Egypt is the most populous country in the Arab world and the second-most populous on the African continent. Nearly all of the country’s 80 million people live in Cairo and Alexandria; elsewhere on the banks of the Nile; in the Nile delta, which fans out north of Cairo; and along the Suez Canal. These regions are among the world’s most densely populated, containing an average of over 3,820 persons per square mile (1,540 per sq. km), as compared to about 200 persons per sq. mile for the country as a whole.
Small communities spread throughout the desert regions of Egypt are clustered around oases and historic trade and transportation routes. The government has tried with mixed success to encourage migration to newly irrigated land reclaimed from the desert. However, the proportion of the population living in rural areas has continued to decrease as people move to the cities in search of employment and a higher standard of living.
The Egyptians are a fairly homogeneous people of Hamitic origin. Mediterranean and Arab influences appear in the north, and there is some mixing in the south with the Nubians of northern Sudan. Ethnic minorities include a small number of Bedouin Arab nomads in the eastern and western deserts and in the Sinai, as well as some 50,000 – 100,000 Nubians clustered along the Nile in Upper (southern) Egypt.
The literacy rate is about 58% of the adult population. Education is free through university and compulsory from ages 6 through 15. Rates for primary and secondary education have strengthened in recent years. Ninety three percent of children enter primary school today, compared with 87% in 1994. Major universities include Cairo University (100,000 students), Alexandria University, and the 1,000 years old Al-Azhar University, one of the world’s major centers of Islamic learning. Egypt’s vast and rich literature constitutes an important cultural element in the life of the country and in the Arab world as a whole. Egyptian novelists and poets were among the first to experiment with modern styles of Arabic literature, and the forms they developed have been widely imitated. Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz was the first Arab to win the Nobel prize for literature. Egyptian books and films are available throughout the Middle East.
Egypt has endured as a unified state for more than 5,000 years, and archeological evidence indicates that a developed Egyptian society has existed for much longer. Egyptians take pride in their “pharaonic heritage” and in their descent from what they consider mankind’s earliest civilization. The Arabic word for Egypt is Misr, which originally connoted “civilization” or “metropolis.”
Archeological findings show that primitive tribes lived along the Nile long before the dynastic history of the pharaohs began. By 6000 B.C., organized agriculture had appeared.
In about 3100 B.C., Egypt was united under a ruler known as Mena, or Menes, who inaugurated the 30 pharaonic dynasties into which Egypt’s ancient history is divided – the Old and the Middle Kingdoms and the New Empire. The pyramids at Giza (near Cairo), which were built in the fourth dynasty, testify to the power of the pharaonic religion and state. The Great Pyramid, the tomb of Pharaoh Khufu (also known as Kheops), is the only surviving monument of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Ancient Egypt reached the peak of its power, wealth, and territorial extent in the period called the New Empire (1567-1085 B.C.).
Persian, Greek, Roman, and Arab Conquerors
In 525 B.C., Cambyses, the son of Cyrus the Great, led a Persian invasion force that dethroned the last pharaoh of the 26th Dynasty. The country remained a Persian province until conquered by Alexander the Great in 322 B.C., ushering in Ptolemaic rule in Egypt that lasted for nearly 300 years.
Following a brief Persian reconquest, Egypt was invaded and conquered by Arab forces in 642. A process of Arabization and Islamization ensued. Although a Coptic Christian minority remained and remains today, constituting about 10% of the population, the Arab language inexorably supplanted the indigenous Coptic tongue. For the next 1,300 years, a succession of Arab, Mameluke, and Ottoman caliphs, beys, and sultans ruled the country.
The Ottoman Turks controlled Egypt from 1517 until 1882, except for a brief period of French rule under Napoleon Bonaparte. In 1805, Mohammed Ali, commander of an Albanian contingent of Ottoman troops, was appointed Pasha, founding the dynasty that ruled Egypt until his great-great grandson, Farouk I, was overthrown in 1952. Mohammed Ali the Great ruled Egypt until 1848, ushering in the modern history of Egypt. The growth of modern urban Cairo began in the reign of Ismail (1863-79). Eager to Westernize the capital, he ordered the construction of a European-style city to the west of the medieval core. The Suez Canal was completed in his reign in 1869, and its completion was celebrated by many events, including the commissioning of Verdi’s “Aida” for the new opera house and the building of great palaces such as the Omar Khayyam (originally constructed to entertain the French Empress Eugenie, and now the central section of the Cairo Marriott Hotel). In 1882, British expeditionary forces crushed a revolt against the Ottoman rulers, marking the beginning of British occupation and the virtual inclusion of Egypt within the British Empire. In deference to growing nationalism, the U.K. unilaterally declared Egyptian independence in 1922. British influence, however, continued to dominate Egypt’s political life and fostered fiscal, administrative, and governmental reforms.
In the pre-1952 revolution period, three political forces competed with one another: the Wafd, a broadly based nationalist political organization strongly opposed to British influence; King Fuad, whom the British had installed during World War II; and the British themselves, who were determined to maintain control over the Canal. Other political forces emerging in this period included the communist party (1925) and the Muslim Brotherhood (1928), which eventually became a potent political and religious force.
