Faisal II of Iraq, aged 18, taking his oath of office before parliament in 1953. Photo: AFP/Getty Images
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Why Britain created monarchies in the Middle East

When was the most stable time in recent Iraqi history? Most likely it was during the British-sponsored Hashemite Kingdom of Iraq from 1921 to 1958.

The Commonwealth Games in Glasgow this year welcomed former British colonies, but absent were those Middle Eastern states where Britain had exercised imperial soft power in the twentieth century. From around the time of the First World War protectorates and mandates were used to control these territories. In Jordan, Iraq, Egypt and later Libya, the British set up kings to help their rule.

Back in 1921 two brothers, Faisal and Abdullah (the sons of Hussein ibn Ali who lead the Arab Revolt), were rewarded by the British and made rulers of Mesopotamia and Transjordan respectively. These were territories captured by the British from the Ottoman Empire 1917-1918 (with not inconsiderable help from the Arab Revolt), and were awarded by the League of Nations to Britain as mandates. This territory was supposedly to be held in trust for eventual independence, while the mandatory power built up the administration and infrastructure. To help the British, Faisal became ruler of the Hashemite Kingdom of Iraq, while Abdullah was Emir and then King of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.

The Hashemite family trace their descent from the Prophet Mohammed and were governors, or Sharifs, of Mecca for hundreds of years. Sharif Hussein ibn Ali launched the Arab Revolt against the Ottomans in 1916 in response to British promises of independence. He made himself King of the Hejaz, the strip of Arabia along the Red Sea, but lost it in the mid-1920s to the fundamentalist Saudis. Hussein ibn Ali and his eldest son Ali – who had tried to fight a rear guard action against Abdul-Aziz ibn Saud as King of the Hejaz (1924-1925) – each found ready-made exile in the British sponsored realms of Jordan and Iraq.

Although outsiders to Mesopotamia, the Hashemites arguably developed the administration and infrastructure in a country that had become a backwater in the former Ottoman Empire, and three generations ruled as Kings of Iraq for 37 years. The urbane Faisal I (1921-1933) had been a member of the Ottoman parliament but while participating in his father’s Arab revolt became a friend of T E Lawrence. At the Paris Peace Conference in 1920 he had tried to establish himself as King of Greater Syria in Damascus, but was blocked by the French.

Faisal I was an inspired candidate as King of Iraq, since he was unencumbered by French notions of secular republicanism. His rule meant that the British relinquished their mandate in 1932 and Iraq gained independence, although the British retained military bases. Faisal I died suddenly the next year, aged 48, while having a health check-up in Switzerland. His son Ghazi (1933-1939) was something of a playboy and more antipathetic to the continuing British influence (as well as being sympathetic to the strong nationalism of Nazi Germany). A lover of fast cars, he died in April 1939 at the wheel of his Buick after an evening of drinking. Some have even suggested that British intelligence services engineered the car accident.

The final king Faisal II (1939-1958) succeeded as a four year old. The regent was his uncle (actually second cousin) Abdulilah, the son of Faisal I’s brother, Ali (who had been defeated and thrown out of Arabia by the Saudis in 1925). The regent was active in government, although he was also fond of shopping in Bond Street shops and smart young men. He was briefly removed by pro-Nazi officers, an event that lead to the short Anglo-Iraqi War in May 1941, after which Britain restored him. Faisal II came of age in 1953 but his sole rule was hampered because Abdulilah remained the heir-apparent to this young and as yet unmarried monarch. Faisal II’s reputation was also harmed by being pro-British. He made a state visit to the young Queen Elizabeth II, but he could not defend Britain’s actions during the Suez Crisis. In 1958 Faisal II, Abdulilah and most of the royal family were murdered on Bastille Day.

The British also promoted a royal family in Egypt: the dynasty of Mehmet Ali. An Albanian soldier, Mehmet Ali, had gone to Egypt to help the Ottomans restore control after Napoleon’s Egyptian expedition 1798-1801. But Mehmet Ali instead established himself and his successors as independent rulers, using the title Khedive (for which the best translation is viceroy). The British had first established bases to protect the Suez Canal in 1882. When war broke out in 1914, the Khedive Abbas Hilmi was visiting the Ottoman capital Constantinople. The British, now at war with the Turks, could not accept this and deposed him.

