Rebels and Rogues

Egypt, Iraq, Transjordan, Palestine, and Israel in the Interwar Years

The construction of new states throughout the Middle East did not end rebellions and rogue actions but in fact created new strata in society willing to come out in opposition to their state institutions. Student groups, paramilitary units, and labor unions organized into associations to fight against the Europeans holding a grip on politics and the economy and against local politicians whose members had increasingly shown themselves incapable of changing government policies. They fought to gain positions within governments and political parties, hoping to bring their educational expertise into governance. Still others organized into religious groups like the Muslim Brotherhood to voice their opposition to the secularization of society.

Meanwhile, economic developments throughout this period exacerbated the existing power divisions as the notables who won places in the new governments largely improved their economic status while the vast majority of the population suffered under European competition and deprivations wrought by the Great Depression. The Palestinians and Zionists fought to make national claims to the Palestine Mandate, culminating in the 1948 Arab-Israeli War that brought Israel into existence and the Palestinians under Israeli, Egyptian, and Jordanian control and as refugees throughout the region.


Egyptian women had performed on the musical stage since of the turn of the 20th century, but a few made names for themselves throughout the Middle East during the interwar years. In the 1920s and 1930s, women singers and actresses were integral parts of a vibrant Egyptian entertainment scene. They formed a uniquely national style of Egyptian music by combining Egyptian lyrics and melodies with Western instruments. Political and societal elites flooded to their shows.

Munira al-Mahdiyya (1884–1965) was one of the first Egyptian women to record music at the turn of the 20th century. After World War I she opened her own theater hall where she staged Arabic versions of such operas as Carmen and Madame Butterfly. Badi‘a Masabni (1892–1974), a Lebanese expatriate, began her career as a dancer and actress and in 1926 opened a music hall that featured cabaret acts with singers and comedy performers. Until it closed after World War II, it served as a gathering place for patrons from across Egypt’s social spectrum and for European visitors.

The most famous singer at the time was undoubtedly Umm Kulthum (ca. 1904–1975), who first gained fame in Egypt and then attained regional and worldwide fame in the 1950s and 1960s. Her radio concerts on the first Thursday of every month were required appointments for hundreds of thousands of her followers. Her funeral in 1975 brought four million Egyptians out into the streets in mourning.

She began her life in a small village in the Nile Delta, the child of a mosque leader. When she was still young, her father took her around the area to sing religious songs for holidays and commemorations, often having her dress as a boy so she would not face the stigma of being a girl at the usually all-male events. By the 1920s, Umm Kulthum was in Cairo and slowly expanding her repertoire to include well-known poems put to music. Over time, she commissioned poets to write for her and worked with them and the composers so that the songs truly represented her style. In these years, she took advantage of the new technologies of recordings, radio, and film to spread her fame and gain followers who could not afford to see her live onstage. Her early training in Quranic recitation served her throughout her career because she was a brilliant vocalist and interpreter of lyrics.

Anglo-Egyptian Treaty of 1936

While the 1922 declaration had given Egypt only the weakest facade of independence, the Anglo-Egyptian Treaty of 1936 placed Egypt into a position similar to that of Iraq. Signed on August 26, 1936, the treaty admitted Egypt to the League of Nations on May 27, 1937. Per terms of the treaty, Egypt was charged with protecting the lives and properties of foreigners and received a guarantee that all British officials in the army and administration would be withdrawn. While these provisions granted Egyptians control over much local governance, the British retained the right to keep troops in the Suez Canal Zone on bases that were not subject to Egyptian authority. Britain was also allowed freedom over the skies of Egypt, and the Egyptian government agreed to build roads to facilitate British troop movements in case of emergency. A provision also allowed Britain to reenter Egypt in case of national emergency, a situation that arose just three years after the signing of the treaty when World War II broke out.

State Institutional Expansion: The Economy

The leaders of all of the states under study here struggled to expand, diversify, and improve their economic institutions during the interwar period. By World War II the region saw slow but steady economic growth but one that favored select groups in the society to the detriment of almost everyone else. The Great Depression of the 1930s brought to light the underdevelopment of the agricultural sectors and the disadvantageous position the region as a whole held in the world economy. With the exception of Turkey and Transjordan, which mostly maintained a base of small- to medium-sized landowners, the countries in the region moved more intensively during the interwar period to the dominance of large landowners. Hundreds of thousands of landless peasants moved into the cities; some found work in the new factories, while many more struggled to find jobs. Economic competition from abroad and state investment in modern industries forced the closure of many old artisan shops that had formed the foundation of manufacturing for centuries and the primary employment for urban workers.

