Follow Us

Follow on Twitter    Follow on Facebook    YouTube Channel    Vimeo Channel    Tumblr    SoundCloud Channel    iPhone App    iPhone App

New Texts Out Now: Betty S. Anderson, A History of the Modern Middle East: Rulers, Rebels, and Rogues

Betty S. Anderson. A History of the Modern Middle East:  Rulers, Rebels, and Rogues Stanford:  Stanford University Press, 2016.

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Betty Anderson (BA): For years, I used William Cleveland’s A History of the Modern Middle East in my classes and supplemented it with readings from my colleagues’ monographs on social and intellectual history and with lectures from my own research. I had to do that because Cleveland presented a clear political narrative but left out the influence, for example, of students, workers, peasants and women on Middle Eastern history and spent little time discussing the ideas and identities debated by governors and governed alike. I melded these issues together in my classes every semester but still found students struggling to make the connections in their own papers, foregrounding political activities while treating as secondary the material on other social actors.

I also wanted to counteract media portrayals of the Middle East that 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 or as a place of implacable hostility when these categories hold sway across the media.  It is impossible to understand developments in the region over time or to analyze the tumultuous events of the last few years through narrow lenses, but too often that happens because of the media coverage. 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 has been to integrate both the 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. 

As I began to research and write I discovered that I could not only benefit from the richness of my colleagues’ close studies of their subjects, but I could take advantage of the broad geographical and chronological sweep to locate patterns across regions and times.  I found commonalities of practice between bandits in the Balkans at the turn of the nineteenth century and the institution-building projects that Mehmet Ali undertook in Egypt at the same time. I examined the governmental structures established after World War II – from Iran to Turkey to 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. 

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

BA: This book begins with Turkic migrants moving from Central Asia to the Middle East because they were pivotal for the founding of the Ottoman (fourteenth century) Empire and instrumental to the establishment of the Safavid (sixteenth century) Empire.  From there, the book proceeds to the current day. I chose to start with the founding stories of these empires because the governmental structures their leaders established and the relationships they forged between state and subjects provide valuable background information for the changes wrought in the more traditionally defined modern era of the late eighteenth 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. 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 different 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 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. From the anti-Syrian demonstrations that followed the assassination of Rafiq Hariri in Lebanon to the Arab Spring and Gezi Park events of 2011 and 2012, 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. While these events 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 such 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, diverse groups of rebels appeared throughout the Middle East in the years immediately after 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. Rebels can also be the Kurds, the Armenians, and the Palestinians who continually rejected the national claims of the governments ruling them. 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 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 eighteenth 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. 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.

To bring these three groups together, I examine the many types of rulers wielding power in the Middle East alongside societal groups that rarely appear in textbooks, usually left out because their influences are more difficult to measure than those of the political leaderships. I return century to century, decade to decade, to the actions and ideological positions proffered by monarchs and presidents, and also be 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.

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

BA: This book brings together years of teaching and research.  My previous books – Nationalist Voices in Jordan: The Street and the State and The American University of Beirut: Arab Nationalism and Liberal Education (both from the University of Texas Press, 2005 and 2011, respectively) – examined the emergence of nationalism in the region, social change, and educational influences. In this new book, I combined these topics together within a larger political narrative of the modern Middle East.  My writing was guided by the needs I saw in my own classroom. 

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

BA: I hope that my colleagues find this book useful in both undergraduate and graduate classes.  I could not discuss every possible issue over many centuries and across a large geographic area but hopefully I have complicated the narrative enough that professors can find ways to insert into their classrooms the topics I did not investigate.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

BA: I am just beginning a project analyzing how Beirut, Amman, and Ramallah have changed over the last twenty-five years. I am still in the early phase of this project but I plan to examine the effects of neoliberal economic change, of municipal planning programs, and of nation-branding campaigns on social life in these three very different cities. 


Excerpt from Chapter Three 

The reforms initiated by Mehmet Ali, the Ottoman sultans, and the Qajar shahs were not the result of popular pressure. No rebellions or rogue actions were large enough or strong enough to truly challenge their governments; the Europeans were certainly banging on their doors by the early 19th century, but no action was sufficient to threaten the integrity of any of these states.  Yet, as seen throughout the Ottoman Empire, many were looking for new ways to make money and gain local authority, while Sultan Selim III tried to reform the Ottoman military before being stopped by Janissary opposition.

