Gamal Abdel Nasser
Transnational Research Associates





A. F. Madsen, M.Ed.

In the annals of history, there has never been a viable group without a leader. The "group" could well be comprised of employees, countries, or an organization. If a group should come into being without a leader, it's chances of survival will be exceptionally low. While actual labor is performed by the majority of persons within the group, the primary objective of the leader is to ensure that all followers perform properly and on schedule.

Inasmuch as there is no single description of "leadership", it is fair to state that different theorists provide a variety of definitions. In light of this divergence of views, I will establish a working definition of leadership, prior to examining the case study at hand.

Firstly, leadership exists when a number of persons recognize and demonstrate a certain level of respect for one person among them. This respect permits the selected individual to guide and direct the group toward accomplishment of a certain goal or mission. Additionally, the followers are willing to acknowledge that the leader's goal is also their own. Together, followers and leader progress toward a common goal. These goals, or products, differ from one organization to another. For example, the result of leader-follower cooperation may be a luxury GM automobile, and the ability to convince large numbers of people to pay dearly for it. Or, in the case of the City of Las Cruces, the end-product may be excellence in quality of services provided for residents.

A good leader will not force or compel his followers to obey orders, but, rather, will derive his objective and direction from among them. His mission should be one which his people embrace, whether or not the goal may appear rational or proper. A case in point, often cited, would be that of Adolph Hitler who, admittedly, had no logical goal, but who projected a vision for the German people who wished to prevail in the face of perceived competition for "vital space". Because he articulated this expansionistic vision for his people, Hitler was empowered by them to pursue his aggressive policies, and enjoyed support from his entire Nation.

In light of these observations, a number of characteristics, qualities or requirements for leadership can be identified: (1) The leader should inspire respect among his followers in order to achieve his or her goals more effectively; (2) ideally, respect should be derived from the skills, personality, family or intrinsic authority of the leader; (3) the standard definition of leadership should be taken into account, i.e. "The art of mobilizing others to want to struggle for shared aspirations." (The Leader Challenge, 30)

Having laid the groundwork for a working definition of leadership, it is useful to examine the specific case of Gamal Adbel Nasser, an historical figure of considerable significance in Middle Eastern affairs, whose legacy has heavily influenced policy in several nations.

It has been generally recognized that Nasser's early days were spent in a nation which was undergoing massive social and political disruption.

Against this backdrop, Gamal Abdel Nasser was born in 1918, educated at radical schools, such as the Al-Nahda School in Cairo. In 1933, he was immersed in an atmosphere of extremist nationalist sentiment linked to the Watani Party under its leader Mustafa Kamil (DuBois, 1972). Because he lost his mother in 1926, when he was only eight years old, his relationship with his father, who had remarried a woman whom young Gamal disliked, was exceptionally distant. Under these circumstances, he developed several character traits which later surfaced in his public life, namely a tendency to be secretive, suspicious and overly cautious in all of his interactions with others. Nasser's shyness, related to his mother's death, led him ultimately to become angry and unpredictable when others challenged him. These qualities were instrumental, later, in terms of his ability to maneuver and manipulate others. In his initial years of public and military life, he was an awkward young man in many ways, unsure, inexperienced and immature.

As young Nasser embarked on his teen-age years, Egypt, in the 1930s, was divided among three primary social forces: the King, the British and such groups as the Wafd Party, a major nationalist group, and the Muslim Brotherhood. As a teen-ager, Nasser came into contact with the Young Egypt Society whose ideas were socialist, romantic and strongly religious. Indeed, at 17, Nasser was injured in a political demonstration. The newspapers reported that several students had been killed and that the leader of the attack, Gamal Abdel Nasser, had been wounded in the head. This was the first time that his name had been mentioned in newspapers.

The Government closed the school as a punishment for students who participated in the violent demonstration, but one month later, the school reopened. Gamal was the only student who was forced to postpone his Baccalaureate Exam due to absenteeism.

Understandably, because he was from the lower-middle class, his orientation tended toward revolutionary themes and radical reform. His ideas were best represented in Al Sarkha, a newspaper which violently attacked the British presence.

