“Gerges (Contemporary Middle East Studies/London School of Economics; ISIS: A History, 2016, etc.) examines the rise of revolutionary Islamism as a reaction to Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser’s brand of socialism. The rise of that fundamentalist religious ideology, personified by the cleric and firebrand Sayyid Qutb, is not without its ironies, one of them the fact that Nasser and Qutb shared many ideas. However, each was personally ambitious, and when Nasser came to power, among his first acts was to rid Egypt of potentially rivalrous political parties, from the Marxists on the left to the Ikhwan, which morphed into the Muslim Brotherhood. None of the struggle was inevitable, but, as Gerges notes, the convoluted path taken by these two powerful and uncompromising men led to a profound breach that culminated in the often imprisoned Qutb’s execution in 1966 for allegedly plotting Nasser’s assassination. The following year, when Egypt was among the Arab powers to be humiliated in a war against Israel, Islamism gained new strength. Nasser’s successor, Anwar Sadat, attempted to co-opt Ikhwan followers and was assassinated, while, later, Mohamed Morsi, president until his ouster in 2013, was an outright member of the Brotherhood. Gerges observes that Nasser’s pan-Arab ideology amounted to an anti-imperialism of a kind not seen in the region before, but that did not necessarily equate to anti-Westernism. “Nasser’s generation of anti-colonial nationalists deployed universal concepts of self-determination, popular sovereignty, popular democracy, resistance, and anti-hegemony as effective weapons,” he writes, whereas the Ikhwan counted the West among its enemies, subscribed to the notion of the clash of civilizations, and believed that constitutionalism was a foreign concept to be suppressed. The struggle continues today, with modern representatives of both Islamism and nationalism contending for leadership in what amounts to a regional cold war. A highly knowledgeable history that is helpful in explaining recent developments in Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East.” – Kirkus
Eugene Rogan – Journal of Islamic Studies – To access the review on the Journal’s page click here.
There are not many survivors of the revolutionary generation still alive in Egypt. Even the youngest to take part in the revolution of 1952 would be in their nineties today. For them, Fawaz Gerges was probably the last researcher they would ever speak with. In the course of his research for this, Gerges’s most impressive book to date, the LSE Professor of international relations conducted extensive interviews with the last surviving Free Officers and their opponents from the Muslim Brotherhood. The result is a fusion of history and politics with the big ambition of explaining the political evolution of the Arab world from the 1940s to the present day.
As his point of departure, Gerges traces the fault line separating nationalists and Islamists in Egypt and the broader Arab world. Both trends emerged in Egypt in the 1930s and 1940s in opposition to British imperial rule and those elites accused of collaboration with the imperialists—the monarchy and aristocracy. So long as they had a common enemy in the foreign occupier, Islamists and nationalists made common cause, such as during the popular insurgency in the Suez Canal Zone in 1951–2. Many of the Free Officers were themselves members of the Muslim Brotherhood, including Nasser and Sadat. Yet differences in ideology and world-view could not be papered over, and once revolution brought the Free Officers to power, the Islamists transformed from partners to rivals. In the zero-sum game of power politics, a clash became inevitable.
It is Gerges’s assertion that the conflict between the Nasser regime and the Muslim Brotherhood played a formative role in the political culture of the new Egyptian republic. To contain the Islamist threat, the Nasserist regime established ‘an expansive and intrusive security state apparatus’ (p. 9) that made Egypt and subsequent revolutionary republics particularly violent and repressive towards opponents. Secondly, the clash between nationalists and Islamists gave rise to rival claims to anti-imperial action and social justice, each legitimating its politics and appeal to supporters on these grounds. Finally, state repression and the perception of injustice towards Islamist opponents served to radicalize an influential segment of the Islamist movement. The most influential of these radicalized Islamists was Sayyid Qutb.
Embracing a ‘great man’ approach, Gerges undertook a dual biography of the two most influential leaders of the nationalist and the Islamist factions: Egyptian President Gamal Abdul Nasser and the dissident Muslim Brother, Sayyid Qutb. Gerges will be criticized for personalizing mass popular movements by association with individual life stories. Moreover, this dualistic approach neglects other influential movements in mid-twentieth century Egypt such as the Communists. Yet I believe he is justified in this approach by the unparalleled influence of these two men—Nasser, in particular during his lifetime, and Qutb, through his writings, after his death.
The book begins as a narrative history of the final years of the Egyptian monarchy and the rise of opposition movements in the military and society at large. Tracing the links between the Free Officers and the Muslim Brothers through the early 1950s, before, during, and immediately after the 1952 Revolution, Gerges tells the story of two ideologically motivated movements increasingly at cross-purposes. The Muslim Brothers saw the Free Officers exploiting their movement to secure a mass support base for their junta. Nasser and his colleagues chafed at every Islamist attempt to impose their leadership on the revolution. The crisis came to a head in the famous Manshiya incident in 1954 when a Muslim Brother attempted to assassinate Nasser during a mass rally. In the clampdown that followed, the Muslim Brotherhood leadership was arrested along with thousands of its membership, including Sayyid Qutb.
It is only in ch. 5 that Gerges embarks on the biographies of his two main protagonists. In alternating chapters he tracks the ‘Young Gamal Abdel Nasser’ (ch. 5), the ‘Young Sayyid Qutb’ (ch. 6), Nasser’s rise to power as the ‘Lion of the Arabs’ (ch. 7) and Qutb’s unlikely career as ‘the Accidental Islamist’ (ch. 8) and leader of a secret paramilitary offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood known as the Tanzim al-Sirri (ch. 9). It is a slightly awkward structure, given how prominently Nasser and Qutb feature in the first four chapters of the book. There is a sense of chronological rupture going from the breakdown in Free Officer–Muslim Brother relations and the execution of Qutb in 1966 at the end of ch. 4 to revert to the early life of Gamal Abdel Nasser in ch. 5.
Whatever my misgivings about the chapter structure, the book is well written and engaging. In addition to his extensive interviews with surviving Free Officers and Muslim Brothers, Gerges drew on the broadest range of Arabic published primary and secondary sources, making this one of the best researched new works on the Nasser era—an area of relative neglect in recent years.
Nor does Gerges leave the reader in any doubt of the significance of the political forces unleashed by the Free Officers and the Muslim Brotherhood that he traces. ‘The die was … cast for a long war between the two most powerful social and political movements in the Arab world—the Islamists versus the army officers, who became fervent nationalists and offered an alternative secular-leaning vision. This struggle, which has ebbed and flowed from 1954 till the present, has shaped the identity of the postcolonial, post-independence state and its conduct towards its citizens and the outside world.’ (p. 123)
In the final chapters of the book, Gerges traces the influence of this ‘long war’ between Arab nationalism and Islamism in the Sadat and Mubarak eras. Following a scholarly consensus that traced disenchantment with Arab nationalisim to defeat in the June 1967 War, Gerges captured the crisis that beset secular Arab culture, drawing on literary giants like playwright Tawfiq al-Hakim and poet Nizar Qabbani whose creative works reflected the popular collapse in confidence in the secular project. Islamists were slow to capitalize on the defeat of secular nationalism, but in the 1970s a religious revival swept Egypt and the Arab world, giving rise to ‘radically politicized religious groups and movements’ (p. 307), none more influential than the intransigent Islamism of Sayyid Qutb.
Fawaz Gerges has published no fewer than ten books, and this is certainly his finest. Drawing on over a decade’s research, Making the Arab World is a work of reflection and synthesis that will withstand the test of time. The debate his bold thesis inevitably will provoke will only serve to advance further scholarship in this area of perennial interest. – Eugene Rogan – Journal of Islamic Studies – To access the review on the Journal’s page click here.
“Sayyid Qutb’s friends and associates are finally talking. They didn’t say much in prison during the 1950s and 1960s, and torture rarely made them “sing.” Since their release, they tended not to dwell on a painful past comprised of internal political and theological splits, schisms that were eventually written in blood. As young idealists in their twenties, they crossed paths with the fast blazed trail cut by Qutb, a secular literary critic that turned Islamist ideologue. It is an encounter that changed their personal lives, that of the Muslim Brotherhood as a whole and, most critically, that of contemporary Islam. While some of them resisted Qutb with all their hearts and minds, others willfully embraced his hyperbolic and dangerous propositions. Many, as we now learn, did not fully understand what was at stake, and when they finally did, it was already too late to change the course of a violent history on behalf of a newly invented Islam.
Occasionally, some former inmates did publish memoirs and gave a passing interview, but their words never really diverged from the hegemonic narrative of the Muslim Brotherhood, built around the themes of absolute unity and ultimate victimization by the state. But unity among the ranks of the Brotherhood was always more a lofty ideal than an actual political reality. Interviewing close to a hundred elderly comrades for a new history of the relationship between the Egyptian state and the Islamists, Fawaz Gerges, a longtime professor at the London School of Economics, breathes new life into one of the most formative periods in the history of post-colonial Egypt. It is a good story, worthy not only of a fine historian but providing rich material for a novelist or a playwright who might take interest in digging through the ruins of decolonization and the rubble of dystopia.
There was once a different Arab world than the one we presently know. It was a world that stubbornly struggled for dignity and liberation from European domination, one that was culturally optimistic about the prospects of building a brave new society. It was a world whose movers and shakers were young people in their late twenties and thirties with virtually no practical experience but with ample amounts of energy and belief in the possibility of change. In Egypt, the epicenter of Arab modernity, multiple groups positioned themselves for the coming of the end of WWII and the beginning of decolonization. All of them wanted full independence, social justice and freedom. Human dignity was on everyone’s mind and, with so many shared goals, any possibility of difference in how to accomplish them was routinely overlooked or pushed aside. In comparison with left-wing groups, the Muslim Brotherhood was the largest and most organized popular organization. It functioned in the same extra-parliamentary environment alongside many other groups such as the forbidden political club of the Free Officers. These young military officers came from a similar socio-economic background to that of the Brotherhood and shared the same broad political goals. Some officers, like would-be president Anwar al-Sadat, even took membership in the Brotherhood. Others kept their distance, yet, like the Brotherhood, they also took Egypt’s defeat in Palestine in 1948 very personally. Both camps despised the constitutional monarchy that ruled the country and considered it corrupt, ineffective, and hence responsible for the defeat. With so much in common, politicized military officers and the leadership circle of the Brotherhood could pretend that they were one and the same and that once the officers seized power the Brotherhood would join in and do the rest. But this division of labor was not to be.
As is often the case, constructive ambiguity comes at the expense of intellectual clarity. With both groups positioned on shaky intellectual foundations, their respective desire for power turned personal, and soon after confrontational. By the mid 1950s, the rivalry that developed between the officers who ousted the king and the self-entitled Brotherhood who were ready to rule quickly metamorphosed into an existential fight for survival. It was a vicious and bloody affair that landed the entire leadership of the Brotherhood in jail, where they were routinely abused and tortured. Under pressure, the Brotherhood’s unity began to unravel along intellectual fault lines that Qutb began to chart. Fragmented as they were, the Brotherhood had to confront a state that had successfully fashioned itself as a revolutionary popular republic and as a secular alternative to faith-based politics.
This internal Islamist struggle and the fight against the state is the subject of Gerges’ new book, and his thesis is that the struggle shaped the future course of Egyptian and even Arab politics as a whole. Since that time, there has consistently been a split between secular nationalists and religious Islamists (who are themselves split between moderates and radicals). Though it is a familiar thesis, it is important to acknowledge the superb level of documentation with which Gerges supports it and his choice to stage this passionate rivalry as a symbolic confrontation between Qutb, as the would-be intellectual godfather of al-Qaida, and Egypt’s new leader and demi-god in the making, Gamal Abd al-Nasser. In their own way, both men pushed for intellectual clarity, which left no room for ambiguity and co-existence. Both could be better understood only in terms of the other.
