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P.J. Vatikiotis : an appreciation.

P.J. (Taki) Vatikiotis, Emeritus Professor of Politics at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London, died peacefully in his sleep on 15 December 1997 aged 69, after a long illness. He was a consummate scholar, a distinguished writer, a gifted and much respected teacher. He spent a lifetime studying the Middle East. Born there, with native competence in Arabic in its various dialects, and familiar with its intellectuals, academics and purveyors of public views and opinions, he knew the region and its peoples intimately. In more than ten books and numerous essays, papers and articles, hardly an aspect of any particular significance in the contemporary society and politics of the modern Middle East escaped his attention -- from Islamic reformism and the creation of the modern states to the impact and implications of Islamic fundamentalism, the end of the Cold War, and the wars of Saddam Hussein on the politics of the region.

His outstanding scholarship ranged across a number of disciplines including philosophy, history and the social sciences. He made his indelible mark in the contemporary history and politics of the modern Middle East. Nowhere was his scholarship more evident than in the penetrating analysis of the Arab political landscape where his foremost research interest focused on the history and politics of modern Egypt. He was a recognized world authority on the trials and tribulations of myriad politics of Egypt particularly since the 1952 revolution under the leadership of Gamal Abdul Nasser. His extensive knowledge and insight of the modern Middle East brought fresh perspectives to his research and writings. His interpretation of Middle East history and politics was thought-provoking and enlightening; constantly challenging received wisdom and common perception. His approach was particularly dispassionate, looking at Arab and Middle Eastern societies not as they would like to be seen or portrayed, but as they were, causing a degree of resentment among committed sympathizers and apologists of the indigenous political causes of the area.

Steeped in the history and culture of Islamic societies as well as in classical Greek political thought, Vatikiotis was able to fathom the complexities of Middle Eastern politics and always to fit them into an historical context that was both valid and relevant. He possessed an innate sense for appreciating the role of Islam not only as a religion but also as a motivating political ideology for the purpose of social and political mobilization and the domination of the political process. He also had a deep understanding of the significance of the role and function of the military as an institution in the conduct of public affairs. The absence and the weakness of other governmental institutions allowed the military to maintain its effective presence as the foremost determinant of the nature and orientation of rule. The modernization movement enhanced the position of the military and introduced the idea of nationalism as the focus of loyalty and national allegiance. The association of Islam with nationalism caused a dichotomy in the life of these states that has been characterized as a crisis of rule in the modern states of the Middle East. This dichotomy between tradition and the quest for modernity is a recurring theme in all Vatikiotis's works, but it is particularly highlighted in a monograph under the title of Islam and the State. Of the dilemma of these states he wrote:

Caught between the burden of tradition -- with its insistence upon the

supremacy of the nation of Islam, the umma -- and the requirement of

the modern territorial secular nation-state, temporal governments in

the Middle East found themselves set on a dangerous course.... Such

notions of power and authority based on religion and ideology suggest

that in Muslim societies the legitimization of power is still widely

contested and authority is tenuous. (p. 13)

The crisis was confounded by the introduction of nationalism as the political ideology of the modern states of the Middle East. When nationalism was linked to Islam, it could not accommodate the different, or other, the non-Muslims, and thus accelerated the inappropriateness and the decline of non-Islamic nationalism as an acceptable political ideology. Dealing with this crisis in the Arab world Vatikiotis felt that he could identify the problem and prescribe a remedy:

In the case of Arab nationalism there was an even greater obstacle to

its being accepted or imposed, as the only, or uniform, political

ideology for Arabs. Not only was it alien and secular in origin, but it

required a personal and societal commitment to a political philosophy

with secular political culture, one that abandoned dogma in favour of

toleration of opposing views, one that accepted experimentation, and

one that removed authority, power and the law from divine

provenance and/or link. Furthermore, it required the generation of a

`public ethic' to which most members of society subscribed -- a new

kind of civil consensus. This, in turn, meant closing the gap between

the most durable organization for power in the Middle Eastern history

and Islamic annals, the state and society, or the state and public order.

And for that, one needed a basically corporate society, a people

organized as a public. It is difficult historically to overlook these

problems, which came home to roost, so to speak in this century.

(p. 74)

Vatikiotis was constantly conscious of the clash between religion, with its extensive cultural complex or ethos, and secular modernity under which the national secular state emerged. Their incompatibility was too glaring for all to see. For him the essence of secularism, `apart from the separation between religion and state, is the acceptance of the proposition that there is no finality to forms, no exclusive possession of absolute and indivisible truth. A corollary of this is the recognition of alternative notions about man and the world and, more significantly, the toleration of these alternative views' (p. 98). It is a position that he did not believe either Islam could sustain or the traditional jurists and their modern Islamist counterparts would ever entertain.

His concern with the political legacy of Islam led Vatikiotis to study the nature of authority, the perception of rule and the concept of public interest or common good. He maintained that in Islam individual rights stemmed from one's religious identity and attachment to the faith, especially where God and nature are one. This led to the conclusion that in societies where the abstract concept of the corporate personality is lacking, the body politic, or the public, could not be conceived separately from the individual; and where a concept of natural law was absent no formulation for individual rights deriving from a higher law protecting him against the excesses of the state could be made. Thus a fundamental principle, commonly agreed-upon for the organization of political power -- i.e. the establishment of a political order -- was yet to be found in these societies.

The implications of these considerations led Vatikiotis to the conclusion that the principle of authority in these states remained divorced from the social reality of the existing political categories. It was in fact too dependent on force. The huge changes experienced in the social and economic fields were not accompanied by a corresponding change in the manner in which political power was attained and retained. In short there was no political revolution. There have been state revolutions of modernization and national independence movements that were largely the response of rulers and new generation of educated official groups to a European challenge. In the introduction to a collection of essays he edited under the title Revolution in the Middle East and Other Case Studies, he wrote:

Nowhere in the Middle East has any change in the economic basis of

society or its structure led to revolutionary uprisings. Any drastic

change rather has come through administrative, or state, action which

in many of these countries has been dominated by the military. (p. 11)

In an answer to a rhetorical question he posed for himself as to whether it should be concluded that there had been no revolution in the Middle East, he thought that the terms `revolutionary' and `revolutionism', frequently used by Middle Easterners, had come to subsume all the prevalent revolutionary ideologies. He adds:

They refer, however, to attitudes rather than political action.

Moreover the carriers of these attitudes came to power in several

Middle Eastern states after 1945, and they were soldiers in the main.

... There is, for instance, a revolutionary attitude to the masses in so

far as the new horizontally integrative state ideology decrees their

manipulative organisation in single state parties or unions. Equally,

there is a revolutionary attitude to leadership which is accountable not

to visible legislative and judicial institutions but to populist wills and

submerged though real balance of traditional social forces. The

supreme revolutionary characteristic of this leadership is self-sufficient

autocracy, its doctrinal monopoly of political alternatives.


Vatikiotis placed the phenomenon of military rule, especially that of Nasser, within this framework. He could easily trace the genesis of the militarization of the state and government to the political history of Islam. In a monograph Conflict in the Middle East, in which he outlines the basic ingredients giving rise to a range of conflict-generating factors in the politics of the area, he had little doubt as to the tradition in which modern officers sought to emulate:

In Islam, the faith itself was from the start the basis of political

action. Conquest helped to imprint this strongly upon Muslim thought and

society. Early governors of newly conquered provinces and lands

were generals in the main. The Prophet first, and the caliphs after him,

had been warriors of the faith, Commanders of the Faithful. The

martial overtones of Islam were stronger than any other monotheistic

religion. In part this was due to the fact that Islam as a religious

movement did not arise in a state with whose temporal authority it had

to come to terms. Rather Islam acquired a state by war, and an empire

by conquest. (pp. 7-8)

Thus when analysing the role and function of the military in the modern politics of the Middle East, they could not be other than the guardians of the state which produced the autocratic rule so familiar to the casual observer in the political landscape of the Arab and Muslim worlds. He had little doubt of the capability of military regimes to affect rapid and radical economic change that made hardly any impact on the political process.

Radical change has occurred largely in the area of the economic

activities and aspirations of the Middle East states: it is the result of a

fantastic oil industry, improved communications, the massive infusion

of arms into the region by external powers, and the extensive

economic and technical aid received from them. Yet the ambivalence

of the Middle Easterners regarding an organizing principle of political

and social life essentially continues as one between an ethos inherited

from cultural and political experience under varieties of Islamic

domination on the one hand, and several imported varieties on the

other. (p. 199)

Vatikiotis devoted three of his books among more than a dozen of his works specifically to Egypt in which all these themes were mn through. His magnum opus which consolidated his standing as a prominent scholar, The History of Egypt from Muhammad Ali to Sadat, provides the most authoritative account to date of the interplay of forces which have shaped modern Egyptian politics and society. The reflective narrative and treatment of the impact of men of letters offers a magnificent study of the radicalization of Egyptian politics combined with its extremist subterranean undercurrents. First published in 1969, it was reprinted in 1976, and updated in a second edition in 1980.

However, it was the Nasser phenomenon which provided the principal fascination. He first approached it in an earlier work, The Egyptian Army in Politics, only to take it up again in Nasser and His Generation. In the latter the Nasser regime is subjected to a most comprehensive examination clearly delineating the radical politics that led to the coup of 1952, and more significantly to Nasser's personality, attitudes, beliefs and values and the manner by which they were acquired. In many ways the narrative is a triumph for a psycho-biography of the Egyptian leader. Vatikiotis was aware of the difficulties and even the inadequacy of his reconstruction of a portrait of the Egyptian ruler, setting out `his strengths and weaknesses, his perceptions and attitudes, his likes and dislikes'. However, Vatikiotis's assessment of Nasser's `impact on others and particularly on his own country and the wider Arabic-speaking community' could not be faulted. He set himself a daunting task:

To be sure, we have at the outset emphasised the forces, influences

and relations that shaped and moved him; that is, the sources of his

perceptions, attitudes, beliefs and political style, and tried to relate

these to his subsequent actions and utterances, as well as events. In

short, we have tried to suggest what and who Nasser was by

describing what he said and did. (p. 366)

Nasser and His Generation is a chilling account of the pursuit of absolute power. Though Nasser's personal rule verged on the totalitarian as the state was permeated by his power, it did not amount to that, because it failed to eliminate completely the division between state and society. The failure to create a monopolistic state organization prevented the development of a totalitarian regime. His rule was a form of despotism where a single person governed without regulation or accountability.

Nasser exercised power through the control of the traditional means of

coercion, that is the army, the police, the bureaucracy and the courts.

Since he also felt he had to attract popular support and secure a mass

base both for his attainment of power and its retention, his rule was a

personal one, `a caesaristic autocracy'. (p. 367)

Nasser's quest for absolute power and supremacy was originally attributed to his desire to employ that power as a means to transform Egypt into a modern industrial state. Nevertheless the accumulation of power turned Egypt, a state where a semblance of the rule of law had been maintained, however inadequately or inefficiently, into a police state. It was only social and economic exigencies which prevented Nasser from becoming a totalitarian dictator; there were repeated unsuccessful attempts to construct a single state political organization and serious efforts were exerted to create `mass' culture and society, while there was a constant reliance by the state on terror.

Nasser is taken as a representative of a whole generation of Egyptian political leadership, some of them were colleagues and collaborators, others were companions and subordinates, but hardly any were close friends or confidants. They rose to power with him, served him while alive, and then conveniently abandoned his legacy after his death. The analysis of the Nasser phenomenon has wider application elsewhere in the Arab world -- Jordan, Iraq, Syria, Sudan, Libya and Algeria where officer-politicians attempted to follow his example and emulate him in their respective countries.