He furthered his intellectual and political maturity at Fuad I University and then moved, like many young men in his position, into the military. His radical orientation was dramatically strengthened by association with the Green Shirts in Bab el-Sha'riyya, during his military days. In 1945, Nasser, as a young officer, was not politically active, although he was serious in his study of military history, tactics and theory. Leadership qualities were slow to emerge; however, he spoke out vocally about the British presence and joined a faction which declared a "jihad" against them.

Nasser was attentive to detail and exhibited extreme caution in his associations. As the "Free Officers" distanced themselves from the traditional military, Nasser did not immediately join them when they pledged loyalty to the Palestinian Brethren. He did exploit minor political differences between the Free Officers and the Brethren, however, and seized a key opportunity to place certain officers under his control. The intrigues of this period are complex, of course, and involved more than one secret organization; however, Nasser was successful in remaining near the top of the command chain.

Often, extreme violence characterized this period and The Brethren's Secret Organization (al-Gihaz al-Sirri), interacting with major social forces such as students, state functionaries and engineers, experienced assassination of its leader, Hasan al-Banna in early 1949, when Nasser was 30 years old.

Ultimately, the Free Officer conspiracy materialized, with Nasser very much involved in its planning and execution. His leadership and charisma were valued traits, enabling him to surge to the forefront in most internal power struggles. His rivals were not eliminated immediately, of course, but eventually fell under his control or were purged or neutralized.

Nasser, demonstrating some of the more subtle characteristics of leadership, was able to capitalize on his many "gifts" and to utilize basic Islamic and Arab concepts of "ijma" and "shura", or consensus and consultation, to unify public sentiment in favor of his positions on important issues. He had literally become, in mid-career, a messiah, who projected the image of a savior of his people; he relied on "futuwwat", an early form of Arab justice embodying the appearance of arrogance and power. This approach lacked cultural depth, but was nonetheless effective among the uneducated classes of Egypt. He mingled religion with politics in a shameless manner, encouraging such slogans as "There is no God but Allah, and Nasser is the beloved of Allah." He played with the emotions of his people, all the while shoring up his political base within the Free Officer Group, now poised to overthrow the existing regime.

The young Officer recruited promising young men through the military ranks and surrounded himself with loyal followers who posed no threat to him. His revolutionary speeches, based in some ways on the songs and techniques of a famous Egyptian singer, Um Kulthum, lasted for hours and hours, leading his audiences into states of rapturous joy. His people forgot their problems listening to Nasser, whose reforms and agrarian policies were only marginally successful.

The Suez Crisis, in the early 1950s, served as a platform for solidifying Nasser's popularity. He united his people who, for 70 years had tolerated the British presence in Suez, against this foreign force and impressed the world with his eloquence. Using the Soviet Union against the British in the world forum ultimately resulted in the U.K.'s backing-down over continued control of the Canal.

Later, four years before the 1967 War with Israel, he spoke confidently at Aswan about the majesty and grandeur of the dam, comparing its huge size to the comparatively "minor" personalities of Guy Mollet and Anthony Eden, two despised Westerners who had previously dared to dominate and challenge Egypt. "Where is Eden now, where is Mollet? They have disappeared. But the High Dam rises even higher...", he is quoted as saying in this famous speech.

Nasser, however, was also a leader who took full responsibility for his actions, both when he was a young man and, later, as President. As we have seen, he answered his Nation's call in their struggle against British colonization. Nasser was a leader who often gave credit to others for their work; when his followers made mistakes, he assumed responsibility for them.

In 1967, Arab Nations, under the control of Egypt, went to war with Israel which was supported in full by the Western Powers, led by the United States of America. The Egyptian Commander-in-Chief of Arab Military Forces committed a serious strategic error which enabled Israel to impose an "ignominious" defeat on the Arab Nations. The entire population of the Arab World was awaiting an explanation from Nasser.

On June 9, 1967, at 7:30 in the evening Local Egyptian Time, everyone was waiting for an announcement from the Presidential Mansion. They expected him to name the individuals responsible for the errors committed and to announce a punishment for them, or for himself.

