In this lesson, we explore the concepts of nationalism and national self-determination and how they affected the decolonization of the Middle East and Africa in the second half of the 20th century.
Decolonization and Nationalism
When the Olympics comes around every four years, one of the hallmark events is always the Opening Ceremony. With much fanfare, the host nation welcomes in athletes from all around the world. The athletes’ processional through the stadium is always one of the event’s most colorful segments, with each country’s athletes proudly wearing their national colors and carrying their nation’s flag.Well, as recently as 50 years ago, this was a far less colorful event.
Indeed, until the rise of nationalism in colonies throughout the world in the second half of the 20th century, Western European countries owned huge swaths of territory in Africa, Asia, and elsewhere, which today are entirely different countries.
Western European countries amassed these colonies in the far reaches of the world over the previous four or five centuries, founding them for resource extraction, trading posts, or merely territory for the glory of their respective monarch or country. With certain exceptions, like the United States and Haiti, the vast majority of colonial holdings did not get their independence until after World War II (WWII). Several factors contributed to this growth in independence movements across the colonized world, and many of these motivations and subsequent experiences are country-specific.Regardless, a few international developments aided these movements.
After WWII, recognizing national self-determination became an objective for some countries and international organizations, like the United States and the United Nations. Proponents of national self-determination largely believed the inhabitants of a region should be able to decide what government is best for themselves.In addition, domestic nationalism in all these countries spurred the growth of independence movements. The global community was often sympathetic to nationalism within the colonized territory and anti-colonial international sentiment, coupled with a nation or people’s demands for independence, often forced the hand of the colonial nations in this period, and helped make decolonization all the more likely.
Israel ; Egypt
One region of the world which was not only colonized by a Western European power but entirely transformed by it was Palestine. Palestine was only under British control since World War I (WWI). The Holocaust had created worldwide sympathy for the Jewish people and the Zionist cause. In 1947 the newly formed United Nations (UN) passed a resolution calling for the creation of two states, Arab Palestine and Jewish Israel, out of the British mandate. The resolution divided Palestine into two states and left Jerusalem under UN control.
While the Jewish population in Palestine and abroad rejoiced, the existing Arab population of Palestine was outraged.Violence between Jewish settlers and Arabs in Palestine escalated in the territory and both sides armed themselves. The Arab League nations of Egypt, Transjordan, Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon declared war on the new Israeli state. The Israelis themselves mobilized quickly and combined their many paramilitary groups into the Israeli Defense Forces. Despite initial setbacks from the pan-Arab invasion, Israeli forces slowly took back territory, eventually occupying even territory the UN intended to be part of Palestine.When the armistice between Israel and the Arab states was signed in early 1949, Palestine was only left the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, and even these were held by Jordanian and Egyptian troops, respectively.
Since then, Israeli relations with its Arab neighbors and the Palestinian population within Israel has alternated between contentious peace and all-out war. For example, in the late 1960s, Israel launched a preemptive strike against Egypt and Syria and quickly took control of the Golan Heights, all of Jerusalem, and most of the West Bank, virtually eliminating the Palestinian state from territorial existence.One of Israel’s chief enemies was also a country once colonized by the British: Egypt. Egypt had been a British colony since Great Britain had forced the French out of Egypt in the 1800s. Great Britain maintained control in Egypt for several decades before officially declaring Egypt a protectorate of the British Empire just after the beginning of WWI in 1914. The British used Egypt as a cheap source of labor and resources during the war, conscripting over a million Egyptians into the British forces, often to do menial hard labor.
The treatment of Egyptians during the war angered many and some, led by the Wafd Party and its founder Saad Zaghlul, began calling for independence. The British were not willing to give up their colony, however, and Zaghlul and other Wafdists were routinely arrested and at one point even exiled to Malta. While Zaghlul was in exile, the Wafdists that remained began organizing student protests, general strikes, and massive displays of civil disobedience agitating for Egyptian independence.
In 1922, with Zaghlul recently returned from exile and British officials realizing only massive military intervention would quell the uprising, Great Britain granted Egypt its independence. The newly independent Egypt created a constitution in 1923, and in the 1924 elections the Wafd Party received an overwhelming majority of the seats in the new Egyptian Parliament.
Algeria and Africa
Africa was unique among continents after WWII in that virtually the entire continent was under colonial rule.
Indeed, over the past few hundred years France, Portugal, Great Britain, Germany, Belgium, and Italy had divvied up its territory and resources between themselves. As a result, the African experience of decolonization varies wildly. For example, many British colonies were granted their independence with little bloodshed in the late 1950s and early 1960s. In contrast, Portuguese colonies that became the states of Angola and Mozambique were required to fight long, hard wars of independence.The decolonization of Africa – be it through war or peaceful means – took place mainly between 1956 and 1975, with its most intense period occurring in the early 1960s.
In these years, most British and French colonies in Africa were peacefully granted their independence. One major exception to this rule was Algeria. Though Algeria did gain its independence from France in 1962, it fought a bloody eight-year conflict to gain that independence.
The French public valued its colonies for the prestige they brought France. The French worried that if the country were to lose its African holdings, especially Algeria, it would lose its influence internationally. For example, four years into the conflict a national poll showed a majority of the French people favored fighting to hold onto Algeria – even to the point of integrating Algeria into the French state – rather than allowing the colony to separate.
Ironically, it was mainly Algerians living in France that financed the war. The National Liberation Front (FLN) taxed Algerians living in France and focused their guerrilla attacks on softer French targets. The war in Algeria led to a political crisis in France in 1958, and Parliament responded by asking Charles de Gaulle, the former French commander and President of the post-WWII provisional government, to retake the presidency. De Gaulle consented, became president, and renewed the conflict.After several offensives failed to eliminate the FLN and take full control of Algeria, the French people grew increasingly weary of the war and some even started sympathizing with the rebel cause.
In 1961, President Charles de Gaulle resolved to hold a referendum in Algeria to settle the issue once and for all. Over 99% of the votes cast voted for independence, and de Gaulle began making preparations to remove French troops from Algeria. In July 1962 Algerian independence was internationally recognized.
The experience of decolonization in Africa and the Middle East was varied.
Some countries, such as Algeria and Mozambique, had to fight protracted conflicts against their colonial overlords, often because the European country valued the resources the colony provided or due to fear that losing its colonies would affect the country’s international influence. Other countries, like Egypt and several of Britain’s other African colonies, achieved independence through civil disobedience, avoiding bloodshed.Still other regions had entirely unique experiences altogether, like Palestine, which was partitioned to create an entirely new state and eventually supplanted altogether by that new state’s military. Indeed, the national self-determination the international community pushed which encouraged decolonization also led to varied, country-specific paths toward decolonization and independence.
After this lesson is done, you should be able to:
- Recognize the decolonization of the Middle East and African after WWII took time and in some cases was violent
- Identify the nations in the region fighting for independence
- Describe separation of Israel and Palestine and France from Algeria
- Recall Egypt’s bloodless battle with Great Britain for freedom