Modern History of the Arab Countries. Vladimir Borisovich Lutsky 1969
In July 1908, an armed uprising flared up in Turkey. It was organised by the Committee of Union and Progress (Ittihad we ‘Terrakki), which was founded in 1894. The members of the committee were progressive officers and intellectuals who represented the interests of the Turkish bourgeoisie and favoured the Ottoman Empire’s conversion into a bourgeois-constitutional state. Their chief demand was to restore the constitution.
At first, the committee’s leaders confined themselves to conspiratorial tactics, but provocateurs helped Abdul Hamid’s detectives to expose some of the Young Turks’ underground organisations and arrest the leaders. The trial of the committee members went on from 1897 to 1899. Many of the committee’s supporters emigrated.
A split took place in the Young Turk movement abroad. In 1902, at the Paris Congress of the Committee of Union and Progress a group of Ottoman liberals under Prince Sabah ed-Din, who founded the League of Decentralisation and Private Initiative, came to the fore. Sabah ed-Din regarded himself as an anarchist and a follower of P. Kropotkin and E. Reclus. Attempting to apply the anarchist theory to Turkish history, Sabah ed-Din advocated the development of private initiative. He felt that the root of the evil lay in Turkey’s medieval economy and in the absence of private enterprise. Another radical evil of the Ottoman Empire which, according to him, was the cause of all disturbances and disorders was the oppression of nationalities and the Turkish State’s multinational structure.
Sabah ed-Din and his supporters drew the Turkish revolutionaries’ attention to the question of nationalities and were the first to establish contacts with the national minorities’ political organisations. There was a divergence of views, however, among the Young Turks on this question. One trend, which was headed by Sabah ed-Din and his League of Decentralisation and Private Initiative, was in favour of settling the nationalities question by creating autonomous provinces on the basis of decentralisation. This trend was actively supported by representatives of the Greek and Armenian bourgeoisie and also by feudalists of other nationalities-Arabs and to some extent the Albanians. Sabah ed-Din, however, who advocated broad autonomy for the national regions, did not play a leading part in the Young Turk movement and later completely withdrew from politics. His supporters, who had formed a break-away party, later opposed the Young Turks and then drifted over to the counter-revolution.
Most of the Turkish revolutionaries who rallied round the Committee of Union and Progress favoured the formation of a single centralised Turkish state. They proceeded from the assumption that the Turks were the predominant nationality in Turkey. But since their primary aim was to overthrow the Hamdanian regime of Zulum they felt it was possible to form a bloc with the national minority organisations for the joint execution of this task.
The Russian Revolution of 1905-07 stimulated the revolutionary developments in Turkey. It had a great impact on the Turkish intellectuals and on the revolutionary-minded officers. In 1906, a group of Turkish officers sent a letter to the relatives of Lieutenant Schmidt, who had headed the Sevastopol uprising of 1905, vowing to fight for “sacred civil liberty” and for the “right to live as human beings.”
In 1906, the Committee of Union and Progress shifted its headquarters to Salonika and set about creating a wide network of revolutionary organisations. The Young Turks chose Macedonia, a permanent breeding ground of anti-feudal struggle, as their movement’s main centre. At the same time, they decided to unite all the revolutionary forces. With this aim in view they convened in Paris, at the end of 1907, a congress of all the opposition parties and groups in the Ottoman Empire. Apart from the Committee of Union and Progress this congress was attended by representatives of Sabah ed-Din’s League of Decentralisation and Private Initiative, by the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organisation, by the Armenian Dashnaktsutyun and by the Arab Nationalists.
At the Paris Congress, a united front of national-revolutionary forces was formed on the basis of common and immediate aims. The Young Turks and the representatives of the national minorities made mutual concessions. The Young Turks agreed to the principle of political and cultural self-determination, while the representatives of the national minorities declared that they would be content to receive autonomy within the framework of the Ottoman Empire, The participants in the congress worked out specific forms and methods of struggle such as refusal to take the oath of allegiance in the army, provoking disturbances among the civilian population, strikes of officials and police aimed at disorganising the machinery of state, refusal to pay taxes, armed resistance to the authorities and an armed uprising. The resolutions passed by the congress stressed that the uprising should be carried out mainly by the armed forces. The date of the uprising was fixed for October 1908.
