Arab Republic of Egypt
POPULATION: 83.39 million (2014)
AREA: 386,200 sq. mi. (1,000,258 sq. km)
LANGUAGES: Arabic (official); English, French
NATIONAL CURRENCY: Egyptian Pound
PRINCIPAL RELIGIONS: Muslim 94%, Coptic Christian 6%
ANNUAL RAINFALL: Varies from 7 in. (178 mm) along the coast to virtually rainless along the Red Sea coastal plain and Western Desert.
ECONOMY: GDP $286.5 billion (2014)
PRINCIPAL PRODUCTS AND EXPORTS:
- Agricultural: cotton, rice, corn, vegetables, beans, fruits, wheat, livestock
- Manufacturing: textiles, chemicals, petroleum, food processing, cement
- Mining: oil, natural gas, phosphates, gypsum, iron ore, manganese, limestone
GOVERNMENT: Independence from Great Britain, 1922. Republic with president elected by legislature, then confirmed in popular election. Governing bodies: the People’s Assembly (legislative body) and the Advisory Council.
HEADS OF STATE SINCE 1956:
- 1956–1970 President Gamal Abdel Nasser
- 1970–1981 President Anwar Sadat
- 1981– President Hosni Mubarak
ARMED FORCES: 450,000 (1998 est.)
EDUCATION: Compulsory for ages 6–13; literacy rate 51%
The Arab Republic of Egypt is located in the northeastern corner of Africa, with LIBYA to the west and SUDAN to the south. Freed from colonial rule in 1922, Egypt has become a modern republic that plays a
leading role both in Africa and the Arab world. The capital, CAIRO, lies in the fertile delta of the NILE RIVER, the country’s major water route.
THE LAND AND THE PEOPLE
Egypt contains four geographical regions: the Nile River valley and delta, the Sinai Peninsula, the Western Desert, and the Eastern Desert. The Nile valley and delta is a lush, well-watered region that stretches from the southern highlands north to the Mediterranean. Most of the nation’s population lives in this region.
The Sinai Peninsula, located at the northern end of the Red Sea, connects Egypt to the Arabian Peninsula. In A.D. 639 Arab invaders crossed the Sinai, bringing the religion of ISLAM to Egypt. To the west of the Sinai is the Gulf of Suez, which was the end point of ancient trade routes that crossed the SAHARA DESERT. Later it became the entrance to the SUEZ CANAL. The remaining two regions of Egypt are the Western Desert, an extension of the greater Libyan Desert, and the Eastern, or Arabian Desert, which lies east of the Nile. These territories contain much of the nation’s oil and mineral wealth.
Most of Egypt has a hot, dry climate year round. Along the Mediterranean Coast, the weather is milder, with heavy winter rains. In the spring a hot wind called the khamsin blows in from the desert, bringing sand and dust storms. Away from the coast, temperatures can become scorchingly high in summer and can fall to the freezing point in winter.
The vast majority of Egyptians are Muslims, while about 6 percent are COPTS (Egyptian Christians). Both Muslims and Christians speak Arabic, and many educated Egyptians also speak English or French. In addition to farming communities found in the fertile regions along the Nile, Egypt has many towns and cities, including Cairo, the largest urban center in Africa. The deserts, which make up more than 95 percent of Egypt, are thinly populated. The Bedouin who live there were traditionally nomadic herders, although today many make only seasonal migrations from a base camp or live in permanent settlements.
Egypt exports oil, cotton, and textiles, and produces hydroelectric power on the Nile. The nation’s many ancient historical sites—including the famous PYRAMIDS—attract tourists from all over the world.
In the centuries following the Roman takeover of Egypt in 31 B.C., a series of major cultural changes swept across Egypt. The Romans introduced Christianity to the region. Later, various Arab rulers spread Islam throughout Egypt. During a period of colonial occupation, the British added elements of European culture to the Arabic customs of the country.