Even before his intellectual fingerprints were identified all over the 9/11 plot, books about Sayyid Qutb were already becoming somewhat of a cottage industry. In all likelihood, he is probably the most translated and read modern Arab thinker. That is of course quite unfortunate, as the world of Arab letters is rich, diverse, and passionate, and it merits much more attention than it is currently able to attract. However, to be fair to Qutb, he had won this prestigious status due to his own very hard work, on behalf of which he willingly paid with his life when he became a martyr for his newly-invented cause, though at the time, that eventual future was not clear even to Nasser himself, the man who would hang him. At the end, Qutb left behind a very coherent intellectual corpus. Most of it was published after his death and was embraced by a new generation for whom post-colonial dystopia was a painful daily reality and violent revolt was the most immediate answer to all problems.
Qutb’s reactionary argument is well-known. Like his fellow Occidentalists, he argued that modern Arab life is nothing but the internalization of a morally corrupt and materialist Western culture which is devoid of humanity and spiritual content. By internalizing these qualities, contemporary Muslims had come full circle to a pre-Islamic age of darkness and barbarity. Rather than thinking in terms of Islamic decline, as most critical thinkers did, Qutb proposed a cyclical course of events which brought Islam back to its beginning point where subjugation, mental slavery, emptiness, immorality, anxiety and absence of sovereignty, authenticity and social justice reign supreme. Conditioned by this seventh-century reality, fellow citizens of the 1950s were not really good Muslims but infidels in disguise whose false consciousness blinded them to the reality of their condition. This radical view of internal impurity was particularly applicable to Nasser, his entire leadership circle, and to state culture as a whole. With this insight firmly in mind, a sure path for a theological revolution became available, and with it, the call to reinvigorate Jihad and take arms against the Egyptian leader, the regime, and its misguided supporters.
Not everybody in the Brotherhood went along with these ideas. Most, apparently, did not. Though the Brotherhood did have a secret military wing and used violence with impunity, the official doctrine prescribed a persistent, peaceful, and slow process of persuasion and seduction to rejoin the faith and strengthen one’s belief. On that basis, Supreme Guide Hasan al-Hudaybi forthrightly rejected Qutb’s violent doctrine. Mostly, he viewed him as a recent newcomer for the organization who poses a threat to Islam by toying with its legal and theological DNA without proper training. Like his many imitators – all the way to ISIS’ lumpen intellectuals – Qutb had no formal training and very minimal experience in Islamic thought and practice.
With a solid background as a secular literary critic and a largely failed literary career, Qutb occupied the intellectual gray zone that al-Hudaybi and his generation failed to clarify. Criticizing the impotence of the clerical establishment, Qutb re-indoctrinated Islam and equipped it for the era of decolonization with a renewed emphasis on sovereignty (that of God rather than Nasser), authenticity (a return to the simple ways of the founding fathers), rejection of false consciousness (borrowed from Marx), and sacrificial action (Leninist-style vanguard politics). The degree to which Qutb was a thinker of his time who freely borrowed leftist revolutionary ideas and framed them in Islamic rhetoric is quite astonishing. So too was his unapologetic drive to deny that Islam is compatible with socialism and democracy. Most importantly, in contrast with the confused and ambiguous nationalist rhetoric of the Brotherhood, Qutb utterly rejected the apparatus and belief system of the modern nation sate.
By the late 1950s, it was already quite impossible to reconcile Qutb’s revolutionary and violent brand of Islam with that of al-Hudaybi. Since both were in prison at the time, the future course of political Islam was decided under very unfavorable conditions. The new testimonies that Gerges dutifully collected show us how strenuously fellow prisoners tried to avoid an internal confrontation and how desperately they sought accommodation and reconciliation, even at the price of yet more ambiguity. They also tell us how inspiring, irresistible, contagious, and dynamic Qutb’s new formulations were. The more Qutb and his friends were tortured and abused, the more forcefully Qutb’s violent articulation suggested themselves. By accounting for the mirroring torture, Gerges helps us appreciate the degree to which the phenomenon of Qutbism is Islamized trauma talk.
Parallel to the slow rise of Qutb and his sure march towards martyrdom, Nasser was also doing well. Nasserism is normally understood as a political system that drove to unite the Arab world and infuse it with dignity and hyper-modern development for the benefit of the disadvantaged classes. That is of course true. However, the ambition of Nasserism to invent a new Arab man and a new collective ontology is quite often overlooked. Primarily, we think of Nasserism as a political phenomenon and not as a theological one. While some call Nasserism messianic, scholarship is yet to appreciate Nasserism (and early Syrian Ba`thism too) as a theological system that offered salvation. Gerges looks at this process from a strictly political standpoint. That is enough in order to juxtapose it with Qutbism. However, while Qutb’s intellectual exploits are explored in some detail due to the coherent nature of his work and the scholarly attention he still attracts, there is no comparable appreciation for the ontological counter-concepts that Nasserism proposed with regard to the meaning of sovereignty, sacrifice, authenticity, freedom, authority, dignity, self, and society. Put differently, the messianic properties of Nasserism brought Qutb to mirror them. This dialectic process is somewhat missing from this otherwise excellent account. It would suggest that both Nasserism and Qutubism were nothing but competing theological systems that traded in similar ontological terms for the sake of personal and collective salvation in the wake of colonialism.
In this intimate rivalry for life and death, the mid-1960s stand as a serious watershed. Nasser made the irresistible mistake of executing Qutb, thus turning him into a martyr who sacralized his creed by virtue of his willingness to sacrifice his life for it. Undoubtedly, this act assisted in shaping the sacrificial horizons of Islamic revolutionary action. As Qutb’s sisters smuggled his writings out of prison and began publishing them, his theory and personal example interlaced neatly. Then, ten months later, in June 1967, came Nasser’s own demise. The demi-god who was to march his people through the desert of decolonization and development toward the promised land of secure post-colonial existence was defeated in a quick war that cut him back down to the size of an ordinary, vulnerable mortal. Enough has been written of this defeat and its many cultural aftershocks. Nasser carried on for three more years until his heart finally gave up due to the intense stress of its proprietor’s public life (eighteen hours of work daily) and the effects of diabetes, atherosclerosis, and heavy smoking. He was buried in October 1970. With him was buried the Nasserist utopia and its promise of salvation. It was Qutb’s turn to leave his mark on the defeated generation of 67 and here Gerges makes the important and generally overlooked point that Islamists gained traction only a decade after the 1967 war and not in its immediate aftermath.
In the rest of the book, Gerges projects the internal split inside the Brotherhood between the establishment and the Qutbists, as well as that between the Islamists and the militarized state. He addresses the 2011 revolution, and the ephemeral triumph of the Brotherhood in the presidential elections and its bloody ousting by the military. However, this is mostly an afterthought in which Gerges is reconstructing a very Egyptian story, one that, regardless of the title is not particularly useful for the understanding of the rest of the region. However, the success of this book lies in staging Qutbism in a relational socio-political web vis-à-vis Nasserism. Gerges follows that relationship from its optimistic and amicable beginning all the way to its bloody end.” Yoav Di-Capua Reviews Fawaz Gerges – Marginalia
‘The stormy encounter between Islamists and militarized “deep states” in the Arab world — starkly illustrated in the August 14, 2014, massacre of over 800 Muslim Brotherhood supporters by Egyptian police at Giza’s Rabi‘a al-‘Adawiyya Square — shows no sign of abating. Throughout the region, Islamists continue to spar, oftentimes violently, with authoritarian leaderships. In his sweeping and powerful new book, Making the Arab World, Fawaz Gerges traces the origins of this mutual ill will back to the conflict between the Muslim Brotherhood and the Free Officers during the creation of Egypt’s revolutionary republic in 1952–54.
Yet rather than point to ideology as the driver of the conflict, as many scholars have done, Gerges emphasizes the role of power politics. Only after the struggle had commenced, in the mid-1950s, did the Muslim Brotherhood and the soldiers begin to distinguish themselves conceptually from one another. Over the decades that followed, Islamists and state authorities honed and sometimes softened their ideological variances in ways compatible with the needs of the political moment.
Gerges begins the book by situating both the Muslim Brotherhood and the Free Officers in the generic nationalism common among Egypt’s modernizing middle classes during the period of the old regime. If the Free Officers emphasized the territorial and Arabist dimensions of the Egyptian nation-state, the Muslim Brotherhood foregrounded Egypt’s Islamic heritage and linkage to surrounding Muslim-majority countries. Each of these strands shared a common enemy in the political hegemony of the pashas and their British backers. Each sought to build an independent sociopolitical order of social justice and cultural authenticity. According to Gerges, it was not inevitable that these two interrelated streams of Egyptian national consciousness should be at loggerheads.
But relations did break down, largely because of the political maneuvering attendant upon the Free Officers’ assumption of power in July 1952. Gerges explains that after courting the Muslim Brotherhood in the long lead-up to the coup d’état, the Free Officers forcibly sidelined those who refused to cooperate with them, disallowing Supreme Guide Hasan al-Hudaybi a role in deciding the shape of the emergent order. Amid increasing fear and hostility, the Muslim Brotherhood’s revamped underground section (“the Special Regime” or al-Nizam al-Khass) attempted, without Hudaybi’s approval, to assassinate Gamal ‘Abd al-Nasser, the ascendant leader of the Free Officers, in October 1954. The mass imprisonment of Brotherhood members that followed produced a scar in the collective consciousness of the organization that has never healed.
Throughout the book, Gerges plays up the roles of human agency and contingency in shaping the history he relates. In Gerges’s view, were it not for the prickly personalities of those involved, Islamists and the Nasserists may well have joined forces, perhaps creating an ideological synthesis, thus sparing Egypt and the region the bitter acrimony and bloodshed that, in fact, ensued.
Gerges brings the contest between “sociopolitical Islam-identified activism” (p. 34) and Egypt’s militarized governments up to date with accounts of the presidencies of Anwar al-Sadat (1970–81) and Husni Mubarak (1981–2011). He downplays the 1967 Arab defeat at the hands of Israel as a causal factor in the revival of Islamism in Egypt in the 1970s. Far more decisive, he says, was Sadat’s decision to empower the Islamist movement to counter perceived socialist and Nasserist threats his regime.
This part of the story is relatively well-known, and Gerges effectively places the events in the larger sociopolitical context. Where the book really shines is in the biographical treatments of the two leading personalities in the mid-1950s showdown: Gamal ‘Abd al-Nasser, Egypt’s second president, and Sayyid Qutb, the mercurial ideologue of Islamism in its revolutionary mode.
Cutting through the slough of mythology that surrounds both, Gerges presents Nasser as a hard-nosed, pragmatic man nourished by various currents of anti-colonialism. Qutb he portrays accurately as a dreamer and as a proud man with deeply intuitive ideas about literature and politics. Both, according to Gerges, shared an authoritarian temper. Whereas Nasser answered challenges by proscribing real and imagined enemies, Qutb pulled the curtain shut by fashioning the mutually exclusive concepts of jahiliyya (“ignorance of the divine mandate”) and hakimiyya (“God’s universal sovereignty”).1 In Gerges’s view, the root cause of the Arab world’s postcolonial impasse is to be found in the refusal of each to compromise: on the one hand, the security state; on the other, religiopolitical intransigence.
Gerges draws upon dozens of interviews he conducted in Egypt, since the early 2000s, with men from both sides of the existential divide. These first-hand accounts distinguishthe book from other treatments of the subject. By tapping the reminiscences of former Muslim Brothers like Abdel Majid and Ali Ashmawi, Gerges sheds new light on the murky activities of the secret apparatus, al-Tanzim al-Khass, which plotted revenge against Nasser under Qutb’s ideological mentorship. Although some of these men were able to reconstitute their lives following their release from prison, others remained broken, living marginal lives under state surveillance. Gerges, who labored hard and long to win the trust of these men, is careful in the book to guard their dignity. Yet one wishes that he had divulged more about their backgrounds, personalities, and roles in the secret apparatus. More regard might have been made to the texture of lives lived “in the shadow of the Qur’an.”2 Perhaps this would require another book.
