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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
By Fawaz A. Gerges
Princeton University Press, 2018, 483 pp.

Seven years since the heady days of early 2011, when massive, electrifying protests brought down the Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak, the political atmosphere in Egypt has turned somber. In 2013, General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi overthrew President Mohamed Morsi, a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood who had narrowly won Egypt’s first free presidential election the prior year. Since seizing power, Sisi has emptied the country of any real politics. His crackdown against the Muslim Brotherhood has been particularly brutal: he has jailed tens of thousands of Brothers, and designated the group a terrorist organization. On the regional stage, Egypt has found itself relegated to second-tier status. What was once the center of the Arab world today feels like a ghost of its former self.

In this environment, it is easy to forget that for much of the twentieth century, Egypt was the most consequential battleground in the struggle for the soul of the new Arab state. Following the formal dissolution of the Ottoman caliphate, in 1924, new ideologies and approaches to governing competed to fill the vacuum. In the 1930s and 1940s, during Egypt’s so-called liberal era, secularists, socialists, and Islamists vied for legitimacy in a chaotic but relatively free political atmosphere. The freedom did not last. In 1952, a clandestine cohort of young military officers led by a man named Gamal Abdel Nasser overthrew the Egyptian monarchy and eventually ended what little was left of Egypt’s liberal age. 

Nasser’s revolution marked a watershed moment in Egypt’s modern era. At its outset, the dueling ideologies of Islamism and secular nationalism were uncertain and still in flux. But they would soon come to define the seemingly intractable political conflict within not just Egypt but also the broader Arab world. In the 1950s and 1960s, the contest played out in part through the bitter rivalry between two of the period’s most memorable personalities: Nasser, on the one hand, and the famed Muslim Brotherhood ideologue Sayyid Qutb, on the other.

In Making the Arab World, Fawaz Gerges traces the intertwining biographies and intellectual trajectories of these two titans of Egyptian history. The result is a fascinating and deeply researched revisionist history—one that sheds light on the forces still roiling in Egypt under the surface calm of Sisi’s rule. Today, Nasser and Qutb are remembered as representatives of opposing visions for Egypt. Gerges, however, tells a far more interesting and complicated story about the relationship between the two men and the movements they helped shape. Behind their competing ideologies were flawed individuals with complex and sometimes contradictory motivations. Gerges’ reexamination of a crucial period in Egyptian history usefully illustrates how all ideologies—even the ones that seem most fixed and unyielding—are in fact fluid and contingent on events. 

A supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood and ousted Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi shouts slogans during a protest against the military and Interior Ministry in Cairo, Egypt, January 2014.
Amr Dalsh / REUTERS

Kindred Spirits

Nasser was born to a working-class family in Alexandria in 1918. He became politically active as a young boy and traced the roots of his Egyptian nationalist sentiments to a protest he accidentally stumbled into as a 12-year-old. His political leanings later drew him to a career in the military, an institution he viewed “as a spearhead that could awaken Egypt’s population from its malaise and subservience to foreigners,” Gerges writes. 

For much of the twentieth century, Egypt was the most consequential battleground in the struggle for the soul of the new Arab state.

Nasser was always a nationalist, but he was also, in effect, an Islamist. He became a member of the Muslim Brotherhood in 1947, a Sunni Islamist organization founded in Egypt by Hasan al-Banna in 1928 and that eventually spread throughout the Middle East. Nasser quickly grew frustrated with the Brotherhood on a personal level, but he continued to collaborate closely with its leadership for several more years. He rightly viewed the organization as a powerful social and political force in Egypt and therefore as a critical ally.

Nasser’s critiques of the Egyptian government intensified during his time in the military, and he eventually came to believe that the British-backed monarchy needed to be overthrown. Throughout the 1940s, he assembled a cadre of like-minded young military officers, officially naming them the Free Officers in 1949. In 1952, Nasser and the Free Officers ousted the sitting monarch, King Farouk, and took control of Egypt. The coup, which the Muslim Brotherhood supported, was bloodless and provoked almost no resistance. 

