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Adieu Bonaparte
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 25 - 05 - 2006

Robert Solé's new account of Napoleon's Egyptian expedition seems set to become the standard history of Egypt's short-lived French occupation, writes David Tresilian
The involvement of Napoleon Bonaparte, at the time only an army general, in the French conquest of Egypt between 1798 and 1801 was in some respects unique. It was unique, first, because Napoleon's ambitions were otherwise restricted to Europe, and the Egyptian expedition was the only occasion on which France attempted to extend its long struggle for mastery of Europe beyond European shores. And it was unique, too, because Napoleon, known for his empire-building within Europe but not beyond, laid the foundations while in Egypt for the subsequent transformation of the country under Mohamed Ali, largely putting paid through his campaigns in Egypt, Syria and Palestine to Mameluke power and weakening that of the Ottomans.
How all this came about and its effects on both France and Egypt is the subject of Bonaparte à la conquête de l'Egypte (Bonaparte and the Conquest of Egypt) by the Egyptian-born French journalist Robert Solé. Written with the general reader in mind like Solé's many other works on Egyptian themes, the book provides a perfect introduction to its subject and draws on the most recent research.
"This book does not claim to contain any revelations," Solé writes, "aiming only to write the history of the Egyptian expedition in all its aspects -- political, military, cultural and scientific -- and relying on statements made by witnesses, as well as the work of specialists to which the general public does not generally have access. The aim has been to tell the story from beginning to end, knowing that this adventure, with its incalculable consequences, did not end [with the withdrawal of French troops] in September 1801."
In addition to the historical consequences of the expedition for Egypt and for France, resonating down the 19th century and into the 20th as Solé makes clear, there was also an intellectual consequence of the first order in the publication of the magnificent Description de l'Egypte in Paris between 1809 and 1828. This work, a compendium of research carried out in Egypt by researchers ("savants") in history, natural science, geography, linguistics, literature and much else besides, was commissioned by Napoleon following the expedition's return to France, he having also been behind the decision to take these 170 odd researchers with the French army to Egypt and organise them into the Institut de l'Egypte, a kind of academic centre, once they got there.
Though the resulting Description, impossibly expensive to produce and many times redesigned, was still incomplete when Napoleon was defeated at Waterloo in 1815, the first volume of its nine volumes of text and 11 volumes of plates appeared in 1809 with a frontispiece comparing his victories in Egypt to those achieved by the Romans nearly 2,000 years before. The Egyptian expedition was thus inserted into Napoleonic legend, feeding Napoleon's appetite for conquest in the service first of French republican, and then, after he was crowned emperor in 1804, imperial, ambitions. However, it was also much more than that, as subsequent writers have realised, since it marked a crucial juncture in relations between Europe and the Arab world from which many modern accounts of this relationship still begin.
Motivation for the French conquest of what was then an Ottoman province, run in theory from the empire's capital in Istanbul but in practice ruled by the Mamelukes, a kind of warrior caste, came from two main sources. First, there was the desire to frustrate the English, with whom revolutionary France was at war, in their empire-building in India and reinforce French power in the Mediterranean, and second there was the desire to claim an important colony for France in a country that seemed at the time to be stagnating under Mameluke control.
Solé quotes from works such as Savary's Lettres sur l'Egypte (1786) and Volney's Voyage en Syrie et en Egypte (1785), both of which recommended that France consider the conquest of Egypt even before the revolution of 1789. According to Savary, "this beautiful country, were it in the hands of a country that is a friend to the arts, would become the centre of world commerce," and philosophical heavyweights such as Leibniz recommended that France consider taking over a country that was "the mother of sciences and sanctuary of natural prodigies... granary of the East, and warehouse of all the treasures of Europe and India."
However, it would take more than recommendations of this sort to get an expedition off the ground. While the authorities in Paris were not concerned by Mameluke power -- "the weakness of these petty tyrants is well-known: six thousand soldiers could chase out the Cairo beys, and the conquest of Egypt wouldn't cost a drop of blood" was the official view in 1793 -- an excuse would have to be found for the Ottomans, who were, after all, still nominally the country's rulers. Though keen to give the English a bloody nose, the French were not keen to go to war against the Ottoman Empire, and a way had to be found to present the expedition positively to the Porte.
This was left to Talleyrand, diplomat to his bones and French foreign minister at the time, who hit upon the winning formula. Not only would the expedition "chase the English from their possessions in the Orient, particularly by destroying their trading stations on the Red Sea," but this would be presented to the Sultan as a way of re-establishing Ottoman control in Egypt with French help. Moreover, for the Egyptian population it would come as a welcome liberation from Mameluke tyranny at the hands of France. It was then up to Napoleon as the leading general of the time to take the achievements of the French revolution eastwards. As he himself put it in a declaration of May 1798, "the genius of Freedom, which has made the French republic the arbiter of Europe, now desires that it should also be so for the most distant seas and countries."
