Gamal Abdel Nasser (January 15, 1918 - September 28, 1970) was the first President of Egypt and can be considered one of the most important Arab leaders in history.
Nasser was born in Alexandria. He was active in Egyptian groups against foreign domination after graduating from the Military Academy. Serving with a major's commission, he fought in the 1948 war against Israel; for several months at the war's end he was trapped in the so called "Faluja pocket", together with his men. When a cease-fire was reached, he was allowed to return to Egypt. In 1952, Nasser led the military coup against King Farouk I of Egypt. In early 1954, he arrested the leader of the country, General Muhammad Naguib, and on February 25 became the Egyptian premier. Two years later, Nasser was the only candidate in presidential elections and subsequently became the first President of Egypt.
Nasser's life-long strategy was neutral Pan-Arabism (and indeed consolidation among the developing nations). In spite of initially good relations with the Western powers, Nasser gradually began to lose their favor and inclined more and more towards the Soviet bloc. On January 16, 1956, Nasser vowed to reconquer Palestine and, in summer 1956, he announced the nationalisation of the Suez canal, which made him unpopular with Great Britain and France, who had shares in the Canal. With the help of Israel (which suffered from Egyptian-led and funded fedayeen raids into its territory) they waged war upon Egypt. However, due to pressure from both the United States and the Soviet Union, the British and the French had to withdraw with their demands unanswered. Though Israel did achieve the cessation of Fedayeen raids (in return for Israeli withdrawal from the Sinai peninsula), Arabs of all countries regarded Nasser's lack of compromise as a victory over the "imperialist enemy", and support for him rose considerably.
In 1958, Nasser merged Syria and Egypt into the United Arab Republic in an attempt to create a pan-Arab state. Attempts were also made to include Yemen, but the United Arab Republic was dissolved in 1961, though Egypt continued to use the name until 1971. The attempts to include Yemen involved using soldiers and chemical weapons against the people of Northern Yemen.
After a defeat in the 1967 Six-Day War against Israel, Nasser sought to resign from his position, but the Egyptian people asked for him to remain in power. He consequently led Egypt through the War of Attrition in 1969-1970. Nasser died of a heart attack only two weeks after the war ended, on September 28, 1970. He was succeeded by Anwar Sadat.
For many people, Nasser was a leader who reformed his country and re-established Arab pride both inside and outside it. As others perceive it, his policy was one of forceful militarism that led Egypt to grave defeats and losses rather than peace and prosperity. It is however clear that Nasser's imprint on Egypt and Middle East of the 1950s and 60s was as great as of any other leader of that time.
The most dubious of Nasser's achievements was the creation of the Aswan Dam and the lake that bears his name in southern Egypt. Built to provide electricity for heavy industry that never materialised, the dam not only submerged most of Nubia's archeological treasures (excepted the ones saved by UNESCO), it also created one of the biggest ecological disasters in Egypt's history. The huge surface of the lake lets a significant part of the Nile's water evaporate in vain, while the dam prevents sediment from enriching the delta soil. According to some agronomists, the Nile valley's agricultural productivity subsequently dropped below its previous levels.