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The Heirs of Nasser
Michael Scott Doran is a Visiting Professor at the Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service at New York University. He is a former Senior Director for the Middle East at the National Security Council and a former U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense.See more by this author
After a long absence, a strategic player has returned to the Middle Eastern stage: the people. In Tunisia, Algeria, Jordan, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Syria, Bahrain, Iran, and Libya, protesters are demanding either comprehensive reform or total revolution. Only once before in modern history has a populist wave of this magnitude swept the region.
Half a century ago, a series of Arab nationalist movements shook the ground beneath the feet of Arab rulers. The immediate catalyst for that revolutionary shock was the Suez crisis. Throughout 1955, Gamal Abdel Nasser, Egypt's charismatic leader, championed pan-Arabism, challenged Israel militarily, and mounted a regionwide campaign against the lingering influence of British and French imperialism. By the end of the year, he had aligned Egypt with the Soviet Union, which provided him with arms. After Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal in July 1956, the European powers, in collusion with Israel, invaded Egypt to topple him. They failed, and Nasser emerged triumphant.
Much like the ouster of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali from Tunisia in January, the Suez crisis generated a revolutionary spark. Nasser's victory demonstrated that imperialism was a spent force and, by extension, that the Arab regimes created by the imperialists were living on borrowed time. Egyptian propaganda, including Cairo's Voice of the Arabs radio station, drove this point home relentlessly, depicting Nasser's rivals as puppets of the West whose days were numbered. Nasser was the first revolutionary leader in the region to appeal effectively to the man in the street, right under the noses of kings and presidents. Before Nasser's rivals even felt the ground shifting, they found themselves sitting atop volcanoes.