French Egypt and American Iraq can be considered bookends on the history of modern imperialism in the Middle East. The Bush administration’s already failed version of the conquest of Iraq is, of course, on everyone’s mind; while the French conquest of Egypt, now more than two centuries past, is all too little remembered, despite having been led by Napoleon Bonaparte, whose career has otherwise hardly languished in obscurity. There are many eerily familiar resonances between the two misadventures, not least among them that both began with supreme arrogance and ended as fiascoes. Above all, the leaders of both occupations employed the same basic political vocabulary and rhetorical flimflammery, invoking the spirit of liberty, security, and democracy while largely ignoring the substance of these concepts.
The French general and the American president do not much resemble one another–except perhaps in the way the prospect of conquest in the Middle East appears to have put fire in their veins and in their unappealing tendency to believe their own propaganda (or at least to keep repeating it long after it became completely implausible). Both leaders invaded and occupied a major Arabic-speaking Muslim country; both harbored dreams of a “Greater Middle East”; both were surprised to find themselves enmeshed in long, bitter, debilitating guerrilla wars. Neither genuinely cared about grassroots democracy, but both found its symbols easy to invoke for gullible domestic publics. Substantial numbers of their new subjects quickly saw, however, that they faced occupations, not liberations.
My own work on Bonaparte’s lost year in Egypt began in the mid-1990s, and I had completed about half of Napoleon’s Egypt: Invading the Middle East before September 11, 2001. I had no way of knowing then that a book on such a distant, scholarly subject would prove an allegory for Bush’s Iraq War. Nor did I guess that the United States would give old-style colonialism in the Middle East one last try, despite clear signs that the formerly colonized would no longer put up with such acts and had, in the years since World War II, gained the means to resist them.
The Republic Militant Goes to War
In June of 1798, as his enormous flotilla–36,000 soldiers, thousands of sailors, and hundreds of scientists on 12 ships of the line–swept inexorably toward the Egyptian coast, the young General Napoleon Bonaparte issued a grandiose communiqué to the bewildered and seasick troops he was about to march into the desert without canteens or reasonable supplies of water. He declared, “Soldiers! You are about to undertake a conquest, the effects of which on civilization and commerce are incalculable.”
The prediction was as tragically inaccurate in its own way as the pronouncement George W. Bush issued some two centuries later, on May 1, 2003, also from the deck of a great ship of the line, the aircraft carrier the USS Abraham Lincoln. “Today,” he said, “we have the greater power to free a nation by breaking a dangerous and aggressive regime. With new tactics and precision weapons, we can achieve military objectives without directing violence against civilians.”
Both men were convinced that their invasions were announcing new epochs in human history. Of the military vassals of the Ottoman Empire who then ruled Egypt, Bonaparte predicted: “The Mameluke Beys who favor exclusively English commerce, whose extortions oppress our merchants, and who tyrannize over the unfortunate inhabitants of the Nile, a few days after our arrival will no longer exist.”