Two centuries ago, the legendary French emperor “Napoleon Bonaparte” died on the island of Saint Helena, exiled from his country, which raised its name throughout Europe and in the whole world, as a warrior officer and then as a ruling emperor. France recently celebrated the bicentenary of the death of Bonaparte, which represents a unique case in the collective consciousness. On the one hand, he turned against the revolution and suspended the experience of the popular movement, but on the other hand, he developed the administrative system, issued civil laws, consolidated the educational system, and above all spread the ideas of enlightenment and revolution. French in Europe, which he controlled completely militarily before his famous defeat in the Belgian city of Waterloo.
What matters to us about the path of the man whom the German philosopher Hegel called when he entered the Prussian city of Aena, the “spirit of the world,” is his famous campaign to the East, which was centered in Egypt in 1798, which for all historians is the beginning of the “shock of modernity” in the Arab East.
Napoleon carried hundreds of researchers and scientists to Egypt and established the Scientific Institute following the French model, established modern traditions in it, built new civil facilities, introduced the printing press in Arabic letters, and issued news and specialized newspapers. The outcome of the campaign was the book “Description of Egypt” consisting of twenty volumes.
Although the French adventure in Egypt did not exceed three years, it left strong traces in the countries of the Nile and in the Arab Mashreq as a whole.
There is no doubt that the most important achievement of Napoleon in his Egyptian experience is the crystallization of the modern concept of Egyptian patriotism in its pharaonic components and Mediterranean identity, within a civilizational perspective that strongly links the pharaonic legacy with the Greco-Roman roots of the modern West.
After the French army left Cairo, the Ottoman ruler of Egypt, Muhammad Ali Pasha, undertook the realization of Napoleon’s project in his background and detailed steps. It is known that Muhammad Ali issued new laws and reformed state institutions, military and administrative, under the supervision of French advisors. He also sent educational missions to France and worked to spread the ideas of enlightenment and modernization in the country.
The famous historian Abd al-Rahman al-Jabarti mentions to us the events of the Napoleonic campaign and the huge developments and huge battles that took place, and he observes with a discreet observer the profound transformations that Egyptian society experienced after the entry of the French. Al-Jabarti lived during the era of the Ottoman governor, Muhammad Ali Pasha, and took over the fatwa during his reign, and he understood the organic relationship between the Napoleonic project and the turning point of reform and modernization that started with the Egyptian leader.
It is true that the Arab Ottoman elites carried the banner of the Arab national project and presented it as an alternative option to the Ottoman League. However, the Egyptian national project, in its pharaonic tendency and its Mediterranean-European orientation, remained the regulating framework of Egyptian political identity in the era of the Alawite state (in relation to Muhammad Ali Pasha).
Perhaps the last theoretical formulation of this project is the book of the Egyptian thinker and writer Taha Hussein “The Future of Culture in Egypt” published in 1938, which he wrote in the context of the prevailing debate at its time about the historical and civilizational reference of the Egyptian nation. Taha Hussein’s book was an implicit response to the rising Arab tendency in Egypt in terms of its thesis on the eastern identity of the Nile country through its sea and desert gates on the Arabian Peninsula and the Levant.
Was Napoleon’s campaign a founding station for the era of modernization and enlightenment in Arab political and social thought, especially in Egypt, or was it the beginning of a whole era of colonial policies, cultural invasion and civilizational domination by coercion and domination?
The question is still posed vigorously in Arabic literature, two centuries after the events that changed the map of the region and the face of the whole world. The Egyptian strategic project in the East failed after the defeat of Napoleon in the Levant, while the competing English project succeeded in controlling the road to India. However, the enlightenment-modernizing aspect of Napoleon’s project was achieved in the form of the modern renaissance experience in which Egypt became the hub and point of departure for the entire Arab world. Fifty years after Napoleon’s campaign, his ambition to build the Suez Canal was fulfilled during the reign of Khedive Muhammad Said Pasha, with French technical support. Egypt turned into a bridge for communication and transition between the European and Asian continents.
In sum, what remains of Napoleon’s adventure is its intellectual and cultural aspect, not the failed experiments of war and conquest. Napoleon himself said: “The world has only two forces: the sword and the mind, and in the end reason always ends up winning over the power of the sword.”