Monday, August 6, 2007

Juan Cole's "Napoleon's Egypt"

Juan Cole is Professor of Modern Middle East and South Asian History at the University of Michigan.

Cole's many publications include Napoleon's Egypt: Invading the Middle East, his latest book to which he applied the "Page 99 Test" and reported the following:
Page 99 of my Napoleon's Egypt: Invading the Middle East compares two events. The first is the 1786 punitive expedition to the rebellious Ottoman province of Egypt led by the sultan's envoy, Commodore Hasan Pasha. The second is the 1798 invasion of Egypt by Gen. Bonaparte. I quote:

Hasan Pasha then sold off the slave girls and harem favorites of the rebellious beys at an inexpensive price as a way of humiliating them. The clerics of al-Azhar, however, including Sheikh al-Sadat and Sheikh Ahmad al-Arusi, rode to see Hasan Pasha about this vindictive measure ... The commodore is said to have angrily rebuked the clerics for daring to intervene, and to have turned against them ...

The tumultuous events of the the 1780s set the stage for the later French invasion, though they did not make it inevitable. French diplomats and merchants were alarmed at the great importance the British clearly put on their favored position at Alexandria and on Egypt as a key link in their Indian trade and communications. The interest in Egypt displayed by Russia, and the reciprocal interest of the Georgian Mamluks in the patronage, even troops, of St. Petersburg, also panicked French observers. Some French diplomats began speculating that as the Ottoman Empire declined, it seemed increasingly likely that Britain or Russia would make a play for the Egyptian province. For the next decade, these advocates of a forward policy agitated with Paris for a pre-empitve strike to ensure that if Egypt were to fall to any European power, it would be France.

Gen. Napoleon Bonaparte's invasion of Ottoman Egypt in the summer of 1798 was intended to forestall the drift of that province into the British sphere of influence, and to interrupt British communications with India, the more urgent of which went from Bombay to the Red Sea, up the Nile and across the Mediterranean to the Atlantic and London. Many French observers had become convinced that the Ottoman Empire was in swift decline and would lose its provinces to the British or Russians. The rebelliousness of Egypt made it especially vulnerable to the Great Powers, since it was already slipping from Istanbul's grasp.

Egypt in the 1780s and 1790s was ruled by a military caste of Ottoman ex-slave soldiers, typically captured on the marches of the Caucasus in Circassia or Georgia, converted to Islam, and raised as young slave soldiers until adulthood, when they were manumitted. Although nominally vassals of the Ottoman sultan in Istanbul, the Georgian beys established contacts with Catherine the Great of Russia, who supported them, and they strongly favored British merchants over French ones. The slave-soldiers proved increasingly rebellious in the second half of the eighteenth century, and sometimes stopped sending tribute. As a result, in 1786 the Ottoman sultan dispatched Commodore Hasan Pash to reestablish imperial control. This page explains how the crisis that provoked the Ottoman expedition set the stage for Gen. Bonaparte's own, twelve years later.
Read more about Napoleon's Egypt at the publisher's website and at the Napoleon's Egypt blog.

--Marshal Zeringue