x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Remembering Nasser, the godfather of Pan Arabism

Fond memories of Gamal Abdel Nasser, 40 years after his death. His radio oratory transfixed listeners, reawakening a fading pride.

Gamal Abdel Nasser, the Egyptian president, addresses his countrymen during a radio speech to announce free elections to elect a new parliament and the liberalisation of the regime in March 1968.
Gamal Abdel Nasser, the Egyptian president, addresses his countrymen during a radio speech to announce free elections to elect a new parliament and the liberalisation of the regime in March 1968.

It was July 23, 1959 and a group of teenagers and adults were crowding around a radio in a cafe in Sharjah. For almost four hours they sat transfixed by the words of Gamal Abdel Nasser, the godfather of Pan Arabism. The broadcast from the Sout al Arab, or Voice of Arabs, station came from a square in Cairo filled with a quarter of a million listeners.

Among those in the Egyptian capital that day were special guests from across the Arab world, including Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed, who had become Ruler of Dubai the year before. Back in Sharjah, a 15-year-old was growing into a man, his patriotic feelings growing stronger because of the charismatic leader. "His words made me feel alive," remembers Salem al Kaabi, an Emirati businessman from Sharjah. "Like we Arabs finally have a voice, and a new sense of pride and dignity.

"The streets would fall silent every time his speeches came on as we would all sit and cling to each of his words and believe in them," he said. In that particular speech, Mr al Kaabi still remembers Nasser's words: "If we stand united as one, no enemy can ever conquer us ... For it is in our division that Israel has been able to remain victorious." "He didn't just say the right things, he acted on them," said Mr al Kaabi. "And that is what made him special."

Today is the 40th anniversary of Nasser's death and Mr al Kaabi, now 66, still remembers his "Arab hero"."It is so easy to sit and list his failures. He did what no one dared to do: stand and win against the colonial powers, and then he stood against Israel, which no one dares to do these days." Throughout the 1950s and 1960s and even after his death in 1970, Nasser dominated Arab politics and the imagination of the Arab masses. His influence was felt in the UAE with boys, schools, streets and squares named in his honour, such as al Nasser Square in the heart of Deira in Dubai and Gamal Abdel Nasser Street in Sharjah.

After his death in 1970, Sharjah released commemorative stamps bearing portraits of Nasser as a young boy, as an officer, and in his later days. Before becoming president of the UAE, Sheikh Zayed, founder of the nation, paid a special visit to President Nasser and Anwar Sadat, his right-hand man who later succeeded him as a president. Sheikh Zayed made the journey in 1959, securing a special agreement with the government of Egypt to supply Abu Dhabi with teachers, engineers and agricultural experts. Similar arrangements were made throughout the Trucial States during Nasser's reign, with Egyptian teachers to a large extent forming the foundation of education in the country.

In his autobiography, Sard al Thad, Dr Sheikh Sultan bin Mohammed, the Ruler of Sharjah and a staunch supporter of Nasser in his youth, described the impact the 1963 news that Iraq and the United Arab Republic - encompassing Egypt and Syria - had signed an agreement to unite. Children, women and men hit the streets in celebration, carrying Nasser posters and the red, white and black flag of the United Arab Republic, with its two stars in the middle. Iraq adopted the same flag but with three stars, symbolic of the tri-unity.

"The celebrations with the declaration of the tri-unity was indescribable," wrote Dr Sheikh Sultan. "It wasn't just the students, and locals supporting Gamal Abdel Nasser, for there were United Arab Republic flags everywhere: on taxi cars, on buildings, and on boats crossing back and forth in Khor Dubai ... Even Pakistanis working on boats chanted: Nasser! Nasser!" For the generation that grew up with him, Nasser was bigger than life. For younger Emiratis, he remains a "curiosity", with some digging into his past to understand the legend.

"For my father and the older generation, he was the voice of their hearts," said Ahmed al Daheri, 23, a student of history at UAE university at Al Ain. "He was just a man, but people couldn't accept that. For myself and my siblings, I view him as a man with big dreams who had the courage to go after them. "Politics aside, Nasser did manage to give back some pride to the masses in both his country and other Arab nations, with farms in Egypt returned to their rightful owners, the farmers themselves," said Mr al Daheri.

Nationalistic and patriotic feelings lived on after Nasser's death, with a landmark Arab oil embargo in 1973. The action resulted in oil-producing countries such as the UAE and Saudi Arabia boycotting the US after its announcement that it was sending billions of dollars in aid to Israel. "He did reawaken something in the Arabs, a kind of courage that I don't see in my generation any more," he said.

Mr al Daheri's father and Mr al Kaabi were among the Emiratis who wanted to be recruited into Nasser's army so they could fight for the unity of Arabs in the 1960s. But as it did for millions of other of Arabs, that dream died with the defeat in the Arab-Israeli six-day war in 1967. "We all cried as we listened to his speech after the defeat," recalled Mr al Kaabi, who described the period as a "national mourning" that engulfed the Arab world. "He was broken, and we were broken."

Arab Gulf states such as the UAE had a pivotal role in rebuilding the economy and armies of the Arab nations, mainly Egypt, Syria and Jordan, involved in the war. "It will take 1,000 years for a man like Nasser to return," said Mr al Kaabi. "We have lost our courage and our confidence. And we aren't doing anything about it."

rghazal@thenational.ae