P. J. Vatikiotis, Nasser and His Generation (New York: St. Martins Press, 1978).
Black Saturday — the burning of Cairo on January 26, 1952 — was a signal of the impending breakdown of the ancient regime. When Cairo went up in flames, so too did the last vestiges of authority held by the traditional political factions in Egypt. Instability and unrest created a power vacuum which was filled by the coup d’etat of the Free Officers just six months later.
P. J. Vatikiotis’ newest book, Nasser and His Generation, attempts to deal with the new era which the Nasser “revolution” spirited. His efforts to understand the causes and effects of Nasser’s rule result in a strangely disjointed work. In analyzing Nasser’s development and rise to power the author considers the social and ideological forces which helped shape the man, his class and his movement. In this context, he sees Nasser’s generation as representative of the petite bourgeoisie and as a microcosm of its experiences and ideals. The army officers are situated historically as products of the turbulent 1930s and 1940s, during which time they were introduced to radical nationalism, terrorism and Islamic fundamentalism — all this against a backdrop of British intransigence, World War II and the 1948 Palestinian war.
Yet Vatikiotis’ analysis of Nasser in power focuses almost exclusively on Nasser, the individual. He sees Nasser’s life, his ideas and his actions through the lens of the psycho-historian. Vatikiotis places himself in the role of the clinician rather than the social scientist and tries to dissect and examine the inner workings of the Nasser “mind.” Great importance is attached to the ruler’s youth and development: the early death of his mother, poor relationship with his father, loneliness, shyness, attachment to religion and discipline. Vatikiotis writes as though social history is important in explaining a man’s development but that the achievement of power is so elevating that only a great man theory of history infused with some psychological assessment can account for the leader’s judgements and policies, and policies.
Vatikiotis is obsessed with the authoritarianism of Nasser’s regime, its disinclination toward the delegation of authority, unarticulated policy of playing one political comrade off another and Nasser’s distrust and fear of opposition. The book is flawed by his failure to conceptualize and synthesize the totality of broad social and historical developments in Egypt.