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Two centuries on, Napoleon’s local campaign is contentious in Middle East

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Napoleon Bonaparte’s bloody campaign in Egypt and Ottoman Palestine, which marked the start of modern European colonialism in the Middle East, remains contentious two centuries after the French emperor’s death.

The Corsican general set sail eastwards with 300 ships in 1798, aiming to conquer Egypt and block a crucial route between Britain and its colonial territories in India.

It was an occupation that was to leave thousands dead in Egypt and Palestine.

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But Bonaparte also brought some 160 scholars and engineers, who produced mountains of research that would play a key role in transforming Egypt into a modern state.

For Egyptian writer Mohamed Salmawy, speaking ahead of the May 5 bicentenary of Napoleon’s death, the venture was a mix of “fire and light.”

“It was a military campaign, for sure, and Egyptians put up resistance to French forces. But it was also the start of an era of intellectual progress,” he said.

The “Description de l’Egypte” resulting from the mission was an encyclopedic account of Egypt’s society, history, fauna and flora.

French troops’ discovery of the Rosetta Stone also allowed hieroglyphs to be deciphered for the first time, opening up the field of Egyptology.

Ruler Mohamed Ali drew heavily on Napoleonic research as he built the modern Egyptian state, says French-Egyptian writer Robert Sole. Screen capture from video of Egyptian writer Mohamed Salmawy. (YouTube)

But Arab nationalist Gamal Abdel Nasser, who helped topple Mohamed Ali’s dynasty in 1952, used the episode to promote an anti-colonial national identity.

For historian Al-Hussein Hassan Hammad, at Cairo’s Al-Azhar University, Napoleon’s scientists were, like........

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