Illustration: “Napoleon and his General Staff in Egypt” by Jean-Léon Geróme, 1867

In 1798 the French leader Napoleon, a seemingly mature 28 year old at the time, set off from France with a fleet of 400 ships and 36,000 men. The goal was to conquer Egypt and “liberate” it from the corrupt Mamluk overlords. No CNN or BBC reporters were around; nor had al-Jazeera set up a satellite feed. It did not take long for the French to overwhelm the Egyptians with about 25,000 French against 15,000 local Mamluks. Napoleon won in sight of the Pyramids, but very soon after the entire mission was doomed to failure when Lord Nelson obliterated the French fleet. Napoleon himself left Cairo secretly a year later, returned to France and turned his conquest machine against fellow Europeans.

One relevant aspect of the French strategy was to use propaganda to convince the Egyptians that they were coming as liberators and that Napoleon was in fact a better “Muslim” than those who were in power. This appeal did not sway many of the locals, including the scholar Abd al-Rahman al-Jabarti (1753-ca. 1825); nor was their rejection of French hubris a sign of devotion to the Mamluks oppressing them. In his chronicle of the invasion, al-Jabarti issued a stinging retort. It is well worth revisiting, even in translation. Maybe there is even a lesson here for the Blairs and Bushes of the present age as they insist the coalition is winning in the long (long, long, long etc.) run…

In the name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate. There is no god but God. He has no son, nor has He an associate in His Dominion.

On behalf of the French Republic which was based upon the foundation of liberty and equality, General Bonaparté, Commander-in-Chief of the French armies makes known to all the Egyptian people that for a long time the Sanjaqs who lorded it over Egypt have treated the French community basely and contemptuously and have persecuted its merchants with all manner of extortion and violence. Therefore the hour of punishment has now come.

Unfortunately this group of Mamlûks, imported from the mountains of Circassia and Georgia have acted corruptly for ages in the fairest land that is to be found upon the face of the globe. However, the Lord of the Universe, the Almighty, has decreed the end of their power

O ye Egyptians, they may say to you that I have not made an expedition hither for any other object than that of abolishing your religion; but this is a pure falsehood and you must not give credit to it, but tell the slanderers that I have not come to you except for the purpose of restoring your rights from the hands of the oppressors and that I more than the Mamlûks, serve God – may He be praised and exalted – and revere His Prophet Muhammad and the glorious Qur’ân.

And tell them also that all people are equal in the eyes of God and the only circumstances which one distinguishes one from the other are reason, virtue, and knowledge. But amongst the Mamlûks, what is there of reason, virtue, and knowledge, which would distinguish them from others and qualify them alone to possess everything which sweetens life in this world? Wherever fertile land is found it is appropriated to the Mamlûks; and the handsomest female slaves, and the best horses, and the most desirable dwelling-places, all these belong to them exclusively. If the land of Egypt is a fief of the Mamlûks, let them then produce the title-deed, which God conferred upon them. But the Lord of the Universe is compassionate and equitable toward mankind, and with the help of the Exalted, from this day forward no Egyptian shall be excluded from admission to eminent positions nor from acquiring high ranks, therefore the intelligent and virtuous and learned (‘ulamâ’) amongst them, will regulate / their affairs, and thus the state of the whole population will be rightly adjusted… [Napoleon’s decree in Arabic is continued here by al-Jabarti.]

Blessing on blessing to the Egyptians who will act in concert with us, without any delay, for their condition shall be rightly adjusted, and their rank raised. Blessing also, upon those who will abide in their habitations, not siding with either of the two hostile parties, yet when they know us better, they will hasten to us with all their hearts. But woe upon woe to those who will unite with the Mamlûks and assist them in the war against us, for they will not find the way of escape, an no trace of them shall remain.

First Article
All the villages, situated within three hours’ distance from the places through which the French army passes, are required to send to the Commander-in-Chief some person, deputed by them, to announce to the aforesaid, that they submit and that they have hoisted the French flag, which is white, blue, and red.

Second Article
Every village that shall rise against the French army, shall be burnt down.

