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Freedom at Gunpoint


January 6, 2008




Invading the Middle East.

By Juan Cole.

Illustrated. 279 pp. Palgrave Macmillan. $24.95.


In early 1798 the Directory, the oligarchy that was ruling revolutionary France, ordered its top general, Napoleon Bonaparte, to plan the invasion of England. Instead, Napoleon organized and carried out the invasion of Egypt, which became the first modern incursion by the West into the Middle East.

As the most strategic Middle Eastern nation in the days before oil, Egypt was the key to controlling Jerusalem and the overland trade routes to India, the source of so much British wealth. The Expédition d’Égypte, as the French persist in calling the operation to this day, was supposed to cripple the British Empire without the risk of a frontal assault. There were also French schemes for turning Egypt into a vast sugar plantation and for digging the Suez Canal. Most of all, for Napoleon, who modeled himself on classical conquerors (“I saw myself on the road to Asia, riding on an elephant, a turban on my head”), Egypt was the first step in a grand dream of a Pan-Asian empire.

Most books on the expedition focus on the outsize characters of Napoleon and his staff, men like his towering second in command, Gen. Jean-Baptiste Kléber, who was eventually stabbed to death by a fanatical Muslim, or Gen. Jacques Menou, who converted to Islam. But in “Napoleon’s Egypt,” Juan Cole, who teaches history at the University of Michigan and writes a widely cited blog on current United States policy in the Muslim world, mostly ignores these larger-than-life characters to present the invasion and occupation through Egyptian eyes. Cole says his work “attends more closely than have others ... to the interplay of the ideas of the French revolutionary period with Ottoman and Egyptian ways of life,” and what it lacks in narrative drive and coherence, it makes up for in fascinating quotations, mostly from contemporary memoirs and diaries, and in an analysis that suggests comparisons to the current American adventure in Iraq.

Napoleon’s plan was for his army to arrive in Egypt not as conquerors but liberators. Landing in Aboukir Bay on July 1, 1798, the French captured Alexandria the next day, overcoming the surprised Mamelukes — the despotic local rulers — with a combination of modern artillery and infantry tactics. In a proclamation distributed in Arabic, Napoleon declared that he was a defender of Islam, come to liberate the Egyptians from tyranny. He took advantage of the fact that most revolutionary French soldiers were deists or atheists to suggest that this meant they were in fact “muslims” — “with a small ‘m,’ ” as Cole points out — because their rejection of the Trinity meant they had “submitted to the one God.”

Cole speculates that Napoleon’s “Proclamation to the Egyptians” failed largely because it was so badly translated into Arabic. “The French,” he writes, “first appeared to the small elite of literate Egyptians through the filter of a barbarous accent and writing style, making them seem rather ridiculous, despite Bonaparte’s imperial pretensions.”

From Alexandria the French advanced to Cairo, and near the pyramids they vanquished a vast army of Mameluke horsemen, cutting down the charging Egyptian riders with grim efficiency. The Mameluke leader Murad Bey fled to Upper Egypt to wage a brutal insurgency, along with the Bedouin tribes, against the occupiers. Meanwhile, on Aug. 1, Admiral Nelson discovered the French beachhead, and in what became known as the Battle of the Nile, destroyed the French fleet. Cut off, with no means of outside supply, Napoleon’s expeditionary army was forced to attempt to become true rulers of Egypt.

All through the summer and early fall of 1798 Napoleon tried to establish a pro-French representative government and to modernize Cairo. His ships had famously ferried over not just soldiers but a small army of French mathematicians, inventors, scientists, artists and writers, and these savants explored the pyramids, discovered the Rosetta stone and assembled material for the “Description de l’Égypte,” the 24-volume masterpiece that was published years later. They also did things like map Cairo (which was larger than Paris at the time), illuminate its streets, construct hospitals, supervise elections and even help feed the population by building modern bakeries.

When the people of Cairo revolted, in October 1798, they made a point of assassinating the bakers. The uprising, and its bloody repression by the French, turned the occupation into a series of escalating atrocities on both sides. Plague struck Cairo, as it did so often in the 18th century, and the French soldiers took to avoiding human contact by handling their orders with wooden pincers. Still, the disease devastated occupiers and occupied alike, and the locals took the combination of uprising and plague as a signal to double their attacks on all Frenchmen and collaborators. (Cole gives an interesting explanation, not available in other accounts, of how the Egyptians had exploited outbreaks of plague in the years before Napoleon’s arrival as a means of fending off Ottoman control of the region, and hence were well versed in the tactics of using local misery to defeat benevolent foreign occupiers.)

Napoleon’s secretary, Louis Bourrienne, summed up the emerging French point of view of the expedition: “Egypt was no longer the empire of the Ptolemies, covered with populous and wealthy cities; it now presented one unvaried scene of devastation and misery. Instead of being aided by the inhabitants, whom we had ruined ... we found all against us. ... No Frenchman was secure of his life who happened to stray half a mile from any inhabited place, or the corps to which he belonged.”

The Expédition d’Égypte has often been remembered as the starting point for Egyptology or for foreshadowing Napoleon’s later campaigns, but the current disaster in Iraq may finally reframe it as the colossal premonitory event it was. Cole notes that “only four times in modern history have Muslim clerics come to power in the Middle East: under the republican French in Egypt, under Khomeini and his successors in Iran, under the Taliban in Afghanistan and, it could be argued, with the victory of the United Iraqi Alliance in the Iraq elections of 30 January, 2005 (the U.I.A. was led by Shiite cleric Abdul Aziz al-Hakim). The first and fourth times both took place with Western, Enlightenment backing.”

It’s a suggestive point, presented in passing without being developed. That’s unfortunate, because Cole is best when he organizes his material around argument and analysis, not storytelling. (He states in the acknowledgments that he aims to produce “an intimate history, of what the French Annales school calls ‘mentalités,’ that is, a history of mind-sets.”) As a result, his book is more suited to students of the region than to casual readers, and those looking for an exciting, comprehensive narrative history of the whole expedition are advised to hunt down Paul Strathern’s book “Napoleon in Egypt,” which was published in England earlier this year.

Cole basically ends his account in 1799, but the French remained in Egypt for another two years, until they finally surrendered to the British on Sept. 2, 1801 — turning over, among other things, the prized Rosetta stone. Before he departed in October 1799, Napoleon captured Gaza and Jaffa (part of modern Tel Aviv), but the roguish Sir Sidney Smith engineered a huge British victory at Acre, the city known as “the key to Palestine.” The magnitude of the defeat was such that Napoleon later declared, “That man made me miss my destiny.”

Napoleon may have thought that it was Sir Sidney who made him miss his destiny, but his own misunderstanding of the Middle East was the real culprit. Bourrienne captured the truth when he lamented that Egypt was no longer the empire of the Ptolemies — General Ptolemy had been a Macedonian officer in the invading army of Alexander, and yet the Egyptians accepted him and his descendants as pharaohs for the next three centuries, until Cleopatra, the last of the Ptolemies, committed suicide. The 18th-century Egyptians were not about to accept a new Ptolemy in the form of a Corsican French general, no matter what modern marvels and liberties Napoleon promised them.

Tom Reiss, the author of “The Orientalist,” is writing a biography of Gen. Alexandre Dumas. 

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