Post-Imperial Leadership: Nasser’s Egypt, Gaddafi’s Libya

Africa, at the moment, does not own any intercontinental missiles or nuclear bombs, but now it is stronger than those who own cruise missiles. Iron will rust, wither and come to an end, but Africa’s determination will never rust. – Muammar Muhammad Abu Minyar al-Gaddafi


This brief essay is an exploration of the demonstrated leadership of two important figures of African political thought, who by their longevity in the practice of politics on the African continent earned acclaim from leaders inspired by their ability to combine ideology with practice in carrying out campaigns for national independence and African unity. Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt and Muammar Muhammad Abu Minyar al-Gaddafi of Libya were leaders on par with Vladimir Lenin, and kin of Kwame Nkrumah. Their leadership after decolonization and indeed in shaping the projects for independence and unity that developed in the post-imperial period offer valuable lessons for examining leadership in African political thought and practice today.

Both leaders excelled in the use of ideology. “To be efficient, an ideology must reach large numbers of people by means of slogan and catchwords.”[1] Today Africa has lost many of its great orators, through old age, or more sinisterly, through assassination by imperialist agents and their proxy powers. Leadership in the post-Cold War era has been unable to check the influences of western systems of economics, namely neoliberal globalization. This has had an alienating effect, having estranged African people from economic power and political leadership, both of which have settled into the hands of an elite, globalist minority with no accountability to ordinary people. Not only is the dream of African unity slipping away, but national independence itself. Independence was gained in the aftermath of WWII through successive struggles, but sovereignty, African peoples and leaders having the final say on their internal affairs, has remained elusive.

Nasser and Gaddafi both curbed the West’s designs on their countries and the continent. Though they come from different ideological traditions, Nasser from Socialist-Populism, and Gaddafi from Populist-Socialism, they each would have abhorred the infringement on Africa’s affairs by the West, who not only use global institutions to contain countries whose policies they disagree with, but use military force to confront and dismantle opposition. The latter occurred to Gaddafi himself in 2011, when NATO forces achieved regime change in Libya. How may Gaddafi interpret this use of military force? What were the motives behind such an expedition? These questions, and solutions to the lack of leadership available to resist the appropriation of Africa’s resources, can be found in the histories of Egypt and Libya’s nationalist phases.

Egypt for the Egyptians: the trend towards socialism and nationalism

Egyptian society was held hostage by western nations indirectly ruling the administrative state from Napoleons tour of Egypt in 1798 through the 19th century and part of the 20th. The policies of Great Britain rewarded a small group of Egyptians who privately owned the land and grew up with minds colonized by European thought and style. The economic policies proved calamitous to the national economy, and the Egyptian elite grew weary of British rule as a result of the failure. “Three agricultural crises in the 1920s and ’30s and the onset of World War II gave the national bourgeoisie the impetus for industrial development.”[2] Nasser, as a socialist-populist II according to Guy Martin, “used the socialist-populist ideology as an instrument of control and coercion and sometimes terror”[3] He was popular with the people, and the Bourgeoisie required someone who could be both popular and accommodating to their economic interests and desires. When first in power, Nasser had to be a leader who could balance the radical elements of Egyptian society, who were nationalists and anti-capitalist, and the old guard elite who were nationalists but supportive of capitalist development, chiefly private ownership. Known as the 23 July Revolution, Nasser and a group of free officers in 1952 overthrew the monarchy. The public sector on the eve of the Free Officers coup was only 13% of GDP, with private agriculture contributing the majority of the rest.

The ideology of the revolution proved far more radical then the aristocracy was prepared to support. Egypt became a Republic, anti-imperialist and pro-African unity. Agriculture was the first area the new Egyptian government sought to revolutionize. “The agrarian reform of September 1952 was a direct attack on the landed aristocracy. “[4] The primary change this reform achieved was limiting the amount of land one man could own. “Prior to the 1952 coup…less than six percent of Egypt’s population owned more than 65% of the land in Egypt, and less than 0.5% of Egyptians owned more than one-third of all fertile land.”[5]

Nasser’s leadership, once installed as president in 1956 until his assassination at the hands of Muslim Brotherhood in 1970, became increasingly averse not only to the landed aristocracy but to the bourgeoisie themselves, as well as the international powers who backed them in opposition to a socialist-populist Egypt. Under Nasser, the state wanted to not only unleash industrial production but have it under the control of the state, rather than in private hands. To do this required both legal authority and people power. In 1953, Nasser created a mass organization, the Liberation Rally to turn his popular base of support into a political tool capable of challenging the status quo. That mass base numbered about five million members.