Third Article
Every village that submits to the French army must hoist the French flag and also the flag of our friend the Ottoman Sultan, may he continue for ever.

Fourth Article
The Shaykh of each village must immediately seal all property, houses, and possessions, belonging to the Mamlûks, making the most strenuous effort that not the least thing be lost.

Fifth Article
The Shaykhs, Qâdîs, and Imâms must remain at their posts, and every countryman shall remain peaceably in his dwelling, and also prayers shall be performed in the mosques as customary and the Egyptians, all of them shall render thanks for the God’s graciousness, praise be to Him and may He be exalted, in extirpating the power of the Mamlûks, saying with a loud voice, May God perpetuate the glory of the Ottoman Sultan! May God preserve the glory of the French army! May God curse the Mamlûks and rightly adjust the condition of the Egyptian people.

Written in the Camp of Alexandria on the 13th of the month Messidor [the 6th year] of the founding of the French Republic, that is to say toward the end of the month Muharram in the year [1213] of the Hijra [2 July 1798].

It ends here word for word. Hre is an explanation of the incoherent words and vulgar constructions which he put into this miserable letter…

His statement wa-qûlû li ‘l-muftariyîn (but tell the slanderers) is the plural of muftarî (slanderer) which means liar, and how worthy of this description they are. The proof of that is his saying ‘I have not come to you except for the purpose of restoring your rights from the hands of the oppressors’, which is the first lie he uttered and a falsehood which he invented. Then he proceeds to something even worse than that, may God cast him into perdition, with his words: ‘I more than the Mamlûks serve God…’. There is no doubt that this is a derangement of his mind, and an excess of foolishness. What a worship he is speaking about, however great its intensity, kufr (disbelief) had dulled his heart, and prevented him from reaching the way of his salvation. There is inversion in the words which should read innanî a’budu Allâh akthar min al-Mamâlîk (I serve God more than the Mumlûks do). However, it is possible that there is no inversion, and that the meaning is ‘I have more troops or more money than the Mamlûks’ and that the accusative of specification has been omitted. So his words ‘I serve God’ are a new sentence and a new lie.

His statement ‘[I] revere His Prophet’ is conjoined to what goes before, as one lie joined to each other, because if he respected him he would believe him, accept his truth, and respect his nation. His statement al-Qur’ân al-‘azîm (the glorious Qur’ân) is joined to ‘His Prophet’, that is, ‘I respect the glorious Qur’ân’, and this too is a lie, because to respect the Qur’ân means to glorify it, and one glorifies it by believing in what it contains. The Qur’ân is one of the miracles of the Prophet which proves his truth, and that he is the Prophet to the end of time, and that his nation is the most noble of all nations. These people deny all that and lie in every thing they enumerate, ‘And many as are the signs in the Heavens and on the Earth, yet they will pass them by, and turn aside from them’ [Qur’ân, 12:105)

His saying ‘[all people] are equal in the eyes of God’ the Almighty, this is a lie and stupidity. How can this be when God has made some superior to others as is testified by the dwellers in the Heavens and on the Earth?…

As for his statement ‘and destroyed there the Papal See’, by this deed they have gone against the Christians as has already been pointed out. so these people re opposed to both Christians and Muslims, and do not hold fast to any religion…

His statement btâ’ al-Mamâlâk (belonging to the Mamlûks) is despicable and a banal and trite word. The word mutma’in should be mutma’inan because it is hâl (circumstantial expression), and converting it to the nominative (raf’) incorrectly is an indication of their state, and their insignificance. May God hurry misfortune and punishment upon them, may He strike their tongues with dumbness, may He scatter their hosts, and disperse them, confound their intelligence, and cause their breath to cease. He has the power to do that, and it is up to Him to answer.

After two centuries Napoleon’s pathetic pandering speaks for itself. We do not need two more years of the Bush/Cheney presidency to see the same kind of hubris in the ongoing war talk on terrorism.

Excerpts from Napoleon in Egypt: Al-Jabartî’s Chronicle of the French Occupation, 1798, Princeton, Markus Wiener, 2004, translated by Shmuel Moreh.

Daniel Martin Varisco