Egypt: Nasser and Arab nationalism

Lessons for today’s revolution

Millions of Egyptians have brought down the hated Mubarak. Now workers and youth are discussing what should follow. The ideas put forward by Nasser over 50 years ago are being re-examined. DAVID JOHNSON looks back to Nasser’s regime and the lessons that can be drawn for the revolution today.

Young demonstrators in Tahrir Square had only known life under Hosni Mubarak, who ruled for 30 years. Older generations remember his predecessors – Gamal Abd el-Nasser and Anwar el-Sadat. Some older workers still refer to Nasser’s period in the 1950s and 1960s as ‘socialism’ – the party he established was called the Arab Socialist Union (ASU).

In the 1970s Sadat promoted the capitalist free market, including changing the name of the ASU to the National Democratic Party – the party the regime ruled with until Mubarak’s ousting.

In the 19th century, Egypt was part of the Turkish Ottoman empire but, in 1882, during a nationalist rebellion, British imperialism sent its navy and an army of occupation. The British ruling class wanted to protect the Suez canal route to its empire, as well as its investments in cotton, Egypt’s main export. The cotton trade expanded over the next 20 years, enriching a layer of landowners. By 1913, 13,000 landowners owned almost half of all cultivated, while one-and-a-half million peasants only owned about one third. During the first world war, cotton prices rose sharply, so big landowners planted more, making large profits, but leading to food shortages and higher prices for the poor. Today, Egyptian agriculture is also increasingly geared towards cash crop exports.

Financiers and businessmen emerged from this layer of wealthy landowners, profiting by making goods that were not imported during the war. Local industry developed quickly so the small working class grew in size, and militancy, joined by rail and dockworkers employed in war transportation. The developing Egyptian capitalist and working classes confronted an obstacle to both their interests: the continuing occupation by British imperialism.

Capitalists and landlords wanted independence from Britain to build their political and economic interests – but they feared a movement of the workers and rural poor. Government positions would give them prestige and the power to reward supporters with contracts and jobs. The biggest party agitating for independence was the Wafd (Delegation). Forty percent of its leaders were landowners, others were financiers, industrialists and administrators.

Workers wanted independence to end exploitation and hardship, which greatly increased during the war. A massive strike wave and demonstrations in 1919 forced the British government to agree to negotiations over independence. Three years later, after continuing strikes and unrest, the British Declaration announced an ‘independent’ Egyptian state, while keeping a veto over foreign policy, protected British business interests and maintained a garrison in the Suez canal zone.

Permanent revolution

The Ottoman sultan was appointed king. Weak unstable governments came and went – from 1922-52 their average life was under a year. The same ministers, 60% of whom were landowners, took turns to hold different posts. The Egyptian capitalists were unable and unwilling to carry through the tasks of a capitalist (‘bourgeois’) revolution: throwing out foreign rule, ending the power of feudal landowners, developing a modern capitalist economy. Capitalists, bankers and landowners were linked to each other. All feared the small but potentially powerful working class more than they feared British imperialism. In 1923, the first Wafd government brought in laws to repress left-wing parties and ban many strikes.

Only the working class, drawing behind it the mass of poor peasants, could have completed the tasks of the bourgeois revolution. This was Leon Trotsky’s theory of the permanent revolution, developed in relation to Russia at the start of the 20th century. A workers’ government would not stop at creating conditions for capitalism to develop, but would nationalise industry, banks and land, laying the basis for a socialist plan of production. An appeal to workers in more economically advanced countries to follow their example would spread socialist revolution across the world and provide the aid needed to develop a poor country.

The Russian revolution brilliantly confirmed this theory. However, the revolutions it sparked did not lead to other workers’ states. Workers’ leaders either failed to take advantage of opportunities to take power or, later, under the influence of the Stalinist bureaucracy which developed in the Soviet Union, derailed revolutionary movements. Nevertheless, the bureaucracy’s position depended on a state-owned economy – a return to capitalism would have meant its ousting from power. The advantages of state planning meant the economy grew rapidly, although at far higher cost than if workers’ democracy had survived.

