The Metamorphosis of Populism in the Arab World:

Gamal Abdel Nasser


Cristina NEDELCU

Faculty of History, International Relations Department, University of Bucharest


Abstract: The paper deals with the way populism manifested in the Arab World. The best example of populism is provided by Gamal Abdel Nasser, who exceeded the borders of his country and managed to mobilize a large part of the Middle East. The paper analyses his legitimation mechanisms, which endured his access to masses, thus turning him into the voice of the Arabs for a decade. The emergence and legitimation of Nasser’s political movement was possible due to the interaction of local and global factors, which had in the background the process of modernization, and the outburst of 1952 was produced by the events of the previous decades. These events were: the development and spread of Arabism, the consequences of World War I, Egypt’s formal independence in 1936 and 1948 Arab-Israeli war. All these favored the implementation of a populist ideology in Egypt, an ideology considered not only by Egyptians, but also by other Arabs from the Middle East, as their voice, the heal for past’s wounds and the solution for a successful future.


Keywords: legitimation, Arab World, Nasserism, ideology.





The July 23 Revolution marked Egypt’s break with the past and its authors said that it was directed against the corruption and inefficiency of the political class. The creation of the revolutionary group was gradual and encouraged by the development of Egyptian society during the early twentieth century. Regardless of the nature of the occupation (Ottoman, British), at all times, Egypt maintained its distinctiveness, which was strengthened especially in the age of Muhammad Ali and an increased autonomy in its relations with regional powers[1]. Muhammad Ali was a turning point in the modern history of Egypt because he was the first leader who had the ambition to transform the country into a regional power (he conquered Sudan, sent military expeditions in Saudi Arabia, destroying first the Wahhabi state, started war with the Sultan occupying the Levant) based on its own resources. During his reign, he initiated a policy of industrial and military modernization. Innovations in education led to a strong class of educated people, who wanted to turn Egypt into the center of the Arab world.

In the late-nineteenth century the Egyptian capital witnessed a real expansion[2], based on the increased flow of those who moved from rural to urban areas. Therefore this expansion, coupled with population growth, triggered the spread of political and cultural ideas. Population growth was a new phenomenon for Egypt in the nineteenth century, which led to the emergence of latent tensions in society, manifested by frequent revolts of the population[3].

After the Second World War, the Arab world was divided into a plurality of weak states, all of them still under the umbrella of Western powers. People’s connections with these newly created states were weak and political loyalties often crossed the boundaries established by Europeans, preventing the consolidation of national systems. Arab elites became more and more fragmented and failed to establish a tradition of joint action and had a leading center[4].

In a diplomatic report made by the Romanian Charge d’Affaires from Egypt, Caius Franţescu, we find an exhaustive description of Egypt that starts by presenting the geographical, administrative, political and cultural background. He noted that it was difficult to talk about public opinion in Egypt, a country with about 12 million illiterate, primitive and untouched by any social propaganda Fellahs[5]. Because of this lack of a true public opinion, the essential factors of public life in Egypt were composed of political parties, media and embassies, foreign legations respectively[6].

The role of the press was important, being one of the few tools to educate the masses. From “The essay on Egypt” we find out that most of the Egyptian people were very poor and could not afford to buy books and had to settle for a newspaper. In this context, media had to modernize Classical Arabic, adapting it to the needs of contemporary life[7]. If today the understanding of the Arabic language by the educated population is high, it is due to the movement initiated by elites and journalists in Egypt, Lebanon and Syria. They managed to create a language tailored to the needs of expression of the cultural elite.

This was the context in which Nasser was born and educated in the spirit of true independence, which was equivalent to prestige and recovery of glory that enjoyed the old Arab Empire. As a young student he participated in the demonstrations in Cairo during the 30s, when he was even injured, and this experience made him set the country’s liberation as main priority.

The failure of traditional elites in the Arab-Israeli War of 1948 was sanctioned by the generation that reached maturity in the 50s. This generation was the product of nationalist unrest developed during the interwar period, a period which was under the influence of nineteenth-century ideas of Arabism. They had the belief that progress would come only after the expulsion of foreign domination. Egypt got its formal independence in 1936, but its political structures had produced little change and, therefore, the young generation perceived the old politicians as allied or representatives of British colonialism.

Although formal, independence forced Egypt to expand its military structures and this contributed to the apparition of a new group of young officers inspired by national ideas. From 1936 the military service became compulsory and the Egyptian government was willing to take credit to increase arms quantities[8].

Among these young officers was also Gamal Abdel Nasser, the descendant of a modest family (his father was Post employee), who was accepted at the Military Academy in Cairo in 1937, and in 1938 was sent to the military unit of Mankabad as a lieutenant of Infantry. Egypt’s need to train fast many young officers in order to replace the officers withdrawn by Great Britain allowed a large number of young people to get access to higher education, for which reason they subsequently started to seek positions of more and more responsibility within the state structures.

Nasser wanted to study law (generally preferred by the children coming from aristocratic families), but eventually he enrolled at the Military School in order to escape the hardships of families with many children. To some extent, his decision was encouraged by the extremely cold relationship he had with his father[9].

In the military unit of Mankabad, Nasser and other young officers were concerned with problems such as the political corruption of the system represented by King Faruk, foreign domination and its effects and the poverty of a large segment of society. The result of the 1948 Arab-Israeli war deepened the gap between the young officers and the political regime, which was seen by the officers as corrupt and unrepresentative.

Military response came in July 1952 when, after a revolution – coup d’état, King Faruk was forced to abdicate, and power was taken over by General Neguib. In the new structure, Nasser became Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister.


In 1955, Nasser took the power easily, but the real problem was his legitimation. Prerequisite in this regard was to propose a system of ideas compatible with population’s needs and expectations. Having in mind the final outcome, Nasser’s legitimacy has to be analyzed differently: in Egypt and the Arab world. He was a charismatic leader who first mobilized around him Egyptian masses, and then using a discourse where he emphasized the ideas of unity and past glory recovery, he appealed to the Arab masses as well. From our point of view, when Nasser assumed power in Egypt, he had not clearly structured the intention to develop a regional policy. The decisive moment in this respect was the Bandung Conference, when he noticed that he enjoyed great popularity among Arabs.

