The CUP’s Broken Fortunes and Arabs
By going to early elections the CUP had hoped to secure a parliamentary majority for another four years, yet it was only able to hold on to power for several weeks. The election campaign exposed the Unionists’ weaknesses, and, although the elections resulted in a CUP majority, the gross imbalance in its favor in the new Parliament was not only a sign of the Committee’s inequitable electoral conduct but also betrayed a lack of self-confidence, thus exposing it to a challenge from the army. Once again a faction of army officers, who called themselves Halaskâran (Saviors), intervened in the political process by asking the Said Pasha government to step down. Disenchanted with the Committee, Said Pasha resigned despite a vote of confidence in his favor, clearing the way for the “Great Cabinet” of Gazi Ahmed Muhtar Pasha, elder statesman and general, which also included two other former grand viziers, Kamil and Hüseyin Hilmi. The new government dislodged the CUP and gave new hope to the Ententists.
The period from July 1912, when the Gazi Ahmed Muhtar cabinet took over, to January 1913, when the CUP made a forceful comeback, was replete with political changes both domestic and external. Ahmed Muhtar Pasha dissolved Parliament in August and prepared for new elections. In October the Balkan countries opened hostilities against the empire, forcing the government to conclude a peace settlement with Italy and to cancel the elections. At the end of October Kamil Pasha came to the grand vizierate, a post he held until the Unionist coup of January 1913.
The Great Cabinet resolved to break Unionist influence in the provinces. Many in administrative positions were replaced, and orders went to the provinces enjoining all functionaries, clerks, and teachers to refrain from getting involved in party politics. Ahmed Muhtar Pasha did not intend, however, to weaken the CUP until it could not survive. Despite its Ententist sympathies, this cabinet functioned in the spirit of a compromise government that remained above party politics. A Union ist Arab deputy and the vice-president of the disbanded Chamber, Muhammad Fawzi Pasha (al-‘Azm) of Damascus, served in the cabinet as minister of religious foundations.
When Kamil Pasha resumed the grand vizierate, however, he attempted to eradicate the CUP. The CUP clubs in the provinces were searched and their records sent to İstanbul. This also induced defections from the party. Leading Unionists escaped abroad as the government moved to court-martial them.
In the second half of 1912 political activity and intrigue intensified in the Arab provinces as a result of several factors: the renewed—but ultimately aborted—hope that new elections offered; uncertainty regarding the future of the Ottoman state in view of foreign threats; diminished central authority and administrative control in the provinces; and the intensification of foreign machinations.
Arab Dissidence and the Egyptian Factor
In July 1912 the Ottoman authorities in Cairo reported the printing and distribution of pamphlets in Egypt critical of the CUP and “inciting the entire Arab nation to rise with the pen and the sword.” Soon after, there were reports from Syria regarding the arrest of spies of Algerian origin sent to Syria to provoke traitorous activities. The governor suspected European instigation and reiterated the need for an investigation in Egypt. Moreover, he advised the suppression of Arabist newspapers in Syria. These developments preceded the formation of the Ottoman Administrative Decentralization Party (Hizb al-lamarkaziyya al-idariyya al-‘uthmani) at the end of 1912, with the approval, if not encouragement, of the British administration and with links to Syria.
Already in occupation of Egypt and systematically acquiring footholds along the eastern fringes of the Arabian Peninsula, Britain was hardly disinterested in the Arab lands in between. European consuls in these regions reported frequently before 1912 on alleged activities of British agents among the Arabs and warned of British motives to occupy these areas. But London’s policies vis-à-vis the Arab East were shaped in general by its traditional interests in the region, namely the maintenance of its trade, the security of routes to India, and the continuation of its control over Egypt. As long as these interests were not threatened by either a strengthened Ottoman government or by the intervention of other powers, occupation was not desirable for diplomatic, political, and military reasons. In addition, Britain had to be more sensitive than before to French ambitions in Syria following the naval agreement concluded between the two powers in 1912.
