A History of the Modern Middle East
Rulers, Rebels, and Rogues
Betty S. Anderson



This book begins with Turkic migrants moving from Central Asia to the Middle East because they were pivotal for the founding of the Ottoman (14th century) Empire and instrumental to the establishment of the Safavid (16th century) Empire. From there, the book proceeds to thecurrent day. I chose to start with the founding stories of these empires because the governmental structures their leaders established and the relationships forged between state and subjects provide valuable background information for the changes wrought in the more traditionally defined modern era of the late 18th century forward. The Ottoman Empire influenced societal and governmental relationships throughout most of the Middle East for centuries and even for years after its dismantlement in 1923; Safavid strengths and weaknesses both became issues to be tackled by the Qajar (1796) and Pahlavi (1925) successors and integral parts of Iranian national and governmental identity. The text focuses on Egypt, Israel-Palestine, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Turkey, and Iran within the region while recognizing the changing roles that Britain, France, Russia/the Soviet Union, and the United States have played in these countries for centuries.

In examining these empires, their many state successors, and their foreign influences, I address the term “Rulers” that appears in the book’s subtitle. To determine how rulers over many centuries and within dierent kinds of state structures came to power and maintained it, I analyze the bases for the rulers’ authority, the institutions that implemented the leaders’ policies, and the groups and people who became stakeholders in the state systems because they worked for the state and believed in the legitimacy of the leadership. I foreground state governance as the core thread connecting the narrative across centuries and borders, while illustrating the integrated nature of the relationships that has existed between the governors and the governed since the founding of these empires many centuries ago.

The recent upheavals throughout the Middle East provide the other side of the historical bookend for this text and open a window onto who the “Rebels and Rogues” of the subtitle are. On February 14, 2005, former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri died in an enormous explosion. Over the next months, Lebanese citizens massed in demonstrations against the Syrian government for its alleged complicity in the attack and for remaining in occupation of portions of Lebanon since 1976. Even with followers of Hizballah supporting a continuing Syrian presence in Lebanon, Syria withdrew from the country by the end of April 2005. In June 2009, millions of Iranians took to the streets to protest the reelection of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the fraud that accompanied it. Before the election, dramatic actions such as a “human chain” of 150,000 people circled Tehran in support of candidate Mir- Hossein Mousavi. After the government issued the election results, protesters began with silent demonstrations for four days, as people stood together but did not yell out any slogans. Within days Ahmadinejad and his police and security agencies successfully repressed the movement, and Ahmadinejad began his second term; as many as 150 people died in the clashes with police. This movement came to be called the Green Revolution because of the prevalence of green banners among the protesters in support of Mousavi’s campaign and the democratic slogans ringing out.

The events of the Arab Spring were sparked on December 17, 2010, when Tunisian Mohamed Bouazizi immolated himself and died the following day from his injuries. His act was a protest against the dire economic conditions he faced in Tunisia and the stark gap between rich and poor arising around him. His death triggered massive, countrywide demonstrations against the government of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who had been in power since 1987 and was now forced to flee to Saudi Arabia on January 14, 2011. Similar demonstrations erupted in Tahrir Square in Cairo on January 25, 2011, and when these demonstrations also became countrywide over the next 18 days, President Husni Mubarak resigned on February 11, 2011, and turned executive authority over to the Supreme Muslim Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), led by Defense Minister Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi.

On February 27, 2012, President Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen stepped down after 12 years as president of a united Yemen and 22 years earlier as president of North Yemen. Like dominoes, surrounding states faced similar upheavals, with a Syrian uprising beginning in the southern town of Dar‘a in March 2011. Muammar Qaddafi’s 42-year tenure as leader of Libya ended under bombardment from NATO; he died at the hands of rebels on October 20, 2011. The governments of Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Bahrain faced repeated demonstrations that these leaders were able to quell but not eliminate completely. On May 28, 2013, protesters came out into Gezi Park in Istanbul, a former Armenian cemetery and one of the last green spaces in the city, to oppose the government’s urban development plans. The next year saw the demonstrations spread across the country and expand to include broader denunciations of corruption in the office of Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

The shifts in power and the attempts at transforming governmental leadership all came at the hands of diverse and often massive demonstrations against state leaders and their policies. The participants did not join because of one particular grievance or as members of one particular interest group. They protested against the lack of job opportunities for secondary and university graduates, rising levels of economic inequality, the poor quality of services provided by their governments, state brutality by police and security services, discriminatory water policies, and foreign support for the dictators that led their state governments. They did so with overlapping identities, as youth, nationalists, Islamists, secularists, women, government employees, and workers.

Some wanted more state control over the economy; others wanted more privatization. Some wanted reform; others sought the complete overthrow of their governing structures. In Bahrain Shi‘ia wanted participatory rights in the government. In Egypt, the protesters deemed President Mubarak an unfit ruler over their government but recognized the legitimacy of the military to hold power in his stead; in Tunisia, a transformation of government has been undertaken that could dramatically change the relationship between state and citizenry. All the protesters could stand beside each other in the streets, regardless of their differing demands, because they agreed that collectively they had the right to demand change and that their governments could not be trusted to take the lead.

The leaderless nature of the protests in 2010 and 2011 allowed for many different avenues for politicization and mobilization, generating enormous numbers of participants, but this phenomenon worked poorly once governments had fallen and elections occurred. While Islamist associations such as the Muslim Brotherhood were able to quickly shift into political-party organizing for elections, other new political parties found it difficult to establish national organizations and successfully lobby for votes. The Egyptian military was still powerful enough to wage a coup in summer 2013 against the Muslim Brotherhood–dominated government that came to office after Mubarak’s ouster.

