The Empire Fights Back

In the 19th century, the so-called “balance of power” which western nations sought after the atrocities of an unrestrained Napoleon finally began to shift, from Ottoman, to European favor. Having been stopped twice at the gates of Vienna centuries prior, the Islamic tide slowed to a trickle as the unification of Russia and Germany began to solidify resistance to Ottoman control. As the Ottomans struggled to respond to a rapidly changing set of enemies, Persians and Egyptians endured their own internal changes as well. Together, these three centuries-old Islamic players on the world-stage would suffer the intense stranglehold imposed by British, Russian, and French imperialism. The consequences would forever change the middle eastern perception of its own security forces, and would, in many cases, undermine internal diplomacy as sweeping attempts at reform drew the ire of tribal and religious conflict. The result for Egypt was a strong nationalist dynasty that would persist into the mid-twentieth century. For Persians in Iran, it was the beginning of a long history of proxy wars and shaky alliances forged more often out of necessity than opportunity. For the Turks, however, these Christian thrusts into the “Islamic Heartlands” posed an existential threat to the already-withering Ottoman Empire.

In the case of Egypt, which France invaded for a three year campaign in 1798, the chaos of Turkish and Persian Rivalries, the imperative produced by occupying forces, and the leadership void under the weight of extraordinary military necessity, together provided the opportunity for Mehmet Ali to exterminate his Mamluk rivals, consolidate political power and establish a strong state government. As revolts and rebellions and pressing concerns of Revolution and war draw the French away from their glittering prize, Mehmet is left with only the Red Sea to patrol. In a later attempt to win Palestine, Egypt would briefly ally with the Turks to suppress a Greek rebellion. Eager to please, over-zealous Egyptians commit atrocities in 1824 and are accused of ethnic-cleansing by concerned western powers. Motivated by the mobilization of Russian forces, which, once engaged, are not known for slowing down, the French and British sent ships of war into the Egyptian harbor and destroyed the Egyptian Fleet. However, when the Turks, who by now are hemorrhaging territory, renege on their promises to the Egyptian state, Egypt reached out and took Palestine and Syria by force. When no guard or sentry opposed them, they proceeded onward into the Caucuses. When resistance finally appears, they happily relinquish these additional territories as bargaining chips for retaining control, all-be-it short-lived, of Palestine and Syria.
In 1801, upon sending envoys to seek alliance against French and Russia, the British establish their first diplomatic embassy in Iran. Cooperation with the British made sense to Iranians, and was vindicated after the Russians finally defeated the Turks in Anatolia, when they shifted their focus to the Afghan front. The British, remembering Napoleon's grand vision of British expulsion from India, understood the potential consequences of continued Russian expansion, beyond the “Stans” and into the British livelihood of south-eastern trade supremacy. Under the Qajar dynasty, the Iranians endured a nine year war with the Russians, and believed they would benefit from cooperation with the British. The trusted their new partners, and Mizra Abbas sought to emulate them by creating a new European style security force after the British fashion. By 1838, the British had established a protectorate. In 1857, the defiance of an unsatisfied Shah provokes a British invasion, in which Iranian forces are defeated, and Iran is forced to relinquish Herat. The British evacuate Iran as a condition of this agreement, but not without forcing the Iranians to concede exclusive commercial trade privileges, and not without carving out their Afghan border state. These events and others eventually led to attempts at social and political reform in Iran, but none would be conclusive, as Iran would still have many great challenges to face as the century turned and the world powers gathered themselves up for world war.
Of these three major regional powers, none were more visibly and permanently transformed than the Ottoman empire. Like Mehmet, Sultan Mahmoud would also be forced to overcome the traditional Turkish security forces in the course of globalization. His new artillery force created consternation and resentment which metastasized into open rebellion among Janissary soldiers. The Turks spent the better half of the 18thcentury getting trounced by the Russians. This trend would continue into the 19th century, but would be briefly reversed in an odd alliance against the Egyptians in the 1830's. It is as a result of this particular conflict that Egypt is able to secure Palestine. But the greater outcome in Ottoman history was the compulsion toward developmentalism. Ottomans looking east during the mid-century saw the enormous disparity between the old Iranian swordplay and the ferociously mechanized Russian machine. Taken with their own history of submission and subduction, the Turks correctly ascertain the value of European-style soldiers. Borrowing European standards of dress, training, equipment, and command, the Turks set out on a grand campaign to modernize its defense forces. Coupled with the sweeping social and political reforms of Tanzimat, the Sultan's actions exacerbated existing cultural fault-lines and resulted in political resistance from every direction. Conservatives were outraged at what looked like the concession of Ottoman identity to enemy culture. The Ulema, or religious leaders, demanded a return to “the basics” of Islamic Fundamentalism. And Liberals argued that reforms did not solve enough problems. For example, in 1876, Midhat Pasha introduced the first Ottoman Constitution, and within a year, it caused a full-on civil war. These internal struggles would undermine the potency of the Ottoman spirit, but the far more visible aspect (or symptom) of Ottoman decline was a rapid loss of territory. As we have seen, Egypt very cleverly deprived the Turks of Palestine. Russians expelled the Turks from the Caucasus and the Danubian principalities. As a consequence of San-Stephano, the Turks lost Montenegro, Serbia, Romania, Bosnia, Georgia, and Armenia. The rise of the Qajar dynasty also deprived Ottomans of major parts of Iraq. In another unforgettable twist, the strain of this losing streak bankrupts the Turks. As a result, their European creditors established an Ottoman Public Debt Administration, which effectively contributed to the castration of the Turks against all future campaigns of aggression. The last pages of Ottoman history detail the partitioning of Anatolia and Iraq by European forces, effectively cannibalizing in a few decades one of history's most powerful empires. What once spread across continents remained only in the form of an Anatolian rump-state, as land-spoil was redistributed among all parties bold enough to make a claim. The Turks would not be beaten without one last great fight, and Atta Kamal provided just exactly that. As Greek, Italian, and other ridiculous claimants stepped in to stake their piece of the imperial pie, Kamal led rebellions and conducted attacks on the weakest of these, ensuring European recognition of Turkish strength and spirit would outshine the passing eulogy of Ottoman defeat.
These events, and others, would shape the outcome of two world wars. Yet against great odds, something of each of these three empires would survive the worst of those conflagrations. Egypt lives on, preserving one of the worlds oldest unbroken civilizations, though old sectarian rivalries still wreck Egyptian politics. Iran is no longer friend to the West, or at least hadn't been until the emergence of ISIS, as a result of continued Western insistence that the Muslim world must play by its rules. Turkey, however, is the premiere US coalition ally in the Iraq and Afghan wars of the twenty-first century. American troops deploy from Turkish bases, and depend on contractors who rely on supplies that can enter the region no other way. Not surprising, the other major western ally in the region is Saudi Arabia. Much of these modern outcomes can be traced back to the events of the 19th century, when the west seemed to turn up the heat in the Great Game. Chaos grips the middle east, and to this day, no European power can turn its back on Islam. Because of the modern, global dependence on oil, the Middle East has the rarely-divided attention of every major developed world power. Though ravaged by war, poverty, disease, and degradation, even now Islam still has the power to terrify the bravest soldiers, to enchant the most cynical scholars, and to entangle politicians and corporations in its intricate web of alluring pseudo-vulnerability. These courageous and tenacious people are often dismissed by westerners as Third-world. The irony is unmistakable.

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