A review essay, based on the book, Cairo 1921: Ten Days that Made the Middle East, by C. Brad Faught[1]

- by Jamie Arbuckle for Peacehawks.



There is a tide in the affairs of men …

Shakespeare, Julius Caesar, 4/3, 218-224



 The First World War might be called the War to End All Empires: The German, the Hapsburg, the Czarist and the Ottoman Empires were all utterly in ruins; the tattered British and French Empires were to stagger on through (but not far beyond) the next World War.  Those two remaining empires thought to see to the re-ordering of the world left by those expired empires, principally in Europe and the Middle East. The former had been the focus of the Versailles Treaties; the latter was to be undertaken by the British and the French.  We have now lived over a century with the failures of both.


 The Ottoman Empire lasted from 1299 to 1923. At its apogee, it included almost 22 million square kilometres (modern-day China is just under 10 million square kilometres), and had a population of 24 million.

Throughout those six centuries of its life, the Ottoman Empire permitted almost no local, and certainly no indigenous government whatsoever. For them there was no Renaissance, no Enlightenment, no whiff of liberalism in any form.  Such indigenous leadership or governance which might have come spontaneously into existence was extremely informal, clannish, tribal.  Local governance in the Ottoman Middle East was (to us) of a pre-Medieval nature.

To these scattered remains of a crumbling, largely crumbled despotic empire the Europeans, principally the British and the French, brought „their privileging of the idea of the nation state as a normative and reasonable approach to post-Ottoman imperial control in the Middle East.“[2]

And so it was that Winston Churchill convened a conference to be held in Cairo in October 1921 to “remake and re-order” those scattered Ottoman remains in the Middle East.


The task Churchill had taken upon himself was simply to square the triangle of  (mostly) British policies in the Middle East, as these had evolved somewhat haphazardly over the years of the Great War.[3]

The entangled mainly Anglo-French policies proceeded awkwardly from three sources. These were:

  • The McMahon Papers. Sir Henry McMahon was the British High Commissioner for Egypt.   Beginning in July 1915, he entered into a highly charged correspondence with Sharif Hussein, the Hashemite ruler of the Hejaz, which territory included both Mecca and Medina.  The stakes were high for both parties: the British sought Arab allies in their war with Turkey, the Arabs sought independence and sovereignty. The British thought the bargain worth pursuing, and the McMahon-Hussein correspondence continued until March of the next year, with the result that the British had been promised an Arab Revolt, and the Arabs – at least the Hashemites – had been promised post war  autonomy. There were significant omissions from this process which foreshadowed later problems: Hussein might have ruled the most important sites of Arabia, but the majority of Arab lands were ruled by the houses of Said and of Rashid. Their exclusion from this process was to have consequences when it came to implement the Cairo Conference proceedings.
  • The Sykes-Picot Agreement. As early as late 1915 a plan had been fomenting in the British Foreign Office to divide post-Ottoman Mesopotamia and Syria between Britain and France.  This plan was worked out in detail by two officials of their respective foreign offices: Sir Mark Sykes and Francois Georges-Picot. Accordingly, Palestine, Mesopotamia and (the future) Transjordan would be under British control; Syria would go to the French. Lebanon was later assumed to fall under French control. As Faught describes it, „In essence, Sykes-Picot was a pointed exercise in Anglo-French geopolitics without regard for local autonomy.“ (page 29 – italics mine) While the exact political mechanisms of these relationships had not been worked out, Sykes-Picot did anticipate the concept of Great Power mandatory supervision, which would be codified by the later Paris Peace Conference, and by the Covenant of the League of Nations.  Although the Agreement had been ratified just weeks before the outbreak of the Arab Revolt, none of this was to be known to the Arab community, a betrayal which humiliated and sickened T. E. Lawrence for the rest of his life[4].
  • The Balfour Declaration. In 1917 Sir Arthur Balfour, the Foreign Secretary of Britain (and a former Prime Minister) wrote to Lord Rothschild, a key ally and a good friend to Chaim Weizmann, head of the London Zionist Organization. That letter was to become known as the Balfour Declaration: the British government would support the creation of „a national home for the Jewish people“ in Palestine. (P 31)  Weizmann was of course overjoyed; he had already refused offers in Saskatchewan and Uganda. (Somewhat later, Weizmann would become the first President of Israel. The British habit of giving away what did not belong to them, nor of consulting before hand with those already living there, is noted.) Again, none of this was to be communicated to those already fighting for what it was being planned to deny them – Lawrence was once again downcast by the perfidy of his own government, but he soldiered on, hoping that eventual victory would put it all right. After all, Balfour had said that „nothing shall be done which shall prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine“.

Thus the McMahon 1915 concern for Arab goals was swept away by Sykes-Picot spheres of (French and British) influence in 1916, and Arab aspirations in Palestine were further buried under Balfour in 1917. Small wonder Lawrence was made ill by this.



And now, in 1921, Winston Churchill was to deliver on all those half-promises.

Churchill was a self-professed „Zionist“.  „Emboldened“ by Balfour, he was in favour of a Jewish homeland in the Holy Land, but he remained sensitive to Arab aspirations. He was no doubt influenced in this by his perception of the British Empire as „the greatest Mohammedan power in the world“ (p 75), a reference to what he called „British India.“ He was certain this dichotomy in Palestine could be resolved.  „ … to Churchill, Arab-Jewish relations could be made to harmonize.“  As had been, according to Churchill, intra-communal  feuding in South Arica, in Canada and in India.  As if.

