A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Friday, July 12, 2013

The Egyptian Army in Politics, I: The ‘Urabi Revolt of 1881-1882

‘Urabi and the Army
Whether you choose to call what happened in Egypt a coup, a revolution, or something else, it hardly represents a unique case. Even if we leave out the nearly six centuries, first under the Mamluk Sultans and later under the Ottomans, when the Mamluk military establishent effectively dominated Egypt, the Egyptian Army has played a direct  political role in 1881, 1952, 2011 and this year. While it can be argued that the military really ruled from 1952 to the handover to Muhammad Morsi last summer, it occasionally stepped in more directly, as in the food riots of 1977, the police conscript uprising of 1986, or the Luxor tourist attack of 1997. Though the Army's prominent role primarily dates from 1952, a review of the history of th Army in politics really must begin with the ‘Urabi Revolt of 1881-1882.

Colonel Ahmad ‘Urabi Pasha
I recently wrote about Suleiman Pasha and the Midan and street named for him, now both known as Talaat Harb. The northern terminus of the street is a circle known originally as Midan Tawfiqiyya, after the Khedive Tawfiq. After the 1952 revolution, when royal names were replaced by nationalist ones, it became Midan ‘Urabi, after Tawfiq's nationalist challenger and adversary. (The neighborhood is still usually known as Tawfiqiyya, but you can't win 'em all.)

The Khedive Isma‘il, Viceroy of Egypt (and effectively sovereign under a loose Ottoman suzerainty) had profited greatly during the American Civil War when the Union blockade barred Southern US cotton from European markets and Egyptian cotton filled the gap. Isma‘il took the profits and spent profligately, rebuilding Cairo, launching wars in Sudan and Ethiopia, and most famously, building the Suez Canal. Meanwhile, the American war and blockade ended and the bottom fell out of the cotton market. Isma‘il found himself deeply in debt. Britain and France stepped in, effectively taking over the Egyptian economy under a system known as the "Dual Control." Major Evelyn Baring (later the first Lord Cromer) as Controller-General; Britain acquired ownership of the shares of the Suez Canal company, and more and more Europeans took senior posts in the Egyptian government. (This is a gross oversimplification; the classic account is still David S. Landes' Bankers and Pashas.) In 1878 Isma‘il gave up much if his power. The following year, at the instigation of the British and French, the Ottoman Sultan deposed Isma‘il. Under the Ottoman system, the title should have gone to Isma‘il's uncle, ‘Abd al-Halim Pasha, but Isma‘il had changed the succession to favor his son, Tawfiq, and the European controllers supported this. Tawfiq was a weak and unwilling ruler, and more or less putty in the hands of Baring and the other Europeans.

Khedive Tawfiq
But the growing control of the economy by foreigners had already eroded the popularity of Isma‘il, and Tawfiq had few admirers.As Egypt became more subservient, nationalism took root among intellectuals, the indigenous elites, religious classes, and the Army. Isma‘il's predecessor, Sa‘id Pasha, had broadened access by ethnic Egyptians into the officer corps, traditionally dominated by the Turkish and Circassian elites. These Egyptian officers, many of whom came from the fellahin rural peasantry, were sometimes referred to by shorthand as the fellah officers. Ahmad ‘Urabi was a fellah in this sense, an ethnic Egyptian from the rural hinterland, from a village in Sharqiyya near the city of Zagazig, which claims him today as its own. Born in 1841 as the son of a village leader, he was from a prosperous but rural background. Educated at Al-Azhar and the Military Academy, he rose through the ranks to the rank of colonel.

After Tawfiq's accession in 1879. he faced challenges from a National Party demanding a Parliamentary system, from nationalist such as Sheikh Muhammad ‘Abduh and Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, and from the indigenous Egyptian officer corps.All opposed European control and demanded more national independence, though they otherwise had differing agendas.

