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International Dimensions of Decolonization in the Middle East and North Africa

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March 26, 1965

Palestine Delegation in Peking

Formed in 1964, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) was not the first Palestinian organization after the nakba (catastrophe), the escape from violence and the Israeli expulsion of a good half of Palestinians in 1948. The two most important earlier organizations were Harakat al-Qawmiyyin al-‘Arab (Arab Nationalists Movement [ANM]) and Harakat al-Tahrir al-Watani al-Filastini (Palestinian National Liberation Movement [Fatah]).

Founded in 1951 in Beirut, ANM became committed to Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser (1918-1970) and his version of pan-Arab nationalism, which it saw as the means to liberate Palestine, opening a separate Palestinian branch in 1959. (In 1967, it would give rise to the leftist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), which split in 1968, one wing forming the Popular Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PDFLP)).

Rejecting Arab states’ tutelage, Fatah was officially born in 1959, though organizational activities began in 1956 and though it built on military cells operating from Egyptian-ruled Gaza from the early 1950s. After Arab armies’ crushing loss against Israel in the Six-Day War of 1967 killed any remaining hopes, weakened since the early 1960s, that Arab armies would liberate Palestine, Fatah grew in strength. In 1969, it took command of the PLO. The latter had been founded in 1964 for several reasons. Nasser hoped to weaken Fatah and Syria, a state then in competition with him. Also, the PLO served (upper) middle class Palestinians some of whom—like Ahmad al-Shuqayri (1908-1908), Palestine’s representative to the Arab League and the PLO’s founder and first chairman—had played a Palestinian political role until 1948 and wished to do so again. And these men and women believed Palestinians needed their own statist entity, as Yezid Sayigh’s monumental Armed Struggle and the Search for State: The Palestinian National Movement, 1949-1993 (1997) notes.

In 1965, PLO delegates led by Shuqayri for the first time visited the People’s Republic of China (PRC), as reported in the English issue of the multi-language international organ Peking Review. Already in 1964 a small Fatah delegation led by Yassir Arafat (1929-2004) had accepted an invitation to visit Beijing, founding an office there. Sure, upon its establishment in 1949 the PRC had de jure recognized Israel, following the lead of the Soviet Union that acted as its older brother in the communist camp. (Israel in turn was the first Middle Eastern state to recognize the PRC, in 1950.) But after the PRC and the USSR split in 1960, Beijing amplified its anti-imperialist rhetoric and policies versus the Soviet Union and the United States, as Gregg Brazinksy’s Winning the Third World: Sino-American Rivalry during the Cold War (2017) has shown. It was in this context that it from the mid-1960s delivered arms especially to Fatah and the PLO—it soon also would train fighters—and that it politically embraced the Palestinian cause. The PRC framed this policy as that of one “revolutionary people” helping another one, a story strand in Paul Chamberlin’s The Global Offensive: The United States, the Palestine Liberation Organization, and the Making of the Post-Cold War Order (2012). By the early 1970s, however, Chinese support became more lukewarm. Moreover, after the death of Chairman Mao Zedong (1893-1976), relations with Israel cautiously warmed, though remaining surreptitious until the establishment of full diplomatic ties in 1992.

July 2, 1957

Remarks of Senator John F. Kennedy in the Senate, Washington, D.C., July 2, 1957

On July 2, 1957, US senator John F. Kennedy made his perhaps best-known senatorial speech—on Algeria.

Home to about 8 million Muslims, 1.2 million European settlers, and 130,000 Jews, it was from October 1954 embroiled in what France dubbed “events”—domestic events, to be precise. Virtually all settlers and most metropolitan French saw Algeria as an indivisible part of France. Algeria had been integrated into metropolitan administrative structures in 1847, towards the end of a structurally if not intentionally genocidal pacification campaign; Algeria’s population dropped by half between 1830, when France invaded, and the early 1870s. Eighty years and many political turns later (see e.g. Messali Hadj’s 1927 speech in this collection), in 1954, the Front de Libération Nationale (FLN) launched a war for independence. Kennedy did not quite see eye to eye with the FLN.

As Kennedy's speech shows, he did not want France entirely out of North Africa. However, he had criticized French action already in early 1950s Indochina. And in 1957 he met with Abdelkader Chanderli (1915-1993), an unaccredited representative of the FLN at the United Nations in New York and in Washington, DC, and a linchpin of the FLN’s successful international offensive described in Matthew Connelly’s A Diplomatic Revolution: Algeria’s Fight for Independence and the Origins of the Post-Cold War Era (2002). Thus, Kennedy supported the FLN’s demand for independence, which explains its very positive reaction to his speech.