As a leader, he reflects the “mentor” model according to Gustave Le Bon’s typology: energetic person with a strong will, obsessed with an idea, whose apostle he became[10]. Having assumed the position of charismatic leader, the power of example and prestige played a fundamental role in his process of legitimation. Prestige conservation, both within the country and outside, became synonymous with legitimate leader status.

If legitimacy is the situation when government enjoys the citizens’ acceptance and support, we can say that if a leader intends to legitimize himself in a wider area than his own country, he has to propose an ideology that responds to at least one common need of the people living in that wide area. Such ideology is difficult to formulate in certain geographical areas, but in the Middle East, the Arab common past was a contributing factor in this regard. However, in this context, it may appear the risk of weakening the leader’s relation with the citizens of his own state. Equally dangerous is the fact that such an ideology which aims at a larger space can be used by a leader to call for the loyalty of other states’ citizens, so undermining the legitimacy and stability of other systems from the area. Conflict is endemic in the Middle East and requires a very high level of interstate activity, therefore Arab regimes which wanted to legitimize inevitably reached external actions[11], thus keeping alive the shadow of the former Arab empire and the need of only one ruler.

In domestic policy his legitimacy has found expression in Arab socialism, while Pan-Arabism, Arab nationalism and neutrality towards the conflict between the two superpowers led his foreign policy actions. At his peak in the Arab world, Nasser followed Muhammad Ali’s plans to turn Egypt into a regional power.

Having their background in the lower social strata, the people in power after 1952 was interested in reforming the social domain. General Neguib’s tendency to postpone the social aspect because he was interested more to monopolize the political scene[12] and his decision to return to the Western model parliamentary system, regarded as corrupt by Egyptian masses, caused his removal by a group of “Young officers” led by Nasser. Unlike his predecessors, Nasser understood his people’s concerns for the past glory and that the most important element for maintaining power was to retain the control over the army, and then to convince the masses to provide him support.

Nasser assumed power easily also because the timing was propitious. In the Arab world, the ‘50s was a decade of coups, initiated in 1949 by Colonel Za'aim in Syria. Those who took the power belonged to the military group or were allied with it, and were members of the generation that reached adulthood in the 30s-40s, and had been excluded from political life by those removed now through violent action[13].

The alliance with the army was absolutely necessary because access to power meant the use of force and the army, which was a necessary tool for action, was also the symbol of dignity and national pride, as well, elements necessary for the subsequent legitimation in front of the masses. National armies were still new elements in Arab society. In Egypt, up to the Second World War, Egyptian origin soldiers had a lower status in the military structures, high positions being occupied by British officers, and therefore, were located in terms of status at the margins of high society. After the 1952 Revolution, they became the center of social and political life. Nasser has assured its support through his military background and by promoting former colleagues in leadership positions. This was the case of Abdul Hakim Amer, Abdul Latif Baghdadi, Anwar el- Sadat, Hussein es-Shafei, Zacharia Mohieddin, Salad and Gamal Salem.

Nasser obtained and maintained the masses’ support by appealing to the glorious Arab past, declaring his intention to restore it. After seven years from the Revolution, he said that:

“[…] the Egyptian people and the army are those who in a very short time achieved glorious pages in history including the king’s expulsion, responsible for spreading corruption in the country, the expulsion of the imperialists and laid the foundations of glory, freedom and dignity”.[14]

 He claimed in his speeches that he worked for the people and therefore obtained their support.

Nasser introduced a new model of legitimacy in the Arab world: through propaganda and manipulation (he established various mass organizations giving people the illusion of participating in the political mechanism) he created firstly in the mind of Egyptians, and then of the Arabs in the Middle East, the image of local hero who was defying the West and was winnig the confrontation with it.


In the domestic policy, through the principles of “Arab socialism” (along with ideas such as equality of all “classes”, social improvement of labor legislation, implementation of social policies), Nasser stimulated the idea of progress, based on technical modernization and removal of “feudalism” from rural society structures.

Socialism was a new phenomenon in the Middle East and the Arab type of this ideology was an adaptation to the needs and specificities of Egypt. Before the ‘60s, the ideology was present only among the intelligentsia, because the main problem facing the political scene was political independence, on its background appearing the state of society. Socialism was attractive to young officers because they came from families of middle or lower classes, categories previously ignored by political leaders.

In Egypt, the officers observed the corruption of liberal democracy and Islamic fanaticism present in the actions of “Muslim Brotherhood” in the interwar period, and considered that a solution can be found in a new ideology, which, in their view, argued true democracy and social justice. For them socialism was:

1.       The symbol of real independence against Western powers. As European companies continued to dominate Middle Eastern economies even after the independence, nationalization and establishment of the socialist planned economy were seen as justified actions for these new governments in order to declare their political and economic independence.

2.       A symbol of modernity. It was an ideology that had never been tried before, so it was thought that it was a proof that the country was not backward anymore.

3.       An affirmation of a new set of values, specific to the Arab world (equality, sharing of resources, cooperation) which was considered superior to the capitalist, where the individual was emphasized at the expense of the community[15].

The construction of the Aswan Dam, industrialization and land reform are the examples which Nasser thought were the most important contributions of his regime in order to improve the living conditions of the population. They were needed to prove to the people that he was the leader who acted in the interest and well-being of citizens. The constructions started during his rule were loaded with symbols designed to flatter the people. The Aswan Dam was a “symbol of the will and determination of the entire Arab nation to carry out the self-imposed task to build a great free home”[16].

Nasser’s interest in the welfare of the Egyptian society was a genuine one, but the size of his achievements is questionable. If in speeches or interviews that were running in the country, Nasser first spoke about foreign policy issues, in the materials for Western media, he emphasized the internal problems of the Egyptian society, and only later mentioned the foreign policy issues. In an interview with Robert Stephens, in January 1967, Nasser said that “the most pressing issue for him was that another 175,000 people would be born in the country that month, and they must be fed”[17], therefore, he was aware of the plight of the Egyptian economy, but decided to keep it unapproached in front of local audiences.

