Tuesday,16 January, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1243, (23 - 29 April 2015)
Tuesday,16 January, 2018
Issue 1243, (23 - 29 April 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Behind the Armenian Genocide

As the world remembers the Armenian Genocide that took place one hundred years ago this month, there is a need to understand its complex history, writes Mohamed Refaat Al-Imam

Al-Ahram Weekly

The Armenian question in the Ottoman state underwent three distinct, if interrelated, phases. The first occurred under the Sultan Abdul-Hamid II (1876-1908), the second during the Unionist period (1909-1918) and the third during the early Kemalist era (1919-1923).

MASSACRES UNDER ABDUL-HAMID II: There is no evidence that the Ottoman Armenians ever sought to secede or seek independence from the Ottoman state. Instead, they called for internal reforms in their communities in the six Armenian-populated vilayets or provinces of Van, Erzurum, Kharpert, Bitlis, Diyarbekir and Sivas.

But as the Ottoman authorities continued to neglect the Armenian question, Armenian intellectuals and leaders in Istanbul appealed to the Russians to press for the future welfare of the Ottoman Armenians in the peace talks following the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-78. These efforts were partially successful as Article 16 of the Treaty of San Stefano signed between Russia and the Ottoman leadership on 3 March 1878 called for the full implementation of the reforms. The same Article, slightly modified, was incorporated as Article 61 in the Treaty of Berlin signed on 13 July 1878.

With the Treaty of Berlin, the Armenian question escalated from a regional Ottoman one to an international cause. However, Ottoman foot-dragging in implementing the reforms and the international community’s preoccupation with other concerns combined to generate increasingly radical trends among the Armenian intelligentsia as they grew frustrated at the lack of progress towards a diplomatic solution.

The Armenian movement eventually coalesced structurally into secret and open revolutionary parties that channelled their energies into lobbying and revolutionary activities. This growing Armenian revolutionary trend met with harsh government repression, culminating in a wave of disturbances, riots and massacres in which an estimated 300,000 Armenians were killed between 1894 and 1896 and thousands of others fled to the Arab countries, Russia and the Balkans, or to European countries and the US.

Massacres thus became the official Ottoman tool for eliminating peoples who had become too attached to their homelands. Perhaps the lack of firmness and resolve in the position of the international community facilitated the task of the Ottoman regime. At all events, the revolutionary Armenians changed their strategy and allied with the Young Turks in the hope of bringing down the Hamidian regime (of sultan Abdul-Hamid II), a strategy which succeeded with the coup of 24 July 1908.

However, while this closed the chapter on the first phase of the Armenian question, it opened a grimmer one dominated by the rising star of the Young Turks and their extreme ethnocentric ideology.


THE UNIONISTS AND GENOCIDE: Developments in this period conspired to render the elimination of the Armenian population as much a political expediency for the Unionists – the affiliates of the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP), or Young Turks, who now ran the Ottoman state – as an economic one and as much an ethnic goal as a religious one conforming to their pan-Turkic ideology.

Therefore, the CUP leadership found it convenient to use the Armenians as a scapegoat for the defeat of their forces in the Caucasus during the First World War. Pointing to the presence of Russian Armenian volunteers in the Russian forces, they accused the Ottoman Armenians of high treason for not having volunteered to fight in the Ottoman forces. In February 1915, as anti-Armenian sentiment mounted, the CUP government resolved on a campaign of genocide, the task being carried out by soldiers, armed gangs and the CUP’s “Special Organisation.”

In March 1915, the Ottoman government resolved to destroy the Armenian centres of Van and Zeitun. Then, on the evening of 24 April 1915, the authorities arrested and imprisoned more than 200 Armenian intellectuals and community leaders in Istanbul, later assassinating all of them. There followed explicit instructions to local leaders and military commanders to “deport” the Armenians from their native homeland, the pretext being to protect civilians and the armed forces from possible treason on the part of pro-Russian Armenians.

The Deportation or Tahjir Law, issued in May, was carried out in the eastern provinces of Anatolia in two stages. The first was to kill all able-bodied men, and the second was to exile the rest of the Armenian population. Deportation was thus the second phase of the programme of genocide.  

 By the end of July 1915, the deportation process had accomplished the bulk of its work. No Armenians were left in the eastern provinces in which the Europeans had earlier futilely pressured the Ottoman authorities to introduce reforms. However, the CUP was still worried about the Armenians living in central and south-western Anatolia. The turn of these Armenian communities would come in August of that year.  

By means of systematic massacres and forced marches, the CUP succeeded in eliminating the Armenians from their historic homeland in which they had lived for more than 3,000 years. A million and a half Armenians were killed in the tragedy.

These appalling acts had their roots not in any so-called “treason” on the part of the Armenians, as alleged by the Ottoman authorities, but instead were determined by the extreme ultranationalist ideology espoused by the CUP. The extermination of the Armenians and their cause was also intended to reap concrete ends. It would obviate the constant European interventions on behalf of the Armenian and other minorities in the Empire, and it would eliminate a major obstacle between the Ottoman Turks and other Turkic peoples in the Caucasus and Caspian regions and pave the way for new acquisitions.

In short, the drive to eliminate the Armenians developed in tandem with the growing impetus of pan-Turkic ideology.

