Modern Egypt always has been a difficult country to govern. Physical control has been a relatively simple task, for the Egyptians are by nature a submissive people. But positive plans for development continually have been defeated by Egyptian inertia and lack of public responsibility. True, in the past, “strong men” –such as Mohamed Ali, dictator of Egypt for over forty years, and Khedive Ismail–have imposed their will on Egypt. When they passed from the stage, however, their accomplishments were dissipated by the ineptness of their successors and by the apathy of Egypt’s ruling classes.
The nationalist revival during the period of British occupation revealed a public awareness among a segment of Cairo’s population, but this seldom was transacted into positive achievements. Instead, the Egypt of 1952 was a stagnant country. Beset by political strife, successive national governments did little to foster the country’s development. An archaic structure of land ownership, abysmal living conditions among the great majority of the population, an economy geared to benefit a privileged few, and political instability–this was the legacy after thirty years of independence (Frederick, 268).
The existing political parties abdicated their right to govern. In their struggle with the King and their quest for power and office, they treaded ruthlessly on the welfare of their country. Egypt’s political structure blocked progress, rooted as it was in the status quo. No parliament controlled by wealthy landowners and Cairo’s privileged social elite would support sweeping reform programs to the detriment of the vested interests. Few groups were untainted by the corruption which permeated Cairo.
Many ranking civil servants owed their positions to partisan politics; landowners gained protection from the Wafd; businessmen were dependent upon the government for favors; and high ranking military officers often owed their posts to the King’s personal support. Only the middle-class military–the captains, majors, and colonels, and, perhaps, a few generals–had the moral credentials for a bona fide movement of reform. And, after the sordid manipulation of the Alexandria cotton market and the collapse of national government in 1952, only the military was prepared to take action in the name of the people.
Humiliated in the 1948 Palestine War, the Egyptian army generally had done little to distinguish itself. In its ranks, however, was a cadre of sincere and talented, though inexperienced, officers, and it was they who toppled the government in 1952. Initially, a junta sought to establish a nonpartisan civilian government, but this body proved unwilling to initiate the reforms desired by the young officers. Thus, the job of governing fell to the Free Officers by default. Governing had not been their initial purpose, and they were ill prepared for the task; but they alone were in a position to raze the “old order.
” And the destruction of the “old order” was a prerequisite for the implementation of profound reforms (Frederick 269). Rapid development in Egypt required an authoritarian government, and it became increasingly obvious that the Revolutionary Command Council could not measure up to the task. Instead, a single leader, a man with dictatorial powers, was needed. Gamal Abdel Nasser became dictator of Egypt in April, 1954. His was a difficult task. The country had not rallied to the military movement.
Moreover, there was no panacea for Egypt’s problems, and his every move drew the sniping attacks of those without the responsibilities for government. To his credit, he approached his mission boldly. Easy as it was to be irresolute, he determined what was best for Egypt, then forcefully sought to impose his will on the country and his reluctant military colleagues. He alone assumed final responsibility for the success or failure of his policies. Unfortunately, his drive for internal development soon was tempered by external considerations.
Nasser claimed the role of unifier of the entire Arab world. Moreover, he was embarrassed by Egypt’s military inferiority vis-a-vis Israel. While economic and social development still progressed at a commendable pace, Nasser placed increasingly heavy emphasis on Egypt’s foreign relations. Undoubtedly, Nasser realized that this would have a detrimental effect on Egypt’s future internal development, for a massive military establishment would severely strain Egypt’s limited resources (Joel, 139). In 1955, Egypt was passing through a transitional period.
The government had provided handsome incentives to attract foreign investments; 40 million dollars of American technical assistance was forthcoming; the West was prepared to finance the foreign-exchange requirements of the mammoth High Dam scheme; internal development projects were gaining momentum. Egypt’s internal programs required Nasser’s personal and constant supervision–especially since few of Nasser’s colleagues had the ability or authority to initiate the programs necessary for Egypt’s sound development.
