Arab Patriotism: The Ideology and Culture of Power in Late Ottoman Egypt

Arab Patriotism: The Ideology and Culture of Power in Late Ottoman Egypt

by Adam Mestyan


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Arab Patriotism presents the essential backstory to the formation of the modern nation-state and mass nationalism in the Middle East. While standard histories claim that the roots of Arab nationalism emerged in opposition to the Ottoman milieu, Adam Mestyan points to the patriotic sentiment that grew in the Egyptian province of the Ottoman Empire during the nineteenth century, arguing that it served as a pivotal way station on the path to the birth of Arab nationhood.

Through extensive archival research, Mestyan examines the collusion of various Ottoman elites in creating this nascent sense of national belonging and finds that learned culture played a central role in this development. Mestyan investigates the experience of community during this period, engendered through participation in public rituals and being part of a theater audience. He describes the embodied and textual ways these experiences were produced through urban spaces, poetry, performances, and journals. From the Khedivial Opera House's staging of Verdi's Aida and the first Arabic magazine to the ‘Urabi revolution and the restoration of the authority of Ottoman viceroys under British occupation, Mestyan illuminates the cultural dynamics of a regime that served as the precondition for nation-building in the Middle East.

A wholly original exploration of Egypt in the context of the Ottoman Empire, Arab Patriotism sheds fresh light on the evolving sense of political belonging in the Arab world.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691172644
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 05/09/2017
Pages: 368
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.40(h) x 1.30(d)

About the Author

Adam Mestyan is assistant professor of history at Duke University.

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Arab Patriotism

The Ideology and Culture of Power in Late Ottoman Egypt

By Adam Mestyan


Copyright © 2017 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-17264-4


The Ottoman Origins of Arab Patriotism

The construction of a new political community as related to a new regime type in Ottoman Egypt can be defined by two problems in the first half of the nineteenth century. The first was the relationship between the Ottoman Empire and its Egyptian province under the rule of Mehmed Ali. The second was the relationship between the governor and the local elites. These problems were interrelated in the legitimacy structure of power, and provided the conditions for the rise of political nation-ness in Arabic.

It was the Crimean war (1853–1856), in which Egypt and other Arab provinces participated, that forcefully brought to the surface patriotism in Arabic as a discursive strategy of constituting political solidarity in public. There were overlapping imagined communities at the imperial and local levels. The idea of the homeland became a means to make sense of new politics through old media: poetry, songs, proverbs, history, and religious treatises. There were new media too, such as the printing press and modern Arabic theater in Ottoman Beirut, which in its inception was connected to solidarity and the Ottoman order.

The Mehmed Ali Paradox

There was a drama of survival at the highest level of Ottoman and Egyptian politics. The key to understanding the logic behind the actions of the self-made governor Mehmed Ali and those of his successors is a simple paradox. Mehmed Ali was neither part of the Ottoman elite, nor was he a local Egyptian or even ethnically Arab. He was not sent from the imperial center to govern, nor was he at the head of a local group in the Nile Valley.

Instead, Mehmed Ali arrived in Egypt in 1801 to fight the French, as an ad hoc commander of an irregular unit of the Ottoman army. He was the unruly nephew of the governor in the Ottoman city of Kavala (today in Greece). He invested in the tobacco trade, but soon joined the Ottoman troops en route to Egypt. After the French evacuation, he seized the governorship of the province by deploying mercenaries, scheming, and expelling the appointed Ottoman governors. One governor, Hüsrev, attempted to introduce novel Ottoman reforms (Nizam-i Cedid) much to the chagrin of the sheikhs of al-Azhar. Mehmed Ali commanded the only force capable of maintaining order in Cairo, despite having caused much of the chaos himself. Seeing him as their only means of guarding their financial freedom against Ottoman centralization, the sheikhs made a strategic decision and petitioned the sultan to appoint Mehmed Ali governor. This was a foundational act: lacking an army in Egypt and facing a crisis in Istanbul, the sultan was forced to accede to the request in order to retain the province. The sultanic letter of appointment (a firman) thus arrived in 1805.

Over the next twenty years, Mehmed Ali maintained a loyal connection with the weak imperial center while he eliminated his internal rivals, the neo-Mamluks, the local military elite in Egypt. In their place, he built a new elite composed of Ottoman peoples: his family members and friends from Kavala, Turks, Albanians, Armenians, and Greeks from the Ottoman Mediterranean. He employed local Copts and Syrian Christians in the administration. Then, the pasha created a modern army by forced conscription of Egyptian peasants and employed French, Italian, and Spanish training officers. He monopolized the provincial economy. Finally, Mehmed Ali broke al-Azhar by appointing loyal sheikhs as its leaders. The Ottoman Turkish-speaking elite became known by the Turkish word zevat (Arabicdhawat) in Egypt. The zevat directed his household government and the army.

