T. Cliff

The Problem of the Middle East

Part I
Historical Background

<p. 31>

Chapter V
Beginnings of the National Movement
in Syria, Palestine & Iraq [1]

I. Mohamed Ali’s Occupation of Syria, Lebanon and Palestine

The conquest of Palestine, Syria and Lebanon by Mohamed Ali in 1832 was a turning point in the development of these countries, Ibrahim Pasha, Mohmad Ali’s son, who stood at the head of the armies which conquered these countries, declared himself the bearer of the banner of Arab nationalism. In his declarations to the army he often mentioned the Arab Golden Age. The inhabitants of Palestine, Syria, Lebanon and Iraq received his declarations with enthusiasm. In Damascus revolts broke out against the Turks: secret emissaries came to Cairo announcing Syria’s support for Mohamed Ali. After overcoming the fortress of Acre, the whole country up to the Turkish border and the enthusiastic support of the Arabs in this region were there for his taking. The inhabitants of Bagdad, too, hoped to find deliverance from the Turks through Mohamed Ali.

In Syria and Palestine Ibrahim introduced a much superior administration to what had existed heretofore. He gave religious and civic equality and assured the security of life and property. His regime was such as these countries had not known since the Arab Golden Age. One of the Syrian consuls, Werry, summed up (31/7/36) the results of the establishment of Mohamed Ali’s government as including:

‘Security from arbitrary acts – except in the case of conscription – security of property, a new liberty of religion, of life and of amusements, a fair distribution of taxes, and in general as near an approach to the liberty enjoyed under a free government as could be attempted.’

But the edifice Ibrahim constructed rested on a foundation of sand. Commerce was backward, the towns were undeveloped, and the villages economically isolated, a new Arab literature and press as yet not created, the fundamental elements for an Arab national movement thus not yet existing. The opposition of the Syrians and the Palestinians to the Turks was a short-lived outburst; not a national revolt, the fruit of inner economic and cultural consolidation, but a reaction to external pressure alone. And of course when this external pressure was abolished, all the emptiness of the nationalism of the ruling feudal class in these countries was fully revealed. A third estate to support Ibrahim’s reform policy had not yet arisen. And so, a few years after the beginning of the Egyptian occupation, feudal revolts broke out against Ibrahim, at first in Nablus and Hebron, and afterwards in Lebanon and other regions.

The only ones to wholeheartedly supported Ibrahim were the Christian community which did so for two reasons: firstly because he made an end to discrimination against them and secondly because the Christian community was relatively more developed than the Moslem.

II. The First Shoots of Nationalism

The eight years of Ibrahim’s rule did not pass without leaving their mark on the path of development of these countries. Trade increased, a network of schools was built and a basis laid for the development of Arabic literature. But all these processes were very limited in their extent and confined to the Christian community. Trade was almost <p. 32> entirely in the hands of the Christians while the Moslems remained in their former backward state. Schools were opened, but those which remained in existence after Ibrahim left the country were in the main mission schools which had taken advantage of the tolerance of Ibrahim in order to increase their activities. Literary activity was also indulged in solely by the Christians who were in contact with the missions. How far the Moslems were from all this activity may be seen from the fact that Dr. E. Bowring, who was sent by Palmerston in 1838 to study the condition in Syria, could find no single bookshop in Damascus or Aleppo, the two largest towns in Syria.

The two writers who laid the foundation stones of the new Arab literature were the Christians Nasif Yazeji (1800–71) and Butrus Bustani (1819–1883). The latter translated the Bible into Arabic together with the American missionary Eli Smith. He also compiled a large Arabic dictionary and an encyclopaedia.

The Arab national idea was born out of the layer of Christian merchants and intellectuals. An especially prominent place was occupied by Nasif Yazeji who preached national unity amongst Christians and Moslems, the revival of the old Arab literature and the rebirth of the Arab Golden Age. In the time of the riots of 1860 which were accompanied by massacres of the Christians in Damascus and Lebanon, when hatreds were at their height, Bustani began to publish Nafir Suriya (The Clarion of Syria), a small weekly and the first political paper published in the country. It was dedicated mainly to the preaching of concord between the different communities. Three years later he founded the National School intended for the education of children of all communities toward religious tolerance and patriotism. Nasif Yazeji was the principal teacher of Arabic in this school. In 1870 Bustani founded a fortnightly political and literary review whose motto was: ‘Patriotism is an article of faith.’

