Thirty years ago on Thursday, Egypt's charismatic president Jamal Abdel Nasser died of a heart attack, leading to a funeral that brought millions of weeping people to the streets.
"It was difficult to imagine Egypt or the Arab world without him. His death was the end of an era of hope for an Arab world united and made new," wrote Albert Hourani in "A History of the Arab Peoples.”
Today, the party that bears his name is just a small opposition group in Egypt and the cause of Arab socialism he championed has few strong adherents, but he still casts a shadow over Egypt and other Arab countries.
Three years ago the film "Nasser 56" -- about the dramatic events in the year he nationalized the Franco-British Suez Canal Company -- was a box office hit in Cairo, Beirut, Damascus and other Arab capitals.
It is now screened on television from Morocco to the Gulf.
Although remembered fondly by many, he is also hated and denounced as a crushing failure, someone blamed for a legacy of Arab political and military weakness as well as one of economic distress in Egypt and beyond.
Ibrahim Dessouki Abbaza, who spent time in prison during Nasser's rule and led a campaign against him from exile, had no kind words when asked to remember the man who died September 28, 1970.
Abbaza urged Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's government to open an investigation into the causes of the 1967 war in which Israel crushed the Arabs, capturing large swathes of territory, including the holy sites of Jerusalem.
"All the misfortunes of today have flowed from this event," including the Middle East peace process which is delivering so little to the Palestinians, Abbaza told AFP.
He said Nasser fell into a US trap in a war that started after he asked United Nations peacekeeping troops to withdraw from the Sinai and then closed the Tiran straits to Israeli shipping.
"Nasser was very ambitious and very stupid," Abbaza said.
His legacy was not much better on the economic front, with his socialism creating a bloated public sector that still handicaps Egypt.
"Until today, we're trying to take off economically," Abbaza said. "We're trying to absorb the public sector. We still haven't succeeded.”
Other Arab economies, such as Syria's, are struggling with legacy of centralization promoted by Nasser.
Among other sharp critics are businessmen like Sharif al-Maghrabi, who hoped the Nasser era of nationalizations of private companies is gone forever.
"May it never repeat itself. We cannot take the shock anymore. No country can," Maghrabi said.
But Mohammed Fayek, a former close aide to Nasser, remembers him as a great man whose achievements last to this day.
With the revolt that overthrew the British-backed monarchy in 1952 and later events, Nasser "achieved real independence" for Egypt after centuries of foreign rule or domination.
"He instilled a sense of pride in people," he said.
He then started breaking down what was an elitist and semi-feudal society by redistributing the land, providing electricity nationwide, and making education free for all.
And despite the collapse of pan-Arabism, he said, the dream of Arab unity lives on today and now Arabs are increasingly talking about forging common trade zones on the model of the European Community.
Wanting to dispel misconceptions, Fayek said Nasser never totally rejected private enterprise and actually moved in his later years toward a mixed western European-style economy.
And although he was a hard-driving taskmaster, he was not the heartless man often portrayed in the foreign media, Fayek said.
"He was a very human person. He lived for the people.” -- CAIRO (AFP)
© 2000 Al Bawaba (www.albawaba.com )