Book Review: The Middle East in 1958: Reimagining a Revolutionary Year

The book, compiled, edited and co-authored by Dr. Jeffrey G. Karam, takes on a retrospective approach to a transformative year and connects it to recent uprisings in the region.

By Hanan Nasser

The book, said Dr. Karam, deconstructs classic definitions of revolutions, stepping away from a binary approach that sees them only as an outcome of failure or success.

Why was 1958 a revolutionary year and how did it transform the region and shift Western foreign policy? Should revolutions be limited to a binary definition or do they represent a multi-layered process? These questions form the core of a recent book compiled, edited, and co-authored by LAU Assistant Professor of Political Science at the School of Arts and Sciences Jeffrey G. Karam.

The Middle East in 1958: Reimagining a Revolutionary Year, published in September 2020 by I.B. Tauris and the academic division at Bloomsbury, features three chapters written by Dr. Karam.

The book offers a multi-faceted approach that addresses ideas such as revolutionary changes, processes of revolution, moments of transformation, and how 1958 can be connected and strongly relevant to understanding recent popular uprisings in the region. These include the first wave that began in 2011 and the second that unraveled in 2018 and still has reverberations across the Middle East and North Africa.

“The bigger question we are grappling with is to move away from simply looking at Western-centric records and how this moment in the political history of the modern Middle East is really and primarily captured only as part of the Cold War,” said Dr. Karam, whose research focus includes international relations, international security, politics of intelligence and national security, and revolutions, coups and wars in the Middle East.

“Rather, we should also think about the agency of local players, states in the region and their impact on the recalibration and change in US, British, and French foreign policies.”

The volume brings in voices of non-Arab states in the Middle East such as Iran and Turkey, and sheds light on Saudi Arabia, that has not received sustained attention in literature addressing 1958 with most scholarship focused on the Levant.

Co-authors from the US, Britain, and France also examine 1958 from the perspective of its impact on their policies, using newly declassified primary and secondary records. Dr. Karam’s chapter analyzes the gradual and cautious ascendancy of the US as the dominant Western power in the Middle East after the Suez War of 1956 through America’s provision of economic aid, military assistance, and covert action in support of pro-Western allies.

In addition to the broader question of how revolutions are contextualized, the book shows connections between the revolutionary war in Algeria; the collapse of the fourth republic in France; the implications of the crisis-turned-war in Lebanon on US foreign policy and subsequent deployment of Marines in July 1958; and the extent that Iran and Saudi Arabia, for example, were affected by the different crises happening outside their borders.

The need for a revisionary approach to 1958 emanated from the fact that most literature on that period focused on specific concerns such as state formation, the complexities of Arab nationalism and revolutionary Arab nationalism, and their implications on the region.  

“What was missing was taking a step back and thinking about this moment not only in its regional, or local, context, but also to draw the connection to international contexts,” said Dr. Karam.

While engaging with previous scholarship, the book breaks new ground by bringing in a multidisciplinary group of scholars to offer a political, social, economic, anthropological, and historical examination of that moment in its regional and international contexts.

Many of the contributing writers are not only experts in particular states and have published extensively in the field of Middle Eastern studies but are also well-versed in multiple languages and working at the intersections of different disciplines.

This was a deliberate choice made by Dr. Karam to demonstrate the merits of conducting multilingual, interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary research across various lines that are not always found in published scholarship. The contributors include junior and senior faculty members at institutions of higher education in three continents: Europe, North America, and Asia, primarily the Middle East and North Africa.

The sources vary from Western archives to primary sources in countries such as Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Algeria including the memoirs and letters of Iraqi and Egyptian officers, Saudi princes and individuals who were close to the Lebanese president at the time, among others.

“There’s been a strong effort to be able to say what’s missing out of both primary and secondary records in different languages when it comes to having a more inclusive story,” said Dr. Karam. “It is important to think about some of the individuals who were close to the princes in Saudi Arabia for example and who were trying to craft a new chapter or a new path in the 50s. These voices are not usually brought to the fore in existing scholarship,” he added.

The book deconstructs classic definitions of revolutions, stepping away from a binary approach that sees them only as an outcome of failure or success. Instead, it underlines the need to look at revolutions “not as static but as multi-layered processes that need to be contextualized and ones that include a degree of messiness and confusion.”

“If you’re going to follow a very strict definition of a revolution in saying you either break the system or you remold it, then it becomes difficult to find genuine successes,” Dr. Karam said in reference to recent uprisings in the Arab world and beyond, including the October 17 protests in Lebanon.

For example, a standard textbook definition would describe the 1958 military coup in Iraq as successful “because you removed the monarchy and you created a new system.” The same can be said about the 1952 bloodless military coup in Egypt that forced King Farouk into exile and ushered in a new regime.

The debate however surfaces when it comes to instances where growing voices of discontent and demands for reform emerged although there had been no possibility for change.

“How do you qualify that? Adhering to a strict definition excludes moments of uprisings that actually are not revolutionary per se but within a specific context were revolutionary.”

Even if these moments of dissent and contestation during revolutionary times and popular uprisings do not break the system, however, the book argues that transformational moments and calls for sociopolitical reform invite serious scholarly attention and properly showcase the inherent difficulties during periods marked by social unrest and change.

“Any moment there is an attempt at dissent against the type of governance and is based on socio-economic grievances, foreign policy and ideas of corruption, you can’t call it a revolution, but you can call it the beginning of a process that has revolutionary connotations,” he said.

In conclusion, the book underlines the need to examine past alliances, regional alignments, power-sharing problems and state competition in order to understand crucial events in the present.

“If you cannot understand the past you cannot really understand the present or really make sense of the future,” he said.

The book includes a foreword by Dr. Salim Yaqub, professor of history at the University of California, Santa Barbara. The Middle East in 1958 has received advance praise by Dr. Robert Vitalis, professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania, Dr. Osamah Khalil, associate professor of history at Syracuse University, and Dr. May Darwich, assistant professor of political science and international relations at the University of Birmingham. It has also been featured in several podcasts and academic platforms and will be discussed in other scholarly milieus soon.

The LAU community can access the book via the university’s library catalogue.