The Arab Uprising and İstanbul’s Response
In early June 1916 Sharif Husayn and his sons rose in arms and attacked Ottoman positions in Mecca. Husayn issued a justificatory declaration on 27 June 1916, in which he cited his past services to the government, including campaigns against other Arab chiefs; condemned secular legal reforms; decried the CUP’s curtailment of the sultan’s rights; and denounced the executions in Syria. The reaction of the Ottoman government to the events in the Hijaz was guarded and low-key. No mention of the revolt was allowed to appear in the press until a whole month after the uprising. Whether or not İstanbul knew about the exact scope of the alliance between Sharif Husayn and Britain, the government continued to harbor the hope of undermining Husayn’s position and containing the uprising with minimum damage.
In view of the sharif’s repeated military successes, however, İstanbul engaged in an intensive propaganda effort in the Arab districts to discredit him. Sharif Haydar, whom the government proclaimed the new and legitimate emir, took office in Medina in August and issued his first counterproclamation that denounced Sharif Husayn.
The outbreak of Husayn’s revolt had serious implications both from the domestic point of view and for the progress of the war. The İstanbul government’s reaction was to concentrate its propaganda effort in the Arab districts while elsewhere depicting the revolt as just another Beduin uprising. Alarm about the revolt would have been detrimental to morale on the war fronts. The Ottoman government also failed to provide its allies with full information about the progress of events, even though prior to the revolt there had been an initiative to establish a propaganda center in Arabia by the Germans. Germany was able to help little, if at all, in the military operations in this sacred terrain. The active involvement of a Christian power on the side of the government in the Hijaz would have done more harm than good. Sharif Haydar’s proclamations reinvoked the call for jihad. They asserted that Husayn acted out of disloyalty and found the courage to challenge the caliph only because he had made common cause with Britain, a strong European power which, unlike Germany, wanted to grab the holy places, as it had Egypt and Zanzibar. Haydar’s manifestos were meant for the broader Arab and Muslim public.
The government authorities in Damascus called the leading ulema to a meeting and enjoined them to pass judgment on Sharif Husayn’s actions in the form of a formal religious decree ( fetva), which posed the question, “What befits a person who has been heaped with the goodwill of the Caliph and who has been elevated to the highest of honors, when that person betrays the Caliph by joining the latter’s enemy?” The answer was, “Deposition and death.” Thus was the death sentence passed upon Husayn by the Arab ulema. At the end of September the müftüs of the Syrian and Palestinian towns jointly signed another fetva urging opposition to Sharif Husayn. Most Arabs outside of the Hijaz remained ambivalent, if not hostile, to the revolt. Cemal’s violence shortly before and after the outbreak of the revolt deterred Syrians sympathetic to the sharif from rising against the government. When in Tripoli (Syria) a faction emerged in open support of Husayn’s revolt, several of its members were executed, as the local CUP delegate procured a decree from the local ulema in justification of Husayn’s execution.
The systematic campaign in Damascus to counteract the Hijaz uprising contrasted with the silence in İstanbul, where the sultan’s opening speech to the reconvened Parliament in November 1916 and the customary reply of the deputies condemned Husayn’s disloyalty with merely a few words. In Damascus any sympathies for the uprising had to be defused. The German consul reported during the early stages of the Hijaz revolt that, even though Husayn was viewed as a traitor by the local population, many seemed to be happy that a representative of the Arabs was challenging Turkish authority. The town was also the main meeting place of pilgrims before their journey to the Hijaz. Damascus rather than İstanbul was, therefore, made the center for press propaganda and the government’s organ Al-sharq was printed there.
While the motives of Sharif Husayn were to strengthen his power in the Hijaz and aggrandize it at the expense of other potentates in the Peninsula, his rhetoric was anti-Turkish and increasingly stressed Arab unity and independence. In November Husayn declared himself “King of the Arab countries.” Regardless of whether independence was a political goal shared by most Arabs, it did not escape the Ottoman government that the expression of these goals could become subversive, particularly in conjunction with British war propaganda. Britain, though, was the first to take issue with the new title because of its commitments to France and, as it became painfully clear to the Arabs after the war, its political designs in the region.