At the same time, Qutb, a literary critic and public intellectual, was rising in prominence. Qutb was born in 1906 in the village of Musha, in Upper Egypt. Like Nasser, he was a voracious reader and was politically engaged from an early age. As a young man, he became a prolific writer but resented the fact that he never achieved the status or fame of some of his mentors. Like many writers at the time, he was also a civil servant, working at the Ministry of Education. From 1948 to 1950, he studied in the United States, including at the Colorado State College of Education (now the University of Northern Colorado), in Greeley, Colorado, where he developed a deep distaste for American culture that translated into a lifelong intellectual critique of the West. 

By then, Qutb had already begun delving into Islamic themes, publishing the influential work Social Justice in Islam in 1949. When he returned to Egypt, he began gravitating toward the Brotherhood, although he wouldn’t formally join the movement until 1953. Politically, he shared Nasser’s hatred of colonialism and frustration with the Egyptian monarchy and fully supported the Free Officers in their takeover. In the early days of the revolution, the two men consulted frequently about their vision for a post-monarchist Egypt. Qutb even briefly served as secretary-general of the Liberation Rally, the government’s mass mobilization and propaganda arm. But soon after the revolution, a rift began to form, as Qutb grew disillusioned with Nasser and was passed over for a cabinet position. Nasser, meanwhile, came to see the Brothers as opportunistic and hungry for power—at his expense. In 1954, after a failed assassination attempt that Gerges attributes to rogue Brotherhood members, Nasser cracked down violently on the group, jailing thousands of Brothers and dismantling the organization. The highest-profile target was Qutb himself, who was executed in 1966.

The Roots of a Rivalry

Nasser and Qutb saw themselves as singular, historical figures, on whom Egypt’s destiny depended. Gerges shows that for both men, delusions of grandeur, personal affronts, and the temptations of power often took precedence over ideological or religious considerations. Drawing on a wealth of primary resources, including illuminating interviews with the few surviving confidants of both men, Gerges persuasively argues that these friends turned enemies overlapped both personally and ideologically more than is generally acknowledged.

Gerges’ account adds considerable color to the story of Nasser’s involvement with the Muslim Brotherhood, which was hardly a secret but has received relatively little attention from historians. In an interview with Gerges, Farid Abdel Khaleq, a close aide to Banna, the Brotherhood’s founder, recounts that Nasser “trained [Brotherhood] youth on how to use firearms. I saw him with my own eyes.” Khaled Mohieddin, a Free Officer and one of Nasser’s closest associates, recalls that Nasser was “ecstatic” about joining the Brotherhood’s secret paramilitary wing, the Special Apparatus. Nasser’s youthful membership in the Brotherhood helps explain the group’s subsequent enmity toward him. Many leading Brotherhood figures, including Qutb, believed that Nasser’s refusal to share power with the Brotherhood, and his later violence toward them, was all the more abhorrent because it was a personal betrayal of his bayah (oath of allegiance) to Banna.

Nasser, for his part, originally saw Qutb as a kindred spirit who transcended the typical political or ideological categories of the time. Pointing to a flurry of impassioned but largely forgotten articles that Qutb wrote in 1952, Gerges notes that he was “one of the first writers to lend legitimacy to the [Nasser-led] coup by calling it a ‘revolution.’” He also agitated for a “just” military dictatorship, a ban on political parties, and a suspension of the liberal constitutional order. In one such article, Qutb publicly expressed support for Nasser and the Free Officers, proclaiming, “In the name of millions, we will not allow you to return to the barracks because your mission is not over yet and your duty is to complete it.” 

