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.