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International Dimensions of Decolonization in the Middle East and North Africa: A Primary Source Collection

By Cyrus Schayegh

Table of Contents

International Dimensions of Decolonization in the Middle East and North Africa

This text has two goals: to make a few observations about how the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) may inform how we think about decolonization, and to introduce the Wilson Center Digital Archive collection, "International Dimensions of Decolonization in the Middle East and North Africa."

Many historians agree decolonization had a focal time and space: the 1940s-1960s in Asia and Africa. The very term decolonization, though coined slightly earlier, became popular in this context; it was then that European empires finally foundered; and the sheer number both of countries and of people that became independent was unprecedented, as was the thickness of Afro-Asian relationships. I hope this primary source collection adds to how we see and teach these decades. After all, scholars of decolonization continue to work on Asia and Africa more than on MENA.

At the same time, I hope this collection helps complicate notions of a focal time and space, building on the view that the modern age experienced decolonization before the 1940s-1960s. Thus, Dane Kennedy’s Decolonization: A Short Introduction (2016) talks of a first “wave” in the Americas in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century and of a second wave in western Asia and eastern Europe following World War I, with roots in the nineteenth century in the Ottoman case.[i] On a related note, landmark texts like Martin Thomas, Bob Moore, and L. J. Butler’s Crises of Empire: Decolonization and Europe’s Imperial States (2008) see deep “roots” of postwar decolonization in the interwar years.[ii]

Sure, some MENA countries became fully independent during World War II and in the following decade. This timing roughly corresponded to decolonization in Asia, though it slightly predated the peak of decolonization in Africa. But what happened in those parts of MENA from the late 1910s constituted more than simply roots of post-World War II decolonization.[iii] Moreover, there are three prominent cases of still unfulfilled decolonization in MENA: the Palestinians, Sahrawis, and Kurds, who at best have low levels of political autonomy. In short, in this collection the number of documents from the 1940s-1960s reflect the importance of those decades. At the same time, documents also on earlier and later decades point to other and/or longer timeframes of decolonization— a view that makes sense doubly if we take seriously the notion of decolonization as a process.[iv]

Regarding MENA, consider the following factors. Before 1918, some Arabs lived in a basically sovereign state, the Ottoman Empire—unlike most Asians and Africans. Following World War I, many Arabs demanded full or quasi independence rather than full and equal integration into empire, as most Africans and many Asians did at the least until the late 1920s and in many cases until the 1950s. To this end, Arabs fought almost ten bloody revolts in the interwar period. Multiple Arab countries indeed (Egypt in 1923/1937; Iraq in 1930) or almost (Lebanon and Syria in 1936) got far-reaching though certainly not complete sovereignty. Three large countries in MENA, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Iran, were independent (though, as noted further below, in a somewhat impaired way); and all three, even the two non-Arab ones, were involved in Arab politics. In interwar Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt, Transjordan, Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq, some national government institutions included, however variedly, Arabs officials; Egypt, Syria, and Lebanon even knew (however limited) national elections.[v] Moreover, as noted and to fast-forward to today, multiple people in MENA are still demanding a state of their own but have not (yet) succeeded.

If MENA helps complicate decolonization, the reverse holds, too. Decolonization complicates how we conceive modern MENA history. Before I outline why, let me take a step back and state a fact recognized by any scholar of modern MENA. The spatial reference “Middle East and North Africa” is a compound of two elements (ME and NA) as well as relational (middle of what? east of where? north of what?). As a result, it is recognizably constructed. That is, it is political and as such has a history, including earlier terms like the Near East that included parts of Ottoman-ruled Europe. If this primary source collection nonetheless uses the term MENA, it is for the sake of convenience. Most Anglophone academics and almost all non-academics use the term. So do people in MENA; thus, “the Middle East” is al-sharq al-awsat in Arabic, khawar-e mianeh in Persian, orta doğu in Turkish, and ha-mizrah ha-tikhon in Hebrew.

Let us now turn to our question: how does decolonization help complicate modern MENA? One answer is that MENA was not decolonized at once. The most assertive version of this statement contains four overlapping chapters and two complicating sets of cases.

