Once pan-Arab socialism counted as a real force in the world, its most famous leader being Gamal Abdel Nasser. Yassamine Mather looks back at his heady rhetoric and ultimate failure
Before examining the role of Gamal Abdel Nasser in Egypt, I will start by discussing the Ottoman empire, because it is essential to comprehend the broader context of nationalist movements and anti-colonial uprisings. The army officer movement led by Nasser in the early 1950s and, to some extent, the Arab Ba’athist movement, primarily opposed the colonialist powers that succeeded the rule of the Ottomans.
The empire’s origins go back to Anatolia in the late 13th century, when Osman Ghazi established the Ottoman state. In 1453, Mehmed II conquered Constantinople and declared the foundation of the empire. Its decline began in the late 18th century. Economic stagnation and conflicts with Russia further weakened the empire, while efforts to modernise and reform (known as the Tanzimat) proved futile, and the goal of catching up with the western world seemed ever more unattainable.
Spanning a vast territory, from the gates of Vienna to present-day Iran, and from Algeria to Yemen, the empire housed diverse nationalities and religions. It relied on a military bureaucracy to maintain control in the absence of geographic or national cohesion, facing constant wars and rebellions. The corrupt and ill-equipped state earned the title of ‘Sick man of Europe’ and its survival was mainly due to inter-imperialist conflicts.
During its peak, the Ottoman empire governed using the concept of the ‘millet’ - each religion forming a separate group. For instance, orthodox Christians constituted one millet, while Jews formed another. Each millet appointed its own religious leader and enforced its religious laws - so, for instance, Sharia or Islamic law did not apply to non-Muslims. Besides that, the empire was organised into 32 provinces (eyalets), each governed by a wali (administrator).1
In 1517, the Ottoman empire conquered Egypt, defeating the Mamluk dynasty that had ruled the country for centuries. Egypt held a crucial position within the empire due to its strategic location and economic importance. It was a hugely significant producer of cotton, grains and textiles, contributing substantially to the empire’s coffers. Moreover, Egypt played a role militarily. Egyptian troops were frequently used in various campaigns, including conflicts in the Mediterranean and the Arabian peninsula.
Egypt attracted the interest of 19th century Europeans as a strategic gateway to the Orient. It was the first Arabic-speaking region to experience rival colonial incursions by European powers. Egypt gained a degree of autonomy within the Ottoman empire under the leadership of Muhammad Ali Pasha (1805-48), but from 1852 Britain significantly increased its presence in northern Egypt to safeguard its overland trade route to India and oversaw the construction of the Cairo-Alexandria railway - the first such British project on foreign soil. In the same period, French investors financed the construction of the Suez Canal, connecting the Mediterranean to the Red Sea. As khedive (ruler), Isma’il Pasha sold Egypt’s shares in the Suez Canal Company to Britain in 1875 due to a financial crisis.
Growing discontent with European and Ottoman influence in Egypt culminated in a nationalist revolt in 1879. In response, the British occupied the country in 1882 to safeguard their financial interests, resulting in a new round of revolt. Britain emerged victorious, and restored khedival authority in Cairo, establishing a ‘veiled protectorate’ that endured until the outbreak of World War I. The occupation led to an increase in archaeological excavations, tourism and irrigation projects, aimed at boosting Egypt’s cotton production to feed the Lancashire mills.
In 1914, due to the declaration of war against the Ottoman empire, to which Egypt was nominally connected, Britain openly declared Egypt a protectorate. They deposed the anti-British khedive, Abbas Helmy II, and replaced him with his uncle, Hussein Kamel, appointing him sultan. As a consequence, Egypt formally declared its independence from the Ottoman empire.
The end of World War I marked the final collapse of the Ottoman empire - the culmination of long term decline. Many of the regional wars, civil conflicts and disputes in the Middle East today can be traced back to the creation of numerous new ‘states’ with arbitrary borders by France and Britain following the 1916 Sykes-Picot agreement.
Mass demonstrations took place in Egypt from March to April 1919 - the 1919 Revolution. Women played an active role and the British authorities were taken aback as a result. These women were led by Huda Sha’rawi (1879-1947), who became a prominent feminist figure in Egypt during the first half of the 20th century.
In February 1921, the British parliament approved a compromise deal but Egyptian prime minister Adly Yakan Pasha refused to sign it because of differences over who would maintain control over the Suez Canal zone. By December, the British authorities in Cairo had imposed martial law, which provoked further demonstrations and violent suppression.
In response to the increasing nationalism, the British unilaterally proclaimed Egyptian ‘independence’ on February 28 1922 and, following this, Sultan Fuad I was crowned king of Egypt.
