As the Ottoman Empire headed towards a sealed fate, a new political force inspired by the Young Turks’ “Grand Coalition” emerged: the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP).
First the members of this committee wanted to topple the autocratic government of Abdülhamit II. They eventually did so and came to power after the 1908 revolution. After they began establishing their own government, they wanted no credible opposition like their great political adversary, Abdülhamit II. The question is: What did they want?
They were expressly against the autocracy and oppression symbolized by Abdülhamit’s rule. They wanted liberty, equality and justice -- ideas coined by the French Revolution of 1789, which they admired. As time went by, they led a style of government that for outsiders did not appear to be much different than that of their autocratic predecessors. When things went from bad to worse, they even took over the state by military force on Jan. 23, 1913. With the “Bab-ı Ali Raid,” an armed attack at a cabinet meeting of the Ottoman government in the imperial capital, they showed they were ready to suppress any kind of resistance, mobilize the “crowd” for the sake of the country and, if necessary, die for the eternal patriotic cause. At the end of World War I, things went from bad to worse, and the empire was dissolved. During this phase, they were not finished; some of them, as tradition dictated, were simply liquidated.
Unlike the Anglo-Saxon tradition, in Turkey and most parts of the Middle East, institutions of state and people are not saved or given a good chance for transformation for the sake of historical continuity and integrity. People in those institutions are faced with a definite choice about new and old, and the choice of rejection is enough to liquidate them by the powers that be. They shall choose either full obedience or complete destruction. Maybe some would call this way a kind of “creative destruction” in some parts of the Western world, which does not seem to be very creative at all in the Middle East.
Whatever it is, the rest of the CUP was successfully able to establish the Republic of Turkey after giving a fierce fight to European-backed Greeks and others. But equally important are the remnants of the CUP aligning themselves according to new conditions in the Middle East under the mandates of colonial powers. After the colonialists left, not much changed and the Middle East was dominated by Nasserist, Baathist or Zionist regimes.
And the essential picture was eventually completed: The Middle East looked to be divided among Kemalist (Turkey), Nasserist (Egypt), Baathist (Syria and Iraq) and Zionist (Israel) regimes in the post-World War I period, with the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire as the successor ideologies of the CUP in the successor states of the empire. In addition, significantly either secularist or Islamist movements in the Middle East are mostly affected by the results of the Ottoman modernization efforts, and its most primary political result, the CUP. As a grand coalition and the apparatus of a new “Grand Politics” of the Ottoman Empire and the Muslim world, the CUP included Ottomanists, Westerners, Islamists and Turkists (later, Turkish nationalists) among their ranks. And according to political conditions, they could rearrange and readjust their political allegiances, too.
Under the pressure of the Cold War conditions, this picture has mostly continued to exist in the Middle East. Right after the collapse of the Berlin Wall, communized Eastern Europe and the Balkans of the Ottoman Empire were dissolved and the democratization and integration process into the European Union began. The Balkans, where the CUP was originally established, was one of the most critical corners of the empire. The other communized and essential corner of the empire, Caucasia, got through a bloody and difficult phase toward democratization probably because of a delicate equation of historically prevalent Western geopolitics with Russia. The Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict over the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh, the failed Chechnyan war of independence from Russia and the last Georgian “Rose Revolution,” followed some years later by Russian intervention, are all marks of this bloody and difficult transition in the region.
The last corner of the Ottoman Empire (the Ottoman Empire, as one of the past major political empires in world history, was built on a geopolitical triangle between the Balkans, the Caucasus and the Middle East in Eurasia) was the Middle East, which has waited for a democratization process for such a long time and came last to it. The Middle East is the cradle of human civilization and the root of the world’s monotheistic religions. It has many invariables, unknown and unpredictable forces of historical resistance, and a record of conflicts unparalleled in other corners of the world. But now it seems the “iron curtain” of the Middle East has finally collapsed with the Arab Spring. And yet the question has not changed. Instead, it stands out there and blurs our vision: Will the Middle East be democratized? Or, as is well known in the history of the CUP and its successor regimes, after one autocratic regime is toppled, will we witness another one in a different form?
It is clear secularist and autocratic successor regimes of the CUP are losing ground in the Middle East, from Islamist-rooted Justice and Development Party (AK Party)-led Turkey -- which is carrying out the Ergenekon trials against Kemalist generals -- to the Arab Spring countries dominated by Baathist and secularist Arab nationalist regimes. But what will come next? If the spirit of the CUP is not dead, then there is good reason to believe that the Islamic wing of the CUP could emerge all over the Middle East.
And there is no historical guarantee and adequate evidence it will be democratic or vice versa.
*Murat Sofuoğlu is the director of the Process (Süreç) Research Center based in İstanbul, Turkey (www.surecanaliz.org).