How the conflict between political Islamists and secular-leaning nationalists has shaped the history of the modern Middle East
In 2013, just two years after the popular overthrow of Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian military ousted the country’s first democratically elected president—Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood—and subsequently led a brutal repression of the Islamist group. These bloody events echoed an older political rift in Egypt and the Middle East: the splitting of nationalists and Islamists during the rule of Egyptian president and Arab nationalist leader Gamal Abdel Nasser. In Making the Arab World, Fawaz Gerges, one of the world’s leading authorities on the Middle East, tells how the clash between pan-Arab nationalism and pan-Islamism has shaped the history of the region from the 1920s to the present.
Gerges tells this story through an unprecedented dual biography of Nasser and another of the twentieth-century Arab world’s most influential figures—Sayyid Qutb, a leading member of the Muslim Brotherhood and the father of many branches of radical political Islam. Their deeply intertwined lives embody and dramatize the divide between Arabism and Islamism. Yet, as Gerges shows, beyond the ideological and existential rhetoric, this is a struggle over the state, its role, and its power.
Based on a decade of research, including in-depth interviews with many leading figures in the story, Making the Arab Worldis essential reading for anyone who wants to understand the roots of the turmoil engulfing the Middle East, from civil wars to the rise of Al-Qaeda and ISIS.
Read Gerges’ latest interview about Making the Arab World on Jadaliyya:
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
Fawaz Gerges (FG): I have always been fascinated by Gamal Abdel Nasser, Egyptian president and highly charismatic Arab popular leader, and Sayyid Qutb, master ideologue of revolutionary Islamism. Rather than being diametrically opposed, these two seminal, and interconnected figures in contemporary Arab and Muslim politics—as well as the movements they represent (Arabism and Islamism, respectively)—have mirrored each other in significant ways.
While their struggles came to be invested with cultural and existential overtones, the biographies of Nasser and Qutb offered in this book highlight the fundamentally contingent nature of two individuals who could, in principle, have traded places with one another. The political careers of both men were marked by ideational fluidity, including dramatic shifts between different ideological poles. In their younger years, each stood on the side of the aisle that the other would later come to embrace. While Nasser moved in the underground networks of the Muslim Brotherhood in the early 1940s, the young Qutb vociferously opposed what he understood to be regressive religious, social, and historical conventions prevalent in Egyptian society.
Although the book is framed as a dual biography of Nasser and Qutb, one of the key goals is to reconstruct the history of this deadly encounter between secular-leaning nationalists and Islamists and to shed further light on its effects on state and society in Egypt and neighboring Arab countries. Egypt was initially the main battlefield, but the confrontation between nationalist (Arabist) and Islamist spread to neighboring countries, undermining the development of nascent postcolonial states. This prolonged confrontation, between the two most powerful social and political movements in the region, has left a deep, indelible scar on Arab states, societies, and economies. Today, the deep divide between nationalists and Islamists is invested with profound existential meanings that far outstrip those at its genesis.
However, far from being a binary and inevitable division—as it is too often depicted by both participants and analysts—the struggle between nationalists and Islamists is far more complex. The focal point of the struggle is the state, its power, and its position as custodian of the public sphere, not ideology.
A major conclusion of this study is that neither nationalism nor Islamism were or are monolithic or ideologically unified movements, but rather that they involve diverse perspectives and distinctive individuals and factions.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
FG: I worked on this book intermittently since 2006, spending two years on field research in various Arab countries, which enabled me to conduct scores of in-depth interviews with leading activists, public intellectuals, politicians, and civil society leaders. Utilizing historical sociology and a historical-thematic approach, the book takes human agency seriously by focusing on collective action, hidden internal struggles, clashes of personalities, and pivotal watershed moments. It is rich with ethnographic details, including personal testimonies of old men who have since died and middle-aged ideologues who have been at the forefront of the confrontation.
In important ways, this book represents a valuable resource as a document in oral history. It carefully provides context for views expressed by the historical figures being interviewed, giving a direct personal dimension for understanding how the movements actually operated and developed.