THE KEMALISTS AND GENOCIDE: The downfall of the CUP government in 1918 drew the curtain on the second phase of the Armenian tragedy in which the genocide reached its height. The third and final chapter opens with the rise of the Kemalists, the followers of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who espoused the establishment of a national Turkish homeland that would exclude an Armenian state in eastern Anatolia made up of the six Armenian provinces.

In order to persuade the international community and the Armenians of the seriousness of their intentions, the Kemalists vented their anger on south-western Anatolia. In a systematic campaign, they purged this region’s towns and villages of their Armenian inhabitants. This took place beneath the noses of the Europeans who had occupied parts of Anatolia following Ottoman defeat in the First World War and in spite of instructions from Istanbul. The Kemalists regarded themselves as the “real” government of Turkey, so they pressed ahead with their campaign while the French refused to come to the defence of the Armenians.

However, the Europeans succeeded in forcing Istanbul to agree to the Treaty of Sèvres signed by the Ottoman authorities in Istanbul on 10 August 1920. This partitioned the Ottoman state, reducing it to Anatolia and bordering it by Armenian and Greece. In order to undermine this Treaty and prevent the threat presented by the creation of an independent Armenian state, Mustafa Kemal ordered Turkish forces to invade the Armenian Republic established in the Caucasus in 1918. These forces then seized control of all the territory from which they had been forced to withdraw in 1918.

The Kemalist victory ultimately led to the Treaty of Lausanne of 24 July 1923, which conformed to Turkish nationalist aspirations. This treaty recognised Turkey within established boundaries that now encompassed eastern Thrace and disputed territories in Anatolia, the province of Izmir, Cilicia, the Black Sea coast and the eastern (Armenian) provinces.

As an indication of how absolute the Turkish victory was, the Lausanne Treaty makes no mention of the words “Armenia” or “Armenians”, confining itself to some general provisions about the need not to persecute non-Muslim minorities in Turkey. As a result, Turkey rid itself of its largest non-Turkish minority and laid the foundations for a new Turkish Republic with a high degree of homogeneity.

As for the Armenians, they had been sentenced to death or displacement, and the survivors of the genocide had been scattered across the world.

EGYPT AND THE ARMENIANS: Egypt received large waves of Armenian refugees from the Hamidian Massacres, the CUP genocide and the Kemalist wars.

In 1894-1896, it welcomed more than 2,000 refugees. In addition, Egypt became a major centre for advocating the Armenian cause. The Armenian intelligentsia in Cairo and Alexandria published newspapers such as Nor Or, Arshaluys, Neghos and Lusaper condemning the Ottoman persecutions and massacres.

During the Adana Massacre of April 1909, the bishop of the Armenian Church in Alexandria, Mushegh Seropian, published an article called “Sunset Prayers” in which he related the circumstances behind the CUP regime’s drive to exterminate the Armenians. He argued that the Armenians were seen as a prominent force in the Ottoman state that could potentially obstruct the establishment of a Turkish nation-state.

However, the strongest Egyptian reactions against the Adana Massacre were those voiced by prominent Egyptian political and intellectual leaders, notably Mustafa Lutfi Al-Manfalouti, Ahmed Lutfi Al-Sayed and Wali Al-Din Yakan. Moreover, the Grand Mufti of the time Sheikh Selim Al-Bishri issued a fatwa harshly condemning the massacres perpetrated in the name of Islam by the regime in Istanbul against the Christians.

In September 1915, Port Said welcomed 4,200 Armenians rescued from the genocide. French naval forces had transported them to the northern Suez Canal city where they lived peacefully and securely until they were able to return to their homes in November 1919.

 Mustafa Kemal’s wars in Anatolia and France’s relinquishment of parts of what is now south-western Turkey to the Kemalist government in Ankara on 20 October 1921 brought new waves of Armenian refugees to Egypt. In addition, the Orthodox Armenian Bishop in Egypt issued report after report in 1923 on the deteriorating conditions of Armenian orphans among the refugees in Syria and Greece following the Kemalist wars. Eventually, he himself brought over a number of these orphans and placed them in the care of wealthy families in Egypt.

However, the presence of the orphans conflicted with the desire of the Egyptian government to regulate immigration to Egypt at the time. On 7 August 1924, under the government of prime minister Saad Zaghlul (28 January to 24 November 1924), the Ministry of the Interior issued a decree ordering all Russians, Turks, Armenians and Bulgarians residing in Egypt since 1 January 1922 to register with the police. The Armenian bishop submitted numerous appeals to the ministry to exempt the orphans from this law, but the ministry refused, maintaining that the registration process was solely for census purposes.

Because of the thorny problems surrounding the status of the orphans, the bishop renewed his appeals on their behalf. These were echoed in the press, which also urged the government to exempt the orphans from the law, thereby performing a great philanthropic service to one of the most cherished foreign communities in Egypt.

Saad Zaghlul soon conceded, and not only did he agree to exempt the orphans from the decree, but he also allowed the bishop to invite more Armenian orphans to Egypt. The total came to 1,106 orphans, 806 girls and 300 boys. Egypt thus once again reaffirmed its humanitarian soul, born from its ancient civilisation at the dawn of the human consciousness.

The writer is an Egyptian historian, Armenologist and genocide expert, professor at Alexandria University and head of the history department, Damanhur University. The article was first published in Diwan quarterly magazine’s April issue, published by Al-Ahram.

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