Jeffrey G. Karam (ed.), The Middle East in 1958: Reimagining A Revolutionary Year (London, UK: Bloomsbury and I.B. Tauris, 2020).

Jadaliyya (J): What made you edit (and contribute to) this book?

Jeffrey G. Karam (JK): My plan for this edited book was the result of three factors.

The first factor relates to the time I was conducting research for my doctoral dissertation in different archival locations and libraries in the United States and the United Kingdom, and particularly during my research trips in the Middle East—including between Amman and Beirut. Consequently, I contacted different political scientists and historians who shared a common appreciation for the complexities of the events in the year 1958. This common appreciation was evident in the published and forthcoming works of many scholars who have also contributed to this book. My point of departure and meetings with different scholars, both junior and senior, residing in and working at different institutions of higher education in various continents, focused on the need to examine a number of understudied cases, as well as explore and draw on records and sources that had not been fully analyzed in existing scholarship.

The second factor centered on my drive to build on existing scholarship, especially the edited book by the late Roger Owen and Roger Louis, A Revolutionary Year: The Middle East in 1958, and the goal of broadening the focus of the states they analyzed. Importantly, the plan was to address the role and experiences of non-Arab actors in the region, including Iran and Turkey, and other Arab states, such as Saudi Arabia.

This third factor reflected the scholarly need to remedy the fragmented nature of the scholarship on the revolutionary year of 1958 by bringing together, for the first time, scholars researching and writing about the wider context of critical events at the outset of the Cold War in the Middle East. My plan was to have a book that transcends the temporal imitations of one particular year to include pre- and post-1958 contexts and, therefore, examines a series of momentous events in different Middle Eastern capitals and ones outside the region from a wide range of linguistic, geographic, historical, and academic specialties.

J:  What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

JK: The book is a dialogue between the many scholars and practitioners specializing in different aspects of the postcolonial moment in 1958 and its connections to broader revolutionary struggles, both failed and successful, across the Middle East, as well as outside the region. It is a scholarly appreciation of the global, regional, and local experiences of various Middle Eastern actors and states. It explores the transnational nature of the twentieth-century world and the Cold War in the Middle East. It engages with previous scholarship that has focused on the process of state formation in some Arab states and other works that have addressed the centrality and strategic importance of oil in the Middle East.

Through an inter- and multidisciplinary study of transformational events before and after 1958, the book answers one broad question: to what extent were events in the year 1958 revolutionary and transformative for states in the Middle East and outside the region? And if we consider that year to be “revolutionary,” how can an examination of 1958 enhance our understanding of revolutionary moments in the Middle East and the Global South more generally?

Besides the broader question that motivates this book, the chapters engage with many issues, including Egypt and Syria’s perceptions of the United Arab Republic and internal motivations for merger into a single state; the extent to which states in the Gulf, such as Iran and Saudi Arabia, were affected by different crises and events in Iraq, Lebanon, and Jordan; Britain’s coping strategies and actions with the ascendancy of the United States in the region; the linkages between the Algerian War of Independence and the collapse of the Fourth Republic in France; the ability of Turkey and Jordan to weather the revolutionary wave at the time; the success of the military coup in Iraq and the failure of the different coup d’états in Jordan; the introduction of US forces into Lebanon and the involvement of a superpower in a domestic political crisis; and a novel focus on the rivalry between the United States and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) in the region and on the voices of political movements within the USSR.

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?

JK: My research and current book manuscript focus on the making of US intelligence and foreign policy during the Cold War and specifically during moments of crises and transformational events that are marked by social uprisings, revolutions, military coups, and wars. The volume is a natural outgrowth of my monograph, especially given it examines a critical period in the foundations of US foreign policy in the region, in particular between the Suez Crisis of 1956 and the military coup turned revolution in Iraq in 1958. The starting point of my book manuscript is my chapter on the gradual ascendancy of the United States in the Middle East after the Suez Crisis of 1956, the limits of the Middle East Doctrine (later dubbed as the Eisenhower Doctrine), and the inability to pursue an ambiguous foreign policy that both focused on containing and accommodating revolutionary Arab nationalists, such as Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser. Likewise, parts of my chapter in the book and other sections draw on my published work on why US intelligence officials and diplomats failed to interpret the domestic trends and processes that preceded the 14 July Revolution in Iraq, as well as forthcoming articles that focus on how key officials in the Eisenhower Administration engaged with and accentuated the political crisis turned civil war in Lebanon during 1958.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

JK: I hope that this book will be of interest to three audiences: 1) scholars and policymakers who work on or in the Middle East and those interested in learning about new primary and secondary sources, research methodologies, and recent trends in bridging the gap between domestic, regional, and international scholarly levels of analysis; 2) students, scholars, and curious readers who are interested in the political history of the modern Middle East, and in particular the revolutions, domestic uprisings, wars, and coups in the 1950s, especially 1958; and 3) curious readers in the Middle East and elsewhere who want to learn about street-level interactions between Western and Middle Eastern intelligence officials, diplomats, and political actors. I also hope that faculty at different institutions of higher education will assign individual chapters or the entire book in their undergraduate seminars on the politics of the Middle East and graduate courses that survey the politics of the modern Middle East from the Cold War to the present day.

