Gamal ‘Abdel Nasser was the second President of Egypt and a military officer who planned the Free Officers’ Revolution in 1952 which unseated the corrupt Wafd Party and ended British colonialism in Egypt. He was an outspoken nationalist, secularist, and socialist who directed educational, land, and economic reforms. He is also responsible for the enlargement and bureaucratization of the state, the institution of a single-party system, and for the empowerment of state security forces to limit speech, assembly, and other constitutional rights granted to Egyptians.
Following an assassination attempt by a member of the Muslim Brotherhood in 1954, Nasser consolidated his power against his rivals among the military leaders and arrested President Muhammad Naguib, an ally of the Brotherhood. While Nasser and the Free Officers had worked closely with the Brotherhood during the revolution, they had divergent visions for independent Egypt that quickly manifested in the months following. In particular, Nasser sought to contain the disruptive power and potential threat of political Islam. Following the assassination attempt, the Egyptian government clamped down on Islamist politics and outlawed the Brotherhood. Nasser and the other Free Officers also actively opposed the Egyptian left, chiefly Egypt’s labor movement.
While Nasser is remembered as an Arab nationalist and Arab socialist who allied himself with the Soviet Union, he also recognized that Islam served as a basic touchstone for Egyptian identity. He required the compliance of the traditional religious elite, the ‘ulama, and made al-Azhar University, one of the Muslim world’s oldest and most respected universities, a state institution, placing it under government control and assuming the authority to appoint its leaders.
Nasser was beloved among Arabs for much of his career. However, pan-Arab optimism was shattered in 1967 with the swift defeat of the Egyptian, Jordanian and Syrian armies by the Israeli military during the Six Day War. More than just a military setback, it caused many to question the validity of Nasser’s approach. Nasser died three years later of a heart attack, leaving a weakened state to his vice president, Anwar Sadat. In an attempt to recreate the government and purge Nasser loyalists, Sadat opened the field to a variety of Islamist groups who viewed the defeat as confirmation that Egypt was being punished for a decline in public piety. Outrage over the loss of Jerusalem, the Sinai, Gaza, the West Bank, and the Golan Heights and the influx of refugees into Cairo deepened these sentiments and led to the explosion of Islamist politics in the 1970s.
John Esposito, Islam and Politics (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1991).
Fawaz A. Gerges, “The Transformation of Arab Politics: Disentangling Myth from Reality,” The 1967 Arab-Israeli War: Origins and Consequences, eds. Avi Shlaim and William Roger Louis (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), pp. 285-313.
Islamopedia Online, “Islam and the State Under Nasser,” Islamopedia Online, (date unknown), http://www.islamopediaonline.org/country-profile/egypt/islam-and-nation-..., accessed October 15, 2013.
"Top Egyptian leaders of the Arab Socialist Union in Alexandria. From left to right: President Gamal Abdel Nasser, Vice President Anwar Sadat, ASU head Ali Sabri, and Vice President Hussein el-Shafei," Biblioteca Alexandria, from Wikimedia Commons.