CHAPTER 10

Constitutionalism

On 11 December 1905, the governor of Tehran ordered the beating of two sugar merchants whom he accused of price gouging. The merchants claimed that they could not reduce the price they charged for sugar to levels demanded by the government. They argued that, unlike foreign merchants who paid only a 5 percent tariff on imported sugar, they had to pay 20 percent. They had to pass this additional cost on to their customers.

Word of the beating spread throughout Tehran. Two days later, about two thousand angry tradesmen, merchants, ulama, and theology students took refuge at the Shah ‘Abd al-‘Azim Shrine in Tehran. Taking refuge, or bast, in a sanctuary — a shrine, a mosque, or even a government telegraph office — was a time-honored ritual of political protest in Persia, much as one-day strikes are in France.

During the month-long bast, the protesters drew up a list of demands, which they submitted to the prime minister. Their first two demands related directly to the incident that sparked the protest in the first place. The protesters demanded the dismissal of the governor of Tehran who had ordered the beatings of the merchants, as well as the dismissal of Joseph Naus, one of several Belgian administrators whom the shah had hired in 1899 to reorganize the collection of customs. As a foreigner, Naus had become a lightning rod for popular anger. For the protesters, he symbolized both the privileges the Persian government had accorded foreigners and imperialist designs on their country.

The third demand made by the protesters was more far-reaching. Moving beyond the immediate events that precipitated their bast, the protesters demanded the establishment of something they called a “House of Justice.” Although the term “House of Justice” is ambiguous, it was widely interpreted to mean a parliament. That parliament, called a majlis, convened in October 1906, and representatives immediately began drafting a “Fundamental Law”—a constitution — to secure the gains the protests had brought. Thus began the Persian Constitutional Revolution of 1905.

Persia was not the only place in the Middle East where the desire for constitutional and parliamentary rule inspired political action. In the Ottoman Empire, bureaucrats and army officers, supported by popular protest, twice compelled the sultan to adopt a constitution and convene a parliament. The first instance occurred in 1876, when the empire was in the midst of crisis. Drought and famine had brought widespread suffering to peasants, the government had found itself unable to pay its external debt or its army and navy, and, in the wake of revolts by Bosnian Serbs and Bulgarians, a conference of European powers had convened in Istanbul to impose a Balkan settlement on the empire. Roused by the multiple failures of the Ottoman government, theological students rioted in Istanbul, demanding the dismissal of the grand vizier (the sultans chief minister) and the chief mufti (the highest ranking Muslim religious official in the empire). According to the British ambassador, who was a witness to the unfolding events,

The word “Constitution” was in every mouth; that the softas [religious students], representing the intelligent public opinion of the capital, knowing themselves to be supported by the nation — Christian as well as Mahometan — would not, I believed, relax their efforts till they obtained it, and that, should the Sultan refuse to grant it, an attempt to depose him appeared almost inevitable; that texts from the Koran were circulated proving to the faithful that the form of government sanctioned by it was properly democratic, and that the absolute authority now wielded by the Sultan was an usurpation of the rights of the people and not sanctioned by the Holy Law; and both texts and precedents were appealed to, to show that obedience was not due to a Sovereign who neglected the interests of the state.

Soon after these events, constitution-minded bureaucrats deposed Sultan Abdulaziz I, replaced him with his alcoholic son, and then replaced the replacement with Abdulhamid II, another son of Abdulaziz I. Before they threw their support to Abdulhamid II, however, they extracted from him a promise to rule in accordance with a constitution.

The first constitutional period lasted a mere two years. In 1878, Sultan Abdulhamid II, using the outbreak of war with Russia as a pretext to break his promise, suspended the Ottoman constitution, dismissed the elected parliament, and concentrated power in his own hands. Not until thirty years later, when a mutiny of Young Turk military officers stationed in Macedonia sparked a wider rebellion, was the constitution restored. That constitution remained in effect until World War I.

