Friday,22 February, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1258, (13 - 19 August 2015)
Friday,22 February, 2019
Issue 1258, (13 - 19 August 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Adieu Bonaparte

The bicentenary of the Battle of Waterloo in June this year drew renewed attention to all things Napoleonic but missed an opportunity to re-examine the French general’s Egyptian career, writes David Tresilian

Al-Ahram Weekly

This year’s bicentenary of the Battle of Waterloo, fought near the Belgian town of the same name on 18 June 1815 and putting a final end to Napoleon Bonaparte’s ambitions, was an opportunity for history fans across the world to renew their acquaintance with the French general’s, and later emperor’s, career.

The more energetic among them may have travelled to Belgium to watch or take part in a special bicentennial re-enactment of the Battle, while those of a more contemplative bent may have settled on reading some of the new publications on Napoleon Bonaparte that have been appearing this year, or, if they were in the UK, settling down to watch a bicentennial television series.

This year’s re-enactment of the Battle of Waterloo, one of the largest ever staged, included some 6,000 re-enactors, 330 horses and 120 cannons and came in tandem with an unusual quarrel between France and Belgium over the latter’s minting of a two-euro coin commemorating Napoleon’s defeat.

The Allied victory at Waterloo, orchestrated by Britain, led to the reversal of many of the gains of the French Revolution. There were few signs of Napoleon’s downfall being marked in France this year, where the legacy of the former emperor can still polarise debate.

Even so, a European coin marking the French defeat was apparently a step too far, and so it was announced that the coin, later revalued at two euros and a half, would not be circulating outside Belgium.

Such spats apart, worldwide interest in the bicentenary and more generally in the extraordinary nature of Napoleon’s career has proven that he is an historical character who still has the power to fascinate contemporary audiences. In his military campaigns outside France, Napoleon remade Europe, while in France itself many of the reforms he introduced are still in force today.

Napoleon’s continental reach, his campaigns leaving few if any European states untouched, underlines the fact that there have always been many Napoleons and not just one. He was at once a military leader of genius, a political reformer, a liberator and a dictator, as well as a scholar, a day-dreamer, a jilted husband and an often unreliable friend.

All these Napoleons and more have been touched on in this year’s bicentennial events, which have perhaps left one unexamined: Napoleon as would-be Muslim ruler and conqueror of Africa and Asia, a role he envisaged for himself during the French invasion of Egypt between 1798 and 1801.

This aspect of Napoleon has been curiously underexplored in the bicentennial year, even though it is of interest for both Napoleonic and extra-Napoleonic reasons.

The invasion ended in fiasco with an ignominious and comprehensive French defeat. But before that happened, Napoleon had had the chance to try out the kind of political reforms he would later put into practice in France itself, while at the same time practicing the kind of pragmatic management of religious affairs that he had earlier tried out during his Italian campaigns and that he would try again in France through his concordat with the Roman Catholic Church.

The French invasion of Egypt was the first time in centuries that any European power had attempted a full-scale invasion of a southern Mediterranean country, the last time being during the mediaeval Crusades. It effectively ended Mameluke power in the country, paving the way for the later seizure of power by Mohamed Ali, and it prefigured the European struggle for power over Egypt that was only resolved when the country was occupied by the British in the 1880s.

It was also a chance for Napoleon Bonaparte, still a mere French general at the time of the invasion, though an increasingly powerful one, to leave a valuable legacy to posterity in the form of the famous Description de l’Egypte that he commissioned from a team of French scholars accompanying the invasion.

This book, at the time of its production probably the most comprehensive study of any country ever made, was published in Paris in multiple volumes between 1809 and 1829. It reveals another, more scholarly and contemplative side of the man who was called in Egypt “Ali Bonaparte.”

NEW BIOGRAPHIES: Among this year’s Waterloo bicentenary celebrations has been an avalanche of new publications on all aspects of Napoleon’s career, with two full-scale biographies by the English historian Andrew Roberts and the French historian Patrice Gueniffey standing out.

Roberts has up to now worked mainly on British history, so it is a surprise to find him turning his hand to a biography of Napoleon. However, he says in the introduction to his book, entitled Napoleon the Great and accompanying a British television series, that English-speaking audiences have up to now suffered through not having had access to the new French edition of Napoleon’s letters, published since 2004 by the Fondation Napoléon in Paris.

