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Book review: Arabs and Ottomans, then and now

A timely book by historian Mohamed Afifi offers an alternative reading of the history of Ottoman Egypt

Dina Ezzat, Monday 12 Sep 2011
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Al-arab wa al-othmaneyun (The Arabs and the Ottomans)

By Mohamed Afifi

Dar Al-Shorouk, Cairo, 2005. pp.104

"How can 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, but for centuries controversial, question that historian Mohamed Afifi approaches the history of the Ottomans in Egypt in his book "Arab and Ottomans", published by Dar Al-Shorouk as part of its "Alternative Perspectives" series of history introductions.  

The question for Afifi is basically an attempt to offer a yes or no, or maybe a yes and a no, in answer to the continuously debated query: Did the Ottomans conquer or open the Arab world? This question that is only rivalled in terms of controversy by the debate over the arrival of Muslim troops to Egypt.

Afifi's whole thesis 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 towards the point of view of those who perceive Ottoman history in the Arab world as an era of foreign occupation.  

Reading Afifi's "Arab and Ottomans", one follows the author's argument that the beginning of the fall of the Mamluks was prior 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 basically criticised by Afifi for forcing a false testimony into history about 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" according to 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 evidence of what would pass for religious tolerance in the countries of the Ottoman Empire, as well as overall economic wellbeing and a certain degree of social cohesion.

The reading of 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 to 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 a re-reading of this period from an Islamist perspective," Afifi writes.

Every time, Afifi suggests, that 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 (caliphate) 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 loss of Palestine to the emigrating Jewish communities was only made possible by the tragic fall of the Ottoman Empire.

For the nationalists, Afifi acknowledges, 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 – not to mention political interests and the conditions of trade.

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 pursued an independent and sovereign Egypt to be ruled only by Egyptians – a scenario that was only made possible by the 1952 Revolution - and those who adopted 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 political Islamic groups, including the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt – with some members suggesting an interest to revive the Islamic khilafa.

More Arab and Turkish books that detail historians' accounts of both sides' perspectives 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.

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