x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Egypt's two giants who still divide their people

Born in the same year as Nasser, Sadat was a man whose presidency will always be defined by one achievement - his daring peace with Israel.

Love him or loathe him, Gamal Abdel Nasser is a figure who remains a polarising force in Egypt. The way people in Cairo speak of Nasser will betray their politics immediately - or if not their politics, then an element of their cultural and family background. The same can be said of Anwar Sadat, Egypt's third president. While Nasser's legacy was the birth of an Arab nationalism, Sadat, an even more polarising figure, is responsible for establishing peace with Israel.

That has either been something Egyptians have found hard to swallow over the past 30 years or something they have hailed as a brave step to end a festering conflict. This week marked the deaths of both presidents - Nasser died due to a heart attack on September 28, 1970, and was buried on October 1, while Sadat was assassinated on October 6, 1981. Newspapers and the media have been running special reports on the death of each president, reminding Egyptians of their importance and legacies. Pro-Nasser writers hail their leader as the last "real man" to live in the Arab world, while Jihan Sadat, the late president's widow, has been on television speaking of the day her husband died, and talking to the press about her visions for Egypt.

Nasser was born in 1918 in Alexandria to parents originally from upper Egypt. To many Egyptians, this alone was enough to make him their beloved leader. Upper Egyptians have a special place in Egyptian culture, although more often than not as the butt of jokes. When this strong leader from a southern family rose to prominence, Upper Egyptians felt they owed him the loyalty due to a man who lent their culture the ultimate honour. He led the Egyptian Revolution in 1952, which saw the birth of Egypt as a republic, and rallied forces during the Suez crisis.

His leadership ushered in a new era of industrialisation, but with it came sweeping nationalisation projects which absorbed much of Egypt's wealth. Speak to my landlady and others who owned businesses and property in Egypt, and the way they say the name Gamal Abdel Nasser, is laced with bitter poison. Although Nasser brought in an era of modernisation, for "old money" families or those who owned several businesses, this was not necessarily good news. To this day, bitterness is rampant among the old Cairene families who saw their businesses and properties taken into public ownership.

"We had to just keep selling all our buildings," my landlady told me when I first moved to her flat. "Nasser ... it was all because of Nasser." Yet, speak to the office boys at work and they will tell you that he was the last "real man" of the Arab world. He stood up for the Palestinians, he gave dignity to the Arabs and provided them with a voice after years of oppression and colonisation. His picture is everywhere in Cairo, gracing shops, cafes and restaurants. It is more common to see Nasser's picture above the cash register than that of the president Hosni Mubarak's.

Born in the same year as Nasser, Sadat was a man whose presidency will always be defined by one achievement - his daring peace with Israel. This legacy has steered Egypt through the 30 years since it was formed, and niggles at the minds of the country's intellectuals and journalists. While playing an important role as a mediator in the region, Egypt is always asked to transfer intelligence and information between Palestinians and the Israelis during negotiations. Egyptians have never really been able to reconcile the peace Sadat forged with Israel with their loyalty to the Palestinian cause.

When speaking to people on the street, many will go as far as saying that they have no problems with the accord - people in Israel want to live just as they want to live in Egypt. But they remain suspicious of Israel's motives. Do they really share a "live and let live" attitude? This was seen in the fallout from Farouk Hosni, the Egyptian culture minister's failure to secure Unesco's director general title. His sure-fire answer to why he was defeated: an Israeli conspiracy.

Two men being commemorated this weekend will always be remembered as men of power and dignity. Love them or loathe them, every Arab knows where he or she was when each man died. Love them or loathe them, they left overpowering legacies that Egyptians still grapple with today. Hadeel al Shalchi is a writer for the Associated Press, based in Cairo