COLUMN ONE : Revisiting the Legacy of Nasser : The Egyptian walked away from military defeat in triumph. The chance that Hussein could emerge beaten but esteemed by other Arabs has affected the strategy of both sides.
The Arab world had been brought to its knees that day in 1967 when Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser admitted that the pan-Arab army that was supposed to “drive Israel into the sea” had instead been overrun.
The fabled Sinai Peninsula was lost. So were Gaza City and the surrounding desert, Syria’s Golan Heights, the West Bank of the Jordan River and one of the hearts of all Islam, Jerusalem’s Old City. In all, 28,000 square miles had been lost in six days. The armies of Egypt, Jordan and Syria were in humiliating retreat.
Nasser, in a speech broadcast to millions all over the Arab world, glumly shouldered blame for the disaster and announced that he was abandoning the presidency.
Egyptians, however, would have none of it. Pandemonium erupted, and the next day the postal clerk’s son who had sought to instill the checkerboard land between Morocco and the Persian Gulf with a defiant national identity far outside Egypt’s borders exultantly rescinded his resignation.
“Nasser,” his successor, Anwar Sadat, would say later, “was bigger than words.”
It wasn’t the first time that Nasser had walked away in triumph from military defeat. In 1956, after nationalizing the Suez Canal, Nasser’s troops were crushed by the forces of Israel, Britain and France--yet he emerged as a revered advocate of Arab unity.
Now, in many ways, the outcome of one of the worst crises in the history of the Middle East rests on whether such magic can be worked again.
Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s decision late last week not to surrender Kuwait in the face of near-certain military devastation, holding on instead for what may be a swift but violent war, has much to do with Nasser’s legacy--and the West’s fears that the Iraqi leader could emerge from Kuwait defeated but triumphant in the eyes of the millions of Arabs who heard in Iraq’s march into Kuwait echoes of Nasser’s calls for Arab nationalism.
At work in the equation were all the recesses of the Arab consciousness that have for so long stymied the United States in its attempts to control events in the Middle East: the idea that appearances are sometimes more real than facts, that victory is possible in defeat, that truth must be discerned through a labyrinth of mirrors, that martyrs don’t die.
Thus, a confrontation that to the West appears to be about containing aggression, controlling border disputes and ensuring oil supplies became a referendum on a Palestinian homeland, the struggle of poor Arabs against wealthy oil sheiks and Islamic revolution--all overshadowed by an Iraqi leader who sought to seize brutally one of the wealthiest nations in the Persian Gulf in the name of the national myths that Nasser helped create.
It is with these undercurrents in mind that the United States and its allies are seeking not only to push Iraqi forces out of Kuwait, but also to so humiliate their outspoken leader that he cannot emerge again as a political or military force in the region.
And Hussein, many Arab analysts say, was left with virtually no option but the bloody march to what he has declared “the mother of battles” after the United States’ rejection of his attempts for a withdrawal on his own terms.
“If this is to be the path of martyrdom, we are ready,” Baghdad Radio announced Friday, after President Bush’s ultimatum for an immediate pullout from Kuwait. “The alternative is humiliation.”
“Whether we like what we see in political life or not, whether we agree with it or not, there are in people’s culture certain facts that we cannot and we should not, really, ignore,” said Assad Abdel Rahman, a Jordanian political scientist and member of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s central council.
“Military defeat in an Arab culture: As long as you put up a fight, there is no problem in it. People are willing to take it, they are even willing to justify it,” he said. “But to surrender would be to kill the image of the hero, and the image of the martyr, and this is an image that has been borrowed from history.”
For example, Ali--the fourth ruler of the Arab empire founded by the Prophet Mohammed who triumphed in one key battle but broke off another to seek arbitration and then was assassinated in 661--is honored by Shiite Muslims.
As for Hussein, he has joined Nasser in “articulating something which lurks beneath the surface of our lives,” explained another Arab academic.
At the same time, most Arabs reject direct comparisons between Hussein and Nasser. And outside political analysts say Hussein himself has lost much of what stature he had as a spokesman for Arab nationalism in recent weeks, first because of the Iraqi military’s questionable performance and second, because he conveniently ditched his demands for a resolution of the Palestinian and Lebanese conflicts in an attempt to negotiate terms for an end to the war.
“I think that whole issue is almost totally gone already,” said William B. Quandt, a Middle East specialist with the Brookings Institution. “The mood (in the Arab world) has just totally changed. This man has ruined his country, he was all bluff, he didn’t have any real power, his little Scuds didn’t hurt Israel. You have no idea how much bitterness is being expressed by people who for a brief moment hoped this guy would be different.”