Cemal’s execution of Arab leaders (both those who had entered into a compromise with the government and those who remained defiant of the regime) radicalized the Arab officers in the Ottoman army, who emerged as the main group seeking to further nationalist objectives. Many defected to Sharif Husayn’s side and offered important assistance to the Anglo-sharifian effort. Yet, not only did Arab officers remain divided into progovernment and pro-independence groups but also some of those who did side with Sharif Husayn, including ‘Aziz ‘Ali, were not willing to exert their efforts for an eventual separation from the Ottoman state. ‘Aziz ‘Ali joined Husayn’s camp briefly, but defected when faced with the prospect of attacking Ottoman positions in Medina.
Government propaganda was aimed at preventing the revolt from spreading beyond the Peninsula, but the news of Husayn’s victories won him supporters to the north. Three prominent Arab leaders residing in Egypt (and previously condemned to death by the ‘Aleyh court), ‘Izzat Pasha al-‘Abid, Rafiq al-‘Azm, and Rashid Rida, went to the Hijaz to perform the pilgrimage and to show solidarity with Husayn. Some pro-British decentralist opponents of the CUP who had been forced to leave the empire to settle in Europe also declared their support for Sharif Husayn. French authorities in Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia sent delegations of Arab notables to Mecca.
Following Husayn’s assumption of the title of king of the Hijaz in the fall of 1916, the court martial in Damascus brought to trial Syrian leaders suspected of collusion with Husayn. Charges were also brought against the sons of Husayn, the Nasib and Fawzi al-Bakri brothers (who had hosted Sharif Faysal during his stay in Damascus but left the town at the outbreak of the revolt), Tawfiq Halabi (editor of the Damascus paper Al-ra’y), Faris Khury (the Christian deputy from Damascus, a lawyer and formerly dragoman of the British Consulate), and two Arab brigadier generals previously pensioned off, Shukri Pasha al-Ayyubi and ‘Abd al-Hamid Pasha (al-Qaltaqji). The preacher of the Umayyad Mosque, Shaykh ‘Abd al-Qadir Kiwan, was also implicated. Kiwan and Shukri Pasha al-Ayyubi were sentenced to death. The same verdict was passed in absen tia on many of the others, including Faysal, ‘Abdullah, and the Bakri brothers.
After the outbreak of the revolt there was a renewed interest in conciliation with the Arabs both in İstanbul and also in Damascus. The continuation of hostilities in the Hijaz gave the Syrians a respite from the iron rule of Cemal. But hardship continued in Syria, particularly in the provisioning of food. The harvest was poor, the war further disrupted production, the army requisitioned some of the crop, and, most important, Britain and France blockaded the Syrian coast to prevent imports. Cemal’s attempts to control the food production met with failure. Arab notables, who were given concessions to buy the harvest for the government using devalued banknotes, confronted resistance and failed in their endeavor. Food products remained out of the reach of most people due to transportation problems arising from the requisitioning or ruination of draft animals and the shortage of coal. The shortages and ensuing starvation were not so much the result of confiscation and government requisitioning of available crops as of speculation, transportation difficulties, and lack of organizational skills and infrastructural resources necessary for distribution. Similar problems afflicted other regions of the empire. According to French reports, in İzmir and environs, which were situated in perhaps the richest plain of the Asiatic Ottoman lands, some 200 persons lost their lives daily. Between 1913 and 1919 close to 90 percent of all oxen in the country perished. Human loss and suffering was heaviest in Syria because of the unrelenting blockade of the coast by the Entente.
In Damascus the expenditures that Cemal devoted to public works, urban improvements, and preservation of historical works contrasted with the prevalent famine and squandered matériel, money, and expertise that could have been used in the war effort. These measures may be seen as part of the government’s broader attempt to assert Ottoman central authority and to improve the infrastructure and public institutions in the Arab cities. Cemal had imposing avenues built in Jaffa and Damascus. He had pursued similar schemes during his governorship in Baghdad in 1912, when he had commissioned a team of German engineers to implement construction projects including the widening and paving of streets. But there was, of course, an element of self-aggrandizement in these projects. Particularly in Syria, Cemal cultivated the sycophancy of his entourage and had compiled laudatory poetry.
In the spring of 1917 the new Ottoman government under Talat adopted an unmistakable policy of rapprochement and conciliation toward the Arabs. The regime was convinced, reported the German Embassy to Berlin, that the retention of the Arab territories was imperative if the Ottoman Empire was to remain a “great power,” but whether Cemal could be entrusted with such a policy in Syria was doubtful. Rumors were rife that Cemal was preparing to leave the governorship of Syria. In December he tendered his resignation and returned to his ministry.