Making the Arab World

Nasser, Qutb, and the Clash That Shaped the Middle East

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Fawaz A. A. Gerges
  • Princeton, NJ: 
    Princeton University Press
    , April
     2018.
     528 pages.
     $29.95.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780691167886.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

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.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Caleb Elfenbein is Associate Professor of History and Religious Studies at Grinnell College.

Date of Review: 
September 12, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Fawaz A. A. Gerges is Professor of International Relations and Emirates Chair in Contemporary Middle East Studies at the London School of Economics and Political Science. He is the author of several acclaimed books, including ISIS: A History (Princeton), The New Middle East, and The Far Enemy.

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