Napoleon in Egypt: The Lessons of History

My glory is declining. This little corner of Europe is too small to supply it. We must go East. All the great men of the world have there acquired their celebrity.

~ Napoleon Bonaparte

One of the fascinating things about the history of Western civilization is its recurrent bouts of manic utopianism. Stretching back at least to Alexander the Great, movements have appeared with astonishing regularity organized around various abstract philosophies agitating for a new, "higher" stage of human existence and social perfection. The Inquisitions, the Crusades, communism, fascism, etc., have never brought utopia, but they have left a horrible trail of blood and sorrow.

It is a matter of historical curiosity that this behavior is predominantly a trait of Western civilization. Only rarely have non-Western societies been consumed by a fiery creed which has prompted them to engage in massive ideological bloodletting or fanatical attempts to convert the world by force of arms. Pol Pot and Chairman Mao, both of whom engaged in mass ideologically-driven domestic atrocities, are perhaps the exceptions that prove the rule.

What is the origin of this Western neurosis? Is it nature or nurture? Can the West be cured?

It was with just such thoughts in my mind that I recently perused Alan Moorehead’s classic book The Blue Nile. First published in 1962, it is a wonderful historical narrative of the storied branch of the Nile River which originates in the highlands of Ethiopia.

While the whole book is filled with fascinating tales and poignant historical anecdotes, the contemporary reader is drawn to the middle portion which tells the story of Napoleon’s ill-fated attempt at nation-building in Egypt. The tale reinforces Marx’s dictum that history repeats itself, first as tragedy and then as farce.

By 1798, the French Revolutionaries had largely succeeded in stamping out any domestic resistance to their radical reconstruction of French society. The Church was persecuted, "reactionaries" were beheaded, and everything from the calendar to the system of weights and measures was remade in order to create a "more perfect social order".

The time had come to export their revolution to the benighted masses of the world. Napoleon Bonaparte, a Corsican with proper revolutionary credentials, had just completed a series of stunning victories in Italy. Still only a citizen-General, he cast his eyes about for a new field of conquest. Eventually, he settled on Egypt. At that time, Egypt had been ruled for nearly 500 years by a curious caste of slave-warriors called Mamelukes. Originally subservient to the Ottoman Sultan, by the late 1700s they had become largely independent of the Turks. Since Mameluke rule was undeniably brutal and corrupt, Egypt made a nice target for the utopian impulses of the French Revolutionaries. The fact that Egypt was rich with booty and sat atop the shortest route for the British to get to India was merely a "convenient coincidence".

Napoleon went to great lengths to play up the revolutionary aspect of the expedition. He first went to the intellectuals:

"Bonaparte’s influence upon the intellectuals of the Institut de France seems even more remarkable. Success, of course, is infectious, and in every age intellectuals have always been charmed by literate men of action, but Bonaparte appears to have roused the Institut as though it were a corps of cadets about to follow him into battle. They invite him to become a member, and they are delighted by the modest air with which he reads papers, astonished at his knowledge and flattered by his interest in their work. All at once respectable men of science and letters, men like Monge and Berthollet who are many years his senior, can think of nothing so exciting as going off on a military expedition to Egypt. The young commander is more than welcoming. He wants them all on his staff, engineers, geologists, mathematicians, chemists, zoologists, astronomers, geographers, mineralogists, archaeologists, arabists, poets, and painters; and in the end, almost without realizing what was happening to them, these sedentary and studious men really do become another corps of cadets following young Caesar into battle."

This was no war of banal plunder (at least not on the surface). This was going to be an historic struggle to bring enlightenment to the backwaters of the Middle East.

As Napoleon’s flagship, appropriately christened L’Orient, approached Egypt, he sent a message to the people stating that his intentions were merely to liberate them from the oppression of the Mamelukes. He played up his friendship with the Sultan and his respect for Islam.

Moorehead notes:

"At this stage, Bonaparte still believed that the Sultan might be won over…Bonaparte himself, when he later dressed in Moslem clothes in Cairo and attempted to set up a kind of self-government among the imams and notables there, may really have deluded himself briefly that he might be accepted by the Egyptians as one of themselves."

The major combat operations phase of the expedition went rather smoothly. Napoleon engaged the Mamelukes in a brief series of skirmishes that culminated in the Battle of the Pyramids outside of Cairo. The Mamelukes were initially unprepared for modern European weapons and tactics, and suffered heavy casualties in mass frontal assaults.