Nasser could not present the real situation of the country (economic problems, dependence on external financial support for its modernization projects) in the speeches delivered to Egyptians, because the “social revolution” realized in 1952 would have lost its substance. Several factors, among which we mention the rapid population growth and changes in political and economic system, reduced the impact of his “revolutionary” measures.

When people became distrustful of the regime’s achievements, Nasser called on two themes to explain the persistence of social problems: simultaneity of two revolutions and the external enemy.

In “Philosophy of the Revolution”, he assumes that all peoples in the world go through two revolutions: a political revolution, which helps to regain the right to self-government from the hands of a despot who subjugated them and a social revolution, which was a class conflict, ultimately ending in achieving social justice for all the people of the country[18]. Egypt faced difficulties because it had to bear with two parallel revolutions. Although Nasser was speaking of great achievements, such as the elimination of feudalism and privileges, corruption destruction, etc., we can conclude that, to some extent, the need for such type of revolutions demonstrates that he was aware of Egypt’s peripheral role in the world system, but as a populist leader, he couldn’t state it clearly in front of the masses. A leader, who considers that his state must pass through a revolution to catch up with other countries, actually perceives his position as one of inferiority in relation to global hierarchies.

Nasser dressed his goal (getting a level of welfare for the Egyptian society comparable to that of Western societies) in a sophisticated expression with noble connotations appropriate to Arab mentality, because if he had presented a speech similar to Western leaders’ he would have endangered his legitimacy in the Arab world.

The social issue with its various aspects (galloping population growth, lack of food, poor health and social services, job scarcity, etc.) led to the shaping of domestic policy. Nasser knew there was a serious social problem in Egypt, which he tried to solve, but especially not to complicate it. He tried to prevent the Egyptians from aggravating a feature specific to many other Arab societies in the Middle East: social cleavage based on religion, economy or clans. Intending to prevent the occurrence of new cleavage lines, Nasser resorted to the theory of “the existence of an external enemy” against which the Arab masses had to unite, since solidarity and unification was the essence of pan-Arabism. The topic of “foreign enemy” was easily accepted by the Egyptian society, where the belief that all evil was due either to British rule or to Ottoman rule. The role of the “enemy” those days was given to the West and to Israel. Nasser proposed the concept of solidarity both internal and regional (Arabic) as the best way to fight the “threat”, while in this context Egypt was to play the role of the center of Arab resistance.

The idea of solidarity applied all over the country asked for clotting the whole people around the leader, and it was translated into practice by centralizing the power. Gradually, all the levers of power were taken by Nasser, and the political parties which he regarded as possible constituents of cleavage lines were abolished, while he preferred to create a single party (it had various names: Liberation National Assembly, the National Union, Arab Socialist Union) which had as primary responsibility the political mobilization of the Arab masses.

Nasser’s foreign policy was structured around three principles: Pan-Arabism, Arab nationalism and neutrality. They are interdependent and mutually reinforcing. As Pan-Arabism could not function without Arab nationalism, because it gives the basic element, that of the nation, nor would neutralism be successful without pan-Arabism, because to be neutral in relation to the two ideologies (communism and Western democracy) implies an ideological vacuum that must be filled with a stream of own thinking specific to a particular culture, in this case, the Arab-Islamic cultural space.

            Pan-Arabism or Nasserism resumed the nineteenth-century principles of Arabism, which emphasized the need to distinguish the Arab world from the rest of the world, and added to them the personality of a charismatic leader. It is necessary to make a remark on terminology: in Egypt, Nasser spoke of pan-Arabism, but in the Arab world it was more commonly used the term of “nasserism”, which developed in Levant.

Nasser was attracted to the ideas of solidarity and unity of the Arab world which Arabism promoted half a century before and he decided to use them as basis for the modern pan-Arabism. Unlike his predecessors (Muhammad Ali and kings Faruk, respectively Fuad), he understood that the success of the doctrine could be obtained if two conditions were met:

1) If the above-mentioned ideas were promoted by those who actually held the power. In the nineteenth century Arabism circulated among men of culture, such as professors at the Academy in Beirut or among politicians who lacked a solid legitimacy in the Arab world like kings Feisal and Abdullah.

2) If he got the support of Arab masses. He obtained mass mobilization in support of pan-Arabism by mentioning in his speeches the theme of the “danger” posed by Israel, which required that all Arab states should unite and get involved in solving the situation in Palestine. The creation of Israel served Nasser in two ways: on the one hand, it demonstrated to the population the inefficiency of the old political class, thus justifying his intervention to seize power by force, and on the other hand, it transformed pan-Arabism into a viable political movement, since the very existence of Israel showed that there is an “external threat”. In order to tackle this threat a leader was needed, who could guide the entire Arab world. By launching pan-Arabism/Nasserism Nasser proved that he proposed a program of struggle, and that he came with solutions.


Arab nationalism was the main support of pan-Arabism. The movement assumed Arab unification on the basis of common language, culture and a religious majority (Islamic faith). Nasser was influenced by Arabism and by the work of “Young Egypt” (Misr al-Fatah), which argued the necessity of winning the independence of the Egyptian nation, in the first phase, and then followed by the liberation of the whole Arab world. The triumph obtained with the negotiation of British troops withdrawal from Egypt (1954), the purchase of arms from Czechoslovakia (1955), the successful participation in the Bandung Conference (1955) and the nationalization of the Suez Canal turned Nasser into a hero of the Arab world. From this position of hero, Nasser could argue that there was an Arab world with its own characteristics, which had to be unified and whose prestige had to be restored by a leader.

