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 communiquÃ© 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.”
Bonaparte’s laundry list of grievances about them consisted of three charges. First, the beys were, in essence, enablers of France’s primary enemy at that time, the British monarchy which sought to strangle the young French republic in its cradle. Second, the rulers of Egypt were damaging France’s own commerce by extorting taxes and bribes from its merchants in Cairo and Alexandria. Third, the Mamluks ruled tyrannically, having never been elected, and oppressed their subjects whom Bonaparte intended to liberate.
This holy trinity of justifications for imperialism — that the targeted state is collaborating with an enemy of the republic, is endangering the positive interests of the nation, and lacks legitimacy because its rule is despotic — would all be trotted out over the subsequent two centuries by a succession of European and American leaders whenever they wanted to go on the attack. One implication of these familiar rhetorical turns of phrase has all along been that democracies have a license to invade any country they please, assuming it has the misfortune to have an authoritarian regime.
George W. Bush, of course, hit the same highlights in his “mission accomplished” speech, while announcing on the Abraham Lincoln that “major combat operations” in Iraq “had ended.” “The liberation of Iraq,” he proclaimed, “is a crucial advance in the campaign against terror. We’ve removed an ally of al Qaeda, and cut off a source of terrorist funding.” He put Saddam Hussein’s secular, Arab nationalist Baath regime and the radical Muslim terrorists of al-Qaeda under the sign of September 11th, insinuating that Iraq was allied with the primary enemy of the United States and so posed an urgent menace to its security. (In fact, captured Baath Party documents show that Saddam’s fretting security forces, on hearing that Abu Musab al-Zarqawi had entered Iraq, put out an all points bulletin on him, imagining — not entirely correctly — that he had al-Qaeda links.) Likewise, Bush promised that Iraq’s alleged “weapons of mass destruction” (which existed only in his own fevered imagination) would be tracked down, again implying that Iraq posed a threat to the interests and security of the U.S., just as Bonaparte had claimed that the Mamluks menaced France.
According to the president, Saddam’s overthrown government had lacked legitimacy, while the new Iraqi government, to be established by a foreign power, would truly represent the conquered population. “We’re helping to rebuild Iraq, where the dictator built palaces for himself, instead of hospitals and schools. And we will stand with the new leaders of Iraq,” Bush pledged, “as they establish a government of, by, and for the Iraqi people.” Bonaparte, too, established governing councils at the provincial and national level, staffing them primarily with Sunni clergymen, declaring them more representative of the Egyptian people than the beys and emirs of the slave soldiery who had formerly ruled that province of the Ottoman Empire.
Liberty as Tyranny
For a democracy to conduct a brutal military occupation against another country in the name of liberty seems, on the face of it, too contradictory to elicit more than hoots of derision at the hypocrisy of it all. Yet, the militant republic, ready to launch aggressive war in the name of “democracy,” is everywhere in modern history, despite the myth that democracies do not typically wage wars of aggression. Ironically, some absolutist regimes, like those of modern Iran, were remarkably peaceable, if left alone by their neighbors. In contrast, republican France invaded Belgium, Holland, Spain, Germany, Italy, and Egypt in its first decade (though it went on the offensive in part in response to Austrian and Prussian moves to invade France). The United States attacked Mexico, the Seminoles and other Native polities, Hawaii, the Spanish Empire, the Philippines, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic in just the seven-plus decades from 1845 to the eve of the U.S. entry into World War I.
Freedom and authoritarianism are nowadays taken to be stark antonyms, the provinces of heroes and monsters. Those closer to the birth of modern republics were comforted by no such moral clarity. In Danton’s Death, the young Romantic playwright Georg BÃ¼chner depicted the radical French revolutionary and proponent of executing enemies of the Republic, Maximilien Robespierre, whipping up a Parisian crowd with the phrase, “The revolutionary regime is the despotism of liberty against tyranny.” And nowhere has liberty proved more oppressive than when deployed against a dictatorship abroad; for, as BÃ¼chner also had that famed “incorruptible” devotee of state terror observe, “In a Republic only republicans are citizens; Royalists and foreigners are enemies.”
That sunlit May afternoon on the USS Abraham Lincoln, President Bush seconded BÃ¼chner’s Robespierre. “Because of you,” he exhorted the listening sailors of an aircraft carrier whose planes had just dropped 1.6 million pounds of ordnance on Iraq, “our nation is more secure. Because of you, the tyrant has fallen, and Iraq is free.”
Security for the republic had already proved ample justification to launch a war the previous March, even though Iraq was a poor, weak, ramshackle Third World country, debilitated by a decade of sanctions imposed by the United Nations and the United States, without so much as potable drinking water or an air force. Similarly, the Mamluks of Egypt — despite the sky-high taxes and bribes they demanded of some French merchants — hardly constituted a threat to French security.
The overthrow of a tyrannical regime and the liberation of an oppressed people were constant refrains in the shipboard addresses of both the general and the president, who felt that the liberated owed them a debt of gratitude. Bonaparte lamented that the beys “tyrannize over the unfortunate inhabitants of the Nile”; or, as one of his officers, Captain Horace Say, opined, “The people of Egypt were most wretched. How will they not cherish the liberty we are bringing them?” Similarly, Bush insisted, “Men and women in every culture need liberty like they need food and water and air. Everywhere that freedom arrives, humanity rejoices; and everywhere that freedom stirs, let tyrants fear.”
