Egypt - language, government, economy, cities, history, tourism, people, education, religion, agriculture, climate

Read about Egypt: language, government, economy, cities, history, tourism, people, education, religion, agriculture, climate ...



Egypt, officially the Arab Republic of Egypt, country in northeastern Africa and southwestern Asia. Most of the country lies in Africa, but the easternmost portion of Egypt, the Sinai Peninsula, is usually considered part of Asia; it forms the only land bridge between the two continents. Most of Egypt’s terrain is desert, divided into two unequal parts by the Nile River. The valley and delta of the Nile are the main centers of habitation. The capital and largest city is Cairo.

Egypt has been a coherent political entity with a recorded history since about 3200 BC. One of the first civilizations to develop irrigated agriculture, literacy, urban life, and large-scale political structures arose in the Nile Valley. The annual flood of the Nile provided for a stable agricultural society. Egypt’s strategic location between Asia and Africa and on the route between the Mediterranean basin and India and China made it an important hub of international trade. Beginning in the 4th century BC, a series of conquerors brought new religions and languages to the land. However, Egypt’s rich agricultural resources, pivotal commercial position, and long-term political unity have sustained a high level of cultural continuity. Although present-day Egypt is an overwhelmingly Arabic-speaking and Islamic country, it retains important aspects of its past Christian, Greco-Roman, and ancient indigenous heritage.

Muslim Arab invaders conquered Egypt in AD 641, and Egypt has been a part of the Muslim and Arab worlds ever since. The foundations of the modern state were established by Muhammad Ali, who served as viceroy of Egypt from 1805 to 1849, while the country was a province of the Ottoman Empire. Britain occupied Egypt in 1882. After 40 years of direct British colonial rule, Egypt became an independent monarchy in 1922. However, British policies enforced by a continuing military occupation limited its independence. In 1952 a group of military officers led by Gamal Abdel Nasser overthrew the monarchy and established Egypt as a republic. Nasser negotiated the evacuation of the last British troops from Egypt by 1956. In 1979, under President Anwar al-Sadat, Egypt became the first Arab nation to sign a peace treaty with the Jewish state of Israel. Egypt remains an important political and cultural center for the entire Arab world. In 2005 Egypt held its first-ever multiparty presidential election.

This article deals mainly with Arab Egypt. For information on the history, culture, and contributions of Egypt prior to Arab times, see Ancient Egypt.


Egypt is bounded on the north by the Mediterranean Sea; on the east by the Gaza Strip, Israel, and the Red Sea; on the south by Sudan; and on the west by Libya. The country has a maximum length from north to south of 1,105 km (687 mi) and a maximum width, near the southern border, of 1,129 km (702 mi). It has a total area of 1,001,450 sq km (386,662 sq mi).

Less than one-tenth of the land area of Egypt is settled or under cultivation. This territory consists of the valley and delta of the Nile, a number of desert oases, and land along the Suez Canal, which connects the Mediterranean with the Gulf of Suez, an arm of the Red Sea. More than 90 percent of the country consists of desert areas, including the Libyan Desert (also known as the Western Desert) in the west, a part of the Sahara, and the Arabian Desert (also called the Eastern Desert), which borders the Red Sea and the Gulf of Suez, in the east.

The Libyan Desert includes a vast sandy expanse called the Great Sand Sea. Located there are several depressions with elevations below sea level, including the Qattara Depression. Also found in the Libyan Desert are the oases of Siwa, Baḩrīyah, Farafra, Dakhla, and Khārijah. Much of the Arabian Desert occupies a plateau that rises gradually east from the Nile Valley to elevations of about 600 m (about 2,000 ft) in the east and is broken along the Red Sea coast by jagged peaks as high as 2,100 m (7,000 ft) above sea level. In the extreme south, along the border with Sudan, is the Nubian Desert, an extensive region of rocky and sandy plains and dunes.

The Sinai Peninsula consists of sandy desert in the north and rugged mountains in the south, with summits looming more than 2,100 m (7,000 ft) above the Red Sea. Mount Catherine (Jabal Katrīnah), the highest elevation in Egypt, is on the Sinai Peninsula, as is Mount Sinai (Jabal Mūsá), where, according to the Hebrew Bible, Moses received the Ten Commandments.

Rivers and Lakes in Egypt

The Nile enters Egypt from Sudan and flows north for 1,545 km (960 mi) to the Mediterranean Sea. For its entire length from the southern border to Cairo, the Nile flows through a narrow valley lined by cliffs. Lake Nasser, a huge reservoir formed by the Aswān High Dam, extends south across the Sudan border. The lake is 480 km (300 mi) long and is 16 km (10 mi) across at its widest point. Most of the lake lies in Egypt. South of a point near the town of Idfū, the Nile Valley is rarely more than 3 km (2 mi) wide. From Idfū to Cairo, the valley averages 23 km (14 mi) in width, with most of the arable portion on the western side.

