The Suppression of the Reform Movement
The Ottoman defeat in the Balkan War had been so swift and so massive that by December 1912 Grand Vizier Kamil Pasha had asked for the cease-fire that led to the London Conference. As these negotiations continued, the CUP leaders, in an apparent attempt to prevent Kamil from surrendering besieged Edirne to Bulgaria, stormed the Sublime Porte on 23 January 1913, ousted the cabinet at gunpoint, and took over the government. The fall of Salonika, where the CUP was headquartered, had constituted a psychological blow to the Unionists. The impending loss of Edirne motivated the violent intervention. The Unionists were also alarmed about the reprisals against the CUP by Kamil Pasha, the Committee’s political archenemy since his ouster in 1909. Whatever the reasons for the raid at the Sublime Porte (or the Bab-ı Âli baskını), it restored the Committee to power for the next five years, until the end of World War I.
The reform committees in Beirut and Damascus issued their projects only a few days after the coup and the formation of a Unionist government under Mahmud Shawkat Pasha. The CUP takeover had significant implications for the reform movement and the general course of events in Syria. Though opposed in principle to the extension of local autonomy to the provinces, the CUP seemed inclined to reconcile with the decentralists. It made overtures to include Sabahaddin in the new government. Having witnessed the ferment in Syria and the failure of the policy of centralization to retain regions affected by autonomist sentiment in the Balkans, the new Shawkat Pasha government set up a committee to study Arab demands. The government was inclined neither to concede the prerogatives that the Beirut Reform Committee demanded for the provincial council nor to accept a medley of reform proposals from the empire’s various provinces. Instead, it promulgated the long-deliberated Provincial Law in March 1913, which included decentralizing measures. But the reformists, and especially those of Beirut, adamantly opposed compromising their demands, which they thought they were so close to obtaining, and stepped up their campaign in Syria and Cairo. The Egyptian press featured articles about annexation as others contemplated an “Arab government” as the alternative to the implementation of reforms.
In the spring of 1913, though now back in charge, the CUP was not yet strong enough politically to assert itself in the reform question. Edirne could not be secured at the London Conference or in the aftermath of resumed warfare. The government came to feel the burden of defeats and extended warfare more fully. Removed from the scene of hostilities, the Arab provinces had been at first affected relatively little by the war, though, of course, they had to contribute to the war effort with recruits, which inevitably led to economic and social dislocation. In February both Damascus and Aleppo were the scene of popular demonstrations. In Damascus the price of bread increased by close to 30 percent in two weeks, triggering street riots. In Aleppo a demonstration of women protesting the increase in bread prices in front of the governor’s palace had to be dispersed by the police. There was a similar increase in the price of meat in Aleppo arising from the requisitioning of the province’s meat supply for the army. The government managed to take some effective measures to control shortages and prices. In Damascus the export of cereals was banned and speculation prohibited.
The Austrian consul in Damascus wrote that the Damascenes had been led to think that Britain was responsible for fomenting unrest in pursuit of its own political ambitions, namely setting up a caliphate under British protectorate with the grand sharif of Mecca as caliph. The rumor of a British-sharifian alliance circulated in Syria as early as 1913 and was unpopular with the Damascenes. In February the CUP-led government in İstanbul appointed an Arab, ‘Arif al-Mardini, as governor of Damascus, a tactical maneuver designed to appease the opposition there. The ability of the Unionist government to restore order and create a favorable public opinion in Damascus, at a time when sacrifices were being solicited for the war effort, represented a political success.
In Aleppo the burden of contributions for the war, borne primarily by the notables, was particularly heavy. The authorities considered raising a forced loan but resorted instead to requisitioning necessities such as meat, oil, and wheat from the notables. According to the Austrian consul, former leaders of the Entente Party (possibly some of the wealthiest individuals in town) suffered most from requisitions. This may help to explain why Anglophile sentiments lingered in Aleppo longer than in Beirut and Damascus.
Shortly after the Unionist takeover, Hazım Pasha, who had been ousted by the Liberal government in favor of Edhem, returned to Beirut as governor. Unionist policies aggravated the estrangement between Beirutis and the government. Hazım applied stricter controls on the press and closed two papers in Beirut. The rumor of a forced loan to be imposed on property holders never materialized, but the reformers’ suspicion of the government grew. Hazım Pasha refused to act on the Beirut reform proposal. The Provincial Law was designed to render various local demands obsolete by stipulating for limited decentralizing measures such as local administration of tax revenues in the provinces. Declaring the Provincial Law inadequate and angered by Hazım’s reticence to address the reforms they had proposed, the reformers undertook antigovernment protests. The Beiruti notable Salim ‘Ali al-Salam, who had served as vice-president of the Beirut commercial court and president of the municipal council, quit his position in the provincial administrative council. Shukri al-‘Asali declined the governorship of Latakia that was conferred on him in an attempt to secure his compliance with the new provincial regulations.