Instead, Nasser sought an international reputation: he became deeply involved in Arab world politics, and he embarked on an aggressive policy which alienated his Western friends. This campaign was not without some provocation or justification–for, at times, Great Britain, the United States, as well as several Arab governments had not behaved with consummate wisdom or tact. But this was no reason for Gamal Abdel Nasser to abandon the statesmanship which he had employed to Egypt’s great advantage during the Revolution’s first thirty months. The Nasser of 1955 was essentially the same man who had engineered a coup three years before.
He was exceedingly ambitious for himself and for Egypt; he worked far harder than did his colleagues; and he was content to live an austere life free of the extravagant luxury often associated with military dictators. His greatest attribute was his extraordinary skill as a tactician. Perhaps it was too much to expect such a man to content himself with the difficult and often monotonous task of internal development: this taxed his administrative abilities while providing little scope for those skills which he had used to such advantage in besting Mustapha Nahas, Mohammed Naguib, the Moslem Brethren, and the British in Suez.
The same energy which had been devoted to internal reform subsequently was directed outward onto the international scene. Nasser’s successes were undeniable. He became the symbol of Arab nationalism to the Arab masses. His program of “positive neutrality” gained a degree of respectability through his association with Nehru and Tito. Confident of Soviet support, he mounted a vigorous attack against British and French interests throughout the Arab world. But these successes benefited Egypt little.
Nasser, as the self-styled champion of Arab nationalism, heightened the pitch of his anti-Western attacks, derided his opponents in the Arab world as “stooges of imperialism,” and scored notable victories. But, as he had discovered earlier in Egypt, destroying was easier than building. Nasser deemed the High Dam the cornerstone of Egypt’s economic development. Thus, it was a severe blow to Egypt when the West withdrew its offer to finance the Dam. John Foster Dulles made this move in retaliation for Nasser’s aggressive tactics.
The Egyptian President, even if he could justify his actions in terms of “sovereignty” and “dignity,” could not blink the fact that his foreign adventures have postponed the construction of the High Dam, essential to Egypt’s future well-being, by at least two years. Egypt benefited from the Anglo-French attack on Suez. She obtained unquestioned control over the Canal, from which she should net an amount in excess of 10 per cent of her annual national budget. Moreover, as an aftermath to the attack on Port Said and Egypt’s military defeat in Sinai, foreign control over Egyptian banks and insurance companies has almost been eliminated.
As “compensation” for the Anglo-French-American blockade of Egyptian assets, Nasser was awarded a Soviet industrial credit for 62 million pounds. This was small compensation, however, for the economic losses implicit in his estrangement from the West (Joel 140). The year 1957 was a critical one for Egypt. She weathered the West’s diplomatic isolation, initiated an industrial development program, and convened a National Assembly. Ironically, however, Gamal Abdel Nasser, the hero of the Arab masses, was becoming less popular at home.
The internal-development program, sharply curtailed during the Suez crisis of 1956, certainly gave Egyptians little cause for rejoicing. The National Assembly, symbolic of the “new Egypt,” proved uncomfortably embarrassing to the regime. President Nasser, anxious to end the period of political transition (originally proclaimed in 1953), had opened the carefully screened Parliament amid great fanfare. But when some members displayed startling independence, the government felt obliged to end the entire parliamentary experiment abruptly.
Without question, the Revolution of 1952 was on the decline, and the military was reluctant to relinquish its authority. Instead, the “transitional period” was extended indefinitely. In 1958, Nasser again sought victories abroad. He triumphantly incorporated Syria into the United Arab Republic, but the regime, already hard-pressed to manage Egypt’s domestic affairs, was ill equipped to shoulder the economic burdens of Syria. In the wake of the Syrian merger came the Iraqi revolution, which some called Nasser’s greatest victory to date. With the demise of Nuri es Said, however, “Nasserism” seemed to lose its momentum.
