Home History The Last Ottoman Generation and the Making of the Modern Middle East
Yasin al-Hashimi Retires and then Returns
In October 1933, a month after Faysal’s death, the Rashid cAli-Yasin government fell in Baghdad. The collapse was perverse. The cabinet members had tried to publicly assure Britain that they would honor Faysal’s agreements, including the treaty. But the public outcry against the olive branch to the ambassador was so intense that Rashid cAli called new elections and resigned his cabinet. Over the next eighteen months Iraq had four governments, a series of tribal revolts, which General Bakr Sidqi repressed with intensifying brutality, and an economy suffering in the worldwide depression. Yasin al-Hashimi retired from politics and went home.
Al-Hashimi had cultivated prosperous commercial interests in Iraq, but he also enjoyed family life and the company of his friends. He lived in a large courtyard house in Baghdad, and during the months out of power he worked on the house, attended to a cement plant he had founded, read, and wrote letters to his daughters, all away at school, played bridge, and chess, and received visitors. He often spent his evenings at the Iraqi Club, where he was sought after as one of Baghdad’s best bridge players.
Yasin al-Hashimi was devoted to, and adored by, his three daughters, and involved himself intimately in their education and upbringing. His eldest daughter, Madiha, was among the first women to attend the American University of Beirut (AUB) a big step for any forwardthinking father in 1934.65 The college had begun admitting female students in 1922. Madiha thrived at AUB and she joined the al-cUrwa al-Wuthqa Arab Culture and Politics club formed by famous Arab intellectual Constantin Zureiq, who was then a young instructor. Madiha’s sister, middle daughter, Sabiha, attended the Beirut College for Women (BCW today’s Lebanese American University), and his youngest daughter, Nicmat, attended high-school classes at the American Community School, also in Beirut. In 1935, Sabiha transferred from BCW to Smith College in Massachusetts.66 Yasin wrote frequent letters to his daughters individually and collectively and urged them to write one another when they were separated.
My daughter Sabiha,
I am busy with work these days.68 And thank God my health is fine. Work on the house progresses. I pray for your good health and am happy to hear you have resolved to lose a little weight. I am also happy that you want to learn German. Maybe you can write to me in German and I can reply in what is left of my knowledge of the language.
[Your younger sister] Nicmat is doing fine. We have been working on the house, which now has a new roof. I hope they will begin the second floor soon. Your mother is not satisfied with the kitchen, but I will try to improve it to suit her.
The weather [in Baghdad] has been beautiful. I have been making a point to keep copies of interesting news articles for you. I wonder if there is any reason to send the Iraqi newspapers to you? I will anyway ask Mahmud to send you al Bilad.
I trust that your finances are adequate. If you do not need all the money for tuition and expenses, save some for next term. If you have some left after next term, save some for your trip home, when you may stop in Paris. Though I know the long Atlantic crossing is bothersome.
Do you hear from [your former teacher?] Miss Molka? Give her our respects. The family are all well. [Your older sister] Madiha is slow in writing, and misses you very much. You should write to her often. I don’t think Nicmat writes unless I remind her. Madiha won a Ministry of Education scholarship, and she and Lulu are now roommates.
Greetings, hugs, and kisses, from us all,
and liebe grUfie!
Al-Hashimi’s political allies visited often for lunch or evening discussions on the politics and events of the country. His friends relied upon his advice, as titular party leader, but he resisted their repeated calls to be drawn back into active political life. As various disorders embroiled the countryside, the calls became more insistent. Some thought that, as in 1920, it would be possible and useful to harness the rural uprisings to nationalist politics. Al-Hashimi counseled against this path, and urged his opposition colleagues to have patience with the rotating cast of politicians attempting, without much success, to run the country.
In January 1935, Yasin al-Hashimi changed his mind. He suddenly appeared without warning at a late-night planning meeting at Hikmat Sulayman’s house between rural shaykhs and Ikhwa politicians. The plotters applauded his entrance and evidently felt their leader had finally signed on to the effort.69 In late February the cAli al-Jawdat cabinet resigned and al-Hashimi decided to end his retirement. Young King Ghazi asked him to form a cabinet as prime minister, but al-Hashimi set several conditions, among which may have been a suspension of the constitution and a minimum time in power of two years.70 The king protested he could not agree to such an arrangement before consulting the British ambassador, who rejected al-Hashimi’s conditions. A new cabinet under Jamil al-Midfaci formed but was unable to restore order. Several weeks went by, and as the country became more ungovernable, and the rural areas passed out of government control, the king and Midfaci called on Yasin al-Hashimi, Rashid cAli al-Kaylani, and Hikmat Sulayman to assist in restoring order. All demurred.