Roberts’s book is the first English-language biography to make use of this edition, incidentally drawing attention to its subject’s titanic letter-writing skills since some 33,000 of Napoleon’s letters still survive. He quotes the German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, a contemporary of Napoleon, in his introduction to the effect that Napoleon was “in a permanent state of enlightenment.”

This is a strange way of saying that Napoleon had an enormous thirst for knowledge and an equally enormous desire for systematisation, and both these things were on display during the year or so he spent in Egypt.

The French invasion started when Napoleon, at a loose end in Paris following his victories in Italy and unwilling to risk an invasion of England, turned his attention to a possible military campaign in Egypt.

The Directory, the mini-committee running France following the fall of Robespierre, decided to give him carte blanche “to prepare for and command a full-scale invasion of Egypt in the hope of dealing a blow to British interests in and trading routes through the eastern Mediterranean,” Roberts says.

It was probably also more than happy to see the back of an ambitious and worryingly popular and successful young military leader. “It was in the Directors’ interests for Napoleon to go to Egypt,” Roberts writes.

“He might conquer it for France or — just as welcome — return after a defeat with his reputation satisfyingly tarnished. As the British peer Lord Holland put it, they sent him there ‘partly to get rid of him, partly to gratify him, and partly to dazzle and delight [a] portion of Parisian society.’”

Napoleon was happy to go since “it represented an opportunity to follow in the footsteps of both his greatest heroes, Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar, and he did not rule out the possibility of using Egypt as a stepping-stone to India.”

Once the decision had been made, Napoleon, aged not yet 30, threw himself into the campaign with characteristic energy and thoroughness. He read widely, gathered some 38,000 troops, and set out from Toulon for Alexandria on 19 May 1798. Arriving off the Egyptian coast on 1 July, the French troops disembarked eight miles from Alexandria at Marabut at 11 o’clock at night, taking the city by storm the next morning.

A proclamation produced in Arabic told the city’s residents: “I am come to restore your rights and to punish usurpers. I reverence God, his Prophet Mohamed, and the Quran.”

Of the Mamelukes, the military caste then ruling Egypt under Ottoman suzerainty, Napoleon announced, “The hour of their chastisement has come. For too long, this rabble of slaves, purchased in the Caucasus and Georgia, has tyrannised over the fairest part of the world, but God, on whom everything depends, has decreed that their empire shall be no more.”

Employing the rhetoric of liberation that the French were using at the same time in Europe, Napoleon appeared to be promising the Egyptian population a new future as French subjects.

Roberts is good at giving the outlines of Napoleon’s Egyptian expedition, including, and even over-emphasising, its absurdities.

The French army easily overcame the Mameluke forces in the Battle of the Pyramids, in fact fought just outside Cairo in Imbaba, since the latter were unprepared for its more modern and disciplined style of fighting. However, Napoleon almost entirely failed to understand the nature of the country he was attempting to take over in the name of the French Republic or the logistical and strategic situation confronting him.

Not only was the French fleet, anchored off Alexandria, destroyed by the English on 1 August, effectively trapping the French army in Egypt, but French attempts to get the Ottoman sultan on side by claiming to be re-introducing Ottoman authority to Egypt also failed.

Napoleon and his expeditionary force found themselves fighting the English at sea, the remaining Mamelukes in Upper Egypt and much of the Delta, and the Ottoman forces that were moving to retake the country from the Levant through Sinai.

Under the circumstances, it is remarkable the French got as far as they did in remodelling the administration and setting up a republican form of government in Egypt.

THE “GREAT SULTAN”: Roberts is interested in the large sweep of Napoleon’s career and so is to be forgiven for devoting only two chapters of his biography to Napoleon’s time in Egypt. The French historian Patrice Gueniffey, a professor of history at the Sorbonne in Paris, goes into greater detail in his two-volume biography of the French general, the first volume of which appeared in English translation to coincide with the Waterloo bicentenary earlier this year.

Gueniffey has greater space to explore the background and significance of the French expedition to Egypt, pointing out that while the Directory had no reason to offend the Ottoman sultan, at the time an ally of France, by invading what was after all an Ottoman province, it was thinking historically and geopolitically in seeking to extend French interests in the eastern Mediterranean by setting up if not a French colony then at least a French satellite state in Egypt.

