The Uninvited Guest

The Uninvited Guest

Juan Cole’s Napoleon’s Egypt examines the little dictator’s doomed attempt to occupy an Arab country.


Try as we might, it is difficult for most of us to imagine what it’s like for a country to be invaded and occupied. Photographs help: pictures of German troops marching down the Champs-Élysées in 1940 with not a Frenchman in sight, pictures taken that same year of a British policeman on patrol with a German officer in the newly captured British Channel Islands. The terrible incongruity of it all, the violation of what seemed the natural order, the sinister sense of foreboding, of a world turned upside down without any of the familiar certainties to hang onto.

Our best bet, though, for understanding what it’s like to be on the receiving end of a military occupation by foreign soldiers is to watch films made recently in Iraq from an Iraqi point of view. There the sudden appearance of helicopters, or a checkpoint on the road ahead, or the spectacle of British or American soldiers in battle gear entering a busy square, bring an immediate sense of menace. All at once there is shouting from one side, screaming from the other, the sound of doors being kicked in, orders harshly given (often in a foreign language: English, that is), weapons cocked, shooting and explosions. Such confrontations are hardly more pleasant for the soldiers, who find themselves in a strange place, surrounded by what always seems a hostile crowd. If these men have itchy fingers, it’s partly because they are insecure, frightened, angry and scarred from having seen some of their comrades blown to bits.

So it was in Egypt when the country was unexpectedly invaded and occupied by Napoleon’s army in the summer of 1798. The French troops first landed in Alexandria before marching–tired, thirsty and beset by Bedouin irregulars–through the towns and villages to Cairo, parts of which soon turned violently against their new occupiers. Then further military expeditions up and down the land, with none of Napoleon’s soldiers safe anywhere as the initial efforts to woo the native inhabitants only provoked further ambushes and violent acts of resistance and revenge. As Ahmed Hashim puts it so succinctly in his book Insurgency and Counter-Insurgency in Iraq, occupations are resisted simply because they are occupations.

It is Juan Cole’s contribution to the already vast literature on the subject that he brings out the brutality of the encounter between European occupiers and a predominantly Muslim Arab population. In most of the historical literature on Napoleon’s invasion, the French are depicted not as an invading army but as a benevolent expeditionary force, awakening Egypt from its centuries of sleep. On their so-called mission civilisatrice, the French bring the famous savants–the scientists, architects and draftsmen who make sketches of the temples and pyramids, provide pictures and accounts of contemporary Egyptian industrial and agricultural machinery, tell us what Egyptians ate and how they prayed and what they wore. There are battles in such accounts, of course, but even these are presented, from Napoleon himself onward, as short episodes in an otherwise amazing projection of the European Enlightenment toward an Eastern land.

And so it goes. I have in front of me a book, Egypt in 1800: Scenes From Napoleon’s “Description de l’Égypte”, published in 1988, whose co-editor, Robert Anderson, onetime honorary secretary of the Egypt Exploration Society, opens his introduction with the assertion that “Napoleon’s invasion” was a “romantic alternative to an invasion of Britain”; that everywhere the army went it was accompanied by men like Vivant Denon, the future director of the Louvre, who made quick sketches of the Nile temples along his way; and that the French officer pictured in his uniform in the Alexandria bazaar, a tall shako on his head, “looks no more incongruous than European tourists in the traditional quarters of Egypt’s cities today”!

Juan Cole, who combines cool academic scholarship with the more impassioned writing of his daily blog on the Middle East (, will have none of this: no savants, no Rosetta stone. Instead he proposes to study what he calls “cultural encounters” between peoples from two different worlds: some bloody, some tragic, some predictable, some simply hilarious. This is what makes his approach stand out from the more conventional accounts of the French occupation, such as J. Christopher Herold’s still excellent Bonaparte in Egypt (1962).

It is unfortunate that, given the paucity of documents that illustrate the Egyptian side of the story, most of Cole’s material comes from the French. Nevertheless, Cole, a Middle East historian at the University of Michigan, has mined a number of rich, recently discovered memoirs and letters by some highly literate, highly sensitive members of Napoleon’s entourage, mostly soldiers and engineers, whose very different experiences of Egypt do much to bring the personal aspect of these encounters vividly to life.

Not surprisingly, the most intense encounter was the military one. This began even before the French battered their way into Alexandria. The battle then reached full swing as they marched in the summer heat, the most powerful military force the world had yet known, across the desert and down the Nile. Never sure who was attacking, the French troops viewed all their assailants on horseback either as Arabs or Mamluks (not simply “slave-soldiers,” as Cole calls them, but the members of an often wealthy military aristocracy based on imported Christian slaves), while those swarming at them on foot, brandishing clubs and swords and spears, were identified simply as peasants. Some Frenchmen drowned themselves in the Nile or blew out their own brains. Others, according to the grenadier Vigo-Roussillon, “were mutilated or carried away by crocodiles.” One thing they could not do was go home: British Rear Adm. Horatio Nelson’s destruction of Napoleon’s fleet at the so-called Battle of the Nile of August 1-2, 1798 (witnessed dramatically through the flashes and the smoke by one of Cole’s diarists, Prosper Jollois), had bottled them all up.

