The Second World War, which began in September 1939, certainly spread towards the Middle East. When Germany overpowered Britain, in 1940, the British still held tight to Egypt, the defense of which was vital. At the battle of El Alamein on 23 October 1942 the British army prohibited the Germans from entering Egypt from the side of Libya. This was the most important and memorable date of the war in the Middle East, as a result that later the tide of war began to turn and become in favor of Britain.
The French war-time colonial government in Syria decided to co-operate with the so-called Vichy regime – a provisional government which administered the unoccupied southernmost part of France. British, as well as free French forces fighting on the Allied side, entered Syria and Lebanon from the Palestine aide in 1941, and were able to quickly defeat the Vichy French troops.
There were already movements for Arab nationhood in the Middle East, some that were long and well established. The political instability of the war meant that the ideas of Arab nationalism were able to develop quickly. The Arabs wanted to govern themselves and saw their opportunity. There was a wave of hostility towards Britain and France as a result. It also produced some sympathy towards Nazi Germany and to Fascist Italy among some politically conscious Arabs.
The initial Muslim fundamentalist movement had sprung up among Egyptian Sunni Muslims in approximately 1928. This was the Muslim Brotherhood, founded by an Egyptian teacher and preacher, by the name of Hassan al-Banna. During the war, the Brotherhood took an anti-British direction. Meanwhile, anti-British feeling became widespread to be facing defeat in the Western Desert. Egyptian politicians turned against their Allies, until the Allies began to beat the Germans. Many Egyptian army officers took an anti-British stand including, Anwar al-Sadat, who was to be President of Egypt from 1970 to 1981.
In many other places of the Arab world there were numerous other nationalist and anti-Allied movements that were occurring. In Syria, before the war, a new movement called the Ba’ath Party was founded by young intellectual Syrians who were educated in France. The most influential thinker of the Ba’ath Party was a well-known Christian Arab political activist named Michel Aflaq.
The Ba’ath Party was the very first Arab movement that began to set out the ideas and outlines of Arab independence as well as self-determination, and pan-Arab ideal that Arabs of different countries should have the same political movement. The movement taught its followers that all Arabs should belong to one single nation, and that the wealth of the Arab world should be used for the good of all the people collectively.
In Palestine, Arab nationalists thought the war might help them to eradicate the British. An influential nationalist in Palestine was Hajj Amin al-Husseini – the Mufti of Jerusalem, a leading Sunni Muslim religious dignitary – who was also a member of one of Palestine’s leading families. He greatly disliked the British and engaged in discussions with the Germans and Italians, who issued a declaration in favor of Arab independence in 1940.
In Iraq, in 1941, the Iraqi politician Rashid Ali al-Kilani attempted, with German support and encouragement, to stage a revolt against the British while the British forces were busy elsewhere. However, the British soon regained their control.
Britain’s final attempt to keep its position in the Middle East was a new international agreement, which was known as the Baghdad Pact, signed in 1955. The members of the Pact associated with this agreement were Britain, Iraq, Turkey, Iran and Pakistan. The USA was simply an associate member. The pact was meant to bind the Middle East states to the West, and to defend the Middle East and its oil against possible attacks from the Soviet Union, which had recently emerged as a super power to rival the United States after the Second World War.
However, the Pact failed. One reason was that Egypt’s new leader, President Nasser, who was very influential, saw the Pact as just a way for the old colonialists to maintain control over the Middle East. He refused to accept and join the Pact, and later he looked to the Soviet Union for military as well as financial assistance.
Another Middle Eastern state which refused membership of the Pact was Jordan, which was also unable to join because of internal political opposition, some of it from supporters of Nasser. In Iraq, after the first Iraqi military coup in 1958 when the monarchy fell, the new revolutionary regime withdrew.
After that the Pact, and with it the last remnants of any colonial relationship between the West and the Middle East, slowly withered away. That was effectively the end of the colonial era in the Middle East. From then on, the United States of America and the Soviet Union became the principal outside influences with regard to the Middle East.