Anticolonialism: Middle East

views updated

Anticolonialism: Middle East

Between the early nineteenth century and the outbreak of World War I, much of the area between Morocco and what is now Turkey came under different forms of European colonial rule. Thus France began the conquest of Algeria in 1830, took over Tunisia in 1881, and (in partnership with Spain) took over Morocco in 1912. Britain occupied Egypt in 1882, formalizing the occupation by the declaration of a protectorate in 1914, and Italy began its conquest of Libya in 1911.

Ottoman Empire and the Mandate System

With the exception of Morocco, the entire region either had been or still was in the early twentieth century at least nominally part of the Ottoman Empire, a multiethnic geopolitical unit that had been in existence since the late thirteenth century and that came to an end in the 1920s. Although it is misleading to regard the Ottomans as an imperial power, it is nevertheless the case that in spite of the Tanzimat reforms of the nineteenth century, which were generally intended to extend full citizenship to all subjects of the empire, the largely Christian provinces in southeastern Europe had become independent states in the course of the nineteenth century as a consequence of more or less bitter struggles to assert their various ethnolinguistic identities. In contrast, regardless of their ethnicity, the overwhelmingly Muslim population of the Arab provinces continued to regard the (Turkish) Ottomans as the natural defenders of Islam, with the result that most of the Middle East was barely affected by Arab nationalism until the early twentieth century.

On the coasts of the Arabian Peninsula, Britain's concern with keeping the route to India safe and open led to a series of treaties with various local rulers between the 1820s and 1916, under which the rulers generally agreed not to grant or dispose of any part of their territories to any power except Britain. In 1839, Britain annexed Aden and turned it into a naval base. Exclusive treaties were signed with the tribal rulers of the interior, and in 1937 the area was divided into the port and its immediate hinterland (Aden Colony) and the more remote rural/tribal areas (Aden Protectorate). Principally because of their remoteness and their apparent lack of strategic importance, central Arabia and northern Yemen were never colonized.

After the collapse of the Ottoman Empire at the end of the First World War, the empire's remaining Arab provinces were assigned by the newly created League of Nations to Britain and France as mandates, with Britain taking responsibility for Iraq, Palestine, and Transjordan, and France taking responsibility for Lebanon and Syria. The guiding principle of the mandate system was that the states concerned should remain under the tutelage of the mandatory power until such time as they were able to "stand alone," a period that, although not specified, was still understood to be finite. The mandate period was relatively short-lived, ending with the creation of Israel from the former Palestine mandate in 1948.

Islam and Anticolonialism

A number of factors are crucial to understanding the various manifestations of anticolonialism in the Arab world in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In the first place, the colonial period coincided with several movements of Islamic renewal; the same phenomenon can also be observed in the Indian subcontinent, West Africa, Central Asia, and Southeast Asia. Some movements clearly were, or became, reactions to colonialism, but one of the most influential, the Wahhabis in the center of the Arabian peninsula, both predated colonialism in the region and originated in an area relatively distant from any direct colonial activity. In the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, such renewal or reform movements spread out over a wide geographical area. Some, such as the Sanusi jihad, based in Saharan Libya, later the backbone of resistance to Italian colonization, exhibited an organizational structure similar to that of the Sufi orders, based on a network of lodges; others were urban-based, often around traditional centers of Islamic learning, while yet others were millenarian. Thus in the 1880s, the Sudanese Mahdi preached that he was the divinely appointed regenerator of Islam and consciously imitated the life and career of the Prophet. The renewal movements were by no means always sympathetic to, or even tolerant of, one another. Muhammad al-Mahdi al-Sanusi (18441902), for example, was at pains to point out that the Mahdi was not entitled to claim either the leadership of the universal Islamic community or a transcendental relationship with the Prophet Muhammad, and Wahhabism (if not checked by more prudent political considerations) has often exhibited considerable intolerance toward other manifestations of Islam.

The reform movements fed into anticolonialism in a number of ways. One of their effects was to draw a battle line between those rulers and elites in the Islamic world who were prepared to make accommodations to European colonizers and those sections of the community who were not. Thus 'Abd al-Qadir (18081883), the early leader of the resistance to the French, was quick to make use of a fatwa (legal opinion) obtained from the Mufti of Fez stating that those Muslims who cooperated with non-Muslims against other Muslims could be considered apostate and thus could be killed or enslaved if captured. Later in the nineteenth century, Ba Ahmad, the chamberlain of the Moroccan sultan 'Abd al-'Aziz (r. 18941908), believed his only recourse was to buy off or otherwise accommodate the French, who were making incursions into southern Morocco from both Algeria and Senegal. This policy alienated many influential religious and tribal leaders, who were bitterly opposed to the Commander of the Faithful giving up "the lands of Islam" to foreign invaders; some of them considered that this made him illegitimate and transferred their allegiance to a more combative leader.

