Book Review

My Memoirs: Half a Century of the History of Iraq and the Arab Cause

Tawfiq al-Suwaydi

Fall 2014, Volume XXI, Number 3

This new translation of Tawfiq al-Suwaydi's Memoirs, originally written in the late 1960s, may sound like a voice from the distant past, given the cataclysmic events currently shaking Iraq, but it is a fascinating tour de force on earlier attempts of the British and the Iraqis at nation building in Iraq and a useful guide to Iraqi political culture.

The memoirs span the period of the late Ottoman Empire and the first Arab awakening, in which the young Suwaydi participated, through the empire's collapse and the turmoil that followed. It then depicts the myriad pitfalls of politics in the Iraqi monarchical state the British established in 1921 and held together through World War II and its aftermath until its collapse in 1958. As a key participant in these events and a leading politician, diplomat and statesman in his country, Suwaydi gives the reader a unique view of Iraqi state and society in this formative period. He is particularly insightful on the driving forces behind the perennial struggle for power among the triangle of players that emerged: the British, the monarch and a small but growing coterie of Iraqi politicians who ran Iraq. He reminds us of the early, constant instability that sounds strikingly familiar — the interplay of opportunistic politicians stirring up tribal supporters to unseat governments; the growing intervention of the military in politics; and the pressure of anti-British sentiment, which reached a crescendo in the Rashid Ali coup of 1941 and resulted in British intervention during World War II.

It is noteworthy that he views the period of the 1950s with some satisfaction, as might be expected from one of its architects. There was growing Iraqi prosperity and development as oil revenues increased and a gradual cultural change toward modernity took place, with an educated middle class emerging and gaining more influence over its affairs. Not surprisingly, Suwaydi considers the overthrow of the regime in 1958 as a political disaster, which he attributes to the rise of Nasser's widespread anti-colonialist propaganda and neglect of the political homefront by Nuri al-Said and other politicians. After a trial, a three-year imprisonment and exile in Lebanon, Suwaydi penned these memoirs. His conclusion at the end of a half century of work should be pondered today:

Step by step...we built up the constituents of a robust, modern state. All the signs of the time augured well for further progress of the same kind....However, it was soon to suffer setbacks that would rob it of the gains it had made,...causing it to collapse and regress with shocking rapidity. How easy it is to tear down and how difficult to build up! (p. 514)

Are there any lessons for the future to be extrapolated from this account? Three features of the former political landscape strike me as particularly relevant. The first is the personalism of politics and the weakness of institution building. The memoirs detail the interactions among a relatively small group of people whose egos and status were constantly in play as they cycled in and out of relatively short-lived cabinets. Some were tied to the Hashemite monarch (the so-called Sharifians, like Nuri al-Said and Jafar al-Askari). Others, like Suwaydi and his brother Naji, came from well- established families, or had religious or tribal ties. Although many were educated, personal contacts (wasta) and family ties were essential in gaining a foothold on the political ladder and moving to the top. The key connection in Suwaydi's rise was his family tie to Abd al-Muhsin al-Sadun, his uncle and the leading politician of his time, who first appointed him minister of education in 1927 (at age 37) and then suggested him for prime minister in 1929.

Building institutions and establishing respect for the rule of law and educational standards proved more difficult, as Suwaydi points out. He cites one famous example from his days as a law school dean. Given low educational levels at the time (in 1921-22, the vast majority of the country's inhabitants could neither read nor write [p. 121]), Suwaidi insisted on a secondary degree or passage of an entrance exam for admission to the law school, but this was difficult to enforce and also smacked of elitism. When he was presented a list of graduates from the Jafari (i.e., Shii) School, he refused the group admission because the school did not meet high-school standards. The king insisted they be admitted, and Suwaydi finally capitulated. Of course, the episode concealed another key problem in Iraq's development not mentioned in the book: the paucity of Shia and Kurds in the ruling class. The list included a number of future Shii ministers and politicians, but it took intervention by King Faisal, in a recognizable attempt at "affirmative action," to get their admission (p. 102-03).

