News of revolution (part II): Voice of the Arabs or Nasserist mouthpiece?

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By Osama Diab

The Voice of the Arabs steered Egypt from isolationism and towards a pan-Arabist vision in which Nasser was the anointed leader of the Arab world.

Friday 5 October 2012

Charismatic and a natural orator, Nasser utilised Voice of the Arabs to reach the masses, such as this crowd in Syria, across the region. Photo: al-Ahram.

A few waves of unrest followed the British Occupation of Egypt with two important milestones: 1906 and 1919. In 1906, unrest erupted when five British officers accidentally injured an Egyptian villager and killed home-grown pigeons while pigeon shooting in the village of Denshwai. Villagers’ anger and the death of one of the British officers due to heatstroke during the dispute resulted in death sentence for four of the villagers, including the owners of the pigeons, and dozens more received varying sentences in a court dominated by British officers and their Egyptian allies.

It is believed that this incident fuelled a rapid grown Egyptian national sentiment and was a key landmark in the development of Egypt’s modern national identity.

The other major milestone was when nationwide demonstration in March and April of 1919 led to the declaration of Egypt’s independence in 1922 followed by the writing of a ‘liberal constitution’ in 1923. The emphasis in Egyptian national identity in the 1920s was culturally and territorially linked to its Pharaonic and pre-Islamic past which established the basis for a separate Egyptian sense of nationalism. Charles Smith, the American professor of Middle Eastern studies, writes that it was inspired by a foreign elites’ vision of indigenous nationalism and then further reinforced by the historic discovery of Tut-Ankh-Amon’s tomb in 1922. “This separate identity, and distinctiveness as Muslims from other Muslims, caused Egyptians to refuse to become involved in non-Egyptian issues, or to do so only in situations where Egyptian paramouncy would be assured,” he wrote.

The 1920s was a decade of consensus over this liberal and secular version of nationalism before the emergence of Islamic and Arab nationalism a decade later. In Redefining the Egyptian nation, the 1930s and the 1940s, some scholars argue, were an era of “supra-Egyptianism”, when a younger generation became more interested in the Arab, Muslim and Eastern worlds and presupposed the existence of a larger community to which Egypt belongs while not totally rejecting the uniqueness and distinctiveness of the Egyptian state and culture.

Up until the late 1940s, Egyptian national identity, these scholars assert, could be divided into two systems: a territorial imagining and a Western-influenced image of Egypt where a myth of common descent was created and modern Egyptians started to link themselves to ancient Egyptians. The dominant brand for at least a decade after the 1919 revolution advocated the culture and values of Mediterranean civilisation and the modern West. Politically, it assumed a necessary linkage between the state and the nation, whereas the supra-Egyptian nationalism that emerged in the 1930s and the 1940s situated Egypt in its wider Arab, Islamic and Eastern context and vis-a-vis the West.

Despite being the product of the imaginings of Western orientalists on Egypt and despite being driven mainly by a newly emerged middle class and educated elite, these nationalist movements seem to have appealed to the vast majority of Egyptians who suffered from foreign occupation. The struggle against the remnants of British rule and the privileged class of Turks remained in the 1930s and in the 1940s. In 1952, a secret movement within the army called the Free Officers Association brought this long struggle against the monarchy and British rule almost to an end when they carried out a coup against King Farouq and forced him into exile.

The rise of Egyptian military officers to power caused tragic changes in the development of Egyptian nationalism. For the first time, national sentiments were propagated by the official government and the new ruling elite instead of being directed against them. Also for the first time, the mass media’s potential in building national consensus was exploited by the state. It was a brand of nationalism that capitalised on the ‘supra-Egyptianism’ that had been building over the preceding two decades; one that centred on Arab nationalism, anti-imperialism and socialism. However, the new leadership developed an authoritarian single-party regime and cracked down on all the democratic, or rather semi-democratic, institutions the country had built up during its struggle against imperialism and the monarchy, such as the parliament and political parties.

Despite developing socialist policies, such as the wide-scale redistribution of land, the nationalisation of most key industries and enterprises, the new leadership heavily cracked down on protests, labour strikes and any form of dissidence or opposition. Less than three weeks after the Armed Forces took over power, two teenage labour activists were sentenced to death, for taking part in a strike in the Delta city of Kafr al-Dawar before a military court. In 1953, they made the decision to dissolve all political parties including al-Wafd, which was the major political party at the time which had emerged from the nationalist anti-colonial movement of 1919.