In a first chapter, a part of MENA was entwined with Europe. Before World War I, actors in many European provinces of the Ottoman Empire—then seen as part of the Near East—used the support of self-interested European powers to gain far-reaching autonomy and in some cases suzerainty. Following World War I, the League of Nations member states granted those polities international recognition as sovereign states; in parallel, the Turkish National Movement rolled back the 1918/1919 Allied and Greek occupation of parts of Anatolia, gaining international recognition as a sovereign state, too. This post-World War I chapter of decolonization (and its prewar beginnings) happened in the same political context as the international recognition of states in eastern and central Europe. Moreover, it featured similar international legal instruments, most important League of Nations minority protection treatises. The post-war sovereignty of European ex-Ottoman polities—i.e. the afore-noted second wave of decolonization—did not just settle the Ottoman Empire’s fate, then. It also concluded a decades-long process in which (what we now call) MENA and (southeastern) Europe came apart.

A second chapter involves the Asian ex-provinces of the Ottoman Empire following World War I. There, many Arabs resented the fact that the League of Nations and its members, including European empire-states like Britain and France, granted independence only to post-Ottoman Europeans. Thus, in 1919 the Syrian General Congress asserted that “Considering the fact that the Arabs inhabiting the Syrian area are not naturally less gifted than other more advanced races and that they are by no means less developed than the Bulgarians, Serbians, Greeks, and Roumanians at the beginning of their independence, we protest against Article 22 of the Covenant of the League of Nations, placing us among the nations in their middle stage of development which stand in need of a mandatory power.”[vi] The struggle for independence persisted throughout the interwar years. It succeeded in 1930 in Iraq, in admittedly “light” form, though Iraq did become a League of Nation member in 1932. And it succeeded fully in 1943/1946 in Lebanon and Syria, in 1946 in Jordan, and in 1948 in Israel, a special case because of the Zionist movement’s longstanding dependence on Britain. On a related note Egypt, which by law was an Ottoman province until 1914, was given more autonomy in 1923, negotiated an independence “light” in 1937 and became a League member the selfsame year, and in 1954 negotiated the withdrawal of the British troops that had remained in the Suez Canal Zone. If we think of these events together, we see a stretch of time that begins in what often is seen as one decolonization wave—the weakening and then break-up of the Ottoman Empire, the end point of which happens in parallel to related developments in eastern Europe following World War I—and ends with the start of another decolonization wave, that of Asian colonies after World War II.

A third chapter turns around French North Africa. Here, decolonization happened as France was reconfiguring its late empire especially in West sub-Saharan Africa in the 1950s. This showed even in Algeria, which did not become independent in the 1950s. Here, the French government and many citizens argued until 1960 if not until Algeria’s independence in 1962 that this country bridges France and Africa. The African connection was manifest also in the especially tight postcolonial relationship that both the Northern African countries of Morocco and Tunisia and a good number of West African states have entertained with France.

A fourth chapter concerns Britain’s decision, in 1968, to evacuate most bases “east of Suez” by 1971. This affected Britain’s remaining possessions in the Gulf, many of whose rulers at first were wary about Britain’s withdrawal. More important to us, those MENA countries were decolonized as part of a broader British geostrategic repositioning, which included withdrawing from military bases that London had kept in the Southeast Asian states of Malaysia and Singapore and in the Indian Ocean state of The Maldives following their independence in 1963, 1965, and 1965, respectively.

This brings me to the two complicating sets of cases. One concerns three states: Turkey, Iran, and Saudi Arabia. In the interwar years, their sovereignty was in some way impaired. Turkey accepted a League of Nations minority protection treaty. Saudi Arabia, officially born in 1932, was subsidized by Britain until 1924 and entertained a special relationship with that European empire through World War II. And in the Iranian province of Khuzistan the Anglo-Persian/Iranian Oil Company was a state within the state. Even so, these three states basically were sovereign. (One might add Afghanistan.) That is, while interwar MENA like Africa had far more colonized than sovereign polities, the share of sovereign polities was higher. Moreover, those three polities mattered: large and powerful, they all interacted with and affected actors in colonized polities in the Middle East.[vii]

