Anticolonialism, Middle East and North Africa

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Anticolonialism, Middle East and North Africa

In many parts of the Middle East and North Africa, resistance to the imposition of colonial rule appeared almost immediately after the first attempts to establish colonial regimes. Examples include the revolt led by 'Abd al-Qadir in Algeria in the 1840s, the Mahdist revolt in the Sudan, the rebellion of 'Umar Mukhtar in Libya, more than two decades of tribal resistance to French rule in Morocco, the Iraqi rebellion of 1920, the Syrian revolt of 1926 to 1927, and the Palestine rebellion of 1936 to 1939. In Egypt, a nationalist uprising in protest against the stringent fiscal provisions laid down by Britain and France was the pretext for British military intervention in 1882.

Between the early nineteenth century and the outbreak of World War I (1914–18), much of the area along the southern shore of the Mediterranean 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.

With the exception of Morocco, the entire region either had been, or still was in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, at least nominally part of the Ottoman Empire, a multiethnic entity that had been in existence since the late thirteenth century and that collapsed at the end of World War I. While the Ottomans cannot be accurately regarded as an "imperial power," it is nevertheless the case that in spite of the Tanzimat reforms (ca. 1839–1876), one of whose principal purposes was to extend full citizenship to all Ottoman subjects, all the empire's Christian provinces in southeastern Europe became independent states in the course of the nineteenth century as a result of more or less bitter struggles to assert their individual 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, contrary to most earlier received wisdom, most of the Middle East was little affected by the ideology of Arab nationalism until World War I.

On the coasts of the Arabian Peninsula, Britain's concern to keep the route to India safe and open led to the signing of 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 return, British recognition confirmed the ruling families of the Gulf emirates in the positions they have continued to hold until today. 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 World War I, the empire's remaining Arab provinces were assigned to Britain and France as mandates from the newly created League of Nations, 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 they were able to "stand alone," a period that, although not specified, was viewed as not being of indefinite length. The mandate period was relatively short-lived; Britain left Iraq in 1932, France left Lebanon and Syria in 1945 to 1946, and Israel was created from the former Palestine mandate in 1948.

A number of factors are crucial to understanding the various manifestations of anti-colonialism in the Arab world in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In the first place, the colonial period in the Middle East coincided with movements of "renewal" throughout much of the wider Islamic world; similar phenomena can 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, that of 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, like the Sanusi jihad, based in Saharan Libya, later the backbone of resistance to Italian colonization, exhibited an organizational form similar to that of the Sufi orders, based on a far-flung network of zawiyas, or lodges; others were urban-based, and often grouped around traditional centers of Islamic learning, while yet others were millenarian. Thus in the 1880s the Sudanese Mahdi (ca. 1844–1885) 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; thus Muhammad al-Mahdi al-Sanusi (1844–1902) was at pains to point out that the Sudanese Mahdi was not entitled to claim either the leadership of the universal Islamic community or a transcendental relationship with the Prophet Muhammad, and Wahhabism (when not checked by more prudent political considerations) has tended to exhibit considerable intolerance toward other manifestations of Islam.

The Islamic reform movements contributed to the growth of anti-colonialism in a number of different 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 forms of accommodation with European colonizers and those sections of the community who were not. Thus 'Abd al-Qadir (1808–1883), the leader of the tribal jihad against the French in Algeria, sought and made use of a fatwa (legal opinion) from the mufti of Fez, which stated that those Muslims who cooperated with non-Muslims (i.e., the French) against other Muslims could be considered apostate or having abandoned one's religion, and could be treated as such if defeated. In contrast, later in the nineteenth century, Ba Ahmad, the influential chamberlain for the first few years of the reign of the Moroccan sultan 'Abd al-'Aziz (1894–1908), 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 in consequence transferred their allegiance to a more combative, and, it must be said, quixotic, leader, Ma'al-Aynayn.

An important effect of colonialism was to hasten the disintegration of long-established social and economic relations based (generally, though not exclusively) on a subsistence economy that was superseded by the often far harsher dictates of the market. The precolonial world was no egalitarian paradise, but, for example, the confiscation or purchase of land by colonists in North Africa and by Zionists in mandatory Palestine, and the formation of large landed estates in Syria and Iraq as a result of the establishment—generally with the encouragement of the colonial authorities—of regimes of private property under the mandates, often resulted in cultivators either being driven off the land or their status being reduced from "free peasants" to serfs. Incorporation into the world market to a far more all-embracing extent than before, and the simultaneous pressure to cultivate cash rather than subsistence crops, often forced peasant house-holds to migrate to an uncertain and generally near destitute existence in slum settlements on the edges of the major cities.