Mehmed Ali's actions were crucially informed by his position as an alien in both the Ottoman elite system and the Egyptian province. He was not, like Ali Pasha in Ottoman Greece, of local origin. Aware of precarious position, he always prioritized dealing with the closest threat to his person and rule. Thus, when reforms started in the Ottoman army in the late 1820s, creating the conditions for his removal by force, Mehmed Ali realized his long-cherished plan of acquiring the rich Syrian provinces and gaining more soldiers. He ordered his eldest son Ibrahim to invade the Syrian provinces in 1831. This move upset the Ottoman system in an unprecedented manner.

The Syrian Campaign and Ibrahim's Image in Arabic, 1830S

There were three important consequences of the Syrian campaign from the point of view of Egypt's Ottoman relation and the rise of nation-ness. The first, as Khaled Fahmy underlines, was a homogenizing experience among Egyptian peasant recruits in the army "instilling in them the feeling of hatred of the Ottomans." The second was an Arabic image of Ibrahim. In the 1880s, this image would be incorporated into the ideological restoration of dynastic legitimacy after the British occupation (see in detail in chapter 6); and even later would give rise to speculations about his pro-Arab feelings. The third was the right of Mehmed Ali to the hereditary governance of Egypt, received in 1841 — discussed in the next section.

In the Arabic image of Ibrahim appears the first signs of a compromise in Arabic with a Muslim Ottoman ruler who claimed some sovereignty against the Ottoman sultan and caliph, and a vocabulary describing him as an Arab prince. Mehmed Ali also acquired an image in Arabic but it is Ibrahim's that would later become the material of political legitimacy. It is worth noting that we have access to this image in a final form, as it reaches us in printed books, very possibly after careful historical cosmetics. Therefore, it is important to contextualize it briefly in relation to the available historical data. That data, again, are somewhat distorted by the postoccupation period when the Syrian provinces were reintegrated into the empire after 1841.

The Conquest

In 1831 Ibrahim's army, in cooperation with the emir of Mount Lebanon, Bashir Shihab II, announced a new balance of power to the Ottoman Syrians. Christians, in particular, seemed to be reconciled with this situation (some even celebrated Ibrahim's entry in Damascus),although they suffered injustices, such as beatings in the first years, and feared they would be forced to wear colored clothes. Nawfal Nawfal (d. 1887), a Syrian Christian in the service of Mehmed Ali who accompanied Ibrahim on his conquest, recalled retrospectively that Mehmed Ali was good to Christians in Egypt, but in Syria "Ibrahim and his men related to the people like the conqueror to the defeated." For instance, Ibrahim's soldiers raped many women, and this, said Nawfal, "will be never forgiven by any [Syrian] Muslim or Christian."

Ibrahim introduced equal taxes and armed some Christians (after he had once disarmed them) against a Druze revolt, as Rustum Baz, a Maronite courtier of Emir Bashir, related in his memoirs. Another Christian, the Aleppo-based Catholic school master, Na'um Bakhkhash, was satisfied with the Egyptians' appointment of a Melkite tax collector, although he also remarked in his diary that the Egyptians "make everyone taste the whip." Yet another Catholic (later Protestant convert), Mikha'il Mishaqa (1800–1888) from Damascus — whom we will meet again in a later chapter — said of the Egyptian occupiers in a memoir: "right was given where it was due." Ibrahim established a representative council ("with six Turks and six Christians") for juridical purposes, which the French consul in Beirut judged not truly useful. It is not unlikely that Ibrahim acquired some personal friends among Christians; in the late summer of 1837 he stayed for a long time in the house of a certain Sheikh Butrus in the Christian village of Ehden (today in northern Lebanon) although it seems that the Maronites generally remained afraid of him.

Loving Ibrahim?

This fear is not detectable in the surviving printed Arabic poetry. Rather, satisfaction and even devotion were expressed in the poems collected by Iskandar Abkariyus (d. 1885), a Syrian-Armenian school-teacher and life-long loyalist of the Mehmed Ali family. The poems he published in the early 1880s were written mostly by Christians during the Egyptian occupation in the 1830s. These were not the first expression of admiration in Arabic for the new pashas of Egypt. For instance, when Ibrahim crushed the first Saudi polity in the Hijaz in the 1810s, he was celebrated in the Ottoman Iraqi provinces with Arabic poems by Iraqi Muslim intellectuals. By the Syrian campaign, there had already been discussions in Arabic about the new power in Egypt in the other provinces.

