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Required: A Lebanese Midhat Pasha

Required: A Lebanese Midhat Pasha

Wednesday, 29 January, 2020 - 10:30

The phrase “gaining the international community’s trust” has become commonplace in Lebanon today. It is demanded of the president, the speaker of parliament, and the ministers. If they fail to attain the international community’s trust, as is being said, disaster will ensue. This trust should be attained, regardless of the politicians’ corruption and Hezbollah’s weapons. To this end, we should “appear” different in order to convince the "international community" that there is no corruption in governance and no weapons in the hands of Hezbollah.

Midhat Pasha is a name familiar to everyone who has some knowledge of late Ottoman history. He also worked on “gaining the international community’s trust”. As it said that: “the ancient Greeks left nothing unsaid”, we can say: everything we are undergoing today was undergone by our grandfathers during the last 150 years of the Ottoman Empire’s life.

I hope that the reader will excuse me then, for elongating my introduction of Midhat Pasha. For, in Lebanon, we painfully and urgently need someone to play the dangerous role of “gaining the international community’s trust”.

Midhat was considered a strongman and symbol of Sultanate’s reform during its final decades: he entered public life as an employee at the Sublime Porte and he then visited Europe for six months at 36 years of age. Later on, he demonstrated extensive administrative merit as governor of Baghdad. He held progressive views with regard to the importance of constitutions, reducing the sultan’s authority, decentralization and citizens’ equality regardless of their religion.

But why did Midhat become a Grand Vizier after he had been excluded? Why was the Ottoman constitution issued soon after his appointment towards the end of 1876?

Midhat and his new constitution’s role was not the result of internal Turkish evolution, especially not with the environment of the sultan himself. Thus skeptics speculated that the issue was merely superficial, meant to calm the western powers down and convince them that the Sultanate was genuinely going down the path of reform. The events that preceded Midhat’s appointment and the issuance of his constitution gave these criticisms some credibility, including the repression that the Balkan regions were subject to and the Serbs’ subsequent defeat in the war that they started against the Ottomans in June 1876, causing a major international crisis. In November of that year, Russia was getting ready for war against its southern neighbor, so Benjamin Disraeli, the British Prime Minister at the time, made it clear that Britain would not accept for the Ottoman Empire to be divided. Months later, in a final attempt to avoid war, a conference that brought the Ottoman Empire together with European powers was held in Istanbul to discuss the conditions for peace between Russia and Serbia and to reorganize the Balkans in accordance with reforms that would be supervised and guaranteed by international powers.

One day before that conference, Midhat was appointed Grand Vizier, so the appointment and the constitution were linked to the need to gain favor with the European powers in the face of Russia and persuade them not to interfere in order to advance the interests of minorities. This was neither a new path nor was it a kind of new relationship with the west. The 19th century had already witnessed at least two attempts at reform that were necessitated for the same reason: in 1839 after the defeat to the Egyptian ruler Muhammad Ali, and in 1856 after the Crimean War, when there was a need to reach a suitable peace treaty with the European powers. However, the constitution, at least in Midhat’s eyes, was not just a ploy to deceive the West. It is true that he intended to obtain this western satisfaction, but as a reformer, he was influenced by the writings of the reformist "Young Turks”, which had been written decades before and then became popular in political and cultural circles.

Abdul Hamid, though, was never interested in reform. He appointed Midhat Grand Vizier so that the appointment would coincide with the foreign ambassadors’ conference in Istanbul. When the conference ended on the 20th of November 1877, he rushed, in an insulting manner, to isolate Midhat, who was banished on the 5th of February because he was considered a threat to the state’s security.

Quickly after that, he obstructed the implementation of the constitution. However, the game did not stop here: to attain the approval of Western countries, after removing Midhat, the sultan called for general elections that were the first in Ottoman history, rather Islamic history. Indeed, the first parliament held a session on March 19, 1877, but it was not an appealing sight: a senate of 25 appointed members and a parliament of 120 members who were "elected" through forgery and coercion. But even this parliament - the façade - was not tolerated by Abdul Hamid, due to its frequent criticism of the Pashas and the staff, and of corruption and mismanagement. The fact that the parliament had become an unprecedented meeting place for delegates from Baghdad, Jerusalem, Erzurum, and Thessaloniki also disturbed him. Thus, its short life ended on June 28 of the same year. Another election was held, resulting in another parliament, which met on December 13 and was then dissolved after holding only two sessions. That was on February 14, 1878.

Midhat was killed in his exile in April 1883.

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