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  • The Struggle for Arab Independence:Riad el-Solh and the Makers of the Modern Middle East
  • Leila Fawaz (bio)
The Struggle for Arab Independence: Riad el-Solh and the Makers of the Modern Middle East, by Patrick Seale. Cambridge, UK and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010. 804 pages.

Patrick Seale's new book is a mine of information on the modern Middle East as well as a pleasure to read. In the field of Middle East studies, few have mastered the art of biography as well as he has. As with his other biographical work, Seale's study of Riad el-Solh, a pivotal figure in Lebanese and Arab politics, is much more than that. His chapters on the early life of Solh make us nostalgic for an Ottoman bygone time of pashas, notables, a slower pace of life, and a shared way of life for elites from one end of the empire to the other. These chapters are also a window into a world of gentler political struggles which, from the perspective of our cruel century, seem replete with moderation, charm, and elegance. Few have mastered the intertwining of petite histoire and global history as well as Seale has, and he is at it again in this lively and important study. One might have wished the author to be more critical of his main subject; however, it is part of Seale's art as a writer to let readers form their own opinions on the basis of unique material provided by access to family archives and interviews, as well as by the use of other primary and secondary sources. [End Page 162]

One of the brilliant traits of this book is that it brings out the many ways in which moderates lost legitimacy, as missed opportunities for compromise or communication chipped at their influence, strained relations among regional actors and states, and moved the Middle East toward confrontation and intolerant politics. The author takes us through the evolution of politically conscious Arabs, from committed Ottomanists to Arab nationalists. He thereby enables readers to see how global events, such as World War I, as well as the accident of the actions of single actors in history, such as — as he sees it — those of Jamal Pasha in Greater Syria, could harm pan-national loyalties, weaken "an older moderate generation" that "still flirted with Ottomanism" (p. 99), and unite a younger generation around clear Arab national goals.

As the French Mandate asserted its grip on Syria and Lebanon after the Great War, Solh established himself as a national leader. With the independence of Lebanon in 1943, Maronite leader Bishara a-Khoury and Solh forged the basis of a political compromise between Maronites and Sunni Muslims — the renowned unwritten agreement known as the National Pact (al-mithaq al-watani), which has withstood the test of time. As Patrick Seale explains it, decades of political experience in the region and beyond, as well as years of exile in Europe had prepared Solh to seize the moment of Lebanon's struggles for independence to assert himself in Lebanese politics, commit Sunni Muslims to the new state, and build ties with the Lebanese Christian elites in a lasting power-sharing relationship. Solh became a reforming Prime Minister and, regardless of his leadership in Arab national causes, devoted himself to the independence of Lebanon and to making it a beacon for the Arab world. Turmoil in the region, however, including the Arab defeat and the creation of Israel in 1948, affected him deeply and pushed Arab nationalists into radical politics. Solh was assassinated in Amman in 1951, probably by followers of Antun Sa'adah's Syrian Social Nationalist Party, but perhaps by others: Seale examines the question of who might have killed Solh, but does not come up with a firm conclusion, as conspiracy theories multiplied. What matters is that one more voice of reason was eliminated in a whirlwind of regional politics that brought the Middle East closer and closer to the brink. In this way, the book, which is about one leader, Riad el-Solh, is in fact a history of the modern Middle East, beautifully presented by a seasoned writer...


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pp. 162-163
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