Nasser: The Charismatic Leader
The son of a postal worker from the fellahin town of Beni Mur near the city of Asyut in southern Egypt, Gamal Abdel Nasser (1918-1970) rose to become known as a great charismatic political leader of Egypt, which provided inspiration for the Arabs and an influential agent of social change in his time up to the present (“Gamal,” 2005; Dawisha, 2003; Fiol, Harris, & House, 1999). He played a significant role in uniting the Arabs under the banner of “Nasserism”, a secular and anti-imperialist sociopolitical ideology. He is known to be the first Arab leader to challenge Western rule in the Middle East (Trueman, 2007). Hailed as a hero for the Arab world, he also opposed the rigidity of the Cold War’s bipolar world (“Gamal,” 2005; Dawisha, 2003; Fiol, Harris, & House, 1999). Nasser’s reputation reached an all-time high in 1958 when Egypt and Syria were united to be known as the United Arab Republic (Dawisha, 2003). He is continued to be remembered as a savior by the Arab world and the Egyptians that indeed, the reputation he enjoys until today especially belongs only to charismatic leaders (Trueman, 2007).
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Nasser’s Rise to Egyptian Leadership
As early as his grammar school years, he participated in demonstrations against the English occupation of Egypt. In 1937 he entered the military academy at Cairo; he left the following year with the rank of second lieutenant.
In 1943, after some years of service in Upper Egypt and the Sudan, he became an instructor at the military academy and then at the army staff college. During the years 1948-1949 he took part in the unsuccessful campaign against the new state of Israel. In this conflict he commanded a position from the pocket of Faludja, south-west of Jerusalem, where three Egyptian battalions were surrounded for more than 2 months by Israeli forces. Nasser resisted gallantly with his troops until the cease-fire was declared. This was the only comparatively successful Arab exploit of the war.
For many years Nasser had been in contact with some of the army officers who were indignant over the corruption in the royal Egyptian government. These young radicals were intensely nationalistic, but they could not agree on an ideology or on an alliance with other forces. Initiated by the defeat by Israel in Palestine, the secret movement of these officers created an organization in 1949 which was called the Free Officers, with Nasser as one of the principal founders. The movement grew into a formidable force and on the 23rd of July 1952, the Free Officers seized power in Egypt, toppling the British-backed King Farouq and his monarchy and setting the country on a new political path. It was the first time Egypt is ruled by Egyptians after two and a half millennia. The history of the country’s leaders has been a succession of foreign rulers – Persians, Greeks, Romans, Circassians, Arabs, Turks and finally the British. Gamal Abdul Nasser, and the other young army officers, won huge popular acclaim when they ended the much-resented domination of the British, deposed the effete and pleasure-loving Monarch and converted the country into a republic. Nasser took over the highest political position of the country in 1954 when he assumed the Presidency and the Prime Minister at the same time. Throughout that decade to the 1960s and until his death in 1970, [Nasser] dominated Arab politics and the popular imagination of the Arab masses. He introduced educated officers’ corps in his nation, and Egypt experienced an educational boom during his regime.
At the time of Nasser, Egypt was able to commence land reform, an idea that had been completely rejected by the governments before he came to power. While the peasants were reconciled to the vision of Nasser, Egypt was able to establish new social classes during his regime (Sherman). The concept of Arab socialism introduced by Nasser included social justice, state ownership of the principal means of production, the leveling of people’s incomes, an increase in foreign trade and governmental programs for development (Torrey). The projects undertaken by Nasser, such as the nationalization of Suez Canal, revealed that the man had set out to do things for his people that had never been imagined before (“Nasserist Rule,” 2002). During the leadership of Nasser that the Aswan High Dam project was built, this along with its land reclamation and the goal of the project was poverty eradication (Wheelock). These undertakings of Nasser continue to be remembered by the Egyptians as a symbol of progress (Torrey).
Nasser also achieved a great deal in terms of reforms on industrialization, mobilization of his people, and a wide range of social reforms and development during his regime. These were a part and parcel of his charismatic leadership, which is typically exemplified by high performance in any endeavor (Erhart & Klein).
