Ottomans Versus Mamluks: New Episode Same Playground

On 23rd of January 1517, the Ottomans defeated the Mamluks army, entered the city of Cairo and hanged their leader Tuman bey from its southern gate “ bab Zuwaila”.  This victory had a profound impact on the entire Middle East for decades that still resonates today.

The Mamluks period was indeed an intriguing era, with tales of plots, love & betrayals, not to mention brutal violence, but nonetheless, vibrant with a long period of prosperity. The ex-slaves determined warriors defended their adoptive country and offered patronage for artisans and intellectuals. Cities such as Cairo served as a center for learning with flourishing Madrassas, it even had a hospital for psychiatric illness where music played to create a soothing, healing atmosphere. (I usually take what was written in my old history books with a pinch of salts, but I believe this one). Women enjoyed some rights and were not segregated. The remaining Mamluks houses in old Cairo with its lofty windows (unlike the rather restrictive Mashrabia) reflect this relatively liberal atmosphere.

The killing of the young, devoted Toman bey signalled the end of national identity. The Turks divided the conquered empire into three sections, the northern region with Aleppo as the capital, central region (including Palestine) with Damascus as the capital, and Egypt with Cairo as the capital. Arabian countries were relegated to the status of mere provinces within a super empire. Ottomans strategy was clear; a strong, powerful wealthy center served by resources and skilled workers from peripheries. They just sucked blood out of the local economy and increased its vulnerability and dependence on the central government.

Rather than resisting their occupiers, Arabs went into full submission at least initially. Though there were sporadic revolts (which were promptly suppressed), the Arab provinces were relatively calm in comparison to those in Europe and Persia. After all the Ottomans were fellow Muslims, a crucial factor that helped Arabs to accept their fate despite simmering grievances.

A combination of inertia, religious dogma and a false sense of security lead to a gradual decline in virtually all aspects of life. Arabs became increasingly isolated, inward looking, completely unaware of the enormous progress and renaissance in Western Europe.  Women paid a hefty price; they became increasingly segregated, “Harim”, imprisoned within their homes and had to cover their faces if they had ventured out.

A modern Twist/ mediocre Mamluks

 500 years later it seems we are witnessing a new version of the Mamluks/ Ottomans confrontation with a modern twist. This time the Mamluks are a mediocre version of their predecessors with no charisma or insight and with sheer incompetency. Despite the fact that they are the native sons of the land; they certainly never cared about it or worked towards its development, but only cared about their own survival, Arabic countries descend to a new low with corruption, dictatorship and poverty. This decline affects every aspect of life from science to medicine and art. The new Mamluks are simply pathetic and slaves to their own greed.

Weak leadership created a power vacuum, which attracted the attention of many regional and world players, including the new charismatic Turkish leader “Recep Tayyip Erdoğan”. With his vast economic achievements, the ambitious Turk has just managed to secure a third term in office, after turning his country to the Chine of Europe. Now the new Ottoman started to focus his attention to his Arabs neighbours with a different grand strategy.

So far Erdogan has managed to win the hearts & minds of many Arabs. A magic formula of anti-Israeli rhetoric, flourishing economy and increased trade links seems to be working wonders, not to mention the popularity of the Turkish soap operas among Arabs audiences. He presented them with a magical formula, where Islam, democracy and secularism can coexist together. The devout Muslim who used to sell lemonade and sesame buns (simit) on the streets of Istanbul’s rougher districts has inspired many who share his humble background and indeed his ambitions, he has become the model they can follow and want to emulate.

The Arab world has had enough from their Mamluks & has started to embark on a long journey for self-salvation from dictatorship. Uprising has started to shake the palaces of dictators everywhere in the Middle East. Many believe that Turkey could be an inspiration in their struggle for freedom and democracy.

Is Turkey’s Erdogan the right example for the Arabs to follow? Can he be the father of the Arab spring?  I do not think so; there are several problems with the Erdogan model.

1- What kind of Islam?

Perhaps, the biggest failure of Erdogan is his inability to promote progressive Islamic thinking. Rather than addressing extreme religious school of thoughts particularly, in contentious topics such as woman rights, conversion out of Islam, freedom of speech, the AKP sticks to the old religious formula as a safe way to attract the heart & mind of devoted Turks. The recent protest ban in memory of the Sivas massacre is a classic example that freedom of speech is not Erdogan’s highest priority. The murder of Intellectuals for reading extract from Salman Rushdie’s Books can be conveniently ignored as a minor event.  Turkish newspapers are full of horror reports: for example, religious fanatics who sprayed acid on the exposed legs of schoolgirls in Mersin and the increase in the number of honor killings.