Because many of the Arab countries already had overthrown the “treacherous old order,” there remained few scapegoats on which Egypt could vent her ire. Moreover, Nasser and his tired corevolutionaries lacked an operational program for economic and social development which they could pass on to other nationalist leaders. Nasser did not play his cards well. In 1954, when Egypt represented a liberal force in the Arab world, Nasser could well have afforded to be charitable to his Arab neighbors. His control over the religious and secular center of learning for the Arab Middle East gave him a tremendous advantage which he could have used wisely.
Instead, he embarked upon a destructive policy, ostensibly to make the dream of a single Arab nation a reality. In this, however, he has failed. Egypt’s difficulties in Syria –her “northern province”–have brought the sudden realization to many Arab leaders that Nasser had little to offer to the “newly liberated” Arab nations. These failures seem to have had a sobering effect on Nasser. At least for the present, he appears to realize that the once irresistible force of “Nasserism” has lost its momentum. He is making a serious attempt to develop a more constructive policy toward the Arab world.
Nasser still has strong appeal among the Arab masses, but he is discredited with most Arab governments. It will be a difficult task for him to gain the confidence of the very men whom he sought to undermine not so long ago. But if he is sincerely concerned with the welfare of the Arab world, he must do just that. He still is the most competent leader in the Arab world, the man who best can provide cohesion to the Arab drive for political and economic maturity. His ultimate success will depend on the extent to which he will subordinate his personal ambition for the well-being of his Arab “brothers.
” “Positive neutrality” has been the guideline of Nasser’s foreign policy since 1955. His desire to maintain Egypt’s independence of action is undeniable–and, in this context, his adherence to neutrality is far more sincere than most Western observers are wont to believe. But his aggressive anti-Western posture for much of the past four years has compelled even such a convinced Asian neutralist as Nehru to dissociate himself from Nasser’s “neutralist philosophy. ” “Neutralism” for Nasser is not a philosophy but a blanket of morality in which he has sought to shroud his aggressive tactics.
Nor has he executed “neutralist” tactics with outstanding skill. By alienating the West, he has estranged the Soviet bloc’s rival bidder for Egypt’s favor and thus had undercut his country’s value on the auction block of “neutrality. ” There has been evidence of late that Nasser is trying to redress this mistake. After his clash with Nikita Khrushchev over Iraq, he seems anxious to restore the balance to Egypt’s policy which proved so profitable in 1955. President Nasser is no Communist, nor is he anxious to further Communist aims in the Arab and African worlds.
But in his desire to extend Egypt’s hegemony over the Afro-Arab world, he has, in the past, accepted massive Communist-bloc support. He may do so again. Moreover, although Egypt’s flirtations with the Communist bloc have brought the cold war into the Arab heartland, Nasser has not become a tool of the Soviets. Indeed, Communist economic penetration in Egypt could be curbed if the West were willing to underwrite the bulk of Egypt’s cotton exports. Nasser is skilled in the game of political survival; he has also been extremely lucky.
He has played the cards of “positive neutrality” for high stakes and, to date, bluff and courage have kept him in the game. But Egypt has benefited little from Nasser’s international adventures. Much has been undertaken in the name of lofty principles, yet Egypt has paid a high price for Nasser’s tactical successes (Dar el Maaref 19). Originally, internal reform and development was the Revolution’s raison d’etre. Ultimately, it is by the achievements in these fields that Nasser will be judged. Egypt is a poor country–poor in physical as well as human resources.
At the time of the Revolution, the new regime faced a substantial balance of payments deficits, a much-reduced General Reserve Fund, and a crisis in cotton marketing. Industry provided a nominal proportion of the national income and only six million feddans under cultivation were available to produce sustenance for twenty-one million people. Today, seven years later, Egypt has made substantial progress. Gross examples of waste are in evidence–the results of bad planning, inefficient implementation, and inexperienced management.