International events spurred the outbreak of the insurrection. On July 3, 1908, Niazi, the commandant of the Resna fortress in Macedonia, initiated an uprising and retreated to the mountains, where he was joined by Enver, Mustafa Kemal, Jemal and others together with their detachments. Soon the revolutionary detachments had occupied Monastir (Bitolj), where the headquarters of the First Army was situated and from there they threatened to march on Constantinople. Thinking that the troops in the capital and in Asia Minor had also sided with the Young Turks, Sultan Abdul Hamid agreed to a compromise. On July 24, 1908, he restored the constitution and appointed elections. He then issued decrees instituting freedom of speech, freedom of the press and the right to assembly. He also abolished censorship and pardoned political prisoners.
The Young Turk Revolution was victorious.
This, however, was only a partial victory. The Young Turks feared the masses’ revolutionary initiative and tried to come to an understanding with the former government. Instead of forming a new cabinet, they allowed power to remain in the hands of the Sultan and his cabinet from which only the most compromised members were removed.
“It is only half a victory,” Lenin wrote of the first successes of the Young Turk Revolution, “or even less, since Turkey’s Nicholas II has so far managed to get away with a promise to restore the celebrated Turkish constitution.” [Lenin, Collected Works, Vol. 15, p. 183.]
The news that the Revolution had been victorious and that the constitution had been restored was jubilantly received in the Porte’s Arab provinces. The Arabs regarded the Revolution as their own victory. There was celebrating and merry-making everywhere. An eyewitness wrote that this event evoked general enthusiasm throughout Syria. Christians and Moslems, even priests and mullahs (Moslem priests) fraternised at public meetings. Writers hailed a new era of freedom, equality and fraternity.
Another eyewitness wrote that it was impossible to describe the people’s enthusiasm. “All barriers immediately fell and the age-old religious enmity died away. People fraternised in the streets. Youths who only yesterday had been strangers to the crowd climbed up on improvised rostrums and stirred the people with their fiery speeches. Their courage knew no bounds....”
The Revolution gave full scope to the initiative of the masses. The people opposed their oppressors. A mass movement began in Beirut against the mutasarrif, who had his seat at Beit-Ed-Din (the centre of the mountainous Lebanon), for the annexation of Beirut and the valley of Biqa’a to the autonomous Lebanon. The movement was headed by Selim Ammun, a highly educated man of noble origin, who liked to repeat that the highest ambition one could have was to be a good peasant of one’s country. In September 1908, he became the president of the Administrative Council; he carried out a number of reforms and founded the Democratic Society. But in 1909, on receiving news of the April coup d’état in Constantinople, he died, and the Lebanese democratic movement was defeated.
In 1909, the peasant movement broke out in another district. The Druse peasants once again rose in rebellion. The movement’s centre was Hauran. The insurgents laid siege to and took over the town of Busra and entered the valley of Biqa’a. For two years they waged guerilla war-fare, seizing transports and ambushing trains, small garrisons and Turkish troop columns. The Turks killed 6,000 Druses, i.e., almost one-tenth of the entire population of Jebel Druse, before they managed to suppress the uprising.
The peasant movement in Iraq began later than in other parts of the Ottoman Empire. It acquired considerable dimensions in 1913-14 in connection with the Turkish authorities’ decision to sell state lands to foreigners. Cases of peasants refusing to pay their taxes became more frequent and the authorities had to send punitive expeditions to the countryside to suppress the disturbances.
The main reason for the democratic movement’s weakness in the Arab countries was that there was no link between the peasant uprisings and the actions of the urban population. The peasants often acted under the leadership of feudal lords or tribal sheikhs. On the other hand, the small democratic groups which existed in the towns (especially in Syria and the Lebanon) were still unable to find a common language with the peasants; they could not depend on the popular masses and yielded the leadership of the national liberation movement to the national bourgeoisie and the feudalists.
