Albert Hourani (1915-1993) is a much-celebrated historian born to Lebanese parents in Manchester. His writings on the middle east are priceless. One of these is “Ottoman Reform and Politics of Notables” first published in 1968. In this short review Armenak Tokmajyan says that the debate it started is still relevant and ongoing.
Between 1760 and 1860 – before the Tanzimat reforms that sought to modernize the Ottoman Empire – there was no direct link between the Sultan and his subjects. In many Arab cities like Aleppo, Damascus and Mosul, the Sultan ruled through, what Hourani calls, local intermediaries. An intermediary is someone who has authority in his city and, at the same time, has access to the Sultan; it represents people of his city in front of the sultan and the authority of the latter in his city; he can help the Sultan maintain his power, or provoke rebellion against him.
Notables derived from several backgrounds: Ulama (Islamic scholars), who often belonged to influential families and took their power from their religious authority; local garrisons whose power derived from their military authority; and ‘secular’ notables like heads of major landowning families. Politics of notables was not conducted within any institutional framework. It was up to the capacity of the notable to face challenges, form alliances, balance interests, etc. Even though notables played a public political role, they were very keen on maximizing their own material wealth on the expense of the state or the locals.
Unlike in the heart of the Empire, i.e. Istanbul, Tanzimat reforms could not diminish the authority of notables in Ottoman Syria and Iraq and establish a direct link between the state and its citizens. The notable successfully resisted modernization and modern state building efforts. When the Ottoman Empire collapsed, they continued playing a major role under the British and French mandates.
Since Hourani’s article, the debate on the role of local intermediaries and the socio-political conditions that enables politics of notables has been ongoing. That is especially true in the context of present-day Syria, Lebanon and Iraq where the states are weak and localized authorities strong.