By Western standards, the results are not outstanding. But one must gauge the military’s achievements against the accomplishments of previous civilian governments. For example, the Aswan hydro-electric plant, under consideration for many years, is under construction; an iron and steel company, expensive by Western yardsticks, has been constructed; and roads have been built, railway equipment replaced, the High Dam project undertaken and numerous educational and social programs initiated (Joel 155). Progress has not met original expectations.
But this failure is not peculiar to Egypt: planning in underdeveloped countries invariably is overly ambitious. The shortcomings of specific programs have been obvious. And, perhaps, Egypt’s long-range planning is ill-conceived. Moreover, Egypt still has not attained an adequate level of economic and social development. This, however, does not detract from the significant progress made by the military regime. Nasser can claim less success in internal politics. His elimination of domestic opposition was a masterpiece of political legerdemain.
One by one, the opposition first was isolated, then destroyed. His hesitant efforts to build a new political structure suggest, however, that the military period of “transition” may continue indefinitely. Nasser has shown concern over his regime’s lack of permanence. His government, as distinct from Nasser as an individual, has no “mandate from the people. ” His sudden death would result in chaos, for no obvious successor has been groomed to take his place. On several occasions, Nasser cautiously has attempted to build a bridge between the military and the civilian population.
But his fear of relinquishing personal authority, together with his lack of a political philosophy, have rendered these efforts ineffective. Nasser’s government is authoritarian. But it is clear that a less forceful government could not have imposed the discipline necessary to achieve even the nominal development Egypt recently has experienced. Nasser now must provide for the future, for the popular support commanded by him will not automatically be transferred to his ultimate successor.
Instead, a national political structure, commensurate with Egypt’s new responsibilities, must be constructed. This will entail risks on Nasser’s part, for it will mean granting a platform to elected representatives of the people; it will mean less censorship of the press; it will mean subjecting the military and civilians to a single standard. Indeed, such moves will encourage a political opposition which, in turn, may render governing more difficult. But only through a gradual diffusion of power–power which now is so jealously guarded by Nasser-can the Revolution be consummated.
The Egyptian people owe a great deal to President Nasser. He assumed leadership over a country in a time of despair. Through courageous determination and reckless opportunism he has since managed to make his subjects proud to be Egyptians. Certainly, many of them are deluded by his government’s “pie-inthe-sky” promises. But today, Egypt has a far better chance to maintain, or even increase, her per capita standard of living than it had seven years ago. Nasser has made many mistakes. His foreign adventures have cost Egypt dearly.
But, in the final balance, Nasser has done Egypt a great service. He has broken the vicious circle of poverty and lethargy and has started Egypt on the positive path of development. At the time of the 1952 coup, Gamal Abdel Nasser was only thirty-four years old. Since then, he has matured rapidly. No longer must he worry about being “accepted,” for he has established himself as an exceptionally qualified leader. Moreover, he has the experience of seven turbulent years in power (National Bank of Egypt 210).
In the past, Nasser’s impulsive desire to be in the limelight has prompted him to overplay his hand. Recent events suggest that he is gaining moderation with the passage of time. His failures in Syria and Iraq have been sobering; and his frontal attack on Communism, in March and April of 1959, suggests that he will hesitate in the future before again committing himself heavily to Communist support. The ultimate decision is Nasser’s. If he so chooses, he can become one of the great personalities of the twentieth century, at least within the Afro-Asian world.
But, paradoxically, he can achieve this distinction only if he tempers his personal desire to dominate the Arab world and concentrates instead on meeting the manifold needs of his nation. References Dar el Maaref, (1954). Gamal Abdel Nasser, The Philosophy of the Revolution, Cairo, p. 19. Frederick A. Praeger, (1954). A History of Modern Egypt and Anglo-Egyptian Relations, 1800-1953, New York, pp. 268-69. Joel Gordon, (2001), Nasser’s Blessed Movement: Egypt’s Free Officers and the July Revolution. Oxford University Press, 139-154 National Bank of Egypt, (1958). Economic Bulletin, Vol. XI, No. 2, pp. 210-11.
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