V. The Modern Period, 1789–1914 > C. The Middle East and North Africa, 1792–1914
  The Encyclopedia of World History.  2001.
(See Overview)
C. The Middle East and North Africa, 1792–1914
1. Overview
The start of the 19th century marks the conventional beginning of modern Middle Eastern and North African history. The region entered a new course of development under the overpowering shadow of Europe, which increasingly shaped its domestic and international affairs.  1
By 1914 large parts of the region, including Egypt, Cyprus, Aden, and all of North Africa, had been occupied by European imperial powers, primarily Britain and France; the states of the Persian Gulf had accepted one form or another of British protection; and Iran and Afghanistan were subject to extensive Russian and British interference in their internal affairs. European powers had also helped the Balkan lands shake off Ottoman rule, which was virtually terminated in Europe after a presence of some 500 years.  2
The looming European threat spurred a dramatic process of modernization initiated by regional rulers (primarily in Istanbul and Cairo) in the beginning of the 19th century. Modeling their efforts on Western methods and institutions, they proceeded to reorganize their armies and centralize their administrations, and then expanded into new spheres of social and economic reform that created European-inspired legal codes, land tenure systems, municipal institutions, secular schools, and public health measures. With the aid of European capital they also promoted improvements in infrastructure (irrigation works, roads, railways, telegraph lines, and steam navigation). Governments grew bigger and assumed new social functions, although the ambitious rush to develop led, by the mid-1870s, to the bankruptcy of the treasuries of the Ottoman Empire, Egypt, and Tunisia, all of which had defaulted on large loans taken from European bankers. European financial and political controls established in the aftermath restricted both the expenditures and sovereignty of regional governments.  3
Government efforts to modernize were part of a broader opening up of the region to Western influences. Newspapers, modern schools (most of them private and communal), translated works, and direct contact with Europeans introduced segments of the public to new modes of thought. European dress and architecture spread, especially in the cities. Slavery was abolished, a feminist movement began to emerge, ideas of nationalism and constitutional government took root, and Islamic religious institutions came under attack.  4
By 1914 the encounter with Western civilization had provoked serious soul-searching and questions about the future direction of society. Thinkers tried to explain why a once-flourishing Islamic civilization had become inferior to Europe and how the region could rejuvenate itself. Between those who advocated opposition to Western ways and supporters of wholesale imitation of them, a group of thinkers emerged who sought ways for the region to modernize without being untrue to its own traditions. Many of them were associated with the movement of Islamic reform, which supported modernization in the framework of a reformed Islam more suited to the needs of society.  5
Dramatic transformations occurred also in the demographic and economic spheres. The region's population increased during the period between two and three times, from roughly 28 million to about 66 million (in the Middle East from 21 to 54 million, in North Africa from 7 to 12 million). Improvements in public health and the disappearance of the plague brought the beginnings of sustained population growth in both city and countryside (the rural population remained at 75–80 percent).  6
This demographic revolution was accompanied by economic expansion. The region's foreign trade grew several times as Europeans purchased larger quantities of its agricultural products and found in it ready markets for their mass-produced finished goods. The Middle East and North Africa became incorporated into the European-dominated world economy, with a number of mixed results: the colonial pattern of exchange undermined the region's self-sufficiency; there was a large-scale shift to cash crops in some areas (such as cotton in Egypt and silk in Lebanon); many local textile workers unable to compete with cheap European imports were thrown out of business; coastal cities like Beirut and Alexandria, the new contact points with Europe, grew rapidly while the interior cities declined in economic importance; and local non-Muslim merchants backed by European favors benefited from the new opportunities at the expense of Muslim traders.  7
Agriculture, which remained the main sector of the economy, also experienced marked growth. Improved security and irrigation, investments by landowners, and increased demand all helped to expand the cultivated area and agricultural output. Through new laws, large tracts of state land were converted into freehold and came mostly into the possession of a class of wealthy urban landowners. Much capital went into land but not into modern industry, which was still barely existent in 1914. Manufacturing remained organized around artisanal workshops even as the traditional guild system was disappearing, its functions taken over by government and the market. Overall, income and wealth increased, but the benefits were very unevenly distributed. (See The Middle East and North Africa, 1914–1945)  8
The Encyclopedia of World History, Sixth edition. Peter N. Stearns, general editor. Copyright © 2001 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Maps by Mary Reilly, copyright 2001 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.