A STORY OF THE LOVE BETWEEN FRANCE AND EGYPT
By: Dr. Ahmed Yussef
Egyptians know a lot about General Bonaparte. They know less about his successor as commander-in-chief, General Kléber, and much less about Kléber ‘s successor, General Menou, who took over as CINC after the assassination of the former. This may be explained by the fact that French historians have often underrated the military as well as the administrative capabilities of Menou, while Egyptians tend to focus on his conversion to Islam, calling himself Abdallah de Mnou, and getting married to a woman from Rosetta, where he was governor. To my mind, historians have been unfair to this great military commander.
Menou was forty-eight when the French conquered Egypt, whereas his bitter rival, the man competing with him for superiority in Egypt, General Kléber was forty-five. Though the two generals were, almost, the same age, each one of them saw Egypt from a different angle. Menou believed Egypt should have a permanent relationship to France. That is why he converted to Islam and had an Egyptian woman for a wife. In addition to this, and in spite of the fact that he became CINC of the occupation army, he was deeply concerned about the way Egyptians lived, looking all the time for solutions for their problems.
On the other hand, General Kléber believed, from the first day of the French campaign, that it was doomed to be a military failure. He wanted to take the army back to France, as soon as possible. Actually, neither of the two men expected that he would drastically change his attitude after the destruction of the French vessels in Abukir. It is true that, as a result of the defeat in Abukir, they both became detainees in Egypt. But, compared to Kléber, Menou had a higher morale and a much better way of handling the situation.
Menou was one of those who first heard about the discovery of the Rosetta Stone by French Colonel Bouchard, on July 19, 1799. He soon realized that the inscripitions on the stone held the clue to solve the mysteries of three languages and that it would lead to a better understanding of Egyptian history. The Governor of Rosetta, who had just celebrated his conversion to Islam and his marriage, had a feeling that this was a godsend to him. One of the many narratives about Menou, says the man spent a whole night contemplating the Stone. On the next day, and before giving orders for the Stone to be sent to Bonaparte and his Savants in the Egyptian Scientific Institute, in Cairo, he had the inscriptions on the Stone copied and printed. This was the first step on the long and difficult road that ended up by Champollion deciphering the hieroglyphs on the Stone.
After taking over as CINC in Alexandria, Menou did his best, in spite of military pressures from outside and pressures from inside, from some of his generals, to stand up to the English onslaught. His main concern was to carry on the resistance and to find a way to save the Stone from falling into the hands of the English invaders, who would insist on getting it, if he gave in.
Later on, he would tell the English Army commanders that the Stone was a personal property that should not be considered a war spoil, as he himself bought it and paid for it with his own money, from a merchant in Rosetta. And then he would try to make them believe that the authentic Stone had been shipped away to France. But at the end, he had to give in and hand over the Stone to them and to make do with his printed copy of the hieroglyphic inscriptions. Now the Stone is a property of the English, whereas the printed copy of the inscriptions exists in the Louvre Museum.
In the light of this story, I think it is about time for France and Egypt to reappraise the role played by General Menou in history, as a man who had a dream of wedding the East to the West in a harmonious relationship, bearing in mind that, at the end of his career, and after giving up Islam and his Muslim wife, he became a ruler, in the name of Emperor Napoleon, of Venice, the city of love and dreams. Was his death in that city of romance, in 1810, a message sent by fate to us, French and Egyptians, summing up the life and history of General Menou?