There is a large library of books dealing with Nasser and Egyptian and Arab nationalism and another large library of books on Qutb, the Muslim Brotherhood, and Islamist movements in general. A remarkable aspect of this scholarship is the degree to which these two libraries present separate pictures and are not integrated across time and space. Studies of Nasserism and nationalism mention Qutb and the Muslim Brotherhood, but such observations tend to be marginal to the main lines of analysis. In a similar vein, books on Qutb and political Islam pay remarkably little attention to the evolution and continuing popular support for populist nationalism as articulated by Nasser. While studies of Islamism note populist opposition to elitist secularism, there tends to be little recognition that the nationalist movement in Egypt did not involve a rejection of Islam, even in some of its more “traditional” forms.
In contrast, my book analysis presents a distinctive synthesis of the two existing libraries and concentrates on the dynamic interaction between nationalism and Islamism from the late nineteenth century till the present, though focusing specifically on the period since the early 1950s.
A major conclusion of this study is that neither nationalism nor Islamism were or are monolithic or ideologically unified movements, but rather that they involve diverse perspectives and distinctive individuals and factions.
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?
FG: Although Making the Arab World is an extension of my research and writing on social movements in the Middle East and Arab politics in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, it is much more historically and sociological ambitious. This big book examines two major themes and dynamic developments shaping Arab history in the past century and a half: the development of relatively secular nationalism and the evolution of sociopolitical Islam-identified activism. These two movements formed a duality defining sociopolitical life, and the study argues that their interaction—both as a fierce competition and a symbiotic cooperation—has been so profound that neither can be properly understood if they are viewed as separate historical agents.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
FG: This book will be informative and critical for anyone who is interested in making sense of modern Arab history and politics, including specialists, students, and everyday readers.
Time and again, Western observers ask why an alternative progressive force has not materialized in the Arab arena. This exhaustive study offers an answer. Since the mid-1950s, Arab politics have been polarized, a struggle between Islamists and nationalists. There is no third wave or viable alternative to compete with the ideological hegemony of the Islamists on one hand and the nationalist-military alliance on the other. While the Arab Spring uprisings briefly raised hopes that such an alternative would emerge, those hopes were dashed by collusion between the two sworn enemies. Both the Islamists and the nationalists benefit from the other’s existence.
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. The Arab world has been unable to overcome the dialectics of Islamism and militarism and to pass into new democratic territory.
As to impact, this book deconstructs modern Arab history and provides a revisionist account of one of the biggest fault lines in Arab politics. My hope is that Arab readers will recognize that there is nothing “sacred” about the so-called “religious” or “cultural” wars raging in Arab lands. Power, not religion or even ideology, is the key driver behind the titanic clash between secular-leaning nationalists and Islamists.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
FG: I am researching a book tentatively titled The Hundred-Year-War for Control of the Middle East: Colonialism, Postcolonialism and State versus Society.
This book sets out to examine how we reached this point of crisis in the Middle East. It unfolds the history of the region for the last hundred years to tell the story of why and how the post-colonial dream of having a region that is inclusive, open, free and peaceful has never been realized, but has consistently been squandered away.
How is it possible that political progress has regularly been reversed despite the determination of people to struggle for their freedom, as was seen in the revolutions against colonial domination in the early part of the twentieth century? In fact, political authoritarianism has deepened and gotten worse over time.
This book critically engages with dominant interpretations about the Middle East that have developed in the course of a hundred years after its establishment by the colonial European powers.
J: How would Nasser and Qutb see the enduring clash between their followers and supporters?
FG: Nasser and Qutb must be turning in their graves at the drama unfolding in Egypt and across the Arab region. Nasser would be heartbroken to see Egypt a shadow of its former self, adrift with no ideational anchor to unite the ancient nation. His successors have replaced his doctrine of qawmiyya (Arab nationalism) with wataniyya (local patriotism), but they must rely on corporate militarism to maintain control. Nasser would criticize his successors for abandoning Arab nationalism, thus leaving ideology to the Islamists and failing to provide both symbolic inspiration and motivation for the Egyptian people and a center of gravity for the region. He would see the Ikhwan’s coming to power in 2012 as a consequence of this. Nasser would bemoan the political and economical emasculation of Egypt and its voluntary shedding of its larger-than-life self-image.
Qutb would be equally enraged by the naiveté and cynicism of the Ikhwan leadership for joining the polluted political process and for falling into apostasy. He would reproach his disciples who control the decision making for emasculating the Ikhwan ideologically and theologically and for giving up the utopian dream of a Qur’anic state. Qutb would be equally displeased with his self-appointed disciples for distorting his Islamic doctrine by spreading violence and chaos at home and abroad.
