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War and Revolution in the Middle East

Panel VIII-14, 2023 Annual Meeting

On Saturday, November 4 at 11:00 am

Panel Description
This panel features works-in-progress on the revolutionary situations created by world war in the Middle East. What were the causes of revolution and what were the revolutionary processes that led to counter-revolutionary results? Orientalist, and even nationalist-leaning, histories have blamed the leadership (Foreign Office, Khoury, Al-Sayyid-Marsot). Building on Goldstone's analysis of the 'generations' of scholarship on revolution, the panel reconceptualizes a variety of movements and leaderships across the region that only recently have been linked into a common wave. The panel recovers popular narratives, democratic, legalist, socialist, anarchist, emotive or affective, to give voice to movements silenced by counterrevolutionary forces. The first paper gathers primary and secondary sources to situate the 1919 revolution in the context of anti-British activism throughout the first quarter of the twentieth century. The ‘pre-revolution’ was undertaken by a more mobile group of activists, which followed events and imported tactics from international revolutionaries in Europe, North America, and Asia. The second is based on a reading of Zaghlul’s memoirs to demonstrate that his elitist orientation in the pre-war period was brought to a crisis during and immediately after the First World War, leading to his adopting tactics of mass action, including legalistic and extralegal ‘resources’, which had the effect of revealing destabilizing cleavages in the elite structure of society. The third paper draws on a classic history of the Paris peace conference as a counterrevolution in Europe, by Arno Mayer, and on recent efforts by social scientists to broaden the concept of revolution and deepen the study of counterrevolution. By applying these conceptual tools to the historical cases of Greater Syria and Egypt, the argument suggests that the region experienced World War I as a revolution. In both cases, popular democratic movements emerged after the war only to be crushed by counterrevolutionary policies of the Supreme Council of the Paris Peace conference. Finally, the fourth paper recovers activist voices from the Egyptian anti-colonial demonstrations that followed World War II. Exploring the affective politics of the “1951 Revolution,” the paper problematizes British accounts of Muslim fanatics and colonial hysterics. The study then considers how activist records along with a new generation of revolutionary theory can challenge popular affective geographies about “Middle Eastern emotions” and restore agency to activists participating in highly emotive mass movements.
  • The historiography has in most cases viewed the 1919 revolution as an ‘engagement of local elites with the British state’, ignoring the peasant, working class, and labor engagement in revolutionary processes (Marfleet). This bias in the historiography has been shaped by British colonial narratives of events that represented the Egyptians as less than a nation, lacking civil institutions, and that political society was restricted to a few elite persons. In exception to this bias, studies of labor organizations and peasant communities have argued that lower-class groups acted independently of the elites and were motivated by dislocations that attended the intensification of the colonial economy during the First World War. In short, 1919 had the appearance of a social revolution, driven from the bottom up, for which the elites were ill-prepared and subsequently sought to control to ensure continued elite domination of the political field. These are important observations; however, this treatment of first and third generation theories of revolution reinvestigates the importance of state structures and inter-elite conflict, avoiding interpretations that involve one type of agency, lower-class against elite, to the exclusion of the other. Beginning with the French Revolution, theorists insist on the importance of the ‘pre-revolution’ and the ‘stages’ of revolution. Third generation studies point to the importance of structural changes through the stages of revolution. The 1919 revolution, it is argued, was a revolution of the ‘stages’ type, and involved the combination of lower classes and elite groups, with diverse ideological resources. Using the memoirs of Saad Zaghloul as a source, the paper points to the conversion of Zaghlul from an elite oriented statesperson to a revolutionary, the involvement of pre-revolutionary groups, Watani cells, particularly the student associations, but also the revolutionary committees organized by the central committee in the second stage of the revolution.
  • The historiography of the 1919 Egyptian revolution tends to portray events as centered on the group of Egypt-based political figures who came to be known as the wafd. With this focus in mind, the revolution is normally taken to have begun with the arrest and exile of Sa‘d Zaghlul and three others in March 1919, or perhaps with his organizing work beginning the previous November of 1918. This paper is part of a new research effort piecing together a number of different primary and secondary sources in multiple languages to situate the 1919 revolution in the context of anti-British activism throughout the first quarter of the twentieth century. Earlier waves of anti-British organizing by Egyptians were undertaken by a more mobile group of activists, which followed events and imported tactics from international revolutionaries in Europe, North America, and Asia. In 1905, emboldened by Japanese military victory and socialist rebellion against the Russian Czar, a three-man fida’i committee including Ibrahim Nassif al-Wardani was formed within the Egyptian Nationalist party. This culminated in the assassination of Prime Minister Boutros Ghali by Wardani in 1910. A dialectical tension between the adoption of violence by the Nationalist Party and the development of more punitive and