And thus, unlike the 1952-1960 Republican administration of Dwight Eisenhower (1890-1969) that officially backed the views of NATO ally France and kept delivering arms, the Democratic senator diagnosed a “war” by “Western imperialism” that, together with if different from “Soviet imperialism,” is “the great enemy of … the most powerful single force in the world today: ... man's eternal desire to be free and independent.” (In fact, Kennedy’s speech on the Algerian example of Western imperialism was the first of two, the second concerning the Polish example of Sovietimperialism. On another, domestic note, to support African Algeria’s independence was an attempt to woe civil-rights-movement-era African Americans without enraging white voters.) To be sure, Kennedy saw France as an ally, too. But France’s war was tainting Washington too much, which helped Moscow. In Kennedy’s eyes, to support the US Cold War against the Soviet Union meant granting Algeria independence. The official French line was the exact opposite: only continued French presence in Algeria could keep Moscow and its Egyptian puppet, President Gamal Abdel Nasser, from controlling the Mediterranean and encroaching on Africa.

May 18, 1925

J.V. Stalin, 'The Political Tasks of the University of the Peoples of the Far East: Speech Delivered at a Meeting of Students of the Communist University of the Toilers of the East, May 18, 1925'

After World War I, several communist movements tried to replicate the Bolsheviks’ take-over of Russia in European countries, most importantly and most often in Germany. All failed. As a result, the Soviet leadership and communists worldwide from around 1920 focused more energies on colonized countries, especially in Asia. As most of these seemed to lack the economic and sociopolitical conditions necessary for a communist revolution, the aim was to weaken if not overthrow European imperial rule, serving the interests of both the USSR and the local petit bourgeoisie, peasants, and few industrial workers. The perhaps greatest price was China. Moreover, India was seen to be (exceptionally) ripe for direct communist action.

Communists and some anti-colonial nationalists were also active in and across the Middle East, North Africa, and Europe, often sharing resources while being networked with the Communist International. Abbreviated as the Comintern (also the Third International), the latter was thekey international communist organization: founded in 1919 in Moscow, headquartered there, and employing through its dissolution in 1943 thousands of professional cadres from around the world, principally from Europe and Asia, as Brigitte Studer’s Reisende der Weltrevolution: Eine Globalgeschichte der Kommunistischen Internationale (2020) shows. Also in the Soviet Union, the year 1920 saw the landmark Congress of the Peoples of the East, in Baku. And in 1921, the Communist University for Laborers of the East (Kommunistichyeskii univyersityet trudyaschikhsya Vostoka, KUTV) opened its doors in Moscow. It became the first full-fledged Soviet training center for Soviet Muslims and for foreign communist cadres, principally from Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, and it impacted Soviet views of the East, as Lana Ravandi-Fadai and Masha Kirasirova have shown in “Red Mecca” (2015) and “The ‘East’ as a Category of Bolshevik Ideology and Comintern Administration” (2017), respectively. The text here is the English translation, published in 1954 in the collection J. V. Stalin: Works: Volume 7, of a Russian text published in 1925 in the principal Soviet newspaper, Pravda, rendering a speech that the 1924-1953 Chairman of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union Joseph Stalin (1878-1953) held to KUTV’s students in 1925.

November 13, 1974

United Nations General Assembly Official Records, 29th Session : 2282nd Plenary Meeting, Agenda Item 108, 'Question of Palestine (continued)'

As other documents in this collection on Moroccan nationalists in 1947 and 1950 have exemplified, the United Nations was an important arena in decolonization struggles for Arabs, as it was for Asians and Africans as e.g. Alanna O’Malley’s The Diplomacy of Decolonisation: America, Britain, and the United Nations during the Congo crisis, 1960-1964 (2018) has shown. In this regard, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), which was founded in 1964 and taken over by the Fatah movement in 1969, was no exception.

To be sure, Palestinian organizations including Fatah and the PLO decried key UN actions. One was the UN Palestine partition plan of 1947; another was UN Security Council resolution 242 of November 1967. Calling upon Israel to withdraw “from territories occupied” during the Six-Day War in June and calling for the “acknowledgment of the sovereignty, territorial integrity and political independence of every State in the area and their right to live in peace,” it did not mention Palestine or the Palestinians. Even so, the PLO sought to get access to the UN and UN recognition. A crucial landmark on this road was the address to the UN in New York in November 1974 by Yassir Arafat (1929-2004), a Fatah co-founder in 1959 and from 1969 PLO chairman.

