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Napoleon’s Middle East Legacy

Napoleon Bonaparte’s 1798 invasion of Egypt represented the first modern attempt to incorporate an Islamic society into the European fold. Although the expedition was a military fiasco, it left a lasting legacy in the region.

MANCHESTER – “In the beginning was Napoleon.” So commences the late Thomas Nipperdey’s acclaimed history of nineteenth-century Germany, Germany from Napoleon to Bismarck. But although Nipperdey was referring to Napoleon Bonaparte’s central role in creating modern Europe, in many respects his statement also applies to today’s Middle East.

Napoleon’s 1798 invasion of Egypt marked the first instance of liberal imperialism, and highlighted the speed with which the French Revolution had transcended France’s borders – and Europe’s. Although the expedition was a military fiasco, it left a lasting legacy in the region.

For starters, the invasion represented the first modern attempt to incorporate an Islamic society into the European fold. It also constituted the formative moment for the discourse of Orientalism, when all of its ideological components converged and a full arsenal of instruments of Western domination was employed to protect it. The occupation itself did little to modernize Egyptian society, because the revolutionary principles that the French tried to introduce were too radical and foreign, and met determined local resistance. But Napoleon created a political vacuum in Egypt that was soon filled by Kavalali Mehmet Ali Pasha, who, within a decade of the French departure, began laying the foundation for the reformed and modernized Egypt that later would play such an important role in the Middle East.

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