Similarly, Vatikiotis subjects Nasser's adoption of Arab nationalism and his association with the Palestine cause to close scrutiny. He found little evidence of an ideological conversion. The commitment to the Arab nationalist cause whether in Palestine or elsewhere was a matter of convergence between Egypt's quest for regional leadership and the Arab nationalist perception of complete independence from the West. World power politics, the Cold War and the strategic importance of the Middle East added a further dimension. The Egyptian involvement was a function of the clash between the interest of Egypt and that of the West. The underlying assumption was that once the Arab world was liberated from the political vestiges of the West, Egypt would have a free hand to dominate its affairs and guide its destiny. Arab nationalism and the Palestine question were to serve as the instrument of Egyptian Arab policy.

In the final analysis, though, Nasser's Arab nationalism was more of

a deliberate choice of state policy that promoted Egypt's leadership of

the Arab world than an abstract ideological preference. He believed

that the Arab region free of foreign power influence would allow

Egypt a leading role in its affairs and destiny -- and at the expense of

other Arab contenders.... More important is his vision of its

instrumentality, and how close Egypt, under his rule, came to using it

successfully for her own ends. (p. 225)

It was essentially a combination of circumstances that permitted Nasser to make Egypt's cause, whether in the conflict with Israel as of 1955, the Suez war of 1956, or the dispute with Baghdad over the Baghdad Pact in 1955-58, the nationalist cause of all the Arabs. The attachment to the doctrine of positive neutrality became a corollary as the alliance with the Soviet Union was a contradiction in terms. Nasser realized that joining a Western-dominated regional security regime would circumscribe his Arab policy, especially if Egypt were to become a member of it. His defiance required building up a sizeable military force leading to his embroilment in the politics of the Cold War. Although Nasser began to reconsider his Arab policy following the secession of Syria from his United Arab Republic in 1961, he was a prisoner of a situation of his own creation, and the whole approach really came to grief in the Six Day War. However, as he turned to put the interest of Egypt before all else, Vatikiotis was convinced that had Nasser lived `he would have been led by circumstances into adopting exactly the policy of his successor' (p. 260).

Though a particularly private person, Vatikiotis was a gregarious, warm and friendly man. He was the quintessential Levantine in the best sense of the term -- a man of cosmopolitan tastes and outlook. He was of Greek origin, born in the then Palestine, educated in Egypt and the United States. He started his academic career in the United States and moved to SOAS in 1964, where he remained until his early retirement in 1989. He was dynamic and single-minded, and at SOAS he was instrumental in the creation and success of the Centre of Middle Eastern Studies. He gave generously of his knowledge, time and experience to his students and colleagues. Together with his wife, Pat, he entertained numerous academic friends who greatly enjoyed their hospitality. He had a mischievous, self-deprecating and often caustic sense of humour. Following a house move, a neighbour introduced himself while Vatikiotis was gardening saying he was `in paints'. Shaking his hand enthusiastically Vatikiotis responded, to the man's bemusement, that he was `in words'. Modern Middle Eastern studies will sadly miss his wisdom and knowledgeable contribution to its library. His friends, colleagues and admirers mourn his untimely death.

Among his books are: The Fatimid Theory of the State (1957); The Egyptian Army in Politics (1961); Politics and the Military in Jordan: A Study of the Arab Legion 1921-1957 (1966); Conflict in the Middle East (1971); The History of Egypt from Muhammad Ali to Sadat (1969); Nasser and His Generation (1978); Arab and Regional Politics in the Middle East (1984); Islam and the State (1987); Among Arabs and Jews: A Personal Experience 1936-1990 (1991); The Middle East: From the End of Empire to the End of the Cold War (1997); and as editor there are two volumes: Egypt since the Revolution (1968), and Revolution in the Middle East and other Case Studies (1972). Prior to his death Vatikiotis completed Popular Autocracy in Greece, 1936-41: A Political Biography of General Ioannis Metaxas, which came off the press a week after his passing.

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