Home History The Last Ottoman Generation and the Making of the Modern Middle East
Ibrahim Hananu Exits the Scene
Ibrahim Hananu was dying of tuberculosis. He never wavered in his opposition to a French-imposed constitution or treaty and he led the veteran nationalists by force of will, but younger activists were more impatient. A group of mostly younger men organized a secret meeting of nationalist activists in August 1933 in the Lebanese mountain town of Qurnayil, above Beirut. The young radicals criticized what they saw as the ineffectual efforts of the older generation, but in their radical pan-Arab aspirations, they did admire a few among their elders, especially Yasin al-Hashimi and Shakib Arslan.
The activists agreed to form a new group they called cUsbat al-cAmal al-Qawmi, or the League of National Action. Damescenes were probably overrepresented, but there were members from most of the larger cities of Greater Syria and a prominent few from Baghdad. According to Philip Khoury, their average age was 29, and they had experienced the Great War as children or teenagers. They grew to adulthood during the emergence of the mandates and the revolts of the 1920s.80 Few had been educated in Ottoman schools, and fewer still had been Ottoman politicians or military officers. In time they came to reluctantly, and temporarily, join forces with the older, more compromising, exOttoman politicians of the National Bloc.
The New High Commissioner, Damien de Martel, arrived in Beirut in October 1933. Two weeks later, in early November, the National Bloc staged a large demonstration and called for closure of the bazaar in commemoration and protest of the Balfour Declaration. In Aleppo, Ibrahim Hananu refused to follow his Damascene comrades and argued that demonstrations would needlessly provoke the new High Commissioner. Hananu wished to give de Martel a chance to negotiate from a clean start. Months earlier, Hananu had forced Jamil Mardam Bey, the one National Bloc member of the cabinet, to resign, when High Commissioner Ponsot attempted to break National Bloc ranks and get the Franco-Syrian Treaty signed. Hananu traveled to Damascus to personally see that the slippery Jamil Mardam Bey resigned from the government.81 Hananu arranged a march in honor of Mardam Bey to preserve the fiction that his resignation had been based on the principled opposition of the unified Bloc, rather than party arm-twisting.
As High Commissioner, De Martel tried a different tactic from Ponsot. President Muhammad cAli al-cAbid and Prime Minister Haqqi al-cAzm still led the government. They were two of the richest men from the two most prominent families in Damascus, and posed no threat to the High Commissioner’s program. Both had made their peace with the mandate regime immediately after the occupation in July 1920. As major owners of commercial, industrial, and agricultural property, their politics reflected their economic interests and they opposed any type of confrontation with the mandate power. De Martel persuaded Haqqi al-cAzm, the prime minister, to quietly sign the Franco-Syrian Treaty on November 16.
The Syrian parliament convened to vote on the treaty a week later. Mandate officials had attempted to buy votes in favor of the treaty and had posted armed guards for the purpose of security and intimidation. Bloc members took their seats in parliament for the vote, and managed to bend the body to their will. The parliament voted to reject the treaty and the High Commissioner suspended parliament for four months starting in late November 1933.82 High Commissioner de Martel left Beirut and returned to Paris for a long vacation and further instructions before the end of the year.
De Martel returned in March of 1934. Like much of Europe, France was embroiled in political conflicts between the left and right. Anti-British agitation in Iraq had eclipsed the positive example of the Anglo-Iraqi Treaty of 1930. Yasin al-Hashimi had just formed a new, popular, and pointedly anti-imperialist Iraqi government. The French mood for tentative conciliation with Syrian nationalists had passed, and de Martel resolved to clamp down forcefully. The Foreign Ministry ordered him to extend the closure of parliament another six months and dismiss the government of President Muhammad cAli al-cAbid and Prime Minister Haqqi al-cAzm.83 He was also ordered to appoint the unpopular toady Taj al-Din al-Hasani prime minister to form a government. Al-Hasani had been the one Syrian politician willing to accept the job as head of state in 1925 as French bombs fell on Damascus under High Commissioner Sarrail during the Revolt.
As the High Commissioner intended, the Taj al-Din al-Hasani cabinet did little and left de Martel unimpeded to run the mandate. After the expiration of the six months’ closure in November, de Martel closed the Syrian parliament indefinitely. Various protests took place from time to time against the al-Hasani government and the mandate. Economic distress connected to the Great Depression and contraction of the agricultural economy brought people into the streets regularly. Jamil Mardam Bey appointed himself to visit Paris in October 1934, where he received, like the Palestinian delegation to London of 1930, a perfunctory reception with mostly low-ranking colonial officials.84 Mardem Bey returned humbled and asked for, and received, forgiveness from his Bloc colleagues for breaking ranks with the nationalists.
Rural misery increased in Syria and Palestine as markets for produce shrank. Economic desperation affected rich landlords. Wealthy landowning families in Jerusalem, Beirut, and Damascus had quietly sold vast tracts of agricultural land in northern Palestine to the Jewish National Fund since the early 1920s. But with booming Jewish migration to the crowded cities of coastal Palestine, fertile farmland in the Hawran region of Transjordan and Syria became desirable for Zionist settlement. The population of Tel Aviv had doubled in a couple years, and land near the city quadrupled in price in the same period.85
National Bloc leaders like Shukri al-Quwatli organized protests against agricultural land sales to the Jewish National Fund.86 The protests popularized the weapon of boycott for the National Bloc, and during 1934 and 1935 the Bloc organized a number of boycotts against products from Palestine in opposition to Zionism, against the French- financed electric tram in Damascus, and against a new tobacco concession monopoly in Lebanon and Syria. Organized boycotts against symbols of colonial domination did not indicate strength on the part of the National Bloc leadership, but rather an admission of weakness.
De Martel’s closure of parliament and his unwillingness to engage Syrian politicians increased the pressure, and heightened their desperation to remain relevant. Sooner or later, young radicals and the ex-officers would seize the mantle of nationalist leadership.
Ibrahim Hananu succumbed to tuberculosis in late November 1935 at the age of 65. His funeral drew every aspiring nationalist politician from the mandate states, along with tens of thousands of ordinary people. People of all regions and religious communities attended Hananu’s funeral and by their presence subverted the sectarian French narrative of Syria and the League of Nations mandate. Muslim and Christian clergy officiated, and Islamic and Christian symbols figured in the procession.
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