In terms of impact, I envision that many scholars will build on the book and analyze the experiences of other states that were not fully covered. This includes a focus on China’s role and interactions with various states in the Middle East, especially during the period of decolonization in the 1950s and beyond. It will also be interesting for future work to focus more closely on the role of international organizations, such as the United Nations, and different non-state actors during this important period in the political history of the modern Middle East. An appreciation of similar revolutionary trends and processes in the Horn of Africa could also elucidate understudied connections between various political actors, states, and movements during this period of the Cold War.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

JK: Aside from my book manuscript and articles on the making of US intelligence and foreign policy, one of my current projects focuses on energy security and US perceptions of the commonly known “oil crisis” in 1973. Building on recent scholarship, including Robert Vitalis’ Oilcraft: The Myths of Scarcity and Security That Haunt U.S. Energy Policy and other works on the connections between oil and US foreign policy, one of my projects draws on newly declassified archival records from the Nixon Library and other sources that focus on US energy security and policy during the 1970s. This research also explores US perceptions and actions in the period preceding the outbreak of the Lebanese Civil War in 1975 and the relationship between US officials and local political movements in Lebanon and elsewhere at the time.

J: What do you mean by the use of “revolutionary” in the book’s title and dedication? 

JK: The use of “revolutionary” in the title and throughout the book has three interrelated meanings.

First, the focus on “revolutionary” is a precise portrayal of why and how revolutions are neither static events nor moments in time that have a clear beginning and end. Revolutionary moments are usually ones characterized by radical change or extensive reform that pave the way for new beginnings. However, revolutions are messy, and the consequences of such momentous events take time to materialize and could result in either positive or negative consequences. Thus, the focus is on the different phases and dimensions of “revolutionary processes” and their expected messiness, rather than a simple and binary characterization of revolutionary outcomes as either failed or successful.

Second, the term “revolutionary” likewise speaks of the shift in political strategy and a reassessment of policies of imperial powers at the time, such as Britain, France, and the United States. This relates to both intended and unintended consequences of revolutionary struggles and transformational moments in the Middle East during the 1950s on states outside the region. This approach demonstrates that transformational moments in the Middle East were equally impactful, though in different ways, for outside actors and powers.

Third, the use of “revolutionary” is similarly an accurate and realistic account of how such processes and critical junctures in various states fall below the expectations of extensive reform, radical change, or a new political order that is expected to result from enormous episodes of change. This focus demonstrates that revolutionary processes rather than outcomes must be analyzed relatively and could often lead to limited sociopolitical reform and opportunities that do not completely revamp the political system but instead lead to minor changes in existing political regimes.

The book is dedicated “To all the revolutionaries who fought bravely against injustice and cruelty, and the ones who are still daring to reimagine and create a better world.” This dedication is a realistic acknowledgment of all the revolutionary struggles and calls for change and reform in the Middle East in past decades, as well as in the second half of 2019.


Excerpt from the book (from Chapter 1, “Reimagining 1958 Through the Lenses of Multilingual Sources and Interdisciplinary Perspectives” by Jeffrey G. Karam)

The year 1958 was a time marked by a series of transformative sociopolitical developments that shook the foundations of the existing Middle Eastern order and in various ways, sparked the beginning of a new sociopolitical landscape in the region. The year 1958 remains a vital, if not one of the most important, moments in the Middle East from the Nahda  (Renaissance) to the Arab uprisings in 2010–11 and the most recent wave of protests in the region that erupted in 2019. Against the backdrop of Egypt’s nationalization of the Suez Canal Company and the ensuing crisis of 1956, the creation of the United Arab Republic with the merger of Syria and Egypt into one state on February 1, 1958, seemed the initial step toward greater Arab unity. As the present work shows, the repercussions of the union between Egypt and Syria had an impact both on the states in the Middle East and on the ones outside the region. The most visible impact manifested in three Arab states: first, the aggravation of the political crisis later turned civil war in Lebanon between May and July 1958; second, the attempted and foiled coups against Hussein in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan in June and July 1958; and third, the military coup turned revolution in Iraq on July 14, 1958, that ended the monarchy and created a republic. 

The three seminal events constituted a turning point in the modern history of the Middle East and North Africa. However, this book considers that these sociopolitical developments were part of a larger series of events in a periodmarked by decolonization, revolutionary nationalism, internationalism, postcolonialism, imperialism, anti-imperialism, and state formation. Therefore, this book is a study that brings together these events, arguing for the importance of examining these moments in conjunction and in conversation with each other by using the time span of that seminal year of 1958. Existing scholarship, especially the edited volume A Revolutionary Year: The Middle East in 1958 , by Roger Louis and Roger Owen, draws the connections between the events in Iraq and Lebanon. Other works examine the process of state formation in some states in the Arab Middle East and the importance of oil in the region. However, these important contributions have mostly explored the experiences of a limited number of states and focused on collections of records and documents, while excluding a deeper appreciation of the role of non-Arab actors in the region and the multilayered connections between local, regional, and global developments in 1958.