Finally, as far as twentieth-century resistance to colonialism is concerned, such movements as arose inevitably partook of the general experience of modernity in their day. This included assertions of national or ethnic identity, often easier to promote and maintain in the face of an alien colonizing "other," as well as new forms of communication and organization. Thus the press, the radio, political parties, professional associations, and labor unions all provided a variety of opportunities for disseminating ideologies of anticolonialism. To these must be added the example of Germany in the 1930s, as a previously fragmented state that had turned its recent unification into a means of challenging the old colonizers, Britain and France, as well as, for much of the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, the example of the Soviet Union as the home of a new form of social and economic organization, under which a previously archaic feudal regime was being transformed into an egalitarian welfare state. Of course, such visions were especially attractive to those who had not experienced the realities of daily life under these regimes.

Provided certain flexibility is adopted, it is possible to identify the major templates of anticolonial resistance, which varied 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 (settlers) in the city's rural hinterland. At the time, Algeria was, if only nominally, an Ottoman province, and had no developed indigenous 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 that recognized 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, which was mostly concentrated in the larger towns, had reached over one hundred thousand. In the 1840s the French had begun a policy of wholesale land confiscation and appropriation, and there were a number of local uprisings 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 controlled much of eastern Algeria, but they were 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, because the tribal aristocracy had been defeated and there was no former indigenous governing class or emerging business bourgeoisie (as in, say, Morocco or Tunisia, not to mention Syria and Lebanon). A significant and fairly vocal minority of Algerians felt that France had brought them into the modern world, and they thus wanted to become "more French," that is, to enjoy the same rights as the French in Algeria without having to give up their Islamic identity. This tendency, generally called assimilation, was represented by Ferhat Abbas (1899–1985), a pharmacist from Sétif, 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), initially connected with the French Communist Party, was founded by Messali Hadj (1898–1974) in 1926, and recruited among Algerian workers in France. Yet another tendency was represented by Ahmad Ibn Badis (1889–1940), who asserted the Muslim nature of Algeria and sought to reform Algerian popular Islam through the Association of Ulama.

From the 1930s onward, rapid urbanization fueled Algerian resistance to France. By the end of World War II (1939–45) it was hoped that compromises could be worked out that might deflect violent nationalism, but the European community in Algeria's dogged insistence on hanging on to its privileges meant that these hopes soon evaporated. Ferhat Abbas's movement soon became insignificant, and ibn Badis's death in 1940 meant that the Association of Ulama lacked influence, which left 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, Didouche Mourad, Mohammed Boudiaf, and Belkacem Krim. This group subsequently launched the "Algerian revolution," or war of national liberation, on November 1, 1954; it lasted until 1962, when Algeria became independent. Over the eight years, between 1 and 1.5 million Algerians, and 27,000 French were killed. The struggle proved intensely divisive, especially as more Algerian Muslims fought on the French side than in the Algerian army.

In the cases of Tunisia, Egypt, and Morocco, the decision of Britain and France to take over the reins of government (in 1881, 1882, and 1912, respectively) was at least partly precipitated by local opposition to the draconian financial measures that the European powers had insisted local governments impose in order to repay debts contracted on the various European money markets. The ruler of Tunisia, Ahmad Bey (r. 1837–1855), made strenuous efforts both to modernize Tunisia and to assert its independence from Istanbul, and he had been aided substantially by France in the latter objective. By the time of his death Tunisia had a modern army and navy, largely thanks to the efforts of his treasurer, Mustafa Khaznadar (1817–1878). In 1861, much to the discomfort of Tunisia's new ruler, Muhammad al-Sadiq Bey (r. 1859–1882), and under great pressure from Khayr al-Din (ca. 1823–1890)—the reformminded finance minister and prime minister who was also Khaznadar's son-in-law—Tunisia adopted a constitution and a modern (that is, generally secular) legal system under which the bey's prerogatives were considerably limited.

These "reforms" were better received in the outside world and among the sizeable local European community than within Tunisia, where a rural uprising (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 incurred from the building of infrastructure and the use of European consultants—officers, engineers, and so forth) 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, Egypt in 1876. The efforts of the Tunisian prime minister Khayr al-Din to balance the budget were no match for French colonial ambitions, which were eventually realized when in May of 1881 the bey was forced to accept a protectorate under the terms of the Treaty of Bardo. By 1892 four-fifths of cultivated lands were in French hands.

