Commemorating Nasser, the people’s hero

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Gamal Abdel-Nasser died at the age of 52 of a heart attack on 28 September 1970. Five million Egyptians attended his funeral, making it the largest funeral in history. This is the story of the Free Officer who became Egypt’s much loved president:

Gamal Abdel-Nasser, who served as president of Egypt from 1956 to 1970, was born on 15 January 1918, in the small village of Beni-Morr in the upper Egyptian province of Assiut, where he lived for eight years.

Coming from a humble family, he became one of the most prominent and influential leaders in Middle East history.

Gamal Abdel-Nasser as a school student

During his high school years, Nasser participated in student demonstrations against the British occupying forces. After receiving his high school diploma in 1937, Nasser entered the Egyptian Royal Military Academy.

After graduating, Nasser rose to prominence as an officer in the first Arab-Israeli war in 1948, where he gained recognition for holding out with his besieged battalion for three weeks, in what was known as the ‘Falluja Pocket’.

Nasser after graduation from the Military Academy

While serving in the army, Nasser became the leader of a covert organisation called the ‘Free Officers’, whose goal was to overthrow the Egyptian monarchy and free Egypt from British influence.

Nasser with the ‘Free Officers’

These goals were accomplished in a revolution in 1952, which ended with the exile of Egypt’s King Farouk, and the declaration of a republic in 1953.

Nasser sworn in as a prime minister before Egypt’s first president Mohamed Naguib (photo: amlalommah)

Though he was the real leader of the new government, Nasser remained unknown to the public until 1954, when he assumed the role of Prime Minister and published his book “Philosophy of the Revolution”, a call for pan-Arab resistance to imperialism.

Nasser with Egypt’s first president Mohamed Naguib (centre)

In 1956 Nasser proclaimed the adoption of ‘Arab Socialism’ in Egypt, and was declared president.

Between 1956 and 1966, Nasser introduced several socialist measures, including the nationalisation of various industries, private companies and banks, and he expanded the public sector.

Nasser also announced agrarian reform and redistributed 2,000 square miles of cultivable land, from wealthy landowners to Egypt’s poor peasants.

He tried to obtain western funding to build a dam on the Nile, ‘the Aswan Dam’, to provide electricity to neighbouring villages and towns and increase the amount of land available to peasant farmers.

Nasser observing the construction of the dam in 1963

Though at first the administration of US President Eisenhower expressed an interest in financing the construction of the Aswan Dam, the US rescinded its offer and provoked Nasser’s anti-western colonial policies.

In response Nasser nationalised the Suez Canal Company, in the hope of using the generated income to finance the construction of the dam.

Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev with Nasser at the opening of the Aswan Dam

As the Suez Canal Company represented a symbol of western colonialism and influence, Britain, France, and Israel invaded Egypt and occupied Sinai in late 1956.

Under pressure from the United Nations, the United States and the Soviet Union, the invading armies were forced to withdraw and United Nations peacekeeping troops were deployed in the Sinai.

The invasion of Egypt intensified Nasser’s stance against western influence and military alliances in the Middle East, and made him a strong advocate of Arab nationalism and freedom from colonial control.

Nasser cheered by supporters in 1956

The Suez crisis also significantly increased Nasser’s popularity in Egypt and the Arab world. Likewise, his message of social justice at home, and anti-colonialism abroad, inspired millions of Arabs who formed political parties adopting Nasser’s advocacy.

In response to a request from the Syrian military and civilian leaders for a merging of Syria and Egypt, in 1958 Nasser created the United Arab Republic as the first step towards Arab unity.

Quwatli of Syria with President Nasser of Egypt and King Saud of Saudi Arabia concluding an agreement between the three countries in 1956

The union ended in 1961 when Syrian military officers resented Egyptian domination of the Syrian province.

In May 1967 Nasser provoked the June War, when he requested the withdrawal of the United Nations Emergency Force from Sinai and closed the Gulf of Aqaba to Israeli ships.

As a result, Israel launched a surprise attack on Egypt and occupied the Sinai Peninsula, in what became known as ‘the six days war’.

In the aftermath of this defeat, Nasser resigned from office, but he withdrew his decision in the wake of massive popular demonstrations in support of his leadership.

Nasser shaking hands with Cuban leader Fidel Castro (photo: borsaat)

Nasser continued his role as a major leader of the non-aligned nations, and started rebuilding the Egyptian army, along with implementing political reforms.

His legacy became a subject of honour, pride and dignity for Egyptians, Arabs and free men all over the world.

Nasser was loved by the people

Historians describe Nasser as one of the towering political figures of modern Middle East history and politics in the 20th century.

Gamal Abdel-Nasser said:

”What was taken by force, can only be restored by force.”

”He who can not support himself, can not take his own decision.”

”Events are not a matter of chance.”

”Let them kill Nasser! What is Nasser but one among many? I am alive, and even if I die, all of you are Gamal Abdel-Nasser!”

– addressing crowds during a failed assassination attempt in 1954