In 1847 Yazeji and Bustani together with some American missionaries founded a literary society called ‘Society of the Arts and Sciences,’ among whose fifty members were not a single Moslem or Druze. In 1850 the Jesuits established a similar society called ‘Oriental Society’ which, of course, included only Christians. In 1857 an attempt was made to establish a literary society independent of any of the missions which should include all communities. It was called the ‘Syria Scientific Society.’

But these modest shoots of the Arab national movement were doomed to wither early. The communal friction between the Moslems and Christians, and even more between the Druze and Christians, blew too cold a blast for the tender shoots of Arab nationalism.

Communal disputes reached their climax in the riots of 1860 in which 11,000 people were killed during clashes in Lebanon and Damascus between Druzes and Moslems on the one hand and Christians on the other. The main cause of the riots was the Anglo-French rivalry to gain influence in Syria.

While the French with the help of the missions controlled the main Lebanese Christian community—the Maronites—the English were in contact with the head of the feudal Druze, whom they incited against the Christians. The clashes, with the two imperialist Powers standing on either side, were very fierce, and full advantage was taken of already existing antagonisms.

There was firstly the antagonism between the Maronite tenants and the Druze landlords. In 1857 a revolt of Maronite peasants broke out against their feudal lords who were of the same faith. The movement spread to South Lebanon, but here, seeing that the peasants were Maronites and the feudal lords Druzes, the class antagonism took on a feudal form, especially as the heads of the Maronite church and the missionary agents of France did not remain idle, but added fuel to the fire of communal hatred. A second antagonism which was one of the promoters of the communal clashes was that between the Christian merchants of third estate and the feudal strata. This antagonism was especially bitter in cases where the feudal landlord was in debt to Christians. Of course, declining feudal society creates a sufficient number of underground layers which <p. 33> can, in the expectation of spoil, be used for the most sanguinary purposes. And such layers were fully employed in the 1860 massacre of the Christians.

The Turkish authorities also did not miss this golden opportunity which came their way. They saw in every communal dispute a stumbling block in the way of the creation of united national forces against them, and an opportunity to intervene and pose as the third decisive arbitrator. The Turkish governor therefore did all he could to intensify the massacres.

It was these communal clashes which annihilated the first nuclei of the national movement which arose in the Christian community.

III. The National Movement Arises, Rejuvenated and More Encompassing

With the next fifty years Syria, Lebanon and Palestine entered a period of uninterrupted progress in the development of commerce, handicrafts and manufactures, in the widening of the network of schools, and in the development of Arab literature. The national idea, however, did not yet leave the narrow bounds of a few intellectual circles.

The fact that the economic and social developments which generally constitute the basis of a young national movement advanced while a national movement itself did not advance to any degree, was to a large extent the fruit of the great influence of outside factors which perverted its development.

Besides France and England, Russia too put her finger in the pie. Already in 1847 the Russian ‘Palestine Society’ under the patronage of the Tsar, was founded, which, under the mask of educational activity, recruited the members of the Greek Orthodox Church as the agents of its influence. While at first the missionaries customarily taught mainly in Arabic, they now, for political reasons, began to teach mainly in the language of the state whose emissaries they were. Whereas at first they gave, although unintentionally, a push forward to the national consciousness of the Christian intellectuals, they now became a source of unending communal disputes.

These factors, together with the important fundamental factor of the development of handicrafts in Damascus, Aleppo and the other Moslem towns (the number of inhabitants of Beirut, for instance rose from about 15,000 in 1848 to 80,000 in 1882), till these towns became the most important centres of artisanry in the Ottoman Empire, caused the wider national movement which rose at the beginning of this century to find most of its supporters not among the Christians but among the Moslems.

During the whole period 1860–1908 there was no Arab political organisation of any strength whatsoever. Only one tiny organisation has left any trace behind it. It was founded in 1875 and existed till 1880, containing no more than 22 members during that time. After three or four years of activity limited to internal discussion, the group decided to begin mass agitation. A few placards were put up, calling upon the Arab nation to revolt against Turkey, and struggle for independence. The repercussions, were however, were absolutely negligible. For a long time the patriarchal and particularist feudal lords and clergy were indifferent to the national idea. On the other hand the masses of the people, doubly suppressed under Turkish and Arab exploitation, were not capable of rising unless they found a leadership which could stir and direct them. This circle of national intellectuals remained therefore an unheard cry in the wilderness.

The real impetus to the national movement was provided not by inner development, but an outside stimulus.