In the summer of 1912, in view of the unstable political situation inside the empire and threats to it from outside, the British government reappraised its role in the Arab provinces and explored the option of occupation. Lowther sent a confidential query to the consulates regarding conditions pertaining to mobilization of local resources in Syria. Detailed reports responding to the query arrived from Damascus, Jerusalem, Aleppo, and Beirut and were relayed in London to the War Office. Consul Fontana (Aleppo) wrote in his report: “I have been informed by more than one Englishman in touch with the tribal sheikhs of upper Mesopotamia that these chiefs of tribes ask when the English are coming to occupy “Jezireh” [Mesopotamia], declaring that they will help them to conquer the country.”
The British administration in Egypt sought to exploit to its advantage the opposition movement in the Arab regions and the weakness of the Ottoman government. Syrian intellectuals residing in Cairo, having fled repressive Ottoman policies and found a safe haven under British administration, had little sympathy toward the Ottoman government. Egyptian nationalists, on the other hand, still looked to İstanbul in their anticolonialist struggle and were uninterested in the Arab political movement in Syria. The British, who all too vividly remembered the Egyptian nationalists’ declaration of anti-British sentiments during celebrations of the revolution in July 1908, condoned, if not encouraged, the anti-Ottoman attitude of the Syrians in Egypt. Anti-Ottomanism, even if it came with its potentially subversive corollary of demand for Arab unity, suited the British, because it weakened the ostensible case of Egyptian nationalists, who dwelled on the ties of Egypt to the Ottoman caliphate.
There were tensions between Syrians in Egypt, who tried to weaken the links with İstanbul by appealing to a common Arab identity, and followers of the Egyptian nationalist Mustafa Kamil, who professed allegiance to the empire. Ironically, the rhetoric of both Egyptian nationalists and Syrian Arabists reflected political expediency rather than an accurate and genuine expression of objectives. In both cases the stated aims did not conform to political realities. Egyptian nationalists were actually committed to the idea of “Egypt for the Egyptians,” which was incompatible with Ottoman suzerainty. As for the Syrians, they were all too uncertain about the political basis upon which the Arab unity they advocated could be achieved. By assisting the pro-British Syrian movement Britain hoped to enhance its own stature in Syria. It also proceeded to strengthen its position in Cairo by abrogating the post of Ottoman high commissioner in Egypt.
The outbreak of the Balkan War shook the empire in October 1912. As the already precarious political, economic, and diplomatic situation further deteriorated, British and French interest in the Arab provinces intensified. In November 1912 Edhem Pasha, the governor of Beirut, warned İstanbul of two disintegrative political currents in the province, one that desired the unification of Beirut and Mount Lebanon under a French protectorate and a second that sought the annexation of Syria to Egypt under British auspices. A third group advocated reforms and tevsi’-i mezuniyet (extension of authority) in order to countervail the first two tendencies. The governor pointed to the widely held view in Beirut that those countries that separated from the Ottoman Empire had advanced more rapidly. Warning that this conviction could strengthen the pro-French and pro-British currents and lead to foreign occupation he concluded by urging substantive and urgent reforms.
It is debatable to what extent the governor’s representation of Beirut’s political inclinations conformed to reality. Convinced as he was of the need for the execution of reforms to appease the population, he tried to impress its urgency on the government by depicting the fulfillment of demands for reform as the only solution that would maintain Beirut and possibly other provinces within the Ottoman Empire. Certainly, many reformists, at this stage consisting mostly of Muslims, favored the maintenance of ties to the Ottoman state and sought to improve conditions in their province and thus to forestall foreign encroachments.
The Reform Movement in the Arab Provinces
The demands of the reformists led to the formation of the reform societies in Beirut and later in other Arab cities. İstanbul advised the governor of Beirut that the general council of the provinces should meet and discuss measures for reform until such time as Parliament met and the deputies gave expression to the needs of their constituencies. Such vague encouragement for reform proposals did little to excite the proponents of change at a time when the outbreak of the Balkan War and swift Ottoman defeats shook the confidence of Arabs in the capability of the Ottoman state to survive the military, economic, and political crisis aggravated by the war or to protect its Arab-populated provinces against external threats. Advances by the armies of the Balkan states toward the capital created the fear that the seat of the caliphate might fall.
