“Don’t you think that the fall of Gamal Abdel Nasser and his socialist regime led to the rise of fundamentalism in the Arab World?”
“I’m not sure about that,” I answered, patiently questioning the view of my blue-eyed British friend.
Shifting within the uncomfortable subordination that engulfed my tone, my response failed to deconstruct her argument. Suddenly, the icon of Nasser hovered over a battle that I was preparing myself for. Doubt, however, had already infiltrated my assault. Somewhere along the way, I had lost track of who I was confronted with, my Western friend or my sense of Arab belonging.
Through the fog in the air and the clouded thoughts of my mind, I saw the fading silhouette of the Arab nationalism that I once claimed. The 2011 revolution and the 2013 military coup were still fresh in my memory, and so was the discovery of the truth behind the 1952 Nasserist revolution; it was nothing, in fact, but a military coup in disguise. The acceptance of such a defeat was all the remnants that I had left from the ideology that once loomed large for an entire region.
The Rise of an Icon
When it comes to the rise and fall of Nasser, the Arab region was hit hard, as clearly reflected in my battered ego. Prior to his triumph over imperialism and the Egyptian monarch, young Nasser, the son of a peasant, was engulfed by the same ambiguity that I face today. Unlike me, however, he knew the demons that he had to face; outsiders–whether Great Britain and its military might or the aristocrats in whose veins flowed Ottoman blood. He was not alone fighting those demons; imperialism had left the whole world united against one enemy.
It was this unity, perhaps, that made the influence of someone like Nasser travel far and wide, crossing oceans and reaching all the way to Latin America. His influence can be seen in political leaders across the region, including Omar Torrijos, Fidel Castro, Juan Domingo Perón, and Hugo Chávez.
“Diverse Argentine social and political sectors saw parallels between the anti-imperial struggles in the Arab world and in Latin America. Though with differing and sometimes competing agendas, these groups learned and deployed the language of non-alignment and South-South solidarity in the escalating Cold War.”[i]
Having just achieved independence, the two regions shared plenty of common features. Both were comparably united by a common language, mutually influenced by nationalist sentiments, equally threatened by a close proximity to the West, and inconveniently located on the wrong end of the development scale.
This is not to mention that Latin America was home to a large Arab diaspora, which played a critical role in influencing the public opinion regarding Middle Eastern politics. Even though the majority of the diaspora came from Greater Syria, they were highly influenced by their regional hegemon, Egypt.
Two Canals, One Dilemma
Countries emerging from under the wings of imperialism found themselves united by more than their battle against the West. In the case of Latin America and the Arab world, certain events helped build the link between the two regions.
The link between the Suez Canal and the Panama Canal goes further back in history. The French diplomat Ferdinand de Lesseps was the mastermind behind both projects. A couple of decades after his work on the Suez Canal started, de Lesseps was sent to Panama to dig a similar structure, a project that he started but failed to deliver for various reasons.[ii] When the Panama Canal was eventually constructed, after being handed over to another company, it was operated and controlled by foreign powers, just like the Suez Canal.
Nasser’s bold move to nationalize the Suez Canal in 1956 defied mighty empires and eventually led to the Suez Crisis. All the while, Latin America had been facing the same dilemma involving the Panama Canal. Thus, Nasser’s move certainly triggered a reaction in Panama.
Once the news of Nasser’s move reached Latin America, the nationalization initiative inspired the government of Panama, who had been struggling over the sovereignty of its canal. In response, the United States’ President Dwight D. Eisenhower “was losing patience with the Panamanians and their infatuation with Egypt,” highlighting that his administration would not be faced with the same situation that Britain had to face with the Suez Canal.
Undeterred, Panama held a forum, after which the Panamian Professor Eloy Benedetti concluded, “Egyptians were far more efficient in the administration of their canal than Americans were of the Panama Canal.” Panamian politicians also aspired to follow Nasser’s lead, reportedly saying, “Now Egypt has her canal and we shall someday have ours.”[iii]
Eventually, the Nasserist regime that took over Panama in 1968, led by General Omar Torrijos, successfully negotiated several agreements with the United States, reclaiming the sovereignty of the Panama Canal.