In the early days following the Revolution broad sections of the Arab national bourgeoisie had illusions about the possibility of radical reforms and the national emancipation of the Arabs within the framework of a renovated Turkey. The Arab Nationalists counted on the Young Turks’ cooperation and hoped to solve the Arab countries’ problems with their help.
After the Revolution, the centre of the Arab national movement shifted from exile to Constantinople, where the most active elements among the Arab people-officers, students and officials-were concentrated.
At a large meeting of the Arab colony in Constantinople, held on September 2, 1908, they founded the first more or less mass organisation under the name of El-Ikha El-Arabi El-Uthmani (The Ottoman Arab Fraternity). The fraternity began to publish its own paper and opened branches in nearly all of the Porte’s Arab provinces.
The Arab Ottoman Fraternity adopted the Young Turks attitude. Its Constituent Assembly was attended by members of the Committee of Union and Progress. The fraternity’s leaders proceeded from the Pan-Osmanic theory and acknowledged the existence of the Ottoman nation. They said that the single Ottoman nation was divided into a number of millets and the Arabs, one of the most important elements of the Ottoman people, constituted one of these millets. Their programme did not contain a single word about a separate Arab nation. Not only was there no mention of independence, but, what is more, there was no mention of the Arabs’ right to self-determination and to organise autonomous bodies. On the contrary, the Arab Ottoman Fraternity felt its main task was to assist the Committee of Union and Progress. The only national points in the programme were the demands for national equality, for the spread of education in the Arabic tongue and the observance of Arab customs.
The Arab Ottoman Fraternity’s leaders were Arab members of the Young Turk Party. The fraternity’s president Sadik Pasha el-Azm, one of the Committee of Union and Progress’s organisers, was a former officer of the Turkish General Staff and a diplomat. He had been living in exile, where he edited a Young Turkish newspaper in the Arabic language. After the 1908 Revolution, he returned to Constantinople and became one of the leaders of the Young Turkish movement.
The elections to the Turkish Parliament and the Young Turks’ programme, published in the fall of 1908, and far more moderate than all their previous programmes and pledges, were a serious blow to the Young Turk illusions held by the Arab Nationalists. “The Young Turks are praised for their moderation and restraint.” Lenin wrote in October 1908, “i.e., the Turkish revolution is being praised because it is weak, because it is not rousing the popular masses to really independent action, because it is hostile to the proletarian struggle beginning in the Ottoman Empire.” [Lenin, Collected Works, Vol. 15, p. 222.]
An example of this “restraint” and “moderation” were the elections to the Turkish Parliament, which were held in two stages. Real popular representatives were not admitted to the electors’ meetings in the sanjaqs. The entire electoral machine was in the hands of the committees of the Union and Progress Party, which nominated candidates and secured their passage into the Parliament. The results were a disappointment to the Arabs. Out of a total of 245 deputies, 150 were Turks and only 60 were Arabs, whereas the very opposite was the case with regard to the population of the Ottoman Empire, which had a population of approximately, 22,000,000, of which 7,500,000 were Turks and 10,500,000, Arabs.
The Arab delegation showed no initiative in Parliament. It sided with and supported the Young Turks. The majority of the Arabs, however, were dissatisfied. By the end of 1908, many Arab feudalists and even Nationalists were in favour of forming a Liberal Party (Hizb El-Ahrar). This party, which actually expressed the interests of feudal compradore circles, took a reactionary stand, but had inherited the traditions of Sabah ed-Din’s League of Decentralisation and Private Initiative in the question of nationalities.
With the help of this party and of the Moslem clergy, the students of the madrasahs and the Guards, Sultan Abdul Hamid II engineered a coup d’etat. On April 13, 1909, the insurgents seized a number of government buildings and launched represssions against the Young Turks. Mohammed Arslan, a prominent figure of the Arab movement, was among those killed. The Young Turks, however, quickly managed to organise a rebuff. The “army of the movement” under Mahmud Shevket Pasha and Mustafa Kemal sup-pressed the rebellion after fierce fighting in the streets. On April 27, 1909, Abdul Hamid II was overthrown. The Young Turks proclaimed the new Sultan, sixty-four year old Prince Reshad, Abdul Hamid II’s younger brother, who took the name of Mohammed V. After the rebellion had been suppressed, the Young Turk leaders decided not to restrict themselves to control of the government apparatus and formed a government themselves.
