The inheritors

In the 1980s, I was a teenager living down the street from a used bookstore.   My view of the world was shaped by the paperbacks available there for 85¢ and less.  Many of those were political books from 15 or 20 years before. Among them was Peter Mansfield‘s book Nasser’s Egypt, a general survey of Egypt as Mansfield saw it the late 1960s that depicted President Nasser, his pan-Arabist ideology, and the centralized economic planning of his government with the utmost sympathy.  Other political books I found at the same store depicted Nasser less favorably, but even those that presented him very negatively could not suppress all romanticism in describing the ambitions of his program and the dashing quality of his personality.

In the days when I was reading these books, the American mass media were lionizing Anwar Sadat.  From the moment President Sadat signed the Camp David Accords with Israel, he was presented to the American public as an apostle of humanity who embodied hope for peace in the Middle East.  When the movie Gandhi was a hit, Hollywood followed up with a series of other biographical epics about history’s great peacemakers; Sadat, starring Lou Gossett, Junior, was the first.  Indeed, Sadat and Mahatma Gandhi figured in the US media as exact equivalents in those days.

Considering that he came to office in the shadow of two men who inspired so much legend, it is hardly surprising that Hosni Mubarak has been seen in America as a bland placeholder.  Indeed, the most flattering thing I’ve ever read about President Mubarak in a major US publication called him “Egypt’s Gerald Ford,” a man who was his country’s leader today for the sole reason that he happened to have been kicked upstairs to the vice presidency when President Sadat wanted to get him out of the way and appoint a new defense minister.

Therefore, Egypt’s three modern presidents figure in my imagination as dramatically different figures: Nasser the tragic hero, Sadat the secular saint, Mubarak the afterthought.  It always jolts me when I see people bracketing the three together.  I know that from the perspective of many Egyptians the current regime seems like a rancid thing that’s been stinking up their country since 1952, but when I read phrases like “Nasir-Sadat-Mubarak continuum” I always scratch my head.

Another book I found at the same store was Eric L. McKitrick‘s Slavery Defended: The Views of the Old South.  A line of McKitrick’s reproduced on the back cover convinced me to buy it:  “Nothing is more susceptible to oblivion than an argument, however ingenious, that has been discredited by events.”  None of the pro-slavery documents McKitrick found put forth an argument that I would call especially ingenious, though several of them did manage to raise awkward questions about the economic system of the states in which laborers were nominally free.  Still, I think McKitrick makes a vital point.  If some Southern apologist had constructed a truly brilliant argument in defense of slavery, the fact that no serious person is today looking for any such argument would likely mean that the apologist’s work would be forgotten.

The same applies to other arguments.  Whatever its drawbacks, Nasser’s pan-Arabism had  far more to recommend it than did the practice of slavery in the United States.  Yet it too is a spent force, one which has left many monuments but which no longer attracts followers.  President Mubarak’s career is one of those monuments; his administration’s evident lack of public support shows that he has long since exhausted whatever political inheritance may have been left from Nasser when he took office decades ago. Of course, the events that discredited pan-Arabism took place long before Mubarak came to power.  By 1981, Syria had been out of the United Arab Republic for twenty years, and North Yemen had been out of the United Arab States for as long.  The June 1967 war with Israel would bury pan-Arabism, but the collapse of these federations may have marked its real death.  The case for pan-Arabism, no matter its abstract appeal, could not survive these events.

If nothing is more susceptible to oblivion than an argument discredited by events, surely the converse is true as well.  Nothing is less susceptible to oblivion than an ideology, however asinine, that has inspired a winning cause and given many people opportunities to become rich.  I suspect that many of the ideas which still have currency and power in world affairs are at least as weak as pan-Arabism.  Indeed, if we were to examine them in the abstract we would find that many forms of nationalism and internationalism have the same logical structure as pan-Arabism.