Said Aburish, a Palestinian with excellent English who worked for years in Iraq, wrote a very good biography of Saddam four years ago. He brought out the full horror of the regime, and showed how Saddam’s hero was Stalin, even to the point that Stalin’s works were Saddam’s bedtime reading (such, at any rate, was the theory: porn magazines were probably the reality). Killing off Shias, clearing the Kurds out of the oil towns in northern Iraq, and launching himself as hero of the down-trodden Arabs, Saddam clearly had Stalin in mind.
Aburish’s book was a good one, but it was also inspired by animosity — ‘from vigilance of grief compell’d/ To hate from having loved too well’, in the words of the old song. He fled Baghdad, as so many of Saddam’s people had to do. Arab unity is a cause that some Palestinians greatly support. After all, how otherwise will they be able to get their own back on Israel? Saddam failed in that respect, and even discredited the entire cause. Its symbol remains the Scud missiles fired at an unresisting Israel in the first Gulf war; most failed to arrive on target, and anyway they had a war-head containing lumps of concrete only.
But why is it so difficult to attain Arab unity? It should, after all, make a certain amount of sense, given that the language and culture between Atlantic Morocco and Mesopotamian Baghdad are on the surface the same. But it never works; as an Israeli foreign minister once said, nothing divides the Arabs so much as the question of their unity. Only one public figure in the Middle East ever managed to make more of it than rhet-oric: Gamal Abdel Nasser.
His greatest moment came in 1956, when, nationalising the Suez Canal, he challenged the British and French: they had to withdraw, ignominiously, when both the United States and the USSR opposed them. Then came a long period, in which Syria, Libya, Iraq and the Yemen were supposed to be joined with Egypt in a ‘United Arab Republic’. Aburish concentrates mainly upon this process, and it is very bewildering indeed — an orgy of back-stabbing, with close allies swearing eternal friendship at one moment and then dealing out murder at the next. Aburish probably has insider information as to who did what to whom and why, but the reader will only lose interest unless he is a specialist. The country that fell apart over all of this was, of course, Lebanon — an island of civilisation, but too small to defend itself. The only way to attain any sort of unity among these various power-holders was to evoke war with Israel. Nasser himself seems not really to have wanted this at all, and he talked on and off about the necessity of making peace. But that remained talk: if you wanted Arab unity, that meant making life very difficult for conservative Arab rulers beholden to the West, which in turn meant evoking anti-Zionism. So money was spent on armaments, eventually on Soviet ones, and there were provocations along the border with Israel. In 1967 came a long-threatened war with Israel, and Nasser’s forces lost it in six days — the naksa, or ‘disaster’, as it is known. Aburish regards this as the calamity of calamities, an event which affected the entire Arab world and gave it an indelible mark of inferiority. How on earth did Nasser manage to survive it, to continue, until his death in 1970, as ruler of Egypt? The matter is all the stranger as he possessed no kind of religious sanction. Quite the contrary: the Moslem Brotherhood kept trying to murder him, and he kept putting their adepts in jails and torturing them.
This book is not very satisfactory; not nearly as useful as the Saddam biography, nor as readable. It has almost nothing to say, for a start, about Nasser’s ‘socialist’ transformation of Egypt, or even about the effects of the Aswan Dam. Not a word is wasted on the Greeks and Copts driven into exile or on the economy, and the book remains surprisingly two-dimensional when it discusses British involvement in Egypt. Neither the British semi-occupation, nor the Egypt- ian old regime, deserve this dismissal. It is true that Nasser was always advancing the cause of Arab ‘dignity’, and that British tutorship could in principle count as an affront to said ‘dignity’. But there were many British people who sympathised with Egyptian nationalism, and liked Egyptians — beginning with a Tory cabinet minister, Anthony Nutting, who resigned in protest at the Suez operation and wrote Nasser’s biography. He said to Nasser, early on: why don’t you just act like Kemal Ataturk in Turkey, and carry out modernising, secularising reforms, such as a modernisation of the alphabet so that peasants can read? No, said Nasser — these things might work with primitive people, such as the Turks, but not in our great and glorious civilisation. The whole Arab world translates about 300 foreign titles every year. I can see that many at a casual glance in my local bookshop in Ankara. Not bad for the alleged primitives; and, come to think of it, how did they manage to run an empire in that difficult part of the world for so long? Lawrence wondered the same about Iraq in 1920. The Turks had run the place with about 14,000 locally raised men, executing around 90 people per annum. The British, with an army of 90,000 men including tanks and aircraft, had a perpetual war on their hands, even if they hanged with a will and used poison gas against tribes. Why?
Aburish’s book begins with a self- hating line: the ‘insulting treatment the Arabs are getting from … Bush is deserved’. Nasser remains a mystery; but the book caused me to re-read David Pryce-Jones’s Closed Circle, recently re-issued, which looks four-square at the whole problem of the Arabs’ response to ‘modernity’. It is very harsh, very know- ledgeable and perhaps — one hopes — wrong. Another useful book is Fouad Ajami’s Arab Predicament, of which I have the 1991 edition. From both I learned far more about Nasser than from Aburish. As Carlyle said, any time someone brings out a new book, read an old one.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated July 3, 2004