Friday, September 25, 2015

Uncle Gamal - Forty-five years later, Nasser’s legacy still escapes us

On 28 September, some Arabs will commemorate the 45th anniversary of Gamal Abdel Nasser’s death. But in one respect the onetime Egyptian president never left us, laying the foundations of the Arab security state that prevails to this day.

Those romantic about Arab nationalism will want to remember Nasser as much more than that. It was he who sent shockwaves throughout the region when, as the leading figure in the Free Officers movement, he overthrew the monarchy of King Farouq in 1952. It was also he who struck a blow against the declining colonial powers, when, in 1956, he nationalized the foreign-owned Suez Canal Company, saying its revenues would help finance the then symbol of Egyptian economic reaffirmation, the Aswan High Dam.

So much of the heroic symbolism in the modern Middle East is tied into things with which Nasser was associated, that to reduce him to the establishment of an authoritarian order seems low. Perhaps, but nearly half a century after his death, that part of his legacy remains more alive than any other.

It is interesting that among those who helped reinforce Egypt’s security order were the Americans, in particular the Central Intelligence Agency. During the 1950s, the Americans were looking to strengthen their ties with Arab nationalist regimes that, they thought, would be better able to contain communism in the Arab world. Nasser seemed an ideal choice, but in Syria as well the CIA sought to build up a relationship with another officer, Husni al-Zaim, who seized power in 1949 in a coup.

And yet a great misnomer is that Nasser ushered in the era of Arab military regimes. As Cambridge sociologist Hazem Kandil has written in a fascinating revisionist book published in 2012, titled Soldiers, Spies, and Statesmen: Egypt’s Road to Revolt, Nasser spent much of his time trying to counterbalance the military.

For Kandil, many of the developments in post-revolution Egypt were driven by Nasser’s rivalry with his old friend, Abdel Hakim Amer, who had built a powerful position for himself as commander-in-chief of the armed forces, before becoming first vice president and deputy supreme commander. Nasser felt threatened by Amer. But being unable to clip his wings from within the military hierarchy, he did so politically, resorting to the novel tactic of establishing the Arab Socialist Union. This mass party was used to mobilize support for the regime and prevent the military from staging a coup.

“Nasser’s real goal was to create a civilian network of vested interests to enhance his power vis-à-vis the military,” Kandil writes.

Similar patterns were replicated under Anwar al-Sadat and Hosni Mubarak, though each man adopted different measures. Sadat built up the powers of the Interior Ministry to offset the military. Mubarak, even as he continued to do the same thing, also encouraged the expansion of a capitalist class tied to the regime, which was given greater power in the system to formulate policy.

Kandil’s book is an eye-opener because it explains the brutal subtleties of Arab regimes. Their priority is survival, which means Arab dictators tend to destroy all institutions or individuals posing a potential threat to them. That is why the rubric “military regime” is so misleading. Leaders often emerge from the military, but then seek to undermine those mechanisms that initially propelled them to power by curtailing the effectiveness of the armed forces.

This can involve installing a vast security apparatus to control the military. It can also mean placing loyalists in key positions in the armed forces to keep an eye on what is going on. Arab leaders have usually done both, taking care even to watch the watchers, as no one can ever truly be trusted. That is why parallel intelligence services have proliferated, notably in Syria, as each one keeps tabs on the others. All information is centralized at the top, where the leader alone has a comprehensive picture of what is taking place.

The protections Arab regimes put in place to survive can be very efficient. In Libya, Muammar Gadhafi may have been ousted, but that was only because Western airpower supported the rebels. In Syria, Bashar Assad may have lost large swathes of territory and has engaged in mass murder against his society, but the core of his regime has held. He is perceived by many dupes as a foe of jihadism and his foreign backers have come through. Sadly, his foul regime may now be gaining in strength rather than the contrary.

One of Kandil’s most interesting arguments is that the great disaster of the Nasser period, the defeat of the Arab armies in the 1967 war against Israel, came about because Nasser’s efforts to counterbalance the army were so successful. As a consequence of this, Amer and his acolytes sought to achieve something spectacular to regain the initiative. Though Amer knew Egypt was in no condition to fight Israel, he took provocative steps in the run-up to June 1967 “to salvage the image and influence of the army.”
According to Kandil, Nasser, who is often blamed for the 1967 war, strongly opposed the Egyptian decision in May 1967 to request a withdrawal of the United Nations Emergency Force in Sinai that separated the Egyptian and Israeli armies. Nasser, aware that a full withdrawal would raise the probability of war, told Amer to request only a partial withdrawal, but this was never implemented. Amer, not Nasser, then closed the Straits of Tiran to Israeli ships, provoking a casus belli that led to the devastating Israeli attack.

Forty-five years after his death, Gamal Abdel Nasser continues to leave an ambiguous legacy — being blamed for that for which he may not have been responsible, even as the nature of his authoritarian power is equally misunderstood. It’s surprising that to this day no great biography has been written of the man. Banished to the realm of myth, Nasser remains elusive even after all this time.

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