The other complicating set of cases concerns the Sahrawis, Palestinians, and Kurds. Sure, the three cases differ greatly. But together, they make MENA the region in the world with the internationally most visible cases of people who are still calling and fighting for an independent state, in however changing and varied ways. Moreover, they share a crucial trait. Each one originated in one of the afore-noted decolonization chapters. In 1920 the Ottoman-Allied Treaty of Sèvres, which was signed by Sultan Mehmed VI but not ratified by the Ottoman parliament, foresaw a Franco-British-influenced Kurdish state. The Palestinians were the great losers of the second chapter of decolonization in MENA. And the Sahrawi independence story in a sense starts in the third chapter, i.e. decolonization in French North Africa. Some Sahrawis fought on Morocco’s side in a brief confrontation with Spain in northern areas of the Spanish-ruled West Sahara following Morocco’s independence in 1956. That confrontation and the following Franco-Spanish military punishment, Operation Ouragan, formed the first chapter on the long way to Spain’s withdrawal, in 1975, from the West Sahara, which was divided between Morocco and (until 1979) Mauritania.

Let us circle back to the question of how decolonization helps complicate the history of modern MENA. Another answer concerns international dimensions.[viii] As indicated by the title of this collection, these are its primary sources’ common distinguishing trait. This focus is inspired and informed by a bourgeoning body of scholarship. Some historians are showing that some states self-consciously functioned as linchpins between multiple regions, for instance Arab-African Egypt and Algeria.[ix] Certain cities—Dar es Salaam, Cairo, and Paris, among others—became hubsfor activists from various countries.[x] There were international networks like the Afro-Asian People’s Solidarity Organization, founded in Cairo in 1957.[xi] And there were not only south-south networks[xii] but also east-south ones[xiii] and west-south ones.[xiv]

Choosing my documents, I have sought a rough balance between stories that tie MENA actors to Africa, Asia, Europe, and the Americas. I also have mixed different textual genres. And while there are a good number of documents whose content may be called plainly political, socio-economic and cultural aspects often feature, too.

Here, an aside is in order. While putting together this collection, it became increasingly clear that “the political” permeated everything and was present everywhere. Indeed, decolonization arguably charged and changed what is and counts as “the political.” This is a vague and may be trite statement―but perhaps still interesting to look into.

Let me flag two problems with this collection that I see. (There must be more.) First, the collection’s documents do not feature enough non-elite actors and women, rarely talk of religion, and do not broach environmental issues―limitations that collection users should realize. And second, the original documents in this collection are in Middle Eastern and European languages, not also African and Asian languages. To be more precise: sources by MENA actors are all in MENA and European languages, and sources showing how people from outside MENA looked at and interacted with the region are in European languages.

Together, these linguistic and thematic strengths and weaknesses have a two-fold consequence. This collection is a kaleidoscope, refracting and reflecting many actors, themes, spaces, and periods. But this does not mean that it is all-encompassing and, to again state the obvious, it neither is neutrally balanced. It cannot be. Even ifI would have included (more) non-elite, environmental, and religious sources and sources by and on women and in African and Asian languages, I would have balanced them differently than anybody else. Ifan overall story emerges at all from this collection, it really isa story, not the story.

Here are three examples. First, I decided to include more documents on the Palestinians than on the Sahrawis and Kurds, for I think the Palestinian cause overall has had a greater presence both in the region and beyond than the Sahrawi and Kurdish ones. However―my second example―I did include all these three cases. I did so although some people would see the Sahrawi and Kurdish struggles not at all as decolonization but simply as a struggle against regional states, especially Morocco and Turkey. (Interestingly, fewer people would see the Palestinian struggle this way, perhaps because many see the Jewish State as not really being of MENA, though in MENA.) To be sure, there are differences between the Palestinian, Sahrawi, and Kurdish struggles and people gaining independence from an empires. But as noted earlier, those struggles each began as unresolved cases of a decolonization chapter. Moreover, many Sahrawis, Kurds, and Palestinians who desire independence see their struggle as part of a longer arch of decolonization and of anti-imperial struggle. The latter brings me to my third example. This collection comprises documents by actors who in the 1960s-1970s invoked anti-imperial(ist) struggles, and features a document on the Israeli establishment’s fear about linkages between the Israeli and US Black Panthers. I have included these documents so we see how decolonization politics, relationships, and terminologies continued from the 1960s, blending into an anti-imperialism that often turned around the United States.