Upon their succession to power, the Young Turks completely degenerated and broke away from the masses. They were conciliatory towards Turkey’s reactionary chauvinist circles and began an open struggle against the revolutionary movement. On the domestic scene they preserved feudal land tenure, abandoned tax reforms in the peasants’ favour and took a number of measures against the workers, particularly the strike law of 1910. On the international scene the Young Turks refused to free the country from all forms of foreign influence and conspired with the German imperialists. They adopted Abdul Hamid II’s pro-German orientation and turned the country into a vassalage of Kaiser Germany. In their struggle against Britain, France and Russia, the German diplomats made skilful use of the Young Turks’ adherence to the principles of Pan-Islamism and Pan-Turkism, adventurous theories which regarded all peoples who spoke Turkish as a single nation.
The Young Turks’ national policy was especially reactionary. They went back on the promises they had made to the national minorities at the Paris Congress of 1907. The Armenian pogroms continued, as they had under Abdul Hamid II. Arab, Albanian and other non-Turkish societies were closed. In April 1909, the Arab Ottoman Fraternity was banned. The Young Turks armed themselves with the doctrines of Pan-Osmanism in its Turkish interpretation and pursued a policy of compulsory Turkisation of the non-Turkish nationalities. National schools were closed, the Turkish language was made the only official language of the Ottoman Empire.
The Young Turk government’s policy evoked opposition among the national minorities and compelled the Arab nationalities to oppose the Young Turkish regime. The Arab-Ottoman honeymoon had ended and the national movement acquired an openly anti-Turkish character.
The banning of legal organisations forced the leaders of the Arab movement to change their tactics. They began to combine legal struggle with underground work and intensified their activities abroad. In the summer of 1909, in place of the banned Arab Ottoman Fraternity they founded the Literary Club (El-Muntada El-Arabi) in Constantinople. Its official objectives were not avowedly political and the Young Turks tolerated it as a cultural andeducational organisation. The Literary Club’s social basis was the same as that of the Ottoman Arab Fraternity, but its leaders were completely different. These were people who had devoted themselves wholly to the struggle against the Turkish yoke. Four out of the Club Committee’s six members were hung by the Turks during World War I.
The Club had several thousand members, most of them students. There were branches in many Syrian and Iraqi towns.
The Club and its branches became centres where progressive Arab intellectuals could meet. Illegal literature was smuggled in from Egypt and the United States. Above all, the Club provided a cover for the Arab Nationalists’ illegal organisations.
At the end of 1909, Karim el-Khalil, the president of the Club, founded a secret political society which operated parallel to the legal organisations. The new society was named El-Qahtaniya, after Qahtan, one of the Arabs’ legendary ancestors. The society was comprised mainly of Arab officers serving in the Turkish army, among whom Aziz Ali el-Maisri played the leading role. An Egyptian by birth, he had served in the Turkish army and had taken part in the Young Turk Revolution. In 1909, he entered this secret anti-Turkish society and was soon in virtual control of all its affairs.
The Qahtaniya’s tasks and aims were worded in extremely vague terms: “To spread the principles of truth among the sons of the people, to gather their efforts, to unite their ranks,” and so on. The society’s members rejected the Arab Ottoman Fraternity’s Pan-Osmanic principles and regarded the Arabs as a nation apart. Their idea was to reorganise the Ottoman Empire and the dual Arab-Turkish state on the lines of Austria-Hungary. The Turkish Sultan would be simultaneously King of the Arabs. The Arab provinces were to form a separate kingdom within the framework of the Arab-Turkish Empire with its own parliament and local government, and with Arabic as the official language.
The secret society’s centre was in Constantinople; it also had branches in five other towns. In spite of enthusiastic beginnings, however, it never really got down to active work. Traitors turned up in its midst and it was decided to disperse before police action was taken.
In Paris, in 1911, a group of students, members of the Literary Club who were pursuing their studies in France, founded the secret Young Arab Society (Jam’iyat El-Arabiya El-Fatat), which played an important role in the history of the Arab national liberation movement. Many of its members perished at the hands of the Turkish executioners during World War I. Others lived to become outstanding politicians and statesmen of the Arab countries (Jamil Mardam, Rustum Haidar, Auni Abd al-Hadi).
