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Ahmed ‘Urabi

Ahmed ‘Urabi

Colonel Ahmed ‘Urabi or Ourabi (Egyptian Arabic: أحمد عرابى‎, [ˈæħmæd ʕouˈɾɑːbi] in Egyptian Arabic; 31 March 1841 – 21 September 1911), widely known in English (and by himself[1]) as Ahmad Ourabi,[2] was an Egyptian nationalist, revolutionary and an officer of the Egyptian army. The first political and military leader in Egypt to rise from the fellahin, ‘Urabi participated in an 1879 mutiny that developed into a general revolt against the Anglo-French dominated administration of Khedive Tewfik. He was promoted to Tewfik's cabinet and began reforms of Egypt's military and civil administrations, but the demonstrations in Alexandria of 1882 prompted a British bombardment and invasion that deposed ‘Urabi and his allies in favor of a British occupation.[3]

Early life

He was born in 1841[4] in the village of Hirriyat Razna near Zagazig in the Sharqia Governorate, approximately 80 kilometres to the north of Cairo.[5] ‘Urabi was the son of a village leader and one of the wealthier members of the community, which allowed him to receive a decent education. After completing elementary education in his home village, he enrolled at Al-Azhar University to complete his schooling in 1849. He entered the army and moved up quickly through the ranks, reaching lieutenant colonel by age 20. The modern education and military service of ‘Urabi, from a fellah, or peasant background, would not have been possible without the modernising reforms of Khedive Ismail, who had done much to eliminate the barriers between the bulk of the Egyptian populace and the ruling elite, who were drawn largely from the military castes that had ruled Egypt for centuries. Ismail abolished the exclusive access to the Egyptian and Sudanese military ranks by Egyptians of Balkan, Circassian, and Turkish origin. Ismail conscripted soldiers and recruited students from throughout Egypt and Sudan regardless of class and ethnic backgrounds in order to form a "modern" and "national" Egyptian military and bureaucratic elite class. Without these reforms, ‘Urabi's rise through the ranks of the military would likely have been far more restricted.

Protest against Tewfik

He was a galvanizing speaker. Because of his peasant origins, he was at the time, and is still today, viewed as an authentic voice of the Egyptian people. Indeed, he was known by his followers as 'El Wahid' (the Only One), and when the British poet and explorer Wilfrid Blunt went to meet him, he found the entrance of ‘Urabi's house was blocked with supplicants. When Khedive Tewfik issued a new law preventing peasants from becoming officers, ‘Urabi led the group protesting the preference shown to aristocratic officers (again, largely Egyptians of foreign descent). 'Urabi repeatedly condemned severe prevalent racial discrimination of Egyptians in the army.[6] He and his followers, who included most of the army, were successful and the law was repealed. In 1879 they formed the Egyptian Nationalist Party in the hopes of fostering a stronger national identity.

He and his allies in the army joined with the reformers in February 1882 to demand change. This revolt, also known as the 'Urabi Revolt, was primarily inspired by his desire for social justice for the Egyptians based on equal standing before the law. With the support of the peasants as well, he launched a broader effort to try to wrest Egypt and Sudan from foreign control, and also to end the absolutist regime of the Khedive, who was himself subject to Anglo-French control under the rules of the Caisse de la Dette Publique. The Arab-Egyptian deputies demanded a constitution that granted the state parliamentary power.[6] The revolt then spread to express resentment of the undue influence of foreigners, including the predominantly Turko-Circassian aristocracy.

Parliament planning

‘Urabi was first promoted to Bey, then made under-secretary of war, and ultimately a member of the cabinet. Plans were developed to create a parliamentary assembly. During the last months of the revolt (July to September 1882), it was claimed that ‘Urabi held the office of Prime Minister of the hastily created common law government based on popular sovereignty.[6] Feeling threatened, Khedive Tewfik requested assistance against ‘Urabi from the Ottoman Sultan, to whom Egypt and Sudan still owed technical fealty. The Sublime Porte hesitated in responding to the request.

