Imperialism in the Middle East and North Africa

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Direct or indirect control exerted by one nation over the political life or economic life (or both) of other nations.

Imperialism is generally defined as a phenomenon that began with the overseas expansion of Europe in the fifteenth century. That expansion did not seriously
affect the Maghreb or Egypt, however, until the nineteenth century, and, except economically, it did not affect the most populous areas of southwest Asia until the early twentieth century. The major reason for this delay was the power and durability of the Ottoman Empire.

Originating around 1300, the Ottoman Empire eventually expanded to include most of the Balkans and the Black Sea area, Anatolia, the Fertile Crescent, and northern Africa as far west as the borders of Morocco. It was for centuries the primary empire in the Middle East and North Africa. (An empire is a singular political unitnot necessarily based on territorial contiguitythat incorporates different peoples who were previously self-governing and who retain some institutional autonomy.) In taking over so many regions, the Turkish-speaking armies of the sultans created an empire that included many different linguistic, religious, and ethnic groups, in which Turks were always a minority. The Ottomans engaged in imperial rivalry to expand their territory. Their rivals were the Holy Roman Empire (later Austria-Hungary), the Russian Empire, and the Iranian state of the Safavids and their successors,
which was sometimes called an empire despite its much smaller size because it was multilingual, multiethnic, and periodically expansive.

This description of the Ottoman Empire does not differ substantially from the description that could be applied to the Christian European empires established from the sixteenth century onward, except that the Europeans were normally less willing to admit non-Europeans into the ranks of officials. The sultans, like the Russian tsars, were primarily motivated by the desire to acquire land and wealth, whereas the overseas European empire builders sought raw materials and markets. Thus the Europeans had a greater impact on the international division of labor than did the Ottomans, although this analytical distinction was not necessarily reflected in the attitudes of the imperialists and their subjects.

Despite the substantial similarities between European and Middle Eastern empires, the term imperialism is rarely used to describe the underlying principles of the Ottoman Empire. More often, imperialism is defined as a peculiarly European phenomenon embodying military or political control of non-European peoples; unrestrained exploitation of their economies for the disproportionate benefit of the European home country; feelings of racial, religious, and cultural superiority over the dominated peoples; and, in some regions, the implantation of European colonies or importation of nonindigenous laborers, often as slaves.

Historians in the Marxist tradition have considered economic exploitation by such means as joint-stock companies, forced labor on plantations, and suppression of indigenous manufactures to be the most important aspect of European imperialism. Imperialism, according to this view, is an inevitable stage of a capitalist system that needs to expand in order to survive. Immanuel Wallerstein, whose theories have been particularly influential, portrays imperialism as the imposition upon the entire world of a system through which capitalist Europe made the rest of the world economically dependent and imposed economic underdevelopment by monopolizing resources, reorienting self-sustaining regions toward extraction of primary goods for European manufacturers, and preventing the emergence of viable mixed economies in non-European areas.

Some clear distinctions between the way the Ottomans and the Europeans ran their empires may be noted. The Islamic religion provided a bond for most people under Ottoman rule, whereas European Christianity remained a culturally elitist, minority faith in the parts of the European empires that did not have large colonies of European settlers or where religions of comparable sophistication, such as Islam, impeded religious conversion. Ottoman lands remained comparatively open to trade by foreigners (though not to land acquisition), and the Ottoman government rarely took action to protect its own merchants, as the Europeans commonly did. Finally, the Ottomans generally administered their territories with a lighter hand than did the Europeans.

