Modern History of the Arab Countries. Vladimir Borisovich Lutsky 1969



When the French revolution at the end of the 18th century destroyed the feudal system in France, it might have seemed that the Arab countries were totally unprepared to accept its liberative ideas. However, its influence soon began to be felt in the Arab world, particularly in Egypt, the most advanced of the Arab countries. Here feudal disintegration had made great headway and the country was socially and economically ripe for an anti-feudal war. This influence was brought to Egypt by the army of the French Republic under the command of Bonaparte.

Having conquered Italy in 1797 and advanced into the Balkan Peninsula, Bonaparte reached the borders of the Ottoman Empire, which was in a state of a grave crisis. Recently, in the war against Austria and Russia, it had suffered a number of serious defeats. Weak and incapable of offering any resistance, the empire was a fertile ground for any attempt at annexation by the French bourgeoisie. “The Ottoman Empire is doomed,” Bonaparte wrote to the Directory, “and there is no reason for us to support it.”

The Ottoman Empire’s strategic position encouraged Napoleon’s expansionist plans. The eastern end of the Mediterranean and its southern coast were incorporated in the empire. By gaining possession of the empire, France, having already subjugated the Apperiine Peninsula, would be able to turn the Mediterranean into an inner lake of its own, thereby delivering a crushing blow to her bitterest enemy, Great Britain, which was the initiator of all counter-revolutionary coalitions against the French Republic. Moreover, Napoleon hoped that the conquest of the Arab countries in North Africa and Asia Minor would permit France to create a mighty colonial empire to make up for her lost American colonies.

The growing strength of France caused serious alarm in bourgeois England. France’s economic development threatened England’s supremacy on the world markets and in the colonies. An economically ascendant France would menace the industrial monopoly set up by English capital. The English bourgeoisie was therefore eager to overwhelm its rival, to seize its markets and colonies and make them its own. The struggle between France and Britain for world supremacy was the underlying reason for the long series of wars which in the end led to the elevation of England and the break-up of Napoleon’s empire.

In this struggle for world supremacy, the Ottoman Empire was the trump card. Napoleon decided to take it from England. He shrewdly made plans for the conquest of Egypt, one of the Sultan’s richest domains. The short cut from England to India lay through Egypt. True, the Suez Canal had not yet been built. There was no sea route between Alexandria and Suez, but trans-shipping stations had been established and passengers, goods and mail were unloaded at Alexandria and delivered by caravan to Suez, considerably reducing the journey to India. By seizing Egypt, Napoleon would immediately gain a number of advantages. First, he would acquire a rich colony. Secondly, he would consolidate his position at the eastern end of the Mediterranean, whence he could attack the Ottoman Empire. Thirdly, he would deal a blow to England by disorganising her connections with India and, fourthly, he would obtain a base for his long-desired campaign against India.


In 1798, Bonaparte persuaded the Directory to undertake a campaign of conquest against Egypt. Taking personal command of the 30,000-strong expeditionary corps he set sail with a French squadron from Toulon in May 1798. Another force was despatched to Egypt from Italy. Though Nelson’s reconnaissance ships were scouring the Mediterranean, the French managed to reach Alexandria without loss, capturing Malta on the way. Several Maltese Arabs were included in the expedition as interpreters and scouts.

On July 1, 1798, the French army landed at Alexandria. The inhabitants of this city put up some resistance, but were soon suppressed and the French army moved southwards in the direction of Cairo.

On the same day, Napoleon addressed the Egyptian people with a proclamation in which French revolutionary ideals were mixed strangely with colonialist threats and a cynical, demagogic play on the religious sentiments of the more backward sections of the population. Napoleon presented himself almost as\ a devout Moslem and friend and patron of Islam. Having seized Egypt, the richest province of the Ottoman Empire, he declared himself a “friend of the Turkish Sultan.” His purpose in coming to Egypt was to “punish the Mamelukes,” the enemies of the Sultan, the Egyptian people and France. He also argued the need to defend French residents in Egypt, an argument later to be used by all colonialists as an excuse to interfere in the affairs of other countries.

The proclamation began with the usual Moslem address: “In the name of Allah, the Gracious and the Merciful. There is no God but Allah and Mohammed is his Prophet.”

It continued:

“In the name of the French nation founded on equality and liberty, the great general and leader of the French army appeals to the citizens of Egypt. From time immemorial the Mameluke beys ruling your country have insulted the French nation and subjected her merchants to torture. The hour for revenge has arrived!

“For many centuries this rabble of slaves has oppressed the most beautiful country in the world. But Allah, the ruler of the heavens, has willed that their reign shall end.

