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Dr. Josef Olmert

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Political Eruptions in the Arab World -- Lessons From Nasser's Day

Posted: 10/26/11 02:57 PM ET

By all accounts we are witnessing a political eruption of major proportions in the Arab Middle East. So many superlatives were already used to describe this situation, and the word "historic" is clearly one of the most used. How "historic" it all is still remains to be seen. Historians of the future will be able to analyze it having the benefit of perspective and hindsight on their side. Now it is clearly the right time though to refer to a similar situation taking place over 50 years ago and see what lessons, if any, can be learned -- something that may help us get a better, more comprehensive context of current events.

I refer to the heyday of Pan-Arabism, personified by Egypt's dictator at the time, Gamal Abd Al-Nasser, who came to power in July 1952 as the leader of the "free officers". Within a short span became the most popular figure in the entire ME. In fact, terms like "popular" are a far, far cry from what Nasser was in the 1950's. For the vast majority of Arabs he was a messiah, the modern day Saladin, the reincarnation of the mythological Abu Ali, the folk hero, who was simultaneously a combination of national savior and Robin Hood of the have nots in the Middle East, the majority of people then and now in that troubled part of the world.

The Al-Jazeera/Facebook/Tweeter of that time was the "Sawt Al-Arab" (Voice of the Arabs) radio station with the legendary broadcaster Ahmad Said who threw the Jews to the sea every single day in his rousing inflammation. The political propaganda was accompanied by the songs of the great Umm Kultum, the most popular singer in modern Arab history. On top of all that were the speeches of Nasser, which swept the entire Middle East from the "Gulf to the Ocean" with a wave of genuine popular enthusiasm, never seen before, and I believe after as well, including the current events. Nasser spoke against Israel, Western Imperialism and the Arab Feudal system and the response was overwhelming. Even the defeat to Israel in the Sinai campaign of October 1956 did not change it. In fact, Nasser turned defeat into victory, as that the war with Israel coincided with the Franco-British attack on the Suez canal and the rift between the US and its European allies. Israel was forced to withdraw from Sinai, and Nasser was in the height of his popularity.

The years 1957-8 were to witness a cataclysmic eruption in the Middle East. First, the tidal wave of Nasserism hit the Hashimite Kingdom of Jordan, when in 1957, two Chiefs- of Staff appointed by King Hussein betrayed him and almost brought him and his dynasty down. Later, the King needed outside support and he got it from his traditional patrons, the British, who could fly their planes to Jordan only through Israel. It was the first, but not the last time, when Israel came to the help of the Hashimites, a fact that does not preclude King Abdallah, Hussein's son, from maligning Israel and its policies, almost on a daily basis.

After Jordan came Syria, which, in the name of Arab Nationalism formed the union with Egypt, in February of 1958. Nasser came to Damascus, greeted by millions as the crowned redeemer of the Arab nation. In September of 1961, the union collapsed, as Syrian officers revolted against what they considered Egyptian enslavement of Syria. But then 1958 was still young and Nasserism struck with venom. In May 1958 Lebanon exploded and a mini civil war erupted, in which the Pro-Nasser forces collided with pro-West factions. In July 1958, the Marines landed in Beirut and put an end to this conflict. Nasserism remained a force in Lebanese politics life in years to come, but Lebanon did not fall into its orbit in 1958. July 1958 was a momentous month, and in July the Iraqi branch of the Hashimite dynasty was thrown to the dustbin of history following a bloody revolution in Baghdad, executed by followers of Nasser. The bodies of dead members of the Royal family were dragged in the streets of Baghdad in front of jeering mobs. The pictures are not dissimilar to the horror pictures of few days ago, describing the end of Muammar Gaddafi in Sirte.

The new Iraqi dictator, Abd Al-Karim Qassem, starting his rule as an avowed Nasserite soon turned against his mentor and the honey moon between Iraq and Egypt became a bitter feud that plagued the Arab world for some years to come. Not too much time passed, and Nasserism seemed to be on the decline. A lot of literature describing its "historic" significance became irrelevant. The Arab Middle East weathered the storm, but remained inherently unstable. More storms were to come, the current one is by far the most important and potentially explosive, much the same as Nasserism was in the 1950's. The similarities are striking as well as the differences. The last word has not been said, and the final act has not yet taken place. With that in mind, caution is in place. Yes, we are witnessing major changes; no, we cannot be sure that they are lasting and that we know where they lead us to. Let us remember the 1950's and Nasserism.