Egypt History


Egypt is the most populous country in the Arab world and the second-most populous on the African Continent. Nearly 100% of the country's 58 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 1,540 person per square kilometer (3,820 per sq. mi.).

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 Egypt.

The literacy rate is about 48% of the adult population. Education is free through university and compulsory from ages six through 12. About 87% of children enter primary school; half drop out after their sixth year. There are 20,000 primary and secondary schools with some 10 million students, 12 major universities with about 500,000 students, and 67 teacher colleges. Major universities include Cairo University (100,000 students), Alexandria University, and the 1,000-year-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 new styles of Arabic literature, and the forms they developed have been widely imitated. Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahjfouz 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. For the first time, the use and managements of vital resources of the Nile River came under one authority.

The pyramids at Giza (near Cairo) were built in the fourth dynasty, showing the power of the pharaonic religion and state. The Great Pyramid, the tomb of Pharaoh Khufu (also known as Cheops), is the only surviving example 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.). Authority was again centralized, and a number of military campaigns brought Palestine, Syria, and northern Iraq under Egyptian control.

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 Alexander the Great. The Roman/Byzantine rule of Egypt lasted for nearly 700 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. Ancient Egyptian ways--passed from pharaonic times through the Persian, Greek, and Roman periods and Egypt's Christian era--were gradually melded with or supplanted by Islamic customs. For the next 1,300 years, a succession of Turkish, Arabic, Mameluke, and Ottoman caliphs, beys, and sultans ruled the country.

European Influence

Napoleon Bonaparte arrived in Egypt in 1798. The three-year sojourn in Egypt (1798-1801) of his army and a retinue of French scientists opened Egypt to direct Western influence. Napoleon's adventure awakened Great Britain to the importance of Egypt as a vital link with India and the Far East and launched 150 years of Anglo-French rivalry over the region. An Anglo-Ottoman invasion force drove out the French in 1801, and, following a period of chaos, the Albanian Mohammed Ali obtain control of the country. Ali ruled until 1849, and his successors retained at least nominal control of Egypt until 1952. He imported European culture and technology, introduced state organization of Egypt's economic life, improved education, and fostered training in engineering and medicine. His authoritarian rule was also marked by a series of foreign military adventures. Ali's successors granted to the French Promoter, Ferdinand de Lesseps, a concession for construction of the Suez Canal--begun in 1859 and opened 10 years later.

Their regimes were characterized by financial mismanagement and personal extravagance that reduced Egypt to bankruptcy. These developments led to rapid expansion of British and French financial oversight. This produced popular resentment, which, in 1879, led to revolt. In 1882, British expeditionary forces crushed this revolt, marking the beginning of British occupation and the virtual inclusion of Egypt within the British Empire. During the rule of three successive British High Commissioners between 1883 and 1914, the British agency was the real source of authority. It established special courts to enforce foreign laws for foreigners residing in the country. These privileges for foreigners generated increasing Egyptian resentment. To secure its interests during World War I, Britain declared a formal protectorate over Egypt on December 18, 1914. This lasted until 1922, when, in deference to growing nationalism, the U.K. unilaterally declared Egyptian independence. British influence, however, continued to dominate Egypt's political life and fostered fiscal, administrative, and governmental reforms.

In the post-independence 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 the war; and the British themselves, who were determined to maintain control over the canal. Although both the Wafd and the King wanted to achieve independence from the British, they competed for control of Egypt. 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. Violence broke out in early 1952 between Egyptians and British in the canal area, and anti-Western rioting in Cairo followed.

On July 22-23, 1952, a group of disaffected army 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 of the Arab world. Nasser and his "free officer" movement enjoyed almost instant legitimacy as liberators who had ended 2,500 years of foreign rule. They were motivated by numerous grievances and goals but wanted especially to break the economic and political power of the land-owning elite, to remove all vestiges of British control, and to improve the lot of the people, especially the fellahin (peasants).

A secular nationalist, Nasser developed a foreign policy characterized by advocacy of pan-Arab socialism, leadership of the "nonaligned" of the "Third World," and close ties with the Soviet Union. He sharply opposed the Western-sponsored Baghdad Pact. 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, he 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.

While Egypt was defeated, the invasion forces were quickly withdrawn under heavy pressure from the U.S. The Suez war (or, as the Egyptians call it, the Tripartite Aggression) accelerated Nasser's emergence as an Egyptian and Arab hero.

He soon after came to terms with Moscow for the financing of the Aswan High Dam--a step that enormously increased Soviet involvement in Egypt and set Nasser's Government on a policy of close ties with the Soviet Union. In 1958, pursuant to his policy of pan-Arabism, Nasser succeeded in uniting Egypt and Syria into the United Arab Republic. Although this union had failed by 1961, it was not officially dissolved until 1984. Nasser's domestic policies were arbitrary, frequently oppressive, and yet generally popular. All opposition was stamped out, and opponents of the regime frequently were imprisoned without trial. Nasser's foreign and military policies, among other things, 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, nonetheless, 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 outcome was the historic Camp David accords, 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 earned him the enmity of most other Arab states.

In domestic policy, 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 investment. Sadat dismantled much of the policy apparatus 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.

On October 6, 1981, President Sadat was assassinated by Islamic extremists. Hosni Mubarak, Vice President since 1975 and air force commander during the October 1973 war, was elected President later that month. He was re-elected to a second term in October 1987 and to a third term in October 1993. 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 has also played a moderating role in such international fora as the UN and the Nonaligned Movement. Mubarak was elected chairman of the Organization of African Unity in 1989, and again at the OAU summit in Cairo in June 1993. Domestically, since 1991, Mubarak has undertaken an ambitious reform program to reduce the size of the public sector and expand the role of the private sector. There has also been a democratic opening and increased participation in the political process by opposition groups. The November 1990 National Assembly elections saw 61 members of the opposition win seats in the 454-seat assembly, despite a boycott by several opposition parties citing possible manipulation by Mubarak's National Democratic Party (NDP). The opposition parties have been weak and divided and are not yet credible alternatives to the NDP.

Freedom of the press has increased greatly. While concern remains that economic problems could promote increasing dissatisfaction with the government, President Mubarak enjoys broad support. For several years, domestic political debate in Egypt has been concerned with the phenomenon of "Political Islam," a movement which seeks to establish a state and society governed strictly by Islamic doctrine. The Muslim Brotherhood, founded in Egypt in 1928, is legally proscribed but operates more or less openly. Egyptian law, however, prohibits the formation of religion-based political parties. Members of the Brotherhood have been elected to the People's Assembly as independents and have been elected to local councils as candidates on the Socialist Labor Party ticket.

source: U.S. State Department Background Notes 1995

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