It is a myth that Turkey succeeds in marrying Islam with democracy; AKP used them separately in a mere cohabitation rather than a firm marriage.

2- Parallel life may end up in tears

 On the surface, the combination between secularism and Islamic foundation seems to be working perfectly. In reality, Islamists and liberals live a complete parallel life; they do not mix or interact.  Devout, pious, Muslims are highly unlikely to mix with those who drink alcohol and wear bikini. However, the rising economic standard will allow many conservative Muslims to move to fancy neighborhood and joins luxurious golf courses. Tension and clashes will be inevitable, not just with liberal locals, but also with western homeowners who took advantage of low-house prices in Turkey to buy a second home in the sun with potentially disastrous consequences. There are already several disturbing reports of bullying of artists and celebrities who do not share the Islamists worldviews.

3- Relations with Israel

There is no doubt that Erdogan ant-Israeli rhetoric is his biggest asset in the Arab world. However, this winning card may not be sustainable in the long term. He can have a public, heated debate with the Israeli President, support the Gaza flotilla, or even try his luck mediating between Fatah and Hamas, but the more he shifts away from Israel, the more he will lose his ability to play as a mediator who can be trusted by both sides. Needless to mention Turkish membership of NATO, which is extremely valuable for him, and it will indeed soften his anti-Israeli stance. Even if he ignores, NATO, the maximum he can do is to cut his diplomatic ties with Israel, but he will never send his army to liberate Al_ Quds.  Erdogan will soon learn the hard lesson many learned before him, “ it is too complicated”.

 4- Arab uprisings may not be good news:

Regardless of its future, Arab uprising may have a negative impact on Turkey. Though Turkey has shown a strong support to the Syrian and Libyan revolts (after early hiccups about Gaddafi) and shows considerable hospitality towards Syrians refugees, which help to cement its positive image among millions of Arabs, the actual events within the Arab world will cast its shadow over Turkey.

a-    If the Arab uprising succeed:

Egypt and Tunisia are the leading force behind the Arab uprising; their young, passionate youth are fighting to fulfill their dream of a vibrant, democratic, free society. If they succeed, the Arab world will eventually have a newly emerging power that will have its own plans and agenda, which may not fit in with the Turkish one.  No wonder Turkey is trying desperately to influence the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, but Egypt is not Turkey, Muslim Brotherhood blind copycat policy could be disastrous.

b-     If the Arab uprising results in stalemate or failed states

Chaos, anarchy is Turkey’s worst nightmare as instability, is bad for the economy. Turkish towns and cities near the Syrian border are already feeling the heat due to the halt of trade with the Assad regime, not to mention the flux of refugees. The deterioration of the situation particularly in Syria may force Turkey to interfere militarily, which again could be counterproductive. Turkey is not immune from the increasing regional, sectarian tensions; there is already tension within the local Kurdish areas, which can escalate if Kurdish refugees from Syria start to head toward the Turkish border.

c-     Pro status quo

There are still several forces in the regions that are desperate to maintain the status quo, the modern Mamluks and their allies will not go without a fight and they are not happy with Turkish meddling. They will do whatever they can in order to undermine the Turkish efforts.

The Ottoman Empire was a colonial power and never a union of nations or  a common wealth; any claim to the contrary is simply a twist of history for the sake of political gains. Modern Turkey can be a close friend and ally to its Arab neighbours; however, they have to address their own problems first. Erdogan need to reconcile with the 50% of Turks who did not vote for him before he builds bridges with others. As for the Arabs, they do not need a father-in-law; they will get rid of their Mamluks by their own efforts and should not allow their countries to be a mere playground for any outsider.


About nervana111

Doctor, blogger and Commentator on Middle East issues. The only practising doctor who write in Middle Eastern politics in UK.
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7 Responses to Ottomans Versus Mamluks: New Episode Same Playground

  1. Thanks for a very interesting article which combined history with current politics, and is very informative and predictive of all possible outcomes in the relationship between Turkey and arab countries. I find Turkey’s politics at the present difficult to comperhend. I think it wants to make a role for itself in the Middle East so that it gets a respectable place in the EU. Whether it succeeds in making a role for itself in Arab countries is uncertain..


  2. I think this is one of your best! Very interesting and great comparisons. I especially enjoy how you bring history and current political issues together. Like you said, ‘same playground’ … It’s funny how some things just never change! Thank you for a great post!


