Making the Arab World Cover

Making the Arab World

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

Fawaz A. Gerges

Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey, 2018, 528 pages

Book Review published on: January 11, 2019

Making the Arab World delves deep into the rift plaguing the Arab world. Author Fawaz A. Gerges details the clash between pan-Arab nationalism and pan-Islamism, discussing how it shaped the history of Egypt and the surrounding region from the 1920s to the present. The story unfolds through a dual biography of Arab nationalist leader Gamal Abdel Nasser, president of Egypt, who was opposed by a leading member of the Muslim Brotherhood, Sayyed Qutb, the father of numerous branches of radical political Islam. As a professor of international relations and the emirates professor in contemporary Middle East studies at the London School of Economics and Political Science, Gerges is one of the world’s leading authorities on the Middle East. He lays out how the nationalist-Islamist struggle was more about power and the role of the state than it was about competing visions and ideologies.

One of the key goals of this book was to reconstruct the history of the deadly encounter between nationalists and Islamists, and to highlight key aspects of the effects it had on the state and society in Egypt as well as neighboring Arab countries. Numerous books have been written about both camps presenting two separate and distinct viewpoints. Each camp highlighted their history through its own worldview but gave little-to-no credence of the significance the other camp played in that history. Gerges successfully attempts to analyze and present a well-argued synthesis focused on the interaction between nationalism and Islamism, primarily concentrating on the early 1950s to present day.

The book goes into great detail concerning some of the main causes that helped shape the development of the post-colonial Arab political environment. It lays out the complexity encountered by both participants as well as analysts. It further details the struggle of the state apparatus desiring to maintain its power base. To understand the current environment within Egypt and its neighboring countries, Gerges provides both an analytical as well as empirical framework to assist in understanding the difficulties between nationalism and activist Islam. The author has worked on this book intermittently since 2006 and spent two years of field research in various Arab countries.

The book’s design follows a broadly historical-thematic structure using sociology to show the struggle between these two leading social movements in the Arab world. Gerges concentrates on the ideas and actions of the two individual personalities of the main leaders. For example, he states that both sides failed to build new institutions or reform old ones. Both were adamant in exercising power by using the other side to maintain it. He uses extensive interviews of their contemporaries, along with textual sources. This type of approach resulted in a critical attempt to understand the modern history of the Arab world instead of just explaining or predicting revolutionary historical events. One event of note is the 1954 attempt on Nasser’s life by the Ikhwan, which became a turning point in the crackdown of the Islamist movement. This allowed Nasser to implement his social agenda with no impediments.

Through extensive interviews of both Ikhwan and Free officers, the story unfolds showing the causes and effects of two strong-willed personalities, and how they saw the world play out in their struggle for power. Just two years after the 2011 overthrow of President Hosni Mubarek, the Egyptian army ousted the democratically elected Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood (the Ikhwan of old). In 2012, the Muslim Brotherhood was unwilling to dialogue with secular forces and determined to change the constitution despite widespread protests. The Ikhwan, in the early 1940s, were willing to dialogue with the nationalists as long as the Ikhwan consolidated power to change the constitution. This struggle has had such an impact on Egyptian and Arab societies that it is still seen today.

Though well written, the author used lengthy and sometimes confusing sentence structures that required extensive analysis. In many ways, Making the Arab World represents a valuable resource as a document in oral history. This is a great read for all military leaders currently working with interagency or intergovernmental organizations within the Middle East. This is also an important reading for all those interested in understanding the roots of the turmoil engulfing the Middle East, from civil wars to the rise of the Islamic State. It provides a context for views expressed by the historical figures, allowing for a better understanding of how the movements will operate in the future.

Book Review written by: Lt. Col. Stephen Harvey, U.S. Army, Retired, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas