We Are Your Soldiers: How Gamal Abdel Nasser Remade the Arab World by Alex Rowell - review by Barnaby Crowcroft

Barnaby Crowcroft

Colonel of Mass Destruction

We Are Your Soldiers: How Gamal Abdel Nasser Remade the Arab World


Simon & Schuster 416pp £25

To really appreciate the significance of We Are Your Soldiers, one must have a feel for the historiography. The last time, for instance, I was in Cairo, the National Archives of Egypt was holding an exhibition on President Gamal Abdel Nasser. Included were such relics for veneration as a pair of the former president’s socks, his favourite little mug and a selection of his best briefcases. As a graduate student in the United States, I once witnessed a colleague – now cultivating young minds at some Ivy League university – rise and depart a discussion in protest when the conversation began to cast doubt upon Nasser’s dazzling record of defying Western crypto-fascist colonial imperialism. Indeed, the most recent academic biography of Nasser is titled Nasser: Hero of the Arab Nation. Try that with one of Europe’s 20th-century dictators and you’ll have a good sense of how batty modern Middle East studies really is.

Alex Rowell courageously steers a ten-ton truck through this rather shaming scholarly consensus. A journalist and lifelong resident of the Middle East, Rowell has spent decades pondering the ruins of the political world that Nasser made, and a lot of time interviewing the families of some of the victims. A fluent Arabist, he is also able to make use of a wealth of Arabic sources that remain astonishingly neglected in English-language books – including memoirs in which Nasser’s principal lieutenants gleefully confess to crimes that their starry-eyed Western cheerleaders cravenly absolve them of. The Nasser who emerges from this book, by contrast, is less a lovable icon than (in one of Winston Churchill’s many memorable bons mots) a ‘malicious swine’. Opening with the Egyptian revolution of 1952, We Are Your Soldiers describes a set of ‘encounters’ between Nasserism and six Arab nations, from Libya to Lebanon, which were ‘drenched in blood and destruction’.

True, young Colonel Nasser’s debut on Egypt’s political scene was broadly welcomed, even by the British. On 23 July 1952, his group of nationalist Free Officers staged a skilful coup to rid the country of hapless King Farouk (who had come to the throne in 1936), a monarch ‘loathed by all for his repugnant morals and … porcine physique’. But the army’s move into politics was supposed to be temporary, a measure designed to defend Egypt’s celebrated constitution from royal abuse. When Nasser’s secretive clique of thirty-something soldiers decided that they liked being in power and were going to stay there, Egypt’s rambunctious civil society began to fight back. In response, Nasser’s regime started to ‘tear democracy out by its roots’ – imprisoning political opponents, banning political parties, muzzling the press, shuttering the parliament, gutting the judiciary and legal profession, and suborning the universities and student movements. After Britain’s botched invasion of the country during the Suez Crisis of 1956, Nasser’s nationalist Egypt suddenly seemed to offer a model for successful, charismatic military dictatorship, legitimised by rhetorical anti-colonialism. 

In the late 1950s, Nasserism metasta-sised into a challenge of near-Napoleonic proportions to the wider Middle East. In February 1958, to head off demands for democratisation at home, a group of Syrian military officers flew to Cairo and spectacularly offered to hand over Syria to Egypt. The result was the establishment of the United Arab Republic, which inspired nationalists and revolutionaries throughout the region. As Rowell shows, the new country also proved an ‘inexhaustible wellspring’ of money and weapons, and that is not to mention the vitriolic speeches delivered by its president, designed to destabilise its weaker neighbours. A British military intervention in Jordan saved the country’s Hashemite monarchy. But an American one in Lebanon was not enough to prevent that fragile republic from falling under Nasser’s sway, with the Egyptian embassy in Beirut soon coming to serve as a kind of colonial high commission crossed with an arms bazaar, as well as a safe haven for any local Nasserist out to kill a dissenting journalist or pro-Western politician. Iraq suffered even worse. Rowell describes in some detail the ‘rivers of Iraqi blood’ that flowed after copycat Free Officers seized Baghdad and abolished the country’s monarchy, setting off a bloody merry-go-round of coups and countercoups that ended in the tyranny of Saddam Hussein, a man known to his admirers as ‘Nasser with teeth’.

Yet of all the peoples to ‘experience’ Nasser’s violence, as the author neatly puts it, it was those of impoverished Yemen who suffered most grievously. In September 1962, a clique of Yemeni Free Officers made a bid for power too, seizing the capital and abolishing the monarchy, but signally failing to kill the king, who rallied his supporters in the countryside. With world attention distracted by the Cuban Missile Crisis, Nasser began ferrying Egyptian troops – eventually more than sixty thousand – into Yemen to prop up the revolutionary regime, fuelling a devastating civil war. But worse still was to come: as the war turned against them, Nasser’s forces began dropping chemical weapons on royalist Yemeni villages – the first military use of them since Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia. Facing no international censure for its actions because of its impeccable progressive credentials, Egypt rained weapons of mass destruction (including nerve agents, the first suspected use of these) on Yemen well into 1967. Altogether, it is difficult to suppress a cheer when we witness Nasser’s revolutionary regime meeting its comeuppance at the hands of the Israeli army in the Six Day War of 1967.

But Nasser had three years left to live – and so much more damage still to do. Already, he had nurtured Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and Syria’s Hafez al-Assad, but it was in Libya that Nasser found his last project and protégé. Muammar al-Gaddafi was the original Nasser fanboy, passing his teenage years memorising his speeches (he had been expelled from school in 1961 after publicly reciting a particularly violent one directed against Libya’s monarchy). He proceeded to follow the Nasserist playbook ‘to the letter’, joining the military, establishing a Free Officers group and toppling Libya’s monarchy at the first opportunity, in September 1969. Nasser threw himself behind Gaddafi’s junta in Libya, dispatching Egyptian troops to ward off opponents, training its secret police in the arts of repression at home and political warfare abroad, and publicly embracing Gaddafi in Cairo as the ‘custodian of Arab nationalism, and the Arab revolution’. Within a year he was dead, aged only fifty-two, leaving Libya to endure its own ‘unending nightmare of tyranny and misery’.

It has been a long time coming, but We Are Your Soldiers may well be Sir Anthony Eden’s vindication.

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