What Really Went Wrong: The West and the Failure of Democracy in the Middle East by Fawaz A Gerges - review by Rory Mccarthy

Rory Mccarthy

Road Not Taken

What Really Went Wrong: The West and the Failure of Democracy in the Middle East


Yale University Press 334pp £20

In the months after the 11 September attacks, the Princeton Orientalist Bernard Lewis published a slim bestselling volume asking ‘what went wrong?’ His contentious answer, that the Middle East is intolerant and hamstrung by victimhood, furnished Washington’s neo-con hawks with the theoretical underpinning for their disastrous military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq. 

Two decades later, Fawaz Gerges presents the latest in a long wave of blistering ripostes, debunking the familiar explanatory motifs of ancient sectarian hatreds, tribal loyalties and congenital violence. Gerges argues that the real reason the region is still beset with authoritarian regimes, underdevelopment and radical ideologies is the ‘toxic legacy’ left by Western leaders who chose to side with autocrats in return for cheap oil and compliance with US hegemony. This argument, of course, has been made before. The Middle East was once described as the ‘most penetrated’ region in the world, given the breadth and depth of Western involvement there. But Gerges’s innovation is to approach the subject through two key episodes of the 1950s: the successful US and British coup against the elected Iranian prime minister Mohammad Mossadegh and the abortive British, French and Israeli invasion of Egypt during the Suez Crisis. These were historical ruptures, he argues, which not only laid the foundations for decades of instability but also reveal alternative paths not taken.

The Middle East was at a pivotal juncture in the aftermath of the Second World War. The European colonial project was collapsing, just as urbanisation and increasing literacy rates were making mass politics a powerful force across the region. It is a period that Gerges, a scholar of international relations

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