The society’s founders set themselves a concrete aim. They wanted to be what the Young Turks were for Turkey. Gradually there emerged a more concrete programme based on the principles of Arab independence. At first the Young Arabs spoke in general terms of the Arab people’s renaissance and favoured the decentralisation of the Ottoman Empire. Later they demanded independence for the Arab countries and struggled for the Arabs’ liberation from Turkish and all other forms of foreign domination.
The Young Arab Society was strictly conspiratorial. Its members were divided into three groups: (1) an administrative group of six leaders; (2) an active group formed from among members who had gone through a preliminary probation period; (3) a group of candidates who had been tried and proved and were ignorant of each others’ identity. In their documents the Young Arabs resorted to all sorts of secret ciphers and symbols. They called each other “my brother,” wrote about the sunrise and sunset, about love and faith and used Masonic terminology.
This, however, was no mere pretence of conspiracy. On their return to their homeland, the secret society’s members took an active part in the political struggle. In 1913, they took the lead in uniting the actions of all the Arab national parties and organisations.
France and Britain supported the separatist tendencies in the Porte’s Arab provinces. Operating in their respective spheres of influence, they tried to win the Arab Nationalists over to their side and thereby strengthen their positions for the time when the Ottoman Empire would be partitioned. France was especially active. The French consulates in Damascus and Beirut established tics with several Arab Nationalists and financed the publication of several Lebanese newspapers. The French Government allotted considerable sums for the upkeep of French schools in Syria and the Lebanon, which had 25,000 pupils, and encouraged all kinds of scientific, cultural, educational and charity organisations.
In 1912, during the Italo-Turkish war, Italian warships appeared off the shores of Beirut and shelled the Turkish ships at anchor in the port. The shelling caused considerable excitement in Syria and the Lebanon and gave the French an excuse to come forward openly with their claims. In December 1912, the Prime Minister of France, Raymond Poincaré, declared in the Chamber of Deputies that France had special interests in Syria and the Lebanon and that she would never renounce her traditional positions in these countries, the local population’s “sympathies” or her right to defend these positions and interests. Simultaneously, in December 1912, France secured the conclusion of a new protocol on the Lebanese question by which the Lebanon’s former autonomy established by the conventions of 1861 and 1864 was considerably expanded.
On behalf of the British Government Grey, the British Foreign Secretary, immediately backed Poincaré’s statement. True, later by way of “clarification” Grey declared in Parliament that the British assurances given in 1912 applied only to railway construction, and that Britain was in favour of preserving the Ottoman Empire’s unity and integrity.
Between 1912 and 1913 the international situation developed favourably for the Arab Nationalists. The uprisings in Yemen and Albania, the Turks’ failures in the war against Italy (1911-12) and the coalition of the Balkan states (1912-13) weakened the Ottoman Empire and led to the liberation of the Balkans’ Greek and Slav population from the Turkish yoke. In 1912, Albania won her independence. All these events were of exceptional significance in the oppressed peoples’ struggle for liberation. Lenin regarded the first Balkan war as “one link in the chain of world events marking the collapse of the medieval state of affairs in Asia and East Europe.” [Lenin, Collected Works, Vol. 19, p. 39.]
The Young Turks’ failures abroad, their reactionary policy on nationalities and their complete neglect of the common people’s interests evoked considerable discontent in Turkey, which became apparent among both Right and Left wingers. In 1911, the Right-wing opposition forces merged in the Freedom and Concord Party (Hurriyet we Ittilaf), which reflected the Turkish feudal-compradore interests and, unlike the Young Turks, took its cue from the Entente countries in foreign policy. With regard to the national question it continued Sabah ed-Din’s traditions and took a progressive stand. The Party of Freedom and Con-cord was in favour of decentralisation of the empire. It supported the slogans “The Balkan countries for the Balkan peoples,” “The Arab countries for the Arabs,” “Armenia for the Armenians” and “Kurdistan for the Kurds.” Its members, the Ittilafists, demanded autonomy for these regions inside the Ottoman Empire. In July 1912, the Ittilafists came to power through a coup d’état. They were unable, however, to solve Turkey’s pressing domestic and foreign problems and they themselves became victims of a coup. On January 23, 1913, the Young Turks regained power. In effect, the reins of government were held by a Young Turk triumvirate, Enver, Talaat and Jemal, who turned the country into a patrimony of German imperialism. The Germans jokingly referred to the Ottoman Empire as “Enverland” after the leading pro-German.
