The Young Turk Revolution and the Hijaz
Ottoman authority was established in the Hijaz when the emir of Mecca, the head of the sharifs representing the Prophet’s family of Hashim, declared his allegiance to Sultan Selim I upon the latter’s conquest of Syria and Egypt in 1516–17. In the early centuries of Ottoman rule the holy cities of Mecca and Medina were under the jurisdiction of the governors of Egypt, but the effective rulers were the Hashemite grand sharifs. The emirülhac (amir al-haj), a Syrian grandee and later the governor of the province of Damascus, also exercised authority over the region as the chief official in charge of the pilgrimage caravan. In the aftermath of the Tanzimat provincial reorganization, the Hijaz was designated as a distinct province governed by a governor sent from İstanbul. Tension was endemic between the governor and the emir in the administration of the province, and central authority remained precarious. Rival claims of two Hashemite families, the ‘Awn and the Zayd, further complicated the political conflict in the Hijaz. The city dwellers of the Hijaz were privileged by virtue of inhabiting the holy places; they did not pay taxes or send their sons to the army. Its large tribal population enjoyed the customary independence of nomads while extracting large sums of money both from the pilgrims and from the government for protecting, aiding, and often for merely not harassing the pilgrim caravans.
For a province that was traditionally oblivious to even the profoundest of events in the capital, the revolution triggered exceptional reverberations. More changes came about in the Hijaz in the first few months following July 1908 than in any other Arab province. While these were felt most strongly by the small political elite in the cities, they also affected directly or indirectly the lives of the Beduin who had long been living in isolation from the mainstream of events in the capital.
The news of the revolution was kept from the inhabitants of the Hijaz for several days by Governor Ratib Pasha and the Grand Sharif ‘Ali Pasha. However, when the new government in İstanbul dismissed the governor and had him brought from his summer quarters in Taif to Jidda, crowds stormed his residence on 21 August. He was arrested and his property confiscated, and was then imprisoned by a group of military officers. Meanwhile, the top government functionary in Medina, Muhafız Osman Pasha, was dismissed and temporarily replaced by Müşir Abdullah Pasha for opposing the reestablishment of the constitution and casting some officers into prison. These changes in the highest civil administrative posts were soon followed by the deposition of the Grand Sharif ‘Ali, rumors that his uncle, Sharif ‘Abd al-Ilah, would succeed him, and finally Husayn’s appointment.
The overhaul in the top offices in the province upset the equilibrium of interests that had been maintained between the officeholders and the tribal leaders, merchants, and other local notables. The breakdown of local authority and renewed competition for political power compounded the volatile political situation. Since İstanbul had asserted its authority in the province in the mid–nineteenth century, the duality of power between the grand sharif and the governor had been a constant irritant in the administration there. It was occasionally mitigated by a personal understanding between the two leaders that often rested on a reconciliation of their personal material interests, as had been the case in the latter half of Abdülhamid’s rule. Starting in the fall of 1908, new actors struggled for a new balance of power under the increasingly vigilant eye of a central government that desired to carry out structural changes aimed at incorporating the provinces into the emerging centralized constitutional system.
During these critical months the completion and official opening on 1 September 1908 of the Hijaz Railway’s Damascus-Medina line contributed to the disarray in the Hijaz. The railway posed two dangers to the Hijazi notables. It allowed the government to maintain a closer watch on the local exercise of power through enhanced communications. It also threatened commercial interests that rested on the caravan trade and pilgrim traffic. Moreover, the extension of the railway to Medina signified the more ominous prospect of the line’s continuation further to Mecca and Jidda through regions of even greater commercial significance. The tribes rose in armed opposition.
Some Hijazi towns witnessed instances of flagrant renunciation of the established order consistent with the revolutionary mood of the day. In Mecca prisoners both in the government jail and held by the grand sharif were released. In a symbolic act of defiance, Grand Sharif ‘Ali was forced to publicly proclaim, while he was still in office, his legal equality to a slave, a Beduin, and an enlisted man. Chanting crowds abused the governor. According to the acting British consul, members of the Committee of Union and Progress led the demonstration. In Taif members of such a self-proclaimed Committee publicly declared the constitution and led large crowds to the tomb of Midhat Pasha, the architect of the Ottoman constitution who had been executed in 1883 while in exile in Taif. In Jidda the crowd arrested the secretary of the governor and a close associate, who was a prominent merchant in the town.
In the Hijaz, as in other Arab provinces, officers and officials who were sympathetic to the principles of the constitution formed the committees and rallied dissatisfied local elements to augment their strength. There is no evidence of any overt or secret organizational activity in the Hijaz in favor of a constitution immediately prior to the revolution. The spontaneously constituted committees took it upon themselves to give direction to government affairs in the province. Their insistence on the implementation of reforms was an uphill battle in the deeply conservative Hijaz and was to be resisted by the new grand sharif, who strove to restore the traditional prerogatives of the office.