The paragraphs below show political activities which propelled Nasser to the status of Arab world leader. Basically, these are the periods when the leader had the support of the masses, being obliged to make minimum efforts of coercion even against radical political opponents. For Nasser, a successful period was 1956-1967, although some tense moments (eg Yemen war, which erupted in 1962) could be mentioned as well. Inside Egypt, Nasser enjoyed popularity even since 1952, being one of the main organizers of the Revolution. Its popularity in the Arab world was acquired, at first, involuntarily, while later he struggled to maintain the leadership of the entire Arab community. The actions that have secured this position were made especially in foreign policy, each representing one of the principles of his ideology. These actions were:

1.       His participation in the Bandung Conference (1955);

2.       The arm deal with Czechoslovakia (1955);

3.       Rejection of Baghdad Pact (1954-1955);

4.       Building the Aswan Dam;

5.       Suez Canal Company nationalization (1956);

6.       The union with Syria (1958-1961);

7.       Egypt’s involvement in the Palestinian Question.

4.1.  The Bandung Conference


            The event took place in April 1955 and it was the first conference of independent states from Asia and Africa. Its initiators were the Prime Ministers of India, Pakistan, Indonesia Southeast Asia and Ceylon: Jawaharlal Nehru, Muhammad Ali, Ali Sastroamidjojo, U Nu, and Sir John Kotewala. The meeting was attended by delegates from 29 countries, 23 Asian and six from Africa, nine of them representing Arab states.

            The conference marked a new stage in international relations, because it stated the abolition of colonialism. The attendees accepted the “Five Principles” formulated by Nehru (accepted by China’s Chou En-Lai in 1954), which went on the line of neutralism:

a. mutual respect for territorial integrity and sovereignty of all states (Nasser insisted on this idea, having in mind the Palestinian question); b. exclusion of aggression in international relations; c. non-interference in internal affairs of states; d. equality of states; e. peaceful coexistence.

This was Nasser’s first international public appearance, at that time Prime Minister. His participation in the Bandung conference is considered to be the beginning of a very active Egyptian foreign policy phase. For Nasser the conference represented a new opportunity to oppose colonialism. His first success in this regard was in 1954 when, following negotiations with Britain for a new treaty, he obtained a complete withdrawal of British troops from Egypt and the abolition of the 1936 Treaty provisions and privileges for British citizens.

Fundamental to his future evolution were the meetings with Tito and Nehru in February 1955. Mohammed Heikal tells about those meetings and their mutual admiration. The relationship between Nehru and Nasser improved considerably after the latter mediated the conflict between India and China[19]. Therefore, Nasser’s participation in Bandung coincided with the Egyptian foreign policy trends of the time: the fight against all forms of foreign domination.

4.2.  Arm deal with Czechoslovakia


The contract was signed in 1955 and it had the endorsement and support of the USSR[20]. In his statement of 30 September 1955, after signing the contract with Czechoslovakia, Nasser attempted to dissociate USSR’s role, emphasizing the commercial side, not the ideological one: “we agreed the weapons transaction, which was proposed by Czechoslovakia just as a purely commercial agreement. Therefore, there is no need for an agreement with the USSR”.[21] Nasser hinted that he would have preferred to obtain weapons from other sources; he mentioned in his statement that he had requested them from the U.S., Great Britain, Belgium and Sweden, but he received only words and promises[22].

            In fact, a contract with the West implied his renuncing to neutrality and joining the Baghdad Pact and Nasser was building his reputation exactly on combating foreign domination. This is the context which the reader should have in mind, namely that 1955 was the moment when the crisis between him and General Neguib deepened, resulting in the removal of the latter. Since his position wasn’t well consolidated, Nasser had to avoid any gesture that would have compromised the image of liberation hero/decolonization hero, and the signing of an agreement with a Western state (especially with Great Britain) would have been perceived by the Arabs as a betrayal of his stated principles.

4.3.  Rejection of the Baghdad Pact

The treaty was denounced by Egypt, because it was considered a way to bring the Cold War in the Middle East. In his book Révolte sur le Nil, whose foreword was written by Nasser, Sadat stated that the main fear of the Egyptians was the alliance between feudal and imperialist[23].

According to Nasser, the world where Egypt was supposed to work had three levels (Egyptian, Arab and African), and any other external element was seen as a risk factor. The Baghdad Pact appeared during his first contacts with neutralism and Nasser considered it a form of intrusion into the internal affairs of the Middle East, or even a new form of oppression. In making this image, an important contribution had the fact that at that time Nasser was negotiating a new treaty with Britain, which was presented to the Egyptian masses as a true declaration of independence, so it was impossible to sign a new alliance with the state branded as the imperialist oppressor.

In the statement of 16 April 1955, the Foreign Minister of the USSR emphasized the idea of North Atlantic bloc aggressiveness, stressing that “the Soviet Government has always supported the legitimate demands of Middle East countries, whose objective was to strengthen national independence and sovereignty state”.[24] Nasser’s attention was captured by this declaration, which apparently did not include any ideological conditioning for the Soviet support. It was the impetus for the revaluation of Egyptian policy towards the USSR.

4.4.  Building of the Aswan Dam

The Aswan Dam was a domestic achievement, but Nasser used it in foreign policy as well. In the speech occasioned by the starting of the construction, he presented the dam as a symbol of the entire Arab world determination, saying: “This is your grand dam, that you have waited so long for and you’ve worked so hard for, and for which the whole Arab nation with all its peoples fought to see turning into a concrete reality”.[25]

The project was difficult, especially after Britain and the U.S. withdrew their support, claiming that it was not feasible[26]. The project was resumed after the Suez crisis and finalized due to Soviet support. In our view, the withdrawal of US-British financing, and hence the introduction of the USSR into the equation was Egypt’s first step to positive neutrality towards the East and it increased Nasser’s prestige because he demonstrated once again to the Arab masses that he could overpass Western obstacles.

4.5.  Canal Suez nationalization

The withdrawal of the U.S. and British financial support for the Aswan dam caused an unexpected reaction from Nasser. When the U.S.’s statement was issued, Nasser was attending a conference in Brioni[27], and after he returned to Egypt he began to plan the nationalisation of the Suez Canal Company, action announced on 28 July 1956. From his point of view, “the gesture was a way to get back the national dignity and true liberation”.[28]

            Soon after Nasser’s announcement, the British government began to prepare for military action against Egypt. Evelyn Shuckburgh, an expert in the Middle East in the period 1954-1956 and close to Eden, noted in his diary on July 30: “It’s time to show our strength and Nasser should be removed”.[29]

            The nationalization of Suez was only the beginning of the crisis, which culminated in military confrontation between Israel and Egypt. The U.S.’s firm position prevented Britain and France from involving in the conflict and helped Nasser to turn a defeat on the battlefield (Egypt lost the Sinai Peninsula) into a political victory. The U.S.’s attitude during the Suez crisis (influenced by the Hungarian crisis) forced Israel to return the Sinai Peninsula and Nasser presented this event as a vote of support given by America to his policy. Therefore, the Suez crisis was perceived by the Arab world as the beginning of restoring the old glory of the Arab Empire.