All these events, the Turks’ military defeats, the Balkan peoples’ liberation, the accession to power of the Party of Freedom and Concord, and also the pressure of the Powers, caused an upswing of the national movement in the Arab countries in 1912-14. These developments showed that the Ottoman Empire was near to collapse. The series of coups, particularly, was a sign of a top-level crisis in Turkey. The revolutionary spirit continued to expand in the Arab provinces. New political and revolutionary societies arose. The national demands became part of the people’s life.
During the first Balkan war in December 1912, the Arab Nationalists founded the Ottoman Administrative Decentralisation (Party (Hizb El-Lamarkaziya El-Idariya El-Uthmani) in Cairo. This party was closely linked with the Turkish Party of Freedom and Concord and its programme had much in common with that of the Pala fists.
The Decentralisation Party had approximately 10,000 members and had branches in nearly all the towns of Syria and Palestine and in many regions of Iraq. The Party was headed by a central committee of twenty members and an executive body of six of their own number. The party’s president was Rafik el-Azm, a prominent Arab publicist, sociologist and philosopher and a member of Kawakebi’s Cairo circle. The Vice-President was another of Kawakebi’s pupils-Sheikh el-Zahrawi, an outstanding Arab publicist from the town of Hama and a deputy to the Turkish Parliament.
The party pressed for maximum Arab participation in the government of the empire, in the senate and in parliament. It demanded that Arabic be recognised as the official language and that it be introduced in Arab schools as a compulsory subject. The Decentralisation Party pressed for the Arab vilayets’ separation into special autonomous provinces with local governments and provincial assemblies. The autonomous provinces were to be granted extensive rights, such as the right to invite foreign advisers at their own discretion, to contract foreign loans and to grant concessions. The Decentralisation Party placed high hopes on the Western Powers’ intervention. They even agreed to the establishment of French control over Syria and the Lebanon and British control over the greater part of Palestine and Iraq.
The Decentralisation Party and its local branches launched a vigorous campaign. They put out leaflets, organised meetings and demonstrations and distributed songs and poems.
Very close contacts were maintained with the Literary Club and with other Arab national societies, especially with the Syrian and Iraqi reform societies.
A number of legal societies and committees in favour of reforms within the framework of the Ottoman Empire arose in Syria, the Lebanon and Iraq on the basis of the autonomous principles proposed by the Decentralisation Party. The most important of these were the Beirut Committee of Reform (El-Jamiya El-Islahiya), the Lebanese Awakening Society (An-Nagda El-Lubnaniya), the Baghdad National Scientific Club (An Nadi El-Watani El-Ilmi), the Basra Reform Society (El Jamiya El-Islahiya) and the Basra branch of the Beirut Committee of Reform.
The powerful influence of the compradore elements of the Syrian and Lebanese bourgeoisie made itself felt in the Syrian reform societies, especially in the Lebanese Awakening Society. The Beirut Committee of Reform and the Lebanese Awakening Society were in constant contact with émigré centres in Egypt, the U.S.A. and France and collaborated closely with the French consulates. In 1913, they even wrote a letter to the French Government, requesting France to occupy Syria and the Lebanon and to establish a protectorate over these countries. Unlike the Syrians, the Iraqi reformists, who were even more strongly influenced by the feudal-compradore elements, took their cue from Britain. Seyyid Talib, a leading Iraqi reformist, advocated British supervision of the reforms and even a British protectorate over Iraq.
