The Arabs, A History

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The Arabs, A history
  • Award-winning historian Eugene Rogan draws extensively on five centuries of Arab sources to place the Arab experience in its crucial historical context. The Arabs, A History covers the Arab world from North Africa through the Arabian Peninsula, exploring every facet of modern Arab history. Starting with the Ottoman conquests of the 16th  century, the author follows the story of the Arabs through the era of European imperialism and the superpower rivalries of the Cold War to the present age of American hegemony, charting the evolution of Arab identity and the struggles for national sovereignty throughout. Drawing on the writings and eyewitness accounts of those who lived through the tumultuous years of Arab history, The Arabs balances different voices – politicians, intellectuals, students, men and women, poets and novelists, famous, infamous and the completely unknown – to give a rich, complex sense of life over nearly five centuries.
  • What makes this book remarkable is its geographical sweep, covering the Arab world from North Africa through the Arabian Peninsula, and for the depth in which it explores every side of modern Arab history. Charting the evolution of Arab identity from Ottomanism to Arabism to Islamism, it covers themes including the conflict between national independence and foreign domination, the Arab-Israeli struggle and the peace process, Jamal Abdul-Nasser and the rise of Arab Nationalism, the political and economic power of oil and the conflict between secular and Islamic values.
  • The first four chapters cover the period of Ottoman rule beginning with the 1516 seizure of Syria and Egypt and later extending to Iraq, across North Africa to Algeria and along the Red Sea coast to the Hijaz and Yemen. Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt, allegedly to “liberate” its inhabitants from Ottoman rule and oppression, created recognition of the need for modernization to match superior European military and technological power. Muhammad Ali, the Albanian mercenary who seized power in Cairo in 1805, put Egypt on the path to reform by seeking European advice and technology to modernize his army and develop the industries to support it. His example spurred the Ottoman sultan to also institute military, educational and administrative reforms on European models. By the mid-1870s, reckless spending of borrowed money on expensive European arms and technology, palaces and municipal improvements led to the bankruptcy of the Ottoman, Egyptian and Tunisian governments and to European supervision of their customs and finances. In Rogan’s words, “The single greatest threat to the independence of the Middle East was not the armies of Europe but its banks” (p. 105).
  • The next chapter deals with the first wave of colonial rule in North Africa — the French invasion of Algeria and later Tunisia; the establishment of a protectorate over Morocco in 1912; and the Italian seizure of Libya in 1911 as well as the British occupation of Egypt in 1882. European laws and administrative practices began to replace Ottoman ones. This period — also that of the nah’da — produced the first stirs, particularly in Egypt and Greater Syria, of Arab nationalism as well as a need for social reforms including gender equality. Chapter 6 covers World War I, the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, and the post-war settlement that brought the remaining Ottoman Arab territories under French and British mandates. The creation of separate Arab states that many Arabs considered artificial generated a strong sense of injustice.
  • Chapters 7 and 8 discusses French and British imperial rule in the Arab world between the two world wars and popular resistance to it. Chapter 9 deals with Britain’s Palestine mandate, noting the futile British efforts to reconcile its conflicting promises to the Arab population and Jewish settlers. In 1948-49, when the Israelis defeated their Arab adversaries and established their state, the Arab world was stunned by the magnitude of a disaster that exposed the political and military weakness of the collective Arab states. There followed a wave of coups in Egypt, Syria and later Iraq, Yemen and Libya that toppled old-order political leaders and brought to power military regimes that looked to the Soviet Union for arms and political support against Israel and its Western allies. The next two chapters describes the rise and fall of Arab-nationalist efforts to dissolve the frontiers established by the mandatory powers and create a unified Arab commonwealth.
  • In Chapter 12, Rogan discusses the effects of the formation of OPEC, the 1973 Egyptian surprise attack across the Suez Canal, and the Arab oil boycott of the United States for its “blatant” support for Israel. However, Sadat’s subsequent decision to conclude peace with Israel and his turn to the United States was a major shift away from Soviet influence. The 1970s also saw the outbreak of the 15-year Lebanese civil war, in which sectarian rivalries played an important part; the 1979 Iranian revolution; and an Islamist challenge to the Saudi regime from a dissident group that seized and held the Holy Mosque in Mecca for several weeks. Rogan sees this last event as the first sign of a new generation of Arabs that no longer believed in the rhetoric of Arab nationalism and rejected both the communism of the USSR and the policies of the United States. Chapter 13, “The Power of Islam,” continues this consideration of the rise of Islamic movements and their involvement in armed struggle against secular rulers or foreign invaders. Rogan pays particular attention to the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and Sayyid Qutb’s denunciations of both Western imperialism and authoritarian Arab regimes.
  • In his final chapter, “After the Cold War,” Rogan notes that the collapse of the Soviet Union was welcomed by those Arab leaders who had placed their trust in the United States but dismayed others. Syria’s Hafedh Al-Asad and Iraq’s Saddam Hussain, for instance, could no longer rely on the Soviets for political or military assistance to achieve military parity with Israel or prop up their regimes. Iraq’s August 1990 invasion of Kuwait brought U.S. and Russian joint condemnation in the UN Security Council and a U.S.-organized international coalition that ousted Iraqi forces from Kuwait. The Kuwaiti crisis left the Arab world once again badly divided. Many Arabs felt that the U.S. intervention was a more serious danger than Iraq’s seizure of Kuwait, and that it was motivated primarily to establish a major U.S. military presence in the Gulf or to deflect attention from the unresolved Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
  • In his conclusion, the author discusses the U.S. pressures on the region after 9/11, the war on terror in Afghanistan, the decision to invade Iraq, and the growing problems for U.S. regional policies caused by Islamist organizations like Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon. Israel’s bloody conflicts with both organizations in 2006 convinced most Arabs that the United States will back Israel whatever it does and that the war on terror is in fact a U.S.-Israeli partnership to impose their full control over the Mideast. Rogan ends on a cautiously positive note. The tone of respect for the Arab world in President Obama’s June 2009 Cairo University speech gave Arab audiences hope for a future in which the United States would not try to impose its rules on the Arab world but seek common solutions to the region’s problems. At the same time, the author acknowledges that a commitment to reform from within the Arab world itself is essential.
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