“Oh people of Egypt! They will tell you that I come to destroy your religion; believe them not: answer that I come to restore your right, to punish the usurpers, and that I respect, more than the Mamelukes ever did, God, his Prophet and the Koran. Tell them also that all men are equal before God except for their wisdom, talents and virtues excellencies. But by what wisdom, by what talents and virtues are the Mamelukes distinguished if they have arrogated all the joys and blessings of life. If there is good land, it belongs to the Mamelukes. If there is a pretty slave girl, a handsome steed or a good house, they belong to the Mamelukes. But Allah is gracious, merciful and just to the people, and with his help the Egyptians are called upon to take their places.

The most intelligent, educated and virtuous will rule and the people will be happy.

“In Egypt, there were once great cities, long canals and lively trade. All this has been ruined by the tyranny and covetousness of the Mamelukes.

“Sheikhs, Cadis and Imams, assure the people that we are true Moslems. Was it not we who marched on Rome and crushed the Pope who urged the Christians to fight against the Moslems? Was it not we who destroyed the knights of Malta because these ignoramuses claimed that God had ordered them to fight against the Moslems? Were we not always friends of the Ottoman Sultan (may Allah grant his wishes) and enemies of his enemies? On the contrary, the Mamelukes do not obey the Sultan. They acknowledge no rule but their own.

“Thrice happy are they who shall be with us. They shall prosper! Happy are they who remain neutral, for they still have time to join us. But woe, triple woe unto them who take up arms for the Mamelukes. They shall perish!”

This emotional preamble was followed by concrete orders:

“1. Each village situated at a distance of not more than three hours’ march from the route of the French army must send a delegation to the general in order to inform him that the population has capitulated and hoisted the tri-coloured French banner.

“2. All rebellious villages will be burnt.

“3. Every village that capitulates must also raise the banner of our friend, the Ottoman Sultan. (May Allah. grant him a long life.)

“4. The village sheikhs must guard the, Mamelukes’ property.

“5. The sheikhs, Ulema, Cadis and Imams retain their functions. In the mosques, prayers will be offered to Allah as usual. The Egyptians will offer a thanksgiving for their deliverance from the Mamelukes, exclaiming: Glory to the Ottoman Sultan! Glory to the French army! “Cursed be the Mamelukes; happiness to the Egyptian people!’ “

News of the French invasion threw the Mamelukes into a panic. The military council met in Cairo the same day. It decided to request immediate help from the Sultan. The Mameluke governor, Murad-bey, was charged with the defence of Egypt. Five days later, he set out with his army to meet Bonaparte. The cavalry moved along the banks of the Nile and the infantry in boats. Murad-bey resorted to the traditional medieval method of defence to check the advance of the French vessels along the Nile. He partitioned off the river at Mugaza with a metal chain, along which he lined up ships armed with cannon. The Mameluke cavalry and infantry stood guard on shore.

The first clash between the French and the Egyptian forces took place here on July 13. One Egyptian ship was destroyed in the first hour of \ the battle. “Allah willed’ that the sails catch fire and a spark fell on the ammunition,” wrote the Egyptian chronicler Jabarti. “There was a dreadful explosion and the captain and sailors were thrown high into the air. The boat was reduced to ashes. Murad was filled with terror and fled, abandoning his guns and other heavy objects. He was followed by his cavalry. The infantrymen got into their wooden barges and sailed away to Cairo. This news made a very sorrowful impression on the capital.” The way to Cairo was open and the invaders pressed on to that historic city.


The Mameluke beys considered their army “invincible,” but its shortcomings came to the fore in the very first battle. A poorly organised feudal levy, it was, of course, quite unfitted to withstand the most modern army of the time, an army trained in the wars of the French revolution. Napoleon gave credit to the individual combat qualities of the Mamelukes, who fought like lions, but he stressed their incompetence in organised mass operations. “Two Mamelukes were undoubtedly more than a match for three Frenchmen; 100 Mamelukes were equal to 100 Frenchmen; 300 Frenchmen could generally beat 300 Mamelukes, and 1,000 Frenchmen invariably defeated 1,500 Mamelukes,” he remarked. In this connection Engels wrote: “With Napoleon a detachment of cavalry had to be of a definite minimum number in order to make it possible for the force of discipline, embodied in closed order and planned utilisation, to manifest itself and rise superior even to greater numbers of irregular cavalry, in spite of the latter being better mounted, more dexterous horsemen and fighters, and at least as brave as the former.” [Frederick Engels, Anti-Duhring, Moscow, 1962, p. 177.]

This first defeat showed the Mamelukes they were dealing with a formidable opponent. With feverish haste they set about fortifying Cairo. They built new ships and dug fortifications. The inhabitants of the city, who had no desire to submit to foreign oppression, willingly took part in the defence. Craftsmen’s guilds collected money to purchase weapons. Workers and artisans formed volunteer detachments. There were not enough weapons to go round. Patriotic demonstrations took place in the city. In the mosques, the Ulema implored God to grant them victory.

