Islamist Napoleonic Syndrome as a Barrier to Public Diplomacy in Egypt


In policy circles throughout the Arab world, the phrase ‘Public Diplomacy’ is used as an epithet; a foul phrase that describes massaging the imperial interests of the United States by assuaging the needs of the rich and ruining the children of the poor with sugared candy, rock music, porn and video games. The perception is that most of what the West does with Muslims is focused on the interests of the West and leads to the degradation of Islamic civilization.  While most of the impetus for such fear is hysteria, there are a number of historical experiences in Arab history that give rise to what some would describe as rejectionism of the West’s current overtures.

On July 1, 1798, Napoleon Bonaparte arrived to Egypt as the first European invader since the Crusades. While Bonaparte’s visit would prove short (only 4 years in all), its initial intention was a lasting engagement with the people of Egypt, particularly in Alexandria and Cairo. His army was unlike anything the Mamluk rulers ever saw, using canons, guns, and ships against their swords. Among his fleet were 64 learned men referred to as ‘sevants’ tasked with the work of “studying Egypt and impressing the Egyptians with the superiority of French civilization.” Their job was to engage the people, their intellectuals and religious leaders and expose them to the ways of the West and the progress France was making in varying scientific fields.
Despite the early retreat of French occupiers from Egypt (1798-1801), compared to their British counterparts, staying 70 years (1882-1952), the impact of the ‘sevants’ on Egyptian life was quite significant. Subsequent to the departure of the French, Muhammad Ali Pasha’s vision of rapid industrialization and modernization programs was seen by some historians as an Islamic response to the perceived innovative abilities of the French. It was a free market competition between the ability of the French to innovate and the ability of the Ottomans to prove to the local occupied population that Muslims could keep up. The argument made to Egyptians was that instead of European Christian control, it was better for residents to swear allegiance to the head of the Ottoman Empire and his local representative.
One of the legacies emphasized throughout the history of religion and its attenuating philosophies is the use of ideas to demonize the powerful ‘Other.’ Thinkers of the time including al-Jabarti wrote extensively to criticize Napoleon’s pronouncement that “all men are equal before God” as a “lie and stupidity” and further proof that the West was vested in making the reasoning of man supreme to the will of God. It was argued that Napoleon was on a campaign to change Egyptian culture and ‘way of life’, and that his faith in ‘reason’ was a challenge to their Islam and its philosophies.
The truth, however, was that Napoleon (within the context of French Imperialism) was trying to show respect to the local population and was speaking the conceptual language of Islam. The Prophet Muhammad said, “Men are like the teeth of a comb, there is no difference among them before god except according to their level of piety.” Most classical Islamic scholars use this statement of the Prophet to bolster the Quran’s clear and specific condemnation of the racism that existed in Pre-Islamic Arabia. It was also seen as an articulation of the endowed equality of God’s creation. While this evidence was available to those Egyptians arguing with French ‘sevants’ throughout the country, many saw another, more important role for themselves. To continue the tradition: pairing the founding ideas and principles of the occupying power with the injustice of the actions of the occupiers themselves.
Another historical consequence of the French ‘sevants’ was the development of Egyptology less than a century after Napoleon’s invasion. Western orientalist thinkers were instrumental in the development of the study of ancient Egyptian life. Among them, Gaston Maspero, a leader among the founders of the science credited with, among other accomplishments, the digging of the Sphinx out of 60 feet of sand. Egyptians revered Maspero as a leader of sciences that would bring prosperity and a new sense of self to the budding nation. His infamous campaigns to capture leaders of local robbery gangs that stole Egyptian artifacts for sale to American and European Museums were also among the reasons for his reverence.
A historical note of importance, one month prior to the arrival of Napoleon’s forces in Alexandria, a British naval fleet came to the city leaders and warned of the impending French assault. The reaction of Alexandria’s ruler was to rebuke the British for articulating the thought that a Western power had the will to accomplish such a task. The British were sent away, and soon thereafter the French proceeded to occupy Egypt. What, other than arrogance and a lack of critical minds, could cause such disregard for such a real warning of impending danger?
Today, Egyptians protest the actions of their government and the lack of freedom in the media and public discourse in front of the National Television building on the banks of the Nile in the heart of Cairo. The name of that building is infamous among Cairenes when giving directions and is a mainstay of life on the Corniche (streets along the water) as the Maspero Building. Named after Gaston Maspero, in many ways, a product of French public diplomacy and Napoleon’s invasion of Cairo.
As the Islamist leaders of Egypt continue to fortify their powers over the country, an important question arises. What will they think when Egyptians call for a media free of censorship and intimidation? When women ask for equal rights in all aspects of life, not just in the application of the law? As NGOs try to rebuild their efforts to help the poor and disenfranchised, and governments around the world try to work with their leaders to build capacity and help more Egyptians what will the leaders of this transitional Egypt do? What will they do when Christians argue for a larger role in Egyptian public life?
Will they chose the route of their counterparts in history? Will they cling to a ‘short man syndrome’ understanding of change and temporal/limited definitions of what is Islamic? That is the ultimate question facing Egypt today as it embarks on an Islamist path. The now extremely controversial scholar Yousef al-Qaradawi a staunch supporter of President Morsi and the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood once wrote that there must be a complementarity between the jurisprudence of religion and the jurisprudence of reality. One hopes there is literacy within the current Morsi administration on both ends of the spectrum.
Egyptians are now protesting an erratic presidential decree while others, like populist Islamist preacher Wagdi Ghonim, are rallying the troops for the Islamist cause by supporting the current draft despite significant reservations. Among his reservations is his belief that democracy is for non-believers and is based on 10 principles that are all sourced in making humans and their reasoning equal with God and his law. With a brief reading of history, this tone sounds all too familiar.
Rejectionism is not a policy. It did not invite the great Jewish philosopher Maimonides to lecture at al-Azhar University, it did not convince the US Aid Agency to spend $4 billion dollars since 1979 to help Egyptians drink potable water and build a sanitation infrastructure, and it will not serve to pave the path for a prosperous future. Egyptian Islamists need a renaissance from the paradigmatic ghettoization that arose with their anti-Imperialist founding early in the 20th Century. If such a revolution of the mind does not occur, progress for the people of Egypt will be difficult to forecast.
Ahmed Younis served as a Senior Consultant for the Gallup Organization and Senior Analyst for the Gallup Center for Muslim Studies from 2007 to 2012. He holds a Juris Doctor from Washington & Lee School of Law and is the co/author of two books. 

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