The Economic Impact of Colonialism

An important effect of colonialism was to hasten the disintegration of long-established social and economic relations and to substitute the often harsher dictates of the market. The pre-colonial world was no egalitarian paradise, but, for example, the confiscation or purchase of land in colonial Algeria and mandatory Palestine and the formation of large landed estates in Syria and Iraq as a result of the establishment of regimes of private property under the mandates often resulted in cultivators either being driven off the land or being reduced from free peasants to serfs. Being far more incorporated into the world market than they had been before, with the concomitant pressure to cultivate cash crops, forced peasant houeholds to migrate to slum settlements on the edges of the major cities where they faced an uncertain and often near-destitute existence.

Resistance to Colonialism

Twentieth-century resistance to colonialism inevitably partook of the general experience of its time, including assertions of national and ethnic identity, which were given added meaning and purpose in the face of alien colonizing. The press, the radio, and political parties and clubs provided new opportunities for disseminating the ideologies of anticolonialism. To these must be added the example first of Germany in the 1930sa previously fragmented state that had turned its recent unification into a means of challenging the old colonizers, Britain and France; and for much of the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s the Soviet Union as a new form of social and economic organization, under which a previously feudal regime was being transformed into an egalitarian welfare state. Such visions were especially attractive to those who had not experienced the realities of daily life under such regimes.


Provided a certain flexibility is adopted, it is possible to identify the major templates of anticolonial resistance, which vary according to the nature of the colonizing process. The Algerian case is probably the most extreme because of the extent of the devastation caused by the colonization process over a period of some 130 years. In the months after the conquest of the city of Algiers in July 1830, the French military began to encourage the settlement of French colons in the city's rural hinterland. At the time, Algeria was, if only nominally, an Ottoman province and had no developed political structures. Local leaders in the west of the country turned first to the Moroccan sultan, but the French warned him not to interfere. The leaders then turned to the Sufi orders, the only bodies with an organizational structure, and Muhi al-Din, the leader of the Qadiriyya order, and his shrewd and energetic son 'Abd al-Qadir were asked to lead a tribal jihad against the French.

Between 1832 and 1844 'Abd al-Qadir managed to keep the French at bay with an army of about ten thousand. Initially, he achieved this by making agreements with the French recognizing his authority over certain parts of the country, but by the 1840s the French had decided on a policy of total subjugation and 'Abd al-Qadir, defeated at Isly in 1844, eventually surrendered in 1847. By this time the European population had reached over 100,000, living mostly in the larger towns. In the 1840s, the French had begun a policy of wholesale land confiscation and appropriation, and a number of local risings took place in protest. The settlers had influential allies in Paris, and throughout the nineteenth century the indigenous population faced the gradual erosion of most of their rights. The last major act of resistance until the war of 1954 to 1962 was the rebellion in Kabylia in 1870 to 1871, led by Muhammad al-Muqrani. For a while, al-Muqrani's army of some 200,000 controlled much of eastern Algeria, but it was no match for the better equipped French troops. After the defeat of al-Muqrani's rebellion (he was killed in battle in May 1871) the local communities involved were fined heavily and lost most of their tribal lands.

The Algerian national movement was slow to develop in the twentieth century. The tribal aristocracy had been defeated and no former indigenous governing class or emerging business bourgeoisie existed (as they did in, for example, Morocco, Tunisia, Syria, and Lebanon). Some Algerians felt that France had brought them into the modern world and wanted to become more Frenchthat is, to enjoy the same rights as the French in Algeria without having to give up their Islamic identity. This tendency, generally called assimilationist, was represented by Ferhat Abbas, who sought to become a member of the French Chamber of Deputies. The first strictly nationalist movement, the Étoile Nord-Africaine (later the Parti du Peuple Algérien), which initially had links to the French Communist Party, was founded by Messali Hadj in 1926, recruiting among Algerian workers in France. Yet another tendency was represented by Ahmad Ibn Badis (18891940), who sought to reform Algerian popular Islam through the Association of 'Ulama', asserting the Muslim nature of Algeria.