The Russo-Japanese war and the revolution which came in its wake were turning points in the history of the national movements in all the East, including Syria, Palestine and Iraq. C.F. Andrews who lived in India for many years, gives the following picture of the effect of the Russo-Japanese war upon the peoples of Asia:

‘At the close of the year 1904, it was clear to those who were watching the political horizon that great changes were impending in the East. Storm-clouds had been gathering thick and fast. The air was full of electricity. The war between Russia and Japan had <p. 34> kept the surrounding peoples on the tiptoe of expectation. A stir of excitement passed over the north of India. Even the villagers talked over the victories of Japan as they sat in their circles and passed around the huqqa at night … Asia was moved from one end to the other and the sleep of the centuries was finally broken … The material aggrandisement of the European races at the expense of the East seemed at last to be checked.’

The Russo-Japanese war had a similar, if weaker, echo in the Arab East, more indirect than direct.

The Russian revolution of 1905 caused an even greater stir than the war had done in all the East. In the words of M. Pavlovitch in The Problem of National and Colonial Policy and the Third International [2]:

‘The Russian Revolution of 1905 played the same great part in the life of the Asiatic peoples as the French Revolution had played in European countries. It gave the impulse in Turkey to the revolutionary activities which led to the fall of Abdul Hamid. It made an overwhelming impression upon Persia, which was the first Asiatic nation to start a simultaneous struggle against its own despots and against the rapacity of European governments. The same is true of China.’

The Russian Revolution had a tremendous influence on Syria too—in this case also indirect—through the Young Turks’ revolution of 1908.

The organisation of the Young Turks, or ‘The Committee of Union and Progress’ as it was called, included in its membership, besides Turks also Jews, Arabs, Armenians etc. The deposition of Sultan Abdul Hamid by the Young Turks roused great joy in the Arab provinces. But the Young Turks’ revolution was only a palace revolution. The monarchy was not abolished, but the personalities changed. Instead of Abdul Hamid came his brother Reshad. The corrupt bureaucracy of the state was not done away with, nor the property relations changed. And so the same social forces which held the Ottoman Empire up—the layer of landlords, high officials and army officers—continued to remain and more vigorously to defend the tottering empire. More than this, now new blood—that of Turkish intellectual officers—joined the old guard in order to protect the empire, using even more brutal measures than the Sultan had ever dared to use.

The Committee of Union and Progress not only did not give the right of self-determination i.e. the right of separation—to the different nations in the Ottoman Empire, but subjugated them even further and strengthened the tendencies towards extreme centralisation of the Empire.

And so hope gave way to despair among the inhabitants of Syria, Palestine and Iraq and the circles of Arab bourgeoisie, intellectuals and feudals, between whom no clear boundaries existed (and even today do not exist) began to organise in political societies and parties of their own. There were four more important Arab national societies—two secret and two open. At the end of 1909 the secret society al-Qahtaniya was founded containing mainly Arab officers in the Turkish army. Its aim was to change the Ottoman Empire into a dual monarchy. The Arab provinces would be a unified state with a parliament of its own and its official language Arabic. The Ottoman Sultan in Constantinople would bear, beside his Turkish crown, also that of the Arab state. There would thus be a Turkish-Arab Empire similar in structure to the Austro-Hungarian Empire. After a short period of existence this society was dissolved because one of its members betrayed confidences, and in its stead another society with the same composition and the same aims, called al-Ahd (the Covenant), was founded.

The secret society, which contained many civilians, was ‘Jam’iya al-Arabiya al-Fatat’—The Young Arab Society. This organisation was established in Paris in 1911 from among the Arab students there. In 1913 the number of its members was 200, all of them with a few exceptions, Moslems.

At the end of 1912, the ‘Ottoman Decentralisation Party’ was established in Cairo. Branches were also established in every town of Syria and Palestine. This was the broadest organisation that had ever risen in these countries. In close connection with this organisation was the ‘Committee <p. 35> of Reform’ established in Beirut, containing 68 men whose programme was ‘Home rule for the Arab provinces.’ While foreign affairs, defence and public finance must remain in the hands of the Turkish government, all affairs of a regional character such as district administration, district finances and local services must be handed over to local institutions. Arabic must be recognised on an equal standing with Turkish. As far as army service was concerned, in peace time recruited soldiers must serve only in their provinces.

In the middle of 1913 the Committee of Reform published its programme. Demonstrations of support took place. Mass meetings were held in the towns of Syria, Palestine and Iraq, and hundreds of telegrams supporting the Committee of Reform were sent to Constantinople. The Turkish government decided to take up a strong stand with regard to the movement. The Committee of Reform were sent to Constantinople. The Committee was disbanded and its members arrested. The reactions of the masses became even more heated, stormy demonstrations taking place and general strikes breaking out. The government retreated, released the leaders and gave a few concessions, which were not, however, of any consequence.

