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A Perfect Community
Ultimately, the value of Nasser's legacy will be determined in two areas: Egypt and the broader Arab community.
After nearly two decades of his rule, Egypt is something less than a monument to enlightened rule. By 1980, because of a scarcely controllable population explosion, there will be 50 million Egyptians; yet the country today lacks the industrial base to support half that population. "This people is today no less poor than in Farouk's days," notes Israel's Deputy Premier Allon, "and some say it is even poorer." Not until the interminable drain of the war with Israel has been stanched is the country likely to emerge from the backwardness that persisted under Nasser. "If it does," writes British Biographer Peter Mansfield (Nasser's Egypt), "the Egyptian revolution of 1952 will be a seminal event of the 20th century. If it does not, Nasserism will leave as little impression on the world as Italian Fascism."
In the broader world, Nasser may fare better. Islam is, after all, based on the notion of what Arabist Salem calls "a perfect community." Through the unifying force of the Arabic tongue, Nasser the master orator did much to restore that sense of community after centuries of foreign rule had seemingly shattered it for all time.
The Caliph's Advice
When Mohammed died, his first caliph, Abu Bakr, told the Prophet's mourning followers: "If you worship Mohammed, Mohammed has died. But if you worship Allah, he is alive and never will die." Throughout the Middle East, a variation of that aphorism was broadcast over Arab radios last week: "If you worship Gamal, Gamal is dead. But if you worship the ideas of Gamal Abdel Nasser, they are alive and will never die." Nasser had many ideas, not all of them worth preserving. The future of the Middle East may thus depend on which the Arab world jettisons and which it retains to worship.