The situation in Egypt was very 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 bondholders got their money back, eventually gave rise to a nationalist movement. Many nationalists had the additional grievance that the government of Egypt was conducted by a clique widely perceived as "foreigners," that is, a Turco-Circassian aristocracy consisting of the descendants of Muhammad Ali and their courtiers. Another interesting component of the rebellion led by Ahmad Urabi between 1879 and 1882 was the emphasis on restoring Egypt fully to the bosom of the Ottoman Empire. One of the peculiarities of the colonial situation in Egypt was that although relatively large numbers of foreigners resided in the country, they could not be described as colons in the French North African sense, because they lived mostly in the cities and engaged in commerce or in other service occupations. In addition, most of them were not citizens of the occupying power; only 11 percent of the foreign population of Alexandria was British in 1917.

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; and exports of wool, cereals, and ostrich feathers) and then military. The first major confrontation between locals and Europeans occurred between 1859 and 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 was not done without great hardship, particularly from the imposition of additional nontraditional agricultural taxation, which caused considerable unrest. There was also a massive devaluation of the currency and 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. In addition, Morocco became dependent on foreign loans and declared bankruptcy 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.

In November 1914, partly as a result of public pressure and partly as a result of miscalculations by those responsible for the decision, the Ottoman Empire entered the war on the side of the Central Powers (Austria-Hungary and Germany), fighting France, Great Britain, Italy, and Russia. Iraq was invaded immediately by British Indian troops, who eventually took Baghdad in 1917 and were in control of almost all the territory of the modern state by the end of the war. Palestine and Syria were invaded from Egypt at the end of 1917 with similar results. The long-term consequence was the end of the empire and the foundation of the independent Turkish Republic in 1923, and the division of the former Arab provinces of the empire into separate nation states. Two of these, Yemen and what became Saudi Arabia in 1932, were more or less independent; in the Fertile Crescent, five new states—Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, Palestine, and Transjordan—were established as mandated territories of the newly created League of Nations.

A great deal of ink has been spilt throughout the better part of the twentieth century in fruitless, and largely pointless, attempts to assess what the political ambitions and aspirations of the inhabitants of the eastern Arab world might have been had they somehow been left to their own devices. The major factor muddying the waters has been the claim of the Hashemite family, represented by themselves and their admirers as the standard bearers of Arab independence, to have been cheated out of their just due by British perfidy. While the charge of British perfidy is not without merit, the Hashemites's claims somehow to represent "the Arabs" cannot stand up to serious scrutiny. In all probability, given that it was only in early 1918 that the prospect of an Allied victory came to look increasingly ambiguous, the more politically conscious inhabitants of the Fertile Crescent gradually came to the conclusion that if the Ottoman Empire was to disappear, they would favor an arrangement under which they would rule themselves; only a very few saw advantages in accepting the rule of minor potentates from the Hijaz. Even fewer were enthusiastic at the prospect of European, especially French, colonial rule, given what was known about French rule in North Africa.

For a variety of reasons, therefore, British and French mandatory rule in the Levant and in Iraq faced a fair degree of resistance. Substantial numbers of Syrians had tried to persuade the Turks to return to Syria after the establishment of Faysal's Arab kingdom in October 1918, and were not to be reconciled to Faysal for several months. In Iraq, parts of which had been under British occupation and administration since the end of 1914, a major uprising broke out against British rule in the summer of 1920, organized by some former members of Faysal's entourage in Syria (the French would send Faysal into exile in July 1920), prominent Baghdadi notables, some senior mujtahids (religious scholars) from the Shiite holy cities of Karbala and Najaf, and, at the latter's instigation, tribal leaders and tribesmen from lower Iraq. British administration ceased to function outside the towns throughout most of the summer and early autumn, and there were moments when it seemed at least possible that British forces would be obliged to leave, especially when the scale of expenditure and the commitment of manpower became the subject of serious criticisms in the British press. Tribal revolts, partly against British semicolonial rule and partly against the British-sponsored Iraq government, occurred regularly in southern Iraq (the last major uprising there was in 1935, three years after the end of the mandate), and of course the Kurds of northern Iraq, who had originally been promised autonomy, remained in a state of more or less constant rebellion against Britain's, and later Baghdad's, refusal to grant it.

