What made Napoleon Bonaparte train his eyes on Egypt? By 1798 the French Revolutionaries had executed France’s last king, Louis XVI, dismantled centuries of monarchy and stamped out any domestic resistance to their new order.
Napoleon, a successful general in the French army, had led his country into a series of wars that gave France a dominant position in Europe. However, Britain with its expanding imperial interests was a rising power in the region and Napoleon was keen to thwart its rapid progress. Realizing that his own navy was not yet strong enough to defeat Britain’s in the English Channel he devised a plan to invade and seize Egypt to prevent Britain from accessing the shortest route to India through the Red Sea. The fact that Egypt was a land of great riches was enticing enough, but its tyrannical rule by the Mamelukes gave Napoleon a convenient reason to invade it.
As Napoleon’s flagship, L’Orient, approached the shores of Egypt on July 1, 1798 he sent a message to its people that he was merely there to liberate them from Mameluke oppression, that he respected Islam and was a friend of the Ottoman Sultan. The assault went off as planned and the Mamelukes, unprepared for European weapons and tactics, lost heavily in battle.
While the French settled in to try to transform Egypt into a French territory, the Egyptians recognized Napoleon to be another conqueror like several before him going back to Biblical times. The general population put up a passive resistance against their newest occupiers and the Mamelukes increasingly engaged in guerilla attacks against the occupying army. Meanwhile, the Turks, belatedly realizing that Napoleon had tricked them into taking Egypt for himself, declared war on France. Napoleon swiftly countered with an offensive attack through Syria but after four wasted months, he returned to France where other more pressing matters made him lose interest in Egypt. He left an embattled French army that was finally expelled from Egypt in 1801 by the Turks with help from their new friends, Britain.
After three years of high drama, Egypt was back once again under the Mamelukes. Twice the Ottoman Turks tried to reassert their supremacy over Egypt and failed. It was not until 1811 when a Turkish governor, Mohammed Ali along with his son, Ibramin Pasha killed all but one Mameluke, ended six centuries of Mameluke rule over Egypt and soon restored all of Arabia to the Ottomans.
Ibrahim Pasha was ambitious and a skilled military man and his loyalties were soon no longer with the Sultan. Instead he was so successful in battles against the Ottomans that by 1833 he was in a position to march to Istanbul! Fearing defeat, the Sultan hastily signed an agreement to give Ibrahim Pasha the hereditary governorships of Adana and Syria.
In a change of heart, in 1839, the ruling Sultan wanted to take back Syria. Once again Ibrahim Pasha won such a decisive victory over the Sultan that the western powers, fearing the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, decided to intervene. A treaty was signed in London where Ibrahim Pasha was given the hereditary rule of Egypt in exchange for Syria and Adana.
Thus began the history of Modern Egypt.
During the long reign of Mohammed Ali, prosperity returned to Egypt and in 1820 the Mahmudiya canal was built to connect Alexandria, on the Mediterranean coast to the Nile and Cairo. From Cairo, goods could move a short distance over land to reach Suez at the mouth of the Red Sea.
Egypt became Europe’s direct link to the East and imperialist powers of the time began eyeing Egypt’s strategic place in the world’s most important trade route.
To be continued and possibly concluded in Part 4!