Nasser and Qutb represent two prominent examples of the sort of ideological promiscuity that may seem surprising in the context of today’s Egypt but was once commonplace. Until Nasser launched his fateful crackdown against the Brotherhood, there was a rich fluidity to Egyptian political life that was made possible by the relative openness of the liberal moment. In the organization’s early days, some Brotherhood members were simultaneously members of the secular Wafd Party. Nasser’s friend Mohieddin was, briefly, both a member of the Brotherhood’s Special Apparatus and a Marxist. 

Until Nasser launched his fateful crackdown against the Brotherhood, there was a rich fluidity to Egyptian political life.

Gerges interprets these fluid affiliations to mean that if certain events had played out differently between 1952 and 1954, the army and the Brotherhood—and, by extension, Nasser and Qutb—might never have become implacable enemies. Gerges locates the break between Nasser and the Brotherhood in the struggle of personalities and power. The sometimes impetuous Nasser and the reserved and uncharismatic Hasan al-Hudaybi, the Brotherhood’s general guide (the top official) at this time, grew to hate each other in the years immediately following the revolution. Hudaybi assumed that Nasser would reward the Brotherhood’s support for the revolution with a prominent social and political role during the transition. Nasser, meanwhile, increasingly saw the Brotherhood, the country’s largest mass movement, as the only real threat to his power and his mounting ambition. 

Gerges presents possible counterfactuals. Had the Brotherhood and Nasser chosen other paths, he writes, “the structure and identity of the state would have been substantially different; it might well have been less intrusive, authoritarian, and deep.” It is tempting to play out some alternative scenarios. Perhaps Nasser would not have sent Brothers to prison, labor camps, and the gallows. And if Qutb hadn’t witnessed the torture in Nasser’s dungeons, he might not have formulated the idea of takfir—the practice of declaring other Muslims to be disbelievers—which inspired a generation of religious extremists. In other words, the struggle between secularists and Islamists, which has shaped the blood-soaked recent history of the Middle East, was never foreordained.

To my knowledge, there is no one who predicted in 1952 that Nasser would soon move against the Muslim Brotherhood and become obsessed with destroying it. And there is no one who would have dreamed in 1950 that Qutb would morph from a middling and rather secular literary critic to become one of the century’s most important Islamist theorists. At the time, history must have seemed wide open and even hopeful. 

As history moves, however, options become closed off. “My friend, Nasser,” says Mohieddin, “could have ended up a religious nationalist [like the Brothers] as opposed to a pan-Arab nationalist.” Nasser and Qutb could have made different decisions. But how likely is it that they could have ever really remained on the same side? Qutb supported military dictatorship, but only because he believed that the army was the best vehicle for radical change and that the country’s military was the only actor capable of doing away with the old regime and paving the way for an Islamic order. Nasser may have been part of the Brotherhood, but there is little evidence that he developed strong feelings about applying Islamic law one way or the other. It was only later in his life that he became skeptical of Islam playing too central a role in public life. Nasser’s growing distrust of Brotherhood leaders after the revolution pushed him to be more anti-Islamist and strictly nationalist than he might otherwise have been. But this sequence of events doesn’t make his commitments, which evolved in a secular and socialist direction, any less legitimate or sincere. After all, ideologies depend just as much on what they aren’t as on what they are. 

Past As Prelude 

Islamism in Egypt began to cohere only after it had identified its enemies. The Brotherhood, particularly the now octogenarian members who knew Qutb in prison, have never forgotten Nasser’s brutal crackdown, which is known in Brotherhood lore as the mihna: “the ordeal.” Decades later, having suffered in Nasser’s jails provides a key source of legitimacy for members of the movement’s old guard. To suffer is to lead.

Islamism in Egypt began to cohere only after it had identified its enemies.