Nasser: A Charismatic Leader
By uniting the Arabs, Nasser showed his traits were that of charismatic leaders: he had the ability to make an emotional impact to his followers; and capable of elevating the self-confidence and the self-image of his followers by arousing their emotional attachment to the values he championed apart from popular interests. Thus, he was able to create strong follower commitment to the Arab people’s goals by emotionally and intellectually connecting them to his followers of his personal goals (Javidan & Waldman, 2003).
Charismatic leaders are known to foster strong social relationships with their followers. Such relationships motivate followers to perform cooperatively with a positive attitude. Followers of charismatic leaders also feel more secure, despite the fact that charismatic leadership is marked by risk-taking on the part of the leader. Most importantly, as in the case of Nasser, the followers of such leaders are known to have high self-esteem (Erhart & Klein, 2001). Thus, history has revealed that the followers of Nasser were not only able to free themselves from the dominance of the Westerners with the belief that they were capable of governing themselves, but they also formed an Arab union (in the name of the United Arab Republic) that gave empowerment to strengthen their ties among themselves and Nasser often expressed to his followers that he was absolutely united with them (“Gamal,” 2005).
Moreover, the man detested violence, which is one of the main reasons why he continues to be loved by the Arabs in the present times, and just like other charismatic leaders such as Gandhi, the Buddha, Jesus Christ and Martin Luther King, Jr., Nasser has always been admired for his polished characters (“Gamal,” 2005; Javidan & Waldman). Today, according to a BBC report, the Arab people still continue to revere Nasser.
Nasser was an electrifying speaker with crowds hung on his every word. He embodied pan-Arabism – the dream of a united Arab nation that stretches from the Atlantic to the Gulf. His message, of social justice at home and anti-colonialism abroad, has greatly restored Arab dignity. Today, when many Arabs feel humiliated by Israel and the American superpower, there is a sense of nostalgia for Nasserism and Gamal Abdel Nasser (Hardy, 2002).
Dawisha and Dekmejian (1971) firmly believed that Nasser was a true charismatic leader. According to Dekmejian, Nasser’s life was a “revolutionary career based on charismatic leadership – a highly spiritual interaction between leader and followers rivaled only by two figures in Arab history – Salah el-Din and the Prophet Mohammed.”
Closely connected to this thought is the fact that Nasser was able to inspire his people to love him when his officers practiced complete non-violence while assuming power in the year 1952 – without firing a single shot – the way Prophet Mohammed and his followers had conquered Mecca with absolute non-violence (Sherman, 1957).
Max Weber, the originator of the concept of charismatic leadership, would have agreed that the spiritual connection between the leader and his followers was a genuine one. As a matter of fact, Weber believed that the charismatic leader such as Nasser must possess supernatural gifts of the spirit and the body that comprise extraordinary qualities and attributes (Javidan & Waldman). This also happens to be the crux of the ‘Great Man’ debate, emphasizing that the charismatic leader must possess innate leadership abilities. In other words, leaders such as Nasser are born rather than made by the needs of the time (Callan, 2003).
A charismatic leader must, moreover, possess high emotional intelligence. In order to move the crowds the way he did, Nasser had to look to the vast range of motivations that moved his Arab followers. He was a breakthrough agent, and therefore had to possess high emotional understanding so as to inspire his followers to accept his difficult goals as their own (Callan, 2003). Nevertheless, he promised better outcomes and opportunities for his followers, regardless of the difficulty of the political course they were required to pursue alongside their leader. His vision was based on the premise that his nation was not achieving its potential and somehow needed to be different. In order to follow his vision, he naturally had to assess the environmental opportunities and possible constraints. He candidly advocated a realistic assessment of the situation so that his vision was considered achievable by his followers (Javidan & Waldman).
