Making the Arab World: Nasser, Qutb, and the Clash That Shaped the Middle East

Making the Arab World: Nasser, Qutb, and the Clash That Shaped the Middle East
Fawaz Gerges, Making the Arab World: Nasser, Qutb, and the Clash That Shaped the Middle East (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2018).  
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 (Muslim Brotherhood’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.

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