Urabi Revolt

The Urabi Revolt or Orabi Revolt (Arabic: الثورة العرابية Al-Thawra Al-Orabiyya, pronounced [ʕoˈɾɑːbi]), also known as the Orabi Revolution, was an uprising in Egypt in 1879-82 against the Khedive and European influence in the country. It was led by and named after Colonel Ahmed Urabi.



Egypt in the 1870s was under occupation, corrupt, misgoverned and in a state of financial ruin. Huge debts rung up by Isma'il Pasha could no longer be repaid and under pressure from the European banks that held the debt, the country's finances were being controlled by representatives of France and Britain. When Isma'il had tried to rouse the Egyptian people against this outside control he was deposed by the Europeans and replaced by his more pliable son Tewfik Pasha.

The upper ranks of the civil service, the army, and the business world had become dominated by Europeans, who were paid more than native Egyptians. Within Egypt a parallel legal system for trying Europeans separately from the natives was set up. This angered the educated and ambitious Egyptians in the military and civil service who felt that the European domination of top positions was preventing their own advancement. The heavily taxed peasants, the fellahin, were also annoyed at their taxes going to Europeans who lived in relatively wealthy surroundings.

Just as important as European domination were the Turco-Circassians and Albanians who controlled most of the other elite positions in the government and military. Albanian troops that had come to Egypt along with Muhammad Ali, and that had helped him take control of the country, were highly favoured by the Khedive. Turkish was still the official language of the army, and the Turks were more likely to be promoted. Of the ruling cabinet under Tawfiq every member was a Turco-Circassian. The growing fiscal crisis in the country sparked the Khedive to drastically cut the army. From a height of 94,000 troops in 1874 the army was cut to 36,000 in 1879, with plans to shrink it even more. This created a large class of unemployed and disaffected army officers within the country. The disastrous campaign in Ethiopia in 1875-1876 also angered the officers who felt that the government had sent them unwisely into the conflict.

A public consciousness was also developing in Egypt during this time period, and literacy was spreading and more and more newspapers were being published in the 1870s and 1880s such as the influential paper Abu Naddara Zar'a. Published by Yaqub Sanu, a Jew of Italian and Egyptian origins, this Paris-based publication was a political satire magazine which often mocked the establishment and European control, and the publication increasingly bothered the ruling powers as well as the Europeans as it favored reformist and revolution movements. This publication also had very wide reach as, unlike many other publications, Abu Naddara Zar'a was written in Egyptian Arabic rather than classical Arabic making publication’s satire and political pieces understandable to the masses, not just the educated elite. Ya’qub Sanu’ claimed that his magazine reached a circulation of 10,000, which was a huge number in those days.[1]

Urabi's seize of control

Tension built over the summer of 1881 as both the Khedive and the Egyptian officers, now led by Urabi, searched for supporters and gathered allies. In September the Khedive ordered Urabi's regiment to leave Cairo. Urabi refused and ordered the dismissal of the Turco-Circassian generals and the creation of an elected government. Unable to oppose the revolt Tawfiq agreed and a new chamber of deputies was established containing a number of Urabi's allies.

Foreign intervention

On January 8 of 1882 the French and British sent a joint note that asserted the primacy of the Khedive's authority. The note infuriated the parliamentarians and Urabi. The government collapsed and a new one with Urabi as minister of war was created. This new government threatened the positions of Europeans in the government, and began also laying-off large numbers of Turco-Circassian officers.

This broad effort at reform was opposed by the European interests, and many of the large landowners, the Turkish and Circassian elite, the high ranking ulema, the Syrian Christians, and most of the wealthiest members of society. It had the support of most of the rest of the population including the lower ulema, the officer corps, and local leaders.

Coptic Christians were divided: Their close affiliation with Europeans angered many and sometime made them a target, but the deep rivalry between Coptic and Syrian Christians led many to align with other Egyptian rebels. The Coptic Patriarch lent his support to the revolt when it was at its peak, but later claimed that he was pressured into doing so. Urabi and other leaders of the revolt acknowledged the Copts as potential allies and worked to prevent any targeting of the minority, but were not always successful.

An effort to court the Ottoman Sultan began. Khedive Tawfiq called on the sultan to quell the revolt, but the Sublime Porte hesitated to employ troops against Muslims who were opposing foreign Christian interference. Urabi asked the Sultan to depose Tawfiq, but again the Sultan hesitated.

