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OTL, a number of Islamic revivalist movements rose up in northern Africa and Arabia under the impression of the onslaught of modernism. OTL, they were all crushed by western powers - with the exception of the Ikhwan, who were crushed in 1930-31 by the Saudis. The recent raising of how you could revive the caliphate in connection with the OTL Mahdi in Sudan made me thing about how that might actually be brought about. The following is a stab at doing so. 

POD: Mahommed ben Ali ben es Senussi el Khettabi el Hassani el Idrissi el Mehajiri (1791-1859), the founder of the Senussi sect with its centre in OTL SE Libya, is a somewhat more charismatic and convincing fellow. Instead of having himself branded heterodox by the ulema of the al Ashar university in Cairo, and being evicted from Mecca because of his ties with the Wahhabis, he manages to stay some time in both places and create local followings. His influence is especially felt among the Ikhwan, the military brotherhood that the power of the Saudis rests upon, but he also builds up a solid following among the thousands of faithful Moslems that enter Mecca yearly on the Hajj.

He still goes back to his home in the Sahara, and builds up a desert empire stretching from the Nile into Algeria, and from northern Libya to central Chad. The Sultan of Wadai in central Chad is an ally. Mahommed dies in 1859, leaving the empire and the title of Mahdi to his 14-year-old son Senussi el-Mahdi (1845-1902). Now, contrary to OTL, the son has actually been convinced that he IS the mahdi, and doesn't waffle around about it. More energy is poured into spreading the word, and it reaches wider than it did OTL.

From there, it progresses more or less like this:

1860s, early 70s: Senussi consolidates his inherited domain in the Sahara, and begins looking outward, opening up communication channels with France, Great Britain, Turkey and Ethiopia. The Zawias (you could call them monasteries) of his followers spread to Damaskus in the north, Fez in the west and Calcutta in the east, convincing growing numbers of believers that indeed Senussi is the Caliph. Among the converts are a few people in (or at least near) power, like sultans Ali and Yusef of Wadai, and Abdul Rahman bin Faisal, the youngest son of a Najdi desert chieftain. Most followers are from the  lower rungs of society, though, and especially concentrated in Egypt and Egyptian Sudan. They are men like Muhamad Ahmad, the son of an arabized Nubian family of boat builders in the Sudan, Ahmad Urabi, the son of a village leader in Egypt, and Rabeh, a half-Arab, half-Negro slave owned by the slave-dealer Zobeir. It is these who will provide the basis for the growth of the caliphate. 

1871: Muhamed Ahmad builds a mosque, and begins spreading the message in the Sudan.

1873: Saud II, the father of Senussi follower Abdul Rahman bin Faisal manages to elbow his rival Abullah III ouf of power in the Emirate of Najd.

1875: Abdul Rahman bin Faisal succeeds to the throne of the Najdi Emirate. He is threatened both by rivals in the House of Saud (like Abdullah III) and by the Rashidis, the Emirates of Ha´il. After receiving the title of Caliph ("follower" - in this context "general"/"Regional leader" - the OTL Mahdi had 4 caliphs) by Senussi Mahdi, he is able to strengthen his power base by the addition of senussis fleeing repression in the Hejaz, and foils an attempt by Abdullah III to regain the throne in 1876. Senussi now has a foothold in the Arabian peninsula.

1875-76: Faced with growing resentment in the Egyptian army because of massive cutbacks, the Khedive sends the army into Ethiopia. The war is a disaster, however, only compounding the resentment festering in the army. Ahmad Urabi meanwhile makes a rapid career, achieving the rank of Lieutenant Colonel by age 20.

1875-78: The Ottoman Empire is involved in a series of revolts and wars in the Balkans and NE Anatolia, in the last years involving Russia. Senussi manages to negotiate a deal with the Russians who, in return for hostile activity on the southern borders of the Ottoman Empire, supply him with money and arms. Using these, the Senussi take over a number of Ottoman posts in Libya, and are able to hold them in the following years against a severely weakened Ottoman Empire.

1879: Having worked his way up through the ranks of his owner Zobeir, Rabah Zobeir is somewhat taken aback when he (the owner) submits to the Khedive and ends the slaving business. Given that slavery as such is still in force, Rabeh would rather  not follow the decree, and takes some 3000 Negro slave-soldiers with him out west, where he founds a domain south of the Darfur that continually expands south and west. Though granted the title of Caliph by Senussi, thus nominally submitting to him, he retains much of his independence

1880: With the aid of the senussis exiles, Caliph Abdul Rahman of the Najd is able to defeat the Rashidis and throw them out of their stronghold of Ha´il. The entire center of the Arabian peninsular is now in senussi hands. 

1881: As the Khedive of Egypt tries to cut the military down to size by ordering the regiment of Ahmad Urabi - by now the undisputed leader of the anti-Khedive faction - out of Cairo, he is in for a surprise: not only does Urabi refuse, the Khedives other sources of support - the large landowners, the Syrian Christians, the higher ulema and the Turco-Circassian military elite - fail spectacularly in supporting him when Urabi launches a coup with the support of the Copts, the lower ulema and the ordinary Egyptians. Further south, Muhamad Ahmad raises an army of Senussi sympathizers in the Sudan that make sure no help is forthcoming from there, finally leading the Khedive to flee, begging the Ottoman sultan to send troops south. Both the British and French are subjected to a veritable barrage of assurances that the foreign debt will be paid in full, and the Suez Canal will remain open to all traffic. While the French are appeased, the British aren't so sure, but eventually let the Ottoman Sultan about restoring order.

