nationalization of the Suez Canal, whose rights were previously owned by France and Great Britain. The relationship that Nasser had created with Washington and Moscow before declaring the nationalization of Suez (thus before threatening the interests of France and the United Kingdom) earned him a first victory. Moreover, both the Soviet Union and the United States threatened to intervene against France, the United Kingdom, and Israel when the latter were about to wage war against Egypt. Nasser’s prestige skyrocketed: in 1958 the Pan-Arab dream seemed to be about to turn into reality, and both Nasser’s Egypt and the Baathist Syria announced their unification into a new State called the “United Arab Republic”. Not much later it was announced Yemen’s act of federation to the United Arab Republic and pro-Nasserist uprisings spread in Iraq, Jordan, and Lebanon. Yet, when the Middle Eastern balance of power seemed to be on the edge of collapse, the Pan-Arab dreams crashed against the US-led military operations in Lebanon and Jordan, reinforcing the ancient regime. This first defeat in Nasser’s reunification project of the Arab world marks the beginning of a new phase in the evolution of Nasserism. The sudden interruption of the pro-Nasserist uprisings, in the likely-to-be new territories of the United Arab Union (Lebanon, Jordan, and Iraq), left an indelible mark on Egypt’s foreign policy. The following years, let us say until 1961, would see Nasser focusing on the growing domestic issues, specifically concerning the newly annexed territories of Syria. After 1958, Cairo’s policy regarding the Pan-Arab project could be synthesized as follows: “Egypt’s revolution is not for export” (G. Lenczowksy, 1965). Since July 1952, the Egyptian economy underwent dramatic changes, with a significant shift from a free-market society to economic dirigisme, whose control extended between the civil and the economic society, leaving no space for personal initiative.

While the Egyptian economy experienced the bureaucratisation of production, with an ever-growing presence of party officials in all sectors and spheres of economy and society, Syria witnessed a considerable delay in the nasserisation of its economy. While Egypt’s economy had been regimented for a long time, Syria’s financial fabric was still in the hands of the local bourgeoisie, in a condition of quasi laissez-faire. Not to lose its newly acquired grasp over the country, Nasser had to speed up “Egypt’s penetration in Syria”. However, while Nasserism was well received by the lowest strata of the Syrian society, it was not the same for Syria’s upper class, determined not to lose its leading role in Damascus. The year was 1961. The Syrian Army joined the recently deposed conservative class and led a counter-revolution against the Nasserist Government. As a result, the Egypto-Syrian Union came to an end. The so-called fourth and last phase of Nasserism arose from the ashes of the Syrian secession, leading to a further transformation of Egypt’s revolutionary ideology. The failed unification between Cairo and Damascus made it clear that, if the realization of the Pan-Arab project was possible, a different approach was needed. First, the revolution ought to be preceded by a cultural change towards maximalist socialism, instead than reformism. Second, the revolution had to be exported. If any revolution had to take place, such had to be the premises. The first Nasser’s step was to convoke “The Congress of Popular forces” in 1962, of which the result was the draft of a document “setting forth the ideas and principles of Arab Socialism” (G. Lenczowksy, 1965).

According to this document, Egypt had to be the fountainhead of Arab socialism, the dictatorship of any class had to be rejected (somehow against the communist “solution”) and the Army had to be the people’s vanguard. Finally, it reiterated the need to support all national liberations’ movements and the duty to fight Imperialism, of which Zionism was an emanation. A few months after the Congress uprisings spread in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen, giving new lymph to both Nasser and Nasserism. In April 1963 the Syrian, Egyptian, and Iraqi governments signed an agreement whereby the three states would have joined into a federal State after a transitional period of 20 months. Yet, after months of negotiations, the project wrecked on the question of Egypt’s centrality in the federal State, which Nasser thought to be essential for the future of the Union. On the other hand, drawing from the Baathist system of collective leadership, Damascus pushed to be recognized as an equal member of the Union. The failed agreement between Egypt and Syria, two of the most relevant legacies of the Ottoman age, sanctioned the end of the Socialist dream of Arab reunification.

Interpreting Nasser: Conclusions

The main objective of Nasserism was the liberation of the Arab world from the influence of any foreign power, especially the Western ones (France, UK, United States). The main tools of the Nasserian government agenda, therefore, were socialism and nationalism. The “official” objective of Nasser’s policies was restoring Arabs’ dignity and self-confidence, freeing the Arabs’ societies from their past shameful experience of oppression. For this reason, as mentioned at the beginning, researchers studied Nasserism in terms of a belief, rather than as a precise corpus of ideological assumptions.  However, trying to unhook the Arab world from its past, Nasser found himself embroiled in the web of conflicts and antagonisms of the Middle East. Specifically, the disgrace of the Six Days War in 1967 and its consequences doomed the Arab States to remain in a dialectical position with Israel, with which the struggle was not to end soon. However, Nasser only ever made use of populist rhetoric in the long course of his political experience. In contexts as the Egyptian one has been, one can either adhere to these ideologies or be marginalized. Despite the many limitations of this political paradigm, the study of Nasserism remains crucial to understanding the political history of the contemporary Middle East.

Samuele Vasapollo

Sources

  • Willard Range, “An Interpretation of Nasserism” (University of Utah, Western Political Science Association, 1959), pp. 1005 – 1016, JSTOR;
  • George Lenczowsky, “The Objects and Methods of Nasserism” (Journal of International Affairs, 1965), “The Arab World: Paths to Modernisation”, pp. 63-76, JSTOR;
  • F. R. C. Bagley, “Nasserism” (Journal of International Affairs, 1958), pp. 150-158, JSTOR;
  • Cecile Boeckx, “Reforme agraire et structure sociales en Egypte nasserienne” (Civilisations, Vol. 21, No. 4, 1971), pp. 373-393, JSTOR;
  • Elieh Podeh and Onn Winckler, “Rethinking Nasserism: Revolution and Historical Memory in Modern Egypt” (Cambridge University Press, Vol 39, No. 4, 2007), pp.654-655, JSTOR;
  • Peter Mansfield, “Nasser’s Egypt” (Estudios Internacionales, 1968), pp. 515-517, JSTOR;
  • Peter Mansfield, “Nasser and Nasserism” (International Journal, Vol. 28, No. 4), The Arab States and Israel, pp. 670-688, JSTOR.

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