British invasion

On the afternoon of June 11, 1882 the political turmoil exploded into violence on the streets of Alexandria. Rioters attacked Greek, Maltese and Italian businesses and battles broke out in the streets. About fifty Europeans and 250 Egyptians were killed. The exact cause of the revolt is uncertain; both the Khedive and Urabi have been blamed for starting it, but there is no proof of either allegation.

As the city's garrison was maintaining the coastal defence batteries, an ultimatum was sent demanding the batteries be dismantled under threat of bombardment. The ultimatum was ignored, and the British fleet off Alexandria under Admiral Seymour bombarded the city. The coastal batteries returned fire. The French fleet, also at Alexandria, refused to participate. A large British naval force then tried to capture the city. Despite encountering heavy resistance, the British forces succeeded, forcing the Egyptians to withdraw.

As revolts spread across Egypt, the British House of Commons voted in favour of a larger intervention. In September of that year a British army was landed in the Canal Zone. This was after an attempt by the British army to advance from Alexandria to Cairo failed after the British army was defeated in the battle of Kafr-el-Dawwar. The motivation for the British intervention is still disputed (see 1882 Anglo-Egyptian War). The British were especially concerned that Urabi would default on Egypt's massive debt and that he might try to gain control of the Suez Canal. On September 13, 1882 the British forces defeated Urabi's army at the Battle of Tel el-Kebir. Urabi was captured and eventually exiled to the British colony of Ceylon (now Sri Lanka).


While the British intervention was meant to be short term, it in fact persisted until 1954. Egypt was effectively made a colony until 1922. Both the British and the Khedival government did their best to discredit Urabi’s name and the revolution, although among the common people Urabi remained a popular figure. The government used the state media and educational system to denounce Urabi as a traitor and the revolution as merely a military mutiny. The historian Mohammed Rif’at was one of the first to call the events a thawra or “revolution,” but he claimed that it lacked popular support. Other historians in Egypt supported this thesis, and even expanded on it, sometimes suffering government censure. During the last years of the monarchy, authors became more critical of the old establishment and especially of the British, and Urabi is sometimes portrayed as a hero of freedom and constitutionalism

Urabi's revolt had a long lasting significance as the first instance of Egyptian anti-colonial nationalism, which would later play a very major role in Egyptian history. Especially under Nasser, the revolt would be regarded as a glorious struggle against foreign occupation. The Urabi revolution was seen by the Free Officers movement as a precursor to the 1952 revolution, and both Nasser and Neguib were likened to ‘Urabi. Nasserist textbooks called the Urabi revolution a “national revolution,” but ‘Urabi was seen as making great strategic mistakes and not being as much of a man of the people as Nasser. During Nasser’s experiment with Arab socialism; the ‘Urabi revolt was also sometimes put in a Marxist context. Also during Sadat’s infitah period in which there was growing, controlled, economic liberalization and growing ties with the Western bloc, the government played up the desire of the ‘Urabists to draft a constitution and have democratic elections. After the 1952 revolution, the image of ‘Urabi, at least officially, has generally improved, with a number of streets and a square in Cairo bearing his name indicating the honored position he has in the official history.[1]

Historians have in general been divided, with one group seeing the revolt as a push for liberalism and freedom on the model of the French Revolution and others arguing that it was little more than a military coup, similar to those made about the 1952 movement. Among Western historians, especially British, there was a traditional view that the Urabi revolution was nothing more than a “revolt” or “insurrection” and not a real social revolution. By far the most influential Englishman in Egypt, Lord Cromer, wrote a scathing assessment of the Urabist in his Modern Egypt. While this view is still held by many, there has been a growing trend to call the Urabi revolution a real revolution, especially amongst newer historians who tend to emphasize social and economic history and to examine native, rather than European, sources.[1]

The earliest published work of Isabella Augusta, Lady Gregory—later to embrace Irish Nationalism and have an important role in the cultural life of Ireland—was Arabi and His Household (1882), a pamphlet (originally a letter to The Times newspaper) in support of Ahmed Orabi and his revolt ("Arabi" being an archaic mistransliteration common in English at the time). Juan Cole, a Professor at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor has recently published an appraisal of the Urabi revolt.

Historians have also been divided over the reasons for the British invasion, with some arguing that it was to protect the Suez Canal and prevent "anarchy", while others argue that it was to protect the interests of British investors with assets in Egypt (see 1882 Anglo-Egyptian War).

See also


  1. ^ a b c Mayer, Thomas (1988). The Changing Past: Egyptian Historiography of the Urabi Revolt, 1882-1983. Gainesville: University of Florida Press. ISBN 0813008891. 

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