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Bush's Napoleonic Folly | The Nation

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Bush's Napoleonic Folly

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Editor's Note: This story originally appeared on TomDispatch.

"Heads Must Roll"

About the Author

Juan Cole
Juan Cole, who maintains the blog Informed Comment, is the Richard P. Mitchell Collegiate Professor of History at the...

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In both eighteenth century Egypt and twenty-first century Iraq, the dreary reality on the ground stood as a reproach to, if not a wicked satire upon, these high-minded pronouncements. The French landed at the port of Alexandria on July 1, 1798. Two and a half weeks later, as the French army advanced along the Nile toward Cairo, a unit of Gen. Jean Reynier's division met opposition from 1,800 villagers, many armed with muskets. Sgt. Charles Francois recalled a typical scene. After scaling the village walls and "firing into those crowds," killing "about 900 men," the French confiscated the villagers' livestock--"camels, donkeys, horses, eggs, cows, sheep"--then "finished burning the rest of the houses, or rather the huts, so as to provide a terrible object lesson to these half-savage and barbarous people."

On July 24, Bonaparte's Army of the Orient entered Cairo and he began reorganizing his new subjects. He grandiosely established an Egyptian Institute for the advancement of science and gave thought to reforming police, courts, and law. But terror lurked behind everything he did. He wrote Gen. Jacques Menou, who commanded the garrison at the Mediterranean port of Rosetta, saying, "The Turks [Egyptians] can only be led by the greatest severity. Every day I cut off five or six heads in the streets of Cairo.... [T]o obey, for them, is to fear." (Mounting severed heads on poles for viewing by terrified passers-by was another method the French used in Egypt...)

That August, the Delta city of Mansura rose up against a small French garrison of about 120 men, chasing them into the countryside, tracking the blue coats down, and methodically killing all but two of them. In early September, the Delta village of Sonbat, inhabited in part by Bedouin of the western Dirn tribe, also rose up against the Europeans. Bonaparte instructed one of his generals, "Burn that village! Make a terrifying example of it." After the French army had indeed crushed the rebellious peasants and chased away the Bedouin, Gen. Jean-Antoine Verdier reported back to Bonaparte with regard to Sonbat, "You ordered me to destroy this lair. Very well, it no longer exists."

The most dangerous uprisings confronting the French were, however, in Cairo. In October, much of the city mobilized to attack the more than 20,000 French troops occupying the capital. The revolt was especially fierce in the al-Husayn district, where the ancient al-Azhar madrassa (or seminary) trained 14,000 students, where the city's most sacred mosque stood, and where wealth was concentrated in the merchants and guilds of the Khan al-Khalili bazaar. At the same time, the peasants and Bedouin of the countryside around Cairo rose in rebellion, attacking the small garrisons that had been deployed to pacify them.

Bonaparte put down this Egyptian "revolution" with the utmost brutality, subjecting urban crowds to artillery barrages. He may have had as many rebels executed in the aftermath as were killed in the fighting. In the countryside, his officers' launched concerted campaigns to decimate insurgent villages. At one point, the French are said to have brought 900 heads of slain insurgents to Cairo in bags and ostentatiously dumped them out before a crowd in one of that city's major squares to instill Cairenes with terror. (Two centuries later, the American public would come to associate decapitations by Muslim terrorists in Iraq with the ultimate in barbarism, but even then hundreds such beheadings were not carried out at once.)

The American deployment of terror against the Iraqi population has, of course, dwarfed anything the French accomplished in Egypt by orders of magnitude. After four mercenaries, one a South African, were killed in Falluja in March of 2004 and their bodies desecrated, President Bush is alleged to have said "heads must roll" in retribution.

An initial attack on the city faltered when much of the Iraqi government threatened to resign and it was clear major civilian casualties would result. The crushing of the city was, however, simply put off until after the American presidential election in November. When the assault, involving air power and artillery, came, it was devastating, damaging two-thirds of the city's buildings and turning much of its population into refugees. (As a result, thousands of Fallujans still live in the desert in tent villages with no access to clean water.)

Bush must have been satisfied. Heads had rolled. More often, faced with opposition, the U.S. Air Force simply bombed already-occupied cities, a technology Bonaparte (mercifully) lacked. The strategy of ruling by terror and swift, draconian punishment for acts of resistance was, however, the same in both cases.

The British sank much of the French fleet on August 1, 1798, marooning Bonaparte and his troops in their newly conquered land. In the spring of 1799, the French army tried--and failed--to break out through Syria; after which Bonaparte himself chose the better part of valor. He slipped out of Egypt late that summer, returning to France. There, he would swiftly stage a coup and come to power as First Consul, giving him the opportunity to hone his practice of bringing freedom to other countries--this time in Europe. By 1801, joint British-Ottoman forces had defeated the French in Egypt, who were transported back to their country on British vessels. This first Western invasion of the Middle East in modern times had ended in serial disasters that Bonaparte would misrepresent to the French public as a series of glorious triumphs.

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