The French Expedition to Egypt


Prior to the French expedition to Egypt, the Egyptian territory was occupied by the Ottoman Empire. The Ottoman Empire had occupied Egypt since 1517, during which the Mamluks had great influence. The Mamluks continued to exist even during the Ottoman system as they controlled large parts of Egypt. The start of the eighteenth century saw the intensified activities of the Mamluks who managed to recover large part of Egypt that was initially under their control. The new rule of the Mamluks was characterized with destructions which crippled commercial activities in Egypt. The state of affairs in Egypt attracted the French whose expansionist activities had intensified at the time. The French intended to have Egypt as its colony. The French expected to be welcomed by the Egyptians who were suffering under the Mamluks because of the French liberation ideas. The Egyptians were optimistic that the French expedition to Egypt would come with development. The French expedition to Egypt was largely fueled by the struggle for supremacy between the French and the British. In fact, the French occupation to Egypt came to an end in March 1801 following the attack of the French forces by the British forces. Although the French expedition to Egypt lasted for a short time, it left an indelible mark on Egypt as a country. This paper examines the social, economic, cultural and political effects of French expedition in Egypt in the period ranging from 1798-1801.

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The Social Effects

The French expedition to Egypt took a shorter time than expected because it ended after three years. However, the interruption on the Egyptian structures resulted in lasting negative effects. Therefore, The French intentions to modernize Egypt did not register significant successes. The French occupation came at a time when the state of education in Egypt was wanting. The traditional education system in Egypt was shallow as it mainly focused on Arabic alongside the disciplines of mathematics, and theology. Teachers mainly based their teaching on the information that had been made available by scholars of the past. For this reason, there was hardly any new knowledge that was introduced to the society. The Ottoman occupation was characterized by a further decline in specialists as education in different fields declined. By the close of the eighteenth century, ignorance was widely spread in Egypt, as there was an acute shortage of specialists in different areas. There were only a few specialists in Egypt such Shaykh Hasan al-Jabarti who specialized in mathematics and astrology and Shaykh ‘Abd al-Rahman who was a historian among a few others. However, their influence was stopped upon the arrival of the French. This is mainly because of the fact that French, unlike other colonial must were strongly against the culture of the indigenious people.

The French expedition to Egypt did not have a significant positive impact on the Egyptian scholars. The French and Egyptian scholars had a strained relationship which prevented them from interacting freely for purposes of exchanging knowledge. Out of the various scholars who were in Egypt by the start of the French occupation, only four interacted with the French for purposes of sharing and exchanging knowledge. The four scholars, Shaykh al-Mahdi, Shaykh al-‘Attar, Shaykh al-Khashshab and ‘Abd al-Rahman al-Jabarti, gave the French lessons on Arabic and in the process gained some weastern knowledge. However, these scholars were too few to make an impact on the Egyptian education system during and after the French occupation. The French also established the Institut d’Egypt in 1798. This institution also failed to benefit the Egyptians because it was mainly used to by the French to carry out research on matters relating to Egypt. As such, the institution performed an advisory role to the French by providing information to the French authorities.

It was expected that the French would improve the Egyptian education system because they were more advanced in the area of knowledge. However, that was not the case as the French expedition to Egypt further disrupted the weak education system that was in place. Most of the teachers who taught in religious schools were forced to withdraw upon the arrival of the French. The teachers were forced to withdraw to avoid being punished by the French who could go to the extent of executing those who opposed the French occupation of Egypt. The French started their own schools beginning with two schools set up to serve the children of the French. The French started by setting up schools to teach the Egyptians the French language which would be serve as the instructional medium. At the time, Napoleon also made plans to start a school to teach art and a hospital to train medical practitioners.

Similarly, The rebellion in Cairo in October 1798 led to yet another war. The French responded by bombing Al-Azhar destroying both property and lives in the process. The French General Deputy also lost his life during the bombing of Al-Azhar. The French expedition to Egypt also came at a time when France was preoccupied in supremacy battles with Britain. On the first day of August 1798, British forces attacked the French navy. The attack caused a major upset to the French as they lost a large number of men and property including twelve warships.

The Economic Effects

The location of Egypt meant that Egypt had great economic potential which attracted the French to occupy it. The Egyptians had endured a turbulent spell that hindered economic progress. The French were hopeful that the Egyptians would welcome their expedition to Egypt because there was hope that the French would revive economic activities. However, the French did not make a significant positive impact on the Egyptian economy. The French expedition to Egypt was largely characterized by uprisings as the Egyptians fought against the invasion of Egypt by the French. The French on their part responded to the Egyptian opposition through military attacks. Sometimes the French used sophisticated weapons such as bombs which left trails of destruction. As the two parties engaged in endless battles, property was destroyed slowing down economic activities in the process. Apart from the persistent unrests, the heavy taxes imposed on the Egyptians by the French further discouraged economic activities. Most of the Egyptians especially the traders and the farmers were affected negatively by the heavy taxes. Therefore, the French failed to revive industrial, trading and agricultural activities.