The Egyptian Communist Party was founded in 1922 but was mainly based among minorities. It followed Stalin’s disastrous policies and never grew to a mass force. Instead, disappointment in the results of independence led to the growth of the Muslim Brotherhood, founded in 1928.

A crisis during the second world war led the British army to instruct king Faruq to form a Wafd government, with British tanks outside his palace making sure he got the message. This highlighted that, ultimately, power still rested with imperialism. It also showed the weakness and hypocrisy of the Egyptian ruling class, including the Wafd, which 20 years earlier had agitated for independence. A period of stagnation and conflict between the king and government followed, each trying to get their followers into positions of influence.

Although the economy grew between 1922-52, most people’s living standards fell. The gap between rich and poor increased. A 15-hour day was common and factories still employed children under ten years old. By 1950, only 30% of children received secondary education. There were two million industrial workers in 1952, one tenth of the total workforce. Widespread strikes, including general strikes, took place after the war along with demonstrations by students and others. Left-wing parties and papers were banned and activists arrested.

The rise of the Free Officers

The 1947 United Nations resolution dividing Palestine prior to the formation of Israel fuelled anger, which increased after the defeat of the Egyptian army in the 1948 war. Thirteen disaffected middle-ranking officers started meeting secretly in 1949. They were all aged 28-35, the sons of small landowners or minor government employees. Nasser became the chair of this Free Officers movement. Sadat was a founding member.

They gradually built influence among other officers. When, on 20 July 1952, another weak government resigned after only 18 days, the Free Officers took action. Overnight on 22/23 July, troops took over key buildings, roads and bridges in Cairo. The corrupt king was ordered into exile. Sadat made the radio announcement of the takeover. Nasser became deputy prime minister and minister of the interior – then prime minister and president in 1954.

The Free Officers represented middle-class frustration at the complete failure of capitalist politicians to develop society. In contrast to the weak landlord-capitalist class, the military was a powerful, organised force. The officers wanted political power and opposed independent working-class action. All political parties were abolished in January 1953. Like other ‘third world’ regimes of that period, Egypt’s military played a ‘bonapartist’ role, playing off different classes and political groupings against one another. The press, local councils and lawyers’ association were purged. In 1954, the Muslim Brotherhood was banned, its leaders arrested and exiled to Saudi Arabia, from where they were to return later, having adopted the more extreme Wahhabi Islam.

The new government’s programme spoke of nationalism and social justice. Its objectives were the destruction of imperialism, eradication of feudalism and ending of monopoly. However, there was no clear economic policy, which was expected to continue under private ownership. “We are not socialists. I think our economy can only prosper under free enterprise”, said Gamal Salim, a leading Free Officer.

Nonetheless, most capitalists were panic stricken and many emigrated. Private-sector investment plummeted, pushing the regime in a different direction. An early measure was land reform, limiting the size of holdings to 80 hectares. The tiny number of very big landlords who had dominated previous governments lost the economic basis of their power. Fifteen percent of cultivable land was transferred to landless peasants. Cooperatives gave cheap credit, seeds and fertiliser. But more than half the rural population remained landless, the main winners being small landowners.

The Suez crisis

Two global superpowers emerged at the end of the second world war – the USA and the USSR. They both attempted to extend their spheres of influence, bringing them into conflict in many parts of the world. With nuclear weapons threatening ‘mutually assured destruction’, conflicts took the form of proxy wars between their client regimes. So-called ‘non-aligned’ governments, including Nasser’s regime, tried balancing between the two superpowers.

In 1955 Nasser signalled a shift in his position by ordering arms from the USSR. This may have been a negotiating ploy to get more arms from the USA. He told the US ambassador that he would still prefer US military assistance. The 1955 Baghdad pact, signed by the British government, had also angered Nasser. This central Asian treaty defended imperialist interests in Iran, Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East. Nasser infuriated the French government by refusing to call for an end to the uprising in Algeria against French occupation. Independence movements were spreading like wildfire throughout the old European colonies.

At the same time, the Egyptian government was negotiating for international loans to build the Aswan high dam – a huge project that would greatly increase land available for cultivation and generate electricity needed for industrialisation. The USA and Britain had offered a fifth of the cost, hoping this would buy influence over the regime. However, after the USSR arms deal, the USA cancelled its offer in July 1956.