For obvious reasons, these political change took a heavy toll on the media scene. The relatively pluralistic and vibrant media scene that had prevailed before the 1952 revolution and was defined by the dynamism of the political scene and the struggle for independence was replaced by a much more monolithic and strictly monitored media environment after 1952. Newspapers which existed before the 1952 revolution started to be closed by the government, one after the other, and many journalists were jailed in the process.

In short, Egyptian president Gamal Abdel-Nasser performed a process of institutionalising national identity through the dissolution of parliament and all political parties, instead establishing a single-party political system to facilitate the process of political and social engineering he was about to initiate. Nasser realised the importance of mass media and once he began to establish his power as the uncontested ruler of the country, he started to propagate his new doctrines of social transformation through the radio to convey the government’s new plans and policies to the masses.

Nasser’s most significant media project was the powerful megaphone of Sout al-Arab (Voice of the Arabs) station, which employed the latest in radio technology to shape and influence larger communities in the Egyptian president’s ideological war against his opponents, both within Egypt and in the wider Arab world. “Like no other Egyptian or Arab leader before him, or among his contemporaries, Nasser recognised the immense power of radio, a power which, as a dazzling orator, he had used vigorously and effectively,” writes Adeed Dawisha, the Iraqi professor of political science.

Voice of the Arabs started life in 1953 with a transmission of only half an hour a day. However, in 1963, Nasser’s radio completed a new 1,000 kilowatt medium-wave transmitting station that was considered to be the most powerful radio transmitter in the world at the time. It extended Voice of the Arabs’ transmission time to 24-hours a day and helped convey its anti-imperialist and pan-Arab message to the whole of the Middle East, which further established its position as the flagship station of the Arab renaissance.

The Jordanian scholar and media personality Mahmoud Shalabieh argues that before the revolution of 1952, broadcasting had no national goals, and that it was Nasser who was the first to harness its power to develop Egypt and the rest of the world culturally and politically. Even though television was introduced in 1960, its growth was relatively slow in the beginning. It was confined to urban and rich audiences and was, hence, an ineffective tool of mass persuasion compared to radio, which had already been around for a few decades, reached Egypt’s most remote areas and was heard across the Arab world.

The late Wilton Wynn, described as a “dean of foreign correspondents” who was reporting for AP from Egypt during the Nasser years, observed, in his Nasser of Egypt: The Search for Dignity, the phenomenal popularity ofVoice of the Arabs: “A Saudi Arabian merchant buying a radio stipulated that he wanted a set ‘that picks up the ‘Voice of the Arabs’. The Palestinian refugees in camps in Gaza and Jericho gathered in vast throngs at public places daily to hear the fiery broadcasts of the ‘Voice’.”

Nasser banked on Egypt’s existing regional cultural superiority which was due to what Dawisha describes as a “post-Napoleonic renaissance in Egypt, which opened the country and its population to Western civilisation a full century before the rest of the Arab world”. In describing Egypt’s intellectual pre-eminence, he notes that: “In 1947, for example, Cairo boasted 14 daily newspapers and 23 weeklies . . . Egypt was the only Arab country with a viable film industry, and Egyptian movies in the 1940s and the 1950s competed vigorously with their Western counterparts in Arab movie theatres. Kamal al-Shenawy was as beloved a heartthrob as Clark Gable or Tyrone Power; Isma’il Yassin was a bigger comedic name than Bob Hope or Danny Kaye, and Fatin Hamama and Layla Murad were far more popular leading ladies than Vivien Lay or Doris Day.”

The same applied to music. “Egyptian singers and musicians were household names throughout the region, the most revered and beloved of whom was the majestic Umm Kulthum, an Arab icon, whose legendary five-hour concerts on the first Thursday gathered people around the radio sets in Baghdad, Damascus, Casablanca, Amman, and other cities throughout the Arab world,” Dawisha describes.

The Voice of the Arabs station was deployed to propagate the image of Egypt within its three circles: the Arab, African and Islamic worlds (probably in that order of importance). In his book, The Philosophy of the Revolution, Nasser stated that “there can be no doubt that the Arab circle is the most important, and the one with which we are most closely linked.” The station’s motto was that “the Voice of the Arabs speaks for the Arabs, struggles for them and expresses their unity” and it defined Egypt as “in the service of the Arab nation and its struggle against Western imperialism and its lackeys in the Arab world”.

