05 February, 2011

A History of Egypt: Episode 2 – Nasser

Continuing my exciting series on the History of Egypt

In 1948, Egypt joined other Arab states in sending its armed forces to assist the Palestinians in their struggle against the emerging Israeli state. Egyptian forces performed rather badly in this conflict, undermining support for the monarchy. In 1952, a military coup overthrew the monarchy. After a power struggle, Colonel Gamel Abdel Nasser became Egypt's president. He was the first ethnic Egyptian leader of his country since the pharaohs*.

Nasser negotiated a British withdrawal form the Canal Zone and then embarked on a radical series of reforms. He also shut down the parliamentary system that had existed under the monarchy, setting up a purely authoritarian system of government based on himself. And he began to orient the country towards the Soviet Union. Nasser cut a charismatic dash and became something of a hero across the Arab world. He even achieved a short-lived union of Egypt and Syria, seen as a possible harbinger of a future united Arab state.

When the secular nationalist character of Nasser's programme became clear, he earned himself the enmity of the Muslim Brotherhood. He suppressed their conspiracies against him and executed their chief ideologue, Sayyid Qutb.

When Nasser went and nationalised the Suez Canal, he earned the pathological hostility of the British government. They joined with Israel and France in attacking Egypt, reoccupying part of the Canal Zone. However, the invasion failed when the USA refused to support it. The three invaders withdrew and Nasser's stock soared.

From there, however, it was downhill for him. His economic reforms ran out of steam. In 1967, Egypt found itself at war with Israel again. This time the Israelis destroyed the Egyptian armed forces in an embarrassingly brief and one-sided campaign. The Israelis also occupied the Sinai Peninsula and the east bank of the Suez Canal, closing off this vital source of foreign exchange. Nasser was humiliated, and died a broken man in 1970.

*I have to qualify this statement. The Kings of Egypt had been of Albanian extraction, but by the time of the monarchy's overthrow they had lived in Egypt for around a hundred years, and could arguably be taken to have become naturalised. Nasser was also preceded as Egypt's president by General Muhammed Naguib, an ethnic Egyptian, but during this brief period real power lay with Nasser.

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