The Middle East and the West: Carving Up the Region Napoleon's foray into Egypt in 1798 began a long string of European adventures in the Middle East. NPR's Mike Shuster continues his series examining the troubled 900-year history of Western involvement in the region.

The Middle East and the West: Carving Up the Region

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Michele Norris.

And we continue now with our look at the history of the Middle East and the West. It may sound strange, but this troubled history entered its modern phase two centuries ago with the French General Napoleon playing the first leading role. Napoleon gathered an army of 30,000 troops, and in the midst of the French Revolution and chaos in Europe, he crossed the Mediterranean and seized Egypt. And as NPR's Mike Shuster tells us, this began a long series of European adventures in the Middle East leading to colonization, resistance and eventual war.

MIKE SHUSTER reporting:

Napoleon's attempt to seize Egypt in 1798 was pure folly, a characteristic his expedition shared with many in the Middle East that came after. It had little to do with Egypt and the Egyptians who were then nominally part of the Ottoman Empire. It had everything to do with Europe and his rivalry with Europe's other great powers. When Napoleon landed in Egypt, he first faced 40,000 Egyptians who suffered high numbers of casualties and were little match for the disciplined French troops. It was a major blow for the Egyptians and the wider Arab world, says Rashid Khalidi, author of "Resurrecting Empire."

Mr. RASHID KHALIDI (Author, "Resurrecting Empire"): It was the first major Western incursion into the Middle East. It had lasting effects. Among other things, it shocked people in Egypt, in the Arab world, who suddenly realized how weak their states were when facing the power of Western armies and fleets.

SHUSTER: But soon the British Navy joined the battle and proved a far more challenging adversary. Napoleon was defeated and quickly left Egypt, although some of his troops remained for the next few years. The British proved they were masters of the Mediterranean, capable of defending their imperial interests. The Anglo-French rivalry for Egypt would prove typical of the way the Europeans played with the Middle East, says historian Carl Brown of Princeton University.

Mr. CARL BROWN (Historian, Princeton University): The situation of the Middle East and of Europe's involvement in the Middle East was very definitely a spill-over from European diplomacy, European power politics.

SHUSTER: Over the next half century Britain and France would slowly encroach on the Middle East, always with an eye toward the imperial interests of the other. In 1830, France annexed Algeria. Nine years later Britain seized the Yemeni port of Aden near the entrance to the Red Sea and then set about securing British interests among the tiny emirates in the Persian Gulf. The British moves were mostly to secure strategic sea lanes that ensured their access to their key colonial possession, India. The French move into Algeria would become something else entirely, the first full-fledged European colonization of an Arab territory, says Rashid Khalidi.

Mr. KHALIDI: 'Cause as time went on, what France did was to turn Algeria not just into a colony but, at least in legal terms, into part of France, part of France in which only Frenchmen or Frenchwomen were citizens and only Frenchmen had voting rights and in which the Algerians had no rights or very limited rights and were gradually deprived of much of their property, which was handed over to French settlers.

SHUSTER: Then, after midcentury, the French began a commercial and engineering project that would have a profound effect on the Arab world and Europe's involvement with it: the construction of the Suez Canal. The Suez Canal opened a sea route from Port Said on the Mediterranean to the Red Sea. Today from this lonely stretch of Egyptian highway, container ships, oil tankers and warships of many nations can be seen floating soundlessly through the desert. The canal was opened in 1869, and it only intensified European competition in the Middle East. Again, historian Carl Brown.

Mr. BROWN: It's part of the whole process of the Western sort of spilling over into the Middle East that the rulers of Egypt couldn't really stop it.

SHUSTER: After this the European grab for Middle Eastern territory accelerated. France seized Tunisia in 1881. The British seized Egypt the next year. And two years after that the British attempted to take Sudan. It was in Sudan that Britain suffered a massive defeat at the hands of an indigenous Islamic army led by a local leader who claimed he was the Mahdi. The Mahdi is a Muslim concept of messiah that has a a reflection today in the Mahdi Army's resistance to the American presence in southern Iraq. In Sudan, hundreds of British troops were slaughtered, including their commanding general, Charles Gordon, in fighting that lasted from mid-1884 into 1885.

