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Home arrow History arrow The Last Ottoman Generation and the Making of the Modern Middle East

Civilian Politicians in Damascus and Jerusalem

Ottoman civilian bureaucrats and politicians usually fared better under colonial rule than military officers. Until at least 1908, and probably 1913, most Ottoman government officials were civilians, trained in state civil academies, rather than the officers trained in the military academies. The civil system had included civil rtigdiye middle schools, and elite Sultani preparatory academies in the provincial capitals. Promising students from prominent families had often advanced to the Mulkiye civil service academy in Istanbul. Many studied law in the imperial law academy. Some had gone on to study in Paris. A few, like Dr. cAbd al-Rahman Shahbandar, Faris al-Khuri, and Jamal al-Husayani, had received an English-language missionary education at schools like the Syrian Protestant College in Beirut.

French Mandate authorities released Dr. Shahbandar from prison in summer 1924. He had served seventeen months of his sentence at the crusader-era island prison of Arwad off Syrian’s northern coast, and then been exiled for nine more months. In exile he traveled to London, Paris, and America to publicize the cause of Syrian independence.26 During his time abroad, Shahbandar coordinated his efforts with the Syrian Palestinian Congress and maintained correspondence with Shakib Arslan, though they eventually quarreled and became enemies. Unlike Arslan, who thrived in exile, Shahbandar relished the daily life of a Damascus politician and orator.

French metropolitan politics gave Shahbandar his reprieve. In May 1924, French elections returned a leftist coalition, the Cartel des Gauches government. The new government appointed France’s most famous leftist general, Maurice Sarrail, High Commissioner to Syria and Lebanon. The anti-clerical left was underrepresented in the French officer corps, and Sarrail immediately snubbed the Maronite priests in Beirut and antagonized the conservative Catholic colonial officers operating the mandate. He also lifted the ban on Dr. Shahbandar and legalized political parties in Syria.

Shahbander and a few other politicians and intellectuals organized a new party in February 1925. In April, international events thrust antimandatory politics to the forefront of discussion in Damascus. Lord Balfour, former foreign minister and author of the Balfour Declaration, began a tour of the mandatory states, starting in Palestine. Balfour gave an address to inaugurate Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and received honors and accolades from various Zionist dignitaries in his excursion through Palestine. Apparently unnoticed by Balfour or his hosts, the Arabic press in Jerusalem, Damascus, Beirut, and Aleppo marked his visit with a campaign of relentless criticism of the injustice that Balfour, his Declaration, and Anglo-French imperialism had brought to the people of the region.27

Balfour’s visit in Palestine had been fairly tranquil, but when he arrived at Damascus, a large crowd of demonstrators awaited him. The British consul had anticipated and out-maneuvered the demonstrators by collecting Balfour by car at the al-Qadam station outside Damascus and allowing the train to proceed to the central Hijaz station without its notorious passenger. The next morning, however, a larger demonstration took place outside the Umayyad Mosque, and when the crowd learned Balfour would not tour the city and visit the famous mosque, the demonstrators marched through the covered Suq al-Hamidiyya, down Cemal Pasa Street to the Victoria Hotel where Balfour was barricaded under police guard. Balfour was forced to flee Damascus under cover of French riot police and gunfire, and spirited out of the city by car convoy with an escort of gendarmes and mandate secret police. In Beirut, French police took him directly to a British ship moored in the harbor. He received official visits on board ship, but did not again set foot on land before departing two days later.

The visit had been arranged between the offices of the two respective High Commissioners, Herbert Samuel and General Sarrail. The tour planners were ignorant of the press campaign ongoing against Balfour and the colonial settlement and they had not sought the advice of colonial political officers. The British consul in Damascus blamed politicized Damascene law students, and agitation from nationalist politicians, and hinted darkly at French encouragement to embarrass Britain. But he noted:

Lord Balfour was naturally much distressed at the tumult his presence had pro voked. He did not understand why Syria should be so much interested in his historic declaration, and seemed not to have realized that from the foot of the Taurus Mountain to the edge of the Sinai Desert is one country physically, ethnically, sentimentally, economically, though now partitioned owing to the exigencies of world politics. And of this country Damascus is the heart.28

Neither Lord Balfour, nor the mandatory governments, nor the High Commissioners themselves seemed to appreciate the depth of feeling in opposition to the post-war partitions and occupation. French and British officialdom clung to the ideological arguments made to justify their post-war policy in the former Ottoman lands. For those colonial functionaries in daily contact with the people of the region, such selfdelusion was more difficult.

When Dr. Shahbandar announced the People’s Party a month later, in June 1925, the Damascus public was well-primed for a political challenge to the mandate. Within a few months, however, the challenge to the mandate took on an altogether more militant complexion, and sidelined the politicians, in favor, once again, of ex-Ottoman army officers, and armed struggle. For a few months in early summer 1925, however, the central role belonged to the People’s Party. Dr. Shahbandar led the party and served as its chief orator and strategist. The opening celebration for the party took place on June 5, 1925 in the Abbasid Opera house and at least a thousand people turned up to hear a series of impassioned speeches from Damascus’ best political orators, including Faris al-Khuri and Shahbandar.29

Party leaders professed goals of Syrian sovereignty, unity, freedom, civil rights, and protection for Syrian trade and industry. Dr. Shahbandar noted that the Syrians faced something similar to the tyranny of Sultan Abdul-Hamid II, and as the leaders of the Unionist Party (Committee of Union and Progress) had smashed the despotism of the sultan, so the Syrians could smash the unnamed despotism facing them. Despite euphemism, the People’s Party existed to advance two related, and widely understood, goals: full independence and the unity of Syria within its natural borders, from al-‘Aqaba to the Taurus Mountain, under British and French Mandate in Transjordan, Palestine, Syria, and Lebanon.30

Independence was the central objective of the party, but the party did not stand for armed struggle against the mandate power. The party attracted many of Damascus’ leading political activists. There were a number of distinguished Istanbul- and Paris-trained lawyers and law professors, among whom were Faris al-Khuri, Sacid Haydar, and Hasan al-Hakim. Graduates of Istanbul’s elite Mulkiye civil service academy were well-represented, but at first there were no ex-army officers among the party ranks. Dr. Shahbandar spoke of secularism and social justice, but any goal or program beyond independence risked disunity, and division, and mobilization was based on slogans and not on detailed programs. Party life was stunted by the day-to-day reality of military occupation and geographical partition, and the vague policies and lack of party formation around common interests were a symptom of colonial domination much less than political immaturity. A party based around the goals of social transformation would have been the site of contentious negotiations, while most segments of Syrian society could agree on independence and unity. Still, both aims, explicitly stated, were anathema to the mandate power, and Syrian political leaders knew well that to be effective they had to avoid exile and prison. In spring 1925, Shahbandar spoke in circumspect terms, but his caution would not be enough, and he would come to spend the years 1926 through 1937 in exile, under French Mandate death sentence.

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