In the end, to shorten the tale, it was the Army that mattered. The Egyptian officers, the most senior of whom were colonels like ‘Urabi, first sought to neutralize the Turco-Circassian senior officers; they won some concessions from Tawfiq. The British advisers grew alarmed, fearing a nationalist army might repudiate Egypt's debt. Tawfiq sought to play the nationalists, the British, and the Sultan in Constantinople against each other, but lacked the skills. In 1881, with ‘Urabi and the colonels increasing their power, Tawfiq sought to transfer him out of Cairo. He refused, declared himself Prime Minister, and called for a Parliament.

Yet he does not seem to have been all that radical. One slogan, "Egypt for the Egyptians," may have targeted not only the outside British and French but the internal Turco-Circassian elite, but the demand was essentially for a constitutional monarchy. But the British authorities not only managed to portray ‘Urabi as a radical threat, but also to hint to the Ottoman Sultan that ‘Urabi might raise the Arab provinces of the Empire in revolt, or even proclaim a rival caliphate, though ‘Urabi's ambitions do not seem to have run in those directions: he was an Egyptian nationalist.
Britain's View: "The Would-Be Dictator of Egypt," 1882
Although Tawfiq acceded to many of these demands he was also hoping for British, French, or Ottoman intervention. The Army, under ‘Urabi, was now effectively in control. ‘Urabi was probably the most popular man in Egypt, as well, seen (like Nasser 75 years later) as willing to defy Britain and France, and as an Egyptian fellah rather than a Turco-Circassian alien aristocrat. (The story goes that when the British finally persuaded Tawfiq to declare the colonel a rebel, the Khedive issued the order he did so only in Turkish, until his British handlers insisted he issue an Arabic version Egyptians might understand).

‘Urabi had befriended at least one Englishman who was not an imperialist. Wilfred Scawen Blunt was an aristocrat, but also a poet; his wife Lady Anne Blunt was Lord Byron's granddaughter. They had moved to Egypt to raise Arabian horses. While Blunt was something of a dilettante romantic Orientalist, he also came to be a fierce opponent of imperialism and colonialism, in Egypt and later in Ireland. He would also be a fierce critic of Denshawai in 1906 and after. He knew ‘Urabi, Sheikh Muhammad ‘Abduh, and other prominent nationalists, and while Cromer and others thought him a utopian dreamer, his 1907 The Secret History of the English Occupation of Egypt remains the major English-language sympathetic source for the ‘Urabi revolt. Though he probably exaggerated his own role a bit, it's still an invaluable work. You can find the text free, online, in multiple formats, here.

The rest was predictable. Tawfiq had been unable to resist the colonels on his own, so his foreign patrons took charge. In 1882, unable to persuade the Ottomans to do it for them, the British intervened. In a brief war decided at the Battle of Tel el-Kebir, they defeated the Egyptian Army. Cromer, officially only a Consul General, ruled Egypt with the power of a Viceroy. (Though Britain dominated Egypt from 1882 to 1852, it was only officially a "Protectorate" from 1914 to 1922.)

‘Urabi Pasha in Exile in Ceylon
‘Urabi was packed off to exile in Ceylon (Sri Lanka), where he helped found a Muslim school and where his home in exile is now a museum and cultural center, now owned by the Egyptian Embassy in Sri Lanka. He lived in Ceylon from 1883 until 1901, when Tawfiq's son and successor, ‘Abbas Hilmi, allowed him to return to Egypt.

And that was Egypt's first colonels' coup.But Midan Tawfiqiyya in Cairo has been called Midan ‘Urabi for over 60 years now.

1 comment:

David Mack said...

Urabi was all the rage when I studied at the Harvard Middle East Center from 1962-64. Nasser was still in vogue among most of the faculty members, who saw Urabi as the precursor of mid-twentieth century Arab military officers who were modernizers destined to replace the passe kings and emirs. A few of the younger Levantine language instructors and teaching fellows entertained Ba'athi sympathies. All very intoxicating to a young American Arabist. Presumably, the Arab rebellions of 2011 raised similar expectations.