As the French settled into their new role as masters of the Nile, the Egyptian people were not fooled one bit by the propaganda. They judged Napoleon to be no different than a long line of conquerors going back to Biblical times:

"In this shut-in, hothouse atmosphere, where the people were absorbed to the limit in their own parochial affairs, the energetic, proselytizing spirit of the French made no sense at all, and all their revolutionary talk of liberty, equality, and fraternity was merely rhetoric. This was a truth Bonaparte still had to learn. The Egyptian imams and sheikhs who were confused about so much else were not taken in for two minutes by his declaration that he had come to rescue them from the Mamelukes. They knew that he wanted the power for himself and (unlike the Mamelukes), they suspected that it was useless to resist him. He could come to Cairo as a successful general, as a substitute for the Mamelukes, as one more new tyrant (and an infidel at that) to be added to the rest, or not at all; he could never hope to enter into partnership with Egyptians. It was at the very core of their nature to resist all governments in a passive and dissembling way, to defeat the tax-gatherer, to cheat the magistrates and to avoid military service. Behind the locked doors of their houses and in their mosques they had their own brand of equality, fraternity, and liberty, and it had nothing to do with their rulers."

As the occupation wore on, the French were ground between the passive resistance of the masses and the new, guerilla tactics of the Mamelukes and the Bedouins. The French decided to set up a government comprised of "friendly natives" (who were quickly branded as collaborators by the Egyptians). The people also grew increasingly disillusioned with various French reforms of their government.

Moorehead continues:

"…what the French appeared to be offering them was not freedom but a new sort of subservience, worse than the one they had known before because it was alien and strange. The Mamelukes had been lax in gathering taxes, but the French were proving very thorough; they employed Copts and Greeks to ferret out the last piaster and it was difficult to come to some comfortable arrangement with a bribe. The proposed census was going to make concealment even harder…they had no need for canals, new weights and measures, and new schools. Above all, they hated Christian interference in their private lives. They did not believe Bonaparte’s protestations of his respect for Muhammad, nor were they much impressed by his dressings-up in turban and caftan or the great celebrations he ordered for the birthday of the Prophet; every move his soldiers made was an affront to the Muhammadan way of life."

Inevitably, an organized resistance began to form. Bit by bit, it became more effective in carrying out surprise attacks on the occupying French army.

"It was soon realized that the campaign which had opened so brilliantly had only just begun, and was about to enter a new phase; in place of pitched battles which were short and victorious they were faced with guerilla warfare which promised to be long and hard."

Gradually, it began to dawn on Bonaparte that the occupation was a no-win situation. Also, he began to receive messages from Paris that the revolutionary government was in a shambles. Since he had bigger fish to fry, Napoleon decided that it was a good time to make his exit from the Egyptian campaign.

Leaving his army behind to continue slugging it out with the guerillas, Napoleon gathered his entourage of intellectuals and sycophants and headed home.

Moorehead describes the scene:

"Early on August 22, Bonaparte boarded the Murion, which was waiting two miles out from the same beach at Marabu where he had first come ashore in Egypt fourteen months before. All his fellow passengers agreed that the general was in the best of spirits on the hazardous voyage home. As they ran along the North African coast to Cape Bon, he played vingt-et-un, discussed geometry and physics with Monge, and drew them all into his schemes for the future. They hardly saw another ship until they touched in at Corsica, and then, on October 9, seven weeks after leaving Egypt, ran in through the British blockade to St. Raphael. A month later, Bonaparte was dictator of France."

While Napoleon certainly landed on his feet, his army was left trapped behind the British blockade fighting an increasingly desperate war with Egyptian partisans, Mameluke "dead-enders" and Turkish troops sent by the Sultan to recover his lost province. They struggled on for another year and a half until a negotiated settlement was reached and the survivors could be evacuated back to France.

After their departure, Egypt quickly drifted back to its traditional status-quo.

"It was a sad end to a great adventure, and it created the impression that Bonaparte had accomplished nothing very much in Egypt. The Suez Canal was not dug, the new boulevards and waterways in Cairo were abandoned, French military law was forgotten along with their new scheme for weights and measures, their hospitals, their census and their proposed dams along the river."

Egypt descended into a horrible civil war between various factions in the wake of the French withdrawal. After a great deal of death and destruction, an Albanian soldier of fortune named Muhammad Ali emerged victorious. Moorehead notes with a sad irony:

"…the Egyptians, after a decade of invasion and civil war, could now subside once more into the familiar comforts and miseries of Oriental despotism."

This story has everything that a modern observer of American Middle Eastern policy could desire. It was set in an exotic Muslim land enduring many years of an oppressive and corrupt government. It starred a radical Western leader with dreams of remaking the world. There was a copious quantity of propaganda that the invasion would bring enlightenment and freedom to a benighted people. There was a quick and brilliant military "cakewalk" as the invading army used modern tactics and weapons to overwhelm all resistance and set up a puppet government. There was a gradual erosion of goodwill between the occupier and the occupied, culminating in a vicious guerilla war. And, in the end, it was the common French soldier and the hapless civilians of the targeted land who paid the price for the whole sordid affair.

Ironically, a French crusade for liberty in the Middle East ended with despotism in Egypt and the lapse of France herself into the grips of a military dictatorship.

There are numerous morals to this story which America would do well to heed, since those who do not learn from history are often condemned to repeat it.