Excerpt from the Book:
Following the large-scale popular uprising that toppled President Hosni Mubarak in February 2011, Egypt witnessed a polarization between Islamist and secular nationalist forces. Ultimately, this contentious dynamic culminated in a coup mounted by the military against the country’s first democratically elected post-revolution president, Mohamed Morsi of the Islamist movement al-Ikhwan al-Muslimun, better known in English as the Muslim Brotherhood (Ikhwan will be used throughout this book). As soon as it took power, the new military-dominated administration led by Abdel Fattah al-Sisi undertook a campaign of repression, violently breaking up Ikhwan protests, killing a few thousand and arresting tens of thousands more. Remarkably, it did so with considerable support from nationalist secularists and revolutionaries who had earlier protested in their millions against Morsi’s tenure and who had initially taken to the streets to denounce the tradition of regime-led oppression in their country.
Even more striking was the extent to which the new military-dominated order and its supporters instantly sought to ground their legitimacy by invoking a historical precedent with great symbolic weight and situating themselves in relation to the legacy of Gamal Abdel Nasser, Egypt’s second president and in many ways the country’s founding political figure. Indeed, the then young, charismatic army officer did everything in his power to repress the Ikhwan during his presidency, which lasted from 1954 until his death in 1970. The Sisi administration, state media, and public commentators sought to reclaim Nasser as a powerful symbol who had prevailed against the Islamists in his own day by offering the alternative ideology of secular Arab nationalism. With no well-defined ideology of their own, contemporary nationalists and secularists filled their ideological vacuum with Nasserist terms and slogans. They depicted the Ikhwan as untrustworthy and dangerous. The Islamist organization had a grand design to hijack and Islamize the identity of the Egyptian nationalist state, they insisted. Huge portraits of Nasser filled Tahrir Square, and anti-Islamist activists drew nostalgia-tinged parallels between the former president and Sisi, an irony conveyed by the Guardian correspondent in Cairo, who reported that although Nasser was the man the Ikhwan wanted to forget, he was very much part of the new Egyptian psyche.
The Origins of the Nationalist-Islamist Fault Line
In so many ways, this recent wave of repression echoed earlier efforts by Egyptian regimes to crush the Ikhwan in 1948, 1954, and again in the second half of the 1960s. Although Egypt was initially the main battlefield, the nationalist-Islamist struggle spread to neighboring countries, undermining the development of the fragile postcolonial states in the Middle East. Today, the divide between nationalists, on the one hand, and Islamists, on the other, is a major cleavage not only in Egyptian politics but also across the Middle East and beyond. This division goes so deep that it has come to be invested with profound existential meaning. Writing in the Arabic-language newspaper al-Hayat, the Syrian poet Adonis, a prominent secularist and a vehement critic of the Islamists, has gone so far as to argue that the struggle between Islamists and secular-leaning nationalists is more cultural and civilizational than it is political or ideological; it is organically linked to nothing less than the struggle over the future of Arab identity. In a similar vein, the Ikhwan portray the “fascist coup” that removed Morsi from power as an attack on the whole Islamist project, and even as an extension of the Westernized secular ruling elite ideology which targets Islam. For the Islamists, the battle against their secular-leaning opponents is a stark existential struggle between faith and kufr, or unbelief. Although both secular and religious nationalists depict their confrontation as a clash of cultures, identities, and even civilizations, what such narratives leave out are the real objects of the struggle: the state, its power and its position as custodian of the public sphere.