In contrast, Nasser was the man who defied the West in the 1950s by adopting a policy of “positive neutrality” that resulted in an arms deal with the Soviet Union in 1955 and recognition of China a year later.
U.S. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles angrily withdrew a pledge to aid construction of the $1.5-billion Aswan High Dam, and an infuriated Nasser announced that he was nationalizing the Suez Canal.
“Oh America, may you choke to death on your fury!” he told an enthusiastic crowd in Cairo in 1956.
Britain and France, aided by Israel, declared war on Egypt, and it was only after the Israelis had routed the Egyptian army in the Sinai, with the French and British mounting formidable attacks at Port Said, that the United States intervened and helped negotiate a cease-fire that allowed Egypt to retain sovereignty over the crucial waterway linking the Red Sea and the Mediterranean.
It was the first of several military defeats that never seemed to tarnish Nasser’s credentials as a promoter of the elusive idea of Arab unity.
His intervention in the Yemen civil war in the 1960s was a disaster, and so was the ill-fated 1967 face-off with the Israelis that had been designed to end the Zionist threat once and for all. Through much of it, Nasser won the adoration of the Arab public by defiantly rejecting the United States and its support for Israel.
After the Suez crisis, Nasser turned to the Soviet Union for military aid and also for $600 million in technical assistance and equipment to build the Aswan High Dam. As the 36-story structure rose impressively over the Nile, Egyptian schoolchildren began singing a new song:
“We said we will build, and we’ve built the High Dam.
“Oh, imperialism, we have built the High Dam.
“With our hearts, our souls, our bodies and our arms.
“We said we would, and we have built the High Dam.”
Nasser died in 1970, the year the dam was completed, stricken by a heart attack while saying farewell at Cairo’s airport to the former ruler of Kuwait, Sheik Sabah al Salim al Sabah.
Most Arab analysts resist comparisons between Nasser and Hussein, for all the Iraqi leader’s pan-Arab rhetoric.
“Abdel Nasser was a troublemaker, but he was also a moral center. He provided a sense of values and aspirations,” said Edward Said, a leading Palestinian academic. “The difference between him and Saddam is Abdel Nasser, in the end; he sort of radiated a certain kind of benevolence. He had a charismatic aura of something you could admire and like and want to have in your house, which Saddam never had. There’s something mean about him, something unpleasant.”
Saad Eddim Ibrahim, an Egyptian sociologist and political scientist, said Nasser never went into battle without Arab public opinion behind him, and he never mobilized his army against another Arab nation.
“The thing that’s different between the two leaders is that Nasser never really sacrificed his people or his armed forces because of evil considerations,” Ibrahim said. “He fought his battles, but when he realized the choice was between saving lives or saving his armed forces and saving himself, he went with the first.”
At Suez in 1956 and in the Sinai in 1967, Ibrahim said, Nasser accepted cease-fires rather than continue with a battle there was no hope of winning, and he suffered relatively minor losses as a result.
Likewise, say Arab analysts, when Syrian separatists sought to repeal the union of Egypt and Syria into the United Arab Republic, dashing Nasser’s first concrete hope for a united Arab world, the Egyptian president ultimately declined to use force to hold the union together, withdrawing the small number of troops he had initially dispatched.
“That’s why he remained, even in his defeat, a hero in the minds and the hearts of the overwhelming majority of the Arab world,” Ibrahim said.
Hussein, by contrast, already has been perceived to have made poor military decisions in entering the eight-year-long war with Iran and subsequently invading Kuwait, said Othman Rawaf, director of the Center for Arabian Gulf Studies at King Saud University in Riyadh.
“So I would think it’s going to be very difficult for him to emerge as a hero in the long term,” he said. “For a lot of the masses, they know that he’s not like Nasser. Nasser was able because of his charisma to mobilize the masses. The masses mobilized around Saddam because they have nobody else to mobilize around.”
Several Arab analysts said a rising level of unease within the Arab world about the failure to resolve the Palestinian problem and the growing gap between rich and poor Arabs helped to create the leadership void that Hussein is seeking to fill--and that unease, they say, will persist whether or not Hussein survives the conflict and will permeate the conflict itself.
“You hear Saddam doing things like making the state-of-the world speech he made the other day,” said one Arab academic. “It’s not flying as much as he suspects, but . . . I don’t know a single person who is wholeheartedly behind the American drive. We all feel somehow involved in that. We are all wounded by this deeply insulting kind of racist talk from the Americans, as if Saddam is some small colored boy being told to go back to his place on the back of the bus.
“It’s interesting,” he added. “Saddam is one of the least-liked figures in the contemporary scene, and yet he came because there was a place for him.”