  3. IAP says:

    This is a very interesting article and it does make some very good points. However, in my opinion, a significant component is missing: This is Turkey’s (or more accurately, perhaps, Mr. Erdogan’s) effort to achieve the status of a regional superpower. Some may argue that it is Mr. Erdogan’s and the AKP’s wish to resurrect the Ottoman Empire that is prompting this. Others would argue that the refusal of the European Union to delineate a clear path for Turkey’s admission along with the recent financial problems of the Eurozone, have made this less appealing to Turkey. Additionally, after the demise of the Soviet Union Turkey’s role in NATO has become less significant and its relationship with the US has cooled. All this has prompted Turkey to start looking to the East instead of the West and Mr. Erdogan and the AKP were quite willing to chart this course. In its immediate vicinity, Turkey’s main antagonist is Iran, since the other possible contenders for the role of regional superpower (Iraq, Pakistan, Syria) are out for various reasons. I think that Mr. Erdogan’s anti-Israeli rhetoric is meant to convince the Arab countries that they should look to Turkey and not to Iran for leadership. Perhaps he also genuinely believes that he can convince Hamas to become more conciliatory and success will raise his status among the Europeans (Turkey cannot completely avert its eyes from Europe). It is a paradox that the two countries vying for this leadership role of the Near East Muslim world, which is primarily Arab, are not themselves Arab.


  4. nervana111 says:

    Thank you so much for this interesting reply. you definitely covered the broader regional picture. The competition between Turkey and iran is real . Both dream about resurrecting their old glories at the expense of the Arab neighbours. and you absolutely right both of them are non Arab. What a paradox. !. I tried to focus in my piece about Erdogan model of democracy , as many in the Arab world want to emulate . Perhaps I should discuss the Iranian- Turkish rivalries in another piece.


  5. Jon Goodfellow says:

    This is a follow-up on Nervana’s suggestion to read this post after responding to a later post. She and the other commenters focus on the political aspects of the “Arab Spring” and Erdogan’s “Neo-Ottomanism”. There are cultural aspects to both that tend to be under-appreciated by observers. I would like to offer some thoughts here and ask feedback from native experts. My main familiarity is more with SE Europe (the Balkans; formerly the Rumeli) and the northern Ottoman dominions, so please correct me if/where I am “full of it”. Also, most of my informants are old friends from Turkey, Bosnia, and Bulgaria, so there is probably some bias.
    Some thoughts on Mamluks and “New” Mamluks. The original Mamluks were generally recruited/bought from the Caucasus or neighboring steppes of southern Russia who lived under the different cultural regime of relatively tolerant Mongol rule: “You don’t challenge me militarily, pay the tax, and I leave you along.” And that is how most of the classical Mamluks ruled in the Arab Egypt. This, along with a similar patronage to the Mongol satraps, brought them support from Arab populations suppressed by then corrupted officials of the Caliphate. The later Mamluks, arguably including the “New Mamluks”, were hereditary folks not unlike the later Janissaries, both of which shared decline and dysfunction of their original inspiration.
    I am not as familiar with Arab political thinkers as much as Turkic ones, but it seems to me that much of their thought on gov’t was either suppressed or hijacked in the early modern era by colonial experience and its reactions (i.e., Sayed Qutub for Muslim Brotherhood; Michel Afflaq for secular nationalist). So questions like, “What is the role of the state in Islamic society?”, and “How can I be a pious Muslim in modern society?” were pre-empted from constructive debate and stuck in interpretations of the classical Arab era. The Turkic world did have this debate, based on the experience of the Ottomans involvement in Europe, and the late Mughal period in Western India under British control.
    A lot of the trends in the Turkish world today have roots in late Ottoman times easily overlooked when only focusing on the politics. Muhammed Iqbal and Said Nursi both had a huge influence on Fethulah Gullen and his movement in the Islamic world and both dealt at length with the very questions above. Neo-Ottomanism isn’t just about politics, but a conception of Islam and society, including governance. Much of the implicit positions of Ergodan, the AKP, and the “Turkish Model” are based (if loosely) on the same roots of this movement which is much different than the Islamic roots of Arabia. Could the fundamental differences in culture preclude a “Turkish model” rooting in the Arab world? Isn’t it more likely there will be influence from someone like Ahmed Mansour or Tariq Ramadan there? Or are the exile communities too marginal?


  6. nervana111 says:

    Thank you again Jon. I have to say , your knowledge is so impressive. agree with you about original and modern Mamluks. also on Neo-Ottomanism and how it is influenced by Gullen. Many describe the Turkish newspaper Today Zaman’s Journalists as Gullenists. Currently arab are influenced by many. Personally, i think exile communities impact is marginal.


  7. Stefanos Kalogirou says:

    I think that the projection of Turkey in the Muslim world is helped by the US. Anti-Jew rhetoric is allowed cause otherwise there is a real danger of a Muslim world gathering around Iran. Fortunately once in a while one can find in the mainstream media interviews like this
    that do not over-rate Turkey’s influence in the region.


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