During the Great Depression, these states struggled because their major exports were agricultural products that garnered few profits on the international market. Since the late 18th century and accelerating under the reforms of the 19th century, many regions in the Middle East had moved into cash cropping by selling cotton, silk, tobacco, and wheat in the world economy. With the world economic crash in 1929, many of these overseas markets dried up. The worst years occurred between 1929 and 1933, and then all the countries saw a measure of growth but not enough to employ the numbers or types of people needing jobs in agriculture or industry.


In the first years of the Great Depression, agricultural prices collapsed across the Middle East. In Turkey, overall prices dropped by as much as 50 percent. In Egypt, cotton prices dropped by half between 1929 and 1933, and Egypt’s exports of this previously dominant product fell by a third overall in this same period. In the Levant, the situation was made even worse by infestations of locusts and low rainfall. In Turkey, the government instituted a system of subsidies by 1932 whereby the state bought wheat and other essential products at higher-than-market prices from the rural producers and then sold bread and other such manufactured goods at inflated prices in the urban areas. By 1936, when world agricultural prices rose, the state had thoroughly penetrated the agricultural market so reaped the revenues that accrued. In Egypt, the government restricted cotton production, calculating that a smaller harvest would raise prices, but the demand remained too low for this policy to sufficiently alleviate the crisis. Only in the late 1930s did prices rebound, and by then the market favored landowners who had consolidated the largest amount of land under their control in the previous years.


The Iranian majles passed a number of laws protecting peasant rights during the 1930s, but the large landowners worked to impede their implementation. Because Reza Shah relied on the landowners as a pillar of his new state, he did not push for the changes. Between 95 and 98 percent of all peasants were landless in the 1930s, and with this body of cheap labor available, landowners did little to improve cultivation policies, so yield per acre saw little increase. French policies in Syria aided the absentee landlords living in the cities and those in the rural areas deemed loyal to the French, so by World War II, only 16 percent of the land around Aleppo and 45 percent near Homs was cultivated by small landholders.

On paper, the 1932 Land Settlement Law in Iraq granted landownership to tribesmen and peasants who had worked a given piece of land for 15 years or more. In reality, tribal shaykhs, large landowners, and urban merchants took advantage of the law to register the land in their own names. They were aided in this endeavor by the 1933 Law for the Rights and Duties of Cultivators, which many of them had passed as members in parliament. The law declared that tenants, not landowners, were responsible for crop failures. This law intensified the debt burden on the peasants and forced many to sell or lease their land to large landowners.

Cognizant of these problems, all the states tried to bring new resources into the rural areas to make improvements in cultivation. However, only a small percentage of the rural population benefited. New agricultural and credit banks opened across the region in the 1930s, but they provided little real help to the peasants in need of loans to buy seeds and equipment. In general, these financial institutions were located in the cities, far from the farming lands, or located in too few towns and villages for peasants to reach. They also frequently restricted those peasants who could obtain loans to those who already had land and capital, leaving most rural residents without access.

Land Reform in Transjordan

Three decades ahead of the surrounding countries, Emir Abdullah and the British officials posted to Transjordan instituted a land reform program in 1927 designed to register all the land in the country, make land more efficient, and improve taxation collection. Its benefits and problems would be replicated in the countries that followed their lead in the 1950s and 1960s. Islamic inheritance policies enshrined in the 1858 Ottoman Land Law provided for all heirs to receive a share of the land. By the interwar period, this policy meant that ever-increasing numbers of people lived off ever-smaller pieces of land. Even though many small farmers had been able to register their land, many of them fell into indebtedness during the 1930s. These were years of drought and overuse of the soil, so harvests were poor even as the state demanded more in taxation from its peasantry. The Agricultural Bank the government established in 1922 was of little help to the peasants because few could access it and it had relatively few funds to disperse in the economic crisis of the 1930s. While Transjordan remained a land of predominantly small- to medium-sized landholders by the time the reforms had been carried out, the program’s provisions paradoxically provided for the expansion of the number of large landowners as smaller-sized holdings had to be sold off or leased out to pay the bills. This became particularly true in World War II when merchants in Amman made a profit selling products to the British army and thus had the resources to buy land.

Silk Industry in Lebanon

In Lebanon, emigration had served since the mid-19th century as an agricultural safety valve because it provided venues outside the country for excess labor and for those finding it difficult to live off the land in times of crisis. However, the silk industry that had brought profit to thousands in the 19th century was already in decline before World War I, was disrupted during the war, and was effectively destroyed in the aftermath because of blight so could no longer provide the revenues for costly migrations. In addition, new restrictions throughout the Americas in the 1920s made emigration difficult for even those with the resources to travel. The result was a dramatic decrease in remittances from immigrants and a surfeit of labor on the land in Lebanon, at the same time that prices for agricultural products had fallen drastically.

