An Egyptian military commander and president of Egypt (1956– 70), Nasser became a heroic figure whose charisma and nationalistic ideals moved the masses for decades and continue to endure in major parts of the Arab world. His political approach was characterized by nationalism, Pan-Arabism, and socialist ideas on how to lead the state and the economy. “Nasserism” is often cited as a political movement combining these ideologies that stands against Western imperialism and colonization and in favor of the emancipation of the Third World. Nasser was one of the founders and leaders of the Non-Aligned Movement, founded in Belgrade in 1961 as an international organization of states that chose not to align themselves with any powerful bloc during the cold war.
Nasser was born on January 15, 1918, into a modest family in Alexandria. His father, who worked as a post-office clerk, was from the village of Bani Murr in Upper Egypt, where Nasser spent part of his childhood. In 1933, he moved to Cairo to complete his secondary education and start a degree in law at Cairo University. The capital was fertile ground for Nasser to get involved in militant activities against both foreign domination and its support by local politicians. After the signing of the Anglo-Egyptian Treaty in 1936, Nasser interrupted his studies and joined the Royal Military Academy, which provided him with an outstanding social ladder. In the army he also met fellow dissident junior officers with whom he created the Free Officers movement in the aftermath of the 1948 Palestinian exodus. The Free Officers was a clandestine revolutionary movement committed to overthrow the monarchy and establish a new regime free of foreign influence.
Egypt’s internal political life in the highly tense era of the 1940s and early 1950s provided the Free Officers with an excellent opportunity for political action. The well-known corruption of King Farouk’s monarchy, the Arab defeat in Palestine, and the continuing British presence in Egypt all contributed to making change imminent. On July 23, 1952, following a series of anti-British riots during the events of Black Saturday on January 26 of that year, the Free Officers launched a coup d’état that overthrew King Farouk peacefully. The Republic of Egypt was proclaimed on June 18, 1953, with Muhammad Naguib (1901–84) as its first provisional president. After serving as chairman of the Revolutionary Command Council starting in 1954, Nasser was elected president of the young republic by a referendum on June 23, 1956.
Nasser and the Free Officers’ political rule was characterized by a set of ideals rather than by a definite political program. Among their long-term goals were the liberation of Egypt from foreign presence and influence, the cleansing of the former autocratic political system and the creation of a modern and democratic one, and the dismantling of the former landowning elite and the establishment of a socialist economy. Internally, political and social reforms were launched to address these goals. The agrarian reform law of September 1952 established a limit of 200 feddāns of land per landowner (roughly 207 acres), severely limiting the reach of the powerful landowning families. Several reforms took on the modernization of religious institutions and put them under state control, curtailing significantly the authority and independence of the ‘ulama’ (religious scholars). Meanwhile, the newly established regime used a religious discourse to legitimize its rule, and the concept of “Islamic socialism” was created as a justification of the religious foundations of the socialist reforms of the state. Azhar University, the main religious-educational institution of Egypt, was thoroughly reformed and modernized; the mosque and the university became officially separated from one another by the reform law of 1961. Externally, Nasser signed an agreement with Britain in 1954 for the gradual withdrawal of the British forces from the Suez Canal. The compromising nature of the agreement led to strong criticism and opposition from the Muslim Brotherhood. Eventually, an assassination attempt on Nasser that same year triggered a severe repression of the Muslim Brotherhood by Nasser after an early alliance with it based on common anti-imperialist goals.
In February 1955, a devastating raid launched by Israel in Gaza made Nasser realize the importance of modernizing the military. After a failed arms agreement with the United States and Britain and the withdrawal of their pledge to finance the construction of a high dam project at Aswan, Nasser signed an arms agreement with Czechoslovakia, then acting as an intermediary for the Soviet Union. Following Egypt’s deteriorating relations with the Western powers and its political alliance with the Soviet Union, Nasser announced the nationalization of the Suez Canal on July 26, 1956, a considerable achievement in the country’s history. This decision quickly led to an Israeli invasion of Egypt in October 1956, followed by invasions by France and Britain a month later, in what was called the Tripartite Aggression. At that point, external affairs became a priority in Nasser’s political agenda.
In The Philosophy of the Revolution, which he authored in 1954, Nasser highlighted the strong existing ties between the Arab world and the African continent and put forth the political and moral