The reform programmes of these societies were somewhat similar. The programme of the Beirut Committee of Re-form, the most influential of them, was the most significant. It demanded that all questions of local administration be handed over to the autonomous government of the Beirut vilayet. The central government was only to retain control over matters relating to defence, foreign relations, imperial communication routes and state finances. Recruits from one vilayet were not to be sent to other vilayets for service. The Arabic should be recognised as the official language and should be used in Parliament and in official documents on an equal footing with Turkish.
The committee published its reform plan in the middle of February 1913. It was endorsed at mass meetings in Damascus, Aleppo, Akkra, Nablus, Baghdad and Basra. In January 1913, however, the Young Turks, who succeeded the Ittilafists in the government, adopted a completely different attitude towards the Arab Nationalists. They flatly rejected the Beirut reformers’ demands and on April 8, 1913, they even banned the Committee of Reform and arrested its leaders. These measures caused much excitement in Beirut. The Beirut population responded to the Nationalists’ call for a general protest strike. Bazaars, stores and artisan shops were closed and the Arabic newspapers came out in black borders.
The disturbances spread to other regions of Syria, where solidarity demonstrations were held. This outburst of indignation compelled the Young Turks to make concessions. They released the arrested committee leaders and promised to carry out the reforms of vilayet administration.
On May 5, 1913, the Young Turk government promulgated a new Law of the Vilayets giving increased powers to the former vilayet councils, but falling short of the reformists’ and Decentralisation Party’s demands. By many it was regarded as a veiled step towards the further centralisation of the Ottoman Empire.
The Law of the Vilayets evoked a fresh wave of demonstrations and protest meetings in many Syrian and Iraqi towns, where an extensive campaign to reform vilayet administration had also been launched.
While these events were unfolding, a group of Arab students in Paris (as the leaders of the Young Arab Society called themselves for the sake of conspiracy) made a move for unity of all the national forces with a view to bringing pressure to bear on the Turkish Government. On April 4, 1913, the group appealed to the Decentralisation Party to summon the First Arab Congress in Paris. The proposal was accepted and the Decentralisation Party began making preparations for the congress.
The French Government adopted an extremely favour-able attitude towards the idea of convening a congress, since this coincided with its own demands and made it easier for the French to penetrate into Syria and the Lebanon. The French Government furnished the Arab Nationalists with premises for their congress and ensured the publication of its documents. The government’s semi-official organ, the newspaper Temps gave detailed reports of the congress and printed the delegates’ speeches. Khairullah, an Arab publicist and a secretary of the congress, collaborated directly with the newspaper Temps and, as one of its contributors, published all the congress’s documents.
The congress was held in June 1913. The official sittings took place between June 15 and 23, 1913. Twenty-four delegates attended the congress (nineteen from Syria and the Lebanon, two from Iraq and three from the Arab communities of the U.S.A.) and there were over 200 guests. The resolutions were based on the programmes of the Decentralisation Party and the Beirut Committee of Reform. The congress called for recognition of the Arabs national rights and affirmed their demand, first for greater participation in the Ottoman Empire’s central government and, second, for the autonomy of the Arab provinces. The resolutions of the congress were communicated to the French Minister of Foreign Affairs, to the Powers’ ambassadors in Paris and to the Turkish Government.
The French Government, which in the meanwhile was holding talks with the Turks on the possibility of a loan and, therefore, possessed a strong lever of pressure on Turkey, summoned to Paris Midhat Bey, the Secretary of the Committee of Union and Progress. On behalf of the Young Turk Party, Midhat Bey concluded an agreement with the chairman of the First Arab Congress, el-Zahrawi. By this agreement the Young Turks undertook to carry out all the congress’s resolutions. Meanwhile, in the summer of 1913, an agreement was concluded between France and Turkey under which the Porte granted France a number of railway and port concessions. Neither the first nor the second agreement were implemented.
The Young Turks did everything in their power to wreck the Arab-Turkish agreement. For two months they kept up a pretence. On August 15, 1913, they ceremoniously welcomed the delegates of the congress who had come to Constantinople. A series of meetings were arranged as a sign of “Arab-Turkish rapprochement” with the participation of Young Turkish ministers. On August 18, 1913, the Young Turks issued a decree on Arab rights, which came nowhere near to satisfying the Arabs and was interpreted as an act of deceit. In an attempt to delay the inevitable breach, the Turks began distributing ranks and decorations to various Arab personalities. They appointed five Arab senators, all of whom, except for el-Zahrawi, were big feudalists and merchants and had no connection with the national movement.