Infrastructure Projects

In an attempt to alleviate these economic crises, all the states built up their transportation infrastructures so that goods could be easily moved and civil servants and tax collectors could conduct business around the country. By the end of World War II, none succeeded in tying their countries together seamlessly, but many efforts were expended in extending road, railway, and telegraph networks. Reza Shah’s government invested extensive resources into building up such networks with plans for the roads and railways to connect the ports of the Persian Gulf with producing cities like Tehran and Isfahan. The centerpiece was the Trans-Iranian Railway that began connecting cities within the country. In Lebanon, more improvements to the Port of Beirut quadrupled the amount of traffic moving through its facilities between 1920 and 1939. The road and railway network moving into and out of Baghdad helped make it the preeminent trading center in the country while bypassing older trading cities like Najaf and Karbala in the southern provinces of Iraq.

Industrial Development

Mustafa Kemal had the most comprehensive program for economic change, with statism as one of the six basic principles of his national project in the 1930s, but all of the states under study here focused on state intervention to build up infrastructure and modern industry. They all faced the endemic problem of too little investment money available in the private realm. A professional middle stratum emerged out of the changes of the 19th century but not an entrepreneurial class with funds to invest at the level needed to industrialize. The large landowners brought into local governance as intermediaries owned extensive landholdings and had investments in the small urban manufacturing sector but had little cash for large-scale investment. The only groups with sufficient resources for such investment were the large merchants in cities such as Beirut and Alexandria who traded with the Europeans.

In 1934, Ankara issued its first five-year plan modeled on those of the Soviet Union and made investments in factories for textiles, sugar, iron, steel, glassworks, cement, utilities, and mining. With little nongovernmental investment money available, the state came to control 80 percent of foreign trade by the mid-1930s. Iran followed the same policies of state investment in primarily import-substitution industries and transitioned from having only 20 modern factories in the mid-1920s to 350 by 1941, producing sugar, textiles, and electricity. In both countries, private capital remained a key component of urban industry, but it was largely based in small shops where the majority of goods were produced through World War II. Even when private capital moved into larger and more modern industries, it tended to be in partnership with the state because of the need for additional investments.

In the Arab mandates and Egypt, the relationship between state and industry was skewed by the fact that large industries, such as railways, tramlines, and electricity providers, were typically owned by foreign concerns. Members of the National Bloc in Syria invested in cement, food processing, cigarette production, cotton spinning, and textiles. These were all labor-intensive industries but could withstand foreign competition because they remained domestic and did not compete with French imports. At the same time, many other small artisan shops went bankrupt; by the mid-1930s, 300 of the 700 trades previously practiced in Damascus had failed. By 1937, modern industry in Syria employed only 33,000 workers, and unemployment rose as weavers and silk spinners lost their jobs after the importation of modern machinery.

Oil Industry

Iraq and Saudi Arabia joined Iran as oil states, collectively adding jobs and bringing royalty payments into their central governments but still not earning enough to diversify their economies. In the case of Iran, by 1932, revenues fell so markedly because of the Great Depression that the Iranian government of Reza Shah chose to unilaterally end the Anglo-Persian Oil Company (APOC) concession. After much negotiation, the Iranian government and APOC came to a new agreement that increased the royalty payments from 16 to 20 percent and reduced the land of the concession to 100,000 square miles. In return for accepting these conditions, the Iranian government agreed to an extension of the oil concession from 1961 to 1993. In 1935, APOC became the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC) and in 1954, British Petroleum (BP).

FIGURE 6.3. Oil wells and an oil driller tower in an Iraq Petroleum Company (IPC) camp, five miles south of Kirkuk.

After World War I, the Turkish Petroleum Company (TPC, founded in 1912) was made up by APOC, Royal Dutch Shell, Compagnie Française des Pétroles, a US-based consortium of Standard Oil of New Jersey and Mobil, and an independent company owned by Armenian businessman Calouste Gulbenkian. In 1925, the new Iraqi parliament granted TPC (renamed the Iraq Petroleum Company [IPC] in 1929) a new oil concession that was contracted to last 75 years. The Iraqi government agreed to relinquish its shares in return for enhanced royalty payments and the right to construct a refinery and pipeline. Over time, the concession included all the regions of Iraq except Basra in the south. That last segment went to the Basra Petroleum Company, a subsidiary of IPC. Drilling did not begin in any of these fields until 1927, but by 1934 four million tons of oil a year flowed through a pipeline to the port of Haifa in the Palestine Mandate.

