A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

In the Spirit of Ahmad ‘Orabi: The Protests

Ahmad ‘Orabi [‘Urabi] Pasha was an Egyptian Army officer who led a revolt in 1881 against the Khedive Tewfiq, a revolt which was eventually quelled by British intervention. He remains a nationalist hero, and since he was of fellah origins when the Army was dominated by Turkish and Circassian officers, is also seen as a symbol of real Egyptian identity.

In a famous incident in September 1881 ‘Orabi and his supporters stood in front of Abdin Palace and read their demands, with ‘Orabi proclaiming that free men had been turned into slaves.

Today, Egyptian reformers of a variety of stripes are trying to repeat the affair, assembling at Abdin Palace in central Cairo and at a spot in Alexandria demanding change. The Twitter hashmark #Oraby2010 has the tweets in English and Arabic.

While it's clear already the police are present in force to keep things from getting out of hand, it's worth noting the subtext of choosing this particular symbol of Egyptian nationalism: the ‘Orabi revolt was the first time since the suppression of the Mamluks that the Egyptian Army sought to intervene against a ruler. Coming as it does in the wake of the posters touting ‘Omar Suleiman for President, it suggests a theme that runs just below the surface of some of the opposition rhetoric: recognizing that the regime will not support a democratic transition, some people seem to be longing for the military to step in. Indeed, the one thing that seemingly stands between Gamal Mubarak and the Presidential succession is uncertainty about how the military, and the equally important security services, would react to a civilian with no military background.

Of course, many of the protesters may simply see ‘Orabi as a potent symbol of Egyptian nationalism, of a peasant standing up to a monarch.

Then again, he was an officer.

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