World: Nasser's Legacy: Hope and instability

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death, he hinted through his U.N. ambassador that Egypt might move some missiles back in exchange for U.S. guarantees against an Israeli attack on Egyptian territory. With Nasser gone, there is no Egyptian who possesses enough power to risk the reaction that might follow an order to pull back. Only El Rais—"the Boss," as Arabs jocularly called Nasser—could do that.

As far as the Arab masses were concerned, there was little that the boss could not accomplish. His great value, Arabist Elie Salem of Beirut's American University points out, "was not so much what he did, but what he meant to people." To most, he meant hope. "Saladin achieved success through his political and diplomatic skill," says Salem, "but there was no question of identifying with the masses. Since the time of the Prophet, Nasser was the first leader to address himself to the shaab, the forgotten masses, rather than to the intellectuals." The masses saw him as the hero who would unify the Arab world after hundreds of disastrous years.

For contemporary Arabs, Nasser was a man who seemed to promise a return to the glories of ancient times. A long and luminous success for the Arabs began in the 7th century with the appearance of Mohammed, along with his religion Islam (submission to God's will) and his 80,000-word book of holy writ, the Koran. Under Mohammed's exhortations, the flaming sword of Islam extended Moslem dominion across the Mediterranean basin. Arab armies broke the Byzantine and Persian empires and carried the crescent emblem of Mohammedanism as far west as Spain and southern France and as far east as India and the Chinese border. Saladin, a Kurdish warrior raised in 12th century Arab Damascus, defended the Holy Land against two Crusades. By the 13th century, the Arab people had forged a greater empire than Alexander the Great or any of the Caesars. With Europe engulfed by the Dark Ages, the Arabs became custodians of the world's culture and science. The unifying element was the Arabic tongue; it displaced other languages as Islam spread, and today, where its use leaves off, the Arab world ends.

Before Mohammed ascended heavenward, he neglected to name a successor. As a result, competing caliphs or successors sprang up, and their feuds finally sapped Arab power. Portuguese sailors discovered new routes to the Orient around Africa; Arab ports and customhouses ceased to be significant in world trade. Asian marauders kept Arab armies on the defensive. By the 16th century, the Arabs had fallen under the sway of the Ottoman Empire. After Napoleon's Egyptian campaign and later the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, they were dominated by a succession of Western European colonial nations. All that remained for the Arabs was religion, language and hope.

Corruption and Laziness

When Nasser was born in Alexandria in 1918, the city owed more to French and British culture than to Egyptian. Things native were regarded as inferior. As late as 1945, a Westerner who had just moved to Alexandria was advised by a friend to learn "the language of the country immediately." When he protested that Arabic would be difficult to master in a short time, his friend snapped: "Not Arabic, stupid. French. That is the language we speak here."

The eldest of eleven children, Nasser grew up a rebellious boy,

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