What we have is a solid, clearly written work of scholarship by a talented and experienced historian of the Middle East. Over a decade in the writing, it is an important contribution to the growing number of books that aim to explicate Islamism’s dialectical relationship with the Arab state” – John Calvert – The Middle East Journal
“Fawaz A. Gerges has delivered an ambitious and authoritative analysis of the ideological clashes of the nationalist and Islamist movements of the Arab world. By focusing on the two main antagonists emerging from the military coup of 1952 — Gamal Abdel Nasser and Sayyid Qutb — Gerges reveals the stunning panorama of the huge battle waged by those whom he describes as the most influential figures of the twentieth-century Arab world. Few would actually venture to add fresh studies to a field full of investigations of Egypt’s leadership role in the Arab region. Indeed, not since Richard P. Mitchell’s The Society of the Muslim Brothers and Nazih Ayubi’s equally definitive Political Islam has the scholarly community been treated to such a comprehensive and thought-provoking work. The book also provides a summation of the sociopolitical and economic trends characterizing Egypt’s transformation from a British colony to the unchallenged leader of the Arab world. What facilitates this tracking of long-term trends is the author’s patient collation of the views and comments of leading figures in this drama.
After describing the “Liberal Age,” with its hopeful political expressions and ambitious development plans, Gerges focuses on the appearance of underground politics as a necessary strategy of the newly urbanized classes seeking to confront the lingering colonial presence on their soil. He then traces the rise of the Revolutionary Command Council (RCC), as well as the equally anti-colonial Islamist movement of Hassan al-Banna to the same underground political culture of defiance and resistance. This produced a three-way conflict featuring the palace, the officers and the Islamists as the British sought to manipulate Egypt’s fragile democratic institutions to their advantage. As a background to all this, the Palestine War of 1948 galvanized the officers and Islamists alike. The officers viewed this debacle as symptomatic of the country’s fragile strategic security doctrine, while the Islamists viewed it as evidence of the nation’s loss of faith.
The author’s interviews with surviving members of the officer class attempt to answer the question of how and why the two movements cooperated and then collided. Among his interlocutors are Khaled Mohieddin, leftist founder of Tagamu; Sami Sharaf, gatekeeper to Nasser’s office; and the ubiquitous authority on this era, as well as the guardian, if not creator, of Nasser’s legacy, Mohamed Hassanein Heikal. The interviews demonstrate Nasser’s obsession with the Islamic current, despite his success in pragmatically aligning his regime with al-Azhar. This prompted Aminah al-Said to criticize his reluctance to wage a pro-feminist Jihad against this stronghold of Islamic conservatism. Yet Mohieddin repeatedly emphasized that Nasser was more fearful of the Egyptian left than the Islamists on the right. Gerges asserts that this was no ideological struggle, since Nasser knew the depth of the masses’ Islamic attachment. His anti-Ikhwan Muslimun (Muslim Brotherhood) struggle was never that of an Ataturk or Bourguiba, who were hell-bent on transforming their societies into replicas of the West.
The author examines the failure of Nasser’s pan-Arab project by examining its beliefs. Gerges insists that Nasser used this doctrine to maximize Egypt’s strategic depth in the Sinai region and was not as interested in Arab unity as he was favorable to a semblance of regional solidarity. Nasser emerges as a pragmatist, not an ideologue, unlike Michel Aflaq or Sati al-Husri, who created a leader-centered movement. But how to explain the blunder of the Yemeni War or Syria’s defection from the United Arab Republic, caused by Abd al-Karim Nahlawi, an obscure lieutenant-colonel? Nasser’s leadership survived, it is argued, simply because he had no internal rivals other than Mohamed Naguib. Egyptian writers, however, often refer to Abd al-Hakim Amer as Nasser’s nemesis prior to his official disgrace following the 1967 War.
Among the most informative treatments in this book is the investgation of the life-story and intellectual evolution of Qutb, referred to by his acolytes as al-shahid al-hayy (the living martyr), and by the author as “the accidental Islamist.” It is the underlying premise of this study that modern Egypt was shaped by the struggle of the Nasser-Qutb Janus of Egyptian nationalism. Gerges succeeds brilliantly in outlining the earlier collaboration and later divergence of views of these two, clarifying that al-Banna never proposed divorcing Islam from Arab nationalism. The struggle over Egypt’s leadership intensified after the 1952 coup, with each side claiming strong anti-colonial credentials and an even stronger commitment to issues of social justice. Nasser was vilified as someone who had reneged on his baya(oath of allegiance) to the Supreme Guide by refusing to hand over the reins of power to his erstwhile supporters in the Islamist underground.
The unacknowledged homogeneity of views within the two camps was a natural outcome of their descent from the common ranks of the new urban petite bourgeoisie. Sharaf claimed the officers generally believed that the Supreme Guide, Hassan Hudaybi, was trying to hijack the revolution. As Qutb’s propaganda war heightened, Nasser became obsessed with this unanticipated challenge to the RCC and Hudaybi’s dalliance with Naguib, culminating in Mahmud Abdel Latif’s attempt on his life. Qutb, as the head of the Ikhwan’s propaganda department, utilized all his literary skills to vilify Nasser as a treasonous dictator and a secret Jew. The threat became real as the officers discovered Qutb’s al-Nizam al-Sirri (secret apparatus). Nasser’s jails not only inflicted torture and humiliation on the Ikhwan, but also became training grounds for an entire generation of Islamist radicals, including feminists such as the formidable organizer Zeinab al-Ghazzali.
Other parallels between the two antagonists emerged, such as a remarkable capacity for adaptation. Nasser — who, according to Heikal, “lacked a revolutionary map” before seizing power — learned how to wage an ideological campaign equating liberal capitalist democracy with colonialism, before establishing an authoritarian regime to enact his reforms. Similarly, Qutb speedily adapted to his new role as the leader of the revolutionary wing of his movement by embracing the concepts of hakimiyya (God’s sovereignty) and takfir (excommunicating other Muslims) from the Indian scholars Mawdudi and Nadhawi. Qutb latched on to the injunctions of Ibn Taymiyya, who made the shedding of Muslim blood (clearly prohibited in the Quran) as fardh ayn, a duty incumbent on every Muslim. Thus, as Nasser was searching for a role to fill, clarified in Philosophy of the Revolution, so was Qutb — following the unraveling of his secular liberal career.
Qutb actually lacked attachment to al-Azhar after he joined the reformist teachers-training school Dar al-Ulum. Although consumed with what he saw as the moral decline of the United States, his two seminal works, Maalem fi al-Tariq (Signposts Along the Way) and Fi Thilal al-Quran (Under the Shade of the Quran) were written in jail. Qutb apparently was more despondent over the lack of interest of his mentor, Abbas Mahmoud al-Aqqad, in promoting his literary career than anything else. Qutb, while in jail, proposed violence as a tool against the oppressive state, distinguishing between genuine and insincere Muslims. Gerges adds that the battle of the 1950s and 1960s materialized as a dispute over the definition of Egyptian national identity at a time of conscious Muslim alienation from Western culture. While Qutb called for a return to asala (authenticity) led by an Islamic talia (vanguard), the Islamist old guard continued to preach the virtues of gradualism and the impracticality, if not illegitimacy, of violent seizure of power. Arguing that creating the ideal Islamic state may require entering into unsavory alliances, they honed tactics later utilized during the Sadat and Mubarak periods. Nasser’s legacy, however, was overtaken not by radical Islamists but by Sadat, one of his inner circle. Even though the older Islamists learned the tactics of co-optation and manipulation in order to grasp the nettlesome reins of power, they and younger recruits never expressed any pangs of self-doubt. Pan-Arab public intellectuals, however, agonized over the failure of the national project, attributing it to excessive attachment to the Islamic heritage. And as the mirage of political power expanded and contracted by Sadat’s endorsement of Gamaa Islamiyya on university campuses and his eventual crackdown on Islamist opposition to his Camp David diplomacy, the Ikhwan were forced to adapt. The Mubarak regime’s tolerance for limited Islamist participation in politics afforded new opportunities for joining the Tagamuu and Wafd parties. But the Brotherhood remained excluded from power due to the deepening chasm separating the younger reform wing from the old guard.
Failure to achieve political ascendancy resulted from resistance to such modernizing steps as opening the organization to women and developing a modern definition of citizenship that would admit Christians as well. This paralysis forced the Ikhwan to stall during the early phase of the Arab Spring, eventually accepting the invitation of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) to stabilize the country by fielding its own presidential candidate. This turned out to be the lackluster Mohamed Morsi, who ruled briefly while the head of the group, Mohamed Badie, and its richest financier, Khairat al-Shater, continued to exercise control. Gerges dwells on the puzzle of a movement enjoying vast popular support, control of professional syndicates and successful management of a vast social-welfare network yet unable to devise a meaningful response to the revolutionary crisis.
It would be difficult to argue with any part of this study or to ignore its breadth, thoughtful analysis or impeccable objectivity. Professor Gerges has delivered a tour de force of massive proportions that absorbed him for more than two decades. The main value of this study remains its juxtaposing of the competing ideologies of the Arab world and its clashing revolutionary traditions in order to provide a clear view of its modern dilemmas. He accomplishes this by providing an array of interviews, as well as rare autobiographical accounts, studies and reports. Much of the material pertaining to the decline and inner conflicts of the Islamist movement is accessed here for the first time. The work is an unparalleled contribution to our understanding of the world of the Arabs following the loss of Palestine, and the enduring injustices and humiliations of the 1967 War. Although the author claims the methodology of British historian Eric Hobsbawm as the inspiration for his approach of emphasizing patterns and cycles, it is probably more accurate to cite the Annales French school of historical writing, with its concern for continuity, rather than disruptions, in history.
I have only two reservations. As fascinating as the life-story of Qutb is, he cannot be canonized as one of the great figures of the modern period. There are many ideologues, public intellectuals, political revolutionaries, feminist pioneers and party stalwarts more deserving of this rank. And, as illuminating as this work is, it still leaves the reader with many questions about pan-Arabism and its fallen heroes. Hopefully, this will be Professor Gerges’s next undertaking.” – Ghada Hashem Talhami for The Middle East Policy Council
“Fawaz Gerges’ book Making the Arab World is a well-argued and highly informative political and historical essay about the struggle between Arab nationalism and Islamism in Egypt and the Arab world. Its main thesis is that Arab nationalism and Islamism are not polar opposites, but rather two historically and ideologically deeply intertwined movements with common origins. Their rather coincidental clash in the 1950s and 1960s produced a political deadlock from which the Arab world is still suffering today.
The stories of Gamal Abdel Nasser and Sayyid Qutb, both iconic figures of Arab nationalism and Islamism respectively, aptly illustrate and explain this point. Before 1952, both men were ambitious and ideologically rather unsettled individuals looking for a purpose in life – Nasser as a disgruntled army officer in a country controlled by foreigners and corrupt local elites, and Qutb as a struggling writer and literary critic. Their lives briefly converged after the 1952 revolution, when Qutb became an enthusiastic supporter and public ally of the Free Officers’ movement. However, Qutb took the side of the rival Muslim Brotherhood (Ikhwan) over the Free Officers, only months before the power struggle between both movements turned violent. Nasser was almost killed in an assassination attempt, and, like many of his fellow Ikhwan, Qutb was arrested, tortured and thrown into prison. The two men became bitter personal foes. After Qutb issued a thinly veiled call for rebellion against Nasser in his famous manifest “Signposts” (1965), the latter had him tried and executed in
Chapters 1 and 2 set the stage for the action by giving an overview of political and intellectual developments in colonial Egypt from the late 19th century to the 1950s. Secular-liberal tendencies predominated in the national movement up to the 1920s, but the failure of the Wafd party and the liberal constitutional system to guarantee national independence, prosperity and social justice contributed to a change in the intellectual climate. Both Qutb (b. 1906) and Nasser (b. 1918) were part of the generation of the 1930s and 1940s, which felt drawn to politically more radical ideas (fascism, communism) and a vague longing for identity, a “romantic retreat towards the epic golden days of Islam” (p. 64). Islamism and nationalism – which did not emerge as clearly separate ideologies and movements before the late 1950s – took their central ideas out of this crucible: political autonomy as prior to all other political and social goals, a strong state that should guarantee development and universal welfare, and a homogeneous nation cleansed of foreigners and corrupt elements. Both shared an impatient desire to implement reforms without checks and balances, which came with a strong inclination towards unilateralism and authoritarianism.