The second theme that clearly emerges is constant anti-British sentiment at the popular level and the complications this caused for governing politicians who had to reconcile this fact, and their own desires for independence, with the needs of the newly formed state for outside help. This dichotomy produced a political schizophrenia that has never disappeared. The British sought to deal with the dilemma by converting the mandate into a treaty, and then folding the treaty into the constitution, which had to be passed by an Iraqi assembly. The result is brilliantly described by Suwaydi. By framing the constitution in this way, he explains, the British hoped to reconcile the autonomy sought by the Iraqis with the mandate established by the League of Nations. If Iraqis demanded full independence, the British would likely wash their hands of the country, although Britain wished to maintain a direct role in Iraqi affairs. In reality, the overall situation was quite dismal. The Mosul issue (whether Turkey or Iraq would get Mosul Province) had not yet been resolved; and if Turkey won the day, Iraq could be deprived of its best territory. Although both rejection and acceptance of the treaty could be dangerous and troublesome, "prudent politicians" (Suwaydi was one) agreed that acceptance of the treaty was preferable to its rejection. In a frank admission of the hypocrisy involved, Suwaydi admits that the politicians "worked to convince others to accept it while they themselves remained in opposition to it" (p. 120).

The dilemma of the "foreign tie" continued to bedevil the new state until the end of the monarchy — and beyond. One of the earliest casualties was Abd al-Muhsin al-Sadun himself (a suicide), caught between his attempt to gain treaty revision and British refusal. Instead, it was Nuri al-Said who negotiated the 1930 treaty that brought Iraq into the League of Nations as an "independent" state, although British troops, bases and advisers remained. Opposition to the treaty was a focal point of the Rashid Ali coup of 1941 that nearly unseated the pro-British regime, the uprising of 1948, and the Baghdad Pact of 1955 — meant to replace the treaty — which was a major cause of the regime's overthrow in 1958.

A third theme to be taken away from these memoirs is the fragility of the Iraqi state and the ambiguity of the identity that underlay its construction. In Suwaydi's telling of Iraqi history, the early decades of British state building were rocky. He reminds us of the tribal politics of the mid-1930s, when Baghdad politicians stirred up mid-Euphrates tribal leaders to unseat various governments, and factionalism and constant meddling by officers led to a series of coups from 1936 to 1941. It was only in the 1950s that a more stable state emerged. In the postwar period, Suwaydi was a "reform" prime minister aiding the regent in lifting war-time restrictions and instituting several measures on freedom of the press and political parties in his 1946 cabinet. He viewed Nuri's cabinet from 1950-52 as one of the most effective in state building. It brought a revised oil agreement, the Development Board and the onset of the construction of roads, dams and other economic projects — mainly, in Suwaydi's view, because Nuri brought in new people with little experience and ran the cabinet "by fiat" (p. 417).

It should be noted, however, that all this development did not save the regime. This may well be due, at least in part, to the identity issue. Suwaydi provides a good example. Although he was clearly loyal to the state and its constitution, even through trying circumstances, his sympathies, like those of his colleagues, lay from the first with a broader but ill-defined Arab nation. When the earlier Hashimite Arab revolt failed and the area was divided into mandates, he continued to work first for independence in Iraq and then for Arab unity. The political class of which Suwaydi was a part built a state on economic development, a constitution and a strong central government. That state was becoming more prosperous and reasonably well educated, but it had a weak and still narrowly based political structure at home. In retrospect, no attention was paid to nurturing a national identity that focused on the new country rather than a transnational Arab identity. In the end, it was this broader transnational identity that helped sweep the regime away, along with many of its gains.

This book is a very welcome addition to Iraqi history. Despite the current plethora of literature on current events in Iraq, there are few sources that provide us insights on the early, more formative, "pre-Saddam" history of Iraq and the political outlook of its leaders. To those unfamiliar with the ins and outs of this period, Anthony Sullivan has written an excellent introduction that sets the stage and provides background on Suwaydi's role. We should also be grateful to the translator, Nancy Roberts, and publisher, Lynne Rienner, for this effort. The book will be of particular use to scholars and students, who will now have access in English to a valuable primary source for the seminal events of this period. For the ordinary reader interested in gaining perspective on current upheavals, this book will reward their effort with fascinating narrative and the portrayal of major historical figures.