Yet the defence was poorly organised. On July 21, Bonaparte’s army approached Giza, situated on the western bank of the Nile opposite Cairo. Here, at the foot of the ancient pyramids, a fierce battle took place. The Mamelukes and the city dwellers were crushingly defeated by the French. Out of six thousand Mamelukes only three thousand survived. Some of them fled with Murad-bey to Upper Egypt and some with Ibrahim-bey to Syria where they were pursued by the French. Thousands of city-dwellers, who fought on the, approaches to Cairo, were drowned in the river while retreating. The victors broke into the city, plundered it and took brutal reprisals against those who had participated in the defence.


The French, however, soon found themselves in difficulties. On August 1, 1798, Admiral Nelson’s squadron entered Aboukir Bay and destroyed the French fleet anchored there. Out of fifteen French vessels, only four escaped by fleeing to Malta. The others were either burnt, sunk or captured. The defeat was complete. The French expedition was cut off from France and its position was precarious. Now there could be no question of a campaign against India.

The Aboukir Battle put an end to the Porte’s doubts. In September 1798, Sultan Selim III declared war on France with the aim of regaining Egypt. The entry of the Porte into the war gave new strength to the Egyptians, who continued to struggle against the French invaders.

Gambling on the religious prejudices of the people, Napoleon acted the role of the “Moslem” ruler, Ali Bonabarda Pasha. He went about in Oriental clothes, in a turban and robe. He regularly visited the mosque on Fridays, took part in traditional ceremonies and even converted to Islam one of his generals, Jacques Menou, who was renamed Abdullah. He formed a consultative body, a diwan, made up of local sheikhs and Ulema. He exploited the people’s hatred of the Mamelukes. But none of these measures could conceal the fact that the French administration had laid the towns and. villages under a heavy tribute (in cash and in kind), the like, of which they had never had to pay even under the Mamelukes. This tax robbery, together with extreme extortions and indemnities, the confiscation of food reserves and fodder supplies, exceeded all limits. It was quite obvious that the country was ruled by a foreign military clique.

For this reason, after Turkey’s entry into the war, the guerrilla war gained fresh momentum (mainly in the Delta- region). The guerrillas attacked military couriers, small patrols and detachments and wrecked communication lines. They killed French officers, quartermasters and tax gatherers. Napoleon sent punitive expeditions to the Delta. His generals burnt the rebellious villages, but this only served to strengthen discontent. Soon the uprising spread to Cairo.

One October day, the citizens of Cairo were alerted by a signal. A general attack on the French, mainly officers and generals, ensued. They were killed one by one on the streets and in their homes. Caught unawares, the French troops hastily withdrew from Cairo. Bonaparte himself fled to an island on the Nile not far from the city. From here he directed punitive operations. Fifteen thousand insurgents gathered at the El-Azhar Mosque, barricaded all the roads leading to the mosque and made preparations to repulse the French advance. Five thousand fellaheen from the neighbouring villages and several thousand Bedouins from the Libyan Desert hastened to their aid. Bonaparte sent one punitive detachment against the fellaheen, another against the Bedouins and concentrated his main forces near the rebellious capital. The insurgents in the mosque were subject to artillery fire. Thousands were killed. Those who did not perish under artillery fire were killed by the bayonets of the French grenadiers. No prisoners were taken. The insurgents begged for mercy, but Napoleon turned a deaf ear to their pleas. The cold-blooded massacre ended in the barbarous execution of the six leaders of the uprising. They were beheaded and their heads were mounted on pikes, which the French carried around the streets of Cairo.

At the same time, in Upper Egypt, Murad-bey’s guerrilla detachments continuously harassed the French garrisons.


Cut off from France, Napoleon decided to march northwards with his army into Asia Minor. With this end in view, he tried to establish relations with the Syrian governors, but met with resistance.

The campaign against Syria began in February 1799. Without much trouble, Bonaparte’s 13,000-strong corps occupied El-Arish, Gaza, Jaffa, Haifa and in the middle of March, approached the walls of Akka. The population, which hated the Turkish Pasha, Ahmed Jazzar, offered no resistance. The neighbouring tribes looked on curiously or even supported the French, if not out of sympathy, at least out of hate for Jazzar. On April 16, at the foot of Mount Tabor in Galilee, Bonaparte defeated the 20,000-strong Mameluke army sent by the Damascene Pasha. The campaign seemed to be turning out favourably, but the walls of Akka still barred Napoleon’s advance to the north. The French were short of siege artillery. They tried to ship it by sea, but it was captured en route by the British Commodore, Sydney Smith. Smith’s squadron then entered the Bay of Akka and defended the fortress with its cannons. French emigrants in the service of Jazzar and the first regular units of Selim III’s army, trained before the war by French instructors, also took an active part in the defence of Akka. Bonaparte’s numerous attempts to storm the besieged fortress were repulsed. To make matters worse, plague broke out in the French camp. After a seventy-day siege, Bonaparte ‘retreated to Egypt. The Syrian campaign had ended in the utter defeat of the French.

