War, Politics, and Ideology
A cabinet change occurred in İstanbul during the second month of 1917. Sa‘id Halim, who had already relinquished his foreign ministry portfolio in October 1915, resigned his post as grand vizier. He was replaced by Talat Pasha, the first Turkish Unionist insider to occupy the office of the grand vizier.
Sa‘id Halim, a Unionist since the days preceding the 1908 Revolution, had been the Committee’s choice for the grand vizierate in 1913, not only because his princely background would impart weight and credibility to the Young Turk regime at home and abroad, but also because he embodied what had come to be the predominant ideological direction of the Ottoman state on the eve of the war. A political outcast from the khedivial family, he represented the opposition to imperial designs in Muslim territories. He had been born in Egypt and brought up and educated in Cairo and İstanbul, and thus was a Young Turk eminently suited to lead the Turco-Arab state that the Ottoman Empire had come to be. Finally, as a strong adherent of Islamic traditions and values in a modernist framework, he represented the greater emphasis placed on Islam in the political ideology of the Ottoman state. Sa‘id Halim has been viewed as merely a puppet of the Committee of Union and Progress. That he could be manipulated by the Committee is not inaccurate. It is more appropriate, however, to compare him to personalities such as Said Pasha and Mahmud Shawkat Pasha, who were brought to power to achieve certain goals that the Committee could not attain by relying on its mainstream cadres. Sa‘id Halim Pasha was an influential thinker and author of Islamic modernist ideas. He was maintained in office, allegedly according to Talat, “in deference to public opinion.”
As the war progressed Sa‘id Halim’s influence waned. He was believed to have given Sharif Husayn the benefit of the doubt for too long for the sake of Islamic unity and thus of jeopardizing this unity. The spread of the Arab Revolt diminished his usefulness as a leader. Indeed, his resignation from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs as early as the end of 1915 had cut him off from decisions determining the conduct of war and reduced his power.
Talat’s grand vizierate did not signify a break with the policies that had taken shape after the Balkan Wars. It is possible to view his appointment as the culmination of the CUP’s consolidation of power. However, his tenure belied the widespread view that the further reinforcement of the CUP’s position would be synonymous with greater Turkish domination of the body politic, an enhanced dependence on Germany, and an increased authoritarianism. Talat emerged as a compromise candidate, but not necessarily a second-rate one, from a group of strong political personalities, including Enver and Cemal. In his capacity as the minister of the interior, Talat had been most influential in the conduct of policy and had been described in 1914 by the German consul in Haifa as the “most pro-Arab of a multiheaded Young Turk hierarchy.”
The choice of Talat represented a strengthening of that faction within the CUP that favored a certain independence from Germany. Consideration for the grand vizierate had also been given to Halil [Menteşe], who had taken over the Ministry of Foreign Affairs from Sa‘id Halim Pasha. He was known for his pro-German views and was supported by the German embassy. In the new cabinet Halil, Enver, and Midhat Şükrü were strongly pro-German, while Cavid, Ahmed Nesimi, and Talat were more moderate in their views. As the United States ambassador Elkus reported, however, “apparent divergence of views [did] not prevent these two parties from working harmoniously in the same cabinet under the orders of the [CUP].” One of Talat’s early pronouncements emphasizing the constitutional rights of all Ottomans was interpreted by Elkus as “a prelude to disavowing some of the responsibility for the treatment of Armenians, Arabs, etc.” Cavid accepted the position of finance minister in the new cabinet on condition that changes were to be effected in “the policy hitherto followed with respect to the non-Turkish races.”
The reshuffling in İstanbul and international developments accompanied a more favorable phase in İstanbul’s relations with the Arab provinces in the last year and a half of the war, in spite of the weakening of the Islamist agenda after the replacement of Sa‘id Halim. The withdrawal of Russia from the war and the conclusion of peace on the eastern front raised the hopes of Ottomanists, both Arab and Turkish. The Ottoman government made fresh overtures to Sharif Husayn as Russian revelations of the terms of the Sykes-Picot Treaty offered new possibilities. Even as the British and sharifian armies pushed north and Ottoman positions in and near major Arab towns fell like dominoes, Sharif Faysal negotiated with Cemal Pasha and Mustafa Kemal, the victorious commander of Ottoman forces in Gallipoli, now serving as commander of the Seventh Army in Syria.