In early July 1798 a French invasion force of some 365 ships carrying 54,000 men and bringing with it 1,250 horses and 170 field guns arrived off Alexandria, causing panic in the city and in Cairo. The troops landed at Marabout15km west of the city and swiftly subdued Mameluke forces. Having done so, a declaration in Arabic assured the population that France was the friend of Egypt and of Islam and that the Mamelukes were the true target of the French invasion.
"Egyptians," this text declared, "for too long a collection of slaves bought in the Caucasus and Georgia has terrorised this most beautiful part of the world, but God, the lord of worlds, the all-powerful, has ordered that their reign shall end... You will be told that I have come to destroy your religion, but this a lie. Do not believe it... I have come to restore your rights and punish the usurpers, and I respect God, his Prophet Mohamed and the glorious Koran more than the Mamelukes." This was the first expression of a leading theme of the subsequent occupation, and while the French soldiers presented themselves as liberators to the Egyptian population, a message was sent to the Sultan's representative in Cairo assuring him that their target was the Mameluke caste and not Ottoman rule in Egypt.
Solé describes the subsequent French conquest in detail, drawing on the voluminous French-language materials that have come down from the period, including Napoleon's own memoirs dictated during his retirement on St. Helena, as well as Abdel-Rahman al-Jabarti's diary of events, the only substantial non- French source. Written by an Egyptian notable of aristocratic instincts, al-Jabarti's chronicle goes some way towards making up for "the enormous difference in scale of the western and local sources," even if, as Solé points out, it was "kept by a grand bourgeois contemptuous of ordinary people... [and it scarcely] allows one to know the feelings of the fellahs along the Nile."
Despite such imbalances in the sources, Solé's book gives a full account of the events of the French invasion and occupation, from the Battle of the Pyramids on 21 July 1798, ending in the defeat of the Mamelukes, to Napoleon's campaigns in the rest of Egypt and later further afield in Palestine and Syria. There were, however, numerous setbacks, not least Napoleon's own unauthorised departure from the country in August 1799, leaving Egypt in the hands of General Kléber while he organised the coup d'état that would make him first consul of the republic in Paris.
Kléber inherited an impossible situation. Isolated by Nelson's defeat of the French fleet at Abou Kir, which emphasised English naval power and made reinforcements unlikely, he had to fend off attacks from Ottoman and English forces determined to oust the French army from Egypt while at the same time trying to govern the country in the face of an often hostile population. Faced with continuing Ottoman hostility, the French were forced to make an alliance with the remnants of the Mamelukes, their former enemies, bringing the official explanation behind the invasion into question. Finally, Kléber accepted the inevitable and tried to negotiate an evacuation, but not before an uprising in Cairo in March 1800 had been put down "with exceptional violence and savagery." Shortly afterwards, in June 1800, Kléber was assassinated in Cairo by a young Syrian, Suleiman al-Halabi.
Following Ottoman and English victories against the occupying forces and with no hope of reinforcements from Paris, General Menou, Kléber's successor, negotiated the surrender of the French forces and their ignominious passage back to France. Obliged to give up the famous Rosetta Stone discovered by French savants to the English, Menou nevertheless managed to arrange safe passage out of the country for the Institut d'Egypte, whose records and documents served as the basis for the Description de l'Egypte once they were safely in Paris. The whole adventure had lasted a little over three years, but, wrote Napoleon in 1801, it had left "immortal memories in Egypt, which perhaps one day will reawaken the arts and social institutions in the country. History, at least, will not be silent about what the French have done to bring European history and civilisation to Egypt."
However, history, as Solé is well aware, has had other things to say, undreamt of by Napoleon. In the final sections of his book he looks at some of these, from the 'mameluke- mania' that swept Paris following the return of the Egyptian expedition, to the more lasting political and socio- economic consequences for the two countries and the ways in which the invasion and occupation have been understood in European and Egyptian historiography.
Following the departure of the French troops, neither the Mameluke chiefs nor the Porte were able to bring order to Egypt, and it fell to Mohamed Ali, an Ottoman soldier born in Macedonia, to establish personal rule and modernise the country. For France, the experience had been a lesson in colonial administration that could be drawn upon later when, in the dying days of the Restoration, it decided to invade and occupy Algeria in 1830. The expedition was also the beginning of what Solé has justly called the "French passion" for Egypt.
Napoleon has long been a favourite subject for counter- factual historians, both because he came so close to realising his aims and because his whole career is so fantastic that it already seems too extravagant to be true. "The period I spent in Egypt was the best of my life, because it was the most ideal," Solé quotes him as saying. "I dreamt of many things, and I saw the means to bring about what I dreamed."
As it was, Napoleon died in exile, "killed," as he put it, "by the English oligarchy and its hired assassins." But that does not stop one from asking the intriguing question of what might have happened had the French stuck it out in Egypt, as they hoped to do, any more than it stopped Napoleon himself from dreaming of what might have happened had he, and not Wellington, been the victor at Waterloo.


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