Britain declared a protectorate over Egypt and set up the last Khedive’s uncle as Sultan Hussein Kamil (1914-1917). He was succeeded by his brother Fuad I (1917-1936) who took the western title King when Egypt nominally became independent in 1922 (as in Iraq, Britain retained military bases and a strong influence on ministerial appointments). Fuad I worked with the Egyptian parliament and promoted education, establishing a secular university in Cairo. His son King Farouk (1936-1952) came to the throne as a popular, intelligent and handsome young man. Egypt’s prestige soured – being the centre of Arab film, newspapers and education.

When the Arab League was formed in 1945, Cairo was the natural choice for its headquarters. But Farouk’s power was curtailed when the British, wary of his antagonism during the Second World War, imposed a new government in 1942. Farouk became more licentious and his weight ballooned. Cairo was known for its parties – at one event the Kings of Egypt, Albania, Bulgaria, Greece and Yugoslavia were reportedly present. The Free Officers movement deposed Farouk in 1952; he died overweight, choking on his meal at a restaurant table in Rome in 1965, aged only 45. The Egyptian monarchy was not quite finished, though. Farouk’s infant son was proclaimed King Fuad II (1952-1953) but a baby in exile with his deposed father was not a sustainable head of state, and a republic was declared within a year. Fuad II, now in his early 60s, has not attempted to reclaim the Egyptian throne.

The British were also behind Libya’s brief monarchy. The Italians seized the north African coast adjacent to Sicily from the Ottomans in 1912, taking advantage of the Turk’s defeat in the First Balkan War. In 1920, to aid their control the leader of the Sufi Senussi religious-tribal order, Sidi Mohammed Idris al-Senussi had become their vassal as Emir of Cyrenaica in the east around Benghazi, but he soon went into exile in British-occupied Egypt. He got his reward for ardently supporting the British against the Italians and Germans in the Western Desert during the Second World War when, at the end of Allied military occupation, the British installed him as King Idris (1951-1969). Idris consolidated his power with the help of the old elite Ottoman-Libyan families and multinational oil companies. Into the 1960s Idris allowed his nephew and heir Hassan al-Senuusi, to exercise increasing power. In 1969 Idris announced that he would formally abdicate in favour of his nephew. However, despite the presence of USAF and RAF airbases, Idris was deposed by Colonel Gaddafi while on an overseas medical trip.

The British-sponsored monarchies in Iraq, Egypt and Libya did not last. However, the Hashemites continue to reign in Jordan, with Abdullah I (1921-1951), Talal (1951-1952), the well-respected Hussein (1951-1999) and Abdullah II (1999 onwards). The Jordanian kings, cousins of Iraq’s monarchs, have successfully introduced modern concepts of the nation-state, administration and education. But this could have been said of the other monarchies. They fell to ideas of pan-Arab nationalism and are now beset by Islamism.

History judges the old kingdoms harshly. From the outside we may favour democratic secular republics, but at present the remaining monarchy in Jordan endures, while the deposed monarchies in Libya, Egypt and Iraq are beset by tragedy. When was the most stable time in recent Iraqi history? Most likely it was during the Hashemite Kingdom of Iraq from 1921 to 1958. Abdulilah, the Regent of Iraq, reportedly said that monarchy was best for the east. Should the reasonableness of this view be judged by his and his nephew King Faisal II’s fate, or by the fate of Iraq since their murders?

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What’s it like to be a human rights activist in post-Pussy Riot Russia?

It is five years since the feminist punk collective crashed Moscow’s Cathedral in a performance that got some of them jailed.

On 21 February 2012, five brightly-dressed members of Russian feminist punk collective Pussy Riot took to the alter of Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour to protest links between the Russian Orthodox Church and its “chief saint” Russian President Vladimir Putin. “Virgin birth-giver of God, drive away Putin!” they shouted from beneath now-iconic balaclavas.

The “Punk Prayer” was both a political statement and a powerful feminist message. Six months later, a judge sentenced three of the girls to two years in prison (one was rapidly released) on a conspicuously apolitical conviction of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred”.

These past five years, Russia’s involvement in crises in Syria and Ukraine has cast a dark shadow over relations with an increasingly cleaved-off West. The year 2015 saw opposition politician Boris Nemtsov murdered some 500 metres from the Kremlin walls.

Domestically, society has constricted people challenging the political status quo. However, low-key initiatives retain traction.

“Artists are simply silent,” says Russian curator and gallerist Marat Guelman, who left for Montenegro in early 2015. “It is better not to say anything about politics, it is better to bypass these issues.”

This is a major difference from five years ago. “Despite persecution against Pussy Riot, people were not afraid to defend them,” he says. “It was a better time.”

