Sociological/historical study of the “two leading social movements in the Arab world,” Islamism and nationalism.
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.