Latin American Nasserism
Due to the unfolding events of the time as well as parallels between the two regions, the spread of Nasserism eventually gained momentum across Latin America, where Nasser’s image reached the hearts and minds of–aspiring–political leaders across the region.
“Support for Egypt among the left evolved not only as support for Nasser but also as a call for the emergence in Latin America of a member of the armed forces who would be capable of duplicating his charisma, leadership, and commitment to social justice and national independence from foreign and local interests. In other words, what Latin America needed was the emergence in the region of a ‘Latin American Nasser.’”[iv]
The social scientist Howard Wiarda agrees with this notion, confirming that the Latin American version of Nasserism was claimed quite vaguely by any military group that aimed to achieve radical independence, national development, and social progress.
At the time, populism was in the air, an infectious bug that quickly spread across Latin America. This concept became, somehow, intertwined with having the figure of a charismatic leader, one that would emulate the likes of Nasser. Almost all of the regimes that either claimed to be Nasserist or were labeled as such displayed strong populist qualities.
Looking at some of the other features of populism, it quickly becomes clear that, just like Nasserism, it emerged in opposition to imperialism and Western hegemony. Antagonism became a pivotal feature with the politics of constructing “us” versus “them.” An example of this is “the notion of the sovereign people as an actor in an antagonistic relation with the established order” where “the conflict between the powerful and the powerless, are core elements of its political imaginary.”[v]
Thus, a new wave of Latin American Nasserism emerged, one where military regimes prevailed. Along with this wave came a batch of socialist authoritarian regimes that ruled their nations with an iron fist. The assumption was that the people were voiceless and needed strong men, preferably with guns, to speak for them.
Ironic as it was, Nasser, an image that at its inception promised liberation, traveled the world over to stifle the nascent independence of another region, empowering a new form of imperialism that emerged from within.
The Politics of Representation
Decades after his death, it remains unclear whether Nasser’s image contributed to these new national identities that emerged in Latin America in opposition to the West. In the end, the argument boils down to the politics of who speaks for who. Unheard is one thing and voiceless is another, which seems to have escaped Nasser and those who were later inspired by him. Under imperialism, Nasser spent the better part of his youth unheard, operating within the confines of occupation. Even the knowledge available to his generation either came from imperialism itself or from those who had succumbed to it.
Nasser, like the Latin American regimes that later emulated his leadership, channeled his voice through the language of imperialism and weapons. With time, he only recognized his own voice and others that spoke through guns, assuming that the unarmed people were themselves voiceless. Thus, Nasser was more driven by an urge to channel his own voice rather than to represent his people.
This conclusion dawned on me while reading Ariel, the masterpiece of the Uruguayan author José Enrique Rodó. “Animated by faith, go forth into life, now opening its broad horizons before you. Go with a noble ambition to make your presence felt from the moment you confront life’s challenge with the proud gaze of a conqueror. Audacious initiative and innovative brilliance permeate the youthful spirit,”[vi] he writes, addressing an audience that he portrays as passive and voiceless.
Written at the turn of the twentieth century, Ariel consists of a seemingly endless monologue in which the voice of the people is chronically absent. Whether the essay merely represents existing notions or it contributed to them, it reflects the misconception that many of the leaders and intellectuals of Latin America and the Arab world had, assuming that the people were voiceless and needed to be told what should be done.
While Rodó writes decades before the emergence of populism in Latin America, he speaks the same language of later populist leaders who talked at the people rather than for them. Just like Nasser, it is possible that Latin American leaders acquired this language after it was deployed by the region’s intellectuals, the likes of Rodó, who lived under the lasting impact of imperialism.
Through the same language used by Rodó, populist leaders “claim[ed] to embody the will of the people.” Such was the language of the perceived charismatic leader of the time. For instance, by “declar[ing] the people to be the only and the true owners of their sovereignty [and] the true owners of their own history,” the former Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez–who claimed to be the “soldier of Nasser” in Latin America[vii]–speaks of a seemingly passive audience.
This, in many ways, reflects the reign of Nasser, during which the voices of the people were hardly ever represented. Rather, it was only his voice that spoke, claiming to reflect the will of those that he oppressed.