“The young Bonaparte’s imagination was not philosophical, but historical,” Gueniffey comments. “His New World was not America,” then shaking itself loose from European colonial control, “but the Old World, and not Europe, but the Orient … the area from which so many conquerors had emerged and whose history offered an inexhaustible repertory of heroic actions, immense enterprises and gigantic collapses.”

Having launched himself on the “immense enterprise” of conquering Egypt, Napoleon now found himself obliged to govern it, and here the destruction of the French fleet paradoxically came to his aid. It seems he had never intended to spend more than a couple of months in Egypt, enough time, he might have thought, to subjugate the country and organise some sort of military triumph.

Finding himself trapped in the country by the loss of his fleet, Napoleon started “to reconstruct a society from its scattered debris.” Gueniffey says, playing the role of sovereign with perhaps a freer hand than he could have allowed himself had he been in continuous communication with Paris.

This aspect of the French expedition has often been described before, perhaps most engagingly by the US historian Juan Cole in his Napoleon’s Egypt published in 2007. A ten-member council, or “divan”, was initially set up to administer the country, and this was later extended to a national assembly, a “general divan”, of some 200 elected representatives, Egypt’s first ever parliament, together with a 27-member “special council” in a structure apparently modelled on arrangements in Directory France.

The latter council was staffed by local notables drawn from each of the country’s religious communities. But Napoleon was most interested in working with the country’s majority Muslim population, even if he carried over the habit, inherited from the Mamelukes, of employing many members of its Christian and Jewish minorities in his new administration.

Napoleon, in fact, Cole says, “was creating Egypt as the world’s first modern Islamic Republic.” He worked closely with Muslim clerics from the Al-Azhar Mosque and University in Cairo on the legislation that should now govern the country, and he included these clerics in his new divan and later councils.

He also attempted to involve the Al-Azhar clerics in the work of a new research institute, the Institut d’Egypte, that he had set up in Cairo to study the country and produce recommendations for its development.

Napoleon, Cole says, was a loyal son of the French Enlightenment in that, like the writers of the Encyclopédie, a multi-volume summary of human knowledge produced in Paris, he saw the virtues of Muslim civilisation when compared to what was believed to be the obscurantism and backwardness of the European Roman Catholic Church.

The mediaeval Abbasid caliphs “Al-Mansur, Haroun Al-Rashid, and Al-Ma’amoun cultivated the arts and sciences. They loved literature, chemistry, and mathematics. They lived with scientists, and they had translations made of Greek and Latin authors into Arabic,” Napoleon wrote at the time.

He did his best to inculcate habits of loyalty towards the new regime in Egypt’s Muslim population, a policy that today would perhaps be called “winning hearts and minds.”

However, here, Cole says, Napoleon was guilty of presumption. It was all very well trying to persuade the inhabitants of the Italian states to throw off inherited habits of thought, as he had done some years before in his Italian campaigns designed to rally the peninsula to the French Republic. But this policy was unlikely to work in Egypt, where the members of the new divan may have worked with the French invaders mostly out of fears of something worse.

In Istanbul, the Ottomans had not been surprised by the French people’s guillotining of their king and queen, as had happened in the later stages of the 1789 Revolution, since Ottoman sultans had also met similar fates, usually as a result of palace intrigues or occasional popular uprisings.

But the ideological elements of the French Revolution had left them cold, Cole commenting that the “subsequent social turmoil [in Europe] being taken as a sign that it was much better to live in a stable Muslim sultanate.”

In Egypt, too, the ideological aspects of the new French regime were more difficult to grasp than its evident thirst for power. “The universal wearing of the cockade, the flying of the tricolor, the intricate symbolism of columns and banners, the impressive military parades and cannonades” – all the iconography of the Revolution that was now imported into Egypt and rehearsed as a way of building loyalty to the French Republic left the Egyptians unimpressed, Cole says.

They were more immediately affected by the tax and other arrangements of the new regime, and it was these, together with perceptions that it was not ruling according to the precepts of Islam, that led to the revolt against French rule that took place in October 1798, just months after the French arrived in Egypt.

