In July 1798 Napoleon invaded Egypt with an army of 35,000 strong. Egypt was invaded for strategic concessions but in truth, there were multiple reasons why the French chose to invade. These reasons include both commercial and colonial aspirations. It was also opportunistic in nature, taking advantage of a much weakened Ottoman state. Yet all these completion concerns may have also contributed to the expedition’s ultimate failure. It says the argument of this essay that the British and Ottoman resistance, as well as competing mission objectives found from amongst the French themselves, played a part in the French defeat and failure to annex Egypt.
Egypt has always been an enticing target for would be Invaders. Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians and Romans had all claimed Egypt at different points in history. This was mainly because the river Nile made the mass cultivation of grain very easy. The Rivers flood season happens gradually, none violently, and predictably at the same time every year. So it was not an entirely random place to want to invade. Even in the 19th century when economic and political realities had to changed, Egypt still found itself in the center of world affairs. French interests in Egypt go back to the 15th century. When in 1536 France signed a treaty with the Ottoman Empire, who had ruled Egypt from the 14th century. This Alliance was mainly a marriage of convenience between the two nations who were both enemies of the Austrian Empire (Then called the Holy Roman Empire). From that time on wards Egyptian grain had flooded into the south of France from the Mediterranean trade route, and French traders found their way abroad to Alexandria using that same trade route. In 1798 this interaction had been the same for almost 250 years. The French, who had just come out of a revolution and were now fighting most of Europe including Britain and Austria, decided to invade Egypt because it was surrounded on all sides by continental enemies. Much of its colonial Empire had been taken away or were left to their own devices and vitally needed resources were not making their way to France.Invading Egypt for colonial expansion however, was not a new idea. The French had even thought about the colonial possibilities of growing sugarcane in Egypt from 1763 when France had lost most of her Colonial Empire in America to Great Britain. They even drew up plans to build the canal to join the Mediterranean with the Red Sea. It was these colonial interests that were brought up again in the wake of the war of the second coalition, in order to help France expand what it called “le grande Nation”. In July 1797 the French minister Charles Maurice de Talleyrand began to build on this older dream. In his view Egypt could be a new sugar producing colony for France.
Talleyrand was influential in the new French government of the day, the Directory.He managed to convince one of the Directors, a man called the Lazare Carnot, to order the expedition. At this time Napoleon Bonaparte had just completed successfully fighting against the Austrians in the Italy. He was given the job of trying to figure out how to invade Britain. When he heard about the ordered expedition to Egypt he had himself put in command, through the influence of his Talleyrand. Napoleon was a very effective self-publicist and he knew that whoever prosecuted this conquest successfully would be immortalized in France. He was granted the mission by arguing successfully that he could cut Britain off from her vital colony, India. From Egypt it may have also been possible to supply Franc’s ally in India, the Tippu Sultan of Mysore. Napoleon also romanticized Egypt writing, “Europe is too small; I must go to the east, the fountain of Glory.” Egypt was of course regarded as the Cradle of Civilization and Napoleon believed himself to be the ultimate child of the revolution. So he had a strong will to bring republican civilization to Egypt. This sentiment was echoed in France. One French Director pointed out, “what finer enterprise for nation which has already given Liberty to Europe and freedom to America then to regenerate a country which was the first time to civilization”. This opinion highlighted a sense of modern Western superiority, believing that modern Egyptian civilization had fallen from its classical grandeur. This was much more than simple rhetoric however, Napoleon would take a team of 167 intellectuals bringing with them everything from butterfly nets to printing presses. The French set their sights on Egypt for a multitude of reasons in the end, Egypt’s strategic value, Colonial and commercial possibilities, spreading modern French civilization and Napoleon Bonaparte’s towering ambitions.