The poems collected by Abkariyus depict a victorious Ibrahim, loved by the people, who accept his "just rule." The poems include a panegyric (madih) by the famous intellectual Nasif al-Yaziji and a praising poem in which every line ends in the letter "l" (lamiyya) by the less famous Amin al-Jundi, which contains the following lines:

Indeed it is said Ibrahim arrived as a fighter / and his enemies fell, so they say / he is the lord of ministers, the pearl of their union / such noble virtues dress him up.

Another way to celebrate Ibrahim was through the textual chronogram (tarikh), a popular poetic technique in the eighteenth century in which the numerical values of the Arabic letters provide a number, usually a year (see more on chronograms in the next chapter). Emir Bashir himself offered the following couplet to commemorate Ibrahim's victory at Acre in a poem printed only in the 1880s. Each hemistich contains thehijri date 1248 (1832) two times. The epigrammatic nature of the chronogram aims to immortalize Ibrahim as a hero of the local community (transliterated here to provide all the letters which have numerical values):

Kun balighan awj sa'din ma bi-hi darar / aw ghaliban lam yazal fi awwal al-zafar 1248 1248 1248 1248 Be strong even if harmful at the peak of fortune/or a champion always triumphant

Hating Ibrahim?

While poetry, printed later, painted a shining image of Ibrahim, there were abundant signs of dissatisfaction with the occupation at the time — not least because the troops changed the religious and economic fabric of the Syrian provinces. Ibrahim's image must be seen in this context.

The Maronite Christians feared "disadvantages" they might face under Mehmed Ali's rule and asked for renewed French protection in 1835. The poor, regardless of religion, were disadvantaged by the equal taxation. And the Druze did not want to be conscripted in the army.

The Sunni Muslim 'ulama' faced something of a quandary. One Muslim sheikh, Salih, noted with horror that Egyptians tore down mosques in order to build stables for the horses. Bruce Masters claims that as an act of resistance another sheikh, Ibn 'Abidin, was among the earliest Arab scholars who recognized Sultan Mahmud II as caliph in the 1830s, and this sheikh argued that Mehmed Ali and Ibrahim revolted against the law of God.

Even the Christian Mikha'il Mishaqa admitted, in his later writings, that local notables often supported the Ottomans rather than Ibrahim (though such late remarks might be due to his own acceptance of the postoccupation Ottoman order and his class awareness). In Damascus, Christian workers certainly hated the corvée they had to do for the fortification of the city. The Christian hostility might have increased by 1840, as a British traveler noted in a private letter in that year: "Ibrahim Pasha is everywhere universally feared, I was about to say, detested." As a reaction to a revolt in July 1840, Mehmed Ali and Ibrahim allowed their soldiers to plunder and burn the Christian mountain villages before they left. Mehmed Ali ordered his troops in Beirut to celebrate the birth of his daughter for seven days; however, to the horror of the French consul, the soldiers used the occasion to sing about raping Christian women and burning villages. These consular reports were possibly a push from "the man on the spot" for intervention. Had the Great Powers, especially Britain, not forced the Egyptian army to evacuate, Ibrahim would have faced more resistance and would have likely responded, in turn, with more cruelty.

Remembering Love

In scholarship, there have been attempts to reconcile the occupation of the Syrian provinces with Egyptian and Iraqi history as the beginning of pan-Arabism. Famously, George Antonius's The Arab Awakening(1938) starts with a story about a "false start." Mehmed Ali, says Antonius, sent his son Ibrahim to occupy the Syrian provinces "carving out for himself an Arab empire from the sultan's dominions." However, the plan to create an "Arab movement," which would have sustained this empire, failed, Antonius concludes, because the British intervened, Mehmed Ali and Ibrahim were not Arabs, and there was not yet a national Arab consciousness. That Mehmed Ali or Ibrahim would have planned an "Arab empire" was convincingly rejected by Khaled Fahmy. At the peak of Arab nationalism in the 1950s and 1960s, Egyptian historians pointed to the "openness" of the Iraqis after the fall of Davud Pasha, the governor of Ottoman Baghdad, in 1831, to revolt against the Ottomans and to embrace Mehmed Ali and Ibrahim, thus uniting all Arabs under one single power. These claims were rejected by the Iraqi historian 'Ali al-Wardi as early as the 1970s. Indeed, in 1839, Ali Pasha, the new Ottoman governor of Baghdad, gave a polite but evasive answer to Mehmed Ali's letter about his march to Istanbul to request that the new Grand Vizier Hüsrev Pasha, his arch-enemy, be deposed. On the whole, similar to Syrian sheikhs, the Iraqi Sunni 'ulama' decided to support the sultan (the caliph) against the pasha of Egypt. There is no evidence of an attempt to unify the Ottoman Arabs.

