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Nasser’s legacy: Ideologies of expansive visions

A new way of thinking about politics and defining interests was born in 1952

Abdullah Hamidaddin

Published: Updated:

It is July 23, 1952. A white coup topples Egypt’s monarchy and a new republican Egypt is born with dreams for itself and all the Arab countries. But instead it has been sixty three years of one disappointment after another for citizens of this region, especially those who followed Egypt’s revolutionary footsteps. There is of course the exception of the monarchial countries, the ones that survived Nasser’s ambitions; those seem to be faring much better.

A new way of thinking about politics and defining interests was born in 1952. The seeds were there much before, but it was 1952 when ideologies of discontent and political authority merged. The region was gradually coming out of colonial control, the air of freedom was still fresh and the possibilities were quite endless. But coups need to legitimate themselves by developing a discourse of discontent; by claiming that everything was bad, that all were oppressed, exploited, abused, worthless and insignificant. Before the coup there was nothing, and after it, or because of it, everything will come about. But that was tied to one condition: unite. But according to Nasser’s preaching, unity meant that the people must have one will, one faith, one heart and must become one man. And under that state of oneness the people must fight a concerted war against their enemies and make a long march to the bright future that awaits them. God Almighty will be with them, supporting them all the way and guiding their path, and Nasser will lead them in their struggle.

A new way of thinking about politics and defining interests was born in 1952

Abdullah Hamidaddin

The ideology of discontent by now had new partner; a messianic political world view, where the leader will bring out his people from the desert to the Promised Land: A free Palestine and a United Arab State. The consequence of ideologies of discontent and messianic politics would be revolutions and/or instability across Arab countries: Libya, Yemen, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Sudan all had their share of either revolutions or political chaos because of Nasser’s messianic dreams. The monarchies that survived Nasser did that at a high cost to their political and economic development. Another consequence of messianic politics was to deflect Arab populations from micro concerns to grand dreams. You can easily imagine someone living in a remote village - with no electricity, schools or roads - using up his emotional bandwidth on the grand causes of Arab unity or freedom of Palestine.

Spirit of Arabism and Islamism

In 1967, the humiliation would only affirm ideologies of discontent and messianic politics. The real message was that we lost. The message the people preferred to say to themselves was: ‘we are indeed victims, everyone conspiring against us; all is now bad but there will be someone will lead us out of this, and we must find him. The difference after 1967 was merely in the language used. When Islamism came about, it did not uproot ideologies of discontent and messianic politics, it just spoke about them differently. The spirit of Arabism and Islamism are the same. Both believe in a messianic political world view where God would support them from the heavens above and a wise big brother would lead from below. The promise of a Caliphate is not too far from the promise of one Arab country from the Arabian Gulf to the Atlantic Ocean. Both have an ideology of discontent where everything past or present is bad and only the promised future will be good. The ‘Now’ for both ideologies is bad.

1967 could have been the moment when we broke away from messianic politics and ideologies of discontent. When Nasser resigned he was essentially admitting defeat. A moment badly needed to start afresh. Who knows if the fresh start would have been better? But we should have done it. Instead the ‘people’ marched to the streets and insisted that Nasser stay. Denial is less painful than utter and complete disillusionment.

Today - sixty three years on - ideologies of discontent and messianic politics still thrive. Many in the region still believe that there is nothing in the ‘now’ worth preserving, that it is all bad, that the only solution is to revolt. And those are still waiting for that leader who under God’s care and guidance will bring about unity and freedom for Arabs and Muslims. Whether it was Khomeini, Bin Laden, Saddam Hussein, Hassan Nasrallah, Mulla Omar or Al-Baghdadi; there is this deep yearning from a significant number of Arabs and Muslims who have been fed ideologies of discontent and messianic politics for three or four generations. This is in my view the most persistent legacy of Nasser.

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Abdullah Hamidaddin is a writer and commentator on religion, Middle Eastern societies and politics with a focus on Saudi Arabia and Yemen. He is currently a PhD candidate in King’s College London. He can be followed on Twitter: @amiq1

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.