The collapse of the pseudo-constitutional regimes left by Britain and France in three important Arab states, Egypt, Syria, and Iraq, was a major development in post-World War II Arab history. (Lebanon was an exception: its much maligned confessional parliamentary democracy survived into the 1970s.) However much has been written about these countries, Rey of the Collège de France illuminates their history from a novel angle: the efforts to maintain a constitutional monarchy in Iraq and a parliamentary republic in Syria.
He describes how these efforts have failed but identifies positive aspects in the two countries' political history as well as in the quest to build modern political systems based on representation, the rule of law, and the give and take between different social and ethnic groups.
He begins with the attempts by Ottoman reformers to introduce elements of constitutional and representative government, proceeds with the record of the British and French mandates, and concludes with the failure of this parliamentary experiment.
Syria gained independence from French control at the end of World War II, but it took just four years for three consecutive coups d'état to be staged in Damascus in 1949. Iraq had enjoyed limited independence from the early 1930s, but military intervention in its politics began in the middle of that decade. By 1958, both Syria and Iraq were ruled by revolutionary military regimes. Later, Syria was integrated into the United Arab Republic for three and a half years and has been ruled by versions of the Baath Party since 1963.
What the book lacks is an analysis of the inherent weakness of the parliamentary effort, which doomed it to failure. That analysis would begin with British and French cynicism. Denied direct control of their new possessions by Woodrow Wilson, the two powers devised the mandatory system, which deposited these territories in their hands supposedly to prepare them for independence and enlightened self-rule. Their original sin was drawing boundaries that were hardly viable. Iraq contained three distinct units: Shiite Arab, Sunni Arab, and Kurdish and was handed over to a Sunni Hashemite prince who, with the help of his entourage, tried to impose a pan-Arab ideology and authoritarian government on a reluctant majority. In Syria, the French saw Sunni Arab nationalism as a hostile force, which they tried to neutralize by fostering ethnic and sectarian divisions. And when parliaments were elected and stood up to the French, the latter just suspended them.
Despite the apparently long history of parliamentary institutions during the last decades of the Ottoman Empire, the culture of representation and parliamentary rule was too frail to contend with the might of primordial loyalties such as tribalism and regionalism. Rey correctly points to how the 1948-49 war with Israel delegitimized the anciens régimes of Iraq and Syria and impacted regional and international rivalries.
Then, in the mid-1950s, the rise of messianic Nasserism offered a different, initially sweeping model. And as the sad experience of the recent "Arab Spring" shows, the quest for a genuine, liberal, constitutional governance in the core area of the Arab world still faces huge obstacles.