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Thursday, 10 March 2011

The Power Vacuum left from the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in 1922 - almost 100 years later

Map of Ottoman Empire - at its greatest extension it included
Turkey, Egypt, Greece, Bulgaria, Romania, Macedonia, Hungary, Palestine, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria,
parts of Arabia and much of the coastal strip of North Africa

The Ottoman Empire (1301-1922) was the one of the largest and longest lasting empires in history. It was an empire inspired and sustained by Islam, and Islamic institutions. It replaced the Byzantine Empire as the major power in the Eastern Mediterranean. The Ottoman Empire reached its height under Suleiman the Magnificent (reigned 1520-66), when it expanded to cover the Balkans and Hungary, and reached the gates of Vienna.

When the Ottoman Empire eventually fell in 1922, it left behind, predictably, an immense power vacuum. But less expected is that close to a 100 years later in the 21st century, we are still feeling the effects of an ongoing power vacuum re-adjustment process.

The ongoing power vacuum is illustrated by the sheer number of major conflicts in recent decades that have broken out within the confines of the former Ottoman Empire geographical area. The Balkan wars in Bosnia/Serbia and Kosovo in the 1990s, Algerian civil war 1991-2002, the war for Kuwait in 1990 -1991, the invasion of Iraq from 2003, the second Palestinian intifida 2000-2005, the Lebanon war in 2006, the Gaza war in 2009, and most recently the Tunisian uprisings at the end of 2010 leading to the ousting of President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in January 2010. Followed closely by the Egyptian uprisings that also ousted President Hosni Mubarak, in Feburay 2011. Uprisings have spread across the Middle East and North Africa countries to Algeria, Libya (on the brink of civil war), Yemen, Jordan, Bahrain, Oman, Iraq and to a lesser degree Saudi Arabia in February and March 2011.

November 2011 Update

Since publishing this post in March 2011, the countries occupying the territory of the old Ottoman empire have begun to look even shakier. On the one hand, the UN Security Council approved Resolution 1973, applying for the first time, the new UN concept "responsability to protect" within the UN Human Security Framework prevailing over national sovereignty has been enacted. This led to the NATO-led campaign which saw Muammar Gadaffi unseated and later killed. The NATO campaign officially ended on 31 October 2011. On the other hand, Tunisia has recently celebrated its first free elections with an Islamist party winning around 40pc of the vote. Egypt is soon to celebrate its first free elections with the Islamist parties expected to do well there too. Finally, Syria has become a bloodbath with its Leader, Mr Assad refusing to leave power.

Meanwhile Turkey's Prime Minister Erdogan, after his election victory in June 2011, has begun to implement a new "activist" foreign policy, which has prompted some commentators to proclaim "that the Ottoman's are coming back". Turkey was caught unprepared for the Arab Spring. Moreover the Western Balkan countries, who are mostly actively seeking EU Membership -Bosnia, Serbia, Kosovo, Albania and Macedonia- have also begun to hedge their bets with a modern Turkey awash with cash ready to invest in major new airports and other big infrastructure projects on their soil. In the words of the Turkish Foreign Minister, a new "Golden Age" of the Balkans with Turkey at the head is getting underway. The power vacuum appears to be no further resolved after the Arab Spring developments.

Why did the Ottoman Empire maintain power for so long

There were many reasons why the Ottoman Empire was so successful. It was highly centralised, power was always transferred to a single person, and not split between rival princes. This meant the Ottoman Empire was successfully ruled by a single family for 7 centuries. Religion was incorporated in the state structure, and the Sultan was regarded as "the protector of Islam"It was highly pragmatic, taking the best ideas from other cultures and making them their own. It had a very strong military base with a slave-based army, good expertise in developing gunpowder as a military tool and a strong military ethos pervaded the whole administration.

Constantinople which had been at the heart of the Byzantine Empire, was conquered in 1453 by the Ottoman Sultan Mehmet II. It was made the capital of the Ottoman Empire and renamed, Istanbul – the 'city of Islam'. Istanbul became not only a political and military capital, but because of its position at the junction of Europe, Africa, and Asia, one of the great trade centres of the world.

Since the fall of the Ottoman Empire in 1922 – why is there still such a vacuum of power

Perhaps the answer to this question lies in the fact that what in the 21st century we call “the Arab world” is a big and amorphous thing, and arguably not one thing at all. It is more likely a collection of different ethnicities, with confessional and sectarian differences that did not matter when they formed part of a greater empire. This is equally true of the Balkans which contained many different fragments.

The Economist in a recent article described the political instability of the Arab world as being connected to further problem: the missing glue of nationhood.

Many years ago an Egyptian diplomat, Tahsin Bashir, called the new Arab states of the Middle East “tribes with flags” (though he exempted Egypt). His point still holds. In countries as different as Lebanon and Iraq, ethnic, confessional or sectarian differences have thwarted programmes of nation-building. That is why Iraq fell apart into Sunni, Shia and Kurdish fragments after the removal of Saddam despite decades of patriotic indoctrination. Syria could follow suit if the minority Alawi sect of the ruling Assad family were somehow to lose control of this largely Sunni country. Sudan has seen not one but two civil wars between its Arab-dominated centre and the non-Arab minorities in its south and west.”

Until the question of how to re-structure the old Ottoman Empire geographical region is resolved, an ongoing battle for power looks likely to continue in the foreseeable future. Perhaps we might have seen an earlier resolution and re-ordering to reduce the power vacuum if the region had not been home to around 75 per cent of the world's oil resources which powers the modern world. This has inevitably led to greater intervention from world powers to guarantee a vital strategic resource for their peoples and has not made it any easier for the re-ordering process to take place within this context.


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