Since the French, like the Americans more recently in Iraq, never had enough troops to secure any one place for very long, little battles and skirmishes erupted everywhere: in villages that seemed secure, in tiny boats on the Nile, in even smaller skiffs on Manzala Lake, where local fishermen rose up, emitting what one Frenchman described as “a thousand barbaric cries in a furious tone.” Meanwhile, both sides committed acts of brutality, the French burning villages, taking hostages and cutting off the heads of the men they had killed and then mounting them on poles as a warning. Soon Engineer Quartermaster François Bernoyer (in charge of the uniforms department) was writing that “what mortified us most was that Bonaparte used the same methods as the Mamluks.”

Some attempts were made to keep count of the casualties: 1,500 Frenchmen died, according to Nicolas Desvernois, during the initial march to Cairo; 3,000 Egyptians were killed during the three-day Cairo uprising of October 1798, with another 300 beheaded. But there was no count of the blinded, the maimed, the soldiers and civilians incapacitated for life.

Then there was the theater of Napoleon’s project to turn Egypt into a satellite middle-class republic with a Directoire composed of members of the Egyptian ulema (religious leaders), draped uncomfortably in tricolor sashes or, when they refused to wear them, having tricolor cockades attached to their robes. Incomprehensible proclamations were issued by the French with unknown words like “republic” and written in what Abd al-Rahman al-Jabarti, the famous late-eighteenth-century Egyptian chronicler, had much fun ridiculing for its broken Arabic and infelicitous style. Meanwhile Napoleon scrambled to establish himself as a legitimate Muslim ruler, assumed the name of Sultan El-Kebir (the Great Sultan), presided over religious festivals like the Prophet’s birthday and appointed the man to be in charge of one year’s pilgrimage caravan. But all to no avail. It was the same gray-bearded Al-Azhar sheiks whom he sought to woo who led the first great urban revolt against him.

Sex was, of course, central to the colonial encounter, given that the army of some 30,000 Frenchmen was accompanied by only 300 Frenchwomen. Cole describes Napoleon’s own complicated and somewhat adolescent sex life in some detail. The great man even goes so far as to get his adjutant to spill coffee on the dress of an officer’s wife he fancied in order to get her to retire to another room, where he could begin his efforts to seduce her in earnest. But more interesting is the attempt of many of the French letter writers and diarists to purchase pleasure for themselves by buying slave women or pretending to marry them or, in some cases, converting to Islam, as did Gen. Jacques Menou, who renamed himself Abdullah.

Here we get as close to hearing ordinary Egyptian voices as we probably can, subject to the usual male license. While it seems improbable that Bernoyer’s pretend wife whispered her bedtime thanks in the form of “My friend, my sultan, my brother, my souk,” the bargaining of some of the other women, like the Mamluk widow Zulayma, has more of the ring of truth, as she begs her French lover, Captain Moiret, to “pull me out of this detestable country and lead me to France, if ever destiny calls you there.”

Cole, like his French informants, is less sure how to characterize the precise role of Egypt’s female entertainers, the alimas, whom he describes variously as “dancing girls,” geishas and belly dancers. He also mentions the plan of one Captain Say to employ them in some of the new civic performances he had been instructed to organize to promote revolutionary ideals among the inhabitants of Cairo, including, Cole writes, that of the liberation of Egyptian women–still a recurring motif in imperial expeditions in the Muslim world. The fact that the word alima comes from the Arabic root for “knowledge” does suggest some formal training in the arts. But in Egypt, as Flaubert records in his overheated description of his 1850 visit to one such lady, Kuchuk Hanem, her profession was often identified by the less complimentary title of “prostitute.”

Among a host of other encounters that receive briefer treatment are the notably different French and Egyptian attitudes toward the treatment of the plague (the Egyptian methods being the more advanced) and the culinary (Bernoyer found the Egyptian white cheese gibna bayda “disgusting”). More controversial still was what might be called the fiscal encounter when, to pay his troops, Napoleon resorted to a whole host of seizures, forced loans and exactions imposed on everyone from the wealthy wives of the dead or departed Mamluks to the poorer members of Cairo’s many hundreds of tradesmen’s guilds.

And then there was the encounter with Egypt’s heat. Napoleon’s troops marched in woolen uniforms, carrying heavy packs, through a July heat that sometimes reached as high as 115 degrees Fahrenheit. They were, as Gen. Charles François Dugua put it, “roasted by a sky aflame.” They weathered dust storms, flies and mirages–and left behind them a trail of corpses. To make matters worse, their commander, who had no experience of desert warfare, had neglected to provide them with water canteens. In the mad rush for the few wells that had not been spoiled by the local inhabitants, many of the soldiers were simply crushed to death.