Napoleon had printed a proclamation to the Egyptian people, which his soldiers distributed as they broke into Alexandria. He stated that the French had come to restore Egyptian freedom and destroy the Mameluke oppressors. The Mamelukes were originally a regiment of elite slave troops from the Caucasus. They had come to take control over Egypt, even though it was nominally still an Ottoman territory.Napoleon’s proclamation was tone deaf politically because even though the Mamelukes did not come from Egypt originally, they had ruled Egypt for centuries (1250-1517), long before the Ottomans came. They were certainly considered more Egyptian then the Ottomans were. In fact this proclamation promising Equal Rights for all men alienated many Egyptians who followed Sharia law, which enabled the ownership of slaves, had rigid social rules and set a clear societal place for women, as well as Dhimmi (Non Islamic but tolerated peoples), at the time. These gender politics cut both ways, as the Egyptians generally viewed the revolutionary agnostic and sexually liberated French as immoral. “I worship God more than the Mamelukes do. I respect his prophet Muhammad and the admirable Quran”. Bonaparte was trying to gain the allegiance of the educated elites and the Muslim clergy. He had even at one point said that he would convert to Islam. These grand statements were never taken seriously. These manifestos were also translated quite poorly into Arabic and they contained a mismatch of French Revolutionary ideas and Islamic references. The Egyptian cleric and scholar Al-Jabarti wrote a satirical commentary on these proclamations. Giving voice to the Egyptians Napoleon had hoped to win over. He wrote, “Here is an explanation of the incoherent words and vulgar Constructions put into this miserable letter”.
Meanwhile the actual military campaign was yielding un-even results. Despite capturing Alexandria and defeating the Mamelukes at Cairo. The French army who were used to foraging for food as they marched, found the desert not hospitable to this strategy. Many men died of dehydration, some even took their own lives along the desert roads. It was also hell on the Egyptian people as well, as French soldiers would routinely execute villagers who would not handover food. The Mamelukes were driven out of northern Egypt, but disaster struck on the 1st of August 1798 when Admiral Horatio Nelson destroyed the French fleet at Anchor at the Battle of the Nile. This not only trapped the French army in Egypt, but also cut off any hope of fresh supplies from France. This meant but the French Invasion had become an occupation. Napoleon however, displaying what had become his trademark energy as well as stubbornness, doubled down on his policy to try bring French civilization to Egypt. He set up a new government structure, creating new councils called divans. To serve on these councils he appointed legal scholars and religious leaders, from both the Muslim and Coptic Christian communities. He appeared to have learnt from as early a mistake of not appealing to the religious elites. This welding together of Revolutionary ideals and the Islamic world failed to mix well and people hated it. Napoleon was derisively called, Ali Bonaparte. It must be said however that some of the changes were successful. For example, the French built new schools, hospitals and post offices.The Egyptian population however, almost universally resented the French presence in their country.
The Ottomans were also about to make their move. The French ambassador had tried and failed to convince them that they were really just trying oust the Mamelukes from power. The Ottomans now joined in alliance with the British and the two factions planned two pronged attack. The Ottoman Army would march down to Egypt through the Levant (Syria, Lebanon and Palestine). The British Royal Navy would shadow the army. The French Army tried to pre-empt this by invading north through Syria. The French were stopped at the fortress town of Acre. Napoleon met stubborn resistance there because the Royal Navy kept the town well supplied with provisions and fresh Ottoman troops. The inability to capture the town coupled with the fact that the French Army had lost 3,000 men to plague demoralized the French. The French Army marched back to Egypt, fighting Mameluke and Ottoman Armies along the way. Napoleon left Egypt soon after to tend to matters in Europe. The rest of the French Army surrendered to the British. The French experiment in Egypt had failed.
The French Invasion was a failure in every respect except for perhaps one. Those 167 scientist and artist that Napoleon had brought to Egypt, brought back vital information about that country to Europe. They chronicled there finding in the much celebrated Description de l’Egypte. This work was a hit with the trendy Parisian elites who became obsessed with Egypt. The Rosetta stone had also been discovered and it was eventually translated by a French linguist named Jean François Champollion. Much of what we know today about Egypt is in fact in large part due to these non-military civilians who followed the army. It is for that reason that the invasion should be remembered, however by unintended consequence or not, the study of Egyptology grew out of this campaigned.
The Invasion of Egypt was doomed from the start. Napoleon had not researched the land he wished to conquer or the people he wished to rule. He arrogantly assumed that by using surface deep Islamic references and imagery he could appeal to the Egyptians to adopt French culture. Even before setting foot in Egypt the French seemed split in the intended objectives of the invasion. Some wanted to create a French colony that would produce sugar, others wanted to cut off Britain from India and some wanted to spread the ideals of the French revolution. Still others wanted a scientific expedition. By trying to achieve all of these aims Napoleon shot himself and the campaign in the foot. Added to this the Egyptian people were dogged and brave in their resistance. Not only silently objecting but as has been shown, often loudly and openly criticizing the occupation. This more than anything else ensured that Le Grande Nation would for the moment remain a little smaller.