Khayr al-Din was one of the foremost reformers within the Ottoman Empire during the 19th century. He was of Circassian Mamluk origin and had been brought to Istanbul, where he entered the service of Ahmad Bey, the de facto hereditary ruler of Tunisia.
Khayr al-Din was given a religious and secular education; he studied French as well as Arabic. He was impressed by Western technology, particularly in the fields of transportation and education, which he observed serving as an envoy in France.
Like other Arabic reformers of the age, Khayr al-Din believed that Muslim society could assimilate modern technological developments while remaining true to religious tradition and practice. He also supported the earlier Tanzimat reforms of the Ottoman Empire.
While in the service of both the bey of Tunis and the Ottoman sultan, Khayr al-Din sought to balance French, British, and Italian imperial ambitions in North Africa with the survival of the Ottoman Empire.
His diplomacy demonstrated that the Ottoman Empire was not only a passive subject of the diplomatic maneuverings of the 19th century but an active participant seeking to thwart European designs to take territory and establish economic control over the empire.
To prevent French incursions into Tunisia, Khayr al-Din negotiated with a reluctant sultan to affirm Tunisian autonomy under the Husaynid family, who, as in the past, would continue to pay the annual tribute to the sultan. After being rebuffed several times, Khayr al-Din’s proposals regarding Tunisian autonomy were reluctantly accepted.
In 1860 Khayr al-Din was largely responsible for the promulgation of a constitution in Tunisia whereby the bey became responsible to an appointed council. This was the first constitution to be implemented anywhere in the Ottoman Empire or Southeast Asia.
He served as the first president of the council. Conservatives and political enemies opposed the reforms, however, and the constitution was soon abrogated. Nonetheless, in face of mounting economic problems, Khayr al-Din was appointed prime minister in 1873.
A political pragmatist, he did not call for the return of the constitution but did succeed in implementing much-needed fiscal reforms in an attempt to avoid indebtedness to European powers. He also established the Sadiqiyya College with a Western curriculum of sciences and European languages.
Many of its graduates later became the leaders of the Tunisian nationalist movement. When he thwarted their imperial designs, the French and Russians both pushed for Khayr al-Din’s dismissal, and he was ousted from Tunisia.
He then entered the service of the sultan in Istanbul and served as the vizier for a short period. Again, enemies within the army and among religious conservatives forced Khayr al-Din out of government service in 1879. He lived in retirement in Istanbul until his death in 1889.
A devout Muslim, Khayr al-Din wrote a memoir and long political statement, “The Road most Straight to Know the Conditions of the State,” in which he discussed the importance of political accountability and the need to integrate Muslim belief and Western ideas. Like other Arab reformers, Khayr al-Din argued that the two were not incompatible.