Home History The Last Ottoman Generation and the Making of the Modern Middle East
Syrian Elections and Martial Law
High Commissioner Ponsot was tired of Syria, and Syrians were tired of him and his mandate. The French Foreign Ministry wished to extricate itself from Syria generally, and Ponsot wished to remove himself for a more tranquil diplomatic posting. In 1931, he took a long visit to Paris, and the Foreign Ministry decided to hold new elections for the Syrian parliament in December and January. Members of National Bloc vacillated between a full boycott and participation. The choice between collaboration or impotent opposition was difficult.34 Meanwhile, brothers and rivals, cAbdallah of Transjordan, and Faysal of Iraq, sent separate envoys to Damascus to explore possibilities to profit from French exhaustion. Questions of reuniting mandate territories and how best to achieve unity provoked debate. Some among the Syrian and exiled leadership, like Dr. Shahbandar in Cairo, favored a united Syria and Iraq under King Faysal. Among the ex-Ottoman officers and politicians not living in Iraq, some form of united republic was more appealing, and the example of Turkey remained compelling. At least some in Iraq favored a republic, too. Yasin al-Hashimi, probably like most of his ex-Ottoman staff officer comrades, former members of the CUP, favored a one-party republic, provided, of course, that they led the state and party.
Shakib Arslan occupied an odd place in this debate since he detested both Mustafa Kemal’s secularizing program and republicanism. To Arslan, King Faysal of Iraq had, along with his father, betrayed his beloved Ottoman state, and Kemal had betrayed the Islamic religion as well as the glories of the Ottoman past, which left him to favor the new king of Arabia, cAbd al-cAziz al-Sacud (Ibn Saud), as candidate for unifying the region. Al-Sacud looked favorably enough on Arslan to send him modest monetary support, grant him citizenship, and give him the only passport he ever had, beside his Ottoman original.
After the Treaty of Lausanne, ex-Ottomans had to claim some new citizenship in one of the successor states. Arslan only conceded reluctantly, and tardily, and the French consul at Lausanne denied his request for Lebanese citizenship in late 1926.35 Al-Sacud granted Arslan citizenship, providing the itinerant activist a passport, but al- Sacud did not want the role Arslan had scripted for him, and had no desire to be king of Syria, or Iraq, or apparently of anywhere beside the kingdom he had already won from Sharif Husayn in 1925. Perhaps al- Sacud saw the bleak prospects of overturning the settlement more clearly than most. More likely he was satisfied with his sparsely populated desert kingdom. Most Istanbul-educated politicians agreed that al-Sacud and his remote kingdom was not a serious option. Shakib Arslan never lived there.
Fawzi al-Qawuqji found refuge and employment in al-Sacud’s new kingdom. He had abandoned the Syrian Revolt later than most and he spent spring of 1927 along the Turkish border in the north of the
Syrian Mandate. From there he traveled to Istanbul, where he arrived in time to witness Mustafa Kemal’s triumphant first return to the city since 1919. Al-Qawuqji had been hoping to raise support for continued fighting against the French Mandate among his former Ottoman comrades. Unsuccessful diplomatic mission aside, al-Qawuqji was on the run, and both mandate powers had a price on his head. He traveled with Sacid Haydar who had been a prominent founding member of Dr. Shahbandar’s People’s Party, and a close relative of Faysal’s chief advisor Rustum Haydar. The trip to Istanbul was frustrating, and by the end of the year, al-Qawuqji had relocated to Najd where he supported himself training cadets and policemen for al-Sacud’s army. His friend Sacid al-cAs was back in Amman as as a policeman for Amir Abdallah. Like Shakib Arslan, al-Quwuqji benefited from al-Sacud’s generosity, and ended up in the 1950s and 1960s living in Beirut on a small pension paid by the Saudi government. Al-cAs was killed fighting the British army in Palestine in 1936.36
In Damascus, High Commissioner Ponsot returned from Paris in November 1931, and found the city restive. It was an inauspicious time for his return and for elections. Demonstrations and meetings had taken place to protest the execution and mourn the death of the last insurgent hero of former Ottoman Libya in September 1931. cOmar al-Mukhtar had led a rural insurgency against the Italian occupation of Libya even before the Ottoman withdrawal in 1912. He fought the Italians for two decades from 1911 until his capture in 1931, by which time he was an old man. Once captured, he was paraded in chains before photographers, tried hastily, and hanged three days after his capture. Al-Mukhtar was widely mourned, and his execution presented another example of the struggle against European occupation and injustice.
Syrian legislative elections took place in several stages between late December 1931 and January. In Damascus the polls were heavily rigged and accompanied by large demonstration and youth riots. The markets were closed by three days of strikes, and several people were killed and many wounded in the unrest.37 The High Commissioner chose a range of candidates in Damascus and engineered the results. After the rigging was clear, people boycotted the polls. Results varied in the countryside, Christian areas, and the cities of Homs, Hama, and Aleppo. Ibrahim Hananu called a boycott and withdrew the National Bloc list entirely in Aleppo. Mandate authorities arrested a number of high-school student demonstrators on election day in Damascus, and in protest, their classmates declared a strike and refused to attend school for more than two weeks. Ponsot’s educational advisor negotiated an end to the strike and promised no reprisals, but a number of so-called ringleaders were imprisoned anyway.38 Despite all the machinations, National Bloc candidates won seventeen out of sixty-nine seats in the parliament. High Commissioner Ponsot responded to the return of the striking students to class by issuing a new decree for the maintenance of public security.
The new decree was draconian even for the mandate. It prescribed terms of imprisonment of between two months and two years, including possible fines of thousands of Francs for a range of seemingly minor offenses. It declared illegal and punishable taking part in an unauthorized meeting, gathering, or procession; wearing a badge, flag or other emblem, “calculated to disturb law and order;” interfering with traffic; engaging in subversive speeches, cries, or songs; and publishing, writing, or spreading material, including cartoons, likely to disturb public opinion. Finally there was a penalty aimed at exiled activists. Those “remotely associated with a demonstration contrary to law and order, even if absent in person, are to be charged with an offense under this decree, and are legally responsible for offenses committed by others under their instigation. If resident abroad they will be charged under this decree upon their return.”39 The parameters of legal political activity in Syria seemed ever smaller.
In June 1932, the Syrian parliament elected Muhammad cAli al-cAbid first president of the Republic of Syria. Muhammad cAli al-cAbid was 65 years old, mostly apolitical, and supposedly the richest man in Syria. He had spent most of his life in Istanbul and was the son of Sultan Abdul-Hamid’s most influential advisor, Ahmad cIzzat Pasa al-cAbid. He had been educated at the Galatasaray Sultani School, and studied law in Paris, and had served as Ottoman minister to the United States briefly in 1908. The al-cAbid family fled Istanbul in 1908 with the fall of their patron, and spent the next decade in Europe. Muhammad cAli only returned to Damascus, his birthplace, in 1919.40 He was a compromise candidate, and his place at the head of government impressed few in Syria. His job was to deliver a treaty between Syria and France, but what kind of treaty became a complicated question.
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