Over the next few years, oil was pumped from Iraq toward the Mediterranean, through Transjordan, Palestine, Syria, and Lebanon, providing royalty and rent payments to the oil-producing countries and to those countries along the pipeline routes. The associated industries employed thousands of workers and, along with workers on the railways and in telegraph offices, formed the largest group of modern workers in the region. However, even with the addition of new jobs and royalty payments disbursed along the pipeline routes, oil could not at this stage offset the lack of resources these countries otherwise faced when they looked to improve agriculture and industrialize in the 1930s. The bulk of the wealth left the region via the foreign companies who controlled the drilling, refinement, and overseas shipping.

FIGURE 6.4. Iraq Petroleum Company oil tanks in Haifa, Palestine, where oil was stored after transshipment from Iraq.

In 1933, the Saudi government signed an agreement with Standard Oil of California (SOCAL) to start exploration for oil in the eastern provinces along the Persian Gulf. In signing this agreement, Ibn Saud received an immediate loan and the promise of annual rent. In 1933 SOCAL placed the oil concession with Saudi Arabia under a wholly owned subsidiary, California Arab Standard Oil Company (CASOC), which was the precursor to the Arabian American Oil Company (Aramco) established in 1944. Drilling for oil began in 1935, and on May 1, 1939, the first tanker with liquid fuel sailed from the port of Ras Tanura. Over the next few years, Aramco and the American government invested in roads, a railway, an airport, and port facilities to build up the oil industry in Saudi Arabia.

MAP 16. Oil Fields and Refineries in the Middle East.

Worker Strikes

Workers in factories and large state-run utilities industries organized in the most sustained fashion during the interwar periods. In May 1929 in Iran, 11,000 workers at the Anglo-Persian Oil Company went on strike for better pay, an eight-hour workday, annual vacations, and the right to organize a union. The company agreed to the pay increases but nothing else and then arrested 500 of the workers involved. More than 800 workers on the Trans-Iranian Railway went on strike in the same year, and the pattern repeated itself: the company granted concessions about wages but jailed the organizers for many years afterward. In summer 1932, textile workers in Aleppo, Syria, undertook a massive strike, demanding the introduction of high tariffs to protect their products from foreign imports and higher wages. The French complied with the demand for the tariffs but did not raise wages. A 1931 strike at a textile factory in Isfahan, Iran, garnered the workers a 20 percent pay increase and the shift to a nine-hour workday.

State Institutional Expansion: Education

As in Egypt, opportunities for formal education increased across the Middle East, but none of the countries supplied universal education. Most educated during this time spent a few years at the primary level and reached a minimal level of literacy. A smaller group attended one of the few secondary schools in their country or universities serving the whole region. In Iraq, between 1920 and 1950, the public education system grew 10 to 15 times. By the end of World War II, almost 1,100 schools of all types enrolled approximately 140,000 students, but literacy remained at only 11 percent in 1947. In Turkey, the Kemalist government saw education as a pathway to inculcating modern Turkish values in the population. Thus, funds were put into all levels of education. The results were impressive, as the literacy rate stood at only 8 percent in 1928 but reached 30 percent by the end of World War II. In roughly the same time period, the number of elementary students expanded from 300,000 to 1.5 million. In Syria, literacy stood at 28 percent in 1931, a reflection of the relatively large amount of resources put into elementary education in the Ottoman and French eras.

Education in Iran

When Reza Shah took the Iranian throne in 1926, the country contained only 700 modern primary schools; by 1941, it had 2,500. Even with these changes, however, literacy remained at 10 percent in the 1940s and schooling was largely nonexistent in most rural areas. But in the schools he built, Reza Shah disseminated a clear narrative of Iranian history that traced its origins from the ancient period of Persian monarchical greatness to his leadership in the present. In 1934, the Ferdowsi Millennium celebrations commemorated the legacy of the Shahnama and praised Abu al-Qasem Ferdowsi for his beautiful prose and for choosing Persian words over Arabic loanwords. In this event, the text appeared as a Persian national epic and as a primer for how to reconstruct a pure Persian language.

The Ministry of Education and state-sponsored language institutions spent the 1930s and 1940s slowly standardizing the Persian language, eschewing the need for a complete break with the linguistic past that the Turks were doing at the same time. Language reformers made no attempt to eliminate the Arabic alphabet because that would have cut Iranians off from the national heritage as expressed in such texts as the Shahnama. Accompanying these efforts, the state established the Organization for the Cultivation of Intellectual Thought in 1939 to coordinate the dissemination of nationalist ideas in the press, in the theater, and through public lectures. The state’s goal was to eliminate alternative Persian dialects and non-Persian languages still existing in Iran and to draw a chronological map for Iranian nationalism that connected the Iranian students to a glorious Persian past and Pahlavi present.