WHAT ABOUT THE EGYPTIANS? Writing on this famous revolt against French rule, put down with great ferocity by the occupying forces, Gueniffey says that Napoleon understood “it was pointless trying to establish himself in Egypt without the support, or at least the neutrality, of the religious authorities.”

He was also “trying to establish his domination over Egypt by exploiting the rivalries, the divergences of interest, and the enmities that existed among the different ethnic, social, and religious groups that constituted the Egyptian population,” as the Ottomans had done before him, he says.

However, Napoleon never understood that “no matter what the French did, in the eyes of the natives they always remained invaders,” Gueniffey adds. Life resumed its regular course, businesses re-opened, and Cairo shopkeepers even “welcomed French customers who readily paid inflated prices.”

But when the revolt broke out, the French forces discovered that what they had thought of as incomprehension and indifference on the part of the population in fact disguised apparently insurmountable distrust and hostility.

Napoleon’s “general divan,” his “assembly of the states-general representing not only the provinces but also the different ‘estates’, or social groups, constituting the population of Egypt,” broke down in chaos at the time.

It had been asked to come up with “proposals regarding the political and administrative reorganisation of Egypt, of its judicial and fiscal systems, and the reform of property law,” Gueniffey writes. However, it was a failure, “not only because the Cairo insurrection led to the dissolution of the general divan, but also because the members of these assemblies did not see the utility, still less the interest, of them.”

“The very idea that they might have the power to legislate, to conceive and impose new rules established to serve the general good, was foreign to them,” Gueniffey thinks. But even though this generation of Egyptians proved impervious to French influence, he says that after a “latency period” the “influence of the French occupation returned when Mohamed Ali, who had seized power in 1805, undertook to modernise the country by taking his inspiration from some of the reforms imagined by Bonaparte.”

While it is not so very difficult to work out what the French thought they were doing in Egypt at this time, given the vast amount of French documentation that survives from the period, it can be more difficult to understand how the invasion was understood by the local population.

Gueniffey, for example, thinks that the members of the Egyptian divan “could not conceive” that they now had the right to legislate for themselves, an opinion licenced by the fact that few if any of its members left documents behind them explaining their thinking. They might have thought the way Gueniffey says they did, but he also offers an alternative explanation.

The French were “armed missionaries,” he says. “They were never able to convince the Egyptians that France was going to stay in their country over the long term.” Under the circumstances, non-cooperation, or at least not getting too close to a regime that could very well disappear tomorrow, might have seemed the most sensible option to many of the divan’s members.

In the case of the late-18th-century French invasion of Egypt, and almost unique among European conquests of this sort, there is an account of events written by a penetrating local historian that provides a fascinating counter-narrative of what happened. This account, written by the Muslim historian Abdel-Rahman al-Jabarti (1754-1825), is referred to by both Roberts and Gueniffey, though the latter shows more extensive acquaintance with its contents.

A short version entitled Tarikh Muddat Al-Faransis bi Misr (History of the French Occupation of Egypt) covering events from June to December 1798 and including the Cairo uprising is available in a translation by Shmuel Moreh.

Al-Jabarti describes the Mameluke defeat, criticising the Mamelukes for their lack of preparation, their arrogance and their failure to attend to the needs of the Egyptian population. He is by no means an apologist for the Egyptian ancien régime. On the other hand, he is clearly fascinated by Napoleon and impressed by the French, despite the lamentably poor Arabic used in their proclamations to the population.

He mentions Napoleon’s first divan and his setting up his headquarters in a house that had formerly belonged to the Mameluke emir Mohamed Al-Alfy Bey in the Cairo district of Azbakiyya. The emir had only just finished building it, he adds.

He says the French started making unreasonable tax demands – perhaps he did not realise how desperate they were for money, being effectively cut off from France – and he shows a canny sense of the geopolitical stakes involved in the occupation.

“The French knew they could not achieve their ends against the English except on land, and there was no way for them to achieve them except through India, and of course there is passage to India only through the Red Sea,” he explains of the French decision to invade Egypt. “The English are known for their strength and valour in sea battles, whereas the French are just the opposite,” he adds.