The mihna indelibly marked the Brotherhood’s approach, which to this day prioritizes self-preservation above all else—although the group has arguably failed to achieve even that narrow goal. In the tense months leading up to the 2013 coup that deposed Morsi, one Brotherhood official told me that the movement had “returned to the mentality of the mihna.” That mindset may have allowed the Brotherhood to survive under the repression of Nasser and his successors. But it did not serve the group well during Egypt’s short-lived democratic experiment from 2011 to 2013, when it took refuge in paranoia and insularity. In conversations I have had with Brotherhood “reformists,” they have pointed to a Qutbist wing in the organization that constantly works to block new ideas and resist organizational reforms. The current (and imprisoned) general guide of the movement, Mohamed Badie, for example, was a member of Qutb’s so-called Secret Organization as a university student in the 1960s.

Deposed Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi behind bars at a court on the outskirts of Cairo, Egypt in June 2015
Deposed Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi behind bars at a court on the outskirts of Cairo, Egypt, June 2015.
Asmaa Waguih / REUTERS

But this way of understanding the Brotherhood today has its limits. The group’s older leaders are indeed deeply conservative, secretive, and suspicious of outsiders, but they are at odds with Qutb’s own theory of change. They have been firm proponents of gradualism and patience in the face of suffering and are the ones most inclined to cut a deal with the military. Many of the Brotherhood’s younger activists, who came of age not during the mihna but during the revolt that brought down Mubarak in 2011, have bristled at what they see as the old guard’s timidity. Asmaa Shokr, a journalist and former Brotherhood official in her 30s, was present at the August 14, 2013, massacre, during which the Egyptian military and security forces killed close to a thousand Brotherhood supporters who were occupying Rabaa al-Adawiya Square, in Cairo. On that day, she told me, she watched as a protester tried to torch a car but was reprimanded by one of the group’s older leaders. “I was shocked,” she said. “Your children are dying in front of you, and you care about a car?” 

Qutb had little interest in peaceful protest. He was both a radical and a revolutionary who believed in pursuing change through dramatic action—including violence—carried out by a small vanguard. As long as the vanguard remained uncompromising in its commitment to God and the Koran, Qutb attested, it would succeed where mass politics and parliamentary democracy would fail. 

Qutb’s vanguard model is well known for inspiring extremist organizations. It has gone into temporary decline, however, because of the failure of the Islamic State (also known as ISIS) to hold on to territory in Iraq and Syria. The state of Brotherhood-style mass Islamism, on the other hand, is harder to assess, even as tens of thousands of members of the Egyptian Brotherhood languish in prison or exile. Today’s Islamism may appear weak in organizational terms, but it remains resilient in ideological ones. 

In a perfect world, ideologies could be undone long after the fact, and politics in Egypt could be released from what began as an artificial and ambiguous divide between Islamists and nationalists. But all kinds of divides that begin artificially—think borders, the nation-state, or even Shiite-Sunni sectarianism—become invested with meaning and permanence over time. The ideas that Nasser and Qutb professed might have been manufactured and employed for the purposes of power, but that doesn’t make them less consequential to real people many decades later.

Nasser and Qutb were both obsessed with power, but neither believed in power simply for its own sake. Each hoped to use his power to reshape Egypt. Their experiences support two propositions that are sometimes in tension: that ideas are fluid and forged in particular historical moments, and that they persist, they matter, and they can have tremendous human costs. 

The ideological currents unleashed by Nasser and Qutb are now part of the fabric of the modern Middle East. The struggle between their inheritors continues, and one side is not likely to conclusively defeat the other. But that won’t stop partisans, ideologues, and autocrats from continuing to try. The Egyptian regime, for example, remains determined to crush the Brotherhood, believing that it can do today what it could not do before. For this unfortunate reason, Making the Arab World—and its story of two impassioned, sincere, and reckless men—serves not just as an account of why one revolution went wrong in Egypt’s past but also as a warning that, for Egypt as well as the rest of the region, some of the worst may be yet to come.


An earlier version of this article misidentified the year Sayyid Qutb joined the Muslim Brotherhood. It is 1953, not 1954.

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  • SHADI HAMID is a Senior Fellow in the Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World at the Brookings Institution and the author of Islamic Exceptionalism: How the Struggle Over Islam is Reshaping the World
  • More By Shadi Hamid