Christianity and Islam
Under Roman rule, Egypt’s capital city, ALEXANDRIA, became a major center of religious scholarship. Heavily influenced by Greek thought, the Egyptian church developed its own form of the faith, known as Coptic Christianity. By the A.D. 400s, Rome’s hold over its far-flung empire had weakened. The Vandals, invaders from northern Europe, stormed North Africa in 429 and easily conquered Egypt and the surrounding area.
In the 500s the Byzantine Empire seized the Mediterranean coast of North Africa, including Egypt. The Byzantine emperor, Constantine, tried to prevent the Copts from practicing their faith. This policy caused great resentment in Egypt. Thus, when the Arabs invaded in 639, Egypt’s Coptic bishops refused to help the Byzantines fend off the attack. The first wave of Arabs took al-Farama, a fortified settlement east of the Nile. Within a few years, the Arabs held Alexandria.
When the Arabs introduced Islam to Egypt, a series of revolts broke out as the Christian population sought to retain control over religious matters. Only in the late 700s and early 800s did Islam begin to take root in Egypt. The new rulers made Arabic the official language of the country and granted special privileges to Islamic converts. Conversion was more successful in Lower Egypt (the northern section) than in Upper Egypt (the southern section). Even today, Upper Egypt is home to the majority of the country’s Copts, who make up as much as 60 percent of the local population in many communities.
From about 960, Egypt was ruled by the Fatimids, an Islamic dynasty said to be descended from Fatima, daughter of the prophet Muhammad. After establishing their capital at Cairo, the Fatimids extended their influence as far east as Palestine.
In the 1000s, European Christians launched a series of Crusades against Islam, first invading Muslim Spain and then attempting to conquer North Africa and the Middle East. In 1171 the Muslim general Saladin took command of the forces fighting the Europeans. He defeated the Christians in Jerusalem in 1187 and founded Egypt’s next ruling dynasty, the Ayyubids.
Saladin recruited Greek and Turkish warriors and politicians to serve in his army and his government. Known as mamluks (which means “slave” or “property”), they functioned as a separate, powerful class in Egyptian society and eventually gained control of the state. Egypt soon came under attack from the Mongols, who had conquered much of western Asia. A Mamluk general named Baybars defended Egypt and halted the Mongol invasion. Claiming the title of sultan, Baybars founded the Mamluk dynasty, which ruled Egypt until the 1500s.
Under Mamluk rule, the Egyptians built massive public works, from canals and fortresses to libraries, mosques, and monuments. The Mamluk sultans established relations with leaders throughout Europe and the Middle East, raising Egypt to prominence as a world power. A total of 22 Mamluks ruled Egypt, many only briefly. Shajar al-Durr, a woman, held power for only 80 days before being assassinated.
Qala’un, who reigned from 1279 to 1290, is remembered as one of Egypt’s greatest administrators. Al-Nassir, who led Egypt from 1293 through 1340, was an impressive warrior who finally defeated the Mongol army in 1299. He also restored Cairo after the city was nearly destroyed by an earthquake in 1303.
By the late 1400s, the Mamluks had relaxed their military policy, counting on their reputation as warriors to discourage attackers. They soon paid a price for this attitude. In 1517 the Ottoman Turks marched into Egypt. The Mamluks’ swords, bows, and arrows were no match for the guns and cannons used by the Ottomans, and Egypt fell to the invaders.
The Ottomans held Egypt for 281 years. During that time they extended the country’s borders deep into NUBIA to the south. At first the country was ruled by an Ottoman viceroy, or governor, but over time the Mamluks regained power. Gradually, however, the Mamluks split into competing groups. With the Ottoman leadership far away in Istanbul, the stage was set for the invasion of Egypt by yet another ruler—Napoléon Bonaparte.
Arrival of the Europeans
In the late 1700s, the French decided to invade Egypt. Caught up in a rivalry with the British, who ruled India, the French hoped to expand their own empire and block British trade routes through the region. In 1798 French forces led by Napoléon succeeded in defeating the Mamluk army. After Egypt’s Ottoman rulers asked Britain for assistance, a British fleet blockaded the Nile Delta and drove out the French. By 1801 Ottoman rule was restored.