Hazım’s decision to close the society of the reformists (Reform Club) in Beirut at the beginning of April triggered even stronger reactions. The government was threatened by the unity of purpose that the Beiruti leaders displayed over the reform question and viewed their demands tantamount to provincial autonomy. According to the American vice-consul in Beirut, İstanbul’s decision to dissolve the Reform Club came after the latter opened negotiations with the reformists in Damascus. The reformists had extended their propaganda outside Beirut in order to increase the pressure for reforms on the government. The reform idea also found a response in Mesopotamia, particularly in Basra under the leadership of Sayyid Talib.
İstanbul anticipated the reaction that the decision to suppress the Reform Club would elicit in the provinces. The official journal of the Damascus province, Suriye, prepared the ground for the closure by publishing a polemical article about the reform movement. It urged a complacent attitude and advised the people to leave important issues concerning the province to their representatives in Parliament (which had not been in session for nine months). But the events in Beirut had a considerable impact on Damascus. Local papers sharply criticized the government and denounced the Provincial Law as a meager concession.
Having misjudged the intensity of public reaction against the suppression of the local reform movement, İstanbul sought to remedy the situation in two ways. First, it mobilized the large sectors of the population who were either indifferent or opposed to the reform movement. Second, it took some urgent measures to impress upon the population that it was serious in effecting change consistent with local demands. In its efforts to mobilize the lower strata of Beirut’s townspeople in response to the protestations of the reformists, however, the government did not have the success it had had during the election campaign of the previous year. Some notables who preferred to remain in the government fold did send telegrams condemning the reformist agitation, but the counterpropaganda was not very effective. İstanbul also sent agents to Syria to try to bolster the government position there, only to encounter the accusation that it was trying to create sectarian discord and to break up the remarkable unity that the Beirutis had displayed to promote their common interests.
One of the agents sent to Syria was ‘Abd al-‘Aziz Jawish. Jawish was an Egyptian nationalist agitator who had fled from Cairo to İstanbul in 1912. When the Ottoman authorities had refused to extradite him, Egypt’s Consul General Lord Kitchener had asked the British Embassy in İstanbul to keep a close watch over Jawish’s activities, expressing the fear that he might influence Egyptian students in the Ottoman capital. Attempts to extradite Jawish constituted a diplomatic issue that had also been taken up in the CUP Congress, which decided that the surrender of a refugee in the seat of the caliphate would be unacceptable. In reporting on the proceedings of the CUP Congress, Lowther had written that the CUP, now out of power, was trying to make a cheval de bataille out of Jawish in order to appeal to “nationalistic elements” in the country. The CUP was in fact invoking Islamic symbols, which had proven increasingly more effective in Ottomanist propaganda against imperialist ambitions.
In the aftermath of the suppression of the Reform Club, the British intensified their propaganda emanating from Egypt. The ouster of the pro-British Kamil added a further strain to relations between İstanbul and London. The CUP’s dispatch of Jawish to Syria led to British consternation and the resumption of all-out subversive propaganda against the Unionist government. An article published in the Egyptian Gazette of 22 April 1913, and couched in language that differed noticeably from that of even the most bitter discourse on the reform question, was aimed specifically at instigating racial hatred between Arabs and Turks. After denouncing Jawish’s mission, the article went on:
The article, which referred to England as the “regenerator of Egypt,” read both as a blueprint of the schemes taking definite shape in the minds of British authorities in Egypt at this time and an exhortation to the Arabs:
The struggle is between Semitic Mohammedan and Turk Mohammedan.…Race is the fundamental fact. And the Turk physically differs from the Arab somewhat as a drayhorse differs from a Derby winner. Greater still is the difference intellectually and spiritually, between the slow, placid, steady, autocratic, materialistic, unspeculative, unaesthetic Turk, and the quick-witted, restless, democratic, political, romantic, artistic, versatile Arab.
The author also mentioned that “the Hedjaz Railway would be torn up,” that “Egypt would break the last link of nominal dependence upon Turkey that still exists,” and predicted the “contraction of the Turkish Empire to its possessions in Asia Minor, Armenia, Upper Mesopotamia.” Another article predicted discord between Arabs and Turks in the aftermath of the Balkan War as a result of the decline in the military power of İstanbul and “the rise of an independent Grand Sharif at Mecca with the consent of the dominant naval power [Britain] in the Red Sea.”
[T]he old renown of Ottoman arms has gone down before Bulgarians, Greeks, and Servians, and the Arab is watching and waiting for his opportunity. On the occupation and protection of Mecca rests the sole claim of the Sultan to be Khalif; that is the loss by him of Mecca implies the loss of his right to command the temporal obedience of Mohammedans.
The sharp change in the tone of British propaganda emanating from Egypt did not escape the attention of the Austrian consul in Beirut, who reported that the Egyptian propaganda was taking a more tangible form which is no longer concealed under the “harmless expression ‘decentralization.’ ” In this context, Pinter mentioned flyers distributed in Beirut, which were anonymous but probably authored by those sympathetic to French interests in the region, who worried that Britain would take undue advantage of the government’s embarrassment in the reform question. These flyers urged Beirutis not to pay taxes, to close all businesses, schools, mosques, and to go to the “free Lebanon” until conditions changed.