The Legal Status of Ottoman Subjects in British Egypt

Sunday, January 5, 2014: 8:50 AM
Columbia Hall 4 (Washington Hilton)
Will Hanley, Florida State University
During the British occupation of Egypt (1882-1914), decennial censuses counted tens of thousands of Ottomans subjects resident in Egypt. The status of these people is a legal historical puzzle, because all Egyptians were Ottoman subjects de jure. Only a few residents of Egypt were treated as Ottoman subject de facto, however. Most—but not all—of those Egyptian recognized as Ottoman subjects were Christians of Syrian or Greek origin. This paper describes the legal situation of these individuals, who worked with a provisional nationality in a world where national status was gaining substantial new importance. The unusual situation of Egypt in the history of empire has received some consideration in terms of international politics and public international law, but its position in the emergence of private international law has not been explored. Ottoman subjects were an uneasy fit in the Egyptian legal regimes, which distinguished between foreigners meeting the standard of civilization (nationals of capitulatory states) and those from “uncivilized” states such as Iran, Japan, and China. Although the paper emphasizes these questions of legal doctrine, it also describes the bureaucratic structures that supported the rights claims of Ottomans in Egypt. These structures centered around Gazi Ahmed Muhtar Pasha, the Ottoman high commissioner in Egypt from 1885 to 1908. Often described as an inert symbol of a fallen empire, he was in fact the superintendent of the legal status of Egypt’s sizable Ottoman population. Their demands of him, recorded in the files of the Ottoman archives, show the practical workings of a civic rights regime that remained stable for decades, despite lacking a legal foundation.