The 7th Chapter of “History of West Asia and North Africa in the Twentieth Century” Lecture Series | The Revolutionary Decade: 1949-1958

On the afternoon of May 18th, 2021, Prof. Eugene Rogan, Member of the Academic Committee of Institute for International and Area Studies, Tsinghua University (IIAS-THU), and Professor of Middle East History at the University of Oxford, gave an online lecture on the theme of “The Revolutionary Decade: 1949-1958” to the audience, including students from IIAS and other leading academic institutions home and abroad. This lecture is the seventh chapter in a series of lectures on “History of West Asia and North Africa in the Twentieth Century” and was hosted by Wang Tingyi, Assistant Professor at IIAS.

At the beginning of the lecture, Prof. Rogan pointed out that the Arab defeat in Palestine war of 1948, initiated a revolutionary moment that was to transform states and societies across the Middle East and North Africa. After the war, extremists in various countries turned to violent assassinations, as a way of holding politicians accountable for their failures in Palestine.. In July 1951, Lebanese Prime Minister Riyadh Solh and King Abdullah I of Jordan were assassinated, which aggravated the tension across the region.

Prof. Rogan went on to explore Egypt after the Palestinian War. The Muslim Brotherhood (hereinafter referred to as the “Brotherhood”) was the main opposition force at that time. Since its establishment in 1928, the Brotherhood has been a powerful political and social movement in Egypt and recruited volunteers to participate in the Palestinian war. The organization believes that the defeat of the Palestinian war was not only a political and military loss, but also a betrayal of Islam, and attributed the defeat to the incompetence of the Egyptian government. In the post-war era, the conflict between the Muslim Brotherhood and the Egyptian government escalated. Between the end of 1948 and the beginning of 1949, then Egyptian President al Nuqrashi and Hassan Banner, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, were assassinated one after another. The two assassinations, raised political tensions in Egypt to unprecedented levels.
In 1952, the “Free Officers” led by Mohammed Naguib and Gamal Abdel Nasser started a coup and overthrew the rule of King Farouk. After the relatively young free officers came to power, they implemented a series of social reforms, the most important of which was the land reform, limiting the maximum land holding of private land ownership. Prof. Rogan believes that these actions enabled the “Free Officer” regime to gain a solid public base and satisfy the interests of the broad masses of the people by weakening the strength of the old elite. The coming to power of the “Free Officer” marked the end of Egypt’s “liberal age”, because the new regime pursued a one-party system and believed that the multi-party system would lead to social division and only the one-party system could unite the Egyptian people and achieve the goal of independence and prosperity.

In 1953, the Egyptian government embarked on negotiations with Britain, demanding that Britain withdraw its troops completely from Egypt. The negotiation, which lasted for 16 months, ended in compromise from both sides. In July 1956, British troops officially withdrew from Egypt, marking the end of 74-year British colonial rule over Egypt.

In 1954, Nasser became the President of Egypt. During the Cold War, both the Capitalist camp headed by the United States and the Communalist bloc headed by the Soviet Union intended to win over Egypt. After serious consideration on the situation, Nasser did not join the Western camp. In April 1955, when attending the Bandung Non-Aligned Conference, Nasser reached an arms agreement with the Soviet Union through the mediation of Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai. The agreement enabled the Egyptian army to achieve modernization and improved Egypt’s military strength. However, this deal made Egypt farther away from the West and eventually triggered the Suez Canal War in 1956 (the Second Middle East War). Although Egypt did not win the war, Nasser’s government gained great prestige at home and in the region. At the same time, Nasser put forward pan-Arabism, that is, the unity of Arab countries, which received strong response and support in the Arab world.

Finally, Professor Rogan argued that the decade after the first Palestinian-Israeli war was a revolutionary decade in the Arab world. Leaders of all countries were striving for complete national independence and modernization in the context of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. Meanwhile, many remarkable political thoughts emerged during this period.

After the lecture, Prof. Rogan had heated discussions with the audience and gave thought-provoking and insightful answers to a number of questions raised by the audience, including whether Egypt is marginalized in Middle East politics compared with Nasser’s era, why different countries in the Middle East have different views on Muslim Brotherhood, the role of “anti-Ottoman factors” in Nasser’s political narratives and how to evaluate the revolutionary tradition in the Middle East.

Professor Eugene Rogan
BA Columbia, MA PhD Harvard, MA Oxford
Professor of Modern Middle Eastern History
Director, St Antony’s College Middle East Centre

Eugene Rogan is Director of the Middle East Centre at St Antony’s College, University of Oxford. He has a B.A. in economics from Columbia, and an M.A. and PhD in Middle Eastern history from Harvard. He taught at Boston College and Sarah Lawrence College before taking up his post in Oxford in 1991, where he teaches the modern history of the Middle East to both undergraduates and graduates as well as providing DPhil supervision. He was elected a Fellow of the British Academy in 2017.

He is author of The Arabs: A History (Penguin, 2009, 3rd edition 2018), which has been translated in 18 languages and was named one of the best books of 2009 by The Economist, The Financial Times, and The Atlantic Monthly. His earlier works include Frontiers of the State in the Late Ottoman Empire (Cambridge University Press, 1999), for which he received the Albert Hourani Book Award of the Middle East Studies Association of North America and the Fuad Köprülü Prize of the Turkish Studies Association; The War for Palestine: Rewriting the History of 1948 (Cambridge University Press, 2001, second edition 2007, with Avi Shlaim), which has been published in Arabic, French, Turkish and Italian editions; and Outside In: On the Margins of the Modern Middle East (I.B. Tauris, 2002).

His new book, The Fall of the Ottomans: The Great War in the Middle East, 1914-1920, was published in February 2015.

Text by: Wang Zijing
Typesetting by: Wang Zijing
Reviewed by: Wang Tingyi & Zhang Yuan