1882-85: After the Ottoman sultan in his capacity as Caliph declares a Jihad against the "apostates" in Egypt - supported in this by the senior ulama who have fled from Egypt - he sends the Ottoman army  south through Syria and Palestine to invade Egypt, but in the process manages to alienate much of the local population that hasn't seen anything this size since for 40 years, and then moving north, not south. As is, the army manages preciously little, especially after being beaten severely at Tell-el-Kebir by a combined Egyptian-Sudanese army under Caliphs Urabi and Ahmad, then having to flee back across the desert, the Suez Canal and the Sinai, all while being pursued by the Egyptians. A total disaster is only averted by the presence of British ships in the Suez canal hindering the Egyptians from crossing it. Still, the Ottoman defeat has repercussions elsewhere: In the Arabian peninsula, Caliph Abdul Rahman takes the al-Hasa province away from the Ottoman Empire, while the remaining Ottoman garrisons in Libya capitulate to Senussi forces. From this position of strength, Senussi is able to play the great powers against each others, holding the British at bay by prompt (even too early) payments upon the Egyptian national debt while getting money and weapons from Russia, who wants the Turks kept busy,  and France, who wants the British kept out of Egypt.  This policy also entails extensive kowtowing to the European powers to keep them from intervening and interfering with the consolidation of the Caliphate. As a result, severe measures are instituted against anyone trying to harm the European and Christian minorities. Instead, the anger of the ordinary Egyptians is directed against the larger landowners, who lose vast tracts of land.

When the second Ottoman invasion comes around in 1884, it fares no better than the first, quite to the contrary: it is followed by a general Ottoman collapse of control south of the Taurus mountains. Not that that matters much in the end – the fate of those territories is decided by the Conference of Berlin that, though convened to decide the fate of Africa, also takes care of the new situation in the Middle East.

In effect, the Senussi armies have to evacuate Syria and Mesopotamia and accept the Suez Canal Zone as an exterritorial enclave governed by the canal company and acting as a buffer zone between the Ottoman Empire and Egypt. The kowtowing to the Europeans is justified to the believers based on the Prophet´s behaviour when in the minority in the Meccan period. 

1885-1910: The following 25 years are a period of consolidation of the Caliphate, in which the state modernizes in certain aspects. Al Ashar university in Cairo adds chairs to its core of Medicine and Islam to produce an islamicized technical elite. Telegraph lines, even a few railroads are built. As time goes by, the foreign debt is paid down, leading to more and more restrictions being put on the foreign presence in the country. At the same time, the Caliphate is also centralized somewhat more, and the more independent regional commanders are brought in line. This proves a challenge especially when it comes to Caliph Zobeir, but it is achieved nonetheless.

1888-1902: Using a mixture of raids, diplomacy and bribes, Senussi al-Mahdi extends the empire into the western Sahara, bringing the Berber tribes under his control.

1893-96 – Caliph Zobeir, already having added the region between the Nile and the Ubangi to the Caliphate, conquers Kanem, Bornu, Borku and Baguirmi for the Mahdi, spreading the Senussi rule into the region around Lake Chad.

1895-96: Aid is sent to Ethiopia in its war with Italy, annoying the Italians to no end and leading to the bombardment of Tripoli. The landing of Italian marines ends much the same way as their Ethiopian adventure: in defeat. This has the benefit of acting as a cautionary tale to the other European powers. Protests by followers about allying with Christians are easily countered: if the Prophet deemed the Ethiopians good enough to take care of his family, who are today's Moslems to oppose such cooperation.

1897-1900: Caliph Zobeir invades the Sokoto Caliphate, taking Kano, and annexing it to the Senussi empire.

1902: Senussi el-Mahdi, after building an empire, dies aged 57. He leaves it in the hands of his son Sidi Muhammad Idris al-Mahdi al-Senussi (1890-1983). He is declared the new Mahdi, though the running of the Caliphate is entrusted to men appointed by his father before he died, at least until he gains majority. Until then, the expansion of the Caliphate seizes.

1900-1911: Some support is sent to the Sultan of Morocco, but he caves to great power pressure nonetheless.

1908: Sidi Muhammad reaches his majority. Some reforms are put through, a minor one being the retention of the title Caliph for the Mahdi.

1913: Ethiopian emperor Menelik II dies. He has picked his grandson Iyasu as his heir, but Iyasus apparent sympathy towards Islam (most of his wives are moslems, too) means the Amharic clergy refuses to coronate him. He thus rules simply as Lij Iyasu rather than Negus Negesti (king of kings).

1914: With the Turkish entry into WWI on the German side, Great Britain and France begin lobbying with the Caliphate for its entry into the war on the Entente side. 

1915: With twin British defeats and evacuations in Mesopotamia and at the Dardanelles, the price they are willing to pay for Caliphate participation goes up greatly. The deal that finally is hammered out sees a British promise of Syria and Mesopotamia up to the Taurus Mountains in return for Caliphate intervention on the entente´s side.

1916: Lij Iyasu is overthrown, imprisoned and substituted with the daughter of Menelik II, his aunt. He manages to escape, and enlists the support of the Caliphate. Thanks to his aunt being generally detested and his opponent being rather fragmented, he is able to regain power. It is the Caliphate troops that actually do the trick, though, and Ethiopia is turned into what is essentially a Caliphate protectorate. The Ethiopian involvement means the Caliphate´s entry into WWI is delayed.

1917-20: Caliphate troops move in and occupy not only the territories promised it, but also both Kurdistan, Arabistan and other parts of western Iran. These come in rather handy as bargaining chips when it turns out that the European powers don’t plan on keeping their promises. In the end, Sidi Muhamed has to give up on a wee bit of the promised territory, as they have to turn over Lebanon and Kilikia to the French, and evacuate Iran.

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