After this an Arab congress was convened in Paris, including the representatives of al-Fatat and the Party of Decentralisation, and supported by the Committee of Reform. Negotiations were held with the Turkish government from anew. Apparent concessions were once more made, but it became clear enough after a while that they were of no consequence whatsoever.

It is superfluous to deal at length with these organisations and their activity. The composition of all of them was very similar—a few of the feudal class, government officials, officers, some merchants and intellectuals. The aim of all of them was to widen the autonomy of the Arab regions within the Ottoman Empire. Their activity consisted of negotiations, the sending of telegrams and from time to time the organisation of demonstrations.

It is well known that the bourgeoisie does not conduct its struggle itself, but does so through others. In the period of its rise, when it was revolutionary, it did so through the proletariat, but when the latter began to think not only of taking arms on behalf of others, but also of taking power on its own behalf, the bourgeoisie began to seek another power to fight its wars, and finding the feudal monarchy ready to do so, it compromised with it.

To whom did the Arab bourgeoisie turn? The world war of 1914-18, by straining the imperialist chain to the utmost, by proving the weakness of the Turkish link in this chain, and by causing terrible suffering to the Arab masses, was an excellent test of the ability of the Arab bourgeoisie to recruit the masses for a national liberatory struggle. In the test it failed miserably.

The reasons for its failure are obvious. The war gave the profiteers an excellent opportunity to starve the masses. The profiteers were helped by the government supply policy which discriminated against the Arab regions of the Ottoman Empire, especially the Christian Lebanon, and also by the rotten corruptness of the administration, by the terrible backwardness of the transport facilities, and by the tottering of the Turkish monetary system. The famine reached terrible proportions. Some extracts from reports of eye-witnesses will show this up clearly. In a despatch to his government dated 15th July 1916 the American Consul-General wrote:

‘The condition of the poor here is deplorable. The streets are filled with starving women and children … The government is absolutely callous to the sufferings of this poor people, nor will it allow the American Red Cross to assist them. In my early evening walks I frequently see people lying dead in the gutter …’ (Quoted from G. Antonius, The Arab Awakening, London 1938, pp. 203–4 to 241)

The number of deaths from starvation and malnutrition in Lebanon, Syria and Palestine during the war was estimated at 300–350 thousand out of a total population of less than three millions.

Besides starvation, the Turks held other whips over the heads of the Arab peoples: executions, arrests, and deportations. Scores of Arab leaders were publicly hanged in Damascus and Beirut, and hundreds were arrested. Some 3,000 persons were sent to detention or exile, many of them dying from ill-treatment.

<p. 36> The hunger was the product of the co-operative efforts of the Turkish rulers, Arab landowners and Arab merchants. The Arab bourgeoisie (which was mainly a commercial one and was strongly connected with the landowners) of course could not recruit the hungry masses against the oppressive Ottoman rule. On the other hand no independent proletarian power existed. The starvation and suffering of the Arab masses therefore did not bring in their wake any revolutionary struggle for national liberation. And this was the case notwithstanding the fact that Turkish rule was very weak, that the number of Arab inhabitants of the Ottoman Empire was more than of the Turkish, that many Arab troops were under the command of Arab officers, and that, as Jemal Pasha, the military governor of Syria, Lebanon and Palestine, said after the war: ‘If a revolt had broken out as the result of foreign intrigues, there would have been no way of suppressing it and the government would have lost all its Arab territories.’

But the leaders of the Arab national movement were neither capable of bringing nor willing to bring the masses to a revolutionary struggle. The hunger of the masses paralysed their power of action. The ripening of the national conflicts accompanied by class conflicts showed up the corruption of the Arab ruling classes. Instead of relying on the masses to struggle for them, they looked for alliances, firstly with the Sharif of Mecca, the backward half-Bedouin, and secondly with the imperialist Powers, especially England.

In January 1915, a delegate of al-Fatat came to Husain, the Sharif of Mecca, calling upon him to stand at the head of the Arab independence movement. In March his son, Emir Faisal, joined the two Arab secret societies, al-Fatat and al Ahd. Al-Ahd also sent a delegate to another ruler, Ibn Saud, the Head of the Bedouin tribes of al-Najd, second in importance to and not less reactionary than Husain. Another delegate of al-Ahd reached Cairo in 1914 to negotiate with the English authorities.