Chapters 3 and 4 chart the history of the Free Officers and the Ikhwan from the 1940s to the 1960s. Gerges makes good use of the circumstance that, from about the year 2000, many veterans from both sides have finally broken their silence about the events of this period. This allows him to supplement older sources and research publications with a wealth of new material, mainly derived from personal interviews with Ikhwan activists and former Free Officers and their associates, as well as Egyptian researchers such as Sherif Younis and Tewfik Aclimandos. Beyond the “propagandistic and mythmaking narratives” (p. 95) that both camps continue to disseminate, Gerges paints the picture of a complex relationship that reached a breaking point not over ideology but over the issue of political power in the postcolonial order.
The book finally turns to Nasser and Qutb in chapters 5 to 9. Portraying young Nasser and young Sayyid Qutb, Gerges puts the accent on ideological fluidity and biographical factors. Nasser was a pious but culturally tolerant Muslim. He did not care much for the Ikhwan’s fixation on the Sharia as a solution to all problems, neither was he intent on separating religion from politics. Once in power, he “used religion proactively as a means to extend state power and achieve and sustain social cohesion.” (p. 195) Likewise, his ideological choices – Arab nationalism and, later, socialism – were always motivated by pragmatic political considerations.
While Nasser turned away from the Muslim Brotherhood, which he had briefly joined in the 1940s, towards secular Arab nationalism, Qutb moved in the opposite direction. From a conservative rural background, as a young man he struggled in vain to find recognition in the elitist literary circles of Cairo. Disappointed and angry, he turned towards religious themes and gradually grew closer to the Ikhwan, whom he finally joined in March 1953, immediately after having served as a close advisor to the Free Officers for several months.
His decision to “jump ship”, argues Gerges, was motivated probably by ambition and pride. While the Free Officers disappointed his hope of becoming minister of education or state media, the Ikhwan immediately made him head of their influential Daʿwa department. Qutb’s experience of persecution further radicalized him, and he agreed to become the leader and spiritual guide of a rogue paramilitary network within the Ikhwan in the late 1950s. As an ideologue of Islamic resistance against Nasserism, he finally found intellectual certainty and a sense of purpose. The final part of the book, chapters 10-12, charts the aftermath and the consequences of the clash between nationalists and Islamists. Gerges criticizes the common narrative that the 1967 defeat caused the decline of Arab nationalism and the rise of Islamism up to the present day.
Both ideologies remain popular and influential in the Arab world, he argues, even though both have failed miserably on the political level, mainly due to three reasons: overblown ambitions, internal fragmentation and stagnation, and an inability to cooperate with each other.
Gerges’ way of reading Egyptian and Arab history reveals the political message of his work. Making the Arab World is a scholarly effort, but it is also a plea for turning a page in Arab politics, and for avoiding what appears to be an endless repetition of old struggles and mistakes. Because they feared and mistrusted the Islamists, Arab nationalists built authoritarian security states. Because of exclusion and persecution, the Muslim Brotherhood developed a fossilized and insular counterculture, while their more radical offspring turned to “religious messianism and nihilism” (p. 150). Both developments have been reinforcing each other for decades. To cut a long story short, Gerges argues, “there can be no political transition as long as the Ikhwan, the most influential social movement in the Arab world, and the military-dominated regime are locked in a state of war” (p. 406). This is why the Arab Spring started as an unprecedented political and social opening but soon turned into another confrontational cycle between nationalists and Islamists.
Although Gerges is fiercely critical of both Arab nationalism and Islamism, he is a realist and does not expect either movement to disappear in the near future. He recognizes the legitimacy and popular appeal of both movements, but he decries their ongoing failure to cooperate for the common good: “If the Ikhwan and the Free Officers had […] cooperated in building the institutions of the postcolonial, post-independence state, the face of the Arab Middle East would have been radically different” (p. 150); “Nasser’s and Qutb’s successors have dominated the social and political scene for sixty years, not only by battling each other but also, sometimes, by collaborating to prevent the rise of third-party competitors and rivals” (p. 394). Gerges’ hope seems to be that, in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, third parties might arise to help break the deadlock between Islamism and nationalism and inaugurate a politically more constructive chapter in Arab history.” – Sebastian Elsässer – Die Welt des Islams
“Fawaz A. Gerges takes a historical and sociological approach to assess the opposing forces of Arab nationalism and Islamists. In Making the Arab World, Gerges offers a biography of both Gamal Abdel Nasser and Sayyid Qutb to facilitate the discussion on how they shaped the divisions in the Middle East. Particular emphasis is on the Muslim Brotherhood, or the Ikhwan, throughout the book. Gerges does not seek to provide a mere history lesson; rather, he offers decades worth of interviews and archival research to present an alternative perspective on Egyptian history and how Nasser and Qutb were driving forces in the Arab world.
Gerges begins the book with a history of Egyptian sovereignty and its break from British colonialism. Throughout the twentieth century, Egypt experienced the rise of political movements that created divisions, which were the earliest signs of revolution in the country. The author fast-forwards to the World War II era and explains Egyptians’ dissatisfaction with the country’s politics. As the author explains, “The emergence of authoritarian social movements and parties reflected an increasing shift towards radical religious discourse in the politics of the 1930s and 1940s” (63). The war brought economic hardships not only to Egypt’s middle class but to all North Africa and the Middle East. This population believed Europe had wronged the Arab world. Radical groups nurtured the plight of this community, and the Muslim Brotherhood rose to the occasion, establishing itself as a political and social movement in Egypt. Gerges centralizes the importance of the 1952 coup d’état in Egypt by Nasser’s Free Officers. Following the coup, deeper divisions in the country developed. The Free Officers found themselves in continual tension with the Muslim Brotherhood. Nasser wanted to demonstrate he was the authority and thus began to purge the country of Islamists— namely the Muslim Brotherhood—and communists. To understand this conflict, Gerges examines Qutb’s prison years (1954–64). Despite the following Qutb developed while incarcerated, Gerges argues Qutb should not be perceived as a direct link to jihad ideology. Although leaders, such as Ayman al-Zawahiri, invoke Qutb’s work as a means to justify their own ideology, it does not mean that Qutb is the single influencing factor.
After a backdrop of Egypt’s early history, the author begins a biography of Nasser, including indirect associations with the Muslim Brotherhood in hopes of finding revolutionaries who would break Egypt from British imperial control. He argues that many Nasserists prefer not to discuss Nasser’s involvement with the organization possibly because they do not want to hurt Nasser’s image. Gerges references a number of political organizations that Nasser was indirectly involved with throughout his life. Ultimately, Nasser developed an identity through associations with a number of political experiences living throughout Egypt. According to the author, Nasser was pragmatic, not ideological. Gerges then follows with a biography on Qutb to complete the juxtaposition. Interviews with his contemporaries and a deep study of his writings between the 1920s and 1940s reveal that Qutb was “deeply suspicious of mixing religion and politics” (181). In other words, Qutb’s early years were not of what is known of him today. His spiritual awakening occurred in 1953 when he formally joined the Muslim Brotherhood and altered his way of thought. The author argues that Qutb’s followers refer to his early years as the “lost years” because he was so different from what he is presently remembered (184).
Nonetheless, Gerges sees similarities between these two men who have profoundly different ways of thought. Nasser was deeply rooted in Egyptian patriotism blended with Arab nationalism. The author believes that Nasser has in large part been misunderstood. Nasser sought to “cleanse Egypt of the old corrupt ruling elite and imperial control” (211). From the 1950s onward, Qutb delved deeply into religious thought and Islamist thinking. Qutb’s involvement with the Muslim Brotherhood, however, was not without conflict.
There was a split in the organization between the ideals of the Muslim Brotherhood’s founder, Hassan al-Banna, and that of Qutb. Nasser ultimately sentenced Qutb to death; he was hung in 1966. Nasser’s life took a shift as well. Following the defeat in 1967 during the Six-Day War, Nasser’s role in Egypt declined. The country’s revolutionary zeal dwindled. Nasser died of a heart attack in 1970. His death revived political Islam as well as the Muslim Brotherhood.
The author smoothly transitions into discussing a resurgence aided by Anwar Sadat. Sadat purged the country of all things Nasser, including loyalists within the government, and steered the country towards Islamist rule. Egypt quickly transitioned from Arab nationalism to Islamism. Both government and society would abide by political Islam, however, the Muslim Brotherhood remained divided between the ultraconservative linked to Qutb and those who viewed things differently. This division prevented the group from having an active role in society and politics.
To conclude, Gerges believes that the Muslim Brotherhood is at a breaking point with the regime of current Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who has been dismantling the organization since the fall of Mohammed Morsi in 2013. According to the author, al-Sisi finds himself in a conflict similar to that of Nasser; he is trying to position himself as a leader who seeks to crush a powerful Islamist organization and express Egyptian nationalism.
Gerges seeks to understand the problem without restating what has been previously written on the subject. Decades worth of interviews with Nasser and Qutb contemporaries and others who were close with both men, as well as archival material helped formulate this book, however, the book lacks fundamental discussion on the Arab Spring. While the author discusses the fall of Hosni Mubarak and Morsi, more contemporary evidence to support the overarching theme of the book could have been added. Overall, this book is a must read for anyone who seeks to understand Egyptian history and key players who helped shape the divisiveness of the Middle East. In an era where history is being glossed over, this book serves its purpose by telling the story of a nation with a rich past and figures who set the stage for what was to come in the Arab world!” – Alma Keshavarz – Parameters
Luma Simms, Ethics & Public Policy Center:
What have we learned from our failed Middle Eastern endeavors? Journalists and some experts tell us that Bashar al-Assad is a bloody dictator, a war criminal, terrible to his people, and that he should be opposed, with aid and support going to those who would topple him. We are told that some—though not all—who oppose him are throwing off the chains of authoritarianism, and are seeking freedom and democracy. Even the president of Turkey (the re-Islamicizer of his country), Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has declared that The World Must Stop Assad. Ergo, we should assist those fighting for their liberty against the oppressive dictator.
Because we keep falling for these lines, veiled—and sometimes not-so-veiled—Islamists pull us into their spheres against brutal dictators. Assad didn’t help things by turning to longtime U.S. nemesis Iran (and in actuality Assad’s enemy as well) and Russia for help. As of this writing, these tactics have established an Iranian presence in Syria, entrenched with a military infrastructure there, and strengthened the arm of Hezbollah in the region, while Christians in Lebanon, and Israel our ally, bear the brunt of a cunning Iran.
Those who wanted to “strike Syria and take out the dictator” may be motivated by images of suffering, but this is incomplete knowledge. For those looking for realism, I’m happy to fly you out to Arizona so you can meet Iraqi and Syrian Christian refugees. After that, maybe we’ll drive out to San Diego and get a feel for “Little Baghdad.” We can hit Los Angeles after that, and then head off to Michigan.
It wouldn’t be enough. We would have to travel all over the world to get a true sense of the Middle Eastern Christian diaspora. That is the reality of what happens when America “strikes” Arab countries. The second- and third-order effects reach back home and reverberate around the world for decades. People remember—peoples remember—and people learn to presume and expect that the United States will attack Arab lands whenever it suits its purposes. They have come to believe that the United States is the aggressor. These lines from a dear Syrian friend who lost her little girl in a bus bombing in Syria never leave my mind: “We [Syrians] knew when we saw on television that America invaded Iraq, that one day they will do the same to us.”
This is what people on the ground believe – nay – know.
A people, no matter their religion, deserve more than that. They deserve the opportunity to stay in their homeland. This has not been the case for Middle Eastern Christians, and nothing is happening to change that projection into the future.