While the recent Arab uprisings pushed the failures of Nasserism to the fore,[viii] there is no doubt that the ideology survived for far too long. As traces of his influence lingered around the world, it becomes painfully clear that the move to a post-Nasserist era is not yet complete.[ix] But why not?
Having a common enemy combined with a sense of helplessness, a sentiment that was initially perceived and eventually internalized, the Third World embarked on a search for a savior, an existentialist search that humans have always found themselves returning to. In the past, this search culminated in images of gods and prophets, but, having been turned down one too many times, deities seven skies away were no longer sufficient to solve the everyday problems of the people. The hero, this time, had to come in flesh and blood. “‘Nasserism’ the call of a leader within the armed forces to act as modern caudillo perhaps was in practice no more than a romantic, yet desperate, call for an ideal leader in times of internal repression and external control.”[x]
Strangely, this appeal of Nasserism, which took over the world half a century ago, seems to work now as well. The struggles today, however, have become far more complex. With the murky waters that distinguish perceived notions from internalized ones, it is unclear how entrenched the subordination of the people has become. Unlike in the case of Nasser and his generation, the demons that we fight today are entangled in a web of ambiguities. Sometimes, they even attack from within.
The distinction between outsiders and insiders has become distorted. Nasser thought that independence and freedom came hand in hand. However, the West was strategic in leaving behind thorns that would trigger internal conflicts in both the Arab world and Latin America, maintaining their influence years after their military control ended.
When Nasser failed to deliver the victory that he criticized King Farouk for not achieving, namely after the defeat of the Six Day War against Israel in 1967, his credibility started fading away. The failure came on so many levels that it took Egyptians decades to comprehend.
Initially created by the West as a home for the Jews who faced prosecution in Europe, Israel exists today because of Nasser, who indirectly helped build the state in unprecedented ways. He did so mainly by expelling all the Jews and calling his fellow Arab leaders to do the same, in retaliation of the Israeli occupation of Palestine. Over the course of a year, Egypt lost almost its entire Jewish population, an experience similar to what is currently happening with the Coptic community. Today, almost half of Israel’s Jews are descendants of those who were expelled from Arab countries.[xi]
Just like Nasser’s regime harassed the Jews of Egypt, his administration arrested feminists, leftists, Islamists, and anyone else who opposed him. These stories of oppression never came into the limelight, no thanks to the state-controlled media.
So why did we not move on to a post-Nasserist era? While Latin America made more progress in its recovery from Nasser’s influence than the Arab world, still, I believe, the struggle of representation remains in both regions.
Frozen in time, the imminent threats that helped foster the savior image of Nasser still prevail today. In fact, these threats have been further exacerbated by the increase of poverty and internal conflicts that plague every corner of the Arab world and many parts of Latin America.
More importantly, his image and his ideology still prevail in places like Egypt due to the extreme forms of oppression that we still see. Until this day, peaceful, unarmed protesters continue to be prosecuted. Satirical comedians are being, directly or indirectly, expelled. Feminists are constantly harassed and oppressed. Poets are being thrown in jail. Within prison, torture and sexual assault are endemic.
The Copts, like the Egyptian Jews before them, are subject to discrimination and intimidation that is often promoted and encouraged by security forces.[xii] This is not to mention the brutality of the police, an institution that prides itself on violence and oppression. A form of nationalism that is loyal to the army and the regime, rather than the motherland and the people, is constantly being promoted across all forms of media.
Thus, Egypt, perhaps not unlike some parts of Latin America, still lacks freedom of thought, given the poor quality of education, sensational journalism, and the control of information. There is even a lack in freedom of identity; you are not allowed to be too religious, too atheist, too communist, too feminist, etc., or else you run the risk of getting arrested, questioned, and forced to confess things that you do not even know about. Combined with a chronic lack of freedom of not-being-spoken-for, the current conditions constantly dictate how we should identify ourselves, our motherland, and the enemies that we should fight against. All this, unfortunately, gives icons like Nasser lasting influence.
Adly, Amr. “The Problematic Continuity of Nasserism.” Jadaliyya. Accessed 5 October 2018. http://www.jadaliyya.com/Details/30469.
