Thoughtful—though sometimes puzzling—biography of the Arab world’s “most charismatic leader since the Prophet Mohammed,” and the last to command international influence.
Gamal Abdel Nasser’s death, more than 30 years ago, marked an end to Arab internationalism, an effort to build a pan-Arab polity. In the place of that populist movement, writes London-based Arabist Aburish (A Brutal Friendship, 1998, etc.), stand, on one hand, corrupt dictatorships (“The House of Saud fails to qualify as an institution, unless perpetuating despotism is elevated to an acceptable form of continuity”) and, on the other, Islamic fundamentalism. Many readers may question Aburish’s view that the West is the cause of this fundamentalism, but there it is: Nasser’s “dreams have been hijacked by the Islamic movements the West created to defeat him.” One need not accept that odd thesis, though, to profit from Aburish’s account of Nasser’s rise to power and his concerted efforts, once he got there, to extend the possibilities of an Egyptian-led Arab enlightenment into the dark corners of the Arab world—which included Saudi Arabia and Iraq, whose governments opposed Nasser at every turn. Aburish also traces the origins of Nasser’s growing militancy to a conference of nonaligned nations of 1955, in which China’s Chou En-Lai, Yugoslavia’s Tito, and India’s Nehru separately urged him to lessen his reliance on the West and become an independent, neutral force in the region. Nasser did so, Aburish shows, which set him in opposition to France and England (whence the Suez Crisis of the following year), cost him American support, and drew him into the Soviet camp, even though Nasser remained a middle-of-the-roader through and through (“Becoming a revolutionary meant throwing caution to the wind, something Nasser the conservative, ardent nationalist never did”).
“For an Arab to excel in administration is rare,” Aburish remarks in another curious statement. If so, Nasser was all the more exceptional.