What does the war in Syria have to do with Fawaz Gerges’s new book, Making the Arab World: Nasser, Qutb, and the Clash that Shaped the Middle East?
It has to do with the Islamist and national-secularist dialectic that has shaped the history of the region since the beginning of the 20th century, a struggle within the Arab world that has undermined the development of the Arab countries during the postcolonial period. This dual biography of two Egyptians, Gamal Abdel Nasser and Sayyid Qutb, shows clearly that the conflagration in Middle Eastern lands was kindled a long time ago. In the face of a complex civilizational dynamic, Gerges gives the reader the fundamental answer: What we have intervened in is an intra-Islamic war between the secular nationalists and the Islamists; or, in the words of one of Gerges’s Islamist interviewees, a war between “Islam versus apostasy.”
As an Iraqi Christian growing up in America but within an Iraqi subculture, I often heard this conflict spoken of, especially as it affected the Christians caught in the middle—from the soft discrimination of yesteryear that drove our family out, to the most recent outright genocide of Christians in Iraq.
Islamists and Secular Nationalists
Gerges, a Lebanese American who teaches Middle East politics and international relations at the London School of Economics, does a superb job in Making the Arab World. He begins his telling with Napoleon’s mission civilisatrice, a campaign to bring the ideals of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution to Egypt. This mission backfired, in the sense that it produced in Islamic lands a dissonant dynamic: enchantment with Western technological progress while harboring animosity for Western civilization.
The warped reaction of the Arab world as it encountered the West complicated the Arab colonial period. Gerges has a darker view of colonialism than the one I hold; he believes that the hypocrisy of the authorities at that time is what disillusioned the Egyptians. Regarding the British and the monarchy in Egypt during the 1920s, he writes:
“Both regarded constitutionalism as a menace to their hegemonic influence, and they spared no effort to curtail its advance and entrenchment in society. More than any other factor, the British authorities and the maverick king sacrificed constitutionalism on the altar of their narrow interests, a point worth mentioning when pondering the question of why democracy has not taken hold on Arab soil.”
It is a human tendency to think in hard and impermeable categories. When it comes to colonialism, caricatures abound. So often we blame the current paroxysms of the Arab lands on colonialism because it’s fashionable to believe that it is—was—an inherent and unmitigated evil inflicted upon ethnic people. But without the British helping the newly formed government of Iraq craft the 1925 constitution, this language of inclusion would not have happened: “There shall be no differentiation in the rights of Iraqis before the law, whatever differences may exist in language, race or creed.” This worked well in Iraq for some time.
The fact is that simple human agency is meaningful. Pivotal historical moments have been shaped by personal human action and not necessary systems, plots, or grand schemes. Gerges attests to this, and it is one of the themes he hits upon over and again in recounting the actions of Nasser and Qutb, and the gritty struggle for power between men and political factions.
The experience of minorities was positive, and for the most part good, under colonial rule. (I know this not just from my reading, but from many firsthand accounts I’ve received from Christians from those lands.) But the desire for Islamic and Arab identity was powerful and so the struggle against colonialism held a disparate band of actors together. The secularists, the socialists, the Marxists, the Islamists were able to unite, for “This fight against colonialism overshadowed their different visions of the political articulation of an independent Egypt,” writes Gerges.
Moreover, Germany and the Soviet Union took advantage of Arab resentment and hostility toward the West. The Arab lands were fertile soil for political and philosophical ideas coming from these countries (fascism and socialism). And so, in July 1952, Lieutenant Colonel Nasser and the Free Officers conducted a successful coup d’etat of the British-backed monarchy. As Gerges notes, their emphasis was on decolonization and on communitarian “rather than individual freedoms and constitutional rights.”
Nasser is usually portrayed as a secular nationalist, but Gerges gives us a more nuanced understanding of a man who experimented with many anti-hegemonic ideologies, including his connection with the Muslim Brotherhood movement in the 1940s and into the early 1950s. He also tilted toward the Soviet model in organizing Egypt’s economy. Through all of his experimentation he learned, especially after the 1948 Palestinian war (or Arab-Israeli war), that the army is the only way to keep law and order.
The Free Officers and the Islamists both believed that the West had thwarted the Arab world’s self-determination, and of Egypt’s in particular. But after Nasser’s coup, there arose a conflicting vision between nationalists and the Islamists as to what form that self-determination should take. And that political rivalry has shaped not only Egypt but the region since then.
For the Islamists—mostly in the form of the Ikhwan, the Muslim Brotherhood movement—Islam was not just a religion but an all-encompassing civilization that had within itself all that was needed for life, including the dictates of how a country is to be governed. They envisioned a Qur’anic political order much like today’s Islamic Republic of Iran. That they believed this was the only path to an authentic Arab Islamic identity can be seen in a 1958 video of Nasser. He recounts his 1953 conversation with the head of the Ikhwan, and his pursuit of some form of compromise between the two sides. He relates that the first thing the leader of the Ikhwan asked for was a law mandating every woman walking in public to wear the hijab.
Socialism, Arabism, and Secularism
The national secularists—Nasser and his heirs—were politically and philosophically more influenced by German and Russian socialist thought, which they alloyed with Arabism, than by the Anglo-American tradition. Nasser himself certainly did not believe in democracy. He and the others desired to create socialist Arab nations that could compete economically with Western nations, and attempted to do so by pure authoritarian fiat. At the same time, and contra the propaganda the Ikhwan peddled about Nasser, the Egyptian leader was neither an unbeliever nor an apostate. Gerges quotes from interviews showing that Nasser stayed a Muslim believer until the end, only that he did not believe that religion should be enforced via state power.
And that brings me to an underestimated point: Middle Eastern Christian and other religious minorities tend to fare better under nationalists. There are two reasons for this: One, the nationalist ideology is more inclusive (by default) as it takes in all the people living in that particular nation, no matter their religion. (In fact, Gerges discusses how in the early days of pan-Arabism and nationalism, many Christians were involved in these political movements because they finally felt included, because it wasn’t religiously driven.) The second reason is that nationalists don’t want to enforce Islam via state power. This creates social, political, and cultural space for religious minorities of all stripes.
Granted, not to the extent we see in the West. Seen through our Western lens, we tend to consider these “freedoms” laughable and we attempt and have attempted to push the Arab world for more. What we should do, as realists, is consider it a good stage in the evolution of the Arab world.
For Qutb, on the other hand, “The ultimate objective became that of replacing the Nasserist ‘apostate’ state with what was envisioned as a new, more righteous Qur’anic political order,” as Gerges says. A few pages later he writes that during the years Nasser had imprisoned Qutb—from 1954 to 1964—the preacher of jihad “developed a normative ethics which partially crystallized around the concept of politically driven violence. With Qutb, violence is not only used as a tool of opposition to the state, it de facto becomes an identity marker that helps differentiate real Muslims from the rest.”
This is why Christians cannot survive Islamist states. Americans who rationalize support for Islamists over secular dictators, take note. Believe not the propaganda of the Muslim Brotherhood’s sympathizers in the West. Albeit, things get muddled in the Middle East, and the line between secular and Islamist may be hard to distinguish given the secularists’ use of the Islamists and vice versa—all the more reason for a very cautious and more informed involvement by America.
Is There a Path to Democracy—and Who Cares?
The fact that America has been on the side of Islamists—unwittingly at times, intentionally in others—against secular nationalist rulers—that is, rulers who did not impose religion on the people—has worked against an Arab path to democracy. We saw this with the shah of Iran, and with Saddam Hussein in Iraq. We do not understand the dynamics of the cultures in this part of the world, their value systems and ways of thinking. The brute fact is that our insatiable desire for oil moves us toward short-sighted decisions.
The Islamists talk up democracy and decry the brutality of the dictators to gain Western sympathy and support. This lasts until they gain power. At which point they return to who they really are, enforcers of Islam without any real or lasting ideas for governing a nation or advancing a society.
Gerges returns to that point often. In Egypt, Ikhwan leaders “spent decades growing the movement while neglecting theory, public policy, and a strategic vision for the country.” He adds:
“One thing is clear: it is unlikely that the Islamist movement will undergo a democratic transformation anytime soon. Historically, when under attack and besieged, Ikhwan leaders hunkered down, trying to weather the violent storm . . . As they see it, ultimately the sacred truth of Islam will triumph over the powerful forces of darkness and apostasy. This conviction is an impediment to critical self-reflection and acknowledgment of what went wrong with the movement.”
My opinion (heretical in some circles) is that the path to peace—or at the very least, a quasi-peace—in the Middle East will come through secular nationalists, not through Islamists. Every time we take the side of Islamists we set the region back. The secular nationalists, yes, even the autocrats, over many iterations will settle down into a stable governmental structure of sorts—a space in which the people may actually live day-to-day without fear of random violence or arbitrary intrusions.
No, it won’t be democracy as we imagine it. But it could be an Arab world with a strong Arab identity manifested in its plurality, a diversified economy—an Arab world that has more to offer the rest of us than just oil, and that is stable enough so that the peoples of the region will have the choice of staying in their country of origin. On the other hand, if the West continues to support Islamists, especially as a tool to battle Russia and Iran, we will see a Middle East destroyed and used by outside agents for their benefit.
It does not seem to me that a form of democracy is impossible ever in the Middle East; but I do believe that a people, a nation, a culture, must work out its own stable governmental forms.
Luma Simms, a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, has written on the life and thought of immigrants for First Things, the Federalist, and many other publications.
Making the Arab World: Nasser, Qutb, and the Clash that Shaped the Middle East provides a remarkable account of how, together, Gamal Abdel Nasser and Sayyid Qutb became towering figures in the story of modern Egypt. The reader learns of the twists and turns through which Nasser grew from a participant in Egypt’s military-led 1952 Free Officer’s Revolution to President of Egypt and leading figure in Arab politics in the space of a few years. The reader also learns about Sayyid Qutb’s transformation from literary critic to leading light of Islamism during the 1950s and 1960s. Author Fawaz A. A. Gerges argues that the particular ways their lives intersected, more than the ideologies they promoted, are responsible for the combustible dynamic between secular Arab nationalism and Islamist politics that continues to play out across the Arab world.
Drawing on remarkable interviews with confidants of Nasser, who possess a treasure trove of information about the Free Officers Revolution of 1952 and its aftermath, Gerges uses first-hand accounts to show that initially the Free Officers were not terribly committed to any particular ideology. In fact, the Muslim Brotherhood and the Free Officers worked together closely to plan, organize, and (after the initial coup) to legitimize the revolution. Gerges argues that the eventual break between the Muslim Brotherhood and Nasser (along with the Free Officers more generally) had less to do with ideological conflict than power politics. The link between the revolution and secular Arab nationalism came later after more personal politics began to play out.
Within two years of the Revolution, Nasser had moved to consolidate his authority by sidelining rivals and banning independent organizations that might rival his revolutionary movement. The Muslim Brotherhood, including its leaders and rank-and-file members, fell into both categories. Nasser feared that the Islamist organization’s significant social base posed a threat to his increasing hold on the post-colonial state. More than any ideological orientation, according to Gerges, this set the stage for the clash at the heart of 20th- and 21st-century Egyptian public life.
Nasser’s crackdown on the Brotherhood, spurred by an assassination attempt linked to elements within the organization, entailed mass imprisonments. Among those caught up in the wave of arrests and incarcerations was Sayyid Qutb, who had been quite active in working with the Free Officers both before and after the initial coup. While in prison, Qutb wrote copiously, crafting a radical, revolutionary Islamist vision, arguing that Nasser and other government officials were apostates and as such no longer deserved the respect or protection afforded fellow Muslims. In the vacuum of Brotherhood leadership created by Nasser’s crackdown, Qutb’s writings attracted significant attention among younger members who were seeking to create a new, secret paramilitary wing to confront the Egyptian state.