Rumors circulated at this juncture, probably spawned and propagated by Rashid Rida and the British in Egypt (see chapter 6), that there was an agreement among Arab leaders (the khedive, ‘Izzat Pasha, Sharif Husayn, Shaykh Sanussi, and Ibn Rashid were some names that circulated) to overthrow the government in İstanbul and establish an Arab caliphate. Further rumors about an antigovernment alliance between Arabs and Kurds in the North were an attempt to append to an exaggerated Arab nationalist movement an invented Kurdish one.
Expectation of higher taxes, forced loans, and requisitions due to the war effort in the Balkans troubled the Arab population. The American consular agent in Haifa wrote that the Arabs there “say if Turkey has given up the Tripolitana, European Turkey will also surely be given up; and now they ask themselves who will pay for the support of the sultan, Pashas, Valis and the whole government, and they have come to the conclusion that the Arabs will have to pay the greater part.” These fears were justified: the government sent commissions to Damascus and Beirut to assess property taxes. The Beirut commission concluded that Beirut’s tax revenues should amount to 430,000 liras instead of the 110,000 previously appraised. Agitated by the prospect of heavier taxes, the people of Damascus obstructed the work of the commission. In Beirut the governor was asked by the townspeople to disband the commission and cancel all its work.
The expectation that the Arab provinces would have to sustain the financial burden of the war effort coupled with the distinct possibility of an Ottoman collapse strengthened the pro-British tendency among the Syrians as well as the British interest in Syria. A British report from Jaffa reflected the mood in the town:
[T]he effect of the recent Turkish defeats upon the population of Jaffa has been to increase greatly the unpopularity of the Turkish government, and one hears from all sides the opinion that the Turkish regime is doomed, and the best thing that could happen for this part of the world would be an extension of the Egyptian frontier to its boundary at Acre. There has always been loose talk in this sense…but just now many Muslim notables are freely expressing the idea. These persons are afraid that the severing of a large part of the Empire will throw a much greater burden of taxation on the provinces which remain, and they hope equally that the value of their property will be increased, as site values have gone up so much in Egypt.
If Britain displayed reserve in abetting pro-British propaganda out of consideration for its ally France, attempts by France to enhance its influence in Syria only contributed to the growth of pro-British sentiments. The pro-British and pro-French factions were divided roughly on religious lines. While Lebanese Maronites looked favorably to French intervention, Britain appealed primarily to Muslim notables. A delegation of Arab notables visited the British consul in Beirut and expressed concern about French propaganda. Both British and other European diplomatic agents in Syria reported on the strength of agitation for a British protectorate, even annexation. On 12 December Mallet advised Ambassador Lowther that no encouragement should be given by His Majesty’s consuls “to the idea that Syria might come under British rule, as it is neither practicable nor desirable that His Majesty’s government should entertain such an extension of territorial responsibility.”
The consuls exaggerated the local enthusiasm for foreign intervention in Syria, but clearly there was a propensity on the part of some local notables to seek such an intervention in view of an anticipated Ottoman collapse. Since the 1908 Revolution decentralist proclivities had gained strength in the Arab provinces. Yet at the end of 1912 it became apparent that the Liberal government of Kamil Pasha, too, was failing to implement the administrative overhaul that would have expanded the prerogatives of local government. As the empire seemed to totter toward collapse, with defeats on the war front and economic and political difficulties internally, disaffected elements in the Arab provinces entertained Great Power intervention in search of a political formula that would secure a measure of autonomy under foreign supervision.