Churchill was no doubt strengthened in  his sympathy for Arab aspirations and apprehensions by that League of Nations Covenant, published just the year before, which provided specifically that

“Certain communities formerly belonging to the Turkish Empire have reached a stage of development where their existence as independent nations can be provisionally recognized subject to the rendering of administrative advice and assistance by a mandatory power until such time as they are able to stand alone. The wishes of these communities must be a principal consideration of the Mandatory.” (Article 22, paragraph 4. Italics mine)

The conference opened on 12 March 1921 in the Semiramis Hotel, in the heart of Cairo and along the Nile. Everyone who was anyone was there: Churchill himself, T.E. Lawrence, the „Daughter of the Desert“ Gertrude Bell, Field Marshall Lord Allenby, the wartime commander of the British Empire‘s Egyptian Expeditionary Force, then British High Commissioner for  Egypt and Sudan. There were a total of 34 delegates from „missions“, mostly British and French, from all over the Middle East: Mesopotamia, the Persian Gulf, Aden, Somaliland, Palestine. Churchill called them his “Forty Thieves.” The only „locals“ of note in attendance were Jafar al-Askari, who was the Iraqi defence minister, and Sassoon Eskell, from the Iraq Jewish community.  Various Arab notables and pretenders were hovering in attendance, but with those two exceptions there were no locals active in the proceedings of the conference.



The Cairo Conference. Gertrude Bell is 2nd from left, 2nd row; Eskell is to her left; Jafar al-Askari is 5th from left in that row.

The conference went smoothly. Faught‘s description of the proceedings will ring true for those who have spent a good portion of their working lives at this sort of thing. Any story with Churchill, Bell and Lawrence in it, beyond being the good read this surely is, is a wonderful chance to see history being made by people, not solely by events.

As it developed:  Syria and Lebanon became French protectorates, Transjordan (later Jordan), Mesopotamia (Iraq) and Palestine were under British mandates. Just what were the duties and the responsibilities of these newly created mandatory powers was left somewhat vague; as Faught puts it, „ … the idea of Great Power trusteeship as a more progressive successor to more traditional forms of empire had become one of high international standing within the chancelleries of Europe, as well in the United States … .“ (page 4)  The exact structure of Palestine, and relations between Jewish and Arab populations there were left unclear.  There was left a „clear understanding that mandatory control would dissipate gradually in favour of genuine national independence.“ (page 5) Of the peaceful coexistence of „the sons of Isaac“ and the „sons of Ishmael“ in Palestine there was not then, nor has there since arisen, the slightest sign.


One hundred years after the cessation of the Ottoman Empire, almost no present-day nation which was ever under the sway of the Sublime Porte has achieved a government by liberal democracy. Probably the only exception to this is Jordan.

Faught‘s conclusion is centred on Iraq and Jordan,  but does make the central and general point that the formation of nation states in this region and given their history, was simply not achievable – not then and, with Jordan that sole exception, seemingly not yet.  As Faisal, the installed King of Iraq said in 1933, „There is still  … no Iraqi people but unimaginable masses of human beings devoid of any patriotic idea.“. (P 204)  Faught observes that „Breaking down Iraq‘s traditionally hierarchical and tribal society in the service of modern mass nationalism was extremely difficult …“, and this was certainly true not only of Iraq. Even Jordan is prone to the dangers posed by its unstable neighbours. And it was the Jordanian expulsion of the PLO in 1970 which has destabilized Lebanon and visited upon them over a half-century of nearly continuous armed conflict.  The post-Ottoman mandatory Middle East was like a long course of instruction from which almost nobody ever graduated.

Ironically, when just over 30 years later, it came time for the British and the French to reckon with the closure of their empires, they created, then left in Africa, India and Indo China just the mess[5] they had hoped, and failed, to avoid in the Middle East. (The former Belgian and Portuguese colonies have fared even worse.) That time in the tide in the affairs of “liberated” colonies, in the 1920s in the Middle East as in India, Africa and Indo China in the 1950s, was not yet.

A good and valuable read, this book shows us just how fragile democracy can be, and usually is.  We who are privileged to live in liberal democracies are on no stable perch.


[1] Pub. Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 2022

[2] Faught, p5

[3] It may be useful to revisit our earlier posting of April 2011, With Lawrence in Valhalla, wherein we reviewed the nascence of European (principally Anglo-French) policies in the Middle East. See

[4] See also Korda, Michael, Hero: The Life and Legend of Lawrence of Arabia, Harper Collins, New York, 2010: “Lawrence’s guilt at encouraging the Arabs to fight even though he knew they were not going to get what they wanted (and what they thought they had been promised) would become increasingly severe …. he would refuse to accept any of the honours and decorations he was awarded; it was at the root of his self-disgust and shame.”  (page 40)

[5] The Indian Independence Act of 1947 is estimated to have cost 2 million lives; the Mau Mau Rebellion in Kenya lasted from 1952-1960; armed rebellion against the returning French colonial masters in Indo China began almost immediately the War ended, and culminated in the fall of Dien Bien Phu in 1954.

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