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July 29, 2009

Nasser, the Revolution and I

Dr. Mohamed Elmasry

Dr. Mohamed ElmasryEgyptians take a day off every July 23, but I don’t know how many, especially young people, know its significance.

The date marks the day in 1952 when army officers took over the country.

My family was not in politics, but I was eager to understand the need for a revolution. I was eight at the time and my eagerness would have to wait three years until Gamal Abdul Nasser, the leader of that revolution, wrote Falsafat Al-Thaura (The Philosophy of the Revolution.)

The short book was written in a language I could understand, and it explained what later would be termed the Egyptian National Multiple Identities.

There is still a debate among Egyptians about what remains of Nasser’s vision. Freedom from imperialist aggression and capitalist oppression were its main features, and social justice was at the heart of its domestic policies.

Many changes have shaken the ideological underpinnings of Egypt’s foreign relations since his death, but the July 23 revolution was an inspiration to millions of peoples living under occupation around the world, especially in Africa and Asia.

Nasser was 34 years old in 1952. He came from a small town in Upper Egypt where his father was a postal worker. I said to myself then: “I can relate to this man.”

When I was a high school student in Cairo, I read Nasser’s book many times, especially after he nationalized the Suez Canal in 1956, an act that would lead to the invasion of Egypt by Israel, Great Britain and France.

“Like a reconnaissance patrol, these thoughts are an effort to explore within ourselves—to discover who we are and what our role is to be in the succeeding stages of Egypt's history,” Nasser said in the preface to his book. “These thoughts seek to discover the pattern of our national environment and to make clear that we do not exist as an isolated island surrounded by troubled waters.”

Nasser explained that because Egypt is part of the Arab, African and Islamic worlds it must work for the well being of all three:

“The era of isolation is now gone,” Nasser wrote. “Gone also are the days when barbed wires marked the frontiers separating and isolating countries, and every country must look beyond its frontiers to find the currents that affected its spring, how it should live with others… We cannot ignore that there is an Arab circle surrounding us, and that this circle is as much a part of us as we are a part of it.

“Can we ignore that there is a continent of Africa in which fate has placed us and which is destined today to witness a terrible struggle for its future? This struggle will affect us whether we want or not. Can we ignore that there is a Muslim world in which we are tied by bonds which are not only forged by religious faith but also tightened by the facts of history?…This third circle goes beyond continents and oceans.

“As I stood in front of Kaaba [during my last visit] I found myself thinking: Our idea of the pilgrimage should change. Going to the Kaaba should never be a passport to heaven, after a lengthy life…. The pilgrimage should be a great political power conference. The press of the world should resort to and follow its news, not as a series of rituals but as a regular political congress wherein the leaders of Muslim states, their officials, their academics and youth draw up, in a universal Islamic parliament, the main lines of policy for their countries and their co-operation until they meet again next year..…

“I expressed some of these sentiments to His Majesty King Sa‘ud. He said to me: ‘This is the real purpose of the pilgrimage.’ Verily, I cannot visualize a higher purpose.…

“When I visualize these millions of Muslims united in one faith, I know of the tremendous potential that cooperation amongst them all can achieve—a co-operation that does not deprive them of their loyalty to their countries, but which guarantees for them and their brethren a limitless power.”

I said then and I say now: “I can relate to this.”  

Dr Mohamed Elmasry is Professor Emeritus of Computer Engineering, University

of Waterloo. He can be reached at

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