Boston filmmaker Michal Goldman, who lives in Mermaid, P.E.I. part of the time, recently presented her new documentary, “Nasser’s Republic: The Making of Modern Egypt,” at the University of Prince Edward Island.
Her interest in Egypt goes back to the 1990s when she lived in Cairo for several years, and her film is a portrayal of the man who ruled Egypt from 1952 until his death 18 years later.
This documentary was filmed between 2011 and 2015, years of turmoil in Egypt. It saw the Arab Spring lead to the downfall of one autocrat, Hosni Mubarak, the election to the presidency of the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, Mohamed Morsi, and his removal in a coup by another military man, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.
But no one has dominated the Middle East as Gamal Abdel Nasser did, before or after, and this film is particularly timely, given that this year marks the 50th anniversary of the 1967 Arab-Israeli War.
It is a conflict in which Nasser played arguably the most important part. And while he called Egypt’s defeat a “temporary setback,” as we now know it was much more than that; it shaped the modern Middle East, and gave rise to the seemingly intractable Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
As well, Israel controlled most of the Sinai Peninsula for the next 15 years.
Goldman’s film presents Nasser as an authoritarian leader who challenged Western hegemony in the region, was responsible for economic and social progress in Egypt, but was foiled in his attempts to create a pan-Arab political entity.
Of humble origins, Nasser grew up in an Egypt still dominated by Great Britain, and became an opponent of the corrupt regime of King Farouk.
On July 26, 1952, Farouk was forced to exile and Nasser, now a colonel, became leader of the Free Officers Movement. By 1954 he had achieved undisputed power as the country’s president.
Determined to see Egypt free of colonialism, he nationalized the Suez Canal, which brought him into direct conflict with Great Britain, France and Israel two years later.
His stand brought him huge popularity throughout the Arab world, and two years later Syria joined Egypt in a United Arab Republic. This was the apogee of secular Pan-Arabism.
On the domestic front, agrarian reform laws widened the opportunities for land ownership by the peasantry. In 1962, Nasser, by then a Soviet ally, announced that Egypt would be run on Arab socialist lines, and numerous enterprises were nationalized. There were also major projects such as the Aswan High Dam.
Ordinary citizens enjoyed unprecedented access to public housing, free education, jobs, health services, and social welfare.
However, much of what Nasser accomplished would be reversed. The United Arab Republic was dissolved in 1961, and no new pan-Arab entities were created. He also became mired in a civil war in Yemen. His defeat by Israel in 1967 was a major blow and may have hastened his early death three years later, at age 52.
His successors, Anwar el-Sadat and Mubarak, rolled back most of Nasser’s economic reforms, and Egypt became a far less egalitarian state.
What are we to make of Nasser’s legacy? He remains a revered figure in much of the Arab world. But does his politics hold as much sway today as those of two other Egyptians, the Islamists Hassan al-Banna and Sayyid Qutb, both killed by Egyptian authorities?
As the Egyptian writer Tarek Osman, author of Egypt on the Brink: From Nasser to the Muslim Brotherhood, has asserted, the blow to his Arab nationalism and the rise of religiously-based ideologies “took from Egypt a lot of its claim to leadership.”