1798-9: Napoleon in Egypt
The idea of an Egyptian campaign came foremost from Napoleon’s desire to embark on a cultural expedition, inspired by men like Alexander the Great. Napoleon had exhausted Italy’s resources and stolen most of the art from Venice so was keen to explore and conquer more exotic territory. Furthermore, the only European power still at war with France was Britain. Napoleon believed that Egypt would be easily conquered, and then used as a base from which to conquer British territory in India. The French government also saw Egypt as the ideal base to challenge British dominance in the Mediterranean and strangle their trade with the Ottoman Empire.
Bonaparte on the Bridge at Arcole
By Antoine-Jean Gros
Although these seemed compelling reasons for a cultural expedition/conquest of Egypt, the Directory probably saw this foremost as the perfect excuse to get Napoleon away from France. The Italian Campaign was a huge success for Napoleon which increased his popularity amongst leaders but simultaneously made them nervous about his political ambition. His military prowess and political agenda made him a huge threat to his opponents in France, so letting him travel to Egypt with a small army and some intellectuals effectively bought the Directory some time in terms of stalling his political ambitions.
To the Directory it seemed to be a win-win situation; Napoleon did not request a significant amount of men or resources so even if it went horrendously wrong, the damage would be limited, and Napoleon was far enough away from France not to pose a threat to the Directory leaders. Nonetheless, Napoleon embarked on this campaign hoping to emerge victorious and be received as a hero back in France.