France and the Levant/Chapter 6


VI. Mehemet Ali, Thiers and Palmerston

French influence in the Levant might be based either on the defence of Turkey against her enemies or on the support of rebellious subjects against their Ottoman ruler. After the fall of Napoleon the latter course was followed for a generation. France aided Great Britain and Russia to liberate Greece from the Turkish yoke by sharing in the destruction of the Turkish fleet in the bay of Navarino in 1827, and by landing troops in the Morea. But the most serious effort since Bonaparte's invasion of Syria was made ten years later. Since Turkey had fallen under the influence of Russia at the treaty of Adrianople (1829), the most promising policy for France was to support the most formidable of the Sultan's rivals. Mehemet Ali, the Albanian adventurer who had won the Viceroyalty of Egypt, was not content with Crete, which had been assigned to him in reward for his services during the Greek War of Independence; and in 1831 he despatched his son Ibrahim at the head of a formidable army, which over-ran Syria, crossed the Taurus, and advanced into the heart of Asia Minor. The Sultan, failing to obtain help from England or France, turned to Russia, who sent a fleet to the Bosphorus in 1833. Syria was ceded to Mehemet by Mahmud, who, however, in 1839 attempted to recover his lost province. His troops were routed by Ibrahim at the battle of Nisib, and a few days later his fleet was treacherously surrendered at Alexandria. Mehemet Ali demanded the hereditary government of Egypt and Syria, and the Sultan was ready to yield. It seemed as if Egyptian rule in Syria, detested though it was by the Mussulman chiefs, had come to stay.

In the misfortunes of the Ottoman Empire France saw an opportunity of restoring French influence in the Levant. To aid Mehemet Ali to obtain hereditary possession of Syria as well as Egypt was to secure French predominance in the Eastern Mediterranean. The plan was ingenious; but France had reckoned without Great Britain. The French Ambassador in London was summoned to the Foreign Office and informed that the Cabinet took a grave view of the crisis.


"I start with the belief," began Palmerston, "that our common object is to maintain the Ottoman Empire as a guarantee for the preservation of the European equilibrium. If it is admitted that this is the object which we both have in view, we must defend it from its friends as well as from its enemies. France and England should act together, and should send out joint expeditions to bring both the combatants to reason."


Reason, as understood by the Foreign Secretary, demanded that Egypt should be preserved to Mehemet Ali and his heirs, but that Syria should remain in the possession of the Sultan.

This conversation occurred shortly before the battle of Nisib and the death of Mahmud; but the Turkish débâcle failed to move Palmerston from his position. In his subsequent interview with the French Ambassador he repeated that the interest of both France and England was to restore the Turkish Empire to a condition which would involve the least risk of foreign intervention.


"This we can only obtain by separating the Sultan and his vassal by the desert. Let Mehemet Ali have his Egypt and the hereditary investiture which he demands, but do not let the two Powers adjoin. If we thought that Mehemet Ali could make himself strong and respected on the Ottoman throne, we should say Amen; but nothing will induce the Turks to regard him as a descendant of the Prophet."


If Syria were thus lopped off, he added, Russia would try to seize the European provinces of Turkey, which she had long coveted, and the Powers would have no title to protest. In a word Russia and France would dominate the Turkish Empire.

Unable to secure the consent of Great Britain to its protégé's possession of the whole of Syria, the French Government suggested that he might retain the territory up to Acre; but Palmerston cut short the discussion with the emphatic words, "Egypt only, and the desert for a frontier." In January 1840 Guizot was sent to London to convert the Foreign Secretary; but his efforts were unavailing.


"France would like to see in Egypt and Syria," Palmerston remarked with his usual bluntness, "a new and nominally independent Power, which would owe its existence to her and consequently be her ally. You already have Algeria. Between Algeria and your Egyptian ally what remains? Nothing except the poor little states of Tunis and Tripoli. The whole African shore and a part of the Mediterranean shore from Morocco to the Gulf of Alexandretta would be under your influence. That will not suit us."


The prize was too great to forgo without further efforts, and Thiers, who became Prime Minister in February, spent the first half of 1840 in naval and military preparations. On July 15 Great Britain, Russia, Prussia, and Austria concluded the Convention of London, pledging themselves to force Mehemet Ali to accept the terms arranged by them with the Sultan. A British fleet captured Beirut and Acre, and the Egyptians were swept out of Syria.

France had not been invited to discuss or to sign the Convention, for her support of Mehemet Ali was notorious. But Palmerston was convinced that Louis Philippe, whose throne was none too secure, was "not the man to run amok." The King, though angry, was wise enough to recognize facts; and in October Thiers was succeeded by the pacific Guizot. France now entered the Concert, and a second Treaty of London was signed in 1841. It was agreed that Mehemet Ali should receive the hereditary Viceroyalty of Egypt which he had sought, and renounce Crete, Syria and Palestine.