Neither these two-faced manifestations of “Arab-Turkish rapprochement” nor the scanty reforms, which were not even carried out, yielded any tangible results. The situation remained unchanged.
After the failure of Arab-Turkish contacts in the summer of 1913, the Nationalists lost all hope of coming to an agreement with the Young Turks. True, some of them attempted to renew the talks, but most of the Nationalists began to look on them as traitors. The young members of the Literary Club even organised a demonstration in protest against Sheikh el-Zahrawi’s acceptance of the post of senator.
After August and September 1913, the Arab Nationalists made no further serious attempts to reach agreement with the Turks and began preparing for an armed uprising.
On October 28, 1913, Major Aziz All el-Misri founded a Secret society called El-Ahd (the Covenant) in Constantinople. El-Ahd was formed on the basis of the other secret society El-Qahtaniya and was somewhat similar to it both in structure and aims. Unlike the Oahtaniya, however, this was a purely military association, embracing Arab officers of the Turkish army, mainly Iraqis, of feudal birth. The new society had approximately 4,000 members and founded several branches in Baghdad, Mosul, Aleppo and Damascus. Such persons as Nuri as-Said and Jamil Madfai were connected with the society. Many of El-Ahd’s members, including Aziz Ali el-Misri, had ties with the British Intelligence and took their cue from Britain.
El-Ahd renounced all hopes of a peaceful evolution and an agreement with the Young Turks. It called for the forced overthrow of the dominating Turks and made preparations for an uprising, the centre of which was to be in Iraq.
Early in 1914, the Turkish authorities caught wind of the military plot and arrested Aziz Ali el-Misri, charging him with treason. His trial by a military tribunal in March 1914 evoked a storm of protest in the Arab countries, especially in Egypt. The tribunal sentenced Aziz All to death, but the sentence was not carried out thanks to the British Embassy’s intervention. On April 21, 1914, Aziz Ali el-Misri was pardoned and departed for Egypt.
A number of other smaller societies whose aims were to organise an armed struggle against the Turks arose parallel to El-Ahd. The Banner’s Society (Jam’iyat El-Alam) was founded in Mosul, and the Society of the Arab Revolution (Jam’iyat El-Thawra El-Arabiya), in Cairo. The Society of the Arab Revolution put the question of full independence for the Arab countries and an armed anti-Turkish uprising point blank.
By 1914, most of the political Arab organisations and secret societies had abandoned their conciliatory tactics of reform and begun preparations for an armed insurrection. The Young Turks’ chauvinist policy had dispelled the last illusions of the- possibility of any settlement. In January 1914, frightened by the growth of separatist tendencies among the Arabs, the Young Turks decided to close all the Arab political organisations and to scatter the Arab officers among different garrisons and military units. The only result was to strengthen the revolutionary-minded people’s positions, since it forced them to abandon propaganda for concrete action.
To prepare for the uprising, the Arab Nationalists established contacts with representatives of the Western embassies and with the British and French intelligence services. At the outset of 1914, on behalf of the Decentralisation Party, Shafik el-Muaiad held talks with the French Ambassador to Constantinople Bompard to obtain French financial and political support for the Arab uprising. Shortly before the outbreak of World War I, the Decentralisation Party concluded an agreement with France for the delivery of 20,000 rifles, provision of instructors and so on. Similar contacts were established by the British residents in the Orient. In April 1914, Abdullah el-Hashimi had meetings with Kitchener, the British Consul-General in Egypt, and with other British officials. Abdullah requested the British to supply the Arabs with machine-guns and to support the uprising that was to take place in the Hejaz.
Thus, by the outbreak of World War I, two opposite tendencies were to be observed in the Arab movement. Most of the Arab Nationalists were in favour of an anti-Turkish uprising and went so far as to conspire with the Entente. The others still hoped to reach an agreement with the Turks. They felt that an uprising would entail the no less, and perhaps even more, dangerous possibility of the occupation of the Arab countries by the British and French.