There are three topics artists and curators now avoid, says artist and feminist activist Mikaela. One is “homosexuality . . . especially if it involves adolescents”, she says, citing a 2015 exhibit about LGBT teens called “Be Yourself”. Authorities closed it and interrogated the galley owner. “Then the war in Ukraine,” she says. “Russian Orthodoxy is the third topic you cannot tackle.”

Marianna Muravyeva, a law professor at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics, says that aside from the government completely discarding human rights rhetoric, the most significant legal change is the “gay propaganda” law and “legislation against those who insult the feelings of believers”.

The latter came into force in July 2013. Since then, the Orthodox Church has made deeper societal incursions. Muravyeva says that the secular nature of the Soviet Union led to residual feelings of guilt towards the Church – and now it uses that “capital”.

Mikaela observes a “cultural expansion”, citing a new TV channel, radio station and three new churches in her neighbourhood alone.

Orthodox activist attacks on exhibits have increased. In August 2015, they targeted an exhibit at one of Moscow’s most prominent art galleries. Its perpetrators were found guilty of “petty hooliganism” and handed a 1,000 rouble fine (£14 by today’s rates).

“Any word written in Old Slavonic lettering is spirituality,” says Guelman. “Any work of art by a modern artist . . . depravity, sin, the impact of the West.”

Similar groups are active across Russia, and galleries err on the side of caution. Perpetrators, while self-organised, believe their actions to be state-sanctioned, says Muravyeva. They are influenced by “the kinds of messages” conveyed by the government. 

Nowadays, self-organisation is integral to artistic expression. Mikaela witnessed educational institutions and foreign foundations telling artists “we are with you”, “we know you are smart” but they cannot host political works for fear of closure. Not knowing where the “invisible line” lies foments uncertainty. “It’s self-censorship,” she says.

Dissident artist Petr Pavlensky, notorious for nailing his scrotum to the Red Square in late 2013 (“Fixation”) and setting fire to the doors of the FSB in 2015, advocates personal agency.

“Fixation” was about a sense of helplessness in Russia that must be overcome; he tried to convey the amount of power the castrated have. “Pavlensky says, ‘Look, I have even less than you’,” says Guelman. The artist and his partner Oksana Shalygina are now in France intending to seek asylum after sexual assault accusations.

Some rise to the opportunity, such as Daria Serenko. She rides the Moscow Metro carrying political posters as part of Tikhy Piket or “Silent Protest”. Her 12 February sign depicted a girl with her head in her arms inundated by the comments received if a women alleges rape (“she was probably drunk”, “what was she wearing?”).

However, as a lone individual in a public space, she experienced hostility. “Men, as always, laughed,” she posted on Facebook afterwards. Earlier this month an anonymous group pasted painted plants accompanied by anti-domestic violence messages around Omsk, southwestern Siberia.

Their appearance corresponded with Putin signing legislation on 7 February decriminalising domestic abuse that causes “minor harm”. While it doesn’t specifically mention women, Muravyeva says that the message “women can manage on their own” is a “disaster”.

On 27 January, after Russia’s parliament passed the final draft, pro-Kremlin tabloid Life released a video (“He Beats You Because He Loves You”) showing how to inflict pain without leaving a mark.

Heightened social awareness is aided by online networks. Since “Punk Prayer”, the proportion of people using the internet in Russia has exploded. In 2011, it was 33 per cent, while in 2016 it was 73 per cent, according annual Freedom House reports. Authorities have concurrently exerted stronger controls over it, eg. targeting individual social media users through broadly-worded laws against “extremism”.

Last July, the hashtag #ЯНеБоюсьСказать (“#IamNotAfraidtoSay”) went viral. Women documented experiences of sexual violence. Russian organisation Сёстры (“Sisters”), which helps survivors receive psychological support, receives “250-350” crisis calls annually.

“Over the past year, the number of applications increased,” because of the hashtag, it says. New media platforms Meduza and Wonderzine also emerged as more “socially aware” outlets. Previously “all we had was LiveJournal communities,” Mikaela says.

Bottom-up challenges are partially due to a generational shift. “Nobody bothered before,” says Muravyeva. “Those children who were born after ‘95 . . . they were already born in a very free society – they don’t know what it is to be afraid, they don’t know what it is to be self-censoring, what it is to be really scared of the state.”

Aliide Naylor is a British journalist and former Arts and Ideas Editor of The Moscow Times.

> Now read Anoosh Chakelian’s interview with Nadya Tolokonnikova of Pussy Riot