The 'Urabi Rebellion (1881–1882) occurred when an Egyptian army colonel, Ahmad 'Urabi, led a movement to subject Egypt's hereditary Ottoman governor, Khedive Tawfiq, to constitutional rule and lessen the country's reliance on European advisors. The rebellion provoked the British occupation of Egypt in 1882, which, although it officially ended in 1922, continued in the Suez Canal Zone until 1956.
Prior to the rebellion, Egypt had become deeply indebted to European creditors as a result of expensive development projects, such as the digging of the Suez Canal. Egypt declared bankruptcy in 1876 and accepted British and French control of its revenues (called the Dual Control) to ensure repayment of the debt. When in 1876 Khedive Isma'il threatened to repudiate the debt, he was deposed and replaced by his more pliable son, Tawfiq. In part because Tawfiq accepted the Dual Control and a financial system that assigned 60 percent of revenues to debt payment, people from many different social classes opposed his rule. Matters worsened in 1880, when Tawfiq passed a law excusing native Egyptians from serving more than four years in the Egyptian army. This decision was intended to ease the burden of military service on peasants but also prevented native Egyptians from rising to any rank higher than colonel. All other officers were descended from the Turco-Circassian elite that had ruled the country during the Mamluk Empire (1249–1517) or were European. Tawfiq attempted to ease matters by appointing an Egyptian colonel, Ahmad 'Urabi, to be his war minister.
'Urabi used his position to demand limits on the khedive's power. On September 9, 1881, 'Urabi, a group of native officers, and urban supporters marched up to Tawfiq's palace. The French and British Controllers came out with Tawfiq to meet the demonstrators. 'Urabi stood in front of the palace and said to Tawfiq: "We are not slaves, and shall never from this day forth be inherited" (Blunt 1967, p. 114). Egypt would be governed by Egyptians, he proclaimed, which inspired the movement to take "Egypt for the Egyptians!" as its rallying cry. The army threatened to withdraw support from Tawfiq unless he allowed the people some form of representative government and a constitution. Unwillingly, he agreed to give legislative powers to the Chamber of Deputies, an advisory council established by Khedive Isma'il. Wilfrid S. Blunt, a British observer, commented, "The three months which followed this notable event were the happiest time, politically, that Egypt has ever known" (Blunt 1967, p. 116). The Egyptians participated in their own government for the first time since the Persians conquered Egypt in 343 b.c.e.; they had a constitution and an elected legislature.
The European Controllers and the Ottoman sultan sided with the khedive against 'Urabi. The British were uneasy, worried that the Chamber of Deputies might repudiate the debt, abrogate the Dual Control, and encourage violence against Europeans and Egyptian Christians. In fact, 'Urabi's government met with religious scholars who signed a fatwa (legal opinion) stating that all Egyptians were brothers regardless of religion, but the British, fearing conflict, moved in ships to patrol the harbor of Alexandria.
The presence of British ships contributed to rising tensions in Alexandria, which had a large European population. On June 11, 1882, the tensions climaxed. A fight in a Christian neighborhood turned into a riot that spread rapidly throughout the city. Homes were looted; parts of the city went up in flames. Europeans began to flee to the British ships. Tawfiq saw this as an opportunity to reestablish his control and ordered the British ships to bombard the city with cannons. He then declared 'Urabi a rebel, accused him of inciting the riots in Alexandria, and told his Chamber of Deputies that the rebels were attacking and that they should resist to the last man. Then Tawfiq escaped the chaos and took refuge on a British ship. Subsequently 393 Egyptian leaders, including officials, officers, religious scholars, merchants, artisans, and village headmen, signed a decree on July 29 deposing Tawfiq and declaring him a traitor.
The British launched a full-scale invasion to return Tawfiq to power. The great battle of the British invasion, Tel al-Kabir, was disastrous for the Egyptians. 'Urabi and his followers were arrested, subjected to a trial for rebellion against their rightful ruler (Tawfiq), and exiled. Tawfiq invited the British in to restore his authority.
The 'Urabi constitutionalist movement ended in British occupation. The period from 1882 to 1914 is known as the Veiled Protectorate. Officially, Tawfiq still ruled Egypt as an Ottoman province, and the government was still administered by Ottoman officials. However, British commissioners governed, notably Lord Cromer (1883–1907), and each ministry was attached to a British "adviser" who heavily influenced its policies.
Blunt, Wilfrid S. Secret History of the English Occupation of Egypt. New York: Howard Fertig, 1967 .
Scholch, Alexander. Egypt for the Egyptians! The Socio-Political Crisis in Egypt, 1878–1882. London: Ithaca Press, 1981.