A century after the Ottomans — (I) A vacuum to be filled

Tarek Osman
Tuesday 6 Feb 2024

The fall of the Ottoman Empire a century ago led to the emergence of new political ideas in the Levant, North Africa, and the Arabian Peninsula that continue to mark the region today, writes Tarek Osman


The fall of the Ottoman Empire almost exactly a century ago opened up the Middle East, North Africa, and the Arabian Peninsula to major transformations, with many of their consequences continuing to resonate in the region today.

Egypt had been effectively independent from the Ottomans since the beginning of the Khedive Ismail’s reign in the 1860s, and at the time of the fall of the Ottoman Empire in 1918 it was a British protectorate after Britain had occupied the country in 1882.

Britain did not want to turn Egypt into a colony in the way that India or several African countries were at the time. For many administrators of the British Empire at the time, Egypt was the most valuable spot on the route from Britain to East Asia, primarily because of the existence of the Suez Canal, but also because its geography and demographic distribution allowed the empire’s soldiers to rest and recuperate there on the route to India.

When the fall of the Ottoman Empire came, with Egypt still nominally under its suzerainty, a desire for the country’s formal independence from Britain came. The British were hardly enthusiastic, but their resistance was far from adamant, and Egypt received its nominal independence in 1922. The country’s first real constitution was drawn up, and political parties began to appear.

This was the beginning of Egypt’s short, but real, liberal age, which lasted until the beginning of World War II. This liberal age, although spanning only two decades, left a deep mark on Egyptian consciousness. It is the sole period in the experience of modern Egypt in which the country experienced economic innovation, urban cosmopolitanism, social vivaciousness, true secularism, cultural openness to the world, and serious political freedom.

The fall of the Ottomans left a deeper mark on the Levant. Whereas Ottoman rule had been diluted in Egypt since the 1860s, it remained strong in the Levant until the major French advance into the region during World War I. Until then, the Ottoman Empire’s presence in the Levant was felt not only in politics, but also in the close economic and social links that connected the Levant with Istanbul and the eastern reaches of the empire at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th.

The Ottoman retreat from the Levant was also much more fraught than it was in Egypt, where it was entirely peaceful. In the Levant, the Ottoman Empire fought some of its fiercest battles against the European colonial powers and also against the Arabs, mainly the Hashemites, to retain its imperial territories in the region. The battles in the Levant were among the last and most consequential Ottoman attempts to save the idea of an Ottoman state that extended beyond Turkey itself.

However, the Ottomans failed, and with the fall of their rule in the Levant several political projects found intellectual and geographical spaces in which to express themselves. Some of these projects emanated from religious institutions, most notably the conception of the state of Grand Lebanon, the country we know as Lebanon today, which was the brainchild of grandees of the Maronite Church. Other political projects, such as the idea of Grand Syria extending from the Levant’s borders with Turkey all the way south to the border with Egypt’s Sinai, emerged from the ideas of secular nationalists such as Antoun Saadeh.

But the most ambitious project that came to replace the Ottomans in the Levant was that of the Hashemites. The rulers of the Hijaz in today’s Saudi Arabia for centuries, the Hashemites were expelled from the Arabian Peninsula in the 1920s by the expanding forces of Saudi King Abdul-Aziz Al Saud. They successfully entrenched themselves in the Levant and declared kingdoms in Syria, Jordan, and Iraq.

Although they lost two of these in a relatively short span of time, they managed to establish a successful political project in Jordan anchored on a deep bond between the Hashemites and the tribes of the region and on a legitimacy based on the Hashemites’ descent from the Prophet Mohammed.

All of these political projects – from the Maronite Church’s conception of Lebanon to the Hashemites’ kingdoms in the Levant – could only have arisen in the space created by the disappearance of the Ottoman Empire.

The Ottomans never directly ruled the heart of the Arabian Peninsula, but their fall nevertheless opened up Arabia to major changes. In the decade after the Ottomans’ withdrawal from the eastern and western fringes of the Peninsula, King Abdul-Aziz Al Saud significantly expanded his rule beyond Najd and united the territories he had acquired into a new kingdom that we know today as Saudi Arabia.

Politics aside, the fall of the Ottomans was also traumatic for large segments of the population across the Middle East and North Africa region. Ottomanism was an identity that many in this wide region had embraced. For some it was largely religious, and despite the major modernisation that Turkey had undertaken in the 19th century, the Ottoman Sultan remained the Caliph (the political successor of the Prophet Mohammed), and the empire was essentially the Caliphate.

For tens of millions of Sunni Muslims, even highly westernised ones at the beginning of the 20th century, Ottomanism oriented hearts and minds towards the legacy of 14 centuries of Islamic history. In this religious view, Ottomanism was also a distinct differentiator between the identity of the Muslim-majority societies of the empire’s heartlands versus the alien value system of the Western powers that had come to the Levant, North Africa, and the Arabian Peninsula in the mid and late 19th century.

There was of course also a political side to this identity. In Egypt, the then ruling Mohamed Ali Dynasty was divided between one faction that was willing to accept holding the throne through the machinations of Britain, the effective power in the country at the beginning of the 20th century, and another that insisted on retaining a link of allegiance to the Sublime Porte, the centre of Ottoman power in Istanbul.

A similar division took place in the Arabian Peninsula, where tribal leaders not only played the Ottomans and the British off against each other, but also sought different forms of legitimacy, sometimes through acquiescing to the Ottomans and sometimes through rebelling against them in the name of Arab independence.

Ottomanism was a cultural frame of reference. Muslims as well as non-Muslims in the Middle Eastern and Arab provinces of the empire saw in it an overarching umbrella covering their lands and marking its distinction from the West. This view found its reflection in the most widespread Western literature about the Orient from the 18th and 19th centuries, which largely lumped together the peoples of Turkey, the Levant, and the eastern Mediterranean, with hardly any attention paid to differences in history, ethnicity, language, or even religion.

Interestingly, for scores of Western travellers of the period, the Greeks under the Ottomans were as oriental as their fellow Levantines in another part of the empire. This Ottoman cultural identity was particularly strong among the elites of provinces having large Turkish communities. Ahmed Shawki, dubbed “the prince of poets,” an Egyptian resident, saw in the fall of the Ottoman Empire not only the demise of the seat of the Islamic Caliphate, but also the disappearance of “the Kingship of the East.”

This series of articles will trace how the fall of the Ottomans a century ago led to the emergence of different ideas that attempted to replace Ottomanism in the Levant, North Africa, and the Arabian Peninsula. Many of these borrowed from the essence of Ottomanism. Some have long withered away. But some remain in the crucible of Middle Eastern geopolitics.  


The writer is the author of Islamism: A History of Political Islam (2017) and Egypt on the Brink (2010).

* A version of this article appears in print in the 8 February, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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