On June 23, 1956, 99.95 percent of Egyptian voters mark their ballots to elect Gamal Abdel Nasser as the first president of the Republic of Egypt. Nasser, who toppled the Egyptian monarchy in 1952 in a military coup, was the only presidential candidate on the ballot. In the same ballot, Nasser’s new constitution, under which Egypt became a one-party socialist state with Islam as the official religion, was approved by 99.8 percent of voters.
Gamal Abdel Nasser was born in Alexandria in 1918. As a youth, he participated in demonstrations against British rule in Egypt. After secondary school, he studied at a law college for several months and then entered the Royal Military Academy. In 1938, he graduated as a second lieutenant. While serving in the Sudan during World War II, he helped found a secret revolutionary organization, the Free Officers, whose members sought to overthrow the Egyptian royal family and oust the British. In 1948, Nasser served as a major in the first Arab-Israeli war and was wounded in action.
On July 23, 1952, Nasser led 89 other Free Officers in an army coup that deposed the regime of King Farouk. A new government was formed by the Nasser-led Revolutionary Command Council, of which Major General Muhammad Naguib was the figurehead leader. In 1954, Nasser emerged from behind the scenes, removed Naguib from power, and proclaimed himself prime minister of Egypt. For the next two years, Nasser ruled as an effective and popular leader and promulgated a new constitution that made Egypt a socialist Arab state, consciously nonaligned with the prevalent communist and democratic-capitalist systems of the Cold War world. On June 23, 1956, Egyptian voters overwhelming approved the new constitution and Nasser’s presidency.
One month later, President Nasser faced a major crisis when the United States and Great Britain reversed their decision to finance a high dam on the Nile River in light of an Egyptian arms agreement with the USSR. In response, Nasser nationalized the British and French-owned Suez Canal, intending to use tolls to pay for his high dam project. At the end of October 1956, Israel, Britain and France attacked Egypt in a joint operation. The Suez Canal was occupied, but Soviet and U.N. pressure forced Israel, Britain, and France to withdraw, and the Suez Canal was left in Egyptian hands in 1957.
The episode greatly enhanced Nasser’s prestige in the Arab world, and in 1958 he oversaw the unification of Egypt and Syria as the United Arab Republic, of which he became president. He dreamed of bringing all the Arab world into the United Arab Republic, but in 1961 Syria withdrew from the entity following a military coup, leaving Egypt alone. From 1962 to 1967, Egypt intervened in a civil war in Yemen on behalf of the anti-royalists.
In 1967, increased Arab-Israeli tension led Egypt to mobilize its forces and demand the withdrawal of U.N. peacekeepers from Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula. Egypt and five other Arab nations prepared for a united strike against Israel, but Israel preempted the attack, beginning the Six-Day War with the destruction of Egypt’s air force on June 5. Egypt and the other Arab belligerents were decisively defeated, and Israeli forces captured all the Sinai and crossed the Suez Canal. In the aftermath of the military disaster, Nasser attempted to resign, but popular demonstrations and a vote of confidence by the Egyptian National Assembly persuaded him to remain in office. After the Six-Day War, Nasser accepted greater Soviet military and economic aid, compromising Egypt’s status as a “nonaligned” state, such as Josip Broz Tito’s Yugoslavia or Jawaharlal Nehru’s India.
In July 1970, the Aswan High Dam was completed with Soviet assistance, providing a major boost to the Egyptian economy. Two months later, Nasser died of a heart attack in Cairo. He was succeeded by Anwar el-Sadat, a fellow Free Officer. Despite his military defeats, Nasser was a consistently popular leader during his 18 years in power. His economic policies and land reforms improved the quality of life for many Egyptians, and women were granted many rights during his tenure. His ascendance ended 2,300 years of rule by foreigners, and his independent policies won him respect not just in Egypt but throughout the world.