In the wake of all these movements came the negotiations between Sir Henry McMahon, British High Commissioner in Egypt, and Sharif Hussain, which opened up a complete diplomatic chapter.

Following McMahon’s promises to Husain came the Sykes-Picot Agreement between England, France and Russia and a little later the Balfour Declaration to the Zionists. These documents constitute a really classic chain of imperialist fraud. They would not be described but for the fact that they throw light on the struggles in this region after the war.

McMahon pledged Britain to give full independence to all the Arab countries except Lebanon, on condition that the Arabs would have recourse only to England for the recruitment of foreign advisers and officials they might need, and that in the districts of Basra and Baghdad in Iraq, where Britain had special interests, there would be an Anglo-American condominium.

In the spring of 1916 the Sykes-Picot Agreement was concluded between England, France and Russia. This agreement determined how the Ottoman Empire was to be divided after victory. Every one of the Powers decided on a fat slice for itself. Constantinople and a few miles on both sides of the Bosporus, together with a large part of Eastern Anatolia were to go to Russia. France was to get all Syria and the northern part of Palestine, a considerable part of Southern Anatolia, and the Mosul district in Iraq, while Britain was to receive Palestine south of Gaza, Transjordan, all Iraq except Mosul, and also the harbours of Haifa and Acre with a narrow strip of the hinterland. The rest of Palestine—the area from Jerusalem to slightly north of Acre (except the British zone of Haifa-Acre)—was to be under the international administration of England, France and Russia.

Of course the Sykes-Picot Agreement was well concealed from the Arabs. It was made public only after the Bolsheviks took power and put an end to all secret diplomacy, publishing all the rapacious documents of Tsarism.

In addition to these two contradictory agreements came the third which again contradicts both of them. Both the belligerent sides attempted to extend their influence over world Jewry, especially that of America which had as yet not entered the war, promising support for Zionism. The <p. 37> German government sent a declaration to a group of German Zionist leaders promising free immigration and settlement in Palestine within the limits of the country’s absorptive capacity, local self-administration according to the country’s laws, and free development of the Jews’ cultural characteristics.

The Zionists attempted to get a similar declaration from the Entente too. When Lloyd George was Prime Minister in December 1916, there already existed a programme of the Zionist movement for the administration of Palestine in case of an Entente victory, according to which control of Palestine should be in the hands of England and France. In spite of the Sykes-Picot Agreement which declared for the international control over a large part of Palestine, Lloyd George of course was not over-pleased that France should be on an equal footing with England. The Zionist leaders did not insist on this point and drew their plans from anew: that Palestine should be the sole control of Britain, a declaration being given that everything possible would be done against any internationalisation of Palestine, and also against an Anglo-French condominium. Lloyd George then sent Sir Mark Sykes, the same man after whom the Anglo-French-Russian Agreement is named, to begin negotiations with the Zionist leaders. The result of the negotiations was the Balfour Declaration which promised to establish a national home for the Jews in Palestine. That amity for the Jews is not what moved Lloyd George is clear from the words of Lord Asquith, who wrote in this connection:

‘Lloyd George … I need not say does not care a damn for the Jews or their past or their future, but thinks it will be an outrage to let the holy places pass into the possession or under the protectorate of “agnostic, atheistic France”’ (The Earl of Oxford and Asquith, Memories and Reflections, 1928, vol. II, p. 66)

With the end of the war, the peace arrangements did not coincide at all with the promises of the imperialist diplomats, but were made according to the relation of forces of the great Powers. France was compelled to forgo any claim to administer Palestine and the oil region of Mosul which all went to Britain. In exchange for this Britain agreed to the expulsion of Faisal, British puppet king of Syria, to the conquest of the country by France, and also promised her part of the income of the future oil enterprise in Mosul.

Thus was the stew boiled which the masses of Palestine, Syria, Lebanon and Iraq have been forced to swallow for the last three decades!


1. In order to avoid any error, it must at the outset be noted, that the division between Syria and Palestine is not older than the rule of France and Britain over these countries. Till then Palestine was not thought of as a unit in itself, but as the southern part of Syria. In order not to use the same term for two different things, Palestine will be called by that name even for periods before this name had been used. Lebanon will denote Mount Lebanon for the period prior to 1918 and Mount Lebanon together with the regions which were added by France for the period after 1918.

2. Quotations from C.F. Andrews and Pavlovitch are taken from Hans Kohn, A History of Nationalism in the East, London 1929.

Last updated on 2.6.2011