In Syria/Lebanon, the French faced similar opposition: although Faysal (1883–1933; king of Syria, 1918–1920, king of Iraq, 1921–1933) had by no means been universally popular, the provocative and often brutal nature of French rule was acutely opposed for much of the mandate. In the first place, Lebanon, considerably enlarged by the addition of areas traditionally considered parts of Syria, was constituted by the French as a separate state. What remained of "Syria" was then further divided into three administrative units: One included the four main cities of Aleppo, Hama, Homs, and Damascus; one was for the minority groups the Druzes and the Alawites; and the third was the sanjak (district) of Alexandretta, which the French eventually ceded to Turkey (in violation of the terms of the mandate) in 1939. The thinking behind the divisions was that the religious minorities living mostly in the rural areas would become bound to France by "ties of loyalty and gratitude" for having "saved" them from the domination of the Sunni majority, who were considered to be infected by the virus of Arab nationalism. The extent to which this plan failed can be gauged by the fact that the Druze area in particular was the source of some of the most vigorous opposition to the French, and that the rural minorities frequently made common cause with the people of the cities against their colonizers and occupiers.

The major revolt of the mandate period began in the Druze area, under the leadership of the Druze notable Sultan al-Atrash, in 1925. Starting off as a tribal uprising against the French administration of the Jabal Druze, it became a national revolt when al-Atrash was joined by a number of Damascene notables, particularly 'Abd al-Rahman al-Shahbandar (1880–1940) and his People's Party, who called for national independence. Although the uprising was defeated in 1926, it eventually led to some relaxation in French policy, in that the French showed themselves prepared to countenance a constitution and the gradual withdrawal of French troops. Negotiations continued well into 1928, and the nationalists were successful to the extent that a national assembly was elected and asked to draw up a constitution for Syria.

In time, most of the anticolonial movements of the twentieth century developed into urban-based mass movements. They were often led by charismatic leaders, perhaps most notably Habib Bourguiba (1903–2000), who led the Tunisian Neo-Destour Party between 1934 and the country's independence in 1956, and remained president until 1987. Allal al-Fassi (1910–1974), leader of the Istiqlal Independence Party, might have played a similar role in the history of Morocco, but in 1953 the French exiled the sultan, Muhammad V (r. 1927–1961), to Madagascar. As a result, the rallying cry of the national movement became the return of the sultan from exile, which led in 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, as in Iraq and Syria, the national movement went through two stages. In the first stage, some limited powers (in fact all powers in the case of Syria) were handed over to local elites. In Egypt and Iraq this arrangement involved a degree of power-sharing with the former colonial rulers, which gradually 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 means, that is, by voting in a political party or coalition that would thus have a mandate 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 admittedly fairly rudimentary institutions of parliamentary government that the colonial powers had put in place. In this way, first Mohammad Naguib (1901–1984) and then Gamal Abdel Nasser (1918–1970) took power in Egypt in 1952, and 'Abd al-Karim Qasim (1914–1963) in Iraq 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 instance of anticolonialism in the Middle East is Palestine, unique among its immediate 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 there were about 600,000 Jews and 1.3 million Arabs; thus the Jewish population increased from 13 to 31 percent over a period of twenty-four years. Anticolonialism took different forms, principally 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 Zionist settlers; by February 1947 a war-weary Britain no longer felt able to sustain the mandate and submitted the problem to the United Nations. In November the United Nations recommended that Palestine should be partitioned into an Arab state and a Jewish state. By December fighting had already begun between the two states. By May 1948 some 300,000 Palestinians had fled, and on May 14 David Ben-Gurion (1886–1973) proclaimed the state of Israel, after which a ragbag of Arab armies and the poorly organized Palestinian resistance forces tried to deflect the Zionists, to little effect.

Opposition to colonial rule and colonial settlement was fairly widespread throughout the Middle East and North Africa in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and it took a variety of forms, both rural and urban, organized and spontaneous, religious and political, with greater or lesser degrees of coherence. In addition, as in any colonial situation, reaction to colonial rule covered a wide spectrum, with resistance at one end, acquiescence in the middle, and collaboration at the other end. Some members of the colonized population rebelled, 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 fairly monochrome manner, with 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 colonial legacy more questionable as time passes. Nevertheless, it is also important to understand the complexity and multifaceted nature of anticolonialism, and the venality and corruption of so many of the competing, often warring, factions. It is also important for national maturity, and increasingly for national reconciliation, that such uncomfortable truths should be boldly confronted rather than willfully ignored.

see also Independence and Decolonization, Middle East; Secular Nationalisms, Middle East.


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