As we have seen in previous chapters, the transformation of society during the late nineteenth century laid the foundations for the emergence of a modern public sphere in the Middle East. In cities throughout the Ottoman Empire and Persia, all sorts of new ideas germane to new social, political, and economic realities emerged and competed with each other. The new Islamic orthodoxy that inspired the Muhammadan Union and the al-Haqa´iq group represented one intellectual current that attracted a following. Constitutionalism represented another. Accordingly, during this period a significant group of Westernizing intellectuals and Islamic modernists, working in alliance with urban crowds and political reformers, devoted their political energies to the realization of constitutional rule. Ottoman civil servants and soldiers, socialists in the northern Persian city of Tabriz, and even the partisans of Ahmad ‘Urabi who demanded a charter from the Egyptian khedive in 1881-1882 all viewed constitutionalism as a panacea for the ills that beset their states.

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Crowd in Istanbul listening to the announcement of the restoration of the Ottoman constitution, July 1908. (From: The Collection of Wolf-Dieter Lemke.)

Both local and international factors inspired the rise of constitutionalist movements in the region. As we have seen, local factors — the beating of sugar merchants in Persia, a crisis of legitimacy in the Ottoman Empire, an army mutiny in Egypt — provided the spark that touched off constitutionalist movements in the Middle East. But this spark was, in turn, touched off in a context defined by growing pains in the world economy, the consolidation of territorial states, intensified imperialist pressure and interimperialist rivalry, and the emergence of new social classes whose role in politics and society had yet to be determined. These conditions were not exclusive to the Middle East. They influenced events throughout the globe. Thus, any explanation for constitutionalism in the Middle East must take into account the fact that constitutionalist movements also emerged in such places as Japan (1874), Russia (1905), Mexico (1910), and China (1911). In each of these places, constitutionalists thought that the key to solving the predicament their states found themselves in was political reform, and political reform meant constitutional and parliamentary rule.

The first Ottoman constitutional revolution, the ‘Urabi Revolt, and the Persian Constitutional Revolution took place during periods of global economic crisis. Of course, in none of these cases did the economic crisis define the direction political protest would take. It did, however, prompt widespread dissatisfaction, and this dissatisfaction often found expression in constitutional movements.

In 1873, the collapse of the Viennese stock market precipitated a period of world depression that, according to some economists, lasted until 1896. The Depression of 1873 may not have been the first truly worldwide depression. Some economists give that honor to the “panic” of 1856-1857. And, of course, attributing such a cataclysmic event to the collapse of a stock market in Vienna would be as glib as attributing the Great Depression of the 1930s to the collapse of the New York Stock Exchange. Economists have, as economists tend to do, given numerous reasons for the Depression of 1873. Some have credited rampant stock speculation. Others, the emergence of the United States and Germany as new industrial powers. Still others, the spread of cash-cropping to the far reaches of the globe and the introduction of new technologies, such as refrigeration and railroads, which glutted markets with agricultural products and mineral wealth. But whatever the actual cause of the depression, its magnitude and breadth were unprecedented. The 1873-1896 depression affected countries from Argentina to the Dutch East Indies. In Europe, the price of wheat declined 30 percent. In the United States, two-thirds of all railroads went under. In the Middle East, the collapse of international trade and commodity prices bred discontent among merchants and farmers. It also resulted in Ottoman and Egyptian bankruptcy and foreign supervision of the finances of each. Money that had gone into public works, military salaries, and the expansion of services vital to the functioning of modern states now went to repaying European creditors. Many in the region were resentful.

In every country hit by depression, popular movements emerged. The ideologies expressed by these movements reflected local conditions and conventions: thus, communism, trade unionism, and anarchism in the cities and factories of Western Europe and North America, populism on the Great Plains of North America, and anti-Semitism in any place in Europe where Jews could be found. In the Middle East, discontent was often channeled into constitutionalism. And why not? Governments that seemed to have brought such disaster to the region, that were unresponsive and did not allow those best fit for governance any role in decision making needed to be more representative and held responsible to their citizens. Constitutions and parliaments, many believed, would guarantee that broadening of representation and assumption of responsibility.

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Persian parliamentarians in session. (From: The Collection of Wolf-Dieter Lemke.)