However, Britain did not fully withdraw its military presence until after the Suez Crisis of 1956. Despite so-called independence, Britain maintained a significant influence. British representatives provided ‘guidance to the king’ and Britain’s military retained control over the Canal Zone.
King Fuad died in 1936, to be replaced by Farouk I, who was only 16 at the time. He later signed the Anglo-Egyptian treaty, which stipulated that Britain would withdraw all its troops from Egypt by 1949, with the exception of those stationed at the Suez Canal.
Throughout the World War II, Egypt served as the primary base for British forces and, although British troops were partially withdrawn to the Suez Canal area in 1947, anti-colonial sentiment and nationalist movements continued to gain momentum.
Gamal Abdel Nasser was amongst the first group of lower-middle class cadets who were admitted to the military academy in 1936. This was a consequence of the Anglo-Egyptian Treaty signed that year, which scaled back the extent of the semi-colonial military presence established in Egypt following Britain’s invasion in 1882.
Following World War II, Nasser and many of his contemporaries were calling for “complete withdrawal” of British forces and the attainment of Egypt’s “full independence”. Nasser firmly believed that the military should take the lead in ousting the British, dismantling the influence of their local collaborators, and instigating radical political and social reforms. It was with the aim of achieving these objectives that he helped establish the Free Officers Movement.
King Farouk was blamed in Egypt and throughout the Arab world for the events leading up to and during the 1948 Arab-Israeli war. The conflict was a direct consequence of the United Nations’ 1947 decision to partition British-ruled Palestine into separate Jewish and Arab states, escalating tension in the entire region and culminating in the 1948 war.
With Egypt’s lacklustre performance in the war, the Egyptian king faced criticism from various quarters. Despite numerical advantage and material resources, the Egyptian military was clearly not prepared. Sections of the army blamed this on inadequate training and outdated equipment, all highlighting the failures of Farouk’s government.
In July 1952, the Free Officers Movement overthrew Farouk and took power. They declared Egypt a republic in June 1953. Nasser already had a following in the Arab world and beyond because of the successful overthrow of an aristocratic monarch and British puppet, but within a few years he had acquired the status of a Bonapartist ‘charismatic leader’, not least due to his commitment to Arab socialism.
From that time till his death, Nasser’s call for pan-Arab unity influenced politics in the entire Arab world. In some ways Egypt became the model for military republics that styled themselves as anti-imperialist or even “socialist” - in Syria, Iraq, Algeria, South Yemen, Libya and Sudan. Of course, the economy of all of these countries was state-capitalist - nothing to do with working class socialism: they were authoritarian, with repressive internal security apparatuses that policed society, its culture and intellectual life, and crushed all manifestations of opposition.
In many countries in the global south, the working class was weak. Leftwing parties were suppressed, while the military played a key role as the largest, most organised, modern national institution. Young officers forged alliances with anti-colonial forces and at times took the lead. Of course, invariably, as soon as they took power, they suppressed former allies, accusing them of being agents of imperialist powers. Nasserites frequently used the slogan, ‘No voice louder than the voice of the battle’, in their efforts to emphasise the primacy role of military action, in order to maintain control and quell dissent.
These military rulers often enjoyed the backing of the Soviet Union, which labelled them as ‘progressive’ for following a so-called ‘non-capitalist road to development’. In some cases, when these rulers fully aligned themselves with its foreign policy, they were even referred to by the USSR as ‘socialist’.
The Soviet Union purposefully cultivated misconceptions about its cold war allies, fostering a tendency to overlook the distinction between anti-colonial sentiments and authoritarian practices.
It is generally known that Nasser and the majority of the Free Officers were actually anti-communist. Some of them, including Anwar al-Sadat (president from 1970-81), had previous affiliations with the Muslim Brotherhood. However, one of the junta leaders, Khalid Muhyi al-Din, and a number of low-ranking officers were close to the Democratic Movement for National Liberation.
DMNL was founded in 1947, as two communist factions - the Egyptian Movement for National Liberation and Iskra - merged. Soon after its foundation it had a membership of around 1,400, making it the largest communist organisation in Egypt at the time and its weekly publication, Al-Jamahir (generally considered to be of a reasonable standard) had a circulation of around 8,000. The paper addressed working class issues and the party distributed it free of charge outside factories, etc. Before the 1952 coup, DMNL experienced a number of splits. However, both the Muslim Brotherhood and DMNL initially supported the coup - only to end up opposing the new republic less than a year after it was formed. Members of both groups were declared ‘enemies of Egypt’, facing imprisonment and torture. In fact, as early as 1953, all political parties were banned and Egypt was declared a one-party system under the short-lived ‘Liberation Rally’, whose general secretary was Nasser.