Eventually, Egyptian security services, which grew exponentially during the 1950s, accidentally discovered yet-to-be-enacted plans for attacks against state interests. On the basis of his alleged role in these plans as well as his writings, Nasser ordered Qutb’s execution in 1966. Just a year later, Nasser himself suffered a serious blow and saw his authority beginning to wane in the wake of Egypt’s terrible defeat in the 1967 war with Israel that called into question the viability of Nasser’s Arab nationalist project. Nonetheless, according to Gerges, the clash between Qutb and Nasser concretized dynamics that continued to frame life in Egypt for decades to come.
Nasser justified the growth of the security state by positioning the Muslim Brotherhood as an existential threat to Egypt. His crackdown on the organization left the Brotherhood fractured, with some members hewing closely to the original vision of the movement’s founder, Hasan al-Banna, who preached gradual societal change, and others advocating Qutb’s vision of revolutionary transformation. When Nasser’s successor, Anwar Sadat, opened significant space for Islamist politics in the years after his death, these fractures continued to play out very publicly. Sadat himself succumbed to Islamist activists (from within the military), who assassinated him in 1981. This in turn led to a renewed, multi-decade crackdown on Islamist organizations, including the Brotherhood, by Hosni Mubarak, who was in power from the time of Sadat’s death until 2011. The permanent state of emergency marking Mubarak’s rule also made a broader crackdown on virtually all non-state organizations possible. After a brief, tumultuous, and polarizing period in power following the uprisings of 2011 and subsequent elections, the Brotherhood is once again prohibited by the current president, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.
In short, Gerges argues, the original clash between Nasser and the Brotherhood is directly responsible for the state of Egyptian public life: society has little to no room to function apart from the state, the Brotherhood continues to hold itself aloof from non-Islamist life and thus is unable to work effectively with other opposition groups, and more radical Islamists who justify violence give the security state pretext for authoritarian rule. Gerges successfully argues this point with care.
However, Gerges does not really discuss how these dynamics have played out across the region, despite the promise implied by the title. For those with a background in the region it may be possible to connect the dots. For others, it will be very difficult to evaluate this portion of the book’s argument. This is a significant drawback for those looking for a more general account of nationalism and Islamism in the Arab world. There are occasional references to other relevant contexts, such as Syria and Saudi Arabia, but not the kind of extended engagement non-specialists would need.
I am also left wondering about Gerges’s insistence that power politics and personal grievance, more than ideology or ideas, fueled the titanic clash between Nasser and Qutb. It is clear that Nasser and Qutb acted on the basis of very real and concrete concerns about power, authority, and personal interest, but this does not mean that the ideas they articulated and that affected and influenced so many others were merely window dressing justifying their own actions or motivations. Many figures and movements with disparate ideological commitments have found common cause in anti-colonial struggle only to fall out after independence. This element of Gerges’s argument does not seem essential to the book itself, and may well leave those who think ideas motivate action and thus play a crucial role in historical change a little skeptical.
Even with these criticisms in mind, Making the Arab World: Nasser, Qutb, and the Clash that Shaped the Middle East is a significant contribution to Middle East studies. It draws together incredible research to tell an important story about two figures who had a great impact on life in their own historical moment and beyond. – Caleb Elfenbein, Reading Religion
“Seven years since the heady days of early 2011, when massive, electrifying protests brought down the Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak, the political atmosphere in Egypt has turned somber. In 2013, General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi overthrew President Mohamed Morsi, a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood who had narrowly won Egypt’s first free presidential election the prior year. Since seizing power, Sisi has emptied the country of any real politics. His crackdown against the Muslim Brotherhood has been particularly brutal: he has jailed tens of thousands of Brothers, and designated the group a terrorist organization. On the regional stage, Egypt has found itself relegated to second-tier status. What was once the center of the Arab world today feels like a ghost of its former self.
In this environment, it is easy to forget that for much of the twentieth century, Egypt was the most consequential battleground in the struggle for the soul of the new Arab state. Following the formal dissolution of the Ottoman caliphate, in 1924, new ideologies and approaches to governing competed to fill the vacuum. In the 1930s and 1940s, during Egypt’s so-called liberal era, secularists, socialists, and Islamists vied for legitimacy in a chaotic but relatively free political atmosphere. The freedom did not last. In 1952, a clandestine cohort of young military officers led by a man named Gamal Abdel Nasser overthrew the Egyptian monarchy and eventually ended what little was left of Egypt’s liberal age.
Nasser’s revolution marked a watershed moment in Egypt’s modern era. At its outset, the dueling ideologies of Islamism and secular nationalism were uncertain and still in flux. But they would soon come to define the seemingly intractable political conflict within not just Egypt but also the broader Arab world. In the 1950s and 1960s, the contest played out in part through the bitter rivalry between two of the period’s most memorable personalities: Nasser, on the one hand, and the famed Muslim Brotherhood ideologue Sayyid Qutb, on the other.
In Making the Arab World, Fawaz Gerges traces the intertwining biographies and intellectual trajectories of these two titans of Egyptian history. The result is a fascinating and deeply researched revisionist history-one that sheds light on the forces still roiling in Egypt under the surface calm of Sisi’s rule. Today, Nasser and Qutb are remembered as representatives of opposing visions for Egypt. Gerges, however, tells a far more interesting and complicated story about the relationship between the two men and the movements they helped shape. Behind their competing ideologies were flawed individuals with complex and sometimes contradictory motivations. Gerges’ reexamination of a crucial period in Egyptian history usefully illustrates how all ideologies-even the ones that seem most fixed and unyielding-are in fact fluid and contingent on events.
Nasser was born to a working-class family in Alexandria in 1918. He became politically active as a young boy and traced the roots of his Egyptian nationalist sentiments to a protest he accidentally stumbled into as a 12-year-old. His political leanings later drew him to a career in the military, an institution he viewed “as a spearhead that could awaken Egypt’s population from its malaise and subservience to foreigners,” Gerges writes.
Nasser was always a nationalist, but he was also, in effect, an Islamist. He became a member of the Muslim Brotherhood in 1947, a Sunni Islamist organization founded in Egypt by Hasan al-Banna in 1928 and that eventually spread throughout the Middle East. Nasser quickly grew frustrated with the Brotherhood on a personal level, but he continued to collaborate closely with its leadership for several more years. He rightly viewed the organization as a powerful social and political force in Egypt and therefore as a critical ally.
Nasser’s critiques of the Egyptian government intensified during his time in the military, and he eventually came to believe that the British-backed monarchy needed to be overthrown. Throughout the 1940s, he assembled a cadre of like-minded young military officers, officially naming them the Free Officers in 1949. In 1952, Nasser and the Free Officers ousted the sitting monarch, King Farouk, and took control of Egypt. The coup, which the Muslim Brotherhood supported, was bloodless and provoked almost no resistance.
At the same time, Qutb, a literary critic and public intellectual, was rising in prominence. Qutb was born in 1906 in the village of Musha, in Upper Egypt. Like Nasser, he was a voracious reader and was politically engaged from an early age. As a young man, he became a prolific writer but resented the fact that he never achieved the status or fame of some of his mentors. Like many writers at the time, he was also a civil servant, working at the Ministry of Education. From 1948 to 1950, he studied in the United States, including at the Colorado State College of Education (now the University of Northern Colorado), in Greeley, Colorado, where he developed a deep distaste for American culture that translated into a lifelong intellectual critique of the West.
By then, Qutb had already begun delving into Islamic themes, publishing the influential work Social Justice in Islam in 1949. When he returned to Egypt, he began gravitating toward the Brotherhood, although he wouldn’t formally join the movement until 1954. Politically, he shared Nasser’s hatred of colonialism and frustration with the Egyptian monarchy and fully supported the Free Officers in their takeover. In the early days of the revolution, the two men consulted frequently about their vision for a post-monarchist Egypt. Qutb even briefly served as secretary-general of the Liberation Rally, the government’s mass mobilization and propaganda arm. But soon after the revolution, a rift began to form, as Qutb grew disillusioned with Nasser and was passed over for a cabinet position. Nasser, meanwhile, came to see the Brothers as opportunistic and hungry for power- at his expense. In 1954, after a failed assassination attempt that Gerges attributes to rogue Brotherhood members, Nasser cracked down violently on the group, jailing thousands of Brothers and dismantling the organization. The highestprofile target was Qutb himself, who was executed in 1966.
The Roots of a Rivalry
Nasser and Qutb saw themselves as singular, historical figures, on whom Egypt’s destiny depended. Gerges shows that for both men, delusions of grandeur, personal affronts, and the temptations of power often took precedence over ideological or religious considerations. Drawing on a wealth of primary resources, including illuminating interviews with the few surviving confidants of both men, Gerges persuasively argues that these friends turned enemies overlapped both personally and ideologically more than is generally acknowledged.
Gerges’ account adds considerable color to the story of Nasser’s involvement with the Muslim Brotherhood, which was hardly a secret but has received relatively little attention from historians. In an interview with Gerges, Farid Abdel Khaleq, a close aide to Banna, the Brotherhood’s founder, recounts that Nasser “trained [Brotherhood] youth on how to use firearms. I saw him with my own eyes.” Khaled Mohieddin, a Free Officer and one of Nasser’s closest associates, recalls that Nasser was “ecstatic” about joining the Brotherhood’s secret paramilitary wing, the Special Apparatus. Nasser’s youthful membership in the Brotherhood helps explain the group’s subsequent enmity toward him. Many leading Brotherhood figures, including Qutb, believed that Nasser’s refusal to share power with the Brotherhood, and his later violence toward them, was all the more abhorrent because it was a personal betrayal of his bayah (oath of allegiance) to Banna.
Nasser, for his part, originally saw Qutb as a kindred spirit who transcended the typical political or ideological categories of the time. Pointing to a flurry of impassioned but largely forgotten articles that Qutb wrote in 1952, Gerges notes that he was “one of the first writers to lend legitimacy to the [Nasser-led] coup by calling it a ‘revolution.'” He also agitated for a “just” military dictatorship, a ban on political parties, and a suspension of the liberal constitutional order. In one such article, Qutb publicly expressed support for Nasser and the Free Officers, proclaiming, “In the name of millions, we will not allow you to return to the barracks because your mission is not over yet and your duty is to complete it.”
Nasser and Qutb represent two prominent examples of the sort of ideological promiscuity that may seem surprising in the context of today’s Egypt but was once commonplace. Until Nasser launched his fateful crackdown against the Brotherhood, there was a rich fluidity to Egyptian political life that was made possible by the relative openness of the liberal moment. In the organization’s early days, some Brotherhood members were simultaneously members of the secular Wafd Party. Nasser’s friend Mohieddin was, briefly, both a member of the Brotherhood’s Special Apparatus and a Marxist.
Gerges interprets these fluid affiliations to mean that if certain events had played out differently between 1952 and 1954, the army and the Brotherhood- and, by extension, Nasser and Qutb- might never have become implacable enemies. Gerges locates the break between Nasser and the Brotherhood in the struggle of personalities and power. The sometimes impetuous Nasser and the reserved and uncharismatic Hasan alHudaybi, the Brotherhood’s general guide (a top official) at this time, grew to hate each other in the years immediately following the revolution. Hudaybi assumed that Nasser would reward the Brotherhood’s support for the revolution with a prominent social and political role during the transition. Nasser, meanwhile, increasingly saw the Brotherhood, the country’s largest mass movement, as the only real threat to his power and his mounting ambition.
Gerges presents possible counterfactuals. Had the Brotherhood and Nasser chosen other paths, he writes, “the structure and identity of the state would have been substantially different; it might well have been less intrusive, authoritarian, and deep.” It is tempting to play out some alternative scenarios. Perhaps Nasser would not have sent Brothers to prison, labor camps, and the gallows. And if Qutb hadn’t witnessed the torture in Nasser’s dungeons, he might not have formulated the idea of takfir-the practice of declaring other Muslims to be disbelievers-which inspired a generation of religious extremists. In other words, the struggle between secularists and Islamists, which has shaped the blood-soaked recent history of the Middle East, was never foreordained.
To my knowledge, there is no one who predicted in 1952 that Nasser would soon move against the Muslim Brotherhood and become obsessed with destroying it. And there is no one who would have dreamed in 1950 that Qutb would morph from a middling and rather secular literary critic to become one of the century’s most important Islamist theorists. At the time, history must have seemed wide open and even hopeful.
