Nasser's Republic--Remembering The Ordinary Man Who Led Egypt to Independence
By Emiliya Strahilova/Arab America Contributing Writer
What would Egypt be without Gamal Abdel Nasser? This year marks the centenary of his birth and we look back at history to determine the legacy the prominent politician left behind. Nasser will be remembered with the fundamental irreversible innovations he introduced to his country, such as the nationalization of the Suez Canal, the construction of major dams, and the implementing of significant social rules. On the back side of the coin, though, he is blamed, even many years after his death, for taking poor foreign policy decisions and being incapable to build democracy. What leaders who came after Nasser inherited is not entirely positive or negative. He established a long-lasting military regime which caused the uprisings in 2011. Yet, many of the new revolutionaries still appreciate Nasser.
In 2016, producer and director Michal Goldman, finished filming the documentary Nasser’s Republic: The Making of Modern Egypt. In her movie, she gives the audience a strong sense of the time and place Nasser lived and how this affected his governing. Goldman worked with various American, British, and Egyptian historians who understood the reasons behind Nasser’s politics because they were able to view him in the context of the period in which he ruled.
He was the second native Egyptian president of modern Egypt and he won his authority by a revolution. The giant leap that made him famous among the masses was the gaining of control over the Suez Canal. By this act and following the building of the High Dam, he won the hearts of the working-class people. From here he started shaping the first ever form of Arab socialism. Nasser was the initiator of numerous programs for literacy, land reform, industrialization, workers’ rights, women suffrage, building middle and low-income housing.
In her research, Goldman also noticed that members of the media tended to criticize Nasser more than historians. The journalists were primarily focused on the president’s dictatorship methods, the limited coverage of anti-regime demonstrations, and the restrained grassroots actions. They were also giving him credit for the phenomenon of the military republics in the Middle East that had evolved into repressive regimes and were, at least at their founding, to some degree “Nasserist.”
Another observation Goldman made was that among the local people Nasser was equally admired and denied: “Many Egyptians have told me with a wry smile that Nasser is more popular outside of Egypt than in it, because those outside didn’t have to live with Nasser’s secret police, censorship, failed economic policies, and the trauma of the 1967 defeat. And yet for many Egyptians, Nasser is the greatest leader Egypt has ever had.”
Nasser’s Republic is not the only documentary on an Egyptian theme Michal Goldman produced. She also worked on the life story of Egypt’s music icon Umm Kulthum in the 90s. During the making of the film dedicated to one of the most famous vocalists of the Arab world, Goldman spent almost two years in Egypt and she admits she loved it. Umm Khultum and Nasser had a lot in common – they had always been an immense support to each other and shared similar principles. This prompted Goldman’s interest and motivated her to start her first project about politics: “In my film about the singer, Nasser looms large, a major influence on the scope of her career and her iconic status, but I hadn’t had the opportunity to look at him head-on. I had never made a film about politics, so this was a challenge I wanted to take on.”
The road Goldman took was a difficult one. The initial phases of the production happened to conjunct with the Arab Spring events in Egypt, so it was almost impossible for the film team to obtain permissions for proceeding with shooting and taking interviews. The filming started right after Mubarak’s government collapsed and despite the uncertainty, many of the people who contributed to the documentary were feeling more confident and spoke openly.
The second time Goldman arrived in Egypt, Morsi was in power and the bureaucracy was in a state of chaos. At the last stage of filming in 2016, Sisi had taken over the administration and there was a sense that order was being restored. However, many of the people who previously helped Goldman in her work were in prison and others didn’t feel comfortable to speak up anymore. The challenges didn’t end here, another issue the director encountered was the fact that she is American and the majority of Egyptians in this particular timeframe were approaching her with suspicion. This was not a source of discouragement for her as she felt the importance of presenting all the aspects of Nasser’s diplomacy, especially the part which involved the American government.
Nasser’s Republic was shown at many festivals in the US and Egypt. Screenings at universities and independent cinemas are forthcoming. The documentary was called Pro-Nasser by some, and others perceived it as Anti-Nasser. The director shared with Arab America that recently among American intellectuals, as well as Egyptian intellectuals, the fashion is to be strongly against Nasser. Regardless, she states: “I want Americans to see this film because I think it explains quite a lot about the Middle East now, and it’s too easy for Americans to fall back on the propaganda we all grew up with: that Nasser was a “dictator” – and to dismiss him as such. That would have been totally counter to the kind of identification I wanted to achieve. I want Americans to identify with Nasser, and with Egypt, and to question the role of their own government in this story.”
Nasser’s Republic is now available for individual consumers. The DVD, including the full-length film along with a director’s commentary and a booklet, can be found here.