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Protest Politics and Social Transformation in the Late Ottoman Empire

Panel I-14, 2023 Annual Meeting

On Thursday, November 2 at 3:00 pm

Panel Description
By the early 20th century, intertwined economic and ecological transformations upended how everyday people could make a living in the Middle East. Responses to economic hardship ranged from movement and adaptation to boycotts and protests. How did people understand these transformations in the ways they could earn their livelihoods, and what conditions gave rise to different responses? This panel addresses these questions from different parts of late Ottoman Anatolia, Syria, and Egypt. The first paper examines the organization and energy-sourcing of global trade in the rural contexts of Mount Lebanon and Egypt to rethink the idea of an “energy transition.” Tensions among commercial interests, subsistence practices, and the environment contributed to local episodes of upheaval in Syria as well as Egypt. The second paper turns to the Ottoman East, where bread riots and tax boycotts of 1906-08 gripped the region in the lead up to the 1908 Constitutional Revolution. The paper shows how perceptions of shared hardship laid the groundwork for the Ottoman opposition, members of which were trying to construct a broad coalition for change. The third paper takes up the period just after the 1908 Constitutional revolution, when villagers interpreted “freedom” – a main slogan of the revolution – to mean support for usufruct rights in rural areas. The paper traces these movements as well as the panicked responses of local landowners and the authorities to show how changes in the government in Istanbul did not necessarily mean change in rural land governance. The fourth paper examines the years leading to the First World War, when popular workers protests in late Ottoman Syria mobilized novel concepts of foreignness to make demands on concessionary companies and the Ottoman government. It focuses on a prolonged dispute at the Beirut gas company, where where labor, company representatives, the local and central government became embroiled in a contentious dispute. Taken together, the panel’s papers offer examples of long durée, intermediate, and contingent causes of unrest, as well as the many constituencies and strategies of protest movements in this volatile period.
  • Ugur Z. Peçe -- Discussant
  • Önder Eren Akgül -- Presenter
  • Ellis Garey -- Presenter
  • Matthew Ghazarian -- Organizer, Presenter
  • Matthew Ghazarian
    In July 1908, the Young Turks – a multi-ethnic, cross-confessional coalition of Ottoman opposition activists – forced the autocratic Ottoman Sultan to reinstate the Ottoman Empire’s short-lived 1876 constitution. Spontaneous public celebrations erupted across the empire’s vast domains. While others have focused on the views, methods, and makeup of the key conspirators who led the revolution, the task of explaining why masses of ordinary people welcomed and joined the movement remains unfinished. More recent scholarship has begun to focus on popular unrest in the lead-up to the revolution, showing how broad-based discontent provided the popular base for the Young Turk Revolution. This paper builds on that work by examining the interlinked ecological and economic forces that immiserated rural areas of the Empire, especially the agrarian regions of Anatolia. There, provincial tax protests erupted in the midst of droughts, poor harvests, and rising food prices that occurred before, during, and after the revolution. It re-conceptualizes the Ottoman revolutionary period as one of famine conditions for rural people. Drawing on sources from the Ottoman archives, the Armenian press, British diplomatic correspondence, and American missionary archives, this paper argues that accounts of the 1908 Revolution should consider not only which group of opposition actors drove the break with autocracy, but also how precipitation, price movements, and bursts of collective action in rural areas enabled those opposition to raise broad-based support among a majority-rural population for a new political order.
  • Önder Eren Akgül
    In the aftermath of the proclamation of Constitutionalism in July 1908, villagers in Anatolia and the Balkans interpreted “freedom” (hürriyet)—one of the major slogans of the 1908 Ottoman constitutional revolution—as meaning liberation from large land estate (çiftlik) owners and began to occupy and claim usufruct of çiftlik lands. The spread of these “çiftlik occupations” generated panic and anxiety among landowners and state authorities who described the villagers’ actions as “encroachments on property rights.” This paper shifts the urban-centric historiographical focus of the 1908 revolution to a rural geography. It will examine rural land occupations and the actors involved in the resulting disputes, including çiftlik capitalists, villagers, the central and provincial governments, and provincial administrative councils, to comprehend the meaning and rural experience of the constitutional revolution. I will show that what was described as "encroachment” was in fact a form of collective rural protest led by previously dispossessed villagers, who were deprived of collective access to and control of common pastures, lands, and woodlands at the turn of the 20th century. The paper will begin by examining the wave of enclosures of pastures and woodland commons by çiftlik capitalists in the last quarter of the 19th century and the consequent dispossession of villagers from access and control. I approach the çiftlik occupations as a repertoire of rural revolution that aimed at recommoning previously enclosed lands, contesting the meaning of property, environment, and constitutionalism. Secondly, the paper will demonstrate how çiftlik owners organized their power in the post-revolutionary state via the provincial administrative councils, succeeding in mobilizing the state and its means of violence on their behalf to reclaim the çiftlik lands from the “occupiers.” By authorizing the administrative councils with “administrative expulsion,” to intervene in land disputes and outlaw land occupations, the Ottoman government reestablished the property rights of çiftlik owners at the expense of villagers’ free and collective access by 1913, which marked a moment of counter-revolution. By analyzing peasant protests, this paper, ultimately, reveals the limits of Constitutionalism in the rural geography and argues that the post-revolutionary ruling elites shied away from breaking pre-existing social structures and instead relied upon them, making them incapable of solving the many social and political problems that the revolution inherited from the past.
  • By the first decades of the twentieth century, wage-workers in Greater Syria had begun to engage in new forms of popular anti-imperialism and protest. While strikes had been outlawed by the newly elected Ottoman parliament in the wake of a 1908 strike wave, workers across the empire continued to utilize the strike as a tactic of protest until the end of the Ottoman Empire, particularly in foreign owned concessionary companies. In Beirut, worker petitions, published in newspapers and submitted to the Ottoman state, regularly challenged both concession holders and the Ottoman state to account for the enrichment of foreign companies at the expense of local laborers. Workers consistently tied issues ranging from unemployment, lack of medical care, long work hours, and underpayment to the structure of concessionary companies, their foreign interests, and their relationship to the Ottoman state. In one particularly protracted dispute, workers at the Beirut gas company factory’s constant protest culminated in 1912 with company management accusations that the municipality of Beirut was encouraging and aiding worker protest at the factory. In this paper, I explore how workers framed changes in company management, company solvency concerns, and company pleas for the Ottoman state to intervene on their behalf, and how these disputes came to a head in a drawn out legal dispute. Following work by Ilham Khuri-Makdisi and Jens Hanssen, I examine how workers mobilized new conceptions of foreignness in labor disputes to engage a broader public and how company management and various arms of the Ottoman state responded to these claims. Moving between documents from the Ottoman archives, including worker petitions and company documents, Ottoman and Arabic periodicals, and French diplomatic correspondence, I argue that popular anti-imperialism emerged in work sites in late Ottoman Greater Syria. Additionally, I suggest that anti-imperialism became a key strategy for workers looking to gain support from social classes otherwise hostile to the disruptive nature of workplace actions and strikes. Finally, this paper reframes infrastructural development and imperial reform—conventionally understood through top-down Ottoman centralization and European imperial expansion—as processes that were in fact a constant negotiation between those planning and profiting from them, and those who worked for and on them.