Split vision marks Mideast perception of Napoleon’s legacy

On his bicentenary, the Corsican general’s scientific contribution is recognised but his authoritarian and militaristic tendencies are rejected as offering a counter-model to modern Middle East.
Saturday 08/05/2021
A woman walks by a board painted with the image of Napoleon Bonaparte in Ajaccio. (AFP)
A woman walks by a board painted with the image of Napoleon Bonaparte in Ajaccio. (AFP)

CAIRO--Napoleon Bonaparte’s bloody campaign in Egypt and Palestine, which marked the start of modern European colonialism in the Middle East, remains contentious two centuries after the French emperor’s death.

His authoritarian and militaristic tendencies are rejected as offering a counter-model to modern Middle East.

The Corsican general set sail eastwards with 300 ships in 1798, aiming to conquer Egypt and block a crucial route between Britain and its colonial territories in India.

“Fire and light’ 

It was an occupation that was to leave thousands dead in Egypt and Palestine.

But Bonaparte also brought some 160 scholars and engineers, who produced mountains of research that would play a key role in transforming Egypt into a modern state.

For Egyptian writer Mohamed Salmawy, speaking ahead of the May 5 bicentenary of Napoleon’s death, the venture was a mix of “fire and light”.

“It was a military campaign, for sure and Egyptians put up resistance to French forces. But it was also the start of an era of intellectual progress,” he said.

The “Description de l’Egypte” resulting from the mission was an encyclopaedic account of Egypt’s society, history, fauna and flora.

French troops’ discovery of the Rosetta Stone also allowed hieroglyphs to be deciphered for the first time, opening up the field of Egyptology.

Ruler Mohamed Ali drew heavily on Napoleonic research as he built the modern Egyptian state, says French-Egyptian writer Robert Sole.

But Arab nationalist Gamal Abdel Nasser, who helped topple Mohamed Ali’s dynasty in 1952, used the episode to promote an anti-colonial national identity.

For historian Al-Hussein Hassan Hammad, at Cairo’s Al-Azhar University, Napoleon’s scientists were, like his troops, on an imperial mission “to serve the French presence in Egypt… and exploit its wealth.”

 Brutal repression 

When Bonaparte’s fleet anchored in 1798 close to Alexandria, he ordered soldiers to daub walls with the message: “Egyptians, you will be told that I am coming to destroy your religion: it is a lie, do not believe it!”

But his claims of religious tolerance soon gave way to repression after he toppled the centuries-old Mamluk dynasty in July 1798.

When Egyptians revolted against their occupiers that October, French troops brutally crushed the uprising.

They killed thousands and even bombed the Al-Azhar mosque, a key authority for Sunni Muslims worldwide.

Many Egyptians today see the episode as “the first imperialist aggression of the modern age against the Muslim Orient”, Sole said.

That sentiment is echoed in the neighbouring Gaza Strip.

Napoleon seized the ancient port city with little resistance in February 1799, having marched through the Sinai desert after British admiral Horatio Nelson destroyed his fleet.

“He is a small man who has caused great chaos in this region,” said Ghassan Wisha, head of history at the Islamic University of Gaza.

“Napoleon came here not only with soldiers but also with scientists and agricultural specialists. But he used science to justify the occupation. He lied.”

 Jaffa massacre 

Rashad al-Madani, a retired Gaza history lecturer, said the city had been “a centre for honey, oil and agriculture and a strategic point between Asia and Europe”.

Two centuries on, those groves have given way to a forest of concrete.

Gaza is home to two million Palestinians, many of them refugees, ruled by Islamist movement Hamas and strangled by an Israeli blockade.

Madani would remind his students of Napoleon’s massacre of some 3,000 people in the port town of Jaffa further up the coast.

“The French occupation was worse than that of Israel,” he said.

It was in Acre, a sleepy port town further north, that Palestinians found a local hero in the struggle against Napoleon.

Ahmad al-Jazzar is still admired by many for holding out for two months against a crushing French siege.

“In our history books, Ahmad al-Jazzar is seen as a strong character, a hero,” said Madani.

But Jazzar — Arabic for “butcher” — was also “a cruel being, an aggressor,” he said.

“Many students didn’t like it when I told them that.”

And the Arab leader’s French rival sparks similar strong reactions.

Marianne Khoury, the executive producer of Egyptian Youssef Chahine’s film Adieu Bonaparte, said Napoleon’s campaign was still “excessively controversial”.

For many in France, the 1985 film was “unacceptable”, she said.

Women walk past a statue of French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte with a sign marking the area as a historical site in Israel’s Mediterranean coastal city of Jaffa. (AFP)
Women walk past a statue of French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte with a sign marking the area as a historical site in Israel’s Mediterranean coastal city of Jaffa. (AFP)

“How could Chahine as an Arab director dare to talk about Bonaparte?”

Some Egyptians, for their part, recognise the scientific progress the French invasion brought.

“But the same time, there is the colonial aspect, which is still sensitive and many Egyptians don’t accept it,” she said.

Authoritarian model 

Some say Napoleon’s legacy provides comfort to advocates of authoritarianism and strong state in a place like the Arab world where such trends have always had strong roots.  But for others, his heritage at home is very much based on the rule of law among citizens.

Napoleon’s main legacy after coming to power was the creation and development of a modern, powerful, centralised state with a set of rules applied across national territory that became a template for today’s government.

Another of Napoleon’s undoubted successes was the civil code, which became the basis of many legal systems. Promulgated in 1804, it made all people equal before the law. In so doing, he crowned one of the achievements of the French Revolution, bringing feudalism to an end.

The general is however, no inspiration to Middle East equal rights activists. Napoleon was “one of the biggest misogynists” to walk the Earth, according to France’s Equality Minister Elisabeth Moreno.

The civil code enshrines the power of the man of the house over his wife and children and lays down that the wife must obey her husband.

And under an 1810 Napoleonic law, a man could not be punished for murdering his adulterous wife if she was caught in the act at home.

The revolution abolished slavery in the French colonies in 1794 but Napoleon re-established it in 1802 when Britain handed back the Caribbean island of Martinique where the practice had remained in place while in English hands.

Opponents of Napoleon also question whether modern-day France should be celebrating the man who sounded the death knell for the country’s first attempt at republicanism after the revolution.

The military coup that brought Napoleon to power led to the proclamation of the French Empire in 1804.

Historians also debate whether Napoleon was a model for 20th-century dictators such as Hitler, Stalin, Mao and Mussolini. They wonder if his militarism was any inspiration to the likes of Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gadhafi in the Middle East and North Africa.

“His authoritarianism… his sense of a strong state, his contempt for the parliamentary system, his imperialism and also his genius for propaganda all lead us to believe this,” writes French historian Jean Tulard.

But, the historian adds, Napoleon “did not have the same murderous ideology nor the racist fervour of (some of) those touted as his successors.”