JEAN-BAPTISTE KLÉBER (1753-1800)
A French general who joined the FRENCH EXPEDITION to Egypt in 1798. For a time he was military governor of the province of Alexandria and then of Damietta; after the departure of Napoleon, he succeeded him in the supreme command of the French Oriental Army.
As governor of Alexandria, Kléber tried to remain neutral regarding the different religious groups. But he could already see that the leaders of the non-Muslim minorities showed more loyalty to the French than the Muslims. His positive impression concerning the non-Muslim population of Egypt grew stronger during his stay at Damietta, because of the cooperation of the former leaseholder of the customs tax farm of the port, a Syrian Christian, and of the head of the Greek Orthodox community.
When Kléber became supreme commander, he was confronted with enormous financial problems. The pay for the soldiers was in arrears and there was no cash in the treasury. Napoleon had left the collection of the taxes to a great extent in the hands of the Copts under the direction of JIRJIS AL-JAWHARI. Kléber was conscious of the disadvantages of this system, but he believed that he could not dispense with the services of the Copts. He tried to reduce the irregularities by more closely controlling and reducing the Coptic administrative machinery. But the scarcity of money induced him to grant the Coptic bureaucracy and its tax collectors more independence and to give them financial premiums in the form of bonuses for the year 1800. Since these measures failed, he tried force, with threats and arrests, to make the demanded sums of money available.
Kléber’s attitude to the Muslim people was cooler, more objective, and more formal than Napoleon’s. He dealt with the Muslim leaders respectfully, and he promised to protect and respect Islam as the religion of the majority. But inwardly he was convinced that the Muslims, in spite of their reverence to the French, clung to their religion and only waited for a propitious moment to come down upon their foreign enemy. His skepticism was corroborated during the preparations of the evacuation and throughout the insurrections that followed the annulment of the treaty of al-‘Arsh. As a punishment, Kléber inflicted enormous levies on the Muslim population of the seditious towns. Thus, his relationship to the Muslim leaders remained cold and rather hostile for some time. Only the threat of a new Turkish attack moved him to hold out the hand of reconciliation to the ‘ulemas (Muslim religious leaders).
After the Muslim revolts in Cairo and other places, Kléber gave up his neutrality toward the different religious groups and openly used the support of non-Muslim minorities. He transferred the police supervision in Cairo and its surroundings to the auxiliary troops, which were mainly recruited from Greek Christians. The collection of the punitive levies inflicted on the Muslims was handed over to the Coptic YA’QUB, the former secretary of Sulayman Bey and later intendant of General Desaix, who was granted wide-reaching powers. With his help, a Coptic auxiliary of 600 soldiers was also established, the so-called COPTIC LEGION, of which Ya’qub was appointed commander. Ya‘qub replaced Jirjis al-Jawhari as native adviser and confidant to the French. Moreover, Kléber made use of the mood among the non-Muslim population to reinforce the existing Greek auxiliaries and to create two new companies of Syrian Christians.
After the reconquest of Egypt, Kléber once more gave the collection of taxes entirely to the Copts, but the upper level of the Coptic administrative machine was put directly under the control of the French financial administration.
Kléber granted compensation to the Christian minorities, which had suffered losses of life and property during the Muslim insurrections. He also closed his eyes to the chicanery the Muslims were subjected to by the Christians as revenge for their suffering. However, a month after the recapture of the capital, he stopped these actions, announced a reconciliation between the French and the Muslims, and promised a policy more considerate of the interests of the Muslim population. Kléber was not able to realize this plan of internal peace between the different religious groups in Egypt. On 14 June 1800, he was murdered by a Muslim from Aleppo, whom officers of the grand vizier had hired. General Menou succeeded him as supreme commander of the French Oriental Army.
- La Jonquière, C. E. L. M. de Taffanel. L’Expédition d’Egypte, 1798-1801, vols. 1-5. Paris, 1899-1906.
- Motzki, H. Dimma und Egalité. Die nichtmuslimischen Minderheiten Ägyptens in der zweiten Hälfte des 18. Jahrhunderts und die Expedition Bonapartes (1798-1801). Bonn, 1979.
- Pajol, C. P. V. Kléber—Sa vie, sa correspondance. Paris, 1877. Rigault, G. Le Général Abd-allah Menou et la dernière phase de l’expédition d’Egypte (1799-1801). Paris, 1911.