This book traces this profound fault line back in time through decades of contemporary Egyptian history. The rise of both the Islamist and nationalist political forces from the beginning of the twentieth century is located in their common struggle against British colonialism and a domestic political establishment accused of collaborating with the occupying power. In addition, the book places particular focus on the origins of the conflict between these two leading social movements in the aftermath of the July 1952 coup that ousted the monarchy. Far from being either straightforwardly binary or inevitable—as it is often represented by participants and outside observers alike—the struggle between the nationalists and the Islamists involved much ambiguity and complexity. It emerged and was consolidated through a series of contingent events, personality clashes, and workaday political rivalries. Power, not ideology, was the driver. If this is the case, what explains the escalation of the confrontation between the Islamists and the nationalists into an all-out war that has endured to this day? Why did both sides subsequently invest their rivalry with cultural and existential meaning? What does the use of culture as a weapon of choice by the nationalists and the Islamists reveal about the identity and imagination of leading postcolonial social forces? In what ways have they reproduced the structure of Western colonialism, which was filled with the rhetoric of domination and annihilation of the Other? Finally, what are the costs and consequences of this prolonged confrontation for state and society, and to what extent has it impacted the formation of national identity and institution building in Egypt and neighboring Arab states?
The Book Design
The body of this book follows a broadly historical-thematic structure, utilizing historical sociology to illuminate the struggle between the two leading social movements in the Arab world. The study concentrates on the ideas and actions of individual personalities, with the core analysis being a double biography of Gamal Abdel Nasser and Sayyid Qutb, based on interviews with their contemporaries as well as textual sources. The personality-based approach and the extensive utilization of information from interviews with people involved in the nationalist-Islamist struggle presents a strong conclusion that neither nationalism nor Islamism was or is a monolithic or ideologically unified movement; rather, they involved complex diversities of perspective and involvement by distinctive individuals and factions. By focusing on collective action, hidden internal struggles, and personality clashes, the book also allows a better understanding of the patterns of contentious politics that have characterized relations between the nationalists and the Islamists since independence.
In a way, the book borrows a page from Eric Hobsbawm in treating history as an act of continuance, producing patterns and cycles which can be traced and compared. Unlike the mass corpus of recent literature which is mostly interested in explaining or predicting events classified under the rubric of ongoing “revolutions,” the book is rather a critical attempt to understand the modern history of the Arab world. Taken together, the chapters that make up this book move beyond a clear-cut, frozen-in-time binary division of the rift between secular nationalist and Islamist. Rather, what emerges is a picture of flux and complexity; marked by intersections and interactions between the two camps, on the one hand, and internal divisions within each camp, on the other. The violent nationalist-Islamist clash is fundamental to understanding critical aspects of contemporary Arab and Muslim politics, including the crisis of mistrust and suspicion and the psychology of vendetta that have taken a grip on the Islamist imagination.
In the wake of the Arab Spring uprisings, the Nasserist-Qutbian clash endures and shapes the trajectories of Arab politics. Sisi is wrapped in Nasser’s iconic cloak, and he borrows heavily from his predecessor’s repertoire to try to discredit and delegitimize the Ikhwan. He has repeatedly reminded Egyptians that the Islamist organization cannot be trusted to be in charge of the state, because its members are not patriots: their primary loyalty lies outside the country’s borders. Similarly, the Islamist organization frames its post–Arab Spring ordeal as an extension of a historical vendetta or a conspiracy by the state and its pro-Western patrons against Islamic values and heritage. Sisi is portrayed as Nasser’s heir. The only significant difference in today’s clash is that Qutb’s followers have publicly broken ranks with the Ikhwan, accused it of shedding its Islamic identity, and joined up with extremist groups like the Islamic State and Al Qaeda. From Sinai to Cairo and even beyond Egypt, religious radicals inspired by Qutb wage all-out war against what they call “apostate” and “renegade” regimes. These Qutbians are iconoclasts who seek to bring the temple crashing down on everyone, including the Ikhwan.
The space for free, open debate and political activism is tightly shut, not only between the two warring camps but also within each camp, a toxic situation similar to that of the 1950s and 1960s. All sides are on a war footing, waging trench warfare against each other. Apart from the human and social toll that this six-decade-old violent struggle has exacted, it has radicalized and militarized Arab politics and led to entrenched dictatorships and deeper repression. The Islamist-nationalist fault line remains the single most important impediment to the normalization and institutionalization of political life in Egypt, the most populous Arab state, and other Arab countries. 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
John Calvert– The Middle East Journal–‘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 [End Page 699] 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 distinguish [End Page 700] the 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
Ghada Hashem Talhami for The Middle East Policy Council — “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
Sebastian Elsässer– Die Welt des Islams — “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
Alma Keshavarz — Parameters — “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.– Luma Simms, Ethics &Public Policy Center
Caleb Elfenbein, Reading Religion —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