Nasser was born in a mud-brick house on an unpaved street in the Bacos section of Alexandria, where his father was in charge of the local post office. While serving in the Egyptian army in the Sudan, Nasser met three fellow officers—Zakariyyā Muḥyi al-Dīn (Zakaria Mohieddine), later vice president of the United Arab Republic; ʿAbd al-Ḥakīm ʿĀmir, later field marshal; and Anwar el-Sādāt, who would succeed Nasser as president. Together, they planned a secret revolutionary organization, the Free Officers, whose compositionwould be known only to Nasser; their aim was to oust the British and the Egyptian royal family.In the 1948 Arab war against the newly created State of Israel, Nasser was an officer in one of three battalions surrounded for weeks by the Israelis in a group of Arab villages called the Faluja Pocket.
On July 23, 1952, Nasser and 89 other Free Officers staged an almost bloodless coup d’état, ousting the monarchy. Sādāt favoured the immediate public execution of King Farouk I and some members of the establishment, but Nasser vetoed the idea and permitted Farouk and others to go into exile. The country was taken over by a Revolutionary Command Council of 11 officers controlled by Nasser, with Major General Muḥammad Naguib as the puppet head of state. For more than a year Nasser kept his real role so well hidden that astute foreign correspondents were unaware of his existence, but in the spring of 1954, in a complicated series of intrigues, Naguib was deposed and placed under house arrest, and Nasser emerged from the shadows and named himself prime minister. In January 1956 Nasser announced the promulgation of a constitution under which Egypt became a socialist Arab state with a one-party political system and with Islam as the official religion. In June, 99.948 percent of the five million Egyptians voting marked their ballots for Nasser, the only candidate, for president. The constitution was approved by 99.8 percent. As Nasser took control Egypt’s prospects looked bright. A secret contract had been signed with Czechoslovakia for war matériel, and Great Britain and the United States had agreed to put up $270 million to finance the first stage of the Aswān High Dam project. But on July 20, 1956, the U.S. secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, canceled the U.S. offer; the next day Britain followed suit. Five days later, addressing a mass meeting in Alexandria, Nasser announced the nationalization of the Suez Canal, promising that the tolls Egypt collected in five years would build the dam. Both Britain and France had interests in the canal and conspired with Israel—whose relations with Egypt had grown even more tense after the first Arab-Israeli war in 1948–49—to best Nasser and regain control of the canal. According to their plan, on October 29, 1956, Israeli forces invaded the Sinai Peninsula. Two days later, French and British planes attacked Egyptian airfields. Although the Israelis occupied the Sinai Peninsula to Sharm al-Shaykhand the Egyptian air force was virtually destroyed, Nasser emerged from the brief war with undiminished prestige throughout the Arab world. In Philosophy of the Revolution, which he wrote in 1954, Nasser told of “heroic and glorious roles which never found heroes to perform them” and outlined his aspiration to be the leader of the 55 million Arabs, then of the 224 million Africans, then of the 420 million followers of Islam. In 1958 Syria and Egypt formed the United Arab Republic, which Nasser hoped would someday include the entire Arab world. Syria withdrew in 1961, but Egypt continued to be known as the United Arab Republic until 1971. That was as close as Nasser ever came to realizing his tripartite dream.
While Nasser solidified an independent Egypt free of Colonial influence, he also made it a police state, in which mail was opened, the communications media were strictly censored, the chief newspapers were nationalized, telephones were tapped, and visitors’ rooms were searched. Political democracy in the Western sense was nonexistent. One-party candidates for office were handpicked by Nasser and his close associates. Political enemies were herded into concentration camps in the desert. Life was little changed for most fellahin. The birth rate remained so high as to defeat attempts to increase the living standard. In foreign affairs Nasser joined Josip Broz Tito of Yugoslavia and Jawaharlal Nehru of India as an advocate of nonalignment, or “positive neutrality.” At the Bandung Conference of Asian and African nations in 1955, he emerged as a world figure. His refusal to recognize Israel and Egypt’s defeat by Israel in 1956 led him to divert vast sums into military channels that might have gone to implementing his social revolution.