The new government suppressed working class protests. The army was used to attack striking workers in outer Alexandria. Nasser and his military allies were also keen to prove to the United States that they were not communists. In their efforts to demonstrate this, the junta hastily convened a military tribunal to try 29 workers. Among them, Mustafa Khamis and Muhammad al-Baqari were falsely convicted for premeditated murder and labelled ‘communists’. They received death sentences, and on September 7 1952 they were executed.
In 1952, Egypt’s economy was predominantly agrarian, with its primary source of wealth coming from the cultivation and export of high-quality cotton. However, the rural population endured widespread malnutrition, illiteracy and health issues - often contracting diseases from parasites in the stagnant waters of irrigation ditches, where they toiled barefoot for extended periods.
In the final years of the monarchy, political power and wealth had been concentrated among approximately 12,000 affluent landowning families - constituting less than 0.5% of the rural population, but owning around 35% of the arable land. At the other end of the agrarian hierarchy, 60% of rural households neither owned nor rented land, working instead as wage labourers. Furthermore, approximately 72% of landowners (roughly two million families) possessed plots of less than one feddan (just over an acre), barely enough for subsistence.
The Free Officers platform aimed to dismantle what they termed ‘feudalism’, referring to the political and economic dominance of large landowners. To achieve this goal, they implemented a relatively moderate land reform, which was much less radical than similar post-World War II measures overseen by the US in countries like Japan, South Korea and Taiwan.
The 1952 Land Reform Law restricted individual land ownership to 300 feddans for a family - considered a substantial holding by Egyptian standards. Initially, this reform led to the expropriation of land from approximately 1,700 landowners, including 425 members of the royal family, resulting in the redistribution of 10% of arable land.
Nasser claimed he had a deep understanding of the people’s needs. He would often encourage his fellow citizens with the simple yet powerful words, Irfa’ ra’sak ya khuya (‘Lift up your head, my brother’). But his political project was constantly changing. Some - including his successor, Sadat, and the renowned liberal writer, Tawfiq al-Hakim - supported him during his time in power, but after his death they criticised him as a dictator. When it came to independent Marxists - those not following the USSR - some initially labelled him as a fascist, but later praised him during the 1960s and beyond.
The land redistribution efforts primarily benefited medium and affluent peasants who had access to credit and could acquire additional land. Key provisions of the law aimed at improving rural living standards included limiting agrarian rents to no more than seven times the annual tax value on the land, and establishing an agricultural minimum wage.
The Egyptian revolution had no coherent economic policy or political ideology. It had not been brought to power by a popular social movement or a political party, and it was not accountable to any such movement. Nasser consolidated his authority in March 1954 by outmanoeuvring his rivals. His dominance was further solidified several months later, when he fulfilled a significant promise by signing a treaty that ensured the evacuation of British forces by June 1956.2
Nasser supported Algeria’s National Liberation Front in its war for independence from France, offering various forms of assistance, including an office in Cairo, a radio station, military training and arms. He used Egypt’s Voice of the Arabs radio station to broadcast appeals directly to the Arab populace, encouraging them to reject the Anglo-American-sponsored, anti-Soviet Baghdad Pact. Iraq withdrew in March 1959.
The Egyptian president gained international prominence when he participated in the Bandung Conference in April 1955. This conference promoted “positive neutralism”, emphasising anti-colonialism, non-aggression and mutual non-interference in domestic affairs as an alternative to Cold War alliances. In September 1961, along with India and Yugoslavia, Nasser helped establish the Non-Aligned Movement, which aimed to provide an alternative path for developing countries in the midst of Cold War rivalries.
Probably one of his most enduring legacies is the nationalisation of the Suez Canal Company. This led to a crisis that escalated, partly because of tensions with Israel, and eventually resulted in the invasion of Egypt in October 1956 by France, Britain and Israel. Despite military victory, the US ordered a withdrawal - a significant political victory for Nasser.
Nasser embarked on a path of building a significant public sector in Egypt, initially without a clear plan. He started the process by nationalising the properties of British and French nationals after the Anglo-French aggression. Subsequently, in 1960, due to the reluctance of the local business classes to invest in industry, Nasser nationalised the Banque Misr, the largest bank in the country, along with all associated industrial, financial and commercial assets. This move was accompanied by the adoption of a five-year plan to drive economic development forward.