Education in Lebanon

Lebanon had the highest rate of literacy among the Arab states, with 70 to 75 percent of all children of primary-school age attending school by the end of World War II. In contrast to the situation of its neighbors, private groups played a larger role than the state in this endeavor. These facts reflect Lebanon’s trajectory through the 19th century, where European and American schools opened in greater numbers than anywhere else; they were matched by the establishment of schools by sectarian groups within Lebanon in the 19th century and under the French mandate. This allowed more Lebanese students to attend schools than in any other region because the opportunities were so vast. By the end of World War II, Lebanon enrolled almost 145,000 students at all levels, but with only 21 percent in state schools. However, the emphasis on private school building eliminated an arena where the state could have worked to homogenize loyalty and national identity among large groups of boys and girls. Instead, each private school taught a history of Lebanon that accorded with the history of the particular sect organizing the school.

University Education

Growth was smaller at the university level across the region, but all the countries under study here except Saudi Arabia had schools of higher education in the interwar period. In Iran, about 700 students were enrolled in 1925 in the Colleges of Medicine, Agriculture, Teachers’ Training, Law, Literature, and Political Sciences. In 1934, the University of Tehran combined these colleges and added to them the Colleges of Dentistry, Pharmacology, Veterinary Medicine, Fine Arts, and Science and Technology, with over 3,000 enrolled students by 1941. In Syria, the School of Medicine, founded in 1901, and the Institute of Law, founded in 1912, merged in 1923 to create Syrian University. The Syrian Protestant College (SPC) became the American University of Beirut (AUB) in 1920 and continued to educate students from around the region.

Student Political Activism

A focus on education is a useful case study for how the opportunities of urban living and state institution building produced new political actors. The sons and daughters of the wealthy continued to attend modern schools as their parents had done prior to World War I. But even more so than in the past, the young men and women heading through the newly expanded school systems were not from the wealthiest families but families that could manage to collect enough money to send at least one child to school or, in cases where state schooling was free, the families had enough resources to take their children out of work for periods of time. Still others received funding from their states: for example, the Iraqi and Transjordanian governments gave bursary scholarships for students to attend schools such as AUB on condition they return after graduation to serve in the government bureaucracy and state schools. For those who continued on past the primary level, the action necessitated moving into larger towns and into the capital city and beyond if university education became an option.

Even though larger numbers were on this educational trajectory by the 1930s, graduates of any of the schools were still a unique commodity in their countries. Because most upper-level schools opened in larger towns and cities, students congregated in the urban areas, available for organizing and mobilizing. These graduates formed a coterie because they experienced something relatively few else had: they graduated into careers, in state or private realms, as doctors, lawyers, journalists, teachers, and civil servants. After graduation, these young men and women maintained their connections by meeting in coffee shops and bookstores; they also joined and formed literary clubs. They could read debates about political ideas from the 180 new periodicals in Beirut and 50 in Damascus in the 1920s and 1930s, with comparable numbers in Cairo and many exported to Baghdad to join new ones being published there.

Memoirs of students from across the region in the interwar period credit their teachers as pivotal in their quest to find a role for themselves in the political world. Arab teachers consistently brought their students out into the streets to protest, such as on the November 2 anniversary of the Balfour Declaration. As educational records show in one country after another, ministries of education attempted to discipline teachers for discussing political issues in the classroom, but so few qualified teachers existed that they could not be removed from the classroom altogether. Particularly in the Arab world, teachers moved from country to country and province to province and, in the process, frequently spread the idea that students needed to be politically active. Many of the graduates became teachers themselves or maintained contacts with their fellow students and their teachers as they moved into government offices or the independent professions.

Collectively, these students at the secondary and university levels represented a recognizable social milieu in their countries, as they came out into the streets in protest or mobilized on behalf of political parties. These effendiyya (the Arabic term for men of the modern educated middle class) constituted a stratum that had been emerging in the 19th century and grew in size along with the expansion of school systems and state institutions in the early 20th century. They were joined by an increasing number of women who found expanded opportunities for education and access to modern professions. Collectively, they formed a stratum in all societies that had a stake in modernization and Westernization because they believed in the precepts underlying these programs. Instead of being welcomed into governance, they encountered obstacles to their advancement from an older generation that had the most respected late Ottoman educations and training but lagged behind the newer generation educationally.