In the vicinity of Cairo the Nile Valley merges with the Nile Delta, a fan-shaped plain, the perimeter of which occupies about 250 km (about 155 mi) of the Mediterranean coastline. Silt deposited by the Rosetta, Damietta, and other distributaries has made the delta the most fertile region in the country. However, the Aswān High Dam has reduced the flow of the Nile, causing the salty waters of the Mediterranean to erode land along the coast near the Nile. A series of four shallow, brackish lakes extends along the seaward extremity of the delta. Another larger lake, Birkat Qārūn, is situated inland in the desert north of the town of Al Fayyūm. Geographically and traditionally, the land along the Nile is divided into two regions, Lower Egypt and Upper Egypt, the former consisting of the delta area and the latter comprising the valley south of Cairo.

Although Egypt has 2,450 km (1,522 mi) of coastline, two-thirds of which are on the Red Sea, indentations suitable as harbors are confined to the delta. The Isthmus of Suez, which connects the Sinai Peninsula with the African mainland, is traversed from the Mediterranean to the Gulf of Suez by the Suez Canal.

Climate in Egypt

The climate of Egypt is characterized by a hot season from May to September and a cool season from November to March. Extreme temperatures during both seasons are moderated by the prevailing northern winds. In the coastal regions average annual temperatures range from a maximum of 37°C (99°F) to a minimum of 14°C (57°F). Wide variations of temperature occur in the deserts, ranging from a maximum of 46°C (114°F) during daylight hours to a minimum of 6°C (42°F) during the night. During the winter season desert nighttime temperatures often drop to 0°C (32°F). The most humid area is along the Mediterranean coast, where the average annual rainfall is about 200 mm (about 8 in). Precipitation decreases rapidly to the south; Cairo receives on average only 25 mm (1 in) of rain a year, and in many desert locations it may rain only once in several years.

Natural Resources of Egypt

Egypt has a wide variety of mineral deposits, some of which, such as gold and red granite, have been exploited since ancient times. The chief mineral resource of contemporary value is petroleum, found mainly in the Red Sea coastal region, at Al ‘Alamayn (El ‘Alamein) on the Mediterranean, and on the Sinai Peninsula. Other minerals include phosphates, manganese, iron ore, and uranium. Natural gas is also extracted.

Plants and Animals in Egypt

The vegetation of Egypt is confined largely to the Nile Delta, the Nile Valley, and the oases. The most widespread of the few indigenous trees is the date palm. Others include the sycamore, tamarisk, acacia, and carob. Trees that have been introduced from other lands include the cypress, elm, eucalyptus, mimosa, and myrtle, as well as various types of fruit trees.

The alluvial soils of Egypt, especially in the delta, sustain a broad variety of plant life, including grapes, many kinds of vegetables, and flowers such as the lotus, jasmine, and rose. In the arid regions alfa grass and several species of thorn are common. Papyrus, once prevalent along the banks of the Nile, is now limited to the extreme south of the country.

Because of its arid climate, Egypt has few indigenous wild animals. Gazelles are found in the deserts, and the desert fox, hyena, jackal, wild ass, boar, and jerboa inhabit various areas, mainly the delta and the mountains along the Red Sea. Among the reptiles of Egypt are lizards and several kinds of poisonous snakes, including the asp and the horned viper. The crocodile and hippopotamus, common in the lower Nile and the Nile Delta in antiquity, are now largely restricted to the upper Nile.

Birdlife is abundant, especially in the Nile Delta and Nile Valley. The country has 153 known species of birds, including the sunbird, golden oriole, egret, hoopoe, plover, pelican, flamingo, heron, stork, quail, and snipe. Birds of prey found in Egypt include eagles, falcons, vultures, owls, kites, and hawks.

Many species of insects live in Egypt. Beetles, mosquitoes, flies, and fleas are especially numerous; the ichneumon, a parasitic insect, occurs in various areas, especially the delta. Scorpions are found in desert areas. Some 70 species of fish live in the Nile and in the deltaic lakes.

Environmental Issues in Egypt

Egypt has many environmental problems, and some of them complicate efforts to promote economic and social development. The primary issues are water quality and quantity, soil loss, urban growth, air pollution, and the environmental effects of tourism.

