The Arabs had a country

No figure in the Arab world embodies the ideals and contradictions of Pan-Arabism more than Egypt's Gamal Abdel Nasser.

Gamal Nasser, King Faisal, and Yasser Arafat in 1970 (Wiki Commons).

The death of Fidel Castro prompted some debate in the West about his legacy. Many commentators concluded that the Cuban revolution’s descent into authoritarianism outweighed its contributions to the struggle for independence in Latin America and the Third World. Others have celebrated Castro as a hero of Third World liberation. For many in the West, it is puzzling to see the likes of Castro venerated as a hero. Perhaps the legacies of leaders such as Thomas Sankara, Hugo Chavez or Castro are only fully intelligible from a perspective that de-centers the West. From that perspective, victories – however flawed or fleeting – are cause for jubilation. Leadership like that of Castro’s broadened the horizon of political possibilities, and his internationalism and commitment to social revolution at home proved that revolution itself, however flawed, was indeed possible.

In the Arab world, there is no figure that embodies these ideals and contradictions than the second president of Egypt, Gamal Abdel Nasser. Himself a comrade of the late Castro, and leading figure of the non-aligned movement, Nasser counted among his sincere allies the likes of Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali, Che Guevera and Patrice Lumumba. He led the nationalization of the Suez Canal and subsequent confrontation with the British, French and Israeli militaries in 1956, which was not just an Egyptian or Arab victory, it was a victory for all colonized people, a reversal of one the glaring injustices of colonialism.

Nasserism became a dominant ideology in the Arab world, and inspired a wave of “republican” coups and revolutions; Jordan and Iraq in 1958, Yemen in 1962, Algeria in 1964, Sudan and Libya in 1969, Jordan again in 1970. Central to Nasserism, and the ideologically similar Baathism, was the impulse to reverse the dismemberment of the Arab world in the wake of the World War I through the eventual creation of a single pan-Arab state, “from the Ocean to Gulf.”

The most successful experiment in this proposed political union was between Egypt and Syria from 1958 to 1961. Political instability had wracked Syria since the current state was established as part of the Sykes-Picot agreement between colonial powers Britain and France in 1918. In 1958, the Syrian government proposed immediate unification with Egypt as a way to stabilize Syria and finalize a long-standing process of integration between the two states in pursuit of Arab unity. Though the unification was brief – undone in a coup led by Baathists in 1961 – it was welcomed with “overwhelming support” by the Arab masses, as Tareq Y. Ismael argued in his 1976 book, The Arab Left.

Even in death, Nasser was a man of his era. His passing in 1970 came as the Arab world was still reeling from the successful Israeli attack on Egypt in 1967, which was ultimately the death-knell of pan-Arabism and Nasserism. A Lebanese newspaper headline captured the significance of his death best, declaring: “One hundred million human beings – the Arabs – are orphans. There is nothing greater than this man who is gone, and nothing is greater than the gap he has left behind.”

Nasser’s successor, Anwar Sadat, worked diligently to undo much of the progress Egypt made under his predecessor’s reign, pivoting towards the West in foreign policy and initiating a painful economic liberalization that created the social and political conditions that caused the Arab revolutions of four decades later. Sadat’s agreement to forge a separate peace with Israel completed Egypt’s transition from the leader of the Arab world to a regional pariah. With the Arab world’s most powerful and populous country effectively removed from the Palestinian theater, the Arab states retreated inward and non-interference became the rule in their relations. Domestically, Sadat began the long process of neoliberal economic restructuring.

For some, the idea that Nasser’s image would be raised by Egyptian protesters in 2011 battling the very apparatus he built in Egypt, is a contradiction that cannot be resolved. Such a perspective fails to understand that Nasser is not remembered by most as a military dictator. Rather, he represents a bygone era in which principled opposition to a world system built upon and the exploitation of the Third World was a viable political project. Nasser, like Castro, like Chavez, like Sankara, symbolized the Third World’s dignified opposition to the very conditions that created it.

For Arab revolutionaries in 2016, that dignity remains elusive. The fall of Aleppo in Syria is but the latest in a series of crushing defeats. The euphoria of 2011 has given way to despair and tragedy almost everywhere in the region, and every concession to the revolution has been brutally rolled back. The ancien regimes have handled the challenge of 2011 more adeptly than anyone could have imagined.

In the Arab world, there is no other figure that embodies this counterrevolution more than the sixth president of Egypt, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. His regime positioned itself as the continuation of the 2011 revolution, while stamping out any trace of it that remained. El-Sisi is attempting to coopt Nasser’s image in his propaganda, but he is nothing more than the farce to Nasser’s tragedy. Nasserism was legitimated by populist economic policy and anti-imperialism through pan-Arabism. El-Sisi can lay claim to none of these aspects of Nasser’s legacy. He has continued the process of neoliberal economic restructuring set forth by Sadat and acted as rear-gunner for Israeli colonialism on the ground, and most recently for incoming U.S. President Donald Trump at the UN Security Council.

It is perhaps in “the Arab sphere,” to use the parlance of Nasserism, that El-Sisi has most perfectly become Nasser’s inverse. His foreign adventures are a departure from the isolation of Sadat and Hosni Mubarak, but they have served the forces of counterrevolution at every turn. The Egyptian regime has entered the Libyan quagmire on the side of General Khalifa Haftar, who hopes to become “Libya’s Sisi”. Egypt was also an early member in Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen, a familiar battlefield for Egyptian military, though in the 1960s, the Egyptians were going to war against the Saudis and their British backers.

But the reports of an Egyptian intervention in Syria to support the Baathist regime strike the most historic chord. Just as it was in 1958, Syria has become the epicenter of a crisis plaguing the wider Arab world, and Egypt, in the midst of its own political turmoil, is entering the fray. But where Nasser’s unification with Syria represented the hope that the Arab world could transcend the divisions it inherited from the colonial masters – the hope that a revolutionary moment could be exported – El-Sisi’s is the completion of Egypt’s counter-revolutionary turn. For Arabs leaders, it seems, there is only unity in betrayal.

Further Reading

Egypt after Edward Said

Last December, when the Institut d’Egypte was burned down, I thought immediately of Edward Said. Napoleon’s expedition to Europe is described at the beginning of Orientalism, where it is a classic example of how academic and …