Earlier this month, the fiftieth anniversary of the Six Day War evoked some great writing, including a piece by Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Institution. His piece is entitled “The end of Nasserism: How the 1967 War opened new space for Islamism in the Arab world.”
Maybe I’m reading too much into the words “Arab world” in the title, because Hamid focuses on Egypt, but at the regional level, I question the idea that 1967 was the turning point or even that 1967 was a major factor in trajectories of Islamism in some Arab countries.
Here is Hamid:
When Nasser, and by extension Egypt, lost, there was relatively little left to say. The starting premise of Arab nationalism had been fatally undermined, 15 years into the 1952 revolution…When Nasser died in 1970 at the age of 52, millions of Egyptians gathered to mourn him in a six-mile procession. It was perhaps the last unifying moment in Egypt’s modern history, before the resurgence of Islamism—and particularly the Muslim Brotherhood—opened up a new fault line in Egyptian society.
The first point to make is that Egypt does not equal the Arab world. If 1967 marked the end of Nasserism, why did not just one but three leaders clearly inspired by Nasser come to power after 1967? The three leaders were Muammar al-Qadhafi of Libya, Ja’far al-Numayri of Sudan, and Muhammad Siad Barre of Somalia (a member of the Arab League), all of whom came to power in coups in 1969. True, each of them had a unique relationship with Islam, and al-Numayri embraced Islamism by the late 1970s, but it is significant that multiple leaders in the Arab world were vying for Nasser’s mantle after 1967 and even after Nasser’s death in 1970. If Egypt followed a certain trajectory, that does not mean that Egypt set the pace for the whole region.
The second point to make is that key figures associated with with the “Islamist resurgence” were already up and coming before the 1967 war. The best example is Egypt’s Yusuf al-Qaradawi (b. 1926), who published his influential Al-Halal wa-l-Haram fi al-Islam (The Licit and the Prohibited in Islam) in 1960. Another example is Sudan’s Hasan al-Turabi (1932-2016), who first came to prominence in Sudan’s 1964 revolution. The point here is that after 1967, many of the leading figures were not converts from Arab nationalism to Islamism, but rather people who had been Islamists all along. Certainly the events of 1967 put them in a position to amplify their message, but that might tell us more about the relationship between Islamism and crises than it does about 1967 specifically. Moreover, much of the infrastructure of contemporary Islamism was built after 1967, but key components of that infrastructure were built before 1967.
Third, whatever impact 1967 had, it was not necessarily immediate, and it was only in combination with other factors. When we look at where Islamists actually came to power or nearly came to power, two of the most prominent cases occurred over two decades later – Sudan 1989, and Algeria 1991-1992. And in both of those cases, it was largely domestic factors that brought Islamists to the forefront.
I don’t want to understate the psychological, political, and spiritual impact of 1967 on the Arab world. But I don’t think 1967 was the watershed moment for Islamism in the entire region. Rather, I think that the trajectories of Islamism in the Arab world have been highly divergent, and that some of the most successful Islamist movements in the region were in countries much less affected by the 1967 defeat than Egypt was.
My last thought is a somewhat simplistic one, and it concerns Egypt itself. If 1967 was “the end of Nasserism,” then why has the Egyptian military regime been so enduring, so strong, since 1952? Perhaps the revolutionary aura and the Arab nationalist ideology fell away after 1967, but it still seems to me that Nasser and the Free Officers created a system that remains partly (largely?) in place to this day. Put even more simply: no Nasser, no Sisi. Viewed in that light, the Muslim Brotherhood’s ups and downs in Egypt since 1928 have only really brought it close to controlling the actual levers of the state on a few occasions and only allowed it to partially grasp those levers during one brief period. There have also been multiple moments of “resurgence” for the Brotherhood, just as there have been multiple moments of repression, disarray, and weakness. So was 1967 a turning point, or was it just one of several key moments in a long cycle – a cycle that always ends with military men in power?