Nasser’s Three Circles

[caption id="attachment_55234401" align="alignnone" width="500"] Gamal Abdel Nasser[/caption]Following the overthrow of the corrupt Egyptian monarchy in 1952, a power struggle emerged between the coup’s two leaders, Muhammad Naguib and Gamal Abdel Nasser. Eventually, Nasser would sideline Naguib. He became Egypt’s undisputed leader in 1954.

A year later, in 1955, Nasser published a book called Egypt’s Liberation: The Philosophy of the Revolution. In this work, Nasser lays out the rationale behind the revolution and explains the lens through which he sees the world.

Nasser identifies three circles that Egypt falls within: Arab, African, and Islamic: “We cannot look stupidly at a map of the world, not realizing our place therein and the role determined to us by that place.” In this sense, Egypt is surrounded by the “Arab circle”, which is “as much a part of us as we are a part of it, our history has been mixed with it and that its interests are linked with ours.” In essence, Nasser is laying out the basis for his pan-Arab nationalist ideology, which would become one of the most dominant political ideologies to grip the region, knocking aside pro-Western capitalism and pro-Soviet communist ideologies with ease.

The second circle is based entirely on geography. After all, the continent in which Egypt is situated is Africa. This can hardly be ignored. At the time of Nasser’s writing in 1954–55, the massive decolonization of Africa had not yet taken place, but the writing was clearly on the wall. He wrote, “It is not in vain that our countries lie to the northeast of Africa, a position from which it gives upon the dark continent wherein rages today the most violent struggle between white colonizers and black natives for the possession of its inexhaustible resources.”

Nasser’s third circle, the Islamic one, has taken on increasing relevance today: “Can we ignore that there is a Muslim world with which we are tied by bonds which are not only forged by religious faith but also tightened by the facts of history?” He points out how Egypt became a safe haven for Muslims when the Mongols ravaged the region, and how this is an important part of Egypt’s heritage. In essence, Nasser was appealing to the strong Islamist sentiment that pervaded Egyptian society then, and continues to this day.

Even though it has been nearly sixty years since Nasser penned the philosophy of his revolution, the three circles that he identified then remain intrinsic to Egypt today. Most Egyptians see themselves as Arabs, though there are religious and ethnic minorities—like Coptic Christians—that view themselves differently. There is no question that they are part of the African community, as Egypt plays a large role in the African Union (AU). Indeed, Nasser was a founding member of the Casablanca Group, the AU’s predecessor, and the second president of the Organization of African Unity (OAU), which emerged from the Casablanca Group, from 1964–65.

However, with the emergence of the Muslim Brotherhood as the leading political force in Egypt following the 2011–12 revolution, Nasser’s third circle has taken on new relevance, almost overshadowing the importance of Arab nationalism. This is an interesting and important development, but also one that troubles secular Egyptians and the large Coptic minority as well as some Westerners, who fear the emergence of an Islamic republic.

Nevertheless, it seems unlikely that the Brothers will move rapidly to impose an Islamic form of government on Egypt, since President Morsi’s victory was only by a small margin and there are plenty of forces within Egypt, including its military, that would not stand for this. That being the case, the Brothers will likely proceed carefully and pay heed to Nasser’s rhetorical question: “What is our positive role in this trouble world and where is the scene in which we can play that role?”