Home History The Last Ottoman Generation and the Making of the Modern Middle East
Mandate Governance in Practice
Colonial functionaries in Britain and France envisioned their mandates as colonies and conquered territory. They conceded little to the League of Nations Permanent Mandates Commission, and even less to indigenous political leaders. When concessions were granted, they were invariably cosmetic and calculated to win praise in metropolitan newspapers and Geneva. The British government had specific goals in Transjordan and Iraq (and Egypt) having to do with military bases, secure communications, and oil concessions. These priorities were eventually obtained by treaty. The contradictions of the Palestine Mandate were more difficult to reconcile and placed greater, and eventually unsustainable, demands on the British Mandate administration and the treasury. France’s mandates in Syria and Lebanon were also more complicated, troublesome, and expensive, tangled up as they were in various strands of French national myth-making and nationalist ideology.
Acceptance of the modest demands of the Mandates Commission varied. British functionaries immediately understood the bureaucratic appetite for reports, and flooded Geneva with an endless stream of paper in response to every query, however minor. French functionaries were less self-confident and refused requests for specific information or replies to petitions for nearly a decade. The annual reports for Syria and Lebanon for 1920 through 1926 under-reported every kind of disorder and repression. Under the pressure of international opprobrium surrounding the Syrian revolt of 1925 7, French reports became gradually more comprehensive. Persistent negative press coverage tainted the British in Iraq in 1920, France in Syria in 1920 and 1925, and Britain in Palestine in the 1920s and through the 1930s. Such negative publicity came at a price that British and French politicians were often reluctant to pay.
The tactics, goals, and intentions of colonial rule changed over time. All of the mandate states began their existence under some form of military occupation and direct rule. Only Palestine functioned as a settler colony, where an indigenous majority was marginalized and disenfranchised in favor of the immigrant minority. Despite optimistic initial intentions, direct rule was too expensive, and too unpopular both in the imperial capital and in the colony, and the other four mandates developed varieties of indirect rule, albeit with ultimate authority resting with colonial officials in most areas involving security, politics, and law.
Lebanon and Syria eventually became indirectly ruled colonial- constitutional republics, while Iraq and Transjordan quickly became indirectly ruled colonial-constitutional monarchies. British officials secured their durable interests in petroleum, access to military installations, imperial security, and communications by a series of unpopular treaties imposed on the ruling monarch and parliament in both countries, as they had also done in Egypt. King Faysal in Iraq, Prince cAbadallah in Transjordan, and King Fuad in Egypt thus owed their positions to a delicate balance between imperial power and popular support, generally tilted toward serving British interests. France was more ambitious and less successful in securing its interests by treaty, due in part to the more ideological character of what constituted French interests.
Indirect rule in Palestine and Greater Lebanon was based on the expectation that Zionists and Lebanese Christians would prove loyal and reliable colonial subjects. The mandate granted Zionists and Maronite Christians economic and political domination and conditional possession of states of their own, literally carved out of the territory of the majority indigenous population. In return, the colonial client populations served as instruments of policy for the colonial state. But metropolitan colonial advocates did not describe the colonial patron client relationship between metropole and colony as one based on common interests, but in self-affirming ideological terms: the Zionists in Palestine and the Christians in Lebanon supported the colonial power not because their interests dictated, but because their racial, cultural, and civilizational status was superior to that of the majority populations. Bluntly stated, they were more “civilized,” and thus higher on the racial hierarchy than other colonial subjects. In a perverse twist, the influx of Jewish refugees from Germany after 1933 brought fiscal solvency to the Palestine Mandate administration, and probably temporarily postponed an official British disengagement from Palestine.
The Mandates Commission had no power to influence events or dictate policy, but always received blame for the distasteful consequences of colonial policing, counter insurgency, and policy generally. Crises demanded changes in mandate governance, and revolts in Iraq in 1920, and Syria in the mid 1920s, brought a shift toward indirect rule. But changes in governance came in response to various types of political pressure, and not in answer to any advocacy on the part of the League of Nations. British and French politicians and colonial functionaries were never compelled to take the League seriously or change policy at its behest.
On the other hand, the Mandates Commission and international attention compelled the creation of quasi-representative institutions not previously associated with colonial rule. In keeping with the racial and cultural paternalism of the time, the mandates were styled as educational operations between master nations and student nations. The mandatory state derived its legitimacy from the idea that it was a representative state of a “national people” in formation. The definition of the “national people” was contentious from the outset as the British Mandate identified European Jewish immigrants as a “nation” in their newly formed homeland under the Balfour Declaration, and the French Mandate identified Arab Christians as the preferred “nation” in formation. The Great Power effort to fragment and indirectly annex Ottoman territory through the manipulation of the “national question” had its origin in the period between the Crimean War in the 1850s and the Congress of Berlin in 1878.
Both British and French mandates claimed to foster representative government for those ex-Ottoman populations most receptive to mandate rule. The Mandates Commission applied modest pressure on the mandatory states to provide evidence of tutelage. Mandate governments decreed constitutions, elections, and supposedly representative institutions, always making the deceptive claim that such innovations were unprecedented in the region.
The representative character of such institutions was defective relative to the previous Ottoman system. Moreover, mandate functionaries rarely acknowledged the existence of previous Ottoman representative institutions. No functionary of the mandate system, or metropolitan politician, could admit the fact that Ottoman citizens had drafted constitutions, elected local and parliamentary representatives, negotiated laws, and state policies, and addressed petitions and grievances to the state’s representatives for decades before League of Nations mandatory tutelage arrived on the scene. Where Ottoman governors and institutions of state had been accessible, at least to some citizens, the office of mandate High Commissioner was designed to remotely control every aspect of the state and to be completely inaccessible.
Consequently, High Commissioners in British Palestine, and Iraq, and French Syria and Lebanon, canceled and voided elections, dismissed and jailed politicians, and had veto power over all laws, including every constitutional draft law. The office of the High Commissioner decided and implemented administrative divisions, and election districts. The colonial archives are mostly silent on the shadowy aspects of mandatory rule such as extra-judicial detention, torture, collective punishment, assassinations, and executions of critics and challengers of the mandatory regimes. Uncounted thousands of petitions alleging such abuses were dispatched to the Mandates Commission, but serious investigations could not take place without the cooperation of the Mandate authorities. The Mandate Commission had little appetite for such investigations anyway. The application of martial law, detention without charge, trials, prison sentences, and executions could all be ordered or commuted at the whim of the High Commissioner, habits that have continued as a feature of Middle East legal regimes since the colonial period. The League of Nations performed the unenviable service of shrouding such practices in a facade of international legalism and phony representative government.
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