As history moves on, however, options become closed off. “My friend, Nasser,” says Mohieddin, “could have ended up a religious nationalist [like the Brothers] as opposed to a pan-Arab nationalist.” Nasser and Qutb could have made different decisions. But how likely is it that they could have ever really remained on the same side? Qutb supported military dictatorship, but only because he believed that the army was the best vehicle for radical change and that the country’s military was the only actor capable of doing away with the old regime and paving the way for an Islamic order. Nasser may have been part of the Brotherhood, but there is little evidence that he developed strong feelings about applying Islamic law one way or the other. It was only later in his life that he became skeptical of Islam playing too central a role in public life. Nasser’s growing distrust of Brotherhood leaders after the revolution pushed him to be more anti-Islamist and strictly nationalist than he might otherwise have been. But this sequence of events doesn’t make his commitments, which evolved in a secular and socialist direction, any less legitimate or sincere. After all, ideologies depend just as much on what they aren’t as on what they are.
Past as Prelude
Islamism in Egypt began to cohere only after it had identified its enemies. The Brotherhood, particularly the now octogenarian members who knew Qutb in prison, have never forgotten Nasser’s brutal crackdown, which is known in Brotherhood lore as the mihna: “the ordeal.” Decades later, having suffered in Nasser’s jails provides a key source of legitimacy for members of the movement’s old guard. To suffer is to lead.
The mihna indelibly marked the Brotherhood’s approach, which to this day prioritizes self-preservation above all else-although the group has arguably failed to achieve even that narrow goal. In the tense months leading up to the 2013 coup that deposed Morsi, one Brotherhood official told me that the movement had “returned to the mentality of the mihna” That mindset may have allowed the Brotherhood to survive under the repression of Nasser and his successors. But it did not serve the group well during Egypt’s short-lived democratic experiment from 2011 to 2013, when it took refuge in paranoia and insularity. In conversations I have had with Brotherhood “reformists,” they have pointed to a Qutbist wing in the organization that constantly works to block new ideas and resist organizational reforms. The current (and imprisoned) general guide of the movement, Mohamed Badie, for example, was a member of Qutb’s so-called Secret Organization as a university student in the 1960s.
But this way of understanding the Brotherhood today has its limits. The group’s older leaders are indeed deeply conservative, secretive, and suspicious of outsiders, but they are at odds with Qutb’s own theory of change. They have been firm proponents of gradualism and patience in the face of suffering and are the ones most inclined to cut a deal with the military. Many of the Brotherhood’s younger activists, who came of age not during the mihna but during the revolt that brought down Mubarak in 2011, have bristled at what they see as the old guard’s timidity. Asmaa Shokr, a journalist and former Brotherhood official in her 30s, was present at the August 14, 2013, massacre, during which the Egyptian military and security forces killed close to a thousand Brotherhood supporters who were occupying Rabaa al-Adawiya Square, in Cairo. On that day, she told me, she watched as a protester tried to torch a car but was reprimanded by one of the group’s older leaders. “I was shocked,” she said. “Your children are dying in front of you, and you care about a car?”
Qutb had little interest in peaceful protest. He was both a radical and a revolutionary who believed in pursuing change through dramatic action-including violence-carried out by a small vanguard. As long as the vanguard remained uncompromising in its commitment to God and the Koran, Qutb attested, it would succeed where mass politics and parliamentary democracy would fail.
Qutb’s vanguard model is well known for inspiring extremist organizations. It has gone into temporary decline, however, because of the failure of the Islamic State (also known as isis) to hold on to territory in Iraq and Syria. The state of Brotherhood-style mass Islamism, on the other hand, is harder to assess, even as tens of thousands of members of the Egyptian Brotherhood languish in prison or exile. Today’s Islamism may appear weak in organizational terms, but it remains resilient in ideological ones.
In a perfect world, ideologies could be undone long after the fact, and politics in Egypt could be released from what began as an artificial and ambiguous divide between Islamists and nationalists. But all kinds of divides that begin artificially-think borders, the nation-state, or even Shiite-Sunni sectarianism-become invested with meaning and permanence over time. The ideas that Nasser and Qutb professed might have been manufactured and employed for the purposes of power, but that doesn’t make them less consequential to real people many decades later.
Nasser and Qutb were both obsessed with power, but neither believed in power simply for its own sake. Each hoped to use his power to reshape Egypt. Their experiences support two propositions that are sometimes in tension: that ideas are fluid and forged in particular historical moments, and that they persist, they matter, and they can have tremendous human costs.
The ideological currents unleashed by Nasser and Qutb are now part of the fabric of the modern Middle East. The struggle between their inheritors continues, and one side is not likely to conclusively defeat the other. But that won’t stop partisans, ideologues, and autocrats from continuing to try. The Egyptian regime, for example, remains determined to crush the Brotherhood, believing that it can do today what it could not do before. For this unfortunate reason, Making the Arab World-and its story of two impassioned, sincere, and reckless men-serves not just as an account of why one revolution went wrong in Egypt’s past but also as a warning that, for Egypt as well as the rest of the region, some of the worst may be yet to come.” – Shadi Hamid, Foreign Affairs
The ghosts of Nasser and Sayyid Qutb have smothered democracy, says Richard Spencer.
One of the more frightening mass murderers in Islamic State is a man called Ali al-Shawakh, aka Abu Luqman. In 2014-15 Abu Luqman was torturer-in-chief in Raqqa, the group’s capital, and oversaw its executions. Well, he is said to have a law degree from the University of Aleppo, so I suppose that a judicial function came naturally to him.
Abu Luqman came to my attention when I interviewed a couple of his victims a few years ago. The stories were horrific, but what struck me as especially curious were the sides of his character that emerged as I checked out his background. There was the law degree, but also the fact that he had previously served in Bashar al-Assad’s military intelligence, according to one account. Some time after he left, he joined Islamist groups, was arrested and sent to the gruesome Sednaya military prison, outside Damascus. In the summer of 2011 he was suddenly released. Young liberals and Islamists alike had risen up against the regime’s brutality and President Assad said that he was ordering an amnesty as a compromise.
So here was my question: why would someone who joined a revolution against torture and brutality be so ready to employ them? Abu Luqman did not only turn from prisoner to jailer. He used on his victims the same techniques inflicted in Sednaya: notorious Syrian tortures that go by sobriquets such as “the ghost”, “the German chair” and “the tyre”. One of my young interviewees had, remarkably, undergone these tortures at the hands of both the regime and Abu Luqman at different times.
It is not uncommon for torturers to rent themselves out to any master, but this revolution was supposedly an idealistic battle. For most Syrian rebels I know, including Islamists, Assad’s torture chambers are the very symbol of his dictatorship, the reason they want him to go.
Quite a lot became clearer to me as I read Fawaz Gerges’s new book, Making the Arab World. The title makes a grand claim, since the book is sharply focused on Egypt and the struggle for power between the Muslim Brotherhood and its succession of military leaders. But Gerges, a professor of international relations at the London School of Economics, ubiquitous talking head on Middle Eastern politics and survivor of Lebanon’s nasty sectarian war, is someone who is allowed to draw broad conclusions. To the extent that a mere reporter of the horrors can be permitted to judge, it also seems to me that he is right.
His thesis is that, from President Nasser on, the fight for the Arab world has been one between nationalist dictatorship and Islamism. These often violent and usually myopic ideologies have trampled all alternatives underfoot.
The road to the failure of the Arab Spring, in Cairo and Damascus, began immediately after the coup that overthrew the Egyptian monarchy and drove out the British in 1952. It brought to power a young colonel, Gamal Abdel Nasser, who inspired the Arab world and goaded the West with his grandiloquent denunciations of imperialism. At home, he turned Egypt into a military state — one that remains in love with its army — and tolerated no dissent. Political parties were banned, as was the Muslim Brotherhood, many of whose leaders he hanged.
However, as Gerges explains, it was not quite as simple as that. In the 1940s Nasser had been a member of the Nizam al-Khass, the Muslim Brotherhood’s “Secret Apparatus”, and had sworn baya, or fealty, to Hassan al-Banna, the Brotherhood’s founder. Banna’s successor, Hassan al-Hudaybi, supported the 1952 coup because he assumed that the baya would carry over and that Nasser would loyally oversee the development of an Islamist state. Nasser was quite happy to have Brotherhood support and to present himself as a devout Muslim, but he quickly made clear that he was taking orders from no one and that fealty now lay in the opposite direction.
This set a pattern, one that has survived in Egypt and the wider Arab world until today, despite a brief and hopeless challenge during the halcyon weeks of the Arab Spring. Both the Muslim Brotherhood and Nasser’s Free Officers quickly came to see politics as a zero-sum game, where the main purpose was the capture of the state rather than empowering Egyptians. That, Gerges says, set the tone for the Arab world, as nationalists took power elsewhere and engaged in their own struggles with Islamists. No one else got a look-in. “Time and again,” he says, “the two warring movements have colluded with each other to prevent institutionalised or organised dissent from establishing a popular base.”
This is a detailed book. It is also a kind of two-in-one in that the rigorous, if rather jargon-filled, academic analysis of this battle’s wider significance is interwoven with biographies of the two most important protagonists. As well as Nasser, there is Sayyid Qutb, the fiery Islamist regarded by many as the spiritual fons et origo of violent jihad.
In the West, Qutb is seen as an almost comic figure, whose shock at going to America and attending a church dance in Colorado is regularly wheeled out in portraits. “They danced to the tunes of the gramophone, and the dance floor was replete with tapping feet, enticing legs, arms wrapped around waists, lips pressed to lips, and chests pressed to chests,” he wrote, horrified, and apparently even more determined to resist the blandishments of the West back home.
Gerges demonstrates something much more serious, though — how Qutb’s “revolutionary vanguardism”, a mirror image of Nasser’s regime, which executed him in 1966, lives on inside and outside the Brotherhood. The Brotherhood has formally eschewed Qutb’s belief in violence, but the honour in which he is held tells a different story, to say nothing of his wider influence on the jihadist movement.
These two men are described by an impressive array of their contemporaries, friends and rivals. Gerges spent a decade interviewing ageing revolutionaries and conspirators. Many of them I thought were long since dead and, as many now are, this is an important work of journalism as well as history.
Some of these men (and on occasion women) admit to their movements’ errors, the totalitarianism of their world view, the repetitious need to create secret apparatuses. The proliferating intelligence services of the Middle East’s various regimes, above all of Assad’s Syria, are the blight that continues to disappear thousands of people into dark prisons and torture chambers. They are frighteningly replicated by Qutb’s followers, such as Luqman.
Is there any hope for these benighted countries? Egypt has just held an absurd “election”, in the run-up to which, one by one, rival candidates to the retired field marshal, now president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi were locked up or bullied into standing down. Sisi has imprisoned 60,000 people, many, but not all Islamists. When he seized power his supporters held up Nasser’s portrait alongside Sisi’s; no longer, as apparently not even dead prototypes are allowed to challenge the present leader.
You do not have to be a neocon to see that Arab regimes’ fear of “the Other”, and especially of the prosperous West, which could provide so much by way of investment and expertise, has morphed from their raison d’être to their greatest curse. It is hard to be optimistic, but meanwhile even harder for us to preach.
Gerges shows clearly how the paranoia is rooted in our behaviour, with British colonial authorities occasionally working with, then persecuting, the democrats and nationalists we pretended to encourage. It is hardly surprising that harsher minds than effete liberals set up their own secret apparatuses to ensure survival. Now all we and Nasser’s descendants can bring ourselves to do is to stare helplessly at what history has wreaked.” – Richard Spencer, The Times
The clash referred to in the title of Fawaz Gerges’ new book Making the Arab World: Nasser, Qutb, and the Clash That Shaped the Middle East is writ both small and large throughout the pages of his study, the decades-long clash between Arab nationalism and revanchist Islamism that has convulsed large parts of the Arab world for most of the last century, but it has an obvious flashpoint: Egypt.