4.6.  The union with Syria

The United Arab Republic (UAR), formed in February 1958 from Egypt and Syria, represented the application of Arab unity ideal present in both Arab nationalism and pan-Arabism principles. The initiative belonged to Syria[30], while Egypt was looking for a way to dominate the Arab world. Nasser agreed with the union provided that it was in conformity with his wishes. Syria accepted the condition, but misunderstandings appeared when the political system ended, being dominated by Egypt. The entire structure was under the Nasser’s influences, who appointed half of the members of the National Assembly of UAR and hold the executive powers within the central government, institution made up of 14 Egyptians and seven Syrians.

            The situation deteriorated rapidly when Nasser refused to shape the policy in accordance with the Ba'ath Party ideology (which self-dissolved to smooth the formation union) and he decided to place the Egyptian officers in key positions in the Syrian army[31].

            After the union with Syria, the Egyptian constitution of 1956 was abolished. Nasser announced that the government of UAR would be made up of four deputy prime ministers, assisted by two regional councils of ministers. Subsequently, the number of Egyptians exceeded that of the Syrians and Syrian political parties were dissolved and replaced by the National Union, a mass party[32]. In our opinion, Nasser pursued a policy of embedding Syria in the united Arab world dominated by Egypt.

            The American administration decided to support freely consented union plans, was wary of UAR, fearing the spread of positive neutrality towards the East, but saw the bright part which consisted in the complete elimination of Communist influence in Syria.[33]. Nasser’s tendency to dominate Syria caused the dissolution of the union in 1961, but he didn’t abandon the principle of the Arab world unification.

4.7.  Egypt’s involvement in the Palestinian Question

Egypt was involved in the wars with Israel before Nasser took the power. In fact, the Arabs’ failure in the first war (1948) paved the way of “young officers” to power, because they didn’t assume any responsibility although they were members of the military, but placed full blame on the political class. During Nasser’s leadership, two confrontations took place between Arabs and Israelis: in 1956, which was presented by the Egyptian leader as a victory, and in 1967, when Arab armies were clearly defeated.

            Nasser’s interest in the Palestinian question was a special one, if we consider that his decline was due to a war with Israel, thus changing the legitimation model of the Arab system, where the tendency of Arab leaders was to legitimize their actions through foreign policy, namely through the need to involve in the Palestinian question. Was Nasser fighting for the Palestinians? In our opinion, the answer to this question varies from case to case.

            In the 1948 war, Nasser was an officer in the Egyptian army and he was convinced that the fight was for his “Palestinian brothers”. His duty was to follow his superiors’ instructions but apart from this, his memoirs show that he really involved himself emotionally in this struggle.

            The situation of 1956 was perceived by Nasser as a confrontation with colonialism in general and the British in particular. He didn’t declare war on Israel motivating his gesture with an explanation about the Palestinians situation. The crisis erupted after his decision to nationalize the Suez Canal Company and to reject the Franco-British ultimatum of 30 October 1956. In the ultimatum, the two countries requested the ceasefire between Egypt and Israel and Egypt’s acceptance of temporary employment of British and French military in key positions in Port Said, Ismailia and Suez[34].

            Two years before the Suez crisis Nasser negotiated British troops evacuation from the Suez, action which endowed him with the much needed prestige to candidate to the Arab leadership, yet he could not accept in any way the requirements of the above mentioned document.

            In his reply of November 1, 1956, he talked about “a conspiracy between Britain, France and Israel” and he announced that foreign troops occupying Egyptian territory were equivalent “to the violation of freedom, sovereignty and dignity of the Egyptian people”.[35] Therefore, in 1956 he struggled to defend Egypt and his position.

            At the outset of the 1967 war, the Palestinians had an indirect role. By mid-‘50s, the number of guerrilla organizations proliferated, a phenomenon connected with the taking over of the political duties by a new generation, made up of children of the defeated and the expelled in 1948. This generation’s activism, often manifested through violent actions, unofficially supported by neighboring Arab states, forced the Arab leaders to pay more attention to Palestinians. Thus, in 1964, following the Arab Summit in Cairo, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) was founded and it was led by Ahmad Shukayri, Nasser’s choice. The creation of PLO gave a start to inter-Arab hostilities to take over its control.

            Even in the eve of the conflict, Nasser was forced to mediate the conflict between Shukayri and King Hussein of Jordan. At the meeting of May 30, 1967, Nasser told Hussein that he could take the leader of PLO with him, and if he made him any troubles he would close him in a tower and thus escaping him from this problem[36]. Although Shukayri was forced to declare that he considered the King of Jordan as the Palestinian leader, before he embarked on the same plane with Hussein, from the tone of the discussion appears more than obvious who controlled the Palestinian leadership.

            The Palestinians contributed to the breaking of the 1967 war by increasing the number of violent activities, especially after 1964, when they got important financial resources from the Arab states struggling to dominate the PLO. However, despite these inter-Arab rivalries, Nasser maintained control over many PLO groups and the activities deployed in Gaza Strip. Until 1967, he was the sole authority to decide on Palestinians because he was the “voice” of the Arab world.

            All foreign policy actions have increased Nasser’s popularity so much that he could be named among world leaders, although he was younger and inexperienced as compared to most of them[37]. Since foreign policy made him a leader, Nasser continued to act in this direction in order to maintain his popularity.

In his view, the strength of the Arab nation was based on three sources: the common Arabic tradition, the geographical and strategic position and the oil. The Arab world had a close connection with Africa, the continent-country for tens of millions of Arabic populations.

