In the interwar period

Following centuries of Ottoman or otherwise foreign rule (Egypt had not been ruled by Egyptians since the time of the pharaohs), the end of World War I and the proclamation of the doctrine of national self-determination espoused by President Wilson was a time of an explosion of nationalism in the Arab world. Pan-Arabism grew out of the nineteenth century decline of the Ottoman Empire and a desire amongst Arabs to free themselves from domination by a decaying power, and it drew political hope from the Arab Revolt of King Sharif Husayn of Mecca. However, pan-Arabism quickly faded from the scene due to the political structure imposed on the Middle East by Britain and France in the years after the war.

In May 1916 the British and French signed a secret agreement known to history as the Sykes-Picot agreement, which split the Arab Middle East into two spheres of influence. Foreign domination of the Arab successor states was thus assured, and pan-Arabism could not hope to make headway against this fact: hence mainstream Arab nationalism came to focus on loyalty to the new states created. In Egypt, the Wafd (lit. "delegation) claimed to represent the Egyptian people after sparking a period of violent protest in support of their desire to represent Egypt at the Paris Peace Conference. And all across the Middle East, from Iraq to Syria to Lebanon to Palestine, national movements opposed foreign control or influence of the new states.

However, the fact that the states created in the Middle East were to a large extent artificial, the archetype of which is Transjordan, meant they did not necessarily correspond to a nation. It was therefore not inevitable that nationalism would take the form of loyalty to a particular geographical entity defined in Paris; however, it suited the self-serving nationalist politician to work within the imperial system rather than opposing it too strongly. This meant walking a tightrope between pleasing the population of their country, who opposed the imperial presence, and keeping the trust of the imperial power that was vital to keeping them in power.

Given the capability of the imperial power to apply organised violence in a way that could not be matched by the indigenous peoples, it was only possible to 'come to terms' with imperialism rather than force its retreat. When colonial power was established, it became very difficult for nationalists to achieve their ultimate goal. Instead, they could force occasional concessions, but their coming to terms with imperial power always meant not trying to push things too far lest the imperial power deprive them of power altogether. The existence of competing claims to represent 'the nation' further complicated matters and sapped the unity of the Middle East's nationalists.

The most successful nationalism of the interwar period was doubtlessly that of Mustafa Kemal, later surnamed Atatürk (this means "father of the Turks"). Of all the nationalist movements in the Middle East his was the most successful, being able to inflict military defeat on the French, who were distracted by Faisal's attempt to create a state in Syria, and enforce the National Pact. The Pact called for full Turkish sovereignty over all parts of the Empire inhabited by a majority of Turks, and Kemal was successful in implementing this after negotiating with the Allies from a position of strength. Allied plans to partition Turkey had failed, and instead Turkish nationalism was in such a position of strength that it could now set about reshaping the society that had given birth to it.

Turkey remained relatively uninfluenced by French and British imperialism until the Second World War, when Turkey managed to avoid the invasion and occupation that afflicted most Middle Eastern countries at the time. Kemal could be as successful as he was because his movement never allowed a Mandate to be established or for the partitioning of Turkey, and was uncompromising in its dealings with the French. Eventually the French were left with no option but to withdraw because the French public, wary for demobilisation, would not continue to put up with costly and bloody fighting in the Cicilian province of Turkey. No other national movement managed to so decisively stop the imposition of foreign control before it was even off the ground.

At the opposite end of the scale to the successful actions of Atatürk in Turkey lies the condition of Syria twenty years after the French Mandate was established. The French deliberately followed a strategy of divide and rule by splitting the Mandate into several states, so as to avoid the development of any form of national identity like the one Faisal had preached. By the outbreak of World War II Syria lacked its territorial integrity (Alexandretta having been ceded to Turkey, contrary to the terms of the Mandate) and had made scant progress towards independence. France's hands-on approach to the Mandate and the presence of large bodies of French troops and civilian administrators in the country meant that there was little scope for local politicians. The largest outbreak of violence in the country, in 1925, had been quelled at the cost of 6,000 Syrian lives and the bombardment of the venerable city of Damascus. It had accomplished little for the Syrian national movement.

