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Ottoman Libya

From the time when Saladin displaced the Fatimids in 1171 until the Ottoman occupation in 1517, Egypt was ruled by a succession of Mamluk (caste of "slave-soldiers," in Egypt often Kurds, Circassians, or Turks) dynasties that claimed suzerainty over Cyrenaica but exercised little more than nominal political control there. Throughout the sixteenth century, Hapsburg Spain and the Ottoman Turks were pitted in a struggle for supremacy in the Mediterranean. Spanish forces had already occupied a number of other North African ports when in 1510 they captured Tripoli. In 1551 the Knights of St. John of Malta were driven out of Tripoli by the Turkish admiral, Sinan Pasha. In the next year Draughut Pasha, a Turkish pirate captain named governor by the sultan, restored order in the coastal towns and undertook the pacification of the Arab nomads. In 1711 Ahmad Karamanli, a popular khouloughli cavalry officer, seized Tripoli and then purchased his confirmation by the sultan as pasharegent with property confiscated from Turkish officials he had massacred during the coup.

Out of fear of the European takeover in Tripoli, in 1835 the Ottoman Sultan Muhammad II sent Turkish troops, ostensibly to put down the numerous rebellions against the pasha and to restore order. The administrative system imposed by the Turks was typical of that found elsewhere in the Ottoman Empire. Tripolitania, as all three historic regions were collectively designated, became a Turkish vilayet (province) under a wali (governor general) appointed by the sultan. The province was composed of four sanjaks (subprovinces), each administered by a mutasarrif (lieutenant governor) responsible to the governor general. These subprovinces were each divided into about fifteen districts.

Executive officers from the governor general downward were Turks. The mutasarrif was in some cases assisted by an advisory council and, at the lower levels, Turkish officials relied on aid and counsel from the tribal shaykhs. Administrative districts below the subprovincial level corresponded to the tribal areas that remained the focus of the Arabs' identification.

Although the system was logical and appeared efficient on paper, it was never consistently applied throughout the country. The Turks encountered strong local opposition through the 1850s and showed little interest in implementing Ottoman control over Fezzan and the interior of Cyrenaica. In 1879 Cyrenaica was separated from Tripolitania, its mutasarrif reporting thereafter directly to Constantinople (present-day Istanbul). After the 1908 reform of the Ottoman government, both were entitled to send representatives to the Turkish parliament.

In an effort to provide the country with a tax base, the Turks attempted unsuccessfully to stimulate agriculture. However, in general, nineteenth-century Ottoman rule was characterized by corruption, revolt, and repression. The region was a backwater province in a decaying empire that had been dubbed the "sick man of Europe."

In September 1911 Italy engineered a crisis with Turkey charging that the Turks had committed a "hostile act" by arming Arab tribesmen in Libya. When Turkey refused to respond to an ultimatum calling for Italian military occupation to protect Italian interests in the region, Italy declared war. After a preliminary naval bombardment, Italian troops landed and captured Tripoli on October 3, encountering only slight resistance. Italian forces also occupied Tobruk, Al Khums, Darnah, and Benghazi.

In the ensuing months, the Italian expeditionary force, numbering 35,000, barely penetrated beyond its several beachheads. The 5,000 Turkish troops defending the provinces at the time of the invasion withdrew inland a few kilometers, where officers such as Enver Pasha and Mustafa Kemal (Ataturk) organized the Arab tribes in a resistance to the Italians that took on the aspects of a holy war. But with war threatening in the Balkans, Turkey was compelled to sue for peace with Italy. In accordance with the treaty signed at Lausanne in October 1912, the sultan issued a decree granting independence to Tripolitania and Cyrenaica while Italy simultaneously announced its formal annexation of those territories.

The sultan, in his role as caliph (leader of Islam), was to retain his religious jurisdiction there and was permitted to appoint the qadi of Tripoli, who supervised the sharia courts. But the Italians were unable to appreciate that no distinction was made between civil and religious jurisdiction in Islamic law. Thus, through the courts, the Turks kept open a channel of influence over their former subjects and subverted Italian authority. Peace with Turkey meant for Italy the beginning of a twenty-year colonial war in Libya.

For many Arabs, Turkey's surrender in Libya was a betrayal of Muslim interests to the infidels. The 1912 Treaty of Lausanne was meaningless to the beduin tribesmen who continued their war against the Italians, in some areas with the aid of Turkish troops left behind in the withdrawal. The 1923 Treaty of Lausanne between the Allied Powers—including Italy—and Ataturk's new government in Turkey made final the dismemberment of the old Ottoman Empire and provided conclusive international sanction for Italy's annexation of Libya.

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Page last modified: 26-12-2019 18:25:17 ZULU