There is no need to detail the circumstances in which Ibrahim's occupation ended in the Syrian provinces because of the British bombardment of Beirut and menace of Alexandria in 1840. Mehmed Ali, having no choice, accepted the conditions dictated by the European Powers and the Ottomans in return for the hereditary governorship of Egypt. This was a negotiated solution, representing the interests of all parties: the Powers agreed that the territorial integrity of the Ottoman Empire was key to peace in Europe and received economic and political concessions from the Ottomans in return. Mehmed Ali gained the hereditary governorship, which gave Egypt to him and his family (he had already received the island of Thassos — Tasoz in Turkish — facing the city of Kavala as a personal possession) with Ottoman and international guarantees. The Ottoman Empire, for its part, was scratched but remained largely intact.

While military experiences and counterimages are crucial for nation-ness, for its articulation a structure of governance is needed in which some type of popular sovereignty could appear as a political argument. This transformation was given not by independence; on the contrary, it developed in the context of the centrally produced, imperial Ottoman patriotic ideas.

Ottoman Imperial Patriotism

The origins of imperial patriotism in the Ottoman center were an ideological reaction to disturbance in the provinces, a tool of reintegration, and a device to strengthen the loyalty of the army against external threat. Osmanlilik, "Ottoman citizenship," became the organizing principle of the Tanzimat, the reforms to centralize the empire. Law and new taxation were the most powerful tools of this centralization. The attempt to conceptually reframe the Ottoman state can be viewed as a master example of nationalizing an empire earlier than the strategy of playing out "corporate identities," to use the wording of Karen Barkey. These tools were accompanied by songs, chants, slogans, and poetry through which ideology became a physical and sensorial experience. In the late 1840s, the new Arabic theater was born in Ottoman Beirut in this atmosphere, with the first plays demonstrating loyalty to the Ottoman sultan. The peak of imperial aural patriotism was the Crimean War (1853–1856), although certain elements remained in use until the twentieth century.

Patria and the Body of the Sultan

Bernard Lewis claims that in the Ottoman Empire "patriotism was a new discovery, from the French revolution." There was certainly a French moment in early Ottoman and Muslim political thought. It seems, however, that the concept of the patria was introduced in a calculated manner into Ottoman imperial ideology.

Patriotism was a discursive ideological device employed by Ottoman elite administrators loyal to the empire rather than the master plan of the dynasty. Ottoman statesmen recognized the value of patriotism in strengthening imperial loyalty at the moment of Mehmed Ali's Syrian conquest. The imperial Education Council considered educating the people in the "love of the homeland" (hubb al-watan, an Arabic expression) in early 1839. The Gülhane Edict (November 1839), generally considered to be the announcement of Tanzimat, stated that "it is the inescapable duty of all the people to provide soldiers for the defense of the homeland [vatan]." There was, as Lewis points out, disagreement among the Ottoman elite. A dissenting intellectual, Cevdet Pasha, wrote against the new rhetoric by claiming that "among us, if we say the wordvatan, all that will come to the minds of our soldiers is their village squares ... it would not be as potent as religious zeal, nor could it take its place." This concern failed to hold sway, and statesmen initiated significant changes to fashion the empire as a homeland while they also preserved the importance of religion in public. The Gülhane Edict was translated into Arabic and sent to all Arab provinces, including Egypt.


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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations vii

List of Tables ix

Notes on Transliteration, Names, Titles, and Currency xi

Introduction 1

I The Making of the Khedivate 17

1 The Ottoman Origins of Arab Patriotism 21

2 The Ottoman Legitimation of Power: The Khedivate 50

3 The European Aesthetics of Khedivial Power 84

II “A Garden with Mellow Fruits of Refinement” 121

4 A Gentle Revolution 125

5 Constitutionalism and Revolution: The Arab Opera 164

III The Reinvention of the Khedivate 199

6 Hārūn al-Rashīd under Occupation 203

7 Behind the Scenes: A Committee and the Law, 1880s–1900s 238

8 Distinction: Muṣṭafā Kāmil and the Making of an Arab Prince 268

Conclusion: The Ottoman Origin of Arab Nationalisms 303

Acknowledgments 309

Abbreviations 311

Works Cited 313

Index 345

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"Arab Patriotism is much more than just an outstanding contribution to the modern history of Egypt. Mestyan weaves together a narrative about power and the arts, social history, and the history of the media to form a dense and colorful tapestry of sophisticated argument. The nineteenth-century Mediterranean region emerges in a new and unexpected light."—Jürgen Osterhammel, author of The Transformation of the World

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