This book remedies the fragmented nature of the scholarship on 1958 by bringing together, for the first time, scholars researching and writing about the wider context of critical events at the outset of the Cold War in the Middle East and particularly before and during the year 1958. Therefore, although the focus is on 1958 in the Middle East, the volume transcends, first, temporal limitations of one particular year to include pre- and post-1958 contexts, and second, the geographic scope of the Middle East to encompass global trends and processes. It, therefore, examines a series of momentous events in different Middle Eastern capitals and ones outside the region from a wide range of linguistic, geographic, historical, and academic specialties. Only by facilitating a dialogue between the many scholars and practitioners specializing in different aspects of the postcolonial moment in 1958 and its connections to broader revolutionary struggles, both failed and successful, can we appreciate the global, regional, and local experience of various Middle Eastern actors and states and the transnational nature of the twentieth-century world and the Cold War in the Middle East.

This book joins a multitude of interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary volumes that underscore the importance of studying critical junctures and sociopolitical developments in a particular year. The present volume’s focus is primarily on the revolutionary year of 1958. This is the result of three considerations. First, the authors control for and hold constant transformational events in 1958 and subsequently are able to focus their analysis on the connections between developments that preceded and proceeded vital and transformational moments in this particular year. This focused approach allows the authors to analyze similarities and differences within and across different states under the same temporal and conceptual considerations. Second, by focusing primarily on one year, the authors collectively demonstrate the methodological and conceptual merits of variation and in-depth analysis of turning points within and across different states in the region. This scholarly contribution is rarely found in works that either focus on the experiences of one particular state or adopt a larger temporal framework that must leave out many of the intricate details of important sociopolitical developments. Third, the authors’ focus on the revolutionary year of 1958 through varied methodologies and archival sources is an important scholarly conversation that highlights the failed and successful experiences of different states within the same time period and in the context of similar transformational moments.

[…] (from Chapter 15, “Reflections and Conclusions from the Revolutionary Year of 1958” by Jeffrey G. Karam)

Lessons from the Past for Studying and Understanding the Contemporary Middle East

The chapters in the present volume suggest two important lenses for a contemporary understanding of sociopolitical developments in the Middle East and North Africa. The first relates to the pattern of relationships between local political actors in the region and foreign powers. While the geopolitical landscape changed after the end of the Cold War and has led to the decline and rise of powers in Europe and other regional theaters around the globe, successive administrations in the United States have leveraged their diplomatic and military power to shore up pro-Western and conservative regimes and monarchies in the region. Many of these regimes, including ones that have been analyzed and discussed in previous chapters, have been so far successful in insulating themselves from repeated calls for sociopolitical reform. Other regimes have been successful in receiving support from other powers in the system, such as the Russian Federation, to quell any opposition to the ruling regime. In other instances, many of the analyzed states in this present volume have experienced momentous changes in the aftermath of 1958, such as the consolidation of military-led authoritarian regimes or the resurgence of religion in politics, which has lingered for over sixty years. As the present volume suggests, the unresolved Arab-Israeli and Palestinian-Israeli conflicts, the active involvement of the Western and Eastern powers in several wars and domestic political crises across the Middle East, and the political bickering between Arab and non-Arab states over leadership in the region has deep roots in the transformational events that materialized in the mid-1950s and represented a climax of these trends in the revolutionary year of 1958.

The second relates to underscoring the agency of local political actors in the decisions that were taken after the revolutionary year of 1958. It is crystal clear that Arab and non-Arab officials have been extremely successful in banking on foreign support to contain any opposition to their regimes. However, the roots of this agency and the ability to “play off” Western and Eastern powers against one another in the region is directly connected to the period of decolonization, state formation, modernization, and rising authoritarianism in the 1950s. With the exception of a few states that witnessed varying degrees of success in the aftermath of the 2010–11 uprisings, many political regimes in the Middle East and North Africa have so far been able to stall any meaningful reform. As the recent protests in Iraq, Lebanon, Iran, and elsewhere across the globe demonstrate, the grievances and much of the demands that revolutionaries and protesters in the street are voicing have deep origins in the political and socioeconomic opportunities that failed to occur in the period of decolonization and state formation during the Cold War. In fact, they resemble similar struggles that many revolutionaries carried out during the twentieth century and into the twenty-first for better economic opportunities and social inclusion. Clearly, there is not a direct uninterrupted line between events in the 1950s and the ones that are presently unraveling in the Middle East and elsewhere across the globe. However, it is important to highlight the commonalities and the deep roots of political contestation and revolutionary struggle against injustice and tyranny, and the desired objective of reimagining and actively creating a better future.

This book is a testament to the importance of bridging the many artificial boundaries that seek to constrain innovative scholarship in a world that should embrace much more diversity, inclusion, and tolerance.