Alexander Fulbright. “Netanyahu Apologizes for ‘Mizrahi Gene’ Remark.” Accessed 15 October 2018. http://www.timesofisrael.com/netanyahu-apologizes-for-mizrahi-gene-remark/.
Balloffet, Lily Pearl. “Argentine and Egyptian History Entangled: From Perón to Nasser.” Journal of Latin American Studies 50, no. 3 (August 2018): 549–77. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0022216X17001171.
“Dinner With Doreya Shafik on Her 109th Birthday (1908 – 1975).” Women of Egypt Mag (blog), 14 December 2017. https://womenofegyptmag.com/2017/12/14/dinner-with-doreya-shafik-on-her-109th-birthday-1908-1975/.
El Gawley, Nadyat. “Coptic Christians Flee an Unwelcoming Egypt, Seek Refuge in Australia.” ABC News, 21 February 2017. http://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-02-21/coptic-christians-flee-egypt-for-australia/8286034.
“Ferdinand, Viscount de Lesseps | French Diplomat | Britannica.Com.” Accessed 5 October 2018. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Ferdinand-vicomte-de-Lesseps.
“Military Seizes Power in Egypt - HISTORY.” Accessed 15 October 2018. https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/military-seizes-power-in-egypt.
“Muslims in Egypt Are Trying to Preserve Its Jewish Heritage.” The Economist, 9 September 2017. https://www.economist.com/middle-east-and-africa/2017/09/09/muslims-in-egypt-are-trying-to-preserve-its-jewish-heritage.
Panizza, Francisco, ed. Populism and the Mirror of Democracy. London; New York, NY: Verso, 2005.
Rodó, José Enrique. ARIEL. Translated by Margaret Sayers Peden, University of Texas Press, 1988.
“The Canal That Killed 130,000 Egyptians.” Raseef22. Accessed 5 October 2018. http://raseef22.com/en/politics/2016/11/02/canal-killed-130-thousand-egyptians/.
Vélez, Federico, and Federico Vélez. “From the Suez to the Panama Canal and Beyond: Gamal Abdel Nasser’s Influence in Latin America.” Varia Historia 31, no. 55 (April 2015): 163–91. https://doi.org/10.1590/0104-87752015000100007.
[i] Lily Pearl Balloffet, “Argentine and Egyptian History Entangled: From Perón to Nasser,” Journal of Latin American Studies 50, no. 3 (2018), 549–77. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0022216X17001171.
[ii] “Ferdinand, Viscount de Lesseps | French Diplomat | Britannica.Com.” Accessed 5 October 2018. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Ferdinand-vicomte-de-Lesseps.
[iii] Federico Vélez and Federico Vélez, “From the Suez to the Panama Canal and Beyond: Gamal Abdel Nasser’s Influence in Latin America,” Varia Historia 31, no. 55 (2015), 163–91. https://doi.org/10.1590/0104-87752015000100007.
[iv] Federico Vélez and Federico Vélez, “From the Suez to the Panama Canal and Beyond.”
[v] Panizza, Francisco, ed., Populism and the Mirror of Democracy (London; New York, NY: Verso, 2005).
[vi] José Enrique Rodó, ARIEL, Translated by Margaret Sayers Peden (University of Texas Press, 1988).
[vii] Federico Vélez and Federico Vélez, “From the Suez to the Panama Canal and Beyond.”
[viii] “Military Seizes Power in Egypt - HISTORY.” Accessed 15 October 2018. https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/military-seizes-power-in-egypt.
[ix] Amr Adly, “The Problematic Continuity of Nasserism,” Jadaliyya. Accessed 5 October 2018. http://www.jadaliyya.com/Details/30469.
[x] Federico Vélez and Federico Vélez, “From the Suez to the Panama Canal and Beyond.”
[xi] Alexander Fulbright, “Netanyahu Apologizes for ‘Mizrahi Gene’ Remark.” Accessed 15 October 2018. http://www.timesofisrael.com/netanyahu-apologizes-for-mizrahi-gene-remark/.
[xii] Nadyat El Gawley “Coptic Christians Flee an Unwelcoming Egypt, Seek Refuge in Australia,” ABC News, 21 February 2017. http://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-02-21/coptic-christians-flee-egypt-for-australia/8286034.