The ‘socialist decrees’ enacted in July 1961 involved the nationalisation of most non-agricultural enterprises. Additionally, they imposed a limit on the individual ownership of agricultural land. In 1962, the National Charter declared ‘Arab socialism’ as the official ideology of the state and established the Arab Socialist Union as the sole political party.
‘Arab socialism’ in Egypt, along with other anti-Marxist forms of ‘socialism’ in the third world, aimed to achieve economic development following the Soviet model of rapid industrialisation, while also improving the living standards of the general population. Realising this ambitious project would require expropriating large landowners and pursuing a more radical agrarian reform, given Egypt’s limited capital. However, Nasser was cautious about mobilising the peasant majority for a class struggle against the entrenched pillars of the old regime.
Egyptian ‘Arab socialism’ exhibited similarities to the USSR model, including anti-democratic practices. High-ranking military officers with limited economic experience were appointed as managers of large public-sector enterprises, leading to the formation of an at times inept or corrupt state bureaucracy.
It did, however, bring improvements to the lives of workers in public enterprises and the state bureaucracy, offering them stable employment and social benefits like healthcare and pensions. It also ensured that all Egyptians had access to subsidised basic commodities and free public education.
In February 1968, Egyptian workers and students initiated the first major demonstrations against the Nasser regime since 1954. The protests were triggered by the lenient sentences given to airforce commanders who were on trial for their incompetence during the 1967 war with Israel. Over time, the demonstrators began to articulate broader demands, including freedom of expression, democracy and constraints on the power of internal security forces.
The demonstrations continued for nearly a week, resulting in two workers killed and dozens of injuries in clashes with the police. While it is an open question whether Nasser personally ordered his forces to fire on students in Alexandria, these events certainly underscored the shortcomings of the so-called ‘Arab socialist’ project.
Nevertheless, Nasser’s personal prestige remained sufficient for him to mediate the November 1969 Cairo Agreement. This gave the Palestine Liberation Organisation responsibility for Lebanon’s 300,000 Palestinian refugees and outlined the terms under which Lebanese authorities would tolerate Palestinian attacks on Israel. At the September 1970 Arab League summit, he dedicated long hours to securing a ceasefire that ended the Palestinian-Jordanian civil war and organised the evacuation of armed Palestinian groups from Jordan to Lebanon.
The strenuous diplomacy during these efforts took a toll on Nasser’s health, which had been declining for years without public knowledge. The strain culminated in a fatal heart attack on September 28 1970.
When it came to regional interventions, Nasser had harboured ambitions for regime change in Yemen since 1957 and attempted to put these plans into action in January 1962 by providing support to the Free Yemen Movement. Several factors led him to send expeditionary forces to Yemen, including the dissolution of his United Arab Republic due to the unravelling of the union with Syria in 1961, which damaged his prestige. A swift and decisive victory in Yemen could have helped him regain leadership in the Arab world. Additionally, Nasser aimed to fulfil his reputation as an anti-colonialist, with a specific focus on removing British forces from South Yemen and its strategically significant port city of Aden.
Nasser’s willingness to confront western powers and Israel indeed garnered him widespread support in the region, particularly during the early years of his presidency.
However, the defeat in the Six-Day War of 1967 was a significant blow to Nasser and his leadership. The loss of the Sinai and the Gaza Strip dealt a severe blow to Egypt’s military prestige. The simultaneous defeat of the Egypt, Syria and Jordan pact shattered the image of Arab military prowess and exposed weaknesses in Nasser’s strategy and preparedness.
Defeat in the Six-Day War severely undermined Nasser’s credibility both domestically and internationally. In response he made a dramatic offer to resign as president. This move was said to reflect his sense of responsibility for the defeat and his willingness to be held accountable.
However, Nasser’s offer was met with mass demonstrations, urging him to remain in power. The public sentiment expressed through these demonstrations underscored the enduring support and belief in Nasser’s leadership among many Egyptians.
Ultimately, Nasser withdrew his offer and remained in power till his death in 1970. The final years of his rule were marked by a more subdued atmosphere, as he grappled with the aftermath of the Six-Day War and sought to rebuild Egypt’s military and diplomatic standing in the region.
The Egyptian Communist Party was established during the period 1918-20, but it remained relatively inactive until after 1939. During this period, from the late 1930s to the late 1950s, Egypt had several communist organisations, with the Democratic Union for National Liberation being the primary one.
Nasser’s regime took repressive actions against communist activists, including the arrest and imprisonment of individuals associated with communist organisations. In late 1958, several communist groups coalesced to form a rejuvenated Egyptian Communist Party, motivated in part by their opposition to the formation of the United Arab Republic with Syria, which they viewed as a consolidation of power under Nasser’s leadership.
