Urabi and Nasser: The Parallel Paths

Nasser 1

Nasser is one of the best known leaders of Egypt. Viewed initially as a hero of the people, he was the first native Egyptian to lead the country in centuries. His memorials and marks are still scattered all over the Egyptian land. While this leader is the one to gain all the fame, there was one before him that attempted this same feat; that is Urabi. Urabi was the revolutionary leader of the 1881 rebellion. This essay will seek to find the similarities and differences between Nasser’s and Urabi’s revolutions.

To understand any great Egyptian leader you must first know the man. Urabi was a man of the people described as
…singularly well endowed for the part he was called upon to play in Egyptian history as representative of his race. A typical fellah, tall, heavy- limbed, and somewhat slow in his movements, he seemed to symbolize that massive bodily strength which is so characteristic of the laborious peasant of the southern Nile. (Lyngaas 6).

Urabi 1These physical characteristics helped Urabi endear himself to the people. Urabi was educated at the best institution in Egypt and upon graduating university enrolled in officer candidate school. He was an intensely military man who quickly was promoted through the ranks. Some western critics accuse Urabi of being too military centric and as disconnected from the people that he sought to represent. This is only partially true. He lived and worked in close proximity to the average Egyptian. He was a frequent user and advocate of the “peasant petitions.”

These petitions were only possible after the loosening of land restrictions by Khedives Said and Ismail. Due to their new land ownership, the village heads, and accordingly their followers, gained a new political consciousness. This group became one of the main pillars of support for Urabi. The other main group was Egyptians intelligencia within the of Khedive’s administrations. It was because of this internal support that pro-Urabi newspapers and publications were given lenience. This support network was a crucial factor in the convergence of Urabi’s supporters. They were first able to meet in the Chamber of Deputies. This body was made up of local leaders and was created to appease the Egyptian people and enfranchise them to the Khedive. However, this plan backfired, for it was in these meetings that opposition was emboldened. They found allies in one another and desired a major pro-Egyptian native change. They viewed the Khedive as a puppet of colonial powers and Urabi as the true leader of the people. Urabi was aware of his popularity and leveraged that to his advantage.

Tensions came to a head in January of 1881 when it was rumored there was going to be a severe force reduction in the Egyptian army. Urabi, alongside a group of fellow officers, petitioned the prime minister Riyad to stop the cuts and increase the number of soldiers. They also insisted on the installation a new minister of war that was a native Egyptian. The prime minister responded by promptly having all the officers jailed. They were immediately freed by members of a khedival unit. The newly freed Urabi marched straight to the palace with a continuation of his demands. Tawfiq convened an emergency session of his cabinet and addressed Urabi’s complaints. While some concessions were made to Urabi it was not enough. Urabi quickly recognized his powerful position and started to drive for more change. Tawfiq was quick to gain his feet and recognize his loss of control. In July of that same year he dissolved his cabinet, whom he thought was too reform orientated. He also did a personal snub to Urabi by appointing a new minister of war that was famously anti-fellah. Urabi was quick to fire back, and this time with an expansion of his previous demands. In September Urabi supporters marched on Abudin Palace. This time Urabi wanted much more control. He wanted the chamber of deputies to be reconvened and a constitution drawn up. Tawfiq was so taken aback by this demonstration that he immediately conceded. Urabi and the whole of Egypt erupted into celebration. With this move Urabi thought that he and his supporters shored up support to start a new Egypt.

While Urabi was busy solidifying Egypt he forgot to consider external forces. 89% of the shipping that came through the Suez Canal was British (Tufts 8) and accordingly they were worried about Urabi’s nationalistic movement and the repercussion it would have on their trade. The French also had a significant amount of control in Egypt. Together these two foreign powers issued a joint communiqué declaring unequivocal support for the Khedive against all threats foreign and domestic. While this lent external legitimacy it only exacerbated the belief that the Khedive was in fact a tool of foreign powers and Urabi a potential powerful Egyptian leader. This belief is grounded in the fact that the Khedive had to declare bankruptcy in 1878. In order to be able to collect on their debts the Europeans were granted two ministers in the Egyptian government to oversee the repayment of aforementioned debts.

The British were quick to take military action. In July of 1882, after a high profile riot in June in which 50 Europeans died, the English armada bombarded Alexandria. The English troops quickly advanced north to Cairo ultimately defeating Urabi and his army in September. While the revolution was quashed, the idea of Egyptian freedom had already taken root.

Nasser’s 1952 Revolution and path to power are similar to Urabi in many ways but different in a few crucial factors. Like Urabi, Nasser was a career military man. He too was a young officer who quickly gained the rank of Lt. Colonel of the Air Force. Being of that rank he met fellow officers who held similar views and ideas to him. They organized behind the view that the English were imperialistic oppressors and that their leadership,the monarchy and prime minister, were ineffective in combating it. They organized themselves into the “Free Officers movement”. This organization consisted of Nasser, Naguib, and El-Sadat amongst several other senior officers. This is the first critical difference between this revolution and that of 1881. While Nasser was a charismatic personality he had support higher-ups. Where Urabi was a one man show, Nasser had a cult personality but used a cadre of like-minded officers to help him. In fact he was not the face of the revolution! The organizers chose General Naguib instead because of his seniority. This proved to Nasser’s advantage because General Naguib was the face of the military junta from 1952 to early 1954. It was under this period that the free officers had to galvanize their support through violence. Thus when the Egyptian people started mass protests against the free officers. Nasser was able to dethrone Naguib as a tyrant and traitor, after his hard work of creating a new government, but then later slip into that same leading role.

Another critical factor that was in favor of a revolution for Nasser that Urabi did not enjoy was the liberalization experiment in Egypt from 1920 to 1940. This loosening of restrictions led to calls for self-rule free of colonial oppressors. Furthermore, the neighboring countries were all under turmoil trying to overthrow “the old guard” and assert a new youthful nationalistic movement. Nasser was cognizant of these facts. He played on the imperial oppressor card and fought for a united Arab world but without relaying heavily on Islam (because of the important constituency of Egyptian Christians). Nasser also had a strategic plan for the governing of his country. His revolution wasn’t just based on an opposition to the colonial powers. Nasser had a direction that he wanted to develop Egypt towards, as opposed to Urabi who just wanted to be freed from colonial persecutors.

The other and perhaps most defining difference between these two leaders and their respective revolutions was the timing of outside intervention. While Urabi was immediately faced with a British invasion, Nasser didn’t confront forces until 1956 with the nationalization of the Suez Canal. By that time he had already firmly planted a philosophy of governance. Furthermore, he created a public sector that helped industrialize and revolutionize Egypt into a leading country of the developing world. GDP and significantly lower unemployment. He was already endeared to the people and viewed as a hero to the masses.