Such issues are contextualized in the blurbs I have written for each document; each blurb also contains a few key secondary source references. Although this collection includes a few English and some already translated texts, I have translated most documents. I gratefully acknowledge Professors Lara Harb and Nader Uthman’s help with a handful of Arabic words. As I am a historian rather than a linguist or professional translator, the translations will not dazzle the reader―but, I hope, nonetheless be of use.


[i] See e.g. Dane Kennedy, Decolonization: A Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016), ch. 1.

[ii] Martin Thomas, Bob Moore, and L. J. Butler, Crises of Empire: Decolonization and Europe’s Imperial States (London: Bloomsbury, 2008), 127.

[iii] I first outlined this argument in “The Mandates and/as Decolonization,” in Routledge Handbook of the History of the Middle East Mandates, ed. Cyrus Schayegh and Andrew Arsan (London: Routledge, 2015), 412-419.

[iv] See e.g. Jan Jansen and Jürgen Osterhammel’s Decolonization. A Short History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017), ch. 1.

[v] This paragraph draws on Yoav Di-Capua and Cyrus Schayegh “Why Decolonization?,” International Journal of Middle East Studies [IJMES] 52:1 (2020): 137-145.

[vi] Document translated in J.C. Hurewitz, The Middle East and North Africa in World Politics: A Documentary Record, vol. 2: British-French Supremacy, 1914-1945 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979), 180.

[vii] See e.g. Amit Bein, Kemalist Turkey and the Middle East: International Relations in the Interwar Period (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017).

[viii] A perfectly complete title would have invoked “international and transnational dimensions.” I chose “international” for simplicity’s sake and because many documents are political and―more to the point―involve (proto/quasi)-governmental actors.

[ix] James Brennan, “Radio Cairo and the Decolonization of East Africa, 1953-64,” in Making a World after Empire, ed. Christopher Lee (Athens: Ohio State University Press, 2010), 173-195; Jeffrey Byrne, Mecca of Revolution: Algeria, Decolonization, and the Third World Order (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016).

[x]George Roberts, “Politics, Decolonisation, and the Cold War in Dar es Salaam c.1965-72,” (PhD diss. University of Warwick, 2016); Michael Goebel, Anti-Imperial Metropolis: Interwar Paris and the Seeds of Third World Nationalism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015); Zoe LeBlanc, “Circulating Anti-colonial Cairo: Decolonizing Information and Constructing the Third World in Egypt, 1952-1966,” (PhD diss., Vanderbilt University, 2019).

[xii] Christopher Lee, ed., Making a World after Empire (Athens: Ohio State University Press, 2010); Brenda Gayle Plummer, In Search of Power: African Americans in the Era of Decolonization, 1956–1974 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013); Nataša Mišković, Harald Fischer-Tiné, and Nada Boškovska, eds., The Non-Aligned Movement and the Cold War: Delhi-Bandung-Belgrade (London: Taylor & Francis, 2017); John Munro, The Anticolonial Front: The African American Freedom Struggle and Global Decolonization, 1945-1960 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017); Jürgen Dinkel, The Non-Aligned Movement. Genesis, Organization and Politics (1927-1992) (Brill: Leiden/Boston, 2019); Ronald Stephens and Adam Ewing, eds., Global Garveyism (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2019).

[xiii] David Engerman, “The Second World’s Third World,” Kritika 12:1 (2011): 183-211; Eric Burton, ed., “Socialisms in Development,” special issue of Austrian Journal of Development Studies XXXIII:3 (2017); James Mark, Artemy M. Kalinovsky, and Steffi Marung, eds.,Alternative Globalizations: Eastern Europe and the Postcolonial World (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2020); Sandrine Kott and Cyrus Schayegh, “Introduction: Eastern European-Middle Eastern Relations: Continuities and Changes from the Time of Empires to the Cold War.” Contemporary European History 30:4 (2021): 463-477.

[xiv] Matthew Connelly, A Diplomatic Revolution (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), esp. 119-41; Fritz Keller, Gelebter Internationalismus. Österreichs Linke und der algerische Widerstand, 1958-1963 (Wien: Promedia Verlag, 2010); David Stenner, Globalizing Morocco: Transnational Activism and the Postcolonial State (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2019); Quinn Slobodian, Foreign Front: Third World Politics in Sixties West Germany (Durham: Duke University Press, 2012).