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Ottoman Centralization and the Fall of Arraba

Beset by external pressures, a fiscal crisis, and separatist nationalist movements in its remaining European domains, the Ottoman authorities unveiled in 1839 an ambitious program of reforms known as the Tanzimat. This program aimed at modernizing the armed forces, centralizing political power, and increasing revenues from agricultural production, trade, and manufacturing. All of this required more knowledge about and greater control of the subjects of the empire: population counts, conscription, direct collection of taxes, and the establishment of political institutions which could facilitate direct central control.

Because many elements of this program were similar to ones already taken by Muhammad Ali Pasha during the Egyptian occupation of Greater Syria, the way was already paved for the implementation of the Tanzimat. The Ottoman government, for example, regulated and expanded the Advisory Councils, tried to keep the population disarmed, revived the policy of conscription, and maintained the head tax. They also conducted population-count campaigns in Greater Syria during the late 1840s and, in 1856, initiated the second wave of reforms, including a new land code (1858). All of these measures were backed by an increased military presence and an active policy of wooing the urban elites, primarily through the Advisory Councils.

Still, the large power vacuum created by the Egyptian retreat in 1840 could not be quickly filled by the Ottoman government. For the next two decades the reconfiguration of political relations in Jabal Nablus was punctuated by internal upheavals and violent clashes. The escalating civil strife largely emanated from below as peasant clans, no longer under the watchful gaze of the Egyptian forces, competed vigorously for land and water resources in the context of expanding agricultural production, population growth, and increasing demands on their surplus by the Ottoman government, local leaders, and urban merchants. Meanwhile, the members of the Nablus Advisory Council negotiated their relations with a much more aggressive and intrusive Ottoman state one crisis at a time.

For example, on December 26, 1849, the council members[118] met to draft a letter of defiance in response to a number of impatient missives from the governor of Jerusalem concerning the composition of the council. The last of these letters, addressed to the qa’immaqam of Nablus, Sulayman Beik Tuqan, had been received just eight days earlier:

We have repeatedly requested that you quickly organize the draftingof a letter from the Nablus Advisory Council nominating ten Muslims and three for each of the remaining millets [non-Muslim religious communities], so that four…Muslims and one for each millet can be chosen in a lottery. [This is] aside from your person, the judge and the mufti—as was explained to you in a letter…from the Provincial Council [of Sidon]. Until now, we have not received any such list from you, and it is necessary that you send it as soon as possible…[119]

The Jerusalem governor and his superiors, who had been trying to nurture this fledgling institution over the past few years, were unhappy about their lack of control over the composition of its members and about the fact that its current configuration deviated in two important respects from the guidelines proclaimed in a January 1840 imperial edict.[120] First, all the members were Muslims, even though representatives from the Samaritan and the Christian Greek Orthodox communities were supposed to have been included.[121] Second, the council members recruited an additional member, the naqib al-ashraf (steward of the descendants of the Prophet), Muhammad Murtada Afandi Hanbali, despite the fact that all four slots for Muslims were already filled.

At the same time, however, the governor and his superiors knew that any effort to unilaterally impose new members would lead to a political cul-de-sac. The cooperation of the current members of the Nablus council, therefore, was indispensable; and this is why they were asked to nominate their successors. The Nablus council members, in turn, were aware of the government’s dilemma. In their reply they were neither humble nor shy about asserting their local will:

We have received your order…but there is no one in these parts who is qualified to run this institution other than the ones who are members of it at the present. The naqib…[whom we] appointed as head of the council…has the qualifications and experience in these matters and in running the affairs of the people.…Likewise, all the other members have the experience and commitment [to do the same]. We petition you…to keep them in their posts.[122]

The council members referred to themselves in the third person (“the ones who are members”) in order to highlight their claim, asserted in the title of their memo, that they had the full support of the city’s notables, religious figures, and neighborhood leaders. Their reply, in effect, denied the central authorities the right to choose the members of the council, justified the inclusion of naqib al-ashraf, and declared his appointment as head of the council, even though the rules clearly stipulated that the qa’immaqam was to hold this post.

This confrontation, like many others that took place between the council and the Ottoman authorities in the mid-nineteenth century, eventually resulted in a negotiated compromise. A list was submitted four months after the above letter was sent, and some new members were chosen.[123] Yet even though Muhammad Murtada Afandi Hanbali was specifically excluded, he continued to attend the council meetings and to sign his name along with the others on outgoing correspondence. The Ottoman authorities, for their part, turned a blind eye.[124]

The ability of the Nablus council to influence the composition of its own membership, and to do so in ways that contravened guidelines established at the highest levels, illustrates both the extent and the limits of Jabal Nablus’s autonomy within Ottoman rule during the mid-nineteenth century. On the one hand, it was clear that the Ottoman reforms were filtered and reshaped by a local ruling elite, a religious leadership, and a merchant community composed entirely of native sons. On the other hand, detailed supervision of the kind indicated by the letters from the governor of Jerusalem would have been unthinkable just few decades earlier, as would the restructuring of local political authority that made the Advisory Council the locus of local political power.

In this context, it is significant that none of the letters sent by the council members ever questioned the legitimacy of the Advisory Council even though this rather new institution was clearly designed to reinforce central control at the expense of local autonomy. Indeed, their letters emphasized their desire to be active participants in the molding of a new political landscape, along with the central government, and enthusiastically insisted that they possessed the three classic qualifications for political office: merit, commitment, and popular support. This is because the cooperative posture of the Nablus council members was more than just a bow to superior authority driven by an instinct for self-preservation; it was also internally driven. Although the members came from a heterogeneous group of traditionally prominent families—religious, ruling, and mercantile—collectively they represented the emergence of a new social group and a new type of local notable. All were actively involved in trade and soap manufacturing, and all had a stake in the success of an institution that provided them with an effective forum through which they could project their power locally.

Control of the post of mutasallim (and by extension over the Advisory Council) during this transitional period (1840–1860) shifted between the Tuqans and the Abd al-Hadis, whose camps had become the lightning rods of the escalating civil strife. When the Ottoman Empire was distracted by the outbreak of the Crimean War (1854–1858), the factional conflicts turned into a bloody conflagration that swept all corners of Jabal Nablus, leaving behind numerous casualties and extensive property damage. Soon after the Crimean War ended, the Ottoman government launched a military campaign that led to the destruction of Arraba, the fortified home village of the Abd al-Hadi clan, and the permanent reassertion of central control. After this date, the highest political office (mutasallim) would no longer be held by native sons, and the struggle for power would be limited to competition for positions in the Advisory Council under the direct control and supervision of a non-Nabulsi official.

The fact that the rather small-scale and brief Ottoman military campaign in 1859 proved so decisive in permanently asserting central Ottoman control indicates that the political and economic realities in Nablus were ripe for such a change. The ruling households that emerged in the seventeenth century had already been seriously weakened by internal struggles and repeated blows by the rulers of Acre, the Egyptian occupation, and Ottoman centralization. As shall be seen, their material base, predicated on the control of the peasantry and their surplus, was also undermined by merchants who, during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, consolidated their rise from political obscurity and the confines of trade into the greener pastures of political office and control of the major means of production (land and soap factories).

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