After the revolt, the National Bloc attempted to act as intermediaries between the Syrian people and the French, in a similar style to the Wafd in Egypt or Nuri Said in Iraq. However, in contrast to Egypt and Iraq, Syria failed to gain even nominal independence. The brief experiment in Franco-Syrian co-operation embarked upon by the Popular Front in France was abandoned as soon as they fell and the road to independence was again blocked. The French were not willing to relinquish domination of Syria and did not allow it to develop its own institutions – all Syrian nationalists could do was tolerate the status quo. By July 1939 the implacable French had suspended their constitution, dissolved their parliament, and surrendered their territorial integrity. The Mandate, although it had survived, had failed. It was the defeat of the French in World War II that finally brought independence to Syria, not the efforts of Syrian nationalists.

Nationalists in Egypt and Iraq enjoyed considerably more apparent success in gaining and maintaining a degree of influence in their respective countries. However, the degree to which this influence was anything more than chimerical can be questioned. The British chose a less direct route to imperial control than the French, ruling through proxies rather than incurring the direct cost of imposing their own rule, and ultimately the decision of who ruled rested with the British. This can be seen by the fact the RAF was vital to making the writ of King Faisal run throughout Iraq, and by the February Fourth Incident in Egypt, despite the fact the latter had been made 'independent' in 1922. On 4 Feb 1942 the British, concerned by the pro-Axis orientation of members of the government and courtiers, surrounded the palace and demanded either King Faruq's abdication or the resintatement of the Wafd to power. The Wafd never recovered from the perception that they came to power riding in British tanks.

Nationalists in Egypt enjoyed their greatest success with the founding of the Wafd movement in 1918 and its ability to scare the British through violence into acceding to Said Zaghul’s demand to lead a delegation to the Paris Peace Conference. While Zaghul was unsuccessful in gaining a sympathetic audience from the Great Powers, the violence that gripped Egypt persuaded the British that changes had to be made in how Egypt was run. Hence in 1922 Egypt gained nominal independence, even if chafing under the reserved points of the treaty (such as the continuing presence of British troops and British control over foreign capital). The renegotiation of this treaty became the focus of Egyptian nationalist politicians for the rest of the interwar period, a goal in which they were mostly unsuccessful. The Wafd rejected terms in 1926 that were later accepted in 1936, largely due to infighting. Governments repeatedly fell in Egypt after having tried to extract concessions from the British.

In Egypt, the question of who the nationalists were is crucial. The Wafd made a particular claim to represent the national identity of Egypt that was not necessarily appreciated by the rest of the population. Egypt became what Samuel P. Huntingdon calls a 'torn country', one trying to change its identity from above. Ultimately, the Wafd came to terms with British imperialism rather too well, but in their own interests and not those of ordinary Egyptians. Factionalised and corrupt after Zaghul's death, the Wafd were also distanced from the rest of the population by their secularism and European values. They stressed the pharonic aspects of Egypt's past while meanwhile the rapid growth of Hassan al-Banna's Muslim Brotherhood as a mass movement showed that the Egyptian people had another interpretation of 'nationalism'. The Brotherhood called for independence and even rejected the treaty of 1936, but understood Egyptian national identity in a fundamentally Islamic and traditional way. The Wafd failed to toe the delicate tightrope between representing the nation and co-operating with the British, and the February Fourth Incident did grave damage to their credibility. Extra-parliamentary institutions like the Muslim Brotherhood, untainted by association with the imperial power, could move to the fore after World War II.

If Egyptian nationalism failed because it was not internally united, then nationalists in Lebanon and Palestine faced even graver problems – they were what Huntingdon calls 'cleft countries', countries with two or more completely different claims to represent the national identity. In Palestine, the Jewish Agency wanted to make its language, institutions and religion those of the state, whereas the Palestinian Arabs had little political opportunity to save themselves from this onslaught. The British were faced with the intractable problem of how to create a Jewish national home while simultaneously protecting the rights of Palestinian Arabs. By the outbreak of the Second World War attempts to reconcile with this problem had led to the disaffection of both the Jews and the Arabs, and widespread violence and terrorism throughout in the territory of the Mandate.