At this juncture some Arab leaders revived the notion of the Arab caliphate as the only feasible Arab political arrangement. Social and political norms as well as economic conditions showed a broad variety in the Arab provinces. Like Ottomanism, the notion of the Arab caliphate offered the framework for an umbrella ideology that would accommodate particular interests and regional, linguistic, and socioeconomic diversity in the Arab-populated lands. Yet the idea widened the religious division between Muslims and Christians. As a fairly clear split along religious lines already existed between the pro-English (Muslim) and pro-French (Christian) factions, the notion of an Arab caliphate enhanced Britain’s position in predominantly Muslim Syria. The propagandists for an Arab caliphate included ‘Izzat al-‘Abid, an Anglophile now living in Egypt. The khedive of Egypt, ‘Abbas Hilmi, emerged as a logical and eager candidate for caliph.
The British consul in Beirut argued that the pro-British current was waning because of the restraint in responding to local requests for intervention. With the pro-British Kamil at the helm of the Ottoman government now, the British authorities may have been less keen about generating provincial dissent. There were other important factors that effected the political climate in Beirut and the other Arab provinces, namely the changing circumstances of the Balkan War and İstanbul’s renewed initiatives to encourage reform proposals for these provinces. On 16 December 1912 peace negotiations between the Ottoman Empire and the Balkan states began at the London Conference. The war-weary Balkan states were willing to sit at the conference table and halt their advance. Despite some territorial losses, the Ottoman government had managed to arrest a vital threat to its integrity. Whereas only weeks before the fall of İstanbul seemed imminent, the Ottoman delegation was now bargaining in London to regain Edirne, a city of strategic and historical importance and the empire’s former capital, now under Bulgarian siege.
The Kamil Pasha government formally consented to the drafting of reform proposals by local leaders in the Arab provinces. On 25 December Governor Edhem reported from Beirut that the royal decree issued to the provincial council calling for negotiations toward reform was received with great joy. The governor commented that public opinion, which had been divided between various foreign and Ottomanist currents only a month ago, was now united in loyalty, with a firm belief that the provinces would attain reforms and progress. In addition to the official commission that was appointed to draft the preliminary reform proposals, Christian and Muslim notables held occasional meetings to exchange opinions on reforms and formed the Beirut Reform Committee. The governor summoned the general council of the province to a meeting at the beginning of January to discuss the draft proposals. Preliminary proposals formulated in the general council included acceptance of Arabic as the official language in the Arab provinces and the appointment of foreign advisors in government offices. On 1 January 1913 the minister of the interior advised the provinces of Syria and Aleppo as well to proceed with the preparation of reform proposals.
The Beirut Reform Committee was composed of an equal number of Muslims and Christians. Kamil Pasha allowed this self-appointed committee to supplant the official commission, for the voluntary cooperation of different religious communities was a welcome development and an indication of their willingness to live together and abandon the desire to seek foreign intervention. Muslim and Christian members of the Beirut committee shared the same economic interests and cooperated closely, as the two presidents Muhammad Bayhum (Muslim) and Yusuf Sursuq (Christian) mediated between the Ottoman government and the reformists.
In Damascus the reform project was worked out by the provincial general council. The fundamental points in both the Beirut and Damascus proposals bore a striking similarity: appointment of provincial functionaries from the local population, permission to use Arabic in government offices, local and shorter military service. In fact, the Damascus proposal went further in expressing localist demands. Clauses pertaining to the appointment of judges locally and the use of Arabic in court proceedings were, for instance, explicitly laid out by the Damascene general council. In addition, Damascus asked for financial subsidies to fund public works, agricultural development, and educational institutions. Yet the Damascus program did not contemplate a loosening of ties with the central government. The Beirut Reform Committee, on the other hand, made specific stipulations regarding the separation of provincial prerogatives and imperial ones in such a way as to restrict the latter to foreign and military affairs, customs, and communications. The Beirut Committee attempted to regulate the relations of the governor with a reorganized provincial council and to define and separate their respective powers in favor of the provincial council. Beirut also stipulated the employment of foreign advisors. These demands were most probably inspired by the example of autonomous Mount Lebanon.