In July of 1952, the “Free Officers” of the Egyptian army seized the reigns of power from the corrupt monarchy that had been in place since 1919. The nominal head of the new Revolutionary Command Council, as the “Free Officers” came to be called after the coup, was General Muhammad Najib, but the real power lay with a colonel named Gamal Abdel Nasser (Jamal Abd ‘al-Nasir). The product of the 1919 “revolution” that installed the corrupt regime of Kings Fa‘ud and Farouk, educated in the military and political traditions of Europe, and steeped in the nationalist rhetoric of the Arab world of the 1930’s, Nasser came to embody the very essence of Egyptian, and later Arab, nationalism. Dependant upon what source you read, this event was of profound significance to not only the Arab Middle East, but to the entire third world or, it was at best a minor inconvenience to the major powers. The main reason for this disparity in interpreting the Egyptian revolution of 1952 lies in the sources relied upon for scholarly study and information regarding the event. The focus of this paper will be to examine the sources and methods used in two recent works; James Jankowski’s Nasser’s Egypt, Arab Nationalism, and the United Arab Republic and Robert McNamara’s Britain, Nasser and the Balance of Power in the Middle East, 1952 – 1967. Though both of these works encompass the same subject and time period, they emerge from their research with two entirely divergent opinions on the significance and person of Nasser.
From the very outset of his book, James Jankowski treats the events leading up to and after the 1952 revolution as an international event. His work is derived primarily from public records, official documents and even personal memoirs that are made available to scholars. The public records are those pieces of information culled from newspaper articles and official pronouncements that can be found in Egypt, Britain and the United States. His main reason for beginning his approach this way, yet not relying entirely upon them for his conclusions, was that it would be “sufficient to construct the main outlines of Egypt’s (nationalist movement)…but were unable to resolve issues of fact disputed by various parties.” In order to flesh out the outline of the Nationalist movement in Egypt, Jankowski turned to memoirs of Nasser’s confidants because “Used with care – with due attention to internal consistency, to efforts at personal vindication, and with cross-checking with other accounts – these memoirs are essential (to Egypt’s role in Arab politics).” The final source that Jankowski used to verify the “flesh” these memoirs put upon the skeleton of public records is the official diplomatic records made public through the FOIA (in the United States), and persistence (in Britain). Jankowski notes that while none of these sources are perfect in and of themselves – even the archival materials found in the U.S. and Britain tend to be colored by their external points of view and interpretations of Egyptian motivations despite their acknowledged reliability for factual reporting – he asserts that by using each one in the proper place, the scholar can fill in the gaps and ferret out misinformation better than reliance upon a single source.
Though Jankowski relies upon these official and semi-official sources of information, his approach in clearly informed by the post-modernist movement’s well-known penchant for disbelief of official records. By cross-checking his sources for accuracy, he begins the foundation of his argument by defusing the objections of all but the most rabid of post-modernists. His reasoning for the use of these sources is stated plainly in his introduction, and he consciously admits the short-comings of his sources and the steps he has taken to mitigate the misinformation they may bring to his research. Additionally, Jankowski takes an approach that can best be described as trans-national, since it looks at the revolution in Egypt, its influences from Europe and the Middle East, and its consequences for the world. His thoroughness in mining official documents and cross-checking satisfies an empiricist point of view while his inclusion of newspaper and memoirs clearly keeps in mind the critiques of specialists in Egyptian modern history. Perhaps the most important element is his use of primary sources that are translated from Arabic and Hebrew, published in the cities of Beirut, Tel Aviv, and most importantly, Cairo. It is this use of sources from all sides that allows Jankowski to construct an engaging and important examination of the national and international implications of Nasser’s rise to power, his motivations, and the obvious disconnect between the West and the Third World, especially the Middle East.