Nasser responded by announcing the nationalisation of the Suez canal to a massive meeting in Alexandria, saying its revenues would finance the dam. An eyewitness described how “the people went wild with excitement”. The canal company was French, with the British government the largest shareholder.

These two governments secretly colluded with the Israeli government to launch an invasion of Egypt in October. The invasion proved disastrous for Britain and France, achieving its military targets but arousing huge international opposition. Arab masses throughout the Middle East supported the Nasser regime. There was massive opposition in Britain. The US government saw its regional interests threatened and demanded the invasion be ended, imposing economic sanctions against Britain. The three governments were forced into a humiliating withdrawal. Meanwhile, Soviet tanks rolled into Hungary to suppress the political revolution there.

State control of the economy

Nasser emerged with the reputation of a leader who stood up to imperialism – completely different to the spineless bourgeois nationalists he had replaced. French and British banks and companies were immediately nationalised. Two months later, the rest of banking and insurance was nationalised.

After the failure of private enterprise to invest between 1952-56, most industry, manufacturing, trade and other services were nationalised. State control of foreign trade, progressive taxation and the seizure of property from 600 of the wealthiest families took place. State investment increased industry from 10% of GNP in 1952 to 20% by 1962. The Aswan dam was completed in 1968, tripling electricity output.

Between 1952-67 real wages rose by 44%, not counting food subsidies, shorter hours, insurance and social security. School education was made free in 1956, with higher education following in 1962, when all graduates were guaranteed a job in public service. The number of students grew by 8% a year from 1952-70. The number of state officials grew from 350,000 in 1952 to 1.2 million by 1970, and 1.9 million by 1978.

These measures reflected the balance of forces on the world stage as well as in Egypt. It was a period of unprecedented and almost uninterrupted growth of the world economy. Imperialism was unable to intervene in Egypt after the Suez debacle. Stalinist Russia supported a regime that mirrored some its own features.

In 1957, state control turned trade unions into an arm of the state, with well-rewarded leaders preventing workers’ independent organisation and struggle. No workers’ control or any element of workers’ democracy was allowed, without which genuine socialism cannot exist. Opposition was ruthlessly stamped on, including the Communist Party (CP). The middle class Free Officers found the absence of democratic rights appealing, leaving their power unchallenged.

Despite the regime’s description of itself as ‘Arab socialism’, capitalism continued in a distorted form. Egyptian capitalism had been too weak to develop without massive state intervention. Sadat and Mubarak later carried out privatisation without changing the nature of the state. Key sections of the economy were taken over by senior army officers and Mubarak’s supporters, friends and family.

Arab nationalism

Britain, France and Turkey largely drew the Middle East map in 1919, reflecting their imperialist interests. The appeal of ‘Pan-Arabism’, embracing the whole region, was partly a reaction to these artificially created states and also to the terrible legacy of exploitation by imperialism. Nasser used the new media of his time, radio, to reach a mass audience across the Middle East. The Cairo-based Voice of the Arabs radio station, launched in 1953, overcame national boundaries and illiteracy, broadcasting ideas of Arab nationalism directly over the heads of other governments.

In 1957, Syria was in deep political crisis, its capitalist class weak and ineffectual. The two most influential parties were the Ba’th (Renaissance) and CP. The CP, like other Stalinist parties, did not put forward a programme of independent working-class action and socialism. Both parties hoped Nasser’s popularity would rub off on them and approached him with plans to unite the two countries. Syria’s senior army officers also favoured the plan. Among Nasser’s conditions for the union was the disbandment of all political parties apart from a single state-controlled party.

The United Arab Republic (UAR) was founded in 1958, further enhancing Nasser’s reputation throughout the Arab world. The impact led to revolution in Iraq and nearly brought the downfall of governments in Lebanon and Jordan in the same year.

However, no other states joined the UAR and Syria split from it within three years. The land reform programme had angered Syrian landlords, while businessmen were angered by nationalisation. Politicians and army officers were embittered by their exclusion from power. The working class, agricultural labourers and poor farmers had no independent organisations and were not allowed any democratic control over the state.