The Egyptian expedition was also doomed to failure. Bonaparte’s victory over the Anglo-Turkish landing party at Aboukir on July 25, 1799, soon after his return to Egypt, could not save the. situation. Shortly after, on August 22, 1799, Bonaparte left Egypt for France to dissolve the Directory and make himself the First Consul. He left secretly without the knowledge of his troops, or even of General Kléber, who was appointed to command in his absence.


After Napoleon’s departure, the situation of the French army in Egypt became even more critical. The diminishing group of Frenchmen was surrounded by a hostile people, by the hostile Turkish army and British fleet. Kléber realised the only recourse left was to withdraw from the country and on January 28, 1800, he signed an armistice at El-Arish with the British and the Turks, who promised to provide him with transports to ship his troops to France. But when the order by the British to disarm the French army was communicated to Kléber, he decided to fight.

On March 20, 1800, in the Battle of Heliopolis (near Cairo), he routed the Turkish forces despatched from Syria.

While the battle raged, the citizens of Cairo once more rose up in rebellion. They crushed the small French garrison which had remained in the city, and throughout the month-long siege repulsed constant attacks by the French troops. The insurgents were aided by Ibrahim-bey’s Mameluke detachment just back from Syria. Only on April 15, having turned the suburb of Cairo, Bulak, into a heap of ashes, destroyed four hundred homes and exterminated several thousand insurgents, did the French manage to turn the tide. Ibrahim-bey surrendered Cairo and returned to Syria. Kléber hastened to impose a heavy indemnity on the city.

On June 14, 1800, Kléber was murdered by a fanatic named Suleiman of Aleppo, said to have been incited to the deed by the Turks. He penetrated into Kléber’s residence and stabbed him several times with a dagger. The French military court decreed that Suleiman of Aleppo should have his hand burnt off and then be impaled on a stake. Four Moslem sheikhs, accused of complicity, were beheaded. Suleiman met his death courageously. He placed one hand on the fire and did not utter a sound as it burnt. Nor did he utter a sound during the four and a half hours which it took him to die impaled upon a stake. The French avenged Kléber’s death by organising pogroms in the city. Crowds of soldiers overflowed the streets of Cairo, burning homes and killing the people.

In March 1801, the British landed a 20,000-strong force in Egypt. They occupied Aboukir, smashed the main French forces near Rahmania and besieged the remaining French forces at Alexandria and Cairo. At the same time at Qoseir(on the Red Sea), they landed a 6,000-strong force of sepoys, who were to advance on Cairo. Instead of concentrating all the French forces in one place, the French commander, Menou, did the opposite. A terrible plague began to rage in the besieged garrisons. In June, Cairo surrendered to the British and in August, after a four-months siege, Alexandria capitulated. Menou was there at the time. At the end of September, the remnants of the French expedition were shipped home and Napoleon’s bid for conquest reached an ignominious end.

Several days later (on October 9, 1801), France signed a truce with Turkey. As a result of the war, France lost Egypt, Malta and the strategically important Ionian Islands, which she had captured in 1797.


For France the only result of the expedition were the brilliant monographs produced by the savants who accompanied the French army to Egypt. Among them were geologists, technicians, mathematicians, astronomers, hydrologists, medical men, typographers, historians, archaeologists, experts in geography, law and art, economists and linguists. They not only solved practical military problems (e.g., the manufacture of ammunition by using Egypt’s natural resources, the problems of water supply, combating epidemics in the army, tax gathering, etc.); they also compiled military maps and made a thorough study of a country that was as yet little explored. The result was a twenty-volume Description de l’Egypte, in which is collected the most diverse information on the regime of the Nile, on irrigation, farming, crafts, way of life and customs, cultural monuments, social relations, folk music, state finances, etc. These valuable monographs remain to this day a valuable source of information, which no student can ignore. The political results of the expedition, however, were nil.

During the three years of French occupation, the Egyptians experienced the harsh, yet useful school of the national liberation movement. They rose in arms to uphold their country’s independence. The results of their struggle were tangible. Their military experience stood them in good stead in their struggle both against the British colonialists, who succeeded the French, and against the Mameluke feudal lords.