Egypt gets almost all of its water from the Nile. The quality of the river water is seriously threatened by untreated industrial and agricultural wastes, sewage, and municipal wastewater. In addition, the Aswān High Dam, which was completed in 1970, has reduced the flow of the Nile and trapped the nutrient-rich silt, which once fertilized the country’s farmland, behind it. To compensate for the loss of the silt, farmers make more use of chemical fertilizers, which add to the water pollution. To increase crop yields they use modern herbicides and pesticides, which also contribute to the pollution. Furthermore, the reduced flow of the river increases the concentration of pollutants in the remaining river water. The reduced amount of silt deposited in the Nile Delta has caused the delta to shrink, resulting in coastal erosion that threatens the lagoons, which are important sources of fish. Finally, year-round irrigation, using the water impounded behind the Aswān High Dam, causes salts to accumulate in the soil, leading to the loss of some agricultural land.

The size and rapid growth of Egypt’s population have caused additional environmental problems. The expansion of urban areas into nearby farming areas infringes on the already limited agricultural land in the Nile Delta and Valley. Efforts to relieve this pressure by establishing satellite cities in the desert away from the Nile have been only partially successful because it is difficult to attract people and industries to these bleak environments. Dense urban areas such as Cairo, Alexandria, Al Minyā, and Aswān have poor air quality, worsened by lax enforcement of measures to reduce emissions from industrial plants and motor vehicles. In these overcrowded cities, streets are filled with pollution-spewing cars and trucks, public transportation is poorly developed, and factories contaminate the air.

Tourism provides an important source of revenue for economic growth. However, poorly controlled construction and waste disposal in new tourist centers along the eastern coast have seriously degraded the water quality of the Red Sea. In addition, large concentrations of tourists threaten the fragile desert areas and the marine corals along the coast.

None of Egypt’s environmental difficulties is impossible to solve. However, in an economy that is short on financial resources, it is often hard to find the political will and money to invest in long-term environmental protection. Some attempts are being made to address these issues; for example, a proposal has been made to create nature parks in the Sinai region.


The population of Egypt is 83,082,869 (2009 estimate). The people live almost exclusively in the Nile Valley, the Nile Delta, the Suez Canal region, and the northern coastal region of the Sinai Peninsula. There are small communities in the oases of the Libyan Desert and in the oil-drilling and mining towns of the Arabian Desert. There is also a small population of nomadic Bedouins. Egypt’s overall population density is 84 persons per sq km (216 per sq mi), but the population density in the inhabited portions of the country, which make up less than 5 percent of its land area, is 1,900 persons per sq km (4,900 per sq mi).

The population growth rate, which was about 2.5 percent per year in the 1980s, declined steadily in the 1990s as the country’s birth rate fell. In 2009 the rate of population growth was 1.64 percent. The birth rate was 22 per 1,000 persons, and the death rate was 5 per 1,000 persons.

For most of Egypt’s history, the majority of the population was rural and agricultural. In the second half of the 20th century, limited availability of agricultural land prompted peasants to migrate to the cities in search of work. By 2005, 42 percent of the population lived in urban areas.

Principal Cities of Egypt

Cairo is Egypt’s capital and largest city. Including Giza, located on the west bank of the Nile adjacent to Cairo, the population of metropolitan Cairo was 7.5 million in 2003. Cairo serves as the commercial, administrative, and tourist center of Egypt. Other major cities include Giza, Alexandria, and Port Said. Giza is the location of three of Egypt’s most famous pyramids. Alexandria is Egypt’s principal Mediterranean seaport. Port Said, located at the northern entrance to the Suez Canal, is the site of an important free trade zone and various shipping services.

Ethnic Groups in Egypt

The ancestors of the Egyptians include many races and ethnic groups, but the present-day population is relatively uniform in terms of language and religion. Most Egyptians are descendants of the ancient Egyptians, a people who originated in northeastern Africa. Some 4,000 Arab horsemen invaded Egypt in 641 AD and eventually conquered it for Islam. From that time, there was significant Arab migration and intermarriage between Arabs and the indigenous population. Traits of other invading peoples, especially the Greeks, Romans, and Ottomans, are also found in present-day Egyptians. The Mamluks, rulers of Egypt between the 13th and 16th centuries, were of Turkic and Circassian origins. They also intermarried with the indigenous population, especially with its elite ranks.

A separate indigenous group, the Nubians, historically lived in northern Sudan and southern Egypt. Hundreds of their ancestral villages were flooded by the formation of Lake Nasser behind the Aswān High Dam. Today the Nubian population is concentrated in Aswān and Cairo. The government does not recognize the Nubians as an ethnic minority.

Also living in Egypt are small numbers of Greeks, Armenians, Italians, Syrian Christians, and Jews. Their numbers declined sharply as a result of emigration after the Suez Crisis of 1956, when rising Egyptian nationalism made them feel unwelcome. Many of those who remained in the country intermarried with indigenous Muslims or Christians.