Taha al-Hashimi, Yasin’s brother, played the pivotal role in his assumption of power in 1935. Taha was first appointed army chief of staff shortly after resigning from the Ottoman army and returning from Istanbul in 1923. A year later, Faysal appointed him chief body guard and tutor of his eldest son, Prince Ghazi. During the following decade he occupied a number of important posts including director of state education, and Iraqi military academy instructor of military history and geography. He wrote and published widely, including seven volumes exhaustively covering the history of late Ottoman military campaigns, military training, and tactics.71 In 1930 he returned to active service, was promoted to general, and became again, army chief of staff a post with increasing power and importance as the mandate came to an end.72
As the rural insurrection heated up, Jamil al-Midfaci asked Taha al-Hashimi to send the army to restore order and take the field against the insurgents in the south. Taha al-Hashimi argued that he had insufficient forces to intervene decisively, and did not support direct military confrontation, frustrating al-Midfaci’s wish for forceful action, and leaving the government to flail ineffectually. Taha’s inaction weakened the government and strengthened his brother’s hand. Finally in mid March 1935, al-Midfaci’s government resigned, and the king asked Yasin al-Hashimi to form a new government.73 Quite likely al-Hashimi insisted on the same agreement the British Embassy had rejected months before. Events conspired to deny him the two years in power he had demanded, though he received and used the free hand he sought.
Al-Hashimi’s cabinet resembled the government of his ex-comrade on the Ottoman general staff, Mustafa Kemal, in Ankara.74 Half were Istanbul-trained ex-officers, and the others were Istanbul-trained lawyers. Al-Hashimi brought an immediate and comprehensive reform of the Iraqi state on modern authoritarian grounds. The new government aimed toward centralization and control of all areas of Iraqi society. It emphasized nationalist education, military conscription, bureaucratic reform, and economic reorganization on statist principles. Unqualified or unreliable civil servants were meant to be dismissed.
Al-Hashimi’s government and the army under the command of Taha brought the rural insurrection to a swift end. Yasin gathered the tribal and rural shaykhs together for a huge banquet in Baghdad in which he gave a welcoming speech. He reminded, and cautioned, the leaders that their interests lay with the state, which could readily reward them for their loyalty. He warned them subtly that misidentifying their best path would be costly.75 Al-Hashimi had been dealing with Iraqi rural leaders since his days as a young Ottoman staff officer, and had served successfully as governor of troublesome al-Muntafiq province in his first appointment under Faysal. He artfully employed Ottoman statecraft, and in his banquet and mix of generous promises and quiet threats, succeeded in convincing the shaykhs to lay down their arms.
Yet the new government represented itself a modern centralized authoritarian state. Like the Turkish Republic, it was the culmination and final embodiment of a variety of goals and aspirations that had been central to the ethos and priorities of the Unionist Ottoman staff officer cadres since 1909. The spirit of modern authoritarian militarism was hardly unique to the former Ottoman lands, however, and enjoyed worldwide popularity. Former members of the Ottoman general staff retained their Germanophilia, but also studied the state-building models of Stalin, Franco, and Mussolini.
In the eighteen months in power the new government introduced and parliament passed more than a hundred laws. The state received a new penal code, new tax laws for income, land revenue, and customs, laws guaranteeing workers’ rights, and the abolition of aristocratic titles like bey and pasha. Seventeen years later, Gamal cAbd-al-Nasser’s new Egyptian government similarly abolished titles, but while Nasser’s reform is remembered, Yasin’s is forgotten. New laws facilitated large public works projects on roads, irrigation systems, and bridges. The new government was popular, and managed to increase the total number of seats in the parliament from 88 to 108, which after elections helped advance Yasin’s legislative agenda.76
The government issued a detailed program of progressive nationalist principles. Al-Hashimi announced the expansion of the military, conscription, and programs to organize and educate citizens, workers, and civil servants with a “spirit of sacrifice, duty, education, progress, and the system.”77 The government launched new postal banks, agricultural banks, mortgage banks, and insurance programs, including pensions for government employees, irrigation and village potable water and electrification improvements, hygiene and healthcare, and industrial projects and funding, especially to equip the military and provide building materials for government developments. The state proposed import substitution, and enacted laws to favor local production of various products. New industrial ventures received tax breaks and incentives. Al-Hashimi aimed to assert full state control over Iraq’s people, economy, territory, borders, and natural resources. The British Embassy tittered nervously.
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