“How could we qualify the Ottoman’s annexation of the Arab countries or the arrival of Sultan Selim I to the Arab world in the years (1516-1517) and the consequent end of the Mamluk state?” It is with this basic, centuries-old controversial question that historian Mohamed Afifi approaches the history of Ottomans in Egypt in his book Arabs and Ottomans, published by Dar Al-Shorouk as part of its “Alternative Perspectives” series of history introductions.
The question for Afifi in Arabs and Ottomans is an attempt to offer a yes or no — or maybe a yes and no — answer to the continuously debated query: Did the Ottomans conquer or open the Arab world when their troops landed in Egypt?
The whole thesis of Afifi seems to argue that the Ottoman rule of the Arab world was not an act of foreign occupation. This he suggests even when he expresses a sense of understanding of the point of view of those who perceive the Ottoman history in the Arab world as an era of foreign occupation.
Reading Afifi’s Arabs and Ottomans one follows the author’s argument that the beginning of the fall of the Mamluks was prior and not subsequent to the arrival of the Ottomans.
Further, Afifi argues that the days of the Ottomans in Egypt, contrary to the understanding of some, were not necessarily inferior to the days of Mohamed Ali, who is criticised by Afifi for rewriting history to blacken the days of the Ottomans.
The idea that Egypt lost its independence under the Ottomans and regained it under the rule of Mohamed Ali is “an exaggerated argument”, says Afifi. He adds that it was “in fact designed to give legitimacy to the rule of Mohamed Ali”.
For Afifi, Egypt was not a sovereign state under Mohamed Ali and the Mamluks were no more natives of the country than the Ottomans or for that matter Mohamed Ali himself. So, if any of the three conquered and occupied the land, the others did equally.
And, according to the author of Arabs and Ottomans, there is enough evidence of what would qualify for religious tolerance in the countries of the Ottoman Empire, overall economic well-being, and a certain degree of social cohesion to suggest that the days of the Ottomans in the Arab countries were good ones overall.
The reading of the Ottoman history in Egypt, Afifi argues in the early paragraphs of his 100-page book, depends not just on whether the historian is doing so from an Islamist or nationalist perspective but also on the times where the approach of this period is made.
“After the defeat of [Egyptian troops] in the 1967 war and with the rise of the Islamic trend it was natural that the nationalist liberal debate gave way to one designed on an Islamic perspective to allow for a re-reading of this period from an Islamist perspective,” Afifi writes.
Every time that the Ottoman history in Egypt, or elsewhere in the Arab world, is narrated by an affiliate of the Islamist ideology, the account is most likely to be positive: the Ottoman Empire is the Muslim Khilafa and its expansion into — never occupation of — the Arab world is only a fortification of the status of the ultimate Muslim state.
Indeed, those who subscribe to this theory would immediately suggest, according to Afifi, that the fall of Palestine into the hands of immigrant Jewish communities was only made possible by the tragic fall of the Ottoman Empire.
However, for the nationalists, the presence of Ottomans in Arab countries, including Egypt, was a four-century long occupation that undermined the status of Cairo and even the status of the Arabic language itself, and led to stagnation in politics and a worsening of conditions of trade and crafts.
On the eve of World War I, Afifi states, the debate between those who supported the Germans and those who supported the Turks was one between those who wanted an independent and sovereign Egypt to be ruled only by Egyptians — a scenario that was only made possible by the 23 July 1952 Revolution, and those who wanted the Islamic state scenario.
Today, this debate is again evoked, with the increasing role of Turkey in the Muslim-Arab world and with the rise of the political Islamic groups, including the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, with some members suggesting an interest to revive the Islamic Khilafa.
Turkish and Arab perspectives on the history of the Ottoman rule of Arab countries, literature inspired by the years of the Ottoman Empire, and more Arab and Turkish books that detail historians’ account of both sides are expected to be selected for translation in the next months as Egypt and Turkey are considering widening the avenues of translation from Turkish into Arabic and vice versa.