The third area for defining the Arab world was Islam. For Nasser, the pilgrimage to Mecca had political power, being regarded “as a political conference of heads of all Islamic countries - leaders, academics, and prominent industrialists, businessmen - gathered in the Islamic world parliament to draw the general lines of their countries’ policies and to establish the principles to ensure close cooperation until their next meeting”.[38]

Islamic principles were put into the service of pan-Arabism and pan-Arabism was in his opinion the expression of neutralism towards the two superpowers. It was not enough to argue that he didn’t wish to be involved in the conflict existing between the two superpowers for spheres of influence, but he had to offer an alternative to Arab populations, their own ideology.

His attitude toward Israel served his political purposes. Nixon argued that if Israel hadn’t existed, Nasser would have invented something to keep his place. Arab unity needed a common cause and the destruction of Israel had become the goal that filled this gap[39].

Nasser was aware of the serious economic problems which Egypt had to face, and for an increasingly technological world, oil was vital. The Aswan Dam offered new land for agriculture but mechanized exploitation involved fuel. Egypt hadn’t had financial possibilities to buy oil on the international market or sufficient internal resources.

Until 1967 Nasser viewed oil as a good of all the Arabs[40], whose leader was meant to be. He thought he could use Arab oil for the internal development of Egypt, mainly because for an economic developed country it was easier to play the role of a regional leader. Nasser claimed that resources should be used to fight with Israel for the Palestinian brethren; therefore, he demanded oil transactions to be placed under his direct control. This action gave rise to strong comments among the substantial oil resources Arab states since they were in search of political independence and of finding their vantage point in the system Arab.

The confrontation between the superpowers led him to publicly claim that the existence of the Arab world was in danger due to Israel / the West and communism threats.

One of the problems mentioned by Arab historians was Nasser’s relations with the communist ideology. In our opinion, Nasser used the Soviet factor in his plans. He wasn’t sympathetic to communism, which he considered incompatible with the Arab world, or with the idea of Soviet domination. From his point of view, the liberation from foreign domination was the most important accomplishment of the Egyptian people. The liberation struggle was, according to his confessions, “the most severe in history ... it has allowed the Egyptian people to reveal themselves, their abilities and their potential”.[41]

Only after the liberation from foreign domination was Nasser concerned with the economic aspect. He believed that the real freedom was brought by the 1952 Revolution, because then were removed the old exploiting elites. From his point of view, all the evil in Egyptian society was because of foreign domination (instituted by Muhammad Ali, who had Albanian origins), hence the desire to avoid a position of inferiority in relation to any other state.

Nasser advocated the minimization of foreign intervention in the Middle East, especially their involvement in the Palestinian question. Communism was considered a threat comparable to Zionism. In a speech of March 17, 1953, during the signing of the Treaty of technical and financial assistance between USSR and Iraq, Nasser said, “our campaign against communism is meant to defend our country from a new form of imperialism, and to rebuild our country on a national foundation freed from imperialism”.[42]

From his point of view, Soviet support was welcomed in various fields, but in the political sphere Soviet-Egyptian relations had to be established on an equal footing. However, Nasser’s attitude in 1956 allowed USSR to become an important factor in the Middle East diplomatic game[43]. But Nasser did not allow Soviet communists to take control of Egyptian foreign policy. In 1956, Moscow backed Egypt. The first favorable comments made by Moscow with regard to the Egyptian leader were made 36 hours after the onset of the Suez blockade.

Nasser rejected the communist ideology because it opposed Arab nationalism and Islamic religious precepts, in the spirit which both he and the majority of the Egyptian population had been educated. He said: “I accept the fact of a material life. But how was life created? Maybe I am ready to accept the theory of evolution. But tell me how were created the earth and the universe? Until then I'll believe in God”.[44]

In 1958, a state of tension emerged between Khrushchev and Nasser after the first had criticized the Egyptian leader during the XXI Congress of the Communist Party for his refusal to provide support to communists in Iraq. Nasser replied with a speech and an official letter sent to the Soviet ambassador in Cairo, Kisiliev, clearly dissociating himself from communism:

“I’m not a communist. I am a nationalist. I am progressive; at least I think I am progressive. I consider myself a socialist. I think that there are some  abnormal issues in communism. I’m not saying that all communists are bad, because some of my best friends are communists. Tito is a communist and he is a good friend of mine ... For I attack communists from the Arab world does not mean that I criticize Soviet Union”.[45]

So, Nasser perceived his doctrine as opposed to communism, both for religious reasons and nationalism, and both inconsistent in his opinion to communism. The alliance with the Soviet Union could only be one dictated by the needs of the Egyptian military and economic development, not by ideological affinities.

It cannot be said that Nasser was tempted to give Islam a special status in state structures, but he did not take the risk to a total break of Islamic tradition in order not to lose the support of a significant segment of society. When the “Muslim Brotherhood” became an additional opponent to his political plans, Nasser banned the organization and ordered the arrest of its members, notwithstanding that, during his search to legitimize himself, he had their support.

The hostility towards the Western world was even more obvious. Britain and France were former colonial powers, the source of humility of Arab people in the last century, and in this context the war of 1956 was regarded as a new declaration of independence. The United States had a privileged status because they fought against colonialism too, opposed the Franco-British intervention of 1956 and promised financial support for the construction of the Aswan Dam. However, the U.S.’s decision to withdraw its financial offer for funding Aswan and the pressure on Nasser to join the Baghdad Pact, led him to include USA in the group of imperialist states, in which no Arab leader should trust. Western democracy values (emphasis on the individual, private property and competition) and Western lifestyle were considered threats to Arab societies.


Nasser’s position towards the confrontation between the superpowers was expressed through non-alignment policy, backed by Third World leaders at the Bandung Conference (1955). Nasser wanted to make the Arab world and the Afro-Asian a “corpus separatum” in international relations and his alliance with Nehru helped him to legitimize his position as the leader of the Arab world. The Suez crisis gave him the opportunity to show the Arab world and international public opinion that neutralism and pan-Arabism were resisted attitudes in dealing with the external environment. The rejection of the Baghdad Pact and the victory of the 1956 war (as it was presented by Nasser) were true declarations of independence. The prestige gained after 1956 paved the way for the unification of Egypt with Syria in 1958, the first step of the new project of establishing a unified Arab world.

