The Making of the Modern Arab World is a new Radio 4 series about the causes and recent history of the current political situation in the Middle East. It’s presented by Tarek Osman, an Egyptian author, along with several interviews with historians or the descendents of notable figures – his focus is on Egypt and Syria in particular. The first episode looks at the development and decline of Arab liberalism. Osman started by talking about the parallels between the 2011 uprising in Egypt and the 1919 Egyptian uprising against the British colonial government, and about how during the early 20th Century there was a period that could be seen as a golden age of liberalism in the Arab world. He then began to trace the rise of this liberal ideology, and the flowering of the Nahda – the Arabic renaissance.
Osman traced this story back to the invasion of Egypt by Napoleon in 1798. This shook Arabic culture out of a sense of complacency about its place in the world. In this pre-European-colonial-empires time there weren’t the same tensions between “the West” and “the Middle East” that there are now. Scholars and intellectuals from Egypt and other parts of the Arab world visited European countries and investigated European philosophy & science, with an eye to taking what ideas they could and integrating them into their own Arab way of life & their Islamic religion. This lead to a period called the Nahda, often translated as the Arab renaissance. This wasn’t seen as Europeanising, but more as modernising and regaining the place in the world that they used to have (back when Europe was in the “Dark Ages” and the Islamic world was the centre of intellectual development).
However the drive to modernise came at a cost. The economies of the Egypt and other Arab countries weren’t set up to generate enough money to buy the new modern industrial infrastructure that they were putting in. So they got in debt to the European nations, in particular Britain and France. When economies collapsed, or there were popular uprisings against the governments, the British or French would step in and directly rule the country concerned. But the Nahda continued, and there was a growing elite with more liberal values than the traditional conservative society of these countries. This elite was encouraged by the colonial authorities via diplomacy during and after the First World War to consider themselves a potential stepping stone to self-rule for their countries.
As always comes up in the modern history of the Middle East the First World War is where Britain and France really sow the seeds of the current political conflicts both internally to the countries concerned and between the Arab world and Europe. To get the various past and current constituent countries of the Ottoman Empire on the side of Britain and France in the war they were all promised self-rule and lands of their own. And in addition the Jews were promised territory in Palestine. Several of these promises were contradictory, but that isn’t even the worst bit about the situation – after the war most of the promises weren’t kept at all. Britain and France divided up the former Ottoman Empire between themselves, and the Arab states didn’t get self-rule.
The sense of betrayal in Egypt, Syria and other Arab countries was profound. Osman discussed the uprisings in Egypt (in 1919) and Syria against the colonial governments. Some initial amount of success – limited self-rule in Egypt after 1919, and a backing off of the French authorities in Syria (after the initial brutal crackdown) – lead the liberal elite to believe they had begun to achieve their goals. But the lack of results with Britain and France still holding onto the powers they wanted damaged the creditability of this elite with the rest of the population. Osman finished the programme by talking briefly about the movements that grew out this disillusionment with the liberal Westernised elite. One of these is the Arab nationalist movement, in particular the Ba’ath party in Syria, and the other is Islamism, in particular the Muslim Brotherhood which was founded in Egypt. These movements are the subject of the next couple of episodes.