The purpose of the 1908 Young Turk revolution was to force Sultan Abdul Hamid II to restore the constitution of 1876. It would provide “liberty, justice, equality and fraternity, for all the races and religions of the empire.” Most Ottomans were thrilled. Anne B. Jones, a young American missionary in Stamboul wrote, “Last Sunday, Turks, Christians and Jews in one wagon were seen embracing and congratulating one another. People can scarcely take time to sleep for their joy!” The euphoria didn’t last long. Four years later a dirty election campaign, that included fraud, resulted in political chaos. Then a group seized power through a coup d’état, gained total control of the Ottoman Empire (or what was left of it), and changed history forever. Here’s how they did it.
In November 1911 the loose coalition that had been the Young Turks broke apart. The inner group known as the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP) had been steadily gaining power, and a new party, the Entente Libérale, was created with the sole purpose of opposing CUP. Three weeks later, and to everyone’s surprise, the Entente won a parliamentary by-election—fair and square. It wasn’t trend-setting, however.
February-March 1912 Election Campaign
A general election was called for April 1912, and things got ugly. The Orient, an English-language newspaper published by Bible House in Constantinople, reported on the campaign:
- Recriminations in the papers has gone to such extremes that several journals have been suppressed. Tahir Haireddin Bey, editor of the Shehra and former deputy for Constantinople, was condemned to seventy days in prison for an article he published; but he has fled, it is rumored, to Egypt. This prosecution gives rise to a report that the Unionists intend to arrest and condemn the various Opposition deputies in order to prevent their re-election.
- During the recent cabinet crisis the Grand Vizier [Prime Minister] telegraphed that the people should not be alarmed if they should get no news for four or five days, as the wires were out of order. Perhaps he thought that the people … were not enlightened enough to question how the electricity, which was capable of conveying his message, could not creep around obstructions enough to bring important news.
- A memorandum sent by the ex-Grand Vizier, Kiamil Pasha, from Egypt to His Majesty the Sultan has been widely printed in the daily press and has roused much comment. The venerable author confidently asserts that owing to the despotic attitude of the Committee of Union and Progress, the Ottoman Empire is in danger of dismemberment and the Caliphate is threatened. He charges the Committee with inability to govern along Constitutional lines, and of resorting therefore to martial law; he says they have dismissed competent officials in both capital and provinces and have replaced them by inexperienced and incompetent Committee followers, whose unsatisfactory administration is responsible for the troubles in Albania, Arabia and the Yemen, involving such a waste of lives as well as money. Their maladministration has also caused coldness on the part of other powers towards Turkey; Italy has declared war against the Committee, while England, France and Russia maintain a significant neutrality. The Empire is in danger of losing Crete and European Turkey. Unless the Committee relinquishes its control, another revolution will take place, aided by the army, against their despotism.
The April 1912 Election
CUP won the election. The Jeune Turc reporting on the results, said, “Firstly, there will be practically no Opposition. As the [Entente Libérale] Party has been completely defeated, none of its leaders and orators … will enter Parliament. … For every deputy who took part in the divisive movement within the party, has failed of re-election.”
By May, The Orient commented: “Were we to judge from the words of their opponents, the Committee is determined to rule or ruin the country, with the probabilities strong in favor of their proving unable to rule it; and the only hope lies in unseating them.”
The Turkish daily Tanzimat agreed. In August it noted, “The Committee of Union and Progress has had for four years many opportunities and chances to gain success. Unfortunately it has been unable to profit by these. … gradually all the true friends of the Constitution began to desert the Committee of Union and Progress, because of its bad administration.”
But in August, CUP’s election victory became clear. The Orient quoted a communique by the Grand Vizier to all the valis [governors] and independent mutesarrifs [sub-governors], adding that “it speaks volumes, as coming from an official source, as to the make-up of the late Parliament: ‘In consequence of certain illegal orders given last year by some of the ministers, the elections for deputies did not conform to the electoral law. Judicial, religious and other functionaries who had no legally conferred right to do so, interfered in the elections, misusing their official influence. Many electoral districts were disregarded, in spite of the clear prescriptions of the law. Villages were attached to a kaza (sub-provincial chief town) that was not their own, so as to form separate districts. Moreover, the ballot-boxes were constructed in such a way as to facilitate fraud and abuses, as have been proved by the careful examination of formal protests.’”
In response, the army demanded the resignation of the CUP leaders, and threatened armed intervention unless they complied. Talat Bey, Minister of the Interior, was one of those arrested, though Djavid Bey, Minister of Finance and Public Works, had escaped to Europe. For several months, there was a change in government to a hodgepodge of old guard and Entente Libérale members. They governed under martial law, for Italy had declared war on the Ottoman Empire over lands in northern Africa.
January 1913 Coup d’état
In early January The Orient noted that a demonstration organized by CUP was held “at the Sublime Porte, with the object of discrediting the ministry; and rumors of the resignation of the Grand Vizier are being sedulously disseminated. … But former experiences have shown that the Committee leaders are capable of almost anything for the sake of gaining the upper hand.”
Truer words were never writ. On January 23rd, the Cabinet was in session at the Sublime Porte [seat of government] when shots were fired outside. “Gen. Nazim Pasha, Minister of War and Commander-in-Chief of the Army, went out to see what was the trouble, and was shot dead. Col. Enver Bey, the revolutionary hero, had led thither a great crowd and when an aide-de-camp resisted their entrance into the offices of the Sublime Porte, shots were exchanged.” The Orient also reported that immediately after the coup d’état, Shevket Pasha was appointed Grand Vizier, Talat Bey became the temporary Ministry of the Interior, and Enver Bey “continues to keep in the background, as is his wont.” Later, Enver became the Minister of War.
The Orient summed up the events thus: “It becomes us to speak circumspectly regarding the events of the past week, lest censorial wrath be upon us. But an administration founded on violence and murder is seldom a success; and no one can approve of the method by which the present ministry has come into power. … The official declaration of the new Cabinet is that it wishes peace [with Italy], but not on the terms that Kiamil Pasha’s Cabinet was on the point of accepting. … Apathy regarding details and a genuine desire for real peace are the prevailing notes. Nor do we agree with those who represent the overthrow of last Thursday as a popular movement. The populace as a whole had nothing to do with it and disapproved of the way it was done. Further than this we do not deem it desirable to express and opinion at present. In a few days the situation will be clearer.”
Certainly with two years the situation and intentions of the leaders were made crystal clear: They waged two regional wars, entered World War I, and started three genocides.
The moral: Be careful of a government that wins by underhanded means. Its future will not be healthy for the country.