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Egypt

Nasser's Legacy

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Archaeological expedition of American Museum of Natural History, 1908
Courtesy American Museum of Natural History

When news of Nasser's death was announced, Egyptians took to the streets by the tens of thousands to express shock and grief at the death of their leader. In spite of the doubts that many Egyptians may have felt about the path on which Nasser had taken Egypt, the sense of loss was overwhelming, and there was great uncertainty about the future. It has been argued that Nasser's rule was not a great success; that there were almost as many landless peasants in 1970 as when the Free Officers took over in 1952 because it was the wealthier peasants who had profited and still controlled the villages; that the army had done no better in 1967 after fifteen years of the revolution than it had done in 1948 or 1956; that nationalization had caused inefficiency and corruption; and, finally, that repression was so pervasive that Egyptians were less free than they had been in the past.

It was under Nasser that Egypt finally succeeded in ridding itself of the last vestiges of British imperialism; that Egypt attempted to steer a middle course between the Western countries and the Soviet Union and its allies and in so doing became a founder of the Nonaligned Movement that exists to this day; that Egypt moved out of the isolation the British had imposed on the country and assumed a leadership position in the Arab world; and that Egypt became the "beating heart" of pan-Arabism and the symbol of renewed Arab pride.

Internally, Nasser destroyed the political and economic power of the old feudal landowning class. Education and employment opportunities were made available to all Egyptians regardless of class or sex. Women were encouraged to get an education and go to work as part of the national struggle for economic progress and development. After the revolution, women were at last granted the right to vote. Nasser emphasized social programs to improve the living and working conditions of the peasants and workers, such as the electrification of villages, worker housing, minimum wage laws, decreased working hours, and worker participation in management. Industrialization intensified, and the country became less dependent on the export of cotton. The economy grew at acceptable rates in spite of some problems. After the June 1967 War, however, the military expenditures began to absorb about 25 percent of Egypt's gross national product (GNP--see Glossary). Also, the population increase that had begun in the 1940s began to overtake the economic advances.

It is true that Nasser never really opened up his rule to popular participation. He once admitted that he had become so used to conspiracy, by necessity, that he tended to see a conspiracy in everything, a view that prevented him from conducting an open rule. He wanted to establish a basis of support for his regime but one that would not require the regime to give significant power to the public (see The Presidency , ch. 4). He felt that an ideology such as socialism might accomplish this, but at the same time he feared that the commitment would be to the ideology and not to him. Thus, when Nasser died in 1970 he left behind an imperfect and unfinished revolution.

Data as of December 1990