McNamara begins his book with “…It is easy to forget, in the light of subsequent events, that the coup (of 1952), shortly followed by King Farouk’s abdication, was not seen necessarily as a bad thing from the British point of view.” An amazing statement indeed, considering that Britain had virtually controlled Egypt from 1882 to 1914, controlled it outright from 1914 to 1922, when it instituted an Egyptian Monarchy beholden to the whims of the British Foreign Office. Additionally, there were 70,000 – 80,000 British troops guarding the Suez Canal, from which Britain collected millions of pounds each year and the Free Officer’s main demand was an end of “Western Imperialism.”McNamara’s approach is one of a traditional Anglophile empiricist in that his narrative is completely constructed from the point of view of official British documents as well as primary and secondary sources printed in either the United States or the United Kingdom, particularly London. The entire approach, though not apologetic for the actions of the British government toward Nasser, certainly approaches the event as a problem to be solved by the British government. It is also important to note the name of the book; Britain (the entire nation, one is meant to assume), Nasser (not Nasser’s Egypt as in the Jankowski book), and the Balance of Power in The Middle East, 1952 – 1967. Titles, as most historians know, are not decided arbitrarily but are instead meant to be a catchy encapsulation of the author’s arguments and point of view. The same is true for chapter names; in this case the introduction is sub-titled “Delusions of Grandeur in the Middle East.” This choice of titles for his book and the chapters within clearly fall in line with the sources he used for his examination of Nasser’s tenure – an annoying man popped up and ruined the whole game we had going in the Middle East and we had to deal with this troublemaker. It sounds a bit far-fetched for the title of a book, but not so much for the essence. His view of the entire period in which Nasser was in power is one of mutual hatred and antagonism. Relying upon official and scholarly sources published in Britain and the United States clearly has narrowed his field of vision from the outset. Unlike Jankowski, McNamara’s approach is more in the vein of a grand narrative, with no apparent acknowledgement or consciousness of post-modernist, post-colonial, or even trans-national critiques of the style. Though he uses sources from the American perspective, they are used, or rather misused in this case, to paint a picture of Nasser leading the Americans by the nose. For example, in the chapter titled simply “Suez, 1956” states that “(Eisenhower and Secretary of State Dulles) felt equally strongly, arguing that all newly independent countries would turn to the Soviet Union unless the United States opposed its allies.” With this passage, McNamara clearly argues that the United States was “betraying” its allies – Britain, France and Israel – by forcing the nations to abort their thinly-disguised attempt at re-conquering the Suez Canal.
McNamara’s book has the potential to be more fair and balanced in its interpretation of events, particularly when portraying Prime Minister Anthony Eden as “high-strung” and “over-promoted”, but is still prone to reference Egyptian policy as the personal design of only one man. For instance, an incident in Jordan was characterized as becoming a “battleground between Britain and Nasser…”, but nowhere in the same chapter does McNamara characterize any incident as “between Eden and Egypt.” This clear flaw in his point of view and use of terminology and syntax only adds fuel to the fire of those critics of nationalist histories, which this is clearly an example of. Additionally, it is almost impossible to take McNamara’s characterizations of Nasser’s and Egypt’s motivations seriously since he does not include any works from the Middle East, let alone Egypt. Also, McNamara is unlike Jankowski in another respect; whereas Jankowski made the case for his use of sources clear from the beginning, McNamara does not. This difference could be explained as a difference in style or approach to history, but could also lead one to believe that McNamara went looking for what he wanted to find, a clear agenda and interpretation of facts in mind before even beginning his book. This omission, I would assert, undermines the very value of the book as a serious, professional work of history, regardless of the theory with which it examines the subject at hand.
Jankowski and McNamara
Salmon Rushdie once asked of the Middle East to consider that maybe the west was not at fault for all the problems it faces; that some, if not most, of the problems are a direct result of the actions its people and officials have taken over the years. The phenomenon of the collapse of the British Empire could be handled in pretty much the same way; what if the problems Britain faced in the Middle East were not completely the fault of Gamal Abdel Nasser? What if, instead, it was the actions of its citizens and politicians that caused so many problems for Britain in the 1950’s and 1960’s? James Jankowski’s book, while not clearly pointing a finger of blame, takes a balanced approach to the situation surrounding the 1952 coup d’etat in Egypt and its implications nationally, regionally and globally by taking a trans-national approach. Despite its flaws, particularly the lack of depth in explaining the dynamics of Egyptian politics under the Monarchy, the approach works well in establishing a cohesive narrative. Jankowski’s approach explains the changes over time that occurred in Egypt while highlighting the similarities that this revolution shares with other revolutions that ousted Imperial powers from colonial nations. The capstone to his approach is, of course, his inclusion of sources from different regions and in different languages – which shows a thoroughness that is the hallmark of good, scholarly works. Conversely, McNamara’s closed-ended perusal of official documents provides only one possible explanation of the period examined. His empiricist approach works better as a polemic than an historical investigation while his limited use of sources belies the thoroughness that the subject at hand demands. Had his book been titled something along the lines of Britain’s reactions to Nasser, 1952 – 1967, then his method would clearly have been adequate, perhaps even perfect. But since he clearly intends this book to be taken as a globally-reaching, regionally significant book, as his title suggests, his methods and research are less than complete, and in fact leave out much important scholarly work on Nasser’s life, politics, and influences from a Middle Eastern or even Egyptian source. Obviously, in order to learn anything from history, it is important to know all the fact, and in order to teach anything about history, it is important to have all the facts be as close to the “truth” as possible. Failure on either end is not only a waste of time for the reader of history, but a waste of effort on the part of the scholar.
James Jankowski Nasser’s Egypt, Arab Nationalism, and the United Arab Republic (Boulder: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2002)
Robert McNamara Britain, Nasser, and the Balance of Power in The Middle East, 1952 – 1967 (London: Frank Cass, 2003)
Salman Rushdie “Yes This IS About Islam” in The New York Times 2 November 2001