In the aftermath of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak’s 2011 resignation, Mohamed Morsi of the Ikhwan, or Muslim Brotherhood, was elected president – an election that quickly elicited massive nationwide protests that broke right along the rift Gerges outlines. Morsi and his Brotherhood apparatchiks made no secret of their desire to push through a sweeping legislative revamp that struck many observers as a grab to cement power. Secular and popular resentment to Morsi’s rule became increasingly heated, and in 2013 the Egyptian military removed Morsi from office and dismantled his organisation. The story highlights fault lines and those are the focus of Making the Arab World. Gerges, a scholar of Middle East Studies at the London School of Economics and Political Science and the author of a history of ISIL, writes with brilliant insight about these two competing forces in the Arab world: pan-nationalism and pan-Islamist movements. He digs to the roots of the conflict in Egypt.
The genius of the book is Gerges’ decision to centre this conflict not in theology or sociology but biography. The heart of Making the Arab World is the story of two men whose lives would go on to epitomise either side of the conflict. On one side stands Gamal Abdel Nasser, the lightning-rod Egyptian president and Arab nationalist leader who overthrew the monarchy in 1952 and, in a broad programme of progressive reforms, led his country to a position of leadership in the Arab world. On the other side stands Sayyid Qutb, Egyptian writer and profoundly influential thinker in the upper echelons of the Muslim Brotherhood of the day.
Nasser stands in the popular imagination as the charismatic embodiment of the westernising urge of Arab nationalism, the smiling face of modern reform from his assumption of power to his death in 1970, and Qutb’s many followers characterise him as an Islamist purist, the ideological beacon of the Ikhwan, who was convicted of conspiring to assassinate Nasser and hanged in 1966.
The gap between the two men would seem to be unbridgeable, but Gerges embarks on a dual biography to see if that is genuinely the case. He consults many sources and conducts many interviews with partisans of both camps. The portraits that emerge of these two men are revelatory.
In a 1959 Christian Science Monitor interview, Nasser clarified his original vision of national rebirth: “I saw that those things which should have been our strengths, such as our geographical position, or the oil of the area, were used as justification for occupying us.” To throw off that occupation, he was willing to use any tools at his disposal, including religious conviction (Gerges gives readers a Nasser free of pietism), but in these pages there are richer dimensions to this opportunism. Nasser, according to Gerges, “instrumentalised the sacred imagination to show that he was as religious as his Islamist foes,” wrapping religion around traditional elements in order to strengthen his governmental control. “He often reiterated his commitment to Islam as a spiritual anchor of state and society,” Gerges writes, “and did not cut the umbilical cord with the religious imagination.”
And as strangely vivid as this new portrait of Nasser is, the Qutb Gerges presents to his readers is bracingly three-dimensional, a far cry from the zealous martyr cherished in the memory of his followers. Gerges follows Qutb from his graduation from Dar Al Ulum in 1933 to his years working in a series of posts at the ministry of education, where he stayed until Nasser and his Free Officers overthrew the monarchy and Qutb split with the new regime. This is a life of the lionised religious leader in which, as Gerges writes, “nationalist and religiously informed politics were in constant dialogue and at times in conflict, with Qutb himself often pulled in the direction of one school of thought or other by the distinctly practical, everyday circumstances of his own experiences and relationships”. This stands in marked contrast to the “oversimplified narratives” that the old guard of the Ikhwan have tended to favour, narratives that tend to show their hero’s “rapid transformation into a born-again Islamist activist”.
The combined effect of these reconstructions are startling. Signpost events stand as landmarks in Gerges’ narrative – the 1967 war between Egypt and Israel, the 1979 revolution in Iran, the succession of Anwar Sadat to the Egyptian presidency (one of his inner circle damningly tells the author, “Sadat had an inferiority complex where Nasser was concerned, and took extreme measures just to show that like Nasser he was also a great leader”), to the tensions of the present day.
Nasser and Qutb are far more alike than different when Gerges’ long narrative of that internecine turmoil commences, although their paths quickly diverge.
Making the Arab World does a brilliant job of putting human faces back onto the origins of those traditions – particularly these two men and the generation they shaped.” – Steve Donoghue, The National
Islamism and secular nationalism have much in common. The struggle between nationalists and Islamists, argues Gerges, was about control, not ideas.
“At 400-plus pages, the new book from Fawaz Gerges, professor of international relations at the London School of Economics, is a weighty tome drawing on more than 12 years of research but it is also accessible and refreshing.
In an era when many academics favour grandiose theories or seek to please those who finance their institutes, Gerges returns to narrative and empirical history, seeking to understand rather than take sides or predict the future.
After books exploring recent militant Sunni Islamism, Gerges’s new work — “Making the Arab World: Nasser, Qutb and the Clash That Shaped the Middle East” — examines the earlier relationship between Islamism and “relatively secular nationalism.” Islamism and secular nationalism, Gerges argues, had more in common than either admits. His focus is Egypt, the most populous and influential Arab state.
“My book is an asset to conceptualise the raging rivalries and struggles in the region today,” Gerges said. “The only way to do so is to understand what happened in Arab and Muslim politics immediately after the end of colonialism in the late 1940s, early 1950s.”
After leaving his native Lebanon, Gerges’s interest in the 19th-century Arab enlightenment, sharpened with a doctorate at St Antony’s College, Oxford and exposure to Albert Hourani. “There’s a sense of humility in the English school,” Gerges said. “They wanted to understand the specifics… The Middle East, in particular, has been a graveyard of grand theories… My goal has been to understand the world from the inside out as opposed to the outside in.”
Hence “Making the Arab World” begins by tracing the failure of “semi-liberal forces” in the face of British colonialism, a subservient monarchy and the new Egyptian ruling class’s failure to deliver before 1945.
“Instead of being about progress, cultural renewal and development, the struggle became about identity politics,” said Gerges. “Illiberal Arab nationalism borrowed more [in the 1930s] from Germany and Italy than from America and France.”
This set the scene for “the political earthquake of 1952,” the Free Officers’ coup that set a model for Arab nationalists elsewhere. The coup is the hinge on which “Making the Arab World” turns: The book offers not just dual biographies of Gamal Abdel Nasser and Sayyid Qutb, but a history of the two men’s interaction and influence.
Gerges has interviewed close colleagues of both Nasser and Qutb. Contacts with the latter came partly through Kamal el-Said Habib, a leading figure in the group that assassinated Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in 1981 and the major source of Gerges’s 2006 book, “Journey of the Jihadist: Inside Muslim Militancy.”
Habib introduced Gerges to activists in both the mainstream Muslim Brotherhood and al-Tanzim al-Sirri, the organisation Qutb ran from prison. Al-Tanzim set a model for subsequent Islamist extremists.
What emerges — and what makes the book so startling — is that, far from being the polar opposites so often portrayed, Islamism and nationalism shared many characteristics.
Gerges establishes through his interviews that Nasser was originally a member not just of the Muslim Brotherhood but of al-Nizam al-Khass, its paramilitary organisation, and swore fealty to Hassan al-Banna, Ikhwan’s leader until his death in 1949.
Likewise, Qutb’s trajectory is far from the one depicted by followers today. “Even as a child he had a mission,” said Gerges. “As a secular public intellectual [1930s and early 1940s], any kind of disagreement turned existential: you disagreed with Qutb, you became automatically evil. From the Free Officers coup in July 1952 until 1953, Sayyid was the mouthpiece for the Free Officers. He was fanatically pro-Officers in newspaper articles: ‘Get rid of the political system, establish a dictatorship.’”
Gerges argues Qutb probably knew of the coup in advance and was the only civilian who attended the ruling Revolutionary Command Council. Far from being “the inevitable antithesis to Nasser,” Gerges writes, Qutb can be seen as an “accidental Islamist.”
Qutb joined the Muslim Brotherhood in March 1953, after the junta passed him over for education minister and head of state broadcasting. Only subsequently in prison, until he was hanged in 1966, did Qutb write the texts, especially “Milestones” and offer the martyrdom that has fired up militant Islamists.
The struggle between nationalists and Islamists, argues Gerges, was about control, not ideas. In their pursuit of power, both failed to develop viable institutions or effective policies for the post-colonial state, while their rivalry crushed other options.
“Even though the militarists — really the nationalists were subsumed under their rubric — and the Islamists have been bitter enemies,” said Gerges, “they implicitly collaborated to prevent a third alternative emerging.”
Gerges’s book runs up to the 2011 uprising, the election of Brotherhood-backed President Muhammad Morsi and the 2013 coup. “The Egyptian military and the Islamists were terrified of transformative change,” Gerges said. “People ask, ‘Where is the third force in Arab politics?’ The two dominant social and political forces have collaborated to prevent its emergence.” – Gareth Smith, The Arab Weekly
Fawaz Gerges sheds light on Nasser, Qutb clash in ‘Making the Arab World.’
– Fawaz Gerges examines the conflict between two towering personalities, Sayyid Qutb and Gamal Abdel Nasser. The book is based on extensive research including in-depth interviews with civil society leaders.
In his latest book, “Making the Arab World: Nasser, Qutb, and the Clash That Shaped the Middle East,” Fawaz Gerges examines the conflict between two towering personalities, Sayyid Qutb of the Muslim Brotherhood (Ikhwan) and Egyptian revolutionary (and later President) Gamal Abdel Nasser, which marked the beginning of a confrontation that has rocked the Middle East for the past 70 years.
Gerges writes from a position of authority, as a professor of international relations at the London School of Economics and Political Science and the author of several acclaimed books. This one is based on extensive research including in-depth interviews with civil society leaders, politicians, and leading activists, which makes for an insightful and educational read.
“My uninhibited access to Qutb’s most inner circle and that of the Ikhwan’s old guard and younger activists provides a unique window into a shadowy, secretive universe, allowing this book to zero in on these years and trace Qutb’s footsteps and actions, thus filling a major gap in the literature,” Gerges writes, when explaining that the years Qutb spent in prison played a vital role in shaping his philosophy. It was there he set out a “revolutionary Islamist project” and came up with a roadmap to implement it.
One of the most surprising revelations in the book is that the young Nasser, along with other Free Officers like Anwar Sadat, was a member of the Brotherhood and had been active in their paramilitary network, known as the Special Apparatus (al-Tanzim Al-Khass).
As Gerges explains, before the 1952 revolution both the Ikhwan and the Free Officers were united in their desire to remove Egypt’s British-backed monarchy. It was only in the late 1950s, as their political discourse became radicalized, that the rupture happened, forever altering the political landscape of the region.
In 2011, the Muslim Brotherhood once again spurned an opportunity to govern Egypt, in part because their presidential candidate, Muhammad Mursi, proved unfit to be president. The result of their failure was the triumphal return of a ‘strongman’ leader in General El-Sisi.
As Gerges notes: “There can be no political transition as long as the Ikhwan, the most influential social movement in the Arab world, and the military-dominated regime are locked in a state of war.” – Lisa Kaaki, ArabNews
“The modern history of Egypt and the Middle East has been profoundly shaped by the interaction between two deeply rooted forces–nationalism and political Islam. Focusing on two outsize personalities who personified these currents, Gamal Abdel Nasser and Sayyid Qutb, and drawing on a decade of research, including many interviews, Fawaz Gerges shows the complex, not always antagonistic, relationship between these powerful and enduring political realities.” – William B. Quandt, author of Peace Process: American Diplomacy and the Arab-Israeli Conflict since 1967
“Fawaz Gerges is our most perceptive and level-headed analyst of the rise of Muslim extremism. In a field strewn with glib generalizations and sometimes colored by mere bigotry, he insists on giving us context and concentrating on specifics, which he presents in a lively and engaging style. Here he steps back to reveal the full sweep of a key conflict fought throughout the Middle East over the past seventy years between a secular-leaning, authoritarian nationalism and a theocratic irredentism. This is an essential book.” – Juan Cole, author of The New Arabs: How the Millennial Generation Is Changing the Middle East