Not surprisingly, expectations that the newly conquered would exhibit gratitude to their foreign occupiers cropped up repeatedly in the dispatches and letters of men on the spot who advocated a colonial forward policy. President Bush put this dramatically in 2007, long after matters had not proceeded as expected: “We liberated that country from a tyrant. I think the Iraqi people owe the American people a huge debt of gratitude. That’s the problem here in America: They wonder whether or not there is a gratitude level that’s significant enough in Iraq.”
Liberty in this two-century old rhetorical tradition, moreover, was more than just a matter of rights and the rule of law. Proponents of various forms of liberal imperialism saw tyranny as a source of poverty, since arbitrary rulers could just usurp property at will and so make economic activity risky, as well as opening the public to crushing and arbitrary taxes that held back commerce. The French quartermaster Francois Bernoyer wrote of the Egyptian peasantry: “Their dwellings are adobe huts, which prosperity, the daughter of liberty, will now allow them to abandon.” Bush took up the same theme on the Abraham Lincoln: “Where freedom takes hold, hatred gives way to hope. When freedom takes hold, men and women turn to the peaceful pursuit of a better life.”
“Heads Must Roll”
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.
Ending the Era of Liberal Imperialism
Between 1801 and 2003 stretched endless decades in which colonialism proved a plausible strategy for European powers in the Middle East, including the French enterprise in Algeria (1830-1962) and the British veiled protectorate over Egypt (1882-1922). In these years, European militaries and their weaponry were so advanced, and the means of resistance to which Arab peasants had access so limited, that colonial governments could be imposed.
That imperial moment passed with celerity after World War II, in part because the masses of the Third World joined political parties, learned to read, and — with how-to-do-it examples all around them — began to mount political resistance to foreign occupations of every sort. While the twenty-first century American arsenal has many fancy, exceedingly destructive toys in it, nothing has changed with regard to the ability of colonized peoples to network socially and, sooner or later, push any foreign occupying force out.
Bonaparte and Bush failed because both launched their operations at moments when Western military and technological superiority was not assured. While Bonaparte’s army had better artillery and muskets, the Egyptians had a superb cavalry and their old muskets were serviceable enough for purposes of sniping at the enemy. They also had an ally with advanced weaponry and the desire to use it — the British Navy.
In 2007, the high-tech U.S. military — as had been true in Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s, as was true for the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s — is still vulnerable to guerrilla tactics and effective low-tech weapons of resistance such as roadside bombs. Even more effective has been the guerrillas’ social warfare, their success in making Iraq ungovernable through the promotion of clan and sectarian feuds, through targeted bombings and other attacks, and through sabotage of the Iraqi infrastructure.
From the time of Bonaparte to that of Bush, the use of the rhetoric of liberty versus tyranny, of uplift versus decadence, appears to have been a constant among imperialists from republics — and has remained domestically effective in rallying support for colonial wars. The despotism (but also the weakness) of the Mamluks and of Saddam Hussein proved sirens practically calling out for Western interventions. According to the rhetoric of liberal imperialism, tyrannical regimes are always at least potentially threats to the Republic, and so can always be fruitfully overthrown in favor of rule by a Western military. After all, that military is invariably imagined as closer to liberty since it serves an elected government. (Intervention is even easier to justify if the despots can be portrayed, however implausibly, as allied with an enemy of the republic.)
For both Bush and Bonaparte, the genteel diction of liberation, rights, and prosperity served to obscure or justify a major invasion and occupation of a Middle Eastern land, involving the unleashing of slaughter and terror against its people. Military action would leave towns destroyed, families displaced, and countless dead. Given the ongoing carnage in Iraq, President Bush’s boast that, with “new tactics and precision weapons, we can achieve military objectives without directing violence against civilians,” now seems not just hollow but macabre. The equation of a foreign military occupation with liberty and prosperity is, in the cold light of day, no less bizarre than the promise of war with virtually no civilian casualties.
It is no accident that many of the rhetorical strategies employed by George W. Bush originated with Napoleon Bonaparte, a notorious spinmeister and confidence man. At least Bonaparte looked to the future, seeing clearly the coming breakup of the Ottoman Empire and the likelihood that European Powers would be able to colonize its provinces. Bonaparte’s failure in Egypt did not forestall decades of French colonial success in Algeria and Indochina, even if that era of imperial triumph could not, in the end, be sustained in the face of the political and social awakening of the colonized. Bush’s neocolonialism, on the other hand, swam against the tide of history, and its failure is all the more criminal for having been so predictable.
Juan Cole teaches Middle Eastern and South Asian history at the University of Michigan. His most recent book Napoleon’s Egypt: Invading the Middle East (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007) has just been published. He has appeared widely on television, radio and on op-ed pages as a commentator on Middle East affairs, and has a regular column at Salon.com. He has written, edited, or translated 14 books and has authored 60 journal articles. His weblog on the contemporary Middle East is Informed Comment.
[This article first appeared on Tomdispatch.com, a weblog of the Nation Institute, which offers a steady flow of alternate sources, news, and opinion from Tom Engelhardt, long time editor in publishing, co-founder of the American Empire Project and author of Mission Unaccomplished (Nation Books), the first collection of Tomdispatch interviews.]