The French expedition to Egypt also came with a negative impact on the trade ties that Egypt had with the outside world. Egypt played the role of a link as it connected Asia and Europe. Egypt was particularly important because it provided a short cut between the two regions. Egypt also benefited in the process as it also participated in the trade especially with Britain. However, the occupation of Egypt by the French led to a turn of events. Napoleon was aware of the relationship between Egypt and Britain. The French were determined to cut the ties between Egypt and Britain because they understood the importance of Egypt to Britain. By occupying Egypt, the French not only cut ties between Egypt and Britain because they impaired all the dealings that Egypt had with the outside world in general. The expedition impaired Egypt’s communication with the outside world. This meant that Egypt could no longer enjoy the economic benefits that accrued from the trade between Asia and Europe. The various wars that characterized the expedition also led to the destruction of the goods that Egypt supplied to the outside world.

The Cultural Effects

The French expedition to Egypt also had a slight effect on the Egyptian cultural set up. The French culture just like the rest of the western culture differed significantly with the Egyptian culture. The Egyptian culture was dominated by Islamic values. Therefore, the Egyptians perceived the French culture as unhealthy. The western culture came as a shock to the Egyptians who were offended by the behaviors of the French. During the French expedition to Egypt, places of entertainment such as nightclubs and casinos were opened. The Egyptians could spot the French soldiers drinking in public. The Egyptians were also displeased with the way the French soldiers handled the Egyptian women. In some instances, the French soldiers made the Egyptian women to uncover their heads in public, something that was unheard of before the arrival of the French. This posed a threat to the Egyptian culture where women were required to dress modestly. While the Egyptians opposed the behavior of the French, a few Egyptians copied the French.

The French expedition to Egypt opened the Egyptian culture to the outside world. The French occupation of Egypt left a trail of destruction in almost all areas. On a positive note however, the deep-rooted culture of the Egyptians was exposed to the outside world. Napoleon is credited for spearheading studies in the Egyptian culture. The first study organized by Napoleon brought together artists and scientists who studied and recorded information about the natural history of Egypt. The report of the study is contained in the ”Description de l’Egypte”. The Egyptian culture continued to attract tourist and collectors who visited Egypt. The tourists and collectors continued to spread the Egyptians culture by spreading information and taking with them different antiques collected in Egypt.

The Political Effects

The political landscape in Egypt also changed during and after the French expedition to Egypt. The Egyptian experienced hardships during the French occupation because of the regulations that were introduced. For instance, the French imposed heavy taxes on the Egyptians. When the situation became unbearable, the Egyptians saw the need to free themselves. Napoleon covered the ill intentions of the French by referring to Egypt as a friend of France. The French also involved the Egyptian scholars in the administration of Egypt. The Egyptians would later gain the confidence to rebel against the French occupation in Egypt. The Egyptian scholars later joined the rebellions. Although the Egyptians were aware that they were ill equipped, they persisted with their rebellion against the French. The rebellion against the French gave the Egyptians the military experience that came in handy in fighting against the British and the Mamluk leaders.

The French expedition to Egypt intensified political activities in Europe at a time when most of the European countries were preoccupied with supremacy battles. The French for instance had embarked on an expansionist mission which had hit great heights by the time the French invaded Egypt. The French had particularly clashed with the British in the process. During the French occupation, various countries took interest in Egypt because the importance of Egypt was highlighted. The European countries saw the importance of Egypt as far as transport and trade along the Mediterranean were concerned. One of the intensions that motivated the French to occupy the Mediterranean was to cripple the British access to India. The French activities in Egypt and the Mediterranean region heightened the animosity between the French and the British as each one of them worked to outdo the other. The activities of the French and the British over shadowed the influence of the Mamluks. It did not take long before the power and the influence that the Mamluks had declined.

The French expedition to Egypt influenced the Egyptians to embrace democracy and the idea of having a parliamentary system. Although the Egyptians opposed the French occupation and influence on the French, they were impressed by the development that had been realized in the west. While they opposed the behavior of the French soldiers, they embraced the idea of freeing themselves from the French. This prompted the Egyptians to rise against the French occupation. The struggles of the Egyptians bore fruits and they continued rise against different forms of exploitation during and after the French occupation. As the influence of the Mamluks declined, democracy began to be embraced. The Egyptians were largely influenced by the French Revolution and were encouraged to embrace modernity.


The French expedition to Egypt was short lived, lasting for only three years. For this reason, the political, economic, social and cultural effects of the French occupation in Egypt did not last. The effects of the French expedition to Egypt were mainly negative because the French did very little to make significant improvement in Egypt. Socially, the French occupation was characterized by endless wars that resulted in the destruction of property and lives. The wars also crippled economic activities as trading activities declined. The French occupation in Egypt also intensified political activities in Europe while back in Egypt the influence of the Mamluks declined as democracy began to be embraced. The Egyptian culture remained largely unchanged but their art caught the attention of the rest of the world.

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