Meanwhile, Jordan’s King Abdullah, whose leadership has survived the protests, plays what some scholars call the “reform game,” whereby he moves prime ministers and cabinet officials into and out of office so that he appears to bring change but does not alter the state’s power structure. Erdoğan faced demonstrations that spread far beyond Gezi Park and involved months of accusations of corruption within his government. However, he retained enough support in the country to become Turkey’s first directly elected president on August 28, 2014. Syria’s uprising has evolved into a brutal civil war with no discernible end in sight.

While the events taking place from Iran to Turkey to the Arab world in the last 10 years were unprecedented in the number of participants and their cross-border nature, they were nonetheless not unique to the history of the region. The organizational structures established by the participants, the wide-ranging demands made on governments, the questions about state legitimacy, and even the failed attempts at wholesale governmental change have occurred in the past.

To address the many times these events have taken place, I distinguish between the “rebels and rogues” of Middle Eastern history. Rebels, over the centuries, completely opposed the leadership and systems of governance ruling over them. For example, a diverse group of rebels appeared throughout the Middle East in the years immediately after World Wars I and II because in those moments it was unclear in every area covered in this book what type of government would result from the shifting events. The rebels wanted, at the least, control over their own local domains, while others took a wider view and sought leadership over the new nations being formed. Rebels are also the Kurds, the Armenians, and the Palestinians who continually rejected the national claims of the governments ruling them. The students, professionals, and workers of the 1930s transformed from rogues to rebels in the 1950s when their ideas about Arab nationalism challenged the legitimacy of the newly independent governments after World War II. Junior military officers brought these policies into the halls of government via military coups. Starting with Muhammad ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab (1703–1792) and his rebellion against the religious leadership of the Ottoman sultan, many groups and individuals have challenged their leaders’ right to usurp the authority of God.

I build on a concept of rogues that Karen Barkey defines in Empire of Difference: The Ottomans in Comparative Perspective (2008) when she says of the Celali protests against Ottoman governance in the 17th century that they “were not interested in rebellion but concentrated on trying to gain state resources, more as rogue clients than as primitive rebels.” From this starting point, I designate as rogues those actors who challenged their leadership to reform state governance or who used their challenges as the means for gaining positions within the state. Rogues were those who did not directly rebel against the Ottoman Empire as it weakened in the 18th century but who nonetheless took advantage of the political openings to devise tools for strengthening their military, political, and economic positions in relation to the central government.

In the 1920s and 1930s, rogues were those students, professionals, and workers who frequently went out into the streets to protest against European colonialism and the hold old notables held over governmental posts. They posited that the Arab world would be stronger if the borders of the new states drawn after World War I were erased, but they did not organize to overthrow their governments in the interwar years. Instead, they advocated for reform of government agencies so they would be more representative of the diverse voices of the citizenry and so old notables could be replaced. Most protesters of the Green Revolution, Arab Spring, and Gezi Park events did not want to reinvent their governmental structures but to make them more accountable to their citizenries. They wanted to force from power those who stood in the way of such change and who had monopolized positions of power for decades. They wanted their governments to be more responsive to the economic crises so many people faced.

To be able to meld these rulers, rebels, and rogues into a holistic narrative of Middle Eastern history, I incorporate the academic monographs I used in my classes over the years as supplements to the political histories usually presented in textbooks. And while no book of a mere 500 pages can truly do justice to the wonderful work my colleagues have produced, I hope I have done so by giving them pride of place in a large narrative of Middle Eastern history. In keeping with the conventions of the textbook format, the book contains no citations to locate the source for a specific piece of data. I have included all of my sources for this text in the bibliography.

While benefiting from the richness afforded by my colleagues’ close studies of their subjects, I have also taken advantage of the broad geographical and chronological sweep that a textbook project allows so that I could locate patterns across regions and times. I found commonalities of practice between bandits in the Balkans at the turn of the 19th century and the institution-building project that Mehmet Ali undertook in Egypt at the same time. I examined the governmental structures established after World War II—from Iran to Turkey and through the Arab world— in order to construct a common schema for governance for that period. I followed educational practices across history to analyze why schooling could produce stakeholders for the states but also graduates who were their states’ most consistent critics. Thus, the text pivots between general representations of governing practices—focusing on shared patterns across borders—and deeper studies of the actions and motivations of individual groups located in the academic monographs of my colleagues.

Too often, the media available to students of the Middle East allow country names (“Egypt,” “Saudi Arabia”), stereotypes (“terrorist,” “militant,” “Shi‘a,” “youth”), or politicians (“Erdoğan,” “ayatollahs”) to represent the actions and belief systems of millions of people. The region can appear as an area of unchanging opinions and prejudices, a place of implacable instability, as the wars and sectarian crises of the contemporary period seem to indicate. It is impossible to understand developments in the region over time or to analyze the tumultuous events of the last few years through such narrow lenses. These categorizations fail to explain the complex relationships that have been forged and the overlapping identities, grievances, and desires that the peoples of the Middle East have held and continue to express.

My goal from the beginning of this project has been to integrate both large and small political players into the narrative of Middle Eastern history, to complicate how the governors and the governed have interacted throughout history. Political leaders never completely governed separately from the peoples under their control; nongovernmental actors could not ignore the state institutions in their lives. I examine the many types of rulers wielding power in the Middle East alongside societal groups that rarely appear in textbooks and other media venues, usually left out because their influences are more difficult to measure than those of the political leadership. I return century to century, decade to decade, to the actions and ideological positions proffered by monarchs and presidents, and also by slaves, religious clerics, provincial notables, urban merchants, students, professionals, workers, peasants, and army officers as examples of how rulers, rebels, and rogues forged Middle Eastern history together.