It certainly was a bulwark against the old bourgeoisie whose property had been confiscated. His subsequent policies over the decade are well known. “On the ninth anniversary of the revolution (1961), the state announced Nationalization Laws 117 and 118 which were instrumental in creating a public sector that made the state an integral part of production.”[6] Nasser also nationalized the Suez Canal in opposition to France and England, and supported by both the Soviet Union and the United States. His ant colonialism had effects that weren’t only economic, but political. After all, Nasser was a politician, not an economist. It was his framing of the revolutions goals, which the masses fell in love with. As a bonus, Growth rates averaged 7.2%; unemployment was virtually eliminated among workers and intellectuals; and per capita income increased by 19.1% by the end of the first five year plan period.

Nasser’s leadership was essential to the nationalization and anti-imperial policies that he mobilized the masses to support. Nasser had also been a founding member of the Casablanca Group, consisting of the progressive African leaders who supported a more interconnected continent. His leadership was not only for an independent Egypt, but for an independent Africa, and by joining with Kwame Nkrumah, Sekou Toure, and Muammar Gaddafi; he placed Egypt in the camp supporting African unity and resistance to Western designs on the continent. As exhibited during the Suez Canal crisis, and the multiple direct military confrontations with expansionist Israel, Nasser believed the masses and the military were vital components of projecting African power. Though his campaigns; for example the six day war of 1967, weren’t always successful.

Nasser, who had built much of his stature in the Arab World as a fighter against Zionism, colonialism and imperialism, was a broken man after 1967. His resignation speech on 9 June triggered massive demonstrations all over Egypt and the Arab World in rejection of his resignation. He was forced to stay. That spontaneous mass action had reflected the will of the masses to resist and recover from the catastrophe. The Egyptian masses simply said that they accepted no other leader but him.

The “cult of personality” created around charismatic leaders is often dismissed in liberal political circles as a cultish phenomenon of authoritarian movements, but this rhetoric is a tool to delegitimize and attack the wishes of the popular masses. The leader simply embodies the hopes and wishes of his supporters, not the other way around. This type of leadership is still necessary in Africa, for it can have powerful organizational effects, creating mass movements where popular will was broken by exploitive neoliberal policies pushed by Western elites and supported by their proxies installed into power. Nasser showed that no group, no matter how entrenched and well-recognized by outside actors, can stay in power without the support of the people.

Libya’s leadership: African Unity’s greatest supporter

Gamal Nasser is a great example of socialist policy superseding populist organization. Though he created mass movements when necessary, these were mostly for the purpose of extending his reach and mobilizing support for brief periods. Gaddafi was a populist-socialist. They are both similar in the sense that they express socialist worldviews. So when one talks about Nasser or Gaddafi leadership, one is speaking about the improvement of the lives of the masses and radical nationalism. Gaddafi was “No doubt inspired by Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser – whom he viewed as a role model – Qaddafi and a small group of officers seized power from King Idris I in a coup d’état on September 1, 1969.”[7] Both believed in the power of military men as an instrument to overthrow the old order installed usually by the West, as a moderating force. Gaddafi, as brother leader, swept the old order away in the new constitution of the Republic (again, a monarchy turned Republic, as in Egypt).

The Green Book “offers a solution to the problem of democracy—namely, “people power” as the political foundation of the Third Universal Theory….absolute and pure people power, not mediated by any institutions or agency…”[8] Instead of representative leadership, Gaddafi supported popular assembly’s where the people could autonomously and locally carry out Libyan policymaking. This is a model in line with policymaking in ancient Africa, where the village (the local) could have the final say on a matter of policy. By keeping with Africa’s traditional roots of populism and showing how society can be run in practice, Gaddafi created a system others emulated and can continue to emulate today.

His most important show of leadership was in Foreign Policy. “The source of Qadhafi’s charismatic power laid in his rhetoric, which connected Libya’s foreign policy decisions to his foreign policy vision, the basis of his charismatic leadership.”[9] His stance on African unity, and the means he used to go about implementing it, was in direct opposition to Western infringement, and made him a pariah in the West.

After the failures of Arab unity, Gaddafi increasingly turned to Africa. Importantly, he funded the projects for African unity with money accrued from Libya’s vast oil resources. “Following his vision of Africa’s unity, the Libyan leader did not miss a n y opportunity to state that the continent should be transformed into a single entity, thus cancelling the borders demarcated by imperialism.”[10] Gaddafi wanted an African Congress by the year 2000, akin to the U.S. Congress. Libya helped fund the Community of Sahel Saharan States (COMESSA), seeking more cooperation between North Africa and Sub-Saharan Africa. He also supported insurgent groups with similar ideological visions, particularly in Chad in the latter half of the 20th century. Gaddafi had the latter point especially in common with Nasser, who was the first leader in the Arab world to use military arms to expel the imperialists. “Qadhafi operated from the same revolutionary niche after Nasser’s death by supporting major insurgent groups that took part in the collapse of several Western supported regimes.”[11] Today leaders with the capability and popular support are necessary in Africa to usher in new regimes in opposition to neo-imperial policies of dependence emanating from global financial institutions and muscular Western foreign policies.

