This essay is adapted from Kai Bird's recent memoir, Crossing Mandelbaum Gate: Coming of Age Between the Arabs and Israelis, a finalist for the 2011 National Book Critics Circle Award.
How did a bland, uncharismatic army general like Hosni Mubarak manage to stay in power for three decades? I think that what we are witnessing in the streets of Cairo and Alexandria is the final unraveling of the military autocracy created by Gamal Abdel Nasser in the 1950s. Unlike Mubarak, Nasser was a genuinely populist army colonel who fired the imaginations of a generation of postwar Arabs with his vision of a modernizing, progressive nationalism. Nasser persuaded Egyptians that they were part of one Arabic-speaking nation. This Pan-Arab nationalist vision had wide appeal in the early postcolonial era. But it was Nasser’s avowedly secular stance that seemed to hold the promise of Arab modernity.
Suave and articulate, Nasser had read a great many books in English, including works by Dickens, Carlyle and Gandhi, and biographies of famous world leaders. He was a secular, modern Arab who had an abiding admiration for American films and magazines. He came to power in an army coup in 1952 but was elected to the presidency in 1956 with a popular mandate. He gradually became a dictator. He had a deep distrust of both the Communists and the Muslim Brotherhood. Over the years, his closest political enemies became the Brothers. He threw tens of thousands of them in jail because he could not tolerate their religious xenophobia. He believed that those Arabs who mixed Islam with politics stood in the way of progress.
But then the cause of a secular Arab modernity was shockingly defeated during the June 1967 war, a war Nasser had stumbled into and was not prepared for. It was a debacle for the Arab world. But at the time few understood that it would also be a calamity for the West and Israel—precisely because it discredited secularism and opened the door to Islamists. Young Arab men like Egypt’s Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri later wrote that the naksa—the June “setback”—“influenced the awakening of the jihadist movement.”
Nasser remained in power, but he was disheartened and embittered. He blamed America for his defeat and suspected that the CIA had been plotting to unseat him. This was true. Washington’s foreign policy establishment had always viewed Nasser’s nationalism as inimical to US interests, and the CIA had funneled millions of dollars to his Muslim Brotherhood enemies.
When he died of a massive heart attack on September 28, 1970, millions of Egyptians poured into the streets of Cairo weeping and crying out his name, “Gamal! Gamal!” Sherrif Hatatta, an Egyptian doctor and novelist once imprisoned by Nasser, later remarked, “Nasser’s greatest achievement was his funeral. The world will never again see 5 million people crying together.” Nasser was the last Arab leader who could plausibly claim to reflect the broad popular will. He was not a democrat but neither was he a tyrant. Personally, he was incorruptible. He died with a modest bank account. With him died the dream of secular Arab nationalism. His ideas were defeated by a confluence of forces—best described by Syrian philosopher Sadik al-Azm as those “values of ignorance, myth-making, backwardness, dependency and fatalism.” But Americans would be remiss to deny our contributions to his defeat. Our government worked hard to ensure that Nasser would fail. The irony is that decades after his death the vacuum is being filled in part by the Muslim Brotherhood—whose theocratic, antimodernist ideas Nasser had tried to repress.
Nasser’s successor, Anwar el-Sadat, initially had little in the way of a popular mandate. Early in his tenure he pandered to the religious right wing. After the October 1973 war, Sadat briefly acquired a measure of popularity—but he ruled as a dictator. He demonstrated great political courage in November 1977 when he flew to Jerusalem and addressed the Israeli Knesset. And the Camp David Accords he signed in 1978 with Prime Minister Menachem Begin might have opened the door to a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace agreement. But Israel continued to build settlements in the occupied territories and came to no peace agreement with its Palestinian, Lebanese or Syrian neighbors.
Sadat was assassinated on October 6, 1981—at which point his vice president, Gen. Hosni Mubarak, succeeded him. Mubarak was then a nonentity. It soon became apparent that he was simply an apparatchik of the Egyptian military establishment. He never attempted to create for himself the kind of popular legitimacy that came naturally to Nasser. His one talent was that of a Machiavellian survivor. He marshaled all the usual tools of repression—and more than $60 billion of American aid stemming from the Camp David Accords—to sustain his power. He was America’s “shah”—and that has also been his undoing. Washington blindly regarded him as a voice for “moderation” when his own long-suffering people saw him as a plain old-fashioned dictator. But for thirty years he sustained the Camp David regime—which gave Israel only a cold peace on its Egyptian border.
Now his seemingly impregnable reign is crumbling. His pathetic offer not to run for re-election was greeted with jeers. The Egyptian people seem virtually united in their demand for his immediate departure, even as Mubarak’s paid thugs desperately try to turn Tahrir Square into another Tiananmen.
The strategic consequences for America and Israel are momentous. Any post-Mubarak regime, for instance, will not have itself seen as complicit in the Israeli blockade of Gaza. This does not mean that a post-Mubarak popular government will seek a war with Israel. There is no constituency for war. But any new Egyptian government will insist that the promises President Carter extracted from Israel at Camp David in 1978 be realized. That means Israel will face additional pressures to end the occupation and negotiate the formation of a Palestinian state based largely on its 1967 borders.
Nasser’s dismal dictatorial political descendants are finally exiting. We can hope that what percolates up from the Arab street in Cairo (and maybe Tunis, Amman and Damascus) will reflect a younger generation’s aspirations for a semblance of democracy. The Muslim Brotherhood is certainly the single largest organized opposition force today—but it may turn out that it will be forced to share power with Egyptians nostalgic for Nasser’s secular legacy.