In 1800 most subjects of the Ottoman sultan considered it normal to be ruled from a distant capital by means of a rotation of officials and military forces sent from afar and often speaking a foreign language. Napoléon Bonaparte's propaganda effort in 1798 to convince the Egyptians that they were victims of imperial oppression by foreigners fell on deaf ears. Soon thereafter, however, the Christian peoples of the Balkans, stimulated in part by the exposure of community members to European ideas as a consequence of educational or personal contacts outside Ottoman territories, did begin to see themselves as victims of Ottoman domination. Through a series of wars and militant movementsoften encouraged by European powers with strategic or ideological agendasthey endeavored to gain their freedom and establish independent states with comparative ethnic and religious homogeneity. The anti-imperialism of the Balkan secessionists eventually
affected the Armenian Christians of Anatolia and more slowly gained headway in Arab nationalist circles after 1900.

European imperialism took three forms in the early nineteenth century: direct occupation and colonization of Algeria by France from 1830 onward, diplomatic pressure on the Ottoman sultans to grant economic and legal privileges to Europeans and non-Muslim minorities, and treaties with rulers and chiefs controlling seaports in the Persian Gulf and southern Arabia designed to ensure British military control of the sea route to India in return for maintaining the rulers and chiefs in power. In the second half of the century, new forms of European imperialism emerged. Rulers granted concessions to European entrepreneurs for the building of canals, railroads, and telegraph lines; operation of banks; and marketing of primary products. They also sought loans from private European bankers. When Egypt, the Ottoman Empire, Tunisia, and Iran were successively unable to repay these loans, Europeans assumed financial control over customs and other sources of state revenue. In Egypt, fear that Colonel Ahmad Urabi's military rebellion would interrupt these financial controls prompted Britain to suppress the rebellion militarily and commence an occupation in 1882 that would last for seventy years. In 1881 France occupied Tunisia and subsequently imposed a protectorate upon its Husaynid beys. In 1900, primarily for strategic reasons, France began the occupation of the territory that subsequently became Mauritania, and in 1912, in partnership with Spain, it imposed a protectorate on the sultanate of Morocco. France had already recognized Spain's sovereignty over certain "presidios" in the Spanish Sahara.

Growing European imperialism gave rise to anti-imperialist sentiments that were vented in popular opposition to concessions, as in the Tobacco Revolt in Iran in 1891 and in the mobilization of political action around religious symbols and leaders (e.g., in Libya, where the Sanusi Sufi brotherhood spear-headed opposition to Italian occupation after 1911). Anti-imperialism also sparked political movements, most notably the Wafd in Egypt, whose members saw the end of World War I as a possible opportunity to escape British rule. Farther west, the Young Tunisian and Young Algerian movements began demanding reform and greater rights for natives. Armenians and Kurds looked to the peace negotiators to grant them independence from outside control, even if it meant accepting some measure of European protection.

The mandate system established at San Remo in 1920 to resolve the problems caused by the defeat of the Ottoman Empire extended European imperialism by giving France control of Lebanon and Syria and Britain control of Palestine and Iraq. Legally, the mandate from the League of Nations to France and Britain required them to nurture these territories toward total independence, but these countries' motivation to do so (strongest in Iraq and weakest in Lebanon and western Palestine) was often adversely affected by issues of national interest. In Palestine, in particular, Britain was committed in the terms of the Balfour Declaration (1917) to fostering the establishment of a Jewish national home. In the eyes of many Arabs and Muslims, the migration of tens of thousands of Jews from Europe to Palestine represented a form of settler colonialism similar to that in Algeria. Between the two world wars France and Great Britain had to deal with extremely determined and sometimes violent resistance by both Syrians and Palestinians, while nationalist movements in the Maghreb also mobilized increasing support.

