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International Dimensions of Decolonization in the Middle East and North Africa

International Dimensions of Decolonization in the Middle East and North Africa

The twentieth-century Middle East and North Africa (MENA) was a central arena of decolonization, and decolonization was, and remains, a key dimension of MENA history. This collection provides scholars, teachers, and students a primary-source-driven glimpse of this fascinating story. It covers the entire twentieth century, for different parts of MENA were involved in different waves of decolonization. It focuses on international dimensions, roughly balancing Africa-, Asia-, Europe-, and America-related stories to highlight MENA’s linkage with the world. And using a mix of textual genres such as books, speeches, private notes, radio program transcripts, and government memoranda, it addresses not only politics but also socio-economics and culture.

Although the collection includes a few English language and some already translated texts, the collection editor, Cyrus Schayegh, has translated most of documents. The editor gratefully acknowledge Professors Lara Harb and Nader Uthman’s help with a handful of Arabic words.

The introduction to this collection offers a few preliminary thoughts about MENA decolonization through the lens of this collection, and includes a more extensive note on the nature and limitations of this collection.

International Dimensions of Decolonization in the Middle East and North Africa

Popular Documents

July 26, 1956

Speech by President Nasser, Alexandria, July 26 [1956] (Extract)

Eighty-seven years after the Suez Canal’s completion in 1869 and less than two months after the last British troops had left it in June 1956, Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser (1918-1970) on July 26, 1956, nationalized the Suez Canal Company.

Nasser announced the step in the text printed here: a speech that would become a classic in the annals of twentieth-century decolonization worldwide. The English translation used here is included in a documentary publication printed in 1956 by the US State Department in Washington, DC, titled The Suez Canal Problem; it is an excerpt of the whole speech.

Nasser pronounced the speech in the Egyptian Mediterranean city of Alexandria in front of a crowd of tens of thousands, during which he also uttered the code word signaling his security forces to occupy the company’s assets and offices in Egypt. Nasser’s step took the world by surprise. The French government, the Suez Canal Company’s Paris headquarters and its many French shareholders, and the British government that was the company’s largest shareholder and that on July 23, following Washington’s lead, had retracted a 1955 offer to back a World Bank loan to Egypt: all they were outraged. (France and Britain would fail to reverse nationalization in court; the outcome, in Britain, of the ensuing Franco-British-Israeli attack is the focus of another document dated 1956 in this collection). Diametrically opposed was the dominant reaction among Egyptians, other Arabs, and people in newly independent and still colonialized countries. They were ecstatic. The reason was not so much that Nasser nationalized the canal in order to find a new way to finance a dam at Aswan, on the Nile, although that project was a linchpin of Egypt’s modernization, a history analyzed in Guy Laron’s Origins of the Suez Crisis (2013). The reason was more existential. Nasser’s act turned himself, Egypt, and by proxy the entire non-white world from a passive object of history into an active subject. “Die of your fury,” Nasser told the Americans, and by extension Europe’s descending imperial powers. And by calling the shots—“Today, citizens, the Suez Canal Company has been nationalized. This order has been published in the Official Journal. It has become a matter of fact”—he symbolically subjugated Britain and France, humiliating those once so powerful empires as only a non-white ex-colonial subject could. Even a cut as historic as India’s independence, in 1947, had not hurt Britain this much. Technically speaking Britain had co-initiated that final act of the British Raj, and it was a loss of a limb, however crucial. Nasser, by contrast, had stabbed the empire in its very heart—a story classically narrated in Keith Kyle’s Suez (1991).

February 2, 1958

The Speech of President Gamal Abdel Nasser to the Afro-Asian Youth Conference, Monday, 2 February [Fibrair Shbat] 1958 / 24 Rajab 1378

This is an English translation of a speech originally given in Arabic in 1958 by Gamal Abdel Nasser (1918-1970) and then reprinted in a book published in Cairo.

