A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Thursday, May 16, 2013

There Were Giants in the Earth in Those Days: The Middle East 50 Years Ago

For no particular reason other than my training as a historian and my always looking for good blog topics, I was thinking about the Middle East 50 years ago, 1963. The world was in the midst of the Cold War, John Kennedy President of the US (until November) and Nikita Khrushchev running the USSR (with only a year to go). But in the Middle East there were still some real giants in the scene: some of the founders if the modern states and/or the prophets of a new era. They weren't all good men, and certainly they weren't all good leaders. Most were kings or dictators, and even the rare elected leaders leaned towards autocratic preferences.

Not all the leaders are memorable. Yemen was in the early days of its civil war. King Saud in Saudi Arabia was an embarrassment, soon to be deposed (the next year) by Prime Minister Prince Faisal. The Gulf was still under British rule, except for Kuwait. Iraq and Syria both had Baathist coups that year and new leaders had not yet emerged. Fouad Chehab in Lebanon is mostly remembered for steering the country out of the 1958 civil war, an early foreshadowing of what was to come in 1975-1990. Turkish Prime Minister İsmet İnönü was a man of an earlier era, a nationalist hero brought back after a 1960 coup. Sudan's Ibrahim Abboud is largely forgotten. King Idris I in Libya was no power player.

But the big names seem, somehow, bigger in retrospect than their counterparts today, whether for good or ill: Nasser, Ben Gurion, the Shah, Bourguiba, and two relative newcomers in the Maghreb in 1963, Hassan II and Ben Bella.

Though he was President of Egypt only half as long as Husni Mubarak, Gamal Abdel Nasser's career is iconic: though he created the national security state that protected Mubarak and was no democrat, his message of Arab nationalism and his symbolic defiance of Britain, France, and Israel at Suez made him a hero for the Arab world and a villain to many in the West. His "Arab socialism," despite dubious results, made him popular at home. His leadership was at its height between the wars of 1956 and 1967; Egypt's crushing defeat in the latter war dimmed Nasser's reputation, and he died just over three years later in September 1970, only 52 years old.

I've run this clip of Nasser making fun of the Muslim Brotherhood before (it has subtitles in English, but the delivery is what matters, and you probably can get a good sense of Nasser's way with the crowd even if you don't know Arabic):

Declaring Independence 1948
Nasser's frequent adversary, Israel's David Ben-Gurion, is another figure whose reputation still vastly overshadows the country's more recent leaders. Founding father and first Prime Minister, Ben-Gurion read the declaration of Israel's independence 65 years ago and was still politically active almost until his final illness in 1973. He served as Prime Minister from 1948-1954 and 1955-1964 (Moshe Sharett's Prime Ministership is remembered mostly by history buffs).
Ben-Gurion feuded with his successor, Levi Eshkol, split with his old party Mapai (ancestor of Labor), started a new party, Rafi, and eventually split with that as well. After retiring to his Negev kibbutz, Ben-Gurion remained active in politics, meeting with political figures before and during the 1967 war as if he were still in charge. He lived to see the 1973 war as well. Though in his last years he had withdrawn from political office he remained a powerful force to be reckoned with.

Many Egyptians still venerate Nasser; Ben-Gurion has the country's major airport, a university in his beloved Negev, and streets in most cities named for him. In contrast, another dominant figure in the region 50 years ago, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, Shahanshah and Aryamehr (Light of the Aryans), lies buried in a mosque in Egypt, after dying in a troubled exile; he is excoriated in Iran. The second and last of the Pahlavi dynasty was installed by the allies in place of his father in 1941, restored to power after the coup against Mossadegh, and ruled until 1979, when, a few years after celebrating 2500 years of monarchy in Iran, he was driven from the Peacock Throne. But in the 1960s the Shah was reaching the height of his power; revolution and exile seemed remote possibilities.

In North Africa, Habib Bourguiba in Tunisia was already 60 years old in 1963, founding father of his country. A hero of the national independence effort against the French, and famously a vigorous secularist and Westernizer. He was widely respected and influential regionally at the time. Bourguiba would increasingly prove intolerant of opposition, jailing rivals and even disowning his own son and political heir; he had himself named President-for-Life, and clung to power stubbornly long after his faculties were badly impaired; finally deposed by Zine El Abidine Ben Ali on grounds of senility in 1987, he lived on until 2000, dying at the age of 98 (officially: some think he was older than admitted and may have been 100 or 101). His reputation would be healthier had he not hung on to power so long; but while his successor Ben Ali is disgraced and in (admittedly comfortable) exile, the most elegant boulevard in Tunis remains Avenue Bourguiba.

The other two leaders in the Maghreb were still new to power. King Hassan II of Morocco became King in February 1961 after the sudden death of his father during supposedly routine surgery at the age of only 51. He was still something of an unknown quantity in 1963, but his reign was to last until 1999, surviving plots and assassinations, crushing real or suspected rivals, and dominating the Kingdom. His son now sits on his throne.

The third Maghreb leader would serve for only two years, but he was a powerful symbol: after its bloody 12-year struggle against France, Algeria had finally won its independence in 1962, and Ahmed Ben Bella became its President in 1963. One of nine historic leaders of the FLN, based in Cairo during the war of independence, France notoriously intercepted his plane in 1956 and held him prisoner until 1962. He defined himself as an Arab Nationalist and an ally of Nasser's, but in 1965 he would be overthrown by his military chief, Houari Boumedienne.

Ben Bella in old age
Ben Bella spent decades in exile, eventually returning to Algeria. He survived to the venerable age of 95, dying just over a year ago in April 2012,  and was given a state funeral by an Algeria whose population were mostly born after his overthrow and who did not remember him: but an Algeria still ruled by his old comrade-in-arms and first Foreign Minister, Abdelaziz Bouteflika.

Powerful figures. Their heirs and successors today, I would venture to say with confidence, remain in their shadows, though many of them ruled with an iron hand.

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