Gradually, the new set of values introduced in the Arab world turned into a constraining factor. The level of institutional development and economic politics was reduced, so Nasser could establish a centralized leadership and enjoyed full powers.

Over time, the enthusiasm of the masses decreased and the risk of rival centers became possible given the fast development of Gulf countries. In 1967, Nasser was forced to take dramatic action to keep alive the enthusiasm of masses, hoping to revive the 1956 episode. Yet, the general background changed and he had to face a dramatic failure.

If we need to resume the factors that contributed to the success of his populist ideology, then we had to mention:

1.       The presence in the Egyptian collective mind, but also in the Arab mind of the idea of a glorious past, which needed to be restored. This idea can compel the leadership to initiate dramatic actions which, if successful, would prompt him directly in the spotlight of the entire Arab world.

2.       Geographical position (the Nile Valley), which since ancient time required centralized management to plan the use of the irrigation system, has determined that the Egyptian mind would easily accept a strong even dictatorial leader.

3.       The ethno-religious homogeneous society and low political culture level made it easy to mobilize the masses only with speeches full of promises.

4.       In certain cases, a favorable international environment: Cold War was perceived in Egypt as a menacing element to regional stability because it required a possible danger (Western imperialism or communism), against which the leader had to fight, and the masses need to provide support.

5.       The colonial past identified in the collective mind with an age of oppression and humiliation. The leader could always appeal to the idea of a threat and mobilize society around him and around the alliances chosen by him.

6.       The structure of Arab societies in general. They are naturally hierarchical and authority is concentrated at the top.

      Nasser’s death in 1970 came at the right time if judged from the perspective of his myth preservation. Richard Nixon believed that his regime’s achievements in the benefit of the Egyptian people were minor, however his sudden death in the fall of 1970 caused one of the greatest manifestations of pain that mankind ever saw: five million people went out in Cairo’s streets[46].

            Behind him, it remained the same Arab system based on the same language and history, economic complementarity, geographical location and common historical experiences, but Nasser’s disappearance deprived it of political events in the direction of unification and a personality that could coordinate this system. Populist ideologies declined after 1967 and a type of pragmatism in politics reduced the insecurity of Arab regimes.




Archive sources


Archive of Ministry of Foreign Affairs (AMFA), Fondul 71/Egipt, vol. 1, General, Raport diplomatic din lunile ianuarie-februarie 1936.

Archive of Ministry of Foreign Affairs (AMFA), Problema 210, Fond Egipt, Politică internă, 1948-1949, nepaginat, Referat asupra Egiptului.


Edited sources


F.R.U.S., Arab-Israeli Dispute; United Arab Republic; North Africa, vol. XIII, United States Government Printing Office, Washington, 1992.

FRASER, Thurlow G., The Middle East, 1914-1979 (Documents), Edward Arnold Publishers Ltd., London, 1980.

GHEORGHE, Dragoş (selection and trans by.), Gândirea politică africană. Antologie, Editura Politică, Bucureşti, 1982.

HEIKAL, Mohammed, Nasser. The Cairo Documents, New English Library, London, 1972.

MALEK, Anouar Abdel, La pensée politique arabe contemporaine, Editions du Seuil, Paris, 1980.

President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s Speeches and Press Interviews, vol. 1&2, Information Department, UAR, Cairo, 1961.



el-SADAT, Anwar, In Search of Identity. An Autobiography, Collins St. James’s Palace, London, 1978.

HUSSEIN OF JORDAN, My "War" with Israel as Told to and with Additional Material by Vick Vance and Pierre Lauer, William Morrow and Company Inc., New York, 1969.

NIXON, Richard, The Memoirs of Richard Nixon, Grosset and Dunlop, A Filmway Company Publishers, New York, 1978.

SHUCKBURGH, Evelyn, Descent to Suez. Diaries 1951-1956, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London, 1986.

General bibliography


BORTHWICK, Bruce Maynard, Comparative Politics of the Middle East. An Introduction, Prentice Hall Inc., Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, 1980.

COSTELLO, Vincent F., Urbanization in the Middle East, Cambdridge University Press, Cambridge, 1977.

DEVLIN, John F., “The Ba’ath Party: Rise and Metamorphosis”, The American Historical Review, Vol. 96, No. 5, 1991.

ECCEL, A. Chris, Islam and Social Change: al-Azhar in Conflict and Accommodation, Klaus Schwartz Verlag, Berlin, 1984.

el-SADAT, Anwar, Révolte sur Nil, Pierre Amiot, Paris, 1957.

SHIMONI, Yacoov, Evyatar LEVIN (eds.), Political Dictionary of the Middle East in the Twentieth Century, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, Jerusalem, 1972.

LINCOLN, W. Bruce, Documents in World History, 1945-1967, Chandler Publishing Company, San Francisco, 1968.

LUCIANI, Giacomo (ed.), The Arab State, Routhledge, London, 1990.

LUKACS, Yehuda, Abdallah M. BATTAH (eds.), The Arab-Israeli Conflict. Two Decades of Changes, 1967-1987, Westview Press, Boulder, Colorado, London, 1988.

NIXON, Richard, Lideri, Editura Universal Dalsi, București, 2000.

PODEH Elie, Onn WINCKLER, Rethinking Nasserism, University Press of Florida, 2004.

SHARABI, Hisham B., Naţionalism and Revolution in the Arab World, D. van Nostrand Company Inc., New Jersey, 1966.

STEPHENS, Robert, Nasser. A Political Biography, Allen Lane-The Penguin Press, Hazell Watson and Viney Ltd., London, New York, 1979.

TIBI, Bassam, Conflict and War in the Middle East. From Interstate War to New Security, St. Martin’s Press, New York, 1998.

VATIKIOTIS, Panayiotis J., The History of Egypt, The John Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 1980.

WILSON, Keith M. (ed.), Imperialism and Nationalism in the Middle East. The Anglo-Egyptian Experience 1882-1982, Mansell Publishing Limited, London, 1983.

