Within the Arab circle, there is a role wandering aimlessly in search of a hero. This role is beckoning to us to move, to take up its lines, to put on its costume and give it life.
—Gamal Abdel Nasser Egypt's Liberation
THAT mystical role has still not found its hero; perhaps it never will. It lingered long and lovingly when it happened upon Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt, but then it moved on—still searching. Yet Nasser came closer to filling the role than any other man since the 12th century warrior Saladin or perhaps the powerful 9th century Caliph of Baghdad Harun al-Rashid. A burly, broad-shouldered army officer, son of a lower-middle-class postal clerk, Nasser overturned a rotting monarchy 18 years ago and brought visions of prosperity to his own country and hope for new unity to a diffuse and frustrated Arab world. At the time of his stunningly unexpected death last week at 52, his original visions had long since been altered; his initial promise had been compromised many times over.
Nasser carried out drastic land reforms, wiping out a parasitic pasha class that had lived off the poverty-stricken peasants for generations. But not long before his death, with per capita income in Egypt still just over $180, he was finally forced to admit that his dreams of building a modern industrial nation had gone aglimmering, that the most he could do for his overpopulated land was to keep it from sliding backward. Nasser had himself mostly to blame. He precipitated a succession of feuds and intrigues with virtually every one of Egypt's Arab neighbors. He was humiliatingly trounced in two wars with Israel, and sent 70,000 Egyptian soldiers off on a bloody misadventure in
Yemen. To rebuild his army, he allowed himself to become the bondsman of the Soviet Union, and he squandered Egypt's limited resources in pursuit of disastrously misguided goals.
Yet for all his mistakes and shortcomings, Nasser managed one inestimable accomplishment. To the people of Egypt and the rest of the Arab world, he imparted a sense of personal worth and national pride that they had not known for 400 years. This alone may have been enough to balance his flaws and failures. The Arabs thought so, and when a heart attack felled him, Beirut's French-language daily Le Jour cried: "One hundred million human beings—the Arabs—are orphans. There is nothing greater than this man who is gone, and nothing is greater than the gap he has left behind."
Branches and Banners
From Algiers to Aden, Marrakech to Muscat, Nasser's death united Arabs in grief. Everywhere the plaintive cry went up: "Why do you leave us alone, Gamal?" From loudspeakers atop minarets in a thousand towns and cities wafted the reedy, lugubrious voices of muezzins chanting verses from the Koran.
Spontaneous demonstrations erupted throughout the Middle East. In Beirut, Arabs poured into the streets to light funeral bonfires of old tires, shoot off rifles and explode dynamite charges; 14 people were dead by the time the frenzy faded three days later. In countless Arab towns and villages, weeping men bore empty coffins in mock funerals, with women following behind, tearing their hair in grief.
In Israeli-occupied Jerusalem, 75,000 Arabs paraded through the old city. In Arabic they chanted, "Nasser will not die," and to make