Gamal Abdel Nasser led the 1952 Egyptian revolution that overthrew the corrupt and ineffective monarchy of King Farouk. Nasser was born into a working-class family in Asyut province. His father was a postal clerk. Nasser graduated from the Royal Military Academy in Cairo and served in the Sudan. He fought in the 1948 Arab-Israeli War at Falluja, where Egyptian forces held out against Israel until the war’s end. After the 1948 war, Nasser and other junior officers blamed King Farouk for the war’s substandard weaponry and lack of military strategy.
Nasser was one of the founders of the secret Free Officers group that was determined to oust Farouk and set Egypt on a different path. Although the older and better-known Brigadier-General Muhammad Naguib was put forward to the public as the head of the officers’ group, Nasser was in fact the acknowledged leader. He was known for carefully listening to all viewpoints and then making decisions. On July 22, 1952, the Free Officers overthrew the monarchy in a practically bloodless coup d’état. A Revolutionary Command Council (RCC) was established with Naguib as its head. Nasser and Naguib clashed over whether to keep a parliamentary system or to establish a one-party state with populist support, a course Nasser favored. The majority of the officers favored Nasser, and a single party, the Liberation Rally, was established in 1953. After a failed assassination attempt on Nasser in 1954, the Muslim Brotherhood, with whom Naguib had close ties, was banned, and Naguib was removed from power. A new constitution was implemented in 1956 and Nasser was elected president by a huge majority of Egyptian voters. He was twice reelected to the position. A highly charismatic figure and a brilliant speaker in colloquial Arabic, Nasser was extremely popular with the majority of Egyptians and among average Arabs everywhere.
Not an ideologue, Nasser was a pragmatic political leader who sought to develop Egypt economically and socially. He moved toward socialism and the Soviet Union after his requests for military aid had been rebuffed by the United States. His regime jailed members of both the Egyptian Communist Party and the Muslim Brotherhood on the right.
After attending the Bandung Conference in 1955, Nasser joined with Jawaharlal Nehru of India and Marshal Tito of Yugoslavia in championing positive neutralism, in which Third World nations would not forge solid alliances with either the United States or the Soviet Union in the cold war but would instead act in their own best interests. Neither of the superpowers liked this approach, but the United States was particularly hostile to it. Steering a neutral course, Nasser opposed the Western-led CENTO/Baghdad Pact and opposed Arab regimes such as the Hashemite monarchies in Iraq and Jordan and the conservative, extremely pro-Western Saudi Arabian monarchy.
Nasser also spoke of Egypt belonging to three circles: the Arab, African, and Islamic worlds. Under Nasser, Egypt became a center for African and Arab political leaders and students. Although he was personally a devout Muslim, Nasser was committed to secular government and persecuted Islamists, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood, which sought to establish a state based on Muslim religious law and practice.
Like all Arab leaders, Nasser supported the Palestinian cause and their right to self-determination. He permitted some fedayeen (self-sacrificers) guerrilla attacks from the Egyptian-administered Gaza Strip in Israel, but he also recognized the superiority of Israel’s military. Consequently he initially sought, through back channels, to negotiate settlements to the conflict with Israel. Israel insisted on face-to-face negotiations, and the attempts all failed.
In 1956 after the United States had refused to grant aid for building the Aswān Dam, Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal. The nationalization led to the 1956 Arab-Israeli War, in which Great Britain, France, and Israel jointly attacked Egypt. The war was a military loss for Egypt but a political victory after which Nasser became indisputably the most popular man in the entire Arab world.
During the so-called Arab cold war Nasser’s influence dominated the liberal, progressive, and socialist governments in Syria and elsewhere, versus the conservative pro-Western monarchies, including Jordan and Saudi Arabia. With the formation of the United Arab Republic of Egypt and Syria in 1958, Nasser perhaps reached the peak of his popularity.
Following the devastating military losses in the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, Nasser accepted responsibility and resigned. Massive and generally spontaneous public demonstrations calling for his return led him to resume the Egyptian presidency, but he never regained the unquestioning support throughout the Arab world that he had previously enjoyed.
In 1970 Nasser was called upon to mediate a truce between the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and King Hussein of Jordan in the bloody war between the two. Shortly thereafter he suffered a massive heart attack, in part brought on by the tensions of the negotiation, and died in late September. Although Nasser was mistrusted and opposed in most of the West and Israel, millions of mourning Egyptians joined his funeral cortege. The legacy of Nasserism, secular pan-Arab nationalism, and state-directed socialism, spread throughout most of the Arab world during Nasser’s lifetime, but declined and, except in Lebanon, largely diminished after his death.