Sudan was not the only Arab land in which there was opposition to European encroachment. There was constant Arab resistance in some places and intermittent resistance everywhere. Algerians fought against French occupation from the outset, says Zachary Lockman, a professor of Middle East history at New York University.

Professor ZACHARY LOCKMAN (New York University): As European settlers began to arrive and wanted more land, as there was resistance by Algerians, the war expanded and, in fact, went on for decades. It was, really, only in the 1870s that the last revolts were crushed and that all of what is today Algeria was pretty much pacified.

SHUSTER: Historian Rashid Khalidi sees, in this period, the first hints of Arab nationalism, a movement that would sweep the Arab world in contemporary times.

Mr. KHALIDI: There was a religious cast to many of the resistance movements. But reading them in a different light, they can also be seen as simply movements of resistance to external expansion, which used both what we would call religious metaphors and religious language and also used nationalist or patriotic language talking about, you know, self-defense and driving the foreigners out.

SHUSTER: As the century wore on, Arab anger at European colonial control deepened. These years represent the zenith of European domination of the Middle East and, indeed, of European imperialism worldwide. Ignoring Arab protests, the Europeans believed they were providing the peoples of the Middle East the benefits of their superior way of life, says Zachary Lockman.

Prof. LOCKMAN: This is an era in which Europeans tend to be very optimistic. They feel they have a right to dominate the world. They have a superior culture, a superior civilization. And in a way, by extending their control over lesser peoples, as they saw them, culturally and, later, in very racist terms, biologically, they saw themselves as doing those peoples a favor.

SHUSTER: Some in the Middle East were impressed with what the Europeans brought, especially representative government and the rule of law. Carl Brown of Princeton says this led to early efforts to reform the politics of the Middle East.

Mr. BROWN: The first constitution in the modern Arab world was in Tunisia in 1861. There was an equivalent effort in Egypt in the 1870s that came to naught with the revolt, the breakdown or order called the Arabi Revolt in Egypt and leading to the British intervention in 1882, and, in the same 1870s, a constitution in the central Ottoman Empire itself.

SHUSTER: In Egypt, the British did not, at first, intend to stay for long. But, says Roger Owen, the Middle East scholar at Harvard University, events conspired to strengthen the British hold.

Mr. ROGER OWEN (Middle East Scholar, Harvard University): They began to think that they could only leave when they were sure that there was a stable government in Egypt. And in the usual sort of colonial way, the more reform you needed to do, the longer the time span when it was thought that Egyptians would be able to manage their own affairs successfully.

(Soundbite of music and socializing)

SHUSTER: The British turned Cairo into a colonial city. Britains took over the property of the Mamluk rulers like the Qahira Palace of the Khedive of Egypt. It became a popular spot for British officers to play tennis and take tea. Now the palace is part of a hotel, complete with garden dining and a piano bar.

The territories that the Europeans seized had all been part of the weakening Ottoman Empire. Still, Istanbul continued to play an important role as competition emerged from a new quarter, Russia. And so largely with British backing, the territories known today as Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Arabia and Palestine remained within the Ottoman Empire. Edhem Eldem is professor of history at Bogazici University in Istanbul.

Professor EDHEM ELDEM (Bogazici University): It is so strategically located that it becomes a problem for Europe. It creates dissention and factions within the European front. Any British move is going to be countered by a Russian one, not to forget the French and whatever. So that is what saves the empire until World War I.

SHUSTER: World War I would destroy the Ottoman Empire, leaving the new Turkey, a secular state with its capital, Istanbul, a museum to the glory of earlier centuries filled with cafes and carpet sellers. The Europeans would seize the Arab world that remained. Mike Shuster, NPR News.

NORRIS: There's a map showing the European expansion in the Middle East and Africa and biographies of key figures in our series at our Web site,

SIEGEL: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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