Dec 11, 2013
Francis Robinson on ‘The Arabs’
Posted on Apr 15, 2010
This review originally appeared in The TLS, whose website is www.the-tls.co.uk, and is reposted with permission.
“It is not pleasant being Arab these days”, declared Samir Kassir, a Lebanese intellectual and supporter of Rafiq Hariri, after the Prime Minister was assassinated in Beirut on February 14, 2005. Just over three months later, as if to make the point, Kassir was blown up in his Alfa Romeo. Eugene Rogan tells this story early on in his excellent book, setting its tone in two ways: it is about the Arabs in recent centuries when they had lost control of their history; it is also a story told not, for the most part, out of the archives of Western governments but by Arab voices; Rogan believes that Westerners might view Arab history differently if they saw it through Arab eyes. So Rogan’s history begins not, as some notable histories of the past, for instance, those of Philip Hitti, Bernard Lewis and Albert Hourani, with the birth of the Prophet Muhammad and the five centuries of glory that followed—the time when, in Hitti’s words, “around the name of the Arabs gleams that halo which belongs to world-conquerors”—but with the Ottoman conquest of Mamluk Egypt, and subsequently the rest of the Arab world, from 1517.
Ottoman rule did not change much, and therefore did not bring home the full meaning of the loss of power. The Ottomans ruled, as most empires do, in collaboration with local elites, and it is arguable that the process changed the empire more than it did Arab lives. The ambitions of some notables could come to clash with those of the empire, as did those of the Saudis of central Arabia, and their religiously puritan Wahhabi allies, who in 1802 drove northwards into Iraq, sacking the Shia shrine city of Karbala, and then in 1806 did yet further damage to Ottoman legitimacy by annexing the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. Arab life under Ottoman rule in the pre-industrial era was not that harsh.
All this changed as the West began to engage with the Arab world in the nineteenth century. North Africa bore the brunt initially. The starting point was Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt in 1798 when for three years the French spoke the language of Enlightenment ideals to a bemused local population, until they were chased away by the British. But the beginning of a truly bitter engagement began when in 1830 the French invaded Algeria, seeking satisfaction after its Dey had hit their consul with a fly whisk. The war of conquest lasted seventeen years, left more than 100,000 Algerian civilians dead, and was accompanied by a major programme of French colonization.
Growing awareness of European power led to programmes of self-strengthening. The most impressive was that led by Muhammad Ali and his descendants in Egypt. Ali, an Ottoman officer, rose to power in the disturbed conditions following Napoleon’s departure from Egypt. He began a process of technological and industrial innovation, and most importantly developed a peasant army after the French model, which was able both to suppress the Wahhabis in Arabia and win victories over Ottoman armies as far north as Anatolia. His successors tried to develop the economy further by making concessions to Western business, of which the Suez Canal, built by a French company, was the greatest. The problem was that the costs of selfstrengthening made these Arab regimes bankrupt, placing them in the hands of European bankers. The last thirty years before the First World War saw the European powers partitioning the Arab lands of North Africa among themselves, the French adding Tunisia (1881) and Morocco (1912) to Algeria, the Italians taking Libya (1912), and the British Egypt (1882), where the Suez Canal had become a vital imperial lifeline.
Events, during and immediately after the First World War, suggested that Arab fortunes might be about to change. British and Arab forces united to drive out the Ottomans. In 1918, the British and French announced their support for the creation of national governments in Arab lands through a process of “self-determination”. This was in the context, moreover, of President Wilson’s Fourteen Points, of which the twelfth assured the Arabs of “an absolutely unmolested opportunity of autonomous development”. There were high hopes of a brave new Arab world. Then the French and the British, following their secret wartime Sykes-Picot agreement, decided that their imperial interests were more important than Arab freedom. In 1920, French colonial troops, many of them North African Arabs, drove the Arab nationalists out of Damascus, and so after they had been dressed up with the decency of mandates Syria and the Lebanon were added to the French possessions in North Africa. In the same year, the British used 100,000 of their colonial troops to squash a national uprising in Iraq. This Arab land as a mandate, along with Transjordan and Palestine, was added to the British Empire. “The Arabs”, Rogan reminds us, “were never reconciled to this fundamental injustice.” It is a recurring theme in the speeches of Osama bin Laden.
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