From the 1930s onwards, rapid urbanization fuelled Algerian resistance to France. By the end of World War II there was some hope on the part of moderates both in France and Algeria that compromises could be worked out that might deflect violent nationalism, but the Algerian European community's dogged insistence on maintaining its privileges meant that these hopes soon evaporated. Ferhat Abbas's movement soon became insignificant. Ibn Badis's death meant that the Association of 'Ulama' lacked influence, leaving Messali Hadj dominating the field, with supporters among Algerian workers in France as well as in Algeria. However, his organization was regarded as too moderate, and a splinter group, the Organisation Secrète, seceded from it in the mid-1940s. Its members included such major revolutionary figures as Ahmed Ben Bella, Ait Ahmad, Murad Didouche, Mohammed Boudiaf, and Belkacem Krim. This group subsequently launched the Algerian Revolution, or war of national liberation, on 1 November 1954. The war lasted until 1962, when Algeria became independent; over the eight years, between 1 million and 1.5 million Algerians and 27,000 French were killed. The war proved intensely divisive, especially as more Algerian Muslims fought as soldiers or harkis on the French side than in the Algerian army.

Tunisia, Egypt, and Morocco

In the case of Tunisia, Egypt, and Morocco, the decision of Britain and France to take over the reins of government (in 1881, 1882, and 1912) was at least partly precipitated by local opposition to the draconian financial measures that the European powers had forced local governments to impose in order to repay the debts they had contracted on the various European money markets. The ruler of Tunisia, Ahmad Bey (18371855), made strenuous efforts both to modernize Tunisia and to assert its independence from Istanbul, and he had been substantially aided by France in the latter objective. By the time of his death, Tunisia had a modern army and a modern navy; the Bey's brother-in-law, who survived him by nearly twenty years, was a modernizing finance minister and prime minister, and an Italian family provided the state's foreign ministers until 1878. In 1861, much to the discomfiture of Muhammad al-Sadiq Bey (18591882), Tunisia adopted a constitution and a modern (that is, generally secular) legal system under which the Bey's prerogatives were quite limited.

These reforms were better received in the outside world and among the sizeable local European community than within Tunisia, where a rural rising against the new legal system and the new taxes was put down with considerable brutality in 1864. As happened in Egypt at much the same time, the contracting of substantial foreign debts (generally used to build the infrastructures that made the reforms possible or to pay the European consultantsofficers, engineers, and so forthin charge of putting them into effect) and the general mismanagement and corruption associated with the loans meant that the country found itself increasingly at the mercy of its foreign creditors. Tunisia declared bankruptcy in 1869 and Egypt in 1876. The sterling efforts of the reformer Khayr al-Din (c. 18251889) to balance the budget were no match for French colonial ambitions, which eventually forced the Bey to accept a protectorate under the terms of the Treaty of Bardo in May 1881. By 1892, four-fifths of cultivated lands were in French hands.

The situation in Egypt was similar; the additional taxes imposed as a result of British and French administration of the public debt, initiated in 1876 essentially to ensure that the bond-holders got their money back, eventually gave rise to a nationalist movement. Many of its members had the additional grievance that the government of Egypt was conducted by foreigners, that is, a Turco-Circassian aristocracy consisting of the descendants of the viceroy Muhammad 'Ali (17801848) and their courtiers, in which native Egyptians constantly encountered a glass ceiling. Another interesting component of the rebellion led by Ahmad 'Urabi (18391911) between 1879 and 1882 was the emphasis on restoring Egypt fully to the Ottoman Empire. Although relatively large numbers of foreigners resided in Egypt, they were generally neither settlers nor colons in the French North African sense: most were not bureaucrats or farmers and had not lived there for generations; they resided mostly in the cities and engaged in commerce or in service occupations. In addition, most of them were not citizens of the occupying power.

In spite of a succession of strong rulers for much of the nineteenth century, Morocco was also unable to avoid colonial penetration, first economic (imports of tea, sugar, candles, and cotton cloth; exports of wool, cereals, and ostrich feathers) and then military. The first major confrontation between locals and Europeans occurred in 1859 to 1860, when Spain besieged Tetouan. A month later, Spain demanded an indemnity as the price of withdrawal, and although the terms were punitive half the indemnity was paid within two years. This involved great hardship, particularly the imposition of non-traditional agricultural taxation, which caused considerable unrest. A massive devaluation of the currency took place, as did a near-universal switch to foreign coinage. Like Tunisia and Egypt, Morocco gradually moved from a state of general economic self-sufficiency to dependence on the world market. Morocco gradually became dependent on foreign loans and declared bankrupcty in 1903. Largely to preempt German colonial efforts, France and Britain signed the Entente Cordiale in 1904, under which Britain recognized France's preeminence in Morocco and France formally accepted the British occupation of Egypt. Franco-Spanish occupation of Morocco was formalized in 1912.