European governance, society, and economic influence provided tantalizing new avenues for social and political change for those gaining access to these new opportunities.  Once instituted, the reforms created a snowball effect, whereby the initial goal of reforming the military created the need for constructing associated institutions, which in turn produced stakeholders for the type of Westernized modernity that came along with the new institutions.  Those stakeholders pushed for the reforms to spread more widely so that old elites and institutions could be replaced with the new and modern.  Many found themselves working in new jobs; they frequently organized to fight for rights they never needed before.

These changes had unintended consequences for state leaders and those being swept up into the new institutions.  The imperial machines still depended on intermediaries, but now the intermediaries increased in number and in the roles they could play.  The timariot, mültizam, and religious clerics no longer had sufficient numbers or quality of skills necessary for the tasks being undertaken by state agencies.  To conscript peasants into the military, monopolize cash crop exports, collect taxes for the central treasury, and standardize educational curricula, the intermediaries needed to be educated in the new administrative practices and fully embedded in their societies so they could identify the resources to be collected for the state.  No longer could the empires rely on professional armies and administrators recruited from outside and trained as cadres separate and above society.  Local landholders, merchants, and tribal shaykhs offered their services to their states because they could bring along members of networks they established in the provinces and the tribesmen who followed them in village and desert regions.

The state had to grant the new intermediaries additional authority to supervise and guide the people within their networks and tribes.  In return for these services, state leaders had to recognize that these men were not just intermediaries but local notables.  The most common title for this group in the Arab areas of the 19th century was a`yan (notable).  The members were no longer merely tax farmers collecting revenues once a year but respected local authorities who could collect resources for the state and provide jobs, schooling, and loans to their allies from within the burgeoning state realm.

The traditional Ottoman reliance on divide-and-rule policies designed to forestall the emergence of a lineage that could challenge imperial legitimacy still paid dividends since none of these new notables sought out imperial authority.  However, under the new conditions they could establish family lines that built up wealth and power over many generations in their home provinces, with networks that often included profits earned from land, commerce, manufacturing, and positions in local state governments.  The 19th-century state required so many services from these notables that they had to be allowed to acquire local aristocratic privileges in return for providing as many resources to the state as possible.

But these new notables were not the only beneficiaries of the new reforms, nor were they the only groups affected by them.  In many regions, peasants registered the land they had worked for generations; in other areas they became sharecroppers or tenant farmers for large landowners.  While soldiers conscripted into the Ottoman and Egyptian armies had maimed themselves to avoid military service at the beginning of the 19th century, their grandsons at the end of the century were demanding more rights of promotion within the military ranks.

Workers in the new railways and telegraphic companies across the Middle East were among the first to organize unions to strike against poor working conditions and low pay.  Women in Lebanese silk factories went on strike simultaneously; those women attending foreign missionary schools across the region were among the first to public magazines addressing women’s issues in the new societies forming around them.  The magazines and newspapers sprouting up in all the major cities included articles relating the history of the Arabs, Turks, and Armenians; they also all worked to standardize a language that everyone within the nation could speak.

Out of this work came the firsts stirrings of national identification and activism, complicating the already ambiguous definitions of Ottomanism put forth by Ottoman state leaders at the end of the 19th century and making Egyptian opposition to British colonialism a national cause.  While these groups sought to construct new identities for themselves, they drew a line between those people who belonged and those who did not.  A series of conflicts erupted throughout the century pitting newly defined national groups against each other; Islam, Christianity, and Judaism also came to be identifiers that acted as catalysts, prompting people to attack their neighbors.  Everyone living in the Ottoman Empire and Egypt felt the effects of the reforms, and though most of the policies were imposed from the top down, many groups of individuals chose to organize themselves in new ways to tackle the problems and opportunities presented to them. 

[Excerpted from A History of the Modern Middle East: Rulers, Rebels, and Rogues. (c) 2015 Betty S. Anderson with permission of author.]

If you prefer, email your comments to




Apply for an ASI Internship now!


Political Economy Project

Issues a

Call for Letters of Interest


Jadaliyya Launches its

Political Economy




F O R    T H E    C L A S S R O O M 

Roundtable: Harold Wolpe’s Intellectual Agenda and Writing on Palestine


The 1967 Defeat and the Conditions of the Now: A Roundtable


E N G A G E M E N T