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The Middle East and the West: Carving Up the Region

Inset of map showing the European expansion in the Middle East and Africa as of 1914.
Geoffrey Gaudreault, NPR /
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Inset of map showing the European expansion in the Middle East and Africa as of 1914.

Napoleon's foray into Egypt in 1798, in the midst of the French Revolution, began a long string of European adventures in the Middle East, leading to colonization, resistance, and eventually war.

Eventually, the British would take Egypt, Sudan and the small states of the Persian Gulf. France would seize Algeria and Morocco. And Arab resistance to European encroachment would prompt much bloody violence.

The story of European moves into the region is the latest in a six-part series by NPR's Mike Shuster examining the troubled 900-year history of Western involvement in the Middle East.

Napoleon's effort to conquer Egypt "had little to do with Egypt and the Egyptians, who were then nominally part of the Ottoman Empire," Shuster says. "It had everything to do with Europe and his rivalry with Europe's other great powers."

Egyptian defenders were little match for Napoleon's disciplined French troops, and the defeat was a major blow for the Arab world.

"It had lasting effects," says Rashid Khalidi, professor of Middle East history at Columbia University. "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."

But the British navy soon joined the battle, opposing the French forces, and proved a far more challenging adversary. Napoleon was defeated and quickly left Egypt, although some of his troops remained.

Resistance to the French in Algeria and the British in Sudan provided the first hints of Arab nationalism, a movement that would sweep the Arab world in contemporary times.

Still, by the early 20th century much of the Middle East and Africa -- which had previously been under control of the Ottoman Empire -- was ruled by the Europeans.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Mike Shuster is an award-winning diplomatic correspondent and roving foreign correspondent for NPR News. He is based at NPR West, in Culver City, CA. When not traveling outside the U.S., Shuster covers issues of nuclear non-proliferation and weapons of mass destruction, terrorism, and the Pacific Rim.