The economic background for the Persian Constitutional Revolution was a bit different from that which stimulated constitutionalism in the Ottoman Empire. During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the Persian economy was hit by a double whammy. First, there was the depression of 18731896, which affected Persia just as it did every other economy locked into the world system. Then, just as much of the world was climbing out of depression, another shock hit the economies of China, Japan, India, and Persia. Unlike the economies of the West, which used a gold standard, the economies of these states were silver-based. During the late nineteenth century, two events occurred that caused the silver-backed currencies of these countries to lose value. Both events bear a striking resemblance to those which many historians argue took place in the sixteenth century. First, as more and more countries bound themselves to the gold standard, silver flooded east, where it had a higher value. Second, the discovery of new deposits of silver, such as the Comstock Lode in Nevada, flooded the international market with the precious metal. This, too, affected economies and politics around the world. Cash-strapped, indebted farmers in the United States demanded that the United States Mint coin silver so that they not be “crucified on a cross of gold,” as the 1896 Democratic presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan put it. In Persia, where coining silver was already the practice, prices skyrocketed 600 percent between 1850 and 1890. The Persian government borrowed heavily as a result of this inflation, and soon had to take out additional loans to pay back previous ones.

At the same time as the collapse of the international economy, both the Ottoman Empire and Persia experienced increasing political pressures that threatened their sovereignty and stimulated an anti-imperialist response. Many historians trace the increase in interimperialist rivalries directly to the Depression of 1873. After the onset of the depression, protectionist sentiments challenged free market liberalism, and Europeans and North Americans sought to establish overseas empires from which they could exclude foreign competition. Both Middle Eastern empires felt the sting of the “new imperialism” in forms that ranged from debt commissions to increased competition for concessions. In both empires, constitutionalists blamed autocratic government for the weak response to the threats to national sovereignty and demanded constitutional reform to strengthen their states. Constitutionalists also hoped that constitutions and parliaments would demonstrate to European powers that their empires were civilized members of the world community rather than carcasses to be picked clean by various imperialist powers or nationalist movements.

However much they might have protested European imperialism, those who led constitutional movements were the products of the world created by imperialism and defensive measures taken by non-European states in response to imperialism. For example, Midhat Pasha, the chief engineer of Ottoman constitutionalist intrigue in 1876, had studied briefly at a palace school established by an early tanzimat sultan, Mahmud II. Designed to prepare students to participate in a renovated bureaucracy, the school encouraged students to stay abreast of the latest intellectual trends in Europe. Midhat Pasha also participated in an Istanbul salon dedicated to discussing such topics as Western literature and philosophy. Taking advantage of Ottoman provincial reorganization, Midhat Pasha went on to organize “model” provinces in Bulgaria, Baghdad, and Syria. These provinces might be considered laboratories in which tanzimat ideas were applied and tested.

Like Midhat Pasha, the military officers, bureaucrats, and intellectuals who formed the nucleus of constitutional movements throughout the region — and, indeed, throughout the world — had often received advanced educations that included a good dose of Western social science and technical know-how. The core group of army officers that founded the Committee of Union and Progress and restored the Ottoman constitution in 1908 were graduates of the military medical school in Istanbul, and many of the intellectuals who organized the anjumanha—the building blocks of the Persian Constitutional Revolution — had either been educated in the West or at the Dar al-Funun in Tehran. Their ideas drew from both Western and indigenous sources. Thus, the Ottoman constitution was modeled on the constitution of Belgium and justified by the ideas of the Young Ottomans. Because of their advanced education, leaders of constitutionalist movements demanded a greater role in determining the future of their states. They thought that that role would be guaranteed through constitutions and parliaments.

Constitutionalists also felt perfectly at ease in a world where newspapers could spread ideas and where the railroads and telegraph lines that connected the countryside with capital cities could mobilize popular support. The introduction of modern communications technologies, the formation of émigré communities outside the view of imperial surveillance, and labor migration played a key role in making constitutionalism an international movement. Constitutionalist movements were mutually reinforcing. Many of the Egyptians who joined the ‘Urabi movement in 1881 were influenced by the doctrines of the Young Ottomans and by the example of the Ottoman constitution, which had been announced only five years earlier. Emigré Persians in Istanbul followed closely the Ottoman constitutional movement as well as the ‘Urabi rebellion. Ottoman military officers knew what was going on in Persia in 1905 before they launched their own constitutional rebellion in 1908. And constitutionalists throughout the region took heart from the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905. Here, for the first time, was an Asiatic power that had defeated a European one. Could this have happened because the Asiatic power had a constitution while the European one did not? The Russo-Japanese War precipitated Russia's own constitutional revolution, which observers to the south also followed closely before embarking on theirs.

