What was Nasser Like?
Gamal Abdel Nasser
By Richard D. Robinson
[Lecturer at Harvard University; staff member of Harvard Center for Meddle Eastern Studies. October15, 1958
Now that the United Nations Secretary General Dag Hammarskjold has returned from his Middle East Mission, we ask ourselves again, What are Nasser's objectives?
Many Americans believe that President Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt, who came to power in 1954, is just another tin-horn dictator and self-seeking opportunist. Others contend thathe strives toward constructive ends with which the West should be identified.
Motivation and goals are difficult to judge, even in the face-to-face contact with individuals of one's own nation. We can go only by the record. In so doing, we must assume a man innocent of evil intent until proved guilty.
In the case of Nasser, evil cannot be equated simply with anti-Western or neutralist thought and action. What we must prove is that he is acting contrary to the interests and welfare of the Arab peoples. And in making such a judgment we must measure existing regimes, not against an ideal that may not be attainable, but against possible alternatives - in the case of Egypt probably either a Communist take-over or the recurrence of religious fanaticism.
President Nasser is one of the first of the modern Arab leaders to face up in a realistic way to such problems as land reform, industrial development, honesty in government, mass education, and so on. It is too early to judge results, but programs of social and economic development are Nasser's stock in trade. A large part of his popularity in the Middle East is due to primarily to his closer identification with genuine social and economic reform than is true of other contemporary Arab leaders.
Virtually every Western student of Middle Eastern affairs agrees that the prime prerequisites for really significant economic development of the Arab states are some kind of regional union and an honest, reform-minded government. About half of the population of the Arab Middle East - that of Egypt - is now confined to 35,168 square kilometers in the Nile Valley with virtually no oil. And much of the wealth in the balance of the Middle East is concentrated in a few hands.
Given the mutual jealousy and the tenacity with which the various competing monarchs, sheiks and other petty Arab politicians protect their privileged positions, it is unrealistic to expect the achievement of Arab unity within the foreseeable future without some violence. Many of these Arab leaders have shown callous disregard for the welfare of their own people until hustled into belated and half-hearted reform through fear of either Nasserism or Communism, or both. Actually the record shows that, as great revolutions go, Nasser-led Arab nationalism has been remarkably free of violence. And Nasser himself has repeatedly expressed personal repugnance for violence, which he regards as self-defeating in many situations.
An obvious precondition for instituting regional unity and honest reform government is a generally recognized, forceful leader. Nasser comes the closest to fulfilling this role.
Under these circumstances, Western moves to keep the Arabs divided among and against themselves have in fact blocked the general development of the area. So also have any Western moves to shore up disliked, opportunistic and corrupt regimes - often created in the first instance by the Western powers. Not even the Western press can make such regimes, now under attack, locally popular.
Many American editorial writers and others charge that Nasser's "positive neutrality" is nothing but a sham, just another word for destructive nationalism and political opportunism. It is true that in any mass movement there are destructive elements. But let us look at the other side of the record.
The Suez Canal has been kept open by the Egyptians and not used for political blackmail, as many had feared at the time of nationalization. The Egyptians on July 13 accepted a mutually satisfactory agreement with foreign stockholders on compensation for the canal - yet many Westerners had said that this could never take place. And little known to the American public is the fact that, after nationalization, Nasser invited a group of American business interests to operate the canal.
None of the Nasser-oriented states - Egypt, Syria, Iraq - tolerate a domestic Communist movement. None of these have stopped the flow of oil into the West. And it was only Syria's union with Egypt under the protective mantle of the United Arab Republic (UAR) which halted Syria's drift into the Soviet orbit. On several occasions Nasser applied to the West first for military and economic assistance, and in every instance he took precautions to avoid direct Soviet intervention in the Middle East. So far Nasser gives no indication of being a Soviet tool or of being directly responsible for revolution in Iraq or unrest in Lebanon.
The mere evidence that the Lebanese rebels received some UAR assistance does not transform Lebanese unrest from civil war into aggression. So far no evidence of massive UAR aid to the Lebanese rebels has been presented, according to the United Nations Observation Group.
Ons further point should be borne in mind. It is misleading to measure the Egyptian regime by the yardstick of Western democracy. The adoption of democracy in Egypt now would merely condemn the country to the return of a corrupt, self-serving, Farouk-like regime. Today the social, educational and economic level of Egypt is not adequate to support a democracy. Just as Kemal Ataturk's dictatorship (1923-1938) prepared Turkey for a limited form of democracy, so perhaps Nasser's authoritarian regime will prepare Egypt for eventual democratization. But much has to be done before that time arrives. It took Turkey 26 years to modernize its society, and even today democracy is still seriously challenged there - not by self-seeking politicians but by the still considerable weakness of the economic, educational and social systems. For democracy requires at least a minimum of popular enlightenment and some economic strength.
It would be well for Americans to withhold judgment until all the evidence is in - and that may be some years away. Is Nasser another Ataturk, or isn't he? No one knows, for power can corrupt. But it need not - as witness Ataturk. In passing final judgment we must bear in mind that Ataturk had two advantages over Nasser - an economically viable country and a relatively homogenous people. And, strange to recall, in the early days of the Ataturk revolution, Turkey's only external assistance came from the Soviet Union.