An officer by training and profession and a participant in the 1952 coup that ended Egypt’s country’s monarchy, Nasser in 1954 became president of Egypt and as such the president of the United Arab Republic (UAR), which was formed with Syria in 1958 and which continued to exist for a decade after Syria left the union in 1961. Having met India’s president Jawahrlal Nehru already in 1954, Nasser began playing an important political role also beyond the Middle East in the 1955 Bandung Conference in Indonesia. His star rose precipitously in 1956, when he nationalized the Suez Canal and when France and Britain had to withdraw their forces from the canal after occupying its northern part in November 1956. Given Egypt’s position in the Middle East and internationally, the US administration was concerned this aggression would play into the hands of its Cold War rival, the Sovet Union. The US forced its NATO allies (and their Israeli colluders) to withdraw—a defeat that Egyptians celebrated as their own anti-imperialist success and that deepened Nasser’s popularity among many Arabs and other decolonizing and postcolonial people.

It was against that background that the Egyptian government further upped its international profile. This now occurred also vis-à-vis Asia and not “only” vis-à-vis Africa, which had been an important arena for the republican regime’s foreign policy from before Bandung. Thus, in 1957 Nasser’s government organized the Afro-Asian People’s Solidarity Conference that, analyzed in Reem Abou-el-Fadl’s “Building Egypt’s Afro-Asian Hub” (2019), led to Cairo housing the secretariat of the Afro-Asian Peoples’ Solidarity Organisation. And in early 1958, it held the Afro-Asian Youth Conference. By this time and in the 1960s, Cairo became a key transnational hub for decolonization movements especially from Africa, as Eric Burton has shown in "Hubs of Decolonization. African Liberation Movements and Eastern Connections in Cairo, Accra and Dar es Salaam" (2019).

The text printed here is Nasser's address to the Afro-Asian Youth Conference, which happened to take place a mere day after the Syrian-Egyptian UAR was formally announced.

February 1, 1979

Imam Khomeini, 'Declaration Upon Arrival at Tehran'

February 1, 1979, is a key date in the history of modern Iran in general and of the Iranian revolution in particular. On that day, two weeks after Muhammad Reza Shah Pahlavi (1919-1980) left Iran, Sayyid Ruhollah Musavi Khomeini (1900-1989) returned after 14 years in exile—part of a life told in Vanessa Martin’s Creating an Islamic State: Khomeini and the Making of a New Iran (2014).

On that day, the Shi‘i Ayatollah whom many called Imam assumed Iran’s leadership, as shown in the below speech he gave upon deplaning in Tehran. But that day was not a cut; it was not simply the end of the shah and of the revolution and the start of Khomeini’s rule. Rather, it was a day suspended in mid-air. It was a day where the just-past overthrow of the shah touched the uncertain future of the revolution: a liminality and vulnerability that shines through Khomeini’s speech.

It is for that reason that I have chosen this text, not simply because Khomeini here as in virtually all his pronouncements stressed the need to rid Iran of foreign agents led by the United States. Yes: the revolution had an ultimately clear end, the Islamic Republic, which became official following a referendum in December 1979. And yes: Khomeini was an influential maker of this hybrid theocratic-republican governmental system that came out of the revolution. First emerging in 1963 in the clerical city of Qom as an outspoken critic of the shah surrounding a raft of social reforms, he doubled down on his critique over the US-Iranian status of force agreement of late 1964. As a result, the shah had him expelled to Turkey, from where he in 1965 was able to move to a transnational Shi’i clerical center: the Iraqi city of Najaf. There, he by the early 1970s expanded his critique of the shah’s person to a critique of the very institution of the Iranian monarchy, and began to talk of a clerically led government.

This was a far-reaching change in Shi‘i religious thought, as Hamid Dabashi showed in Theology of Discontent: The Ideological Foundations of the Islamic Republic of Iran (1993). However, those ideas took their final form not before but during and in interaction with the revolution, when Khomeini resided in Najaf until October 1978, then in Neauphle-le-Château, near Paris, and from February 1979 in Tehran. Moreover, Dabashi’s work showed how other intellectuals shaped the revolution, too. And Khomeini adapted certain Third-World leftist populist ideas and terms—a process analyzed in Ervand Abrahamian’s Khomeinism, which exemplified secular scholars’ emphasis on how non-clerical ideas and groups like the Mujahedin-e Khalq or Fada’iyin-e Khalq helped bring about and shape the revolution.