Al-Jabarti describes French attempts at administrative re-organisation, tax collection and ideological legitimation in Egypt. While he reports the view that the French were attempting to go against religious precepts in their re-organisation of tax and inheritance law, his account provides little comfort for those who wish to see the Cairo revolt as an expression of early Egyptian nationalism.

The French put down the revolt with unprecedented ferocity, “like a torrent rushing through the alleys and streets without anything to stop them, like demons from the Devil’s army,” but it was primarily the work of “riff-raff, great crowds of rabble, ruffians, inhabitants of Al-Utuf and Al-Husayniyya, Maghrabis from Al-Fahamin and Kafr Al-Zaghari and Al-Tamma’in, the inhabitants of lodging quarters and the like,” Al-Jabarti feels. Perhaps he was letting his own privileged position in the social order get the better of him.

OUT OF EGYPT: Napoleon was not one to avoid meeting problems head on, and so when it became clear that attempts would be made to retake Egypt from the Levant he led a French expeditionary force across Sinai and into Gaza to meet them, leaving Cairo on 10 February 1799.

Both Roberts and Gueniffey include fascinating accounts of this campaign, which took Napoleon and his increasingly unhappy army into what is now Israel and Palestine, the French forces only halting in May before the walls of Acre. Having failed to take the city, and with much of the army suffering from the plague, Napoleon was forced back to Jaffa, from where he organised the retreat back to Egypt.

He lost some 4,000 men during the Levantine expedition, far more than he had lost in conquering Egypt, but he was still able to defeat the combined Mameluke, Ottoman and Bedouin army sent against him at Aboukir near Alexandria in July.

Roberts says that by this stage it must have appeared little short of absurd to the Directory in Paris “to have France’s best general stuck in a sideshow in the Orient when France itself was under threat of invasion” from the forces of the Second Coalition, now joined by the Ottoman Empire.

Without warning either Kléber or Menou, the generals who were given the task of somehow ensuring an orderly French retreat from Egypt, Napoleon sneaked out of the country on 23 August 1799, taking with him some of his senior staff and some of the scholars brought to man the Institut d’Egypte. The army was left behind.

Kléber, who was later, in June 1800, stabbed to death in Cairo by 24-year-old student Suleiman Al-Halabi, once said, “The Corsican runt has deserted us,” presumably a reference to Napoleon’s birth on the French island of Corsica and his famously diminutive stature.

But what else could Napoleon have done? He could not have evacuated the French army, having no fleet and no way of countering English control of the Mediterranean, and there was nothing further for him to do in Egypt.

Whatever his original plan had been – whether to establish a French colony, to set up a satellite state on the model of those set up in Europe, or to garrison Egypt pending an agreement with the Ottoman Empire – by this point it had surely failed.

As it was, Napoleon was able to return to France an apparently still victorious general, having at least managed to beat the Mamelukes again at Aboukir. Gueniffey says his return was even facilitated by the British, who deliberately managed not to stop his ship from leaving Egypt and thereby helped him bring down the government in Paris in the subsequent coup d’état of 18 Brumaire.

Cole’s verdict on the expedition as a whole is that it “pioneered a form of imperialism that deployed liberal rhetoric and institutions for the extraction of resources and geopolitical advantage.” Liberal, however, is perhaps not quite the right word. It was a rhetoric of liberation, the same rhetoric that Napoleon used in Europe.

Gueniffey hits a more romantic and more authentically Napoleonic note when he records the young general, soon to be French emperor, telling his associates that he intended to “stir up all of Syria … to march on Damascus and Aleppo. As I march through the country, I will enlarge my army with malcontents. I will announce the abolition of slavery and the end of the tyrannical government of the pashas. I will arrive in Constantinople with armed masses. I will overthrow the Turkish Empire.”

None of that came to pass. But the end of the Mameluke regime in Egypt and the publication of the Description de l’Egypte made for a remarkable legacy.

Books mentioned:

Andrew Roberts, Napoleon the Great (London: Penguin, 2015).

Patrice Gueniffey, Bonaparte 1769-1802 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2015).

Juan Cole, Napoleon in Egypt (New York: Palgrave, 2007).

Shmuel Moreh, trans., Napoleon in Egypt, Al-Jabarti’s Chronicle of the French Occupation of 1798 (Princeton: Markus Weiner, 2006).

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