Gamal Abdel Nasser was born on January 15, 1918 in Alexandria, Egypt. His father worked for the city post office and young Nasser became interested in politics at a young age. His early education took place at the Ras el Tin school in Alexandria and he began participating in political demonstrations while he was still a young boy. At his first demonstration, he was reportedly struck in the face by a police baton and jailed.
Nasser soon found himself absorbed in political action, later saying that he spent only 45 days in school his senior year. In 1935, he was elected to serve as chairman of a committee of secondary school students from Cairo that sought reform for Egypt's government. In March of 1937, he joined the Egyptian Military Academy with hopes of becoming an officer.
In 1939, he graduated from the school and was commissioned in the Egyptian Army. He decided to volunteer for service in Sudan at the beginning of World War 2 under the ruse of helping the British occupation. Instead of helping, he and Anwar Sadat established contact with representatives of Italy.
With the Italians, Nasser plotted to stage a coup on the same day of an Italian offensive into Egypt. The plan was never executed, but it gave Nasser the confidence to continue plotting a revolution. By the end of the war, he had made many friends with similar intentions and returned to Egypt, where he decide to become an instructor at the Military Academy in Cairo. For the remainder of the 1940s, he continued expanding his group of rebels, naming them the "Free Officers".
On July 23, 1952, Nasser led the Free Officers in launching a coup in Cairo. In the middle of the night, they seized control of all government buildings, police stations, radio stations, and the army headquarters in Cairo. They installed Muhammad Naguib, a military veteran from the Arab-Israeli War, as the new president of Egypt.
To quell a possible British rebuke, the group told Britain that it would not attack British citizens or property. Nasser also allowed King Farouk I, the former leader of Egypt, to depart the country without harm. Nasser then proceeded to appoint Ali Maher as the Prime Minister, accepting that his extensive political experience could handle day to day operations better than any of the other revolutionaries. He then led the formation of the Revolutionary Command Council, an organization that held most of the power in Egypt, with Nasser serving as vice-chairman under Neguib.
In 1953, Naguib named himself President of Egypt, but he began to have conflicts with Nasser. Naguib resigned on February 23, 1954, leaving Nasser as his replacement for the position of Prime Minister. Under pressure from citizens, Nasser was forced to allow Naguib to assume the Presidency again. Several days later, Nasser found himself unable to work with Naguib and decided to resign from his position as Prime Minister.
Although he held no official office, Nasser continued to exert his influence. Over the next several months, he ordered a number of pro-Naguib individuals purged from the Army in order to strengthen his grip on it. In October of 1954, he used the military to remove Naguib from the government and declare himself military dictator of Egypt.
After taking power, Nasser made an agreement with Britain that arranged for the removal of all British military personnel from the Suez Canal. This marked the end of hostile relations with Britain and Egypt was later given $40 million in financial aid from Great Britain and the United States. In 1955, he worked on raising money for a proposed "Aswan High Dam" project that would have made the largest man-made lake in the world. In July of 1956, the offers for money were retracted and Nasser decided to nationalize the Suez Canal for more money.
Following the incident, the United Nations Security Council met and agreed that Egypt could retain control of the Canal assuming that it would allow all foreign ships through it. He believed that this meant that Egypt was safe, but on October 29, 1956, Israel invaded the Sinai Peninsula. The Israelis were followed by British and French forces. Despite American attempts to defuse the situation, the invasion continued until the Soviet Union demanded the withdrawal of all foreign forces from Egypt.
After the Soviet ultimatum, the three countries decided to withdraw and Nasser realized that he had more strength with the backing of the Soviets. The Soviets decided to donate enough money to cover a third of the cost of the Aswan High Dam and construction began on January 1, 1960. The dam was completed in 1970 and the resulting lake was named Lake Nasser in Nasser's honor.
Nasser's relationship with the Soviets led him to shift Egypt's economic system more towards socialism. By 1962, the government required 51% minimum ownership of all businesses in Egypt. Nikita Khrushchev visited Egypt and awarded Nasser the Soviet Golden Star as well as the title of Hero of the Soviet Union and membership in the Order of Lenin.
On September 28, 1970, Gamal Abdel Nasser died of a heart attack.