Nasser became a spokesperson for the Arab world. Although he was not the first person to campaign for Arab nationalism, he is known to have been the “most effective exponent” of it (Torrey, 1965). Nasser was able to personify and magnify the “Arab longings for unity and acceptance as equals by the world” (Torrey, 1965). As a result of this, his relationship with his followers had been as close as it should be for a charismatic leader. He believed in the dignity of his people, and made continuous references to Arab dignity and Arab rights (Torrey, 1965). In fact, his focus on the dignity of his people is one of the chief reasons that further epitomized him as a charismatic leader. As an effective charismatic leader, Nasser had shown sensitivity to the abilities as well as concerns of his followers (Javidan & Waldman).
The commitment and attachment shown by Nasser’s followers to the picture of the envisioned future depended on the degree of their identification with their leader, his credibility, and the vision itself (Javidan & Waldman).
As an “electrifying speaker,” who built his credibility – as do most charismatic leaders – by communicating and articulating why there was a need for a breakthrough and how it could be accomplished (Hardy). According to Javidan & Waldman, charismatic leaders must explain the need for change by magnifying the principal forces that are driving the change, and articulating how and why the environmental changes would not accept the status quo. They also convinced their followers that the breakthrough would be the best way to position the group within its situational context (Javidan & Walman). It can be assumed that Nasser was able to communicate with his followers in a similar manner.
Like the other charismatic leaders, Nasser manifested credibility because he was able to convince his followers of his enthusiasm, motivation, and commitment. His actions as well as decisions were known to have been consistent with the vision for his people. He modeled the appropriate behaviors to reveal how the vision could be accomplished. He also engaged with behaviors that were innovative and often unconventional (Javidan & Walman). As an example, when Egypt planned to construct an iron and steel mill for an estimated cost of $48,000,000; it was Nasser who opened the plant with great enthusiasm three years later at a total cost of $78,500,000 (Wheelock, 1960). Conger & Kanungo (1998) confirm that it is possible for charismatic leaders to make flawed decisions. In their book, Charismatic Leadership in Organizations, the authors especially presented examples of charismatic leaders that made bad business decisions. It is possible that charismatic leaders sometimes make bad business decisions because of their high risk-taking trait. Nevertheless, Nasser was able to maintain his credibility by taking actions that embodied his vision. The intellectuals working for Nasser were able to rally public awareness in addition to enthusiasm. Thus, Nasser was able to maintain his charisma in the eyes of his followers especially because of his efforts to enlighten his people (Sherman).
With all of these qualities, Nasser carried the Arab people’s best interests in his heart. It is no wonder that he is popularly known as a “charismatic figure” in most of the literatures about him, including encyclopedias (“Nasser,” 2007). Nasser was able to elicit high performance from his followers. Similar to other charismatic leaders, he would often go the extra mile for their collective interests. His followers could tell that he was not self-centered, rather, Nasser was perceived as a leader of good character, which happens to be one of the most desirable attributes not only for charismatic leaders around the world but especially for political leaders in the Muslim world. Moreover, like other charismatic leaders, Nasser possessed self-awareness, self-control, and a need for power (“Charismatic,” 1999). This is revealed through the large number of leadership roles that he assumed during his lifetime. It would be unsurprising that the people of the Arab world perceived Nasser’s regime as a very good time for Egypt.
In summary, Nasser portrays charismatic leadership that is always marked by new ideas that have never been tried and tested before and he manifested this so well. He led his people to regain their dignity and rights in the face of foreign dominance. He had formed a close bond with his followers, which permitted him to easily convince his people that their interests were also his. By unifying the Arab people for some time, under the banner of the United Arab Republic, the man was seen to further strengthen that bond with his people.
Nasser continues to be remembered as a great hero among the Arab people by leading the Egyptians from Western domination, and enlightened his people to boot. Nasser communicated his vision effectively, and moreover, he was seen as a man of good character, who disliked violence. It is even believed and has been written that he shared a spiritual connection with his followers that for this reason, he is compared to Prophet Muhammad.
Nasser was able to inspire his people to increase their productivity during his regime. He was also able to challenge the status quo for desired social change. Thus, all essential character traits of charismatic leaders have been exemplified by Nasser. He continues to be remembered as a highly respected figure in the Arab world – a fact that testifies to the lasting charisma he left to the Arabs.