The close proximity of Russia affected constitutionalism in Persia in another way as well. Just as news spread from one state to another, so did techniques for mass political organizing. In the Persian case, laborers from northern Persia who had gone to Russia to work in the oil fields of Baku brought those techniques back with them when they returned home. By 1905, there were approximately three hundred thousand Persians in Russia, making up about a quarter of the oil field workers. About 80 percent of these workers eventually returned to Persia, bringing back with them ideas about trade unionism and socialism. Some organized an affiliate to the Russian Social Democratic Workers' Party called Hemmat, which promoted a combination of Islamic modernist and socialist ideas. This is one of the reasons why the northern city of Tabriz became a hotbed of pro-constitutionalist and social democratic ideas. Constitutionalists in Tabriz built a mass movement by infusing their political program with a social and economic program that advocated, among other things, an eight-hour workday, free public education, an expansion of women's legal rights, and the ownership of land by those who tilled it. After the shah launched a counterattack against the constitutionalists and closed the Persian majlis, Tabrizis established a pro-constitutionalist commune while an army composed of social democrats and Armenian and Muslim radicals marched from the northern city of Rasht to Tehran to restore the parliament.

In the end, constitutionalism failed in both the Ottoman Empire and Persia. In the former case, constitutional rule was replaced by the rule of a triumvirate of military leaders who took over the reins of government in 1913. They ruled the Ottoman Empire until the end of World War I. Although the constitution theoretically remained in effect in Persia, the Russians invaded from the north, destroyed the Tabrizi experiment, and dismissed the majlis in Tehran. The fact that elections for another majlis took place in 1914 is as much a testament to the inconsequence of government structures in Persia as it is evidence for the survival of constitutionalism there. Thus, the era of constitutionalism ended not so much with a bang as with a whimper. Why, then, bother with it at all?

There are two reasons constitutionalism in the Middle East is important for subsequent developments. First, constitutional movements, to a greater or lesser extent, brought about a change in the political culture of the Middle East. They made the state the site of political contestation. In other words, in the wake of the constitutional movements, control of the state apparatus became the focus of political activity. They spread the representative principle — the idea that individuals had the right to participate in governance and to select those who stood for their interests. They reinforced among the inhabitants of the Ottoman Empire and Persia the notion that they were citizens, not subjects. And they made ideology— not dynasty — the foundation for political legitimacy.

Furthermore, constitutionalist movements both embodied and spread mass politics. Even in the Ottoman Empire, where constitutionalism was twice put in place by means other than mass movements, there were widespread demonstrations in support of — as well as against — the constitutionalists. Here is how one (obviously unsympathetic) observer described demonstrations held in Damascus in support of the restoration of the Ottoman constitution:

Imagine some five hundred illiterate young men, some with swords in their hands, others with revolvers and many with prohibited rifles stolen from the government, this whole crowd followed by a great multitude pass through the streets and the bazaars shooting and shouting. On the 8th instant, the orations in general were exceptionally liberal. A “Young Turk” having the grade of “Usbashy” stood on the platform, took out his sword and asked the people to stand up and repeat after him an oath to the meaning that if tyranny shall reign again, they would overthrow it no matter how dear it might cost them. They solemnly declared that they were ready to sacrifice for liberty their wives, their children and their blood! After this solemn oath three times three cheers were given for liberty, the Army and the sultan.

Damascus, it should be remembered, was also one of the centers for the anti-constitutionalist, anti-Young Turk Muhammadan Union demonstrations described in the previous chapter. While the success of constitutional movements in spreading the gospel of constitutions and parliaments may thus have been less than sweeping, constitutional movements were instrumental in fostering a new style of politics in the Middle East.

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