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Book Review: ‘We Are Your Soldiers,’ by Alex Rowell



WE ARE YOUR SOLDIERS: How Gamal Abdel Nasser Remade the Arab World, by Alex Rowell

On Sept. 1, 1969, a group of Libyan Army men launched a haphazard but ultimately successful coup that toppled the country’s monarch, King Idris I, and put them in charge of the large oil-rich nation on the Mediterranean coast. Taking to the airwaves, their leader, a little-known officer in his late 20s named Muammar el-Qaddafi, announced the dawn of a new era in a country where “all will be free, brothers within a society in which — with God’s help — prosperity and equality will be seen to rule us all.”

The putschists — a group of officers who had never run even a desert oasis — soon realized that they had no idea how to govern a country, so they sent a cable to their hero and role model, Gamal Abdel Nasser, the president of Egypt and one of the most prominent Arabs of his day, to ask for help.

And help he did. He sent arms, military experts and advice on how to talk to the West. He encouraged the officers to assure the United States, Britain and France that the coup posed no risk to their people or interests. He appeared publicly with Colonel el-Qaddafi to boost the rising young dictator’s international standing and dispatched an aide to advise him on everything he needed to know, like the importance of hiring a trustworthy cook to avoid getting poisoned. (“If you don’t succeed and secure this revolution,” Nasser reportedly told the aide, “I’ll kill you with my own hands.”)

Colonel el-Qaddafi went on to rule Libya for 42 years, brutalizing his people, failing to develop his nation, sponsoring acts of terrorism and aging into a cartoonish thug who appeared at international forums like the United Nations General Assembly dressed in flowing robes and ranting like a kook. His long reign is but one strand of Nasser’s disastrous legacy, according to “We Are Your Soldiers,” by the Lebanon-based journalist Alex Rowell. Rowell takes the reader on a historical tour of the Middle East to illuminate how Nasser contributed to the region’s “shared curse of political repression mixed with economic misery.”

Most of the action takes place in the 1950s and 1960s, when many Arab states were establishing what would become their contemporary, independent political systems. It was a time of great tumult, with ousted monarchs and repeated coups, and Nasser, the charismatic military officer who, in 1952, seized control of Egypt, the most populous Arab state, was a towering regional figure.

The book is not a comprehensive biography and does not spend much time on Nasser’s life before he took power or on his broader international activities — his role in Cold War geopolitics or his 1956 nationalization of the Suez Canal Company. Instead, it focuses on the harsher side of Nasser’s rule and regional interventions, from the autocratic system he established in Egypt to his meddling in the politics of neighboring countries like Libya to strengthen dictators who became what Rowell calls “the rogues’ gallery of despots who went on to bring such agony upon their societies.”

In his quest for control in Egypt, Nasser developed a dictator’s playbook: Gain a grip in the country’s military, find disgruntled allies among the ranks, come to power in a coup and then smash anything that could threaten your power while claiming to act according to the people’s will. To personalize the torment his reign caused, Rowell dedicates a blistering chapter to the mostly communist and other leftist activists tortured by Nasser’s security forces at a prison near Cairo that Rowell argues could justly be called a concentration camp.

In other chapters, Rowell follows Nasser around the region, detailing the ways in which he sewed the seeds of future troubles. In Iraq, he supported coups and coup attempts and granted recognition to putschists while hosting a young Saddam Hussein in Cairo for three years before Hussein returned home and, eventually, tookover the country. Nasser sought to seize effective control of Syria by uniting it with Egypt in the short-lived United Arab Republic, contributing to the chaos from which President Hafez al-Assad rose to take power in 1970. Nasser pushed through a 1969 agreement with Lebanon that gave Palestinian militants free rein in the country in their fight against Israel, a reality that both contributed to Lebanon’s disastrous 15-year civil war and made it harder to resolve.

In 1960s Yemen — “the darkest stain on his record by a considerable margin,” Rowell writes — Nasser backed revolutionary forces who had toppled the country’s hereditary ruler. His forces flew over the country with chemical weapons — never before used by an Arab military — and mercilessly dropped them on civilians.

Rowell’s writing is at its best when he narrates the stories of lesser-known figures, allowing the cultural and political textures of these countries to shine through. He reconstructs the life and death of the pioneering Lebanese newspaper editor and Nasser critic Kamel Mrowa, who was fatally shot in 1966 in his office by a hit man who the Mrowa family believes was dispatched by Nasser. He also relates the ascent of Hazza al-Majali, a small-town lawyer in Jordan who rose to become an adviser to the king in 1947 and, in the following decade, prime minister. Nasser, too, had a hand in the plot that saw him blown up in his office in 1960.

But in other chapters, Rowell’s tendency to delve deeply into long-gone regimes and clog his story with the names of officials who were minor even in their time distracts from the bigger picture. Sometimes his efforts to link events to his subject’s malign influence go too far. For reasons that remained unclear to me even after two readings, he opens the book with the murder of the Lebanese activist and intellectual Lokman Slim in 2021, an unsolved crime widely attributed to the militant group Hezbollah. Tying this assassination to Nasser can be done only with the most tenuous of threads.

Part of Rowell’s motivation is to re-examine Nasser’s legacy in light of the popular, anti-authoritarian uprisings known as the Arab Spring, which spread across the Middle East in 2011. Zipping through the more recent history of the countries he explores elsewhere in the book, Rowell suggests that Nasser bears significant responsibility for their current dysfunctions.

The Arab world’s size and complexity make it a fool’s errand to try to find one cause for the region’s ills, and in focusing so squarely on Nasser, Rowell skates dangerously close to that trap. Still, there is value in highlighting the damage caused by an icon whose image remains, in some quarters, a shorthand for Arab dignity and freedom from foreign dictates. Unfortunately, autocracy is alive and well in the region today, depriving many citizens of the very dignity Nasser claimed to represent. The dictator’s playbook that he wrote is still widely in use.

WE ARE YOUR SOLDIERS: How Gamal Abdel Nasser Remade the Arab World | By Alex Rowell | Norton | 402 pp. | $30