Gaddafi was also a persuasive diplomat on the continent. He could be trusted by other African leaders to mediate multiple border wars on the continent during his time in power. He nurtured relationships with even the South African anti-apartheid leader Nelson Mandela. This paid off with extraordinary return after Western governments imposed through the United Nations sanctions on Libya, in the hopes of isolating and crippling the nation’s resistance. State leaders from all over the continent, shunned the sanctions and visited Libya. ” Several African leaders who benefited from Libyan support openly defied sanctions by flying to Libya to meet with Qadhafi in violation of the most economically harmful portion of the measures…”[12]  What Gaddafi’s Foreign Policy’s explains to us today, is that the African continent can only be secure from imperial designs if it is unified. It should implement greater coordination in the fields of economics, diplomacy, and defense.


Today there is a lack of leadership in Africa willing to stand up for Africa’s independence and against globalizing forces taking economic and political power from the people. Client governing classes have been anointed by the United States, France, and Great Britain to govern the people, so long as their governance is in line with the extractive nature of Western capitalism. Leadership must combine with class mobilization to offer alternative, socialist and popular, forms of governance that will create a self-sufficient, continental society with great autonomy. “The collapse of the Soviet Union left Libya entirely bare to the American “enemy”, the “terrorist, and “imperialist superpower”…”[13] This created room for Libyan foreign policy to flourish, in a sense, because new space was available for Libya to fill the gap as arms and financial exporter for the continent, leading to a larger African expression in foreign policy. With the defeat of Gaddafi by NATO forces, and the resulting chaos in Libya, the West can again obstruct the vision of unity. Egypt, though playing a great role in unity projects in the third world under Nasser, has also suffered from internal confusion following a revolution. Egypt and Libya, nations in the geographic position to be lynchpin powers in the project for third world unity (the Middle East and Africa) are now in internal chaos with no ideological vision. Two leadership countries, dominant forces culturally and politically on the continent have been sidelined. Where can Africa go from here? New leaders, with the oratory and leadership skills, able to mass the people for popular revolt, are necessary. The West will continue to thwart any vision of African unity, because it inevitably must have a socialist personality that can create self-sufficiency. The imperial powers have only cosmetically changed, the substance of their policies have remained the same, maintaining Africa’s dependency; for financial aid, conflict resolution, and military assistance. Nasser and Gaddafi struggled against this for decades; now new leadership must pick up the call.

[1] Guy Martin: African Political Thought, pg 2.

[2] Aoude, Ibrahim G. “From national bourgeois development to Intifah: Egypt 1952-1992.” Arab Studies Quarterly 16, no. 1 (Winter 1994). Academic Search Complete, EBESCOhost (accessed December 1, 2014).

[3] Martin, pg 85.

[4] Aoude,

[5] Dr. Assem Al-Desoky’s Major Landowners in Egypt: 1914-1952 (in Arabic, Dar Al-Shorouk, Cairo, 2007. quoted in Egypt on the Brink by Tarek Osman, Yale University Press, 2010, p.45

[6] Aoude,

[7] Martin, pg 115.

[8] Martin, pg 116-17

[9] Stottlemyre, Steve. “Tactical Flexibility: Libyan Foreign Policy under Qadhafi, 1969-2004*.” DOMES: Digest Of Middle East Studies 21, no. 1 (Spring2012 2012): 178-201. Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost (accessed December 2, 2014).

[10] Ronen, Yehudit. “Libya’s Diplomatic Success in Africa: The Reemergence of Qadhafi on the International Stage.” Diplomacy & Statecraft 13, no. 4 (December 2002): 60-74.

[11] Stottlemyre, pg 194.

[12] Stottlemye, pg 194

[13] Ronen, Yehudit, 60-74.

Works Cited

Aoude, Ibrahim G. “From national bourgeois development to Intifah: Egypt 1952-1992.” Arab Studies Quarterly 16, no. 1 (Winter 1994). Academic Search Complete, EBESCOhost (accessed December 1, 2014).

Dr. Assem Al-Desoky’s Major Landowners in Egypt: 1914-1952 (in Arabic, Dar Al-Shorouk, Cairo, 2007. quoted in Egypt on the Brink by Tarek Osman, Yale University Press, 2010, p.45

Martin, Guy. “African Political Thought.”

Ronen, Yehudit. “Libya’s Diplomatic Success in Africa: The Reemergence of Qadhafi on the International Stage.” Diplomacy & Statecraft 13, no. 4 (December 2002): 60-74. Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost (accessed December 2, 2014).

Stottlemyre, Steve. “Tactical Flexibility: Libyan Foreign Policy under Qadhafi, 1969-2004*.” DOMES: Digest Of Middle East Studies 21, no. 1 (Spring2012 2012): 178-201. Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost (accessed December 2, 2014).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s