The Nasser regime viewed communism as a threat to its authority and stability, particularly in the context of cold war dynamics and regional power struggles. As a result, the regime responded harshly to the emergence of the Communist Party and its activities.
On New Year’s Day 1959, the Nasser government launched mass arrests, targeting members of the newly reformed Communist Party. Many individuals were detained and sent to concentration camps as part of the regime’s efforts to suppress communist influence and dissent. These actions reflected Nasser’s determination to maintain control and suppress opposition, including from the left.
Most of those detained were eventually released in 1964, marking a period of relative relaxation. However, the crackdown on communist groups during this period underscored Nasser’s authoritarian tendencies and his willingness to use repressive measures to maintain his grip on power.
During the 1960s and 70s, the Egyptian Communist Party experienced a series of changes, dissolution, and reconstitution under the political dynamics of the time. In 1965, facing pressure from the Nasser regime, the leadership decided to dissolve the party. This move was likely influenced by the Nikita Khruschev leadership in Moscow and its desire to keep Nasser on side. Party members were encouraged to join the Arab Socialist Union, the sole legal party in Egypt at the time, as individuals. However, not all members agreed with this decision. Some refused to dissolve the organisation or join Nasser’s party.
In 1976, the Egyptian Communist Party was reconstituted by former cadre, both within Egypt and abroad. Internationally, it maintained close ties with the Soviet Union - a common trend among ‘official communist’ parties, of course. This alignment with the Soviet Union helped the party to gain support and solidarity on the international stage.
Within Egypt, the reconstituted party had fraternal relations with the Progressive Assembly of National Unionists, indicating a degree of cooperation and alignment with other leftist groups. However, the party also faced challenges from splinter groups and competing organisations on the left. In 1978, one such splinter emerged, also calling itself the Communist Party. Additionally, the Communist Workers’ Party, an independent and anti-revisionist grouping, emerged as a significant competitor on the left during the late 1960s and early 1970s. This organisation represented an alternative vision of communism and attracted members who were disillusioned with the mainstream communist parties.
Overall, the dissolution and reconstitution of the Egyptian Communist Party, along with the emergence of competing groups, highlight the complex political situation and ideological debates within the Egyptian left.
Nasser’s stance on the Palestinian cause changed over time, reflecting political calculations.
During his early career, his position on the Palestinian issue was not as assertive as it later became. In fact, he initially showed pragmatism and a willingness to engage in talks with Israel. In the early 1950s, Nasser was even viewed, according to western intelligence reports, as a moderate leader who might consider agreements with Israel.
In 1952, there were reports of clandestine talks between Nasser and Israeli representatives, suggesting a degree of pragmatism and an interest in seeking a political solution. Additionally, Nasser’s statements to the press at the time indicated a desire for peace and a recognition of the potential benefits of cooperation with Israel.
Regarding the treatment of Palestinians under Egyptian rule, particularly in the Gaza Strip, Nasser’s actions were often criticised for their lack of substantive improvement for the population. Despite the formation of the All-Palestine Government in 1948, which nominally asserted Palestinian sovereignty, it was effectively controlled by Egypt, with little real authority. Nasser, who inherited this situation, did little to change it and eventually abolished the All-Palestine Government in 1959.
The Palestinian population in Gaza was not granted Egyptian citizenship and remained in squalid conditions, used as a political pawn against Israel. Egyptian governance in Gaza was marked by heavy restrictions on political activities and freedom of movement, further exacerbating the plight of people living there.
It was not until the Six-Day War in 1967, when Israel occupied the Gaza Strip, that the situation for Palestinians in Gaza changed. Nasser’s approach to the Palestinian cause evolved over time, becoming more assertive and confrontational towards Israel, particularly in the aftermath of the 1967 war.
Overall, Gamal Abdel Nasser epitomised the aspirations of formerly colonised nations in the global south to assert their sovereignty in a non-bipolar world. His international achievements both defined and were facilitated by the era of decolonisation and its limitations. Nasser forged a strong emotional connection with the Egyptian people and improved the lives of many. However, his lack of confidence in their agency had ultimately contributed to his failure as their leader.
This is an edited version of Yassamine Mather’s talk to ‘Why Marx?’ on February 1 2024. The ongoing discussion and education series takes place every Thursday at 7pm. See: www.whymarx.com
. Yassamine Mather, ‘The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and Current Conflict in the Middle East: www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/03017605.2014.972151↩︎
Joel Beinin, ‘Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser was a towering figure who left an ambiguous legacy’: jacobin.com/2020/09/egypt-gamal-abdel-nasser-legacy.↩︎