On This Day in Napoleonic History – 5 March 1798

Napoleon prepares for the invasion of Egypt

5The Directory gave Napoleon cart-blanche to organise full scale invasion of Egypt with the strategic aim of destroying British influence in the Eastern Mediterranean and replacing it with the French. It was in the Directory’s best interests to send Napoleon as far away from Paris as possible. His popularity was growing, while theirs declined. Fearing a coup, the feeble Directory was anything but secure in its position. If Napoleon went to Egypt, he might conquer it for France, which would be good, and he might die in the process, which would be even better. And were he to be defeated, the public opinion might turn against him.

For Napoleon, the invasion of Egypt was an opportunity to follow in the footsteps of his heroes, Caesar and Alexander. He didn’t rule out using Egypt as a stepping stone for further contest of the East. He described Egypt as a geographical key to the world, saying, ‘Egypt is but a molehill. All the great reputations have come from Asia.’

Egypt was officially ruled by the Ottoman Turks, who conquered it in 1517. However, in reality the control was in the hands of the Mamluks, a military cast originally from Georgia in the Caucasus. Their rule was unpopular among the Egyptians, not only because the Mamluks were foreigners but also because of the high taxes they imposed. The idea of invading Egypt appealed to the revolutionary idealists who could think of nothing nobler than freeing the oppressed peoples. Napoleon, however, saw the main reason for the invasion in countering the British trade interests in the Mediterranean. ‘To destroy England thoroughly, the time is coming when we must seize Egypt,’ he said.

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