Owen, who teaches at Harvard, is among our foremost historians of modern Egypt, and one the few who have worked both on economic and on political history. He is author of State, Power and Politics in the Making of the Middle East and several other seminal books.
‘ Try as we might, it is difficult for most of us to imagine what it’s like for a country to be invaded and occupied. Photographs help: pictures of German troops marching down the Champs-Élysées in 1940 with not a Frenchman in sight, pictures taken that same year of a British policeman on patrol with a German officer in the newly captured British Channel Islands. The terrible incongruity of it all, the violation of what seemed the natural order, the sinister sense of foreboding, of a world turned upside down without any of the familiar certainties to hang onto.
Our best bet, though, for understanding what it’s like to be on the receiving end of a military occupation by foreign soldiers is to watch films made recently in Iraq from an Iraqi point of view. There the sudden appearance of helicopters, or a checkpoint on the road ahead, or the spectacle of British or American soldiers in battle gear entering a busy square, bring an immediate sense of menace. All at once there is shouting from one side, screaming from the other, the sound of doors being kicked in, orders harshly given (often in a foreign language: English, that is), weapons cocked, shooting and explosions. Such confrontations are hardly more pleasant for the soldiers, who find themselves in a strange place, surrounded by what always seems a hostile crowd. If these men have itchy fingers, it’s partly because they are insecure, frightened, angry and scarred from having seen some of their comrades blown to bits.
So it was in Egypt when the country was unexpectedly invaded and occupied by Napoleon’s army in the summer of 1798. The French troops first landed in Alexandria before marching–tired, thirsty and beset by Bedouin irregulars–through the towns and villages to Cairo, parts of which soon turned violently against their new occupiers. Then further military expeditions up and down the land, with none of Napoleon’s soldiers safe anywhere as the initial efforts to woo the native inhabitants only provoked further ambushes and violent acts of resistance and revenge. As Ahmed Hashim puts it so succinctly in his book Insurgency and Counter-Insurgency in Iraq, occupations are resisted simply because they are occupations . . .
At the Napoleon’s Egypt blog: Bonaparte establishes the Egyptian Institute.