During World War II, British troops used Egypt as a base for Allied operations throughout the region. British troops were withdrawn to the Suez Canal area in 1947, but nationalist, anti-British feelings continued to grow after the war. On July 22-23, 1952, a group of disaffected army officers (the “free officers”) led by Lt. Col. Gamal Abdel Nasser overthrew King Farouk, whom the military blamed for Egypt’s poor performance in the 1948 war with Israel. Following a brief experiment with civilian rule, they abrogated the 1923 constitution and declared Egypt a republic on June 19, 1953. Nasser evolved into a charismatic leader, not only of Egypt, but the Arab world, promoting and implementing “Arab socialism.” He nationalized Egypt’s economy. Nasser helped establish the Non-Aligned Movement of developing countries in September 1961, and continued to be a leading force in the movement until his death in 1970. When the United States held up military sales in reaction to Egyptian neutrality vis-a-vis Moscow, Nasser concluded an arms deal with Czechoslovakia in September 1955.
When the U.S. and the World Bank withdrew their offer to help finance the Aswan High Dam in mid-1956, Nasser nationalized the privately owned Suez Canal Company. The crisis that followed, exacerbated by growing tensions with Israel over guerrilla attacks from Gaza and Israeli reprisals, resulted in the invasion of Egypt that October by France, Britain, and Israel; the invasion was reversed by U.S. political intervention, and the Canal remained nationalized.
Nasser’s domestic policies were frequently oppressive, yet generally popular. All opposition was stamped out, and opponents of the regime frequently were imprisoned without trial. Nasser’s foreign and military policies helped provoke the Israeli attack of June 1967 that virtually destroyed Egypt’s armed forces along with those of Jordan and Syria. Israel also occupied the Sinai Peninsula, the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, and the Golan Heights. Nasser, however, was revered by the masses in Egypt and elsewhere in the Arab world until his death in 1970.After Nasser’s death, another of the original “free officers,” Vice President Anwar el-Sadat, was elected President. In 1971, Sadat concluded a treaty of friendship with the Soviet Union, but a year later, ordered Soviet advisers to leave. In 1973, he launched the October war with Israel, in which Egypt’s armed forces achieved initial successes but were defeated in Israeli counterattacks.
Camp David and the Peace Process
In a momentous change from the Nasser era, President Sadat shifted Egypt from a policy of confrontation with Israel to one of peaceful accommodation through negotiations. Following the Sinai Disengagement Agreements of 1974 and 1975, Sadat created a fresh opening for progress by his dramatic visit to Jerusalem in November 1977. This led to President Jimmy Carter’s invitation to President Sadat and Prime Minister Begin to join him in trilateral negotiations at Camp David.
The historic Camp David accords were signed by Egypt and Israel and witnessed by the U.S. on September 17, 1978. The accords led to the March 26, 1979 signing of the Egypt-Israel peace treaty, by which Egypt regained control of the Sinai in May 1982. Throughout this period, U.S. – Egyptian relations steadily improved, but Sadat’s willingness to break ranks by making peace with Israel resulted in the enmity of most other Arab states. Sadat introduced greater political freedom and a new economic policy, the most important aspect of which was the “infitah” or “open door.” This relaxed government controls over the economy and encouraged private, including foreign, investment. Sadat dismantled much of the existing political machine and brought to trial a number of former government officials accused of criminal excesses during the Nasser era.
Liberalization also included the reinstitution of due process and the legal banning of torture. Sadat tried to expand participation in the political process in the mid-1970s but later abandoned this effort. In the last years of his life, Egypt was racked by violence arising from discontent with Sadat’s rule and sectarian tensions, and it experienced a renewed measure of repression.
From Sadat to Mubarak
On October 6, 1981, Islamic extremists assassinated President Sadat. Hosni Mubarak, Vice President since 1975 and air force commander during the October 1973 war, was elected President later that month. He was subsequently confirmed by popular referendum for four more 6-year terms, most recently in September 2005. Mubarak has maintained Egypt’s commitment to the Camp David peace process, while at the same time re-establishing Egypt’s position as an Arab leader. Egypt was readmitted to the Arab League in 1989. Egypt also has played a moderating role in such international fora as the UN and the Non-Aligned Movement. Since 1991, Mubarak has overseen a domestic economic reform program to reduce the size of the public sector and expand the role of the private sector. There has been less progress in political reform. The November 2000 People’s Assembly elections saw 34 members of the opposition win seats in the 454-seat assembly, facing a clear majority of 388 ultimately affiliated with the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP). Opposition parties continue to face various difficulties in mounting credible electoral challenges to the NDP. The Muslim Brotherhood, founded in Egypt in 1928, remains an illegal organization and is not recognized as a political party (current Egyptian law prohibits the formation of political parties based on religion). Members are known publicly and openly speak their views, although they do not explicitly identify themselves as members of the organization. Members of the Brotherhood have been elected to the People’s Assembly and local councils as independents, and most recently scored a major victory in 2005 parliamentary elections, winning 88 seats, thus forming the largest opposition group.