sophisticated policing techniques by the Anglo-Egyptian colonial state led to the development of a unique politics of exile during the following decade. Influential men like Mohammad Farid, ‘Abd al-‘Aziz Jawish, and Mansur Rifaat—along with their female counterparts such as Renée (Aziza) de Rochebrune and Bikhaji Cama—crisscrossed the globe organizing anti-British efforts that were vaguely connected to the anarchist international and the criminal underground. But their efforts to cooperate with the Germans during the First World War backfired, and they became increasingly marginalized after the German defeat. The wafd would adopt many tactics from the Nationalist Party as their struggle with the British dragged on after 1919, culminating in the assassination of Sir Lee Stack in 1924. But their political horizons would be severed from the anti-colonialist international that included an earlier generation of Egyptian activists.
  • While historians have long blamed the failures of the Paris Peace Conference for the explosion of violent political movements in 20th century Europe, they have neglected to explore a similar linkage in the Middle East. Textbooks on the so-called European “crisis of empire” after World War I, for example, implicitly replicate the colonialist view that the cause of the region’s violence in the past century lies in its (so-called, uncivilized or less modern) culture. Prevailing historiography also limits analysis of the violent after-effect of WWI to armed revolts in Iraq, Syria, Palestine and elsewhere, neglecting the peace settlement’s impact on everyday politics. Indeed, older regional histories that completely ignore the impact of the World War I and its settlement on postwar politics-- in favor of emphasis on continuities in political norms and leadership-- continue to shape historical understanding of the period. Perspectives in these outdated specialized histories have consequently been replicated in general texts like Erez Manela's popular 2007 book, The Wilsonian Moment and Susan Pedersen’s 2015 study of the League of Nations, The Guardians. This paper draws on Arabic-language primary sources and recent a new wave of Middle Eastern scholarship on World War I to recast the significance of the postwar moment. In terms of historiography, I argue that the moment represents a historical break with the Ottoman era, involving a revolution followed by counterrevolution. Conceptually, I draw both on a classic history of the Paris Peace Conference as a counterrevolution in Europe by Arno Mayer and on recent debates by sociologists and political scientists who have conceptualized revolution and counterrevolution. I apply these conceptual tools to the historical cases of Greater Syria and Egypt, where World War I provoked revolutionary upheaval against wartime dictatorship of the Ottoman Turks and the British. Popular democratic movements emerged after the armistice, expressed in the 1919 revolution in Egypt and in the 1920 establishment of an independent state in Syria. Both movements were violently crushed by the Paris Peace Conference because their claims that Arabs were able to rule themselves democratically threatened colonial rule elsewhere. The paper concludes by reinterpreting interwar politics as a response to this counterrevolution, with a focus on the rise of popular Islamic movements.
  • In the years following World War II, Egyptian anti-colonial activists wrote tracts and joined demonstrations protesting the continued British occupation of the Suez Canal Zone. In 1951, these organizing efforts culminated in a mass movement: a diverse array of clubs, including the Muslim Brotherhood, Muhammad’s Youth, Daughters of the Nile, Young Egypt, and the Workers’ Vanguard rallied together to demand British evacuation. As students formed “Liberation Battalions,” converted campuses into training fields, and boarded busses to fight in the Canal Zone, Egyptian newspapers and magazines celebrated the arrival of the “1951 Revolution.” Dramatically, however, this revolution came to a crashing halt with the Cairo Fire of 26 January 1952. “Black Saturday” gave the government casus belli to launch a counter-revolutionary crackdown in the name of public safety—and six months later, the Free Officers launched a successful military coup that toppled the monarchy. Paving over memories of the failed 1951 Revolution, the new regime quickly constructed its own myth of the glorious “1952 Revolution”; this revolutionary myth would cast a long shadow over subsequent histories of modern Egypt. Historians began to reassess these narratives in the 1980s and 1990s. Scholars like Selma Botman, Brynjar Lia, and Joel Gordon reconstructed the rise of the Egyptian communist movement, tracked the organizing strategies of the Muslim Brotherhood, and studied the Nasser regime’s revolutionary mythmaking. However, the Canal Struggle and “1951 Revolution” have remained relatively unstudied as a revolutionary moment in Egyptian history. In an important corrective, this paper explores the failed 1951 Revolution from the perspective of recovered protest tracts, club circulars, Egyptian newspapers, popular poetry, and activist accounts of events on the ground. Focusing on the question of emotional politics and engaging with a new generation of theory on emotions in revolutionary movements, the paper tracks Egyptian efforts to mobilize emotions against the British. As internal Egyptian debates about “emotional liberation” show, activists engaged in many forms of emotional labor (forging a community of sentiment with members of the 1919 generation, appealing to international audiences, and disciplining the emotions of the movement to undercut British charges of fanaticism). Studying these processes proves informative for a variety of contexts, shedding light on broader questions of how activists exercise agency while participating in highly emotive movements, how powerbrokers inscribe emotions in power relations and imagined “emotional geographies,” and how these understanding have guided understandings of “Middle Eastern emotions.”