Nasser was born on January 15th, 1918 in Alexandria, the son of a minor civil servant. He first entered politics by accident in 1929, when he joined a demonstration without knowing what it was for; it turned out to be a militant anti-British event for Egyptian independence, and the 11 year-old Nasser was arrested and spent a night in jail. Converted to the cause of Egyptian independence and the end of British influence in the country, Nasser became a political agitator in university, almost being killed in a 1935 demonstration and vociferously objecting to the 1936 Anglo-Egyptian Treaty, which brought about the withdrawal of all British forces from Egypt except those around the Suez Canal, because one British soldier was one too many in Nasser’s view. Nasser eventually made his way to the Royal Military Academy, from which he graduated in 1938. Nasser stayed in the army quietly as a lieutenant until 1942, when Britain ordered Egypt’s King Farouk to dismiss the pro-Axis Prime Minister; Nasser was enraged, and following his acceptance into the General Staff College, started forming a group of revolutionary army officers, including Anwar Sadat. He continue scheming until 1948, when he fought in the Arab-Israeli War, and fought in the so-called Faluja Pocket. The Arab governments’ failure to relieve the Egyptian forces caught there inspired him to step up his activism, and to start writing his first political book. After the war in 1949, Nasser’s group of would-be revolutionaries adopted the name “Association of Free Officers,” and elected Nasser chairman. After a few years of condemning various other parties and politicians, in early 1952, British forces in the Suez Canal Zone killed 40 Egyptians during a confrontation with the police; this provoked enough public fury that, combined with warnings to Nasser that his organisation had been discovered and he was to be arrested, prompted the Free Officers to launch their coup. The US and British governments were notified in order to forestall foreign intervention, and the Free Officers and their men took over Cairo on July 22nd, and consolidated their national control over the next few days.
A former Prime Minister, Maher, was brought in, while the coup leaders formed the RCC, or Revolutionary Command Council, creating a dual governments. As students of Lenin or Ataturk know, this kind of arrangement is bad news, and so it turned out in this case as well. Nasser’s radicalism alienated Maher, who resigned in September. Naguib and Nasser assumed the offices of Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister, respectively. In January 1953, Nasser managed to arrange the banning of all political parties besides his own, the Liberation Rally. The monarchy was abolished in June 1953, after which Nasser began a process within the RCC of marginalising the new President Naguib, who resigned in February 1954. He was immediately put under house arrest, leaving Nasser in complete control. On October 26th, 1954, while delivering a live-broadcast speech in Alexandria, Nasser dramatically escaped an assassination attempt, and his inspired words immediately after brought his popularity to record highs. He used this to pass a decree bringing all press under government censorship, and pursued a nationalist-neutralist foreign policy. While he concluded a massive arms deal with Czechoslovakia, he determined not to be brought within the orbit of either superpower, and was one of the founders of the Non-Aligned Movement in 1961. In 1956, Nasser had drafted a new constitution, which stipulated a one party state under the National Union, a reconfigured Liberation Rally, but was otherwise progressive. The same year, Nasser solidified his persona as somebody who stood up to the West by nationalising the Suez Canal. The failure of the Anglo-Franco-Israeli invasion of Egypt to defeat this move made Nasser a hero both to his own people and to all those of the third world, who rejoiced to finally see the erstwhile imperial overlords defeated and humbled.
Nasser was also popular among the Arab nations, as he advocated Pan-Arabism and actually took action on it. In 1958, fears that Turkey was going to invade Syria prompted the latter to request union with Egypt, which was duly carried through, creating the United Arab Republic. Nasser was viewed by many as a nationalistic, both Egyptian and Arab, hero. This did not last long. Nasser’s rule was unpopular in Syria, and the army effected secession in 1961. However, Nasser’s influence quickly revived, as a segment of the Saudi Royal Family defected to Egypt, he intervened in the North Yemeni Civil War at the request of the insurgent elements, which turned out to be a Vietnam-esque disaster, and founded the PLO. In 1961 (an eventful year for Nasser), he also launched a massive Socialist nationalisation programme, and introduced a “National Charter,” which called for universal healthcare, and greater women’s rights among other things. He was then re-elected president unopposed in 1965. Two years later, Nasser responded to reports of a coming Israeli attack on Syria by blocking the Straits of Tiran to Israel and moving troops to the border; Israel responded by launching a preemptive attack, which became the Six Day War. Egypt lost Sinai and the Gaza Strip, causing Nasser to resign, although the public outcry for him to stay and his vice-President’s point blank refusal to accept the position led him to withdraw his resignation the next day. Refusing to accept the loss of territory to Israeli, Nasser launched the War of Attrition in 1968, in which Egyptian and Israeli aircraft and artillery attacked each other for two years without escalation or a formal declaration of war by either side. Nasser’s last major initiative was to hold an Arab League Summit to deal with Black September in Jordan, immediately after which he died, on September 28th, 1970. He was succeeded by Anwar Sadat.
Nasser was much like an Egyptian Ataturk. He was a dictator who did not allow real democracy and brought Egypt into a catastrophic intervention in Yemen, but he also fostered massive development, modernisation, and nationalism. He was a (or even the) leader of the Non-Aligned Movement, and united Egypt as nobody else was able to do with his willingness to take an independent path, campaign for social justice and his extremely personal leadership style. He remains a symbol of Arab and Egyptian unity today.