A genuine workers’ state would have gained mass support with improved living standards, education and welfare programmes. A federation of democratic socialist states could have become a shining example to the entire Arab world. But a bureaucratic regime without democratic rights, not fully breaking from capitalism, could not overcome the contradictions of the nation state. Each ruling class put its own self-interests first.

After the failure of the UAR, Nasser turned further towards the Soviet Union with more nationalisation. In 1962, a national charter spelled out the revolution’s aims: ‘freedom, socialism and Arab unity’. The official state party was renamed the Arab Socialist Union, part of which became the National Democratic Party in 1976, providing Sadat and then Mubarak with a base. (Last November, businessmen paid high sums to become NDP candidates for the misnamed peoples’ assembly, knowing election would help them win government contracts.)

Nasser supported the Algerian revolution against French colonial rule and then the 1962 overthrow of the Yemeni royal family. Nearly half the Egyptian army was sent to fight in Yemen, where it sustained heavy casualties over the next five years. Without a class appeal to the workers and poor, linked to a socialist programme including land distribution and democratic rights, Egyptian troops became embroiled in a bloody civil war.

This was followed in 1967 by the six-day war against Israel and heavy military defeat, the Egyptian armed forces seriously depleted by their continuing involvement in Yemen. For the first few days of war, the Egyptian government maintained a stream of stories of military success, even as its entire air force was destroyed and the army sustained massive damage.

Nasser assumed full responsibility and resigned. But a massive demonstration in Cairo demanded that he stay on. People refused to leave the streets for 17 hours until he withdrew his resignation. However, he never regained his previous authority among the Arab masses. Student riots broke out in 1968, protesting against those responsible for the war defeat but also reflecting wider dissatisfaction.

Nevertheless, when he died in 1970 an estimated ten million people poured onto the streets for his funeral. Nasser’s legacy lived on, with a nostalgic memory of anti-imperialism, rising living standards and improving education.

Nasserism today

Socialism had widespread support among workers, the poor and youth throughout the world at the time. Despite using the word ‘socialism,’ Nasser balanced between western imperialism and the Stalinist deformed workers’ states. Without the democratic involvement of the working class, together with the rural and urban poor, genuine socialism could not be built. Instead, the way was paved for the subsequent counter-reforms of Sadat and Mubarak, based on a bigger role for the capitalist market.

Egypt’s population is more than twice as big today as in the 1960s. The working class is far bigger, many working in giant factories employing thousands. More people live in cities. There is now a much stronger foundation for democratic socialism led by the working class, and supported by the rural and urban poor, compared to half a century ago.

The international situation in 2011 is very different. The Soviet Union has gone, leaving one global superpower. But the USA and world capitalism is not enjoying a 25-year boom as in the 1950s and 1960s. On the contrary, it is in the midst of the worst financial crisis for 80 years. There is no possibility of a new Egyptian government being able to develop rapidly, providing jobs and rising living standards, if it remains on the basis of capitalism.

The idea of pan-Arab nationalism has also changed. Although a strong sense of solidarity has seen a revolutionary wave spread from Tunisia across North Africa and the Middle East, the countries artificially formed by European imperialists nearly a century ago have developed their own national identities. Demonstrators have waved national flags, symbolising their desire to reclaim their state from corrupt dictators. Rather than a unified Arab state, as Nasser attempted to build, a democratic federation of socialist states would now have more appeal throughout the region. But socialism is less popular today as a result of the after-effects of the collapse of Stalinism. The task of socialists is to rebuild that support, by linking it to a programme addressing all the problems facing workers, the poor and youth.

Special financial appeal to all readers of

Support building alternative socialist media provides a unique analysis and perspective of world events. also plays a crucial role in building the struggle for socialism across all continents. Capitalism has failed! Assist us to build the fight-back and prepare for the stormy period of class struggles ahead.
Please make a donation to help us reach more readers and to widen our socialist campaigning work across the world.

Donate via Paypal

Liked this article? We need your support to improve our work. Please become a Patron! and support our work
Become a patron at Patreon!

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.


April 2011