Arafat did not speak at the Security Council, which was and is dominated by its five veto-carrying permanent members Britain, China, France, the United States, and the USSR/Russia. Rather, he addressed the UN General Assembly (UNGA), where from the 1960s Third World states were in the majority; his speech was the first time that the UNGA allowed a non-state representative to attend its plenary session. The UNGA invited the PLO after having decided, in September, to begin separate hearings on Palestine (rather than making Palestine part of general Middle Eastern hearings), and after the PLO was internationally recognized as the sole representative of the Palestinian people, a landmark accomplishment for the organization. The UNGA president who introduced Arafat, Abdelaziz Bouteflika (1937-2021), was the Foreign Minister of Algeria, which since its independence in 1962 had supported the Palestinian cause organizationally, militarily, and politically. Arafat spoke in Arabic; the below text is the official UN English translation. Arafat did not write the text all by himself; several PLO officials and Palestinians close to the PLO, including Edward Said, assisted, as Timothy Brennan has noted in Places of Mind: A Life of Edward Said (2021). Later in November 1974, the UNGA inter alia decided to give the PLO observer status and affirmed Palestinians’ right to self-determination.

December 3, 1956

Middle East (Situation): Debated in the Commons Chamber, Monday, 3 December 1956

In July 1956, Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser (1918-1970) nationalized the Suez Canal Company, surprising the world. The government of France, in whose capital of Paris the company was headquartered, and the British government, the company’s plurality shareholder, sought to reverse nationalization in court, but failed—even though they clad their case in the language not of imperial self-interest but, rather, of international public interest. The time in which such language was somewhat acceptable, even at home, was passing, and the Suez Crisis played a big part in this final act.

At the same time, the two governments early on after the canal nationalization decided to remove Nasser by force, for re-compensation was not their central concern. France believed Nasser was enabling the FLN, which in 1954 had started Algeria’s War for Independence, and Britain wanted some say in the canal, which had for decades been its worldwide empire’s “swing-door,” as a member of parliament, Anthony Eden (1897-1977), called it in 1929. In August 1956 France began discussing a joint operation with Israel, which wanted Nasser gone, too, and the Red Sea opened for Israel-bound ships. In early October the two were joined by Britain. On the 29th, Israel invaded the Egyptian Sinai Peninsula. On the 30th, France and Britain gave Israel and Egypt a 12-hour ultimatum to cease hostilities, or they would intervene—and Anglo-French forces bombed Egyptian forces from the 31st and on November 5-6 occupied the canal’s northern tip. Although a power play, “Operation Musketeer,” like the court case, could not be an open imperial move anymore, then, and did not present itself to the world as such. No matter: especially in colonies and postcolonial countries, people were outraged.

More problematically for France and Britain, Washington was incredulous. This Middle Eastern affair triggered the worst crisis of the 1950s between America’s rising international empire and Europe’s descending empires, and indeed clarified and accelerated that descent. President Dwight Eisenhower (1890-1969) fumed that Prime Ministers Anthony Eden and Guy Mollet (1905-1977) had disregarded his administration’s opposition to military action. Worse, they had deceived him about their intentions. And worst, their attack on Egypt undermined the supreme US tenet: Soviet containment. The Americans were by association tainted by their NATO allies’ imperialist move while the Soviets looked good—on November 5 they offered Egypt troops and threatened to nuke London, Paris, and Tel Aviv—and that although they had just repressed an uprising in Hungary.

On the very day of the ultimatum, October 30, Eisenhower washed his hands of that move on live US television, and the US mission at the UN organized a cease-fire resolution vote in the Security Council. France and Britain vetoed it. Although sharing its European allies’ emotions about Nasser, the US administration withheld critical oil and monetary supplies from them to bring them to heel and withdraw from Egypt—after which, it promised, they would be warmly welcomed back. It ceased most bilateral communications and froze almost all everyday social interactions with its two allies, even cancelling a scheduled visit by Eden. And it badgered its allies at the UN, supporting an Afro-Asian resolution that on November 24 called Israel, Britain, and France to withdraw forthwith. On December 3, the British Foreign Secretary Selwyn Lloyd took the floor in the House of Commons.