Here and there Cole betrays a weaker grasp of Egyptian history. As André Raymond has clearly shown from his study of Egyptian wills, the eighteenth century was not simply one long “disaster,” the real economic problems coming only in its last twenty years. Cole is also confused about the notorious problem of so-called land “ownership,” better understood as a set of rights involving access to the land and its products. And he seems to think that the shortage of small coins was a particular problem at the time of the French occupation–hence the popularity of French uniform buttons–rather than a centuries-old shortcoming of Middle Eastern mints. There are also too many of Cole’s verbal infelicities: “crocs” for Nile crocodiles, Napoleon’s “oversexed” Josephine, Napoleon’s aide “chatt[ing] up” the husband of the beautiful Madame Fourès while his master tries to seduce her in another room. And some of the claims are, frankly, weird, as when Cole credits the French expedition with inventing both the modern belly dance and modern Egyptian tourism.

Napoleon’s Egypt covers just the first year of the occupation. After that we can only assume that much the same dynamic that he has previously described as a cycle of “insurgency, terror and peaceful exchange” continued. (Just over two years later, what remained of the French force was winkled out by the British and allowed to sail home in the summer of 1801, without their arms and without the Rosetta stone.) Of course, one can also imagine a learning process by which the French began to replace their overly romantic expectations with the hard-won military/colonial knowledge of a General Petraeus. But as far as I know, no one has yet done this kind of detailed research.

While the exact meaning of this peculiarly modern occupation tended to escape those mostly Egyptian and French academics who attempted to celebrate its 200th anniversary in 1998, Cole’s concentration on the military and cultural aspects of the encounter gives it something of a newer and richer contemporary meaning. Much less convincing is his claim that the French occupation of Egypt was the most important cultural encounter between Christian Europe and the Muslim Middle East since the Crusades, and that France’s moment in Egypt was a world-historical event. “In his often cruel and cynical way,” Cole writes, “Napoleon was inventing what we now call ‘the modern Middle East,'” a risible claim that, apart from the use of the trendy notion of “invention” itself, suggests that it is open to single great men not only to bring into being new geostrategic concepts at the stroke of a pen but also, avant la lettre and regardless of the precise historical period in which they operated, to “pioneer” a “form of imperialism that deployed liberal rhetoric and institutions for the extraction of resources and geopolitical advantage.” This formulation makes Napoleon sound suspiciously like George W. Bush, while giving too much weight to an event that, however strange, bloody and bizarre, is important more for its significance in Middle Eastern history than in European. Indeed, the principal result of Napoleon’s invasion was not to establish a pattern of colonial domination but to force the region’s leaders to respond to the obvious threat posed by this remarkable projection of French military, and then British naval, power.

As for Egypt, many other invasions soon followed. A relatively small British military force landed at Alexandria and was repelled in 1807. Then came hundreds of upper-class British tourists deprived of their usual European grand tour. Then a motley band of archeologists, tomb robbers, cotton merchants and exponents of the supposed aphrodisiac powers of medicines made from crunched-up mummified people and animals. Meanwhile, Egypt’s own Napoleon, its new ruler, Muhammad Ali, emerged from the Nile Valley with his new army, levied French-style from the native peasants. Ali would lead his forces into Arabia, Palestine, what became Syria and Lebanon, and the Sudan. And Egypt’s occupation of most of its neighbors lasted longer than the French occupation of Egypt.

In a sense, Cole’s title is misleading. For as his book suggests from the start, Egypt never was, and never could be, Napoleon’s. No less improbable was “Cromer’s Egypt,” as many referred to it after the British occupation in 1882. Nor could there be “Nasser’s Egypt,” although Gamal Abdel Nasser had a stronger claim, having rid the country of foreign rulers and foreign occupiers after many centuries. The title (if nothing else) of Paul Bremer’s account of his stewardship, My Year in Iraq, seems nicely modest by comparison.

Dear reader,

I hope you enjoyed the article you just read. It’s just one of the many deeply-reported and boundary-pushing stories we publish everyday at The Nation. In a time of continued erosion of our fundamental rights and urgent global struggles for peace, independent journalism is now more vital than ever.

As a Nation reader, you are likely an engaged progressive who is passionate about bold ideas. I know I can count on you to help sustain our mission-driven journalism.

This month, we’re kicking off an ambitious Summer Fundraising Campaign with the goal of raising $15,000. With your support, we can continue to produce the hard-hitting journalism you rely on to cut through the noise of conservative, corporate media. Please, donate today.

A better world is out there—and we need your support to reach it.


Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

Ad Policy