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The Making and Unmaking of Sovereignty/ies: Past and Present

Panel XII-24, 2023 Annual Meeting

On Sunday, November 5 at 11:00 am

Panel Description
  • Few engineering projects in the nineteenth century have been more consequential than building the Suez Canal. The project, which led to a massive death toll as well as the indebtedness and eventual bankruptcy of the khedival government of Egypt, is often remembered as a precursor to the British occupation that followed. But closer scrutiny suggests otherwise. The middle decades of nineteenth century Egypt, during which the canal was built, were defined by the Ottoman province’s peculiar legal status. During the period, Egypt was neither a sovereign state, nor directly ruled by the Ottoman Empire, nor annexable to any other Empire. Opening the country to European capital therefore necessitated constructing a new commercial and legal domain. This ‘universal’ commercial domain was both external to Europe, and shaped by, yet equidistant from, the continent’s competing empires. Rather than being a prelude to British colonial rule, the universal domain, manifesting in the Compagnie Universelle du canal maritime de Suez, the Mixed Courts, and the Caisse de la dette publique, imposed strict limitations on British colonialism, and obstructed the annexation of Egypt to the British Empire. The Compagnie, formed by “capitalists of all nations,” managed by Europeans, and building a canal of “universal utility” was instrumental in consolidating this universal domain. In this paper, I study the indebtedness of the Egyptian government in the context of this universality. Both building the canal and the “right to borrow” were means of ascertaining the sovereignty of Egyptian rulers vis-à-vis Ottoman Sultans. The universal condition both produced and compromised the sovereignty of the viceregal government. While the indebtedness of the government, which eventually led to the establishment of the Caisse, expanded the universal domain to include the finances of the viceregal government, it consolidated the sovereignty of the viceregal government over local subjects.
  • Co-Authors: Ian Lustick
    The half-century struggle in Israel over what to do with the West Bank has effectively ended. Various processes of de facto incorporation, including the transfer of three-quarters of a million Israeli citizens into areas east of the green line and the effective rejection of all negotiating opportunities toward a political settlement, have resulted in a state of affairs featuring Israel as the effective ruler of all territory between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River. But much of what has become real hasn’t been codified, producing a legal and political situation as dynamic as it is complex. Multiple proposals have appeared in recent years, including many new Knesset bills offered by members of the current ultra-right-wing government, to adjust the legal status of parts of the territory beyond the green line. Yet these proposals, usually advanced as necessary to realize the country’s sovereignty or to make “annexation” real, either avoid using the words “sovereignty” (Ribonut) or “annexation” (sipuach) or carefully avoid giving them operational meaning. The paper will offer five mutually reinforcing explanations for this puzzle. Since 1948, most areas treated as sovereign Israel were never subject to official annexation or sovereignty declaration, but assumed that status via de facto processes similar to those that have occurred in the West Bank after 1967. Both Israeli courts and the executive branch have avoided giving “Ribonut” operational meaning, even in the one statute that uses that term. The indefinite nature of the concepts of “annexation” and “sovereignty” in international law opens space for changes in the status of a territory to occur as a result of the unarticulated strategy of using the consequences of long-term control that Israel has employed. The ordinary language of advocates of new legal measures directed at the status of territories occupied in 1967 shows that the core meaning of the term “Ribonut” for these advocates has much more to with the psychological sensation of, and political campaign to establish, Jewish supremacy, than with their legal status. By avoiding terminology which explicitly incorporates Arab-inhabited territory into Israel, advocates of “annexationist” measures intend to reduce future opportunities for non-Israeli inhabitants of these areas to gain political rights. Our paper will corroborate the “one-state reality” from a legal point of view. This will show that for Israeli, Palestinian, and international actors debates over annexation are consequential for the constraints and opportunities they highlight with respect to coming struggles for democratization.
  • In this paper, I theorize the changing conceptualizations of sovereignty and citizenship from the Ottoman Empire to the Turkish Republic through a comparative analysis of two instances of naval accidents within Ottoman-Turkish waters, in 1912 and 1926. In 1912, an American ship, Texas, sank around the Ottoman port of Symrna in an accidental collision with a sea mine. Complicating discussions of legal jurisdiction, the ship’s captain was a Greek citizen, while most passengers were Ottoman, and the ship itself belonged to an American company. The ensuing debates on legal jurisdiction and attributing responsibility provide a unique perspective into inter-imperial politics of contested sovereignty and citizenship in the late Ottoman Empire period. This case also provides a window into how legal capitulations and extraterritorial privileges granted to European and American foreigners became implemented in practice in local Ottoman courts, and European legal discourses of ‘civilization’ and legal inferiority. In a similar incident in 1926, a French ship, Lotus, sank around the Greek island of Mytilene due to an accident. In this case, the newly independent Turkish state was able to leverage its position within the international community to insist on national jurisdiction in the aftermath of the Lausanne Treaty of 1923. The comparison between the two naval accidents, and the discursive and legal constructions of sovereignty by respective states and international organizations involved, reveals competing conceptions of sovereignty in the beginning of the 20th century, and unpacks the transformation of international legal approaches to sovereignty and citizenship. Identifying a shift from emphasizing civilizational progress to national independence and equivalence, the paper then discusses the implications of these competing conceptions of sovereignty, and how their logics are imbricated with each other even while their practices differ. This project is based on Ottoman, Turkish and American state archives, contemporary newspaper articles and analyses, and documents produced by international bodies involved in the cases.