In his national address, President Nasser stated:

"I am ready to bear the entire responsibility. I have taken a decision and I wish you all to help me with it. I have decided to give up completely and finally every official post and every political role, and to return to the masses to do my duty with them like every citizen. The powers of Imperialism imagine that Gamal Abdel Nasser only is their enemy. I wish it to be clear to them that it is the whole Arab nation, and not just Gamal Abdel Nasser that is against them. The powers opposing Arab nationalism always regard it as Gamal Abdel Nasser's empire. This is not true. The aspirations for Arab unity began before Gamal Abdel Nasser and will remain after Gamal Abdel Nasser. This is a time for work and not for grief. It is a situation for sublime principles, not for any egotism or individual sentiments. My heart is with you and I ask each one of you to take me into your hearts. May God be with us and guide us." -- quoted in Vatikiotis

In spite of his willingness to resign and his apparent sense of genuine sorrow over the loss of the 1967 War, Nasser was generally seen as a "leader" because of his ability to mix sarcasm and inflated rhetoric with a false sense of generosity. His relations with his own brothers, Syria, the Sudan and Lebanon, were frequently tainted with insincerity. Although his schemes were noble and well-intentioned, they failed over a period of time because of his ego-centric impression that Egypt alone was the "Citadel of Arabism." Even when his people suffered from spiritual and material problems, Nasser promised his nation "salvation" and "dignity". He attacked the intellectuals who could have provided an answer to the country's problems, making fun of them publicly. His subordinates were subjected to his all-powerful will and only he was "sovereign."

Toward the end of his government, he incurred the anger of Marxists and the Muslim Brotherhood, and had alienated a good portion of his own Army. He turned his secret police apparatus, the dreaded Mukhabarat, against his own people who had been his friends only months earlier.

Nasser's leadership qualities were not brilliant by any means; on the contrary, to govern a nation like Egypt whose people were pursuing diverse objectives, he had to resort to using tactics which induced fear, and terror in his people. Propaganda covered the crimes of his secret police and he frequently ruled in a bizarre and dangerous manner, missing meals and making decisions which jeopardized the welfare of his Nation.

On balance, this leader's qualities were predicated on secrecy, self-control and an ability to conceal his true intentions. He often had no government programs and, while he listened to his Ministers, he alone would make the final decisions which were absolute. Lastly, Nasser was open to the idea that corruption was acceptable within his government; this gave him leverage and power over his subordinates whom he could then easily blackmail.

In spite of all the negative qualities which can be ascribed to Nasser, many Egyptians were able to see favorable aspects of his character, such as a sense of faith, conviction, appeal and vision. He provided for his people, and their nation, a distinct image of their destiny in a troubled world.

If we could describe some of the traits which typified the rule of Gamal Abdel Nasser in a professional sense, we would have to adopt the analytical perspective of Fred E. Fiedler who makes the distinction between simply a "leader" and "a good leader". (Fiedler, Problems in Social Psychology, pp.279-289) This theorist further defines the attitudes which distinguish a good leader from his less able counter-parts. He acknowledges that leaders fall into two categories:

"These are the critical, directive, autocratic, task-oriented versus thedemocratic, permissive, considerate, person-oriented type of leadership." (Fiedler, p. 279ff)

There have been attempts to quantify "leadership skills" and to analyze from a statistical point of view those leaders who have risen to positions of prominence internationally. If one examines closely the tasks performed by followers in relation to leaders' directions or commands, certain conclusions can be drawn on the basis of results achieved.

Placing Nasser into one of Fiedler's categories would seem fairly straightforward. He was a "directive, autocratic" personality, most of the time, but lapsed into the romantic, person-oriented model occasionally. Tasks accomplished under Nasser's leadership may prove hard to quantify. He succeeded with the Aswan Dam and contributed to Independence Movements throughout the Middle East and Africa ; he failed with the 1967 War; but triumphed over the British in the Suez Crisis. On balance, Nasser was a strong-willed, admired and respected leader of his people from within Egypt, but left a mixed performance record in the eyes of the world and from the perspective of many prominent political figures within his Nation.

Principal References Consulted

Fiedler, F.E. "The Contingency Model: A Theory of Leadership Effectiveness", Problems in Social Psychology, edited by C.W. Beckman, McGraw-Hill Book Company, New York, N.Y., 1970.

Kerr, M.H. Egypt Under Nasser, Foreign Policy Association, New York, N.Y. 1963

Vatikiotis, J.P. Nasser and His Generation, Saint Martin's Press, New York, N.Y., 1978.