Gamal Abdel Nasser, president of Egypt (1954–70) and champion of Arab nationalism, Arab socialism, and anti-imperialism in the era of global decolonization, was the first indigenous ruler of Egypt since Cleopatra. He believed that he spoke for — and viscerally understood — the interests of its people. Addressing them in unembellished semi-colloquial language, the Egyptian leader urged them, “Irfa‘ ra’sak ya khuya” (“lift up your head my brother”).

The balance among consent, acquiescence, and coercion in the making of Nasser’s project was uncertain and shifted over time. Some — like his successor, Anwar al-Sadat (1970–81), and the renowned liberal litterateur Tawfiq…

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