With no rivals allowed to emerge, the state-run radio’s main theme was that the Arabs should unite under Nasser’s leadership, a theme that was used on every possible occasion and through all possible channels, with variations to suit the medium and the audience. At times, a religious tone was even employed. “This decisive turning point in the Arab world was the creation of Arab unity. Almighty Allah wanted this unification and nobody can change God’s will. Nasser has been ordained by the will of God to lead this unity,” one broadcast claimed.

Unlike most of his predecessors, Nasser was a charismatic leader with massive popular support due to his being perceived as the culmination of Egypt’s nationalist struggle for independence and a symbol of the country finally falling back into the hands of its rightful owners. He realised the importance of the media and he banked well on anti-imperialist sentiments and a strong desire for national sovereignty that had been gradually welling up over at least the preceding seven decades.

Charles Smith argue that the new military leadership managed to combine Egyptian nationalism and the more regional Arab nationalism through a supra-national identity in which Egypt was perceived as the leader of the Arab and Islamic world, rather than merely an equal member of it. This notion seems to have made distinct Egyptian and Arab brands of nationalism conflate rather than conflict for a period of time – at least up until the Nasserist brand of pan-Arabism began to crumble following the 1967 defeat, during which Voice of the Arabs broadcasted outrageous claims of victory, and until Egypt was suspended from the Arab league in 1979 for its peace treaty with Israel.


This is the second part in a series of articles exploring the role of the media in shaping Egypt’s modern national consciousness and Egyptian nationalism, as well as fomenting revolution. Part I focused on the role of the nascent print media in shaping Egyptian nationalism and national identity in the 19th century. Part III will deal with the reawakening of Egypto-centric nationalism during the Sadat era.

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Israel and Egypt’s other revolution

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By Khaled Diab

The creation of Israel sparked a revolution in Egypt, and Nasser, the legendary champion of the Arab cause, once sought peace with the Jewish state.

Tuesday 24 July 2012

While Gamal Abdel-Nasser was still officially prime minister, and Muhammad Neguib was the Free Officers’ figurehead president, Nasser engaged in secret, indirect peace negotiations with Israeli premier Moshe Sharett.

Monday marked the anniversary of the Egyptian revolution. Not the “Tahrir Square” revolution that began last year – that is on 25 January – but the 23 July revolution of 1952. At a recent event I attended in Ramallah to mark the occasion, an Egyptian diplomat said that 2011 was a continuation of 1952.

Though somewhat bizarrely he exalted the “noble” role of the military in both revolutions – the same junta which seized power six decades ago and has clung on to it selfishly ever since – I do agree with him that the two are linked, but in the same paradoxical way that Hosni Mubarak can be described as the “father” of Egypt’s emerging democracy.

Nevertheless, it would be a mistake simply to dismiss 1952 as a “coup d’etat”, a purely military plot that lacked popular support or involvement, even if it was indeed spearheaded by the army. A secret cell known as the Association of Free Officers, led by the charismatic Gamal Abdel-Nasser, was responding to popular disaffection with the palace, the landed gentry, the British occupation and influence, and stark socio-economic inequalities.

This manifested itself in mass demonstrations throughout the late 1940s, which culminated in the rioting and looting during the mysterious ‘Cairo Fire’ of January 1952, which showed all the signs of being orchestrated but, to this day, nobody knows who was behind it.

In fact, though Egyptians had a reputation, prior to last year and even among themselves, for being apathetic and docile, the past century has seen three revolutions (1919, 1952 and 2011) and a constant stream of smaller scale political dissent and labour action.

Ironically, despite the fact that the Free Officers seemed genuinely committed to democracy and egalitarianism and enjoyed popular support at first, the allure of power, paranoia and their determination to put Egypt on the fast track to development led them to ignore the transitional period they had set themselves, clamp down on freedom and create a new ruling class, first made up of army top brass, and later of nouveau riche entrepreneurs.

Since last year’s protests in Egypt began, panic bells have been sounding in Israel, where pundits have been searching high and low for signs that the Tahrir Square revolution’s claims of being about “bread, freedom and social justice” is just a cunning smokescreen for its true target: the Jewish state. Despite a number of isolated incidents, such as the trashing of the Israeli embassy, and some hardening of rhetoric, Israel has hardly featured, and Egyptian-Israeli relations look likely to continue along the same path: a cold and frosty peace.