British intervention

'Urabi surrenders to Drury Drury-Lowe

'Urabi surrenders to Drury Drury-Lowe

The British were especially concerned that ‘Urabi would default on Egypt's massive debt and that he might try to regain control of the Suez Canal. Therefore, they and the French dispatched warships to Egypt to intimidate the nationalists. Tewfik fled to their protection, moving his court to Alexandria. The strong naval presence spurred fears of an imminent invasion (as had been the case in Tunisia in 1881); anti-Christian riots to break out in Alexandria on 12 June 1882. The French fleet was recalled to France. The British warships in the harbor opened fire on the city's gun emplacements after the Egyptians ignored an ultimatum from Admiral Seymour to remove them. In September a British army landed in Alexandria but failed to reach Cairo after being checked at the Battle of Kafr El Dawwar. Another army, led by Sir Garnet Wolseley, landed in the Canal Zone and on 13 September 1882 they defeated ‘Urabi's army at the Battle of Tell El Kebir. From there, the British cavalry advanced on Cairo which surrendered without a shot being fired, as did ‘Urabi and the other nationalist leaders.

Exile and return

‘Urabi was tried by the restored Khedivate for rebellion on 3 December 1882. He was defended by British solicitor Richard Eve[7] and Alexander Meyrick Broadley. According to Elizabeth Thompson, 'Urabi's defense stressed the idea that despite the fact that he had been illegally incarcerated by Riyad Pasha and the Khedive Tawfik he had still responded in a manner allowed under Egyptian law and with the hopes that the khedivate remain after his intervention, thus demonstrating loyalty to the Egyptian people as required by his duties.[8] In accordance with an understanding made with the British representative, Lord Dufferin, ‘Urabi pleaded guilty and was sentenced to death, but the sentence was immediately commuted to one of banishment for life.[9] He left Egypt on 28 December 1882 for Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). His home in Halloluwa Road, Kandy (formerly owned by Mudaliyar Jeronis de Soysa)[10] is now the Orabi Pasha Cultural Center. During his time in Ceylon, ‘Urabi worked to improve the quality of education amongst the Muslims in the country. Hameed Al Husseinie College, Sri Lanka's first school for Muslims was established in 15 November 1884 and after eight years Zahira College, was established in 22 August 1892 under his patronage. In May 1901, Khedive Abbas II, Tewfik's son and successor permitted ‘Urabi to return to Egypt. Abbas was a nationalist in the vein of his grandfather, Khedive Ismail the Magnificent, and was deeply opposed to the British occupation of the country. ‘Urabi returned on 1 October 1901, and remained in Egypt until his death on 21 September 1911.[11]

While British intervention was meant to be short term, British forces continued to occupy the country. The British instituted the ousting of Khedive Abbas II in 1914, after which Egypt once more became a sultanate and also a British protectorate. Britain finally recognised Egyptian independence in 1922, following the Egyptian Revolution of 1919.

‘Urabi's revolt had a long lasting significance in Egypt as the first instance of Egyptian anti-imperialist nationalism, which would later play a very important role in Egyptian history. Some historians also note that the 1881–1882 revolution laid the foundation for mass politics in Egypt. Especially under Gamal Abdel Nasser, ‘Urabi would be regarded as an Egyptian patriot and a national hero; he is also considered an anti-imperialist hero in Sri Lanka.[12]


  • A suburb of New Orleans, Louisiana, was given the name Arabi, in solidarity with his revolt against the British occupation, as the area was originally a part of New Orleans that sought separation.

  • A main street in Cairo's Al Mohandessin district and its underground station bear his name

  • Orabi Square honors him in Alexandria

  • The main square in Zagazig contains a statue of ‘Urabi on a horse and its university's emblem bears his picture

  • A coastal road in the Gaza Strip is named Ahmed Orabi Street

  • Orabi Pasha Street in Central Colombo, Sri Lanka, is named after him

  • The Orabi Pasha Cultural Center preserves his former house in Kandy


  • "How can you enslave people when their mothers bore them free?". The reference is: Once a governor of Egypt punished a non-Muslim wrongly, the case was brought to the caliph of time i.e. Umar ibn ul Khattab (the second Caliph of Islam), the Muslim governor was proven to be wrong, Umar told the non Muslim to punish the Egyptian governor in same fashion, after it Umar said: Since when have you considered people as your slaves? Although their mothers gave birth to them as free living people Kanz ul Amaal, Volume No. 4, Page No. 455

  • "God created us free, and didn't create us Heritage or real estate, I swear by God, that there is no god but He, no bequeathing, no enslaved anymore"


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