- Making the Arab World: Nasser, Qutb, and the Clash that Shaped the Middle East by Fawaz A. Gerges
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...