But the picture was different in 1952. Though that revolution too was about bread and freedom, Israel played a significant indirect role in shaping its timing and direction. At a time when the Arab world had recently emerged from centuries of Ottoman imperial domination and was looking forward to shaking off European rule, the 1947 UN partition of Palestine was seen as a colonial slap in the face to Arab aspirations of freedom and self-determination, which might explain why the Arabs unwisely rushed into a war for which they were ill-prepared.

The military blamed the crushing defeat of 1948 on the corruption, nepotism and ‘mediocracy’ of King Farouq’s court and the ruling pasha class.

Nasser himself had fought in Palestine in 1948, and his unit was one of the few that had performed well, managing to hold out for four months under siege in Faluja, near Gaza. Nasser saw in Israel’s victory an unflattering reflection of his own country’s weakness and underdevelopment, leading him to the conclusion that the real battle lay at home. “We were fighting in Palestine, but our dreams were in Egypt,” Nasser later recalled, in his book, The Philosophy of the Revolution (1955).

Soon after his return to Egypt, Nasser and his comrades began to act concretely towards his vision for regime change. Following the bloodless coup, Nasser’s attempts to steer a more independent course for Egypt quickly elevated him to the status of bogeyman in Britain, France, as well as Israel. Though his negative image has undergone major revision in Europe, in Israel, Nasser was and is still widely regarded as a kind of “Hitler on the Nile”.

But there is no evidence to suggest that Nasser was driven by antisemitism or wished to wipe out the Jews. What motivated him was sympathy for the plight of the Palestinians and anti-imperialism. Despite Zionism’s self-image as an anti-colonial movement, Arabs saw it as a manifestation of Western hegemony designed to undermine their independence.

Moreover, contrary to what many Israelis and pro-Nasserist Arabs believe, there is evidence that Nasser was a pragmatist who quickly came to the personal realisation – despite his later fiery rhetoric designed to appeal to the ‘Arab street’ – that Israel was here to stay and that the Arabs would have to reach an accommodation with it eventually.

As early as 1953, Nasser engaged in secret, indirect negotiations with then Israeli premier Moshe Sharett. Even the ‘Lavon Affair’ in 1954 – in which Israeli agents carried out  “false flag” sabotage attacks on US and British interests – did not weaken his resolve. Nasser decided not to blame Sharett – who was in fact not aware of the clandestine operation – and between October 1954 and January 1955, the two men worked on a blueprint for Israeli-Egyptian relations, border issues, solutions to the Palestinian refugee crisis, Israeli shipping rights and avenues for economic co-operation.

That same month, Nasser wrote in an article for Foreign Affairs: “We do not want to start any conflict. War has no place in the reconstructive policy which we have designed to improve the lot of our people.”

Alarmed at Sharett’s dovish overtures, David Ben-Gurion came out of retirement and replaced him as prime minister in 1955. Almost at once, Israel’s founding father launched a major raid on Gaza, leading to a dangerous escalation of border skirmishes. The following year, Ben-Gurion signed his young country up to the tripartite attack – alongside France and Britain – to punish Nasser for his entirely legal nationalization of the Suez Canal.

Following this, Nasser lost confidence in Israel as a potential peace partner, and the stage was set for the downward spiral to disaster.

In 1967, tensions between Israel, Egypt and Syria reached fever pitch. Nasser, knowing his army was a shambles and under pressure from Arab rivals, hoped to deploy his most potent weapon – a barrage of eloquent, precision bombast – and defeat Israel in the diplomatic battlefield without firing a single shot.

Israel had other ideas and launched what it called a pre-emptive attack on its Arab neighbours. In just six days, Israel not only captured large tracts of Arab territory, but destroyed the pan-Arab secular dream represented by Nasserism.

Despite the famous “Three No’s” of the Arab summit in Khartoum, Nasser counselled caution and diplomacy to the radical Arab camp. He had also come full circle back to his position of the early 1950s, that a negotiated settlement was the only solution.

Shortly before his death in 1970, Nasser agreed to the American-brokered Rogers Plan. Nasser did not appear to hold out much hope, perhaps based on his previous experience, that Israel would accept the plan – which he described as the “last chance” before military action became inevitable.

Who knows what would have happened had Israel accepted the Rogers Plan or the Egyptian overtures of the 1950s, or if an Arab leader of Nasser’s stature and popularity had actually been honest about his convictions and publicly advocated for peace with Israel? Perhaps the 1967 and 1973 wars would not have happened, and may be Israel and Palestine would be living in peace among friendly neighbours.

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This is an extended version of an article that appeared in Haaretz on 23 July 2012.

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