Some of the anticolonial movements of the twentieth century were urban-based mass movements, often led by charismatic leaders, perhaps most notably Habib Bourguiba of Tunisia, who led the Neo-Destour Party between 1954 and Tunisian independence in 1956 and who remained his country's leader until 1987. Allal al-Fassi, leader of the Istiqlal party, might have played a similar role in the history of Morocco. However, in 1953 the French exiled the sultan, Muhammad V, to Madagascar, and as a result the rallying cry of the national movement became the sultan's return from exile, which led in its turn to the sultan/king retaining his position as ruler after Morocco's independence in October 1956 and the virtual eclipse of the secular political parties.

In Egypt, a kind of independence was achieved in 1936, but the national movement went through two stages. In the first stage, some but not all powers were handed over to local elites. This arrangement involved some form of power-sharing with the former colonial power, which became increasingly intolerable to wide sections of the population. However, given the balance of forces, it was not possible to break these links by democratic meansthat is, by voting in a political party or coalition that would be able to end the relationship. Thus a second stage was necessary, in which a determined group within the military seized power, destroying in the process the fairly rudimentary institutions of parliamentary government that the colonial powers had put in place. In this way, first General Mohamad Neguib (19011984) and then Gamel Abdel-Nasser (19181970) took power in 1952. Iraq went through a similar process, and 'Abd al-Karim Qasim took power in 1958. A similar but more complex process took place in Syria, although the old social classes still ruling in 1961 had long severed any links they may have had with France.


The final and highly anomalous case of anticolonialism in the Middle East is Palestine, unique among its neighbors in that it was a settler state. The text of the Palestine mandate included the terms of the Balfour Declaration (1917), in which Britain as mandatory power undertook to facilitate the setting up of a "national home for the Jewish people." In 1922, there were 93,000 Jews in Palestine and about 700,000 Arabs; in 1936, there were 380,000 Jews and 983,000 Arabs; and in 1946, about 600,000 Jews and 1.3 million Arabs; thus the Jewish population increased from 13 percent to 31 percent over a period of twenty-four years. Anticolonialism took different forms, principally through opposition by both Arabs and Zionists to British policy, which they tried to combat in different ways, and Arab opposition to Zionism. The Palestine rebellion of 1936 to 1939 was mostly a peasant insurrection against colonial rule and the settlers; in 1947 to 1948, the Zionists fought and won against an assortment of Arab armies and the poorly organized Palestinian resistance forces; the colonial power had long indicated that it would withdraw.

Opposition to colonial rule and colonial settlement was fairly widespread throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and took a variety of different forms, rural and urban, organized and spontaneous, religious and political, showing greater or lesser degrees of coherence. In any colonial situation, a wide spectrum of responses existed, with resistance at one end, acquiescence in the middle, and collaboration at the other end. Some members of the colonized population rebelled and some collaborated, but the majority acquiesced, at least for most of the time. In the nationalist historiography of the colonial period, the struggle for colonial freedom or national independence is often characterized in a way that shows the brave freedom fighters ranged against the brutal colonial authorities. The "achievements" of colonialism have long been open to question, and the divisions and chaos of the postcolonial world make the value of the legacy more questionable as time passes. Nevertheless, it is also important to understand the complexity and multifaceted nature of anticolonialism: the intrigues; the competing and often warring factions; the venality and corruption of many of them. For national maturity, and increasingly for national reconciliation, it will be necessary that such uncomfortable truths are boldly confronted rather than wilfully ignored.

See also Anticolonialism: Africa ; Anticolonialism: Latin America ; Anticolonialism: Southeast Asia ; Empire and Imperialism: Middle East .


Anderson, Lisa. The State and Social Transformation in Tunisia and Libya, 18301980. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1986.

Batatu, Hanna. The Old Social Classes and the Revolutionary Movements of Iraq: A Study of Iraq's Old Landed Classes and Its Communists, Ba'thists, and Free Officers. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1978.

Botman, Selma. Egypt from Independence to Revolution, 19191952. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1991.

Khoury, Philip S. Syria and the French Mandate: The Politics of Arab Nationalism, 19201946. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1987.

Morris, Benny. Righteous Victims: A History of the Zionist-Arab Conflict, 18812001. New York, Vintage, 2001.

Morsy, Magali. North Africa 18001900: A Survey from the Nile Valley to the Atlantic. London and New York: Longman, 1984.

Prochaska, David. Making Algeria French: Colonialism in Bône, 18701920. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

Sluglett, Peter. Britain in Iraq, 19141932. London: Ithaca Press, for the Middle East Centre, 1976.

. "Formal and Informal Empire in the Middle East." In Historiography. Vol. 5 of The Oxford History of the British Empire, edited by Robin W. Winks, 416436. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Peter Sluglett