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 World is 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.
Reviews and Endorsements
“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
“Review: Making the Arab World: Nasser, Qutb and the Clash That Shaped the Middle East by Fawaz A Gerges — why the Arab Spring failed.
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.” – The National– Steve Donoghue