Finally, recent works that open a new generational-historiographic chapter, like Arang Keshavarzian and Ali Mirsepassi’s edited volume Global 1979: Geographies and Histories of the Iranian Revolution (2021) and Naghmeh Sohrabi’s “The ‘problem space’ of the historiography of the 1979 Iranian Revolution” (2018), are moving beyond a scholarly focus on revolutionary causes and outcomes and on distinctive actors and their failure and success. Instead, they probe the fundamental imprevisibility and contingency of an unfolding revolution; they stress overlaps and contacts between actors and ideas; and they tease out transnational relationships and global contexts without creating a clear a priori distinction between the domestic and the global, perhaps especially regarding the question of the place and role of Iran’s 1970s in the longer arch of decolonization.

June 13, 1938

Jawaharlal Nehru, 'A Letter from the Mediterranean'

In June 1938 Jawaharlal Nehru (1889-1964), a Indian National Congress (INC) leader, one of the earliest INC members calling for full independence in 1927, and the main responsible for INC’s foreign relations, took a ship to Europe. This trip was not a first for India’s inaugural prime minister (1947-1964) to be. Already in 1905 he had left India to enroll at the elite British boarding school of Harrow, going on to study at Cambridge and work as a lawyer in London before returning home in 1912. And the last time he had sailed was in 1935, staying until 1936 as the INC representative in meetings with fellow Asian and increasingly also African anti-imperialists in Britain and Europe. Sure, by then the League against Imperialism (LAI), whose Comintern-organized foundational conference Nehru had attended in 1927, was defunct. (For the LAI see the 1927 document on Messali Hadj in this collection.) Even so, Nehru continued to see his secularist Indian nation-statist goals within an international leftist-anti-imperialist and now anti-fascist framework and web, as Michele Louro’s Comrades against Imperialism: Nehru, India, and Interwar Internationalism (2020) argues.

Hence, when on the ship en route to Europe in 1938 he received an invitation from Egypt’s leading nationalist wafd party and agreed to meet their leaders. Having been in contact with Egyptian nationalists before, a story told in Noor Khan’s Egyptian-Indian Nationalist Collaboration and the British Empire (2011), and having detailed their anti-imperialism in Glimpses of World History (1934), he saw the wafd as INC’s appropriately leading anti-imperialist counterpart in Egypt. Sure, in confidential INC memoranda, he criticized the wafd’sinsufficient attention to the masses, especially the peasants, which cost them an election in early 1938, he thought; indeed, the wafdistswere liberal nationalists whereas Nehru was a leftist nationalist. Nonetheless, sitting down with the wafd and exchanging views about world politics and anti-imperialist strategies was called for, in his and the wafd’s view,at a time when fascism was rising and Britain continued to rule India and be very present in Egypt. Reproduced in the massive compilation Selected Works of Jawaharlal Nehru, this text is a letter by Nehru, the first to the INC while he was on the ship en route to London.

June 6, 1919

Letter, Saad Zaghloul to His Excellency President Woodrow Wilson

In January 1918, US President Woodrow Wilson in a speech to Congress outlined Fourteen Points to undergird the postwar peace and international politics. Vis-à-vis European empires’ interests and against Soviet anti-colonialism, he asserted a panorama of (actually self-interested) US ideals. Thus, point 5 called for “A free, open-minded, and absolutely impartial adjustment of all colonial claims, based upon a strict observance of the principle that in determining all such questions of sovereignty the interests of the populations concerned must have equal weight with the equitable government whose title is to be determined;” and point 14 insisted that “A general association of nations must be formed under specific covenants for the purpose of affording mutual guarantees of political independence and territorial integrity to great and small nations alike.”

Around the world, many anti-colonialists rejoiced. They insisted these points apply to their case, and hoped Wilson would agree. Neither of these two things came to pass, as Erez Manela has shown in The Wilsonian Moment: Self-determination and the International Origins of Anticolonial Nationalism (2007). In Paris during the 1919 Peace Conference, Wilson rebuffed the advances of many, including the Egyptian delegation, which wrote and self-published, in Paris in 1919, the booklet containing the two letters below. While conceding British supervision of Egypt’s debt and of the Suez Canal, leading Egyptian nationalists had just after the end of World War I demanded independence and the right to address the upcoming Paris Peace conference. Britain rejected these demands and offers. An uprising ensued, which Britain tried to suppress, in March 1919 exiling leading nationalists, including Sa’d Zaghlul (1959-1927), to Malta. As this only worsened the uprising, the Britain’s new High Commissioner in Cairo, Edmund Allenby (1861-1936) released the nationalists—who made haste to Paris.