Unlike parts of the world rich in raw materials or agricultural products that could not be grown in Europe, most parts of the Middle East and North Africa did not offer great rewards to their imperial masters. Egyptian cotton, Algerian wine, and Iranian oil flowed into international markets, and the Suez Canal was profitable, but the cost of military occupation in the face of rising nationalist hostility, and the cost of infrastructure investment, limited though it was in most areas, brought the economic value of imperialism into question. After World War II, the greatly depleted European powers were no longer able to bear the cost, either in money or manpower. One by one, the countries of the Middle East became free of direct imperial control. Only in the most profitable or politically contested countries was the withdrawal of empire accompanied by significant bloodshed. British withdrawal from Palestine in 1948 brought on Israel's declaration of independence and the first ArabIsrael War. The army coup that terminated British control of Egypt in 1952 was followed by the Suez War in 1956 in which Britain, in alliance with France and Israel, attempted to regain control of the Suez Canal. Through effective political activism that was largely but not totally peaceful, Tunisians and Moroccans were able to terminate the French protectorates by 1956. In 1960, as part of a broader de-colonization process, France's president Charles de Gaulle granted independence to Mauritania. In Algeria, colonists' refusal to permit meaningful reform led the Front de Libération Nationale to launch a revolution in 1954; France's attempt to repress it cost roughly 500,000 Algerian lives and ended in independence for Algeria in July 1962. Francisco Franco granted the Western (formerly Spanish) Sahara independence in 1975, but this led to conflict with Morocco that had not been resolved by the early twenty-first century.

As direct imperial control waned and overt indirect control in the form of military bases and foreign ownership of oil companies diminished in the 1950s and 1960s, cultural imperialism came to be looked upon as a pervasive remnant of the imperialist era. Cultural imperialism was considered to have several components: imposition of Euro-American cultural values and lifestyles through market domination by imported consumer goods, motion pictures, and television shows; ideological subversion in the form of secular nationalist political movements philosophically rooted in Western thought; and intellectual domination through the distorted writings and pejorative imaginative constructions of European Orientalists and their successors in the American academic field of Middle East studies.

Direct imperial domination had evoked a fairly uniform nationalist reaction throughout the region, but the more nebulous concept of cultural imperialism led its proponents in different directions. In Iran, Jalal Al-e Ahmad's concept of gharbzadegi or "Westoxication" contributed to the explicitly anti-Western character of the 1979 revolution. Other Islamic activist movements have, to varying degrees, shared hostility or suspicion of the West as an imperialist force. The Islamist insurgency that erupted in Algeria in the 1990s was viewed as principally if not totally cultural in nature. The discourse of alQaʿida, which also emerged in the 1990s, is primarily cultural. Secular intellectuals, on the other hand, have refused to accept Islam as the only alternative to cultural domination by the West. Calls for a decolonization of history and exposure of Orientalist fantasies have come mainly from secularists such as Morocco's Abdallah Laroui and the Palestinian Edward Said.

Further stimulus for resistance to Western imperialism came in 1993 from Samuel Huntington's article "The Clash of Civilizations" in the influential journal Foreign Affairs. Huntington visualized a future in which an undefined Islamic civilization was destined to conflict with a similarly undefined Western civilization, and he called for the formulation of a strategy that would assure Western victory in such a confrontation. Middle Eastern religious and secular thinkers alike viewed this projection as a portent of continued Western imperial ambition in the postCold War era.

See also algerian war of independence; arabisrael war (1948); balfour declaration (1917); bonaparte, napolÉon; gharbzadegi; iranian revolution (1979); mandate system; ottoman empire; qaʿida, al-; said, edward; tobacco revolt; urabi, ahmad; wafd; young algerians; young tunisians.


Amin, Samir. The Arab Nation: Nationalism and Class Struggle. London: Zed Books, 1982.

Berque, Jacques. French North Africa: The Maghrib between Two World Wars. New York: Praeger Publishers, 1967.

Huntington, Samuel. "The Clash of Civilizations." Foreign Affairs 72, no. 3 (Summer 1993): 2228.

Hurewitz, J. C. The Middle East and North Africa in World Politics, 2d edition. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 19751979.

Monroe, Elizabeth. Britain's Moment in the Middle East 19141971, new revised edition. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1981.

Said, Edward. Orientalism. New York: Vintage, 1979.

richard w. bulliet
updated by john ruedy

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Imperialism in the Middle East and North Africa

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