- Justice Interrupted: The Struggle for Constitutional Government in the Middle East by Elizabeth F. Thompson
At first glance, Elizabeth Thompson’s new book is an engrossing collection of portraits of 14 activists, 13 men and one woman, who threw themselves headlong into the collective struggles of their day. Starting with the 19th century constitutionalist movements and ending with the 2011 Arab uprisings, Thompson profiles dedicated politicians, theorists, and organizers who tirelessly promoted their notions of social justice and political enfranchisement, often against debilitating odds: Great Power intrigue, colonial domination, and postcolonial dictatorships backed by Cold War superpowers. More than a few of them ended up exiled, murdered, or overshadowed by their more famous contemporaries. If this was all that Justice Interrupted contributes, it would still be a luminous contribution to a people’s history of the Middle East. But by skillfully fusing biography and political history with the anchoring concept of justice, Thompson’s book is a genre-spanning original, a truly edifying work that will interest scholars, students, and general readers alike.
The book’s biographical portraits are arranged in three parts, mirroring the three turning points in the history of popular constitutionalism in the Middle East: the long 19th century, when the region joined a global wave of constitutionalist movements promoted by both state elites and dissident counter-elites, and subalterns; 1920–65, when the trauma of World War I led to the eclipse of constitutionalism by rival visions of just government rooted in religious, nationalist, and Communist foundations; and 1965 to the present, when the rise of repressive postcolonial states that shut down vibrant political arenas unintentionally resurrected constitutionalism as an emancipatory, unifying political project.
In the portraits we meet both legendary activists and barely known figures, but even familiar personages are completely recast by Thompson’s masterful reconstruction of their lifeworlds. Each chapter deftly weaves together activists’ own words, drawn from memoirs and letters, with accounts by contemporaneous sources, chronicles of later historians, and occasionally Thompson’s interviews with surviving fellow activists. The individual chapters are engrossing page-turners, carrying their erudition very lightly, but the fascinating endnotes and bibliographic essay reveal the skilled historian’s collation of a staggering array of sources.
The book opens with Mustafa ‘Ali, an Ottoman reformist bureaucrat of the 16th century and intellectual architect of the “Circle of Justice,” a new state ideology recasting the sultan as the guarantor of a just social order. Next we see how the paternalistic notion of the Circle of Justice was supplanted by a notion of popular sovereignty with the case of Lebanon, where rebel leader Tanyus Shahin led Christian peasants in a protest against taxes and feudal privileges in 1858–60. Then we are transported to Iran and Egypt, [End Page 335] where the idea of accountable government received its most sustained articulation in the constitutionalist revolutions of 1881/82 and 1906–11, two landmark events that continue to motivate contemporary struggles for just government in Egypt and Iran.
Three standout chapters in Part II recreate the “dynamic world of Arab mass politics” (p. 243) with portraits of three extraordinary organizers, outsiders all, who challenged the exclusive ruling establishments in their societies and paid a high price. Islamist schoolteacher Hasan al-Banna, Communist organizer Yusuf Salman Yusuf (Comrade Fahd), and Syrian socialist lawyer and peasant advocate Akram al-Hawrani led the largest mass movements in Egypt, Iraq, and Syria from the 1930s to the 1950s. Eerily, Banna and Yusuf were assassinated and hanged two days apart in February 1949. Hawrani’s end was less abrupt, but no less striking; from reaching the pinnacle of Syrian politics as Speaker of parliament in the 1950s, he fled Syria after the return of military rule (that he ironically enabled) and died in lonely exile in Jordan in 1996.
Part III chronicles collective struggles in the era of postcolonial dictatorship, with portraits of Abu Iyad, Fatah’s political theorist and intelligence chief; Egyptian Sayyid Qutb and Iranian ‘Ali Shari‘ati, dissidents and victims of Egyptian...