Thursday, October 21, 2010

Forty Years Later: Why is Nasser still remembered in the Arab World?

The elder son of former Egyptian President Gamal Abdel-Nasser (ruled 1954-1970), Khaled, has an interesting story to tell. One day in the 1960s, the then teenage Khaled joined his father on a private car ride. Unintentionally, a crowd of people noticed Nasser's presence in the car, and they waved to the revolutionary leader whose speeches and decisions had electrified them for years. And Nasser as usual waved back. But when Nasser noticed that Khaled, overwhelmed by the emotional zeal, was waving too to the crowds from his car window, he looked at him and said: have you gone nuts, boy?

This month marks the 40th anniversary of Nasser's death. If Nasser is not remembered in Egypt and the Arab world for his achievements – driving the British out after 70 years of occupation, nationalizing the Suez Canal Company, and building the High Dam in Aswan – he is today certainly remembered for his integrity, and his moral revulsion of all sorts of nepotism.

The rise, in some cases consolidation, of hereditary republics in the Arab world has evoked powerful nostalgia for Nasser's days. After the long struggle of Arab peoples to turn monarchies into constitutional republics, a number of Arab autocrats have been reversing the process by turning their countries into "Gumlukiyas," a term coined by sociologist Saad Eddin Ibrahim merging the Arabic words 'gumhuriya' (republic) and 'mamlukiya' (monarchy).

The precedent was set in Syria, where Bashar Al-Assad took over power after his father's death in 2000. Iraq under Saddam Hussein was ripe for another father-to-son succession of power before the deposal of his regime at the hands of the US-led invasion in 2003.

In Yemen, the son of incumbent President Ali Abdullah Saleh, Ahmed, is widely seen as his heir apparent. Ahmed is commander of Yemen's Republican Guards and Special Forces, the military establishment's two deadliest units. He also enjoys extensive tribal backing, a very valuable asset in a country that is, essentially, considered a "tribal state."

In Libya, family succession oscillates between two of Gaddafi's sons: Seif Al-Islam, last October named by his father as the regime's second-in-command; and Mu'tasim, who controls the security apparatus. Because of Libya's weak institutions and the non-existence of political parties, opposition to Gaddafi's four-decade rule comes only from within — not within the regime, but rather within the ruling family.

In Egypt, the Arab world's most populous country, banker-turned-politician Gamal Mubarak meteorically rose in the ranks of the ruling party until he became its Deputy Secretary General. President Hosni Mubarak has bequeathed some of his powers to Gamal, who in the eyes of many observers has become a "shadow president." The deteriorating health of Mubarak Sr. and his reluctance to declare whether he will run in next year's presidential elections has fueled rumors that Gamal is being groomed for the presidency.

Witnessing the emergence of the dynastic republicanism phenomenon, Arabs lament the days of Nasser who, despite his legendary popularity in the 1950s and 1960s, has not showed any tendency to groom a son, or bestow political authority and economic influence on any family member.

Arabs have for many centuries personified power; their judgment of leaders has relied more on personal idiosyncrasies and traits than on ideological agendas and political blueprints. That’s why Nasser's many drastic failures, such as the humiliating defeat against Israel in 1967, the debacle in Yemen, and human rights breaches, are in historical hindsight condoned. Nasser was free from any aura of corruption, and utterly sincere in his desire to serve his nation, and this counts most.

To Arabs, military defeat, economic underperformance, and social mismanagement certainly count too. But corruption, nepotism and using power to selfish ends could never be forgiven; they constitute an offense, a gross insult that is not forgotten with the passage of time, or the change of political moods.

To obtain Washington's endorsement for his political ambitions, Gamal Mubarak visited the US many times and met with nearly all its top officials. It is hard to imagine the reaction of Nasser, who sharply rebuked his son for merely waving to the masses, had his son became a "shadow president" promoting himself in international capitals. But Nasser is no Mubarak, and that’s why his memory evokes so much nostalgia for the past and so much contempt for the present.

Nael M. Shama

* This article was published in Daily News (Egypt) on September 30, 2010.