[1] Elie KEDOURIE, Egypt, the Arab World and the Suez Expedition, in Keith M. WILSON (ed.), Imperialism and Nationalism in the Middle East. The Anglo-Egyptian Experience 1882-1982, Mansell Publishing Limited, London, 1983, p. 123.

[2] Vincent F. COSTELLO, Urbanization in the Middle East, Cambdridge University Press, Cambridge, 1977, p. 31.

[3] A. Chris ECCEL, Islam and Social Change: al-Azhar in Conflict and Accommodation, Klaus Schwartz Verlag, Berlin, 1984, p. 61.

[4] Raymond HINNEBUSCH, “Egypt, Syria and the Arab State System”, in Yehuda LUKACS, Abdallah M. BATTAH (eds.), The Arab-Israeli conflict. Two Decades of Changes, 1967-1987, Westview Press, Boulder, Colorado, London, 1988, p. 180.

[5] Peasants.

[6] AMFA, Problema 210, Fond Egipt, Politică internă, 1948-1949, Referat asupra Egiptului, p. 5.

[7] Ibidem, p. (fila) 15.

[8] AMFA, Fondul 71/Egipt, vol. 1, General, Raport diplomatic din lunile ianuarie-februarie 1936, p. 234.

[9] Robert STEPHENS, Nasser. A Political Biography, Allen Lane-The Penguin Press, Hazell Watson and Viney Ltd., London, New York, 1979, p. 36.

[10] Ibidem.

[11] Adeed DAWISHA, Arab Regimes: Legitimacy and Foreign Policy, în Giacomo LUCIANI (ed.), The Arab State, Routhledge, London, 1990, p. 284.

[12] He suspended the 1923 Constitution and postponed the elections for 3 years.

[13] Hisham B. SHARABI, Nationalism and Revolution in the Arab World, D. van Nostrand Company Inc., New Jersey, 1966, p. 60.

[14] Address by President Gamal Abdel Nasser on the Anniversary of the July 23 Revolution, President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s Speeches and Press-Interviews 1959-1960, vol. 1, Information Department-UAR, Cairo, 1961, pp. 252-253.

[15] Bruce Maynard BORTHWICK, Comparative Politics of the Middle East. An Introduction, Prentice Hall Inc., Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, 1980, p. 73.

[16] Speech Delivered by President Gamal Abdel Nasser on January 9, 1960, on the Occasion of the Laying of the Foundation Stone of the High Dam, in President Gamal Abdel Nassser’s Speeches and Press-Interviews, Information Department, UAR, vol. 2, Cairo, 1961, p. 2.

[17] Robert STEPHENS, Nasser. A Political Biography...cit., p. 8.

[18] Dragoş GHEORGHE (selection and trans. by), Gândirea politică africană. Antologie, Editura Politică, Bucureşti, 1982, p. 125.

[19] Mohammed HEIKAL, Nasser. The Cairo Documents, New English Library, London, 1972, p. 262-263.

[20] Yacoov SHIMONI, Evyatar LEVIN (eds.), Political Dictionary of the Middle East in the Twentieth Century, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, Jerusalem, 1972, p. 101.

[21] Thurlow G. FRASER, The Middle East, 1914-1979 (Documents), Edward Arnold Publishers Ltd., London, 1980, p. 87.

[22] Ibidem, p. 86.

[23] Anwar el-SADAT, Révolte sur le Nil, Pierre Amiot, Paris, 1957, p. 15.

[24] W. Bruce LINCOLN, Documents in World History, 1945-1967, Chandler Publishing Company, San Francisco, 1968, p. 225.

[25] President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s Speeches and Press Interviews, vol. 2, Information Department, UAR, Cairo, 1961, p. 1.

[26] Thurlow G. FRASER, The Middle East…cit., p. 86.

[27] Meeting between Tito, Nasser and Nehru which took place on the Brijuni Islands(Croatia) in July 1956.

[28] President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s Speeches and Press Interviews, vol. 2, Information Department, UAR, Cairo, 1961, p. 4

[29] Evelyn SHUCKBURGH, Descent to Suez. Diaries 1951-1956, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London, 1986, p. 360.

[30] John F. DEVLIN, “The Ba’ath Party: Rise and Metamorphosis”, The American Historical Review, Vol. 96, No. 5, dec. 1991, pp. 1399-1400.

[31] Yaacov SHIMONI, Evyatar LEVIN (eds.), Political Dictionary of the Middle East…cit.,p. 402.

[32] Panayiotis J. VATIKIOTIS, The History of Egypt, The John Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 1980, p. 399.

[33] F.R.U.S., Arab-Israeli Dispute; United Arab Republic; North Africa, vol. XIII, United States Government Printing Office, Washington, 1992, p. 408.

[34] Thurlow G. FRASER, The Middle East…cit., p. 91.

[35] Ibidem, p. 92.

[36] Hussein of JORDAN, My "War" with Israel as Told to and with Additional Material by Vick Vance and Pierre Lauer, William Morrow and Company Inc., New York, 1969, p. 47.

[37] Anwar el-SADAT, In Search of Identity. An Autobiography, Collins St. James’s Palace, London, 1978, p. 136.

[38] Dragoş GHEORGHE (selection and trans. by), Gândirea politică africană…cit., pp. 129-130.

[39] Richard NIXON, The Memoirs of Richard Nixon, Grosset and Dunlop, A Filmway Company Publishers, New York, 1978, p. 249.

[40] Bassam TIBI, Conflict and War in the Middle East. From Interstate War to New Security, St. Martin’s Press, New York, 1998, p. 87.

[41] Anouar Abdel MALEK, La pensée politique arabe contemporaine, Editions du Seuil, Paris, 1980, p. 116.

[42] President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s Spechees and Press-Interviews, 1959-1960, vol. 1, UAR-Information Department, Cairo, 1961 p. 159.

[43] L. Carl BROWN, “The June War: A Turning Point”, in Yehuda LUKACS, Abdallah M. BATTAH (eds.), The Arab-Israeli conflict…cit., p. 136.

[44] Mohammed HEIKAL, Nasser. The Cairo Documents…cit., p. 26.

[45] Ibidem, p. 197.

[46] Richard NIXON, Lideri, Editura Universal Dalsi, București, 2000, p. 364.