Evacuation from Iraq: the lesson from Bonaparte's Egypt
A Western superpower invades a Middle Eastern country with overwhelming force, under the pretext of defending its interests in the region, but with the ulterior motive of extending its military, strategic and economic power overseas. The commander of the military expedition proclaims to the shocked and awed local population that he has come to liberate them from the oppression of their rulers, and bring them Western ideals of freedom, democracy, and rights for women. He professes respect for the Islamic religion, denies any intention of waging a holy war, and announces that he expects the conquered people to welcome their liberators with open arms.
It is 1798, and Napoleon Bonaparte’s Army of the Orient has just landed in Egypt.
The French invasion of Egypt over two hundred years ago remains the prototypical clash of civilizations between the West and the Islamic Middle East in modern times. It laid the template for future such conflicts, from the fatal dynamics of an occupation to the explosive aftermath of an evacuation. The pattern continues to repeat itself in today’s headlines, as American troops evacuate from Iraq. It bears a closer look.
For all that Bonaparte came to Egypt thoroughly well-prepared to win hearts and minds, having studied the country’s culture and religion, and bringing along a hundred scientists and engineers, the French soon fall into the ideological minefield of trying to remake the Egyptians in their own Republican image, and in the process commit fatal cultural offenses.
Within three months, the fatal dynamics of the occupation lead to the first bloody insurrection of Cairo and force the French to retrench behind the fortifications of the Ezbekiah, their “Green Zone.” Bonaparte sets up his headquarters in the brand-new palace of one of the routed Mamluke rulers, Elfi Bey, just as coalition forces in Baghdad have made their headquarters in one of Saddam’s new palaces. Within their safe zone the French set out to recreate Paris, including the Tivoli pleasure palace with its theatre, dancing, music, and locally-distilled liquor. A visitor to the Green Zone in Baghdad today would have a similar impression of a self-contained world. “One could only marvel at the ability of our government to essentially erect entire cities within hostile territory, self-contained communities with their own power and sewage systems, computer lines and wireless networks, basketball courts and ice cream stands,” notes then-Senator Barack Obama in the The Audacity of Hope .
But if the Tivoli and other entertainments are primarily intended to combat depression in the troops, they only partly alleviate sinking troop morale, a hazard of long campaigns far from home and the sense of being mired in an unpopular war that drags on without an exit strategy. As historian Thibaudeau notes, “This enterprise, which found so many enthusiasts at the beginning, came to be considered as nothing but foolish and even wicked.”
Then as now, locals who serve under an occupation as interpreters, guides and collaborators of all sorts, tend to be disproportionately recruited from minority communities; as with the Kurds and Chaldeans in Iraq, so with the Copts and Greeks in Egypt under the French. These communities then become targets of resentment and retaliation from the majority in the event of an evacuation. When the French prepare to evacuate, they draw up a treaty listing provisions for the protection of collaborators after their departure, but they cannot guarantee that these provisions will be enforced. Hundreds of Egyptian collaborators and their families, particularly those from minority communities, embark on ships sailing for France.
In the aftermath of the American evacuation, the magnitude of the problem of Iraqi collaborators is likely to be infinitely greater.
The fate of collaborators is only one of the issues surrounding plans for an evacuation. Shaping the eventual judgment of history becomes a priority. In the face of the inevitable, the French continue to rationalize the expedition not only to themselves but also to their skeptical Egyptian subjects. Treasurer Estève proclaims to an assembly of conspicuously dry-eyed Ulama on the eve of the evacuation: “What is most admired by the (Egyptian) people is that Frenchmen died to put an end to the oppression and despotism from which the people were suffering.”
Civil war remains the greatest threat, then as now. The breakdown of civil society during the occupation leaves a vacuum in the aftermath of the evacuation; the field is open to multiple militias, home-grown and foreign, facing off in civil war. In Egypt, local, regional and international players enter the fray, with British, French and Russian superpowers hedging their bets by backing more than one militia at a time, while the Ottoman Empire plays the regional role that Iran seeks to play today. The state of chaos, violence and insecurity is so unprecedented that Egyptian historian Jabarti waxes almost nostalgic for French rule.
When the dust settles, some five years later, it is not some form of benign Western-style government that wins out, but the unlikely leader of an Albanian militia who rises to the top, eliminates his rivals and rules the country with an iron fist, founding a new dynasty that reigns until King Faruk is deposed by Colonel Nasser’s coup d’état in 1952.
But the long-term legacy of the French expedition is mixed. If democracy fails to take root, the door is nevertheless opened to modernization, and a new receptivity to Western science and culture. Twenty-five years after the invasion, the new dictator of Egypt sends the first of many cultural missions to France, the former occupying power.