The Jews were much more successful at initially coming to terms with the British presence in Palestine because the Jewish Agency was actively consulted by the Mandatory authorities and because their role in the Mandate – Zionist colonisation – was active as opposed to the passive role of Palestinians in trying to stop such colonisation. The Arab rejection of the constitutional plan of 1923 meant that cohesion between the two communities never got off the ground – instead, the two groups formed their own political apparatus. The ineffectual tactics of the Palestinian notables and their separation from the common people through their practice of the 'politics of the notables', through which they sought to retain their social pre-eminence by 'honourable co-operation', meant that eventually a mass revolt from below was needed to make the British reassess their policy.

By 1938 the Arab Revolt had put the Mandate of Palestine in dire straights, and it had to be flooded with British troops to save it. Through violence, the Palestinian Arabs had found the British weakness – they would not continue a war of attrition indefinitely. Firstly, Palestine and Zionism was not important enough to the British for them to devote large amounts of blood and treasure to it. Secondly, the impending war meant Britain had greater problems to deal with. As the war approached and then broke out, Britain needed to use the Middle East as a base of operations, and it would not be a suitable base if wracked by revolt. Not only Palestine was at stake, but all British territories inhabited by Muslims who opposed Zionist immigration to Palestine. Hence the white paper of 1939, which seemed to spell the end of the Zionist dream.

If the British could end it even as Hitler was expelling Jews from Germany, this surely showed that the British commitment to the cause of Zionism was always sharply subordinate to the British imperial interest. Given this turnaround, it is hard to regard the activities of Zionists in Palestine as completely successful. What they were successful in doing was setting themselves up as the most likely contender in any future internal struggle in the country, through the political and paramilitary organisation of the Haganah. But it is important to recognise that it was the consequences of the war that finally brought the Zionist dream to fruition, not a Jewish coming to terms with British imperialism in the interwar period. Indeed, by working within the system so well, Palestinian Jewry had provoked a reaction from Palestinian Arabs that led to a curtailment of the Jew’s activities and aspirations.

All over the Middle East in the interwar period, nationalists chafed under the imperial interests of their occupying powers. Even states which gained nominal independence, like Egypt and Iraq, still faced massive restrictions on their sovereignty. Within this system, notables faced an intractable dilemma – they could only enjoy popular support by being nationalists, but they could only enjoy power by acting in the interests of the imperial powers. This limited their sphere of action significantly. Lebanon enjoyed a quicker path to autonomy than Syria because it contained the pro-French Maronite community which was able to reach a rapprochement with the Sunni Muslim community and hence make the country more stable for the French. But it still took the violence of the world war to bring about independence for both Lebanon and Syria, as well as for a host of other countries in the Middle East.

However successful the Middle East's nationalists thought they had been in the interwar period, the occupation of Iraq, Egypt, Iran and the Levant during the war showed them how chimerical their independence really was. The Middle East’s nationalists always depended on the support of the occupying powers for their own political success, and this support could be removed as soon as the occupying power saw their rule threatened or imperial interests dictated otherwise. This need for co-operation with the enemy tainted nationalist politicians in the eyes of the people, and this dilemma could only be resolved with the withdrawal of foreign troops. It took the Second World War to bring about the event that nationalists could not.

Complete bibliography
William L. Cleveland, A History of the Modern Middle East
Christopher M. Andrew and A.S. Kanya-Forstner, France Overseas: the Great War and the Climax of French Imperial Expansion
E. Tauber, The Formation of Modern Syria and Iraq
Toby Dodge, Inventing Iraq: the failure of nation building and a history denied
C. Tripp, A History of Iraq
N. Shepherd, British Rule in Palestine
Al Al-Sayyid-Marsot, A Short History of Modern Egypt
B. Lewis, The Middle East
D.K. Fieldhouse (ed), Kurds, Arabs, and Britons