To strengthen their hold over Egypt, the Ottomans placed a general named Muhammad Ali in charge. He introduced a number of important economic, military, and political reforms. At the same time, he established his family in a position of influence, founding a powerful dynasty.
Meanwhile, the French and British remained interested in Egypt. The two soon forced Egypt to open its ports to European traders. The British, seeking a route across the region to India, began laying railroad lines in Egypt. In 1859 the French began building the Suez Canal.
During the 1860s Egypt enjoyed an economic boom, based primarily on the cotton trade. When the cotton-growing states of the American South were preoccupied with the Civil War, Egypt became the world’s main supplier of cotton. After the war ended, however, the Egyptian cotton market crashed. Egypt found itself severely indebted to the French and British governments. In 1875 the debts led Egypt to sell all its shares in the Suez Canal to Britain, making Britain the majority shareholder. Four years later Britain and France assumed joint economic control of Egypt, supervising government revenues and expenses to ensure that debt payments were made. In 1882 Britain and France divided up North Africa, and the British took possession of Egypt.
British rule was extremely unpopular and resulted in outbreaks of violence and rioting. However, the Egyptian economy was so shattered that the country was in no position to demand independence. Egypt was completely dependent on exports of cotton to Britain.
With the outbreak of World War I, Egypt supported the Allied forces against Germany. Meanwhile Egyptian nationalists began to call for the departure of the British. In 1922 Britain formally granted independence to Egypt, but kept control over the Suez Canal and many government institutions. Egypt became a monarchy, headed by a king and a prime minister.
World War II provided another opportunity for Egypt to break free from Britain. Once again Egypt supported the Allies, although many groups sympathized with the Axis powers (Germany, Italy, and Japan). At the war’s end, Egypt again demanded autonomy, and the most powerful political group, the Wafd Party, called for the immediate withdrawal of British troops. After a period of riots and violence, Britain pulled out most of its forces in 1947.
In the early 1950s, rioting broke out to protest the remaining British troops in the Suez Canal zone. In 1952, Prime Minister Nahas Pasha repealed the law granting Britain control over the Suez Canal. When King Farouk punished Pasha for this act, a small group of army officers staged a coup to remove the king and take over the government. They installed General Naguib as prime minister. However, the country was actually governed by the Revolutionary Command Council (RCC), led by Colonel Gamal Abdel NASSER. The RCC abolished the monarchy, ending the dynasty founded by Muhammad Ali. In 1956 Nasser became president. He declared Egyptian ownership of the Suez Canal and nationalized all European-owned businesses in the country.
In 1970 Nasser was succeeded by Anwar SADAT. Three years later Sadat launched a surprise attack on Israel. Although the attack ended without a victory for either side, Sadat was viewed as a hero for challenging Israel’s military might. Over the next several years, Sadat introduced government and economic reforms, legalized political parties, ended restrictions on the press, and released political prisoners who had been jailed under Nasser. He opened Egypt up to international investment and entered into peace talks with Israel in 1977. The peace negotiations won him the Nobel Peace Prize (along with Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin), but distanced him from the rest of the Arab world and from the Egyptian people. Muslim leaders began to call for his overthrow. In 1981, while reviewing a military parade, he was shot by an assassin.
With the death of Sadat, Vice President Hosni MUBARAK assumed the presidency. His primary goal was to maintain Egypt’s standing in the international community while forming good relations with moderate Arab nations. Under his leadership, Egypt supported Saudi Arabia and Kuwait during the Gulf War in 1990 and 1991. In addition, Mubarak has continued to cooperate in the Middle East peace process. In 1999 he was reelected for another six-year term with nearly 94 percent of the popular vote.
Egypt’s recent political stability has not brought economic prosperity. Unemployment is high and oil production is decreasing. Tourism declined sharply following a series of Muslim terrorist attacks on foreign visitors in the 1990s. However, after Egypt’s security forces broke up the main terrorist groups and posted guards at major sites, tourism revived dramatically. (See also Arabs in Africa; Colonialism in Africa; Egypt, Ancient; North Africa: Geography and Population; North Africa: History and Cultures; World Wars I and II.)