Who wrote the following lines about Egypt? “What could be made of that beautiful country in fifty years of prosperity and good government!”
If you guessed Gamal Abdel Nasser or Husni Mubarak, Bill Clinton or George W. Bush, or any contemporary figure for that matter you would be wrong. It was Napoleon Bonaparte almost two centuries ago.
The time span designated by Bonaparte has come and gone four times, yet that country’s potential remains unfulfilled. Even more shockingly, today the process has still not even begun. That does not mean nothing has changed or can change but it certainly puts the idea of progress into a rather chilling perspective.
It was in the year 1799 that General Bonaparte’s French army invaded and conquered Egypt. This great historical event, often taken as the start of the modern Middle East, has fascinating reverberations for today.
At the time, Napoleon was fighting the great superpower war of his time, seizing Egypt to weaken France’s rival, Britain. Napoleon was not trying to liberate the Egyptians, but he wasn’t exactly looking to exploit that country’s resources either, since from the French point of view then there weren’t any other than its strategic position.
He was more interested in his personal glory than bringing democracy to Egypt but part of his program was to bring the blessings of modern civilization to that country. He was accompanied by a virtual unarmed army of scientists, writers, and engineers to help begin that transformation. Napoleon was also very sensitive to the power of Islam, trying hard to show respect for it to the point of hinting that he himself was a Muslim.
When French forces captured Alexandria, he issued a proclamation stating that the French Republic, “founded on liberty and equality” had come to overthrow Egypt’s dictatorship which had “tyrannized over” the country. He had arrived to give Egyptians “your rights and to punish the usurpers.” The French, he claimed, “are true Muslims” who would let Egyptians rule the country and raise living standards.
Within a short time, however, the French were forced to withdraw. British naval victories in the Mediterranean cut off their army; incessant local revolts and diseases wore down the French forces. And Napoleon’s ambitions took him back home.
Yet by overthrowing the old order, Napoleon did leave behind a major change. Muhammad Ali, the most imaginative of the former regime’s officers, created the first modernizing government in the Middle East. He urged his people to learn from Europe and adopt its technology and methods. This was Egypt’s first chance at creating that half-century of progress Napoleon had imagined.
While Muhammad Ali himself ruled more than forty years, in the time of his grandson Ismail’s rule the monarchy he established collapsed in a morass of incompetence, anarchy, and corruption. By the 1870s, Ismail was claiming, “My country is no longer part of Africa but is now become part of Europe.” Yet he ran Egypt deep into debt. An unwilling Britain, headed by anti-imperialist Prime Minister William Gladstone, was forced by circumstances to take over the country in 1882.
After World War One, though, Egypt had another chance. If Muhammad Ali’s modernizing monarchy failed, perhaps the liberal nationalist Wafd party could succeed in fulfilling Napoleon’s dream? No such luck. Again, Egypt failed to achieve a take off in social, political or economic terms.
In 1952, though, Egypt was given a third opportunity with the coming to power of a radical nationalist regime headed by Gamal Abdel Nasser, who was wildly popular and armed with the latest Third World ideology. But yet again, this system has failed for many of the same reasons as its predecessors, despite massive aid first from the Soviet Union and later from the United States.
It is possible to argue that Britain was to blame for the failure of the first two efforts to transform Egypt but such a case would be pretty weak. Without British intervention the first time the independent monarchy was clearly heading for a total meltdown. And while the British sometimes undermined the Wafd at other times they sponsored it.
Nor does Israel’s creation have that much to do with the basic story. Certainly the humiliation of 1948 played a role in bringing down the monarchy and Wafd four years later, but Nasser’s takeover was quite typical of dozens of coups and revolutions throughout the Third World by those convinced they could solve all their country’s problems through the new ideas prevalent at the time. Indeed, by stoking the conflict with Israel, Nasser and his successors found the perfect way to stifle domestic criticism, justify authoritarian rule, and hide away their own failings.
The truth is that any serious examination of Egypt’s history shows how ridiculous is the school of blame-it-all-on-imperialism-and-Zionism which dominates public Arab discussion and in many Western classrooms. Egypt has failed to fulfill Napoleon’s vision because of internal factors.
Today, Islamist and liberal reform movements are vying for a chance to direct the fourth round of Egypt’s modern history. It is an open question whether either of them could do better than the current regime or even ever get a chance to try. The Arab nationalist rulers have completed fifty years in office and will continue in power for the foreseeable future. Their victory in the latest presidential election–albeit by a majority of 88 instead of the usual 99 percent–does not signal imminent change.
Two hundred years later, the half-century-long process Napoleon foresaw has still not yet even begun.
Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), with Walter Laqueur (Viking-Penguin); the paperback edition of The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan); A Chronological History of Terrorism, with Judy Colp Rubin, (Sharpe); and The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley).