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International Socialism, Summer 1964


Arab world

From International Socialism (1st series), No.17, Summer 1964, p.31.
Thanks to Ted Crawford & the late Will Fancy.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.

Britain’s Moment in the Middle East, 1914-1956
Elizabeth Monroe
Chatto & Windus, 1963, 25s.

This story of the period during which British imperialism held power in the Middle East is very well told. According to the author, the following patterns recur in it: ‘the need to adapt great power policies to interests lying far outside the area; the continuity of British policy by successive governments, however liberal or anti-imperialist their complexion ; the dichotomy between London and the government of India; the better British accord with Turk and Arab than with Egyptian; the confirmed optimism that caused British statesmen to underrate the unpopularity to which they exposed rulers whom they supported and advised; finally, after a lull, the resumption of Russian pressure ...’ (p.20). All these trends, as well as the crucial events of modern Middle Eastern history, are brilliantly analysed.

Miss Monroe is very critical of British attitudes and policies. On pp.117-9, for instance, she castigates British policy-makers for having visualised Middle Eastern nationalism as of three brands, based chiefly on the scale of British interest in three different areas: first, the nationalism of independent peoples – the Turks and Persians; here they reconciled themselves to making concessions. In Egypt, on the other hand, they saw nationalism as subversive and stamped quickly upon it. Finally, in the Arab areas resistance to Britian was seen only as a temporary demonstration made by people who were friends at heart. However, her own description of Egyptian nationalism looks very much as if it stems from the same attitude: ‘Zaghlul’s ultra-nationalist party,’ ‘Sinn Fein methods,’ ‘wrecking property,’ ‘even pulling British soldiers out of trains and murdering them,’ ‘preservation of the Sudan from the contagion of Egyptian nationalist agitators.’ (pp.55, 75) She has nothing of the sort to say about the 1920 rebellion in Mesopotamia, for instance, which she euphemistically calls ‘fighting.’

Moreover, one wonders whether she herself does not share the basic misconception (criticised by her in theory) of explaining the emergence of militant nationalism and the decline of British power by mistakes of policy, instead of seeing them as results of much deeper causes. On p.120 she says: ‘An example of British complacency ... is British ascription of the rebellion in Syria in the same year (1926) entirely to French shortcomings, instead of seeing that it was part of an Arab nationalist movement that would sooner or later turn against British also.’

Nevertheless, Miss Monroe ascribes the Egyptian rebellion of 1919 to Wingate’s failure to set his warning of unrest across (p.57), and the 1920 revolt in Mesopotamia to ‘blindness’. (p.61) The culmination of this series of explanations is to be found in the last two chapters of the book. The final decline of British power and influence, as well as the collapse of Nuri Pasha’s regime in Iraq, is explained by two mistakes in. British policy: the Baghdad Pact and the Suez adventure. Perhaps it had to be explained this way because the preceding chapter, dealing with the years 1945-54, ended with the illusive conclusion: ‘At the end of 1954 – the year of agreement with both Egypt and Persia – prospects that the Middle East would continue to look for friends were reasonable; some people thought them bright.’ But its caption, The Years of Impotence and the analysis of Britain’s economic, political and military position in the world after the Second World War, part of which is included in that chanter, is a much better explanation – in addition to developments all over Asia and Africa during the last decade.

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