Languages spoken in Egypt

Nearly the entire population of Egypt speaks Arabic. However, only well-educated people easily understand standard Arabic. Colloquial Egyptian Arabic is the language of daily conversation. Many Nubians also speak their ancestral language. Berber is spoken in a few settlements in the oases of the Western Desert. Coptic Christians use the Coptic language, descended from ancient Egyptian, for liturgical purposes, but it is not a language in daily use. English and French are common second languages among educated Egyptians.

Religion in Egypt

Islam is the official religion of Egypt. More than 90 percent of all Egyptians are Sunni Muslims (see Sunni Islam). The largest religious minority consists of Coptic Christians, most of whom are members of the Coptic Church, officially called the Coptic Orthodox Church. Other Christian communities include Greek Orthodox, Armenian, Greek and Armenian Catholic, and several Protestant denominations whose members are mainly resident foreigners. Many Copts and others believe that official estimates undercount Christians and that Christians actually constitute about 10 percent of the population. Historically there was a small, but socially and economically significant, Jewish population. Most of that community left the country after the Suez Crisis of 1956, in which the combined forces of Israel, France, and Britain attacked Egypt.

Beginning in the 1980s, Islamic militants belonging to the Islamic Group (al-Gama`a al-Islamīyya) and Islamic Jihad were active, particularly in the Upper Egyptian provinces of Asyūt and Al Minyā. In 1992 they began a campaign of armed violence, centered in Cairo and Upper Egypt, with the goal of establishing a government based on strict Islamic law. The victims of their violence included Copts, government officials, and tourists. See also Islamic Fundamentalism.

Human rights organizations and others have claimed that the Egyptian government discriminates against Copts or turns a blind eye to their persecution by the Islamic militants. The government denies these charges, but nevertheless, Copts are subject to some restrictions. For example, they must receive permission from government authorities to build new churches or to repair existing ones.

Education in Egypt

Historically, religious authorities provided basic education in local mosque schools. Higher Islamic studies became available at Al-Azhar mosque (founded in 970) in Cairo. In 988 Al-Azhar University was established. This is the oldest university in the world and the leading institution of Islamic higher education in the world today. Al-Azhar University operates a network of religious schools parallel to the state system.

In the first half of the 19th century Egyptian viceroy Muhammad Ali established state-run professional, technical, and foreign-language schools for boys. A network of state-run schools for boys was established in 1867. The first state school for girls opened in 1873. Since 1923, primary and intermediate education has been free, and it is now compulsory for children between the ages of 6 and 14. Public secondary and university education is also free but is not compulsory.

Cairo University, established in 1908, is Egypt’s leading institution of higher education. There are 12 other state-run public universities, including Ayn Shams University (founded in 1950), located in Cairo; the University of Alexandria (1942); and the University of Asyūt (1957). Al-Azhar University, renowned as an institution of higher religious studies, also offers programs in engineering, medicine, business administration, and agriculture; women have been admitted since 1962. The American University in Cairo (1919) is the only private and fee-charging institution of higher education. The Institutes of Dramatic Arts, Cinema, and Ballet, run by the ministry of culture, offer higher education in the fine arts.

Rapid population growth has severely overburdened Egypt’s educational system. Classrooms from the primary-school level to the university level are overcrowded, and schools lack many resources—such as up-to-date science laboratories, audio-visual aids, and even sufficient numbers of desks and textbooks—necessary for an adequate education. Although primary-school enrollment is officially 100 percent, many children attend school irregularly or not at all because they must work to help support themselves and their families. In 2007, 72 percent of the adult population was literate: 83.6 percent of males and 60.7 percent of females.

Social Structure of Egypt

For most of Egypt’s history its society was agrarian. Large landowners growing primarily cotton and sugar constituted Egypt’s dominant social class from the 1830s until 1952, when the government enacted a land reform. Before the land reform, about 2,000 large landowners, including the king, owned about 20 percent of all agricultural land, while more than 2 million lesser owners owned about 13 percent. Millions of peasants owned no land at all. The land reform limited the amount of agricultural land that individuals and families could own; limits were lowered further in 1961 and 1969. These measures broke the social and political power of the large landowning class.

About 260,000 hectares (about 650,000 acres) of agricultural land were redistributed as a result of the land reform. However, not enough land was redistributed to allow all peasant families that wished to do so to support themselves by farming. Consequently, large numbers of peasants migrated from rural villages to Cairo and other cities. Many found jobs in the cities, particularly in industries and services, which were growing rapidly as a result of the government’s major industrialization programs of the 1950s and 1960s. During this period the government nationalized and expanded existing banking, textile, and other industries and established many new, large-scale, modern industries. These developments expanded the ranks of the urban wageworkers. However, many former peasants remained underemployed or marginally employed in jobs that were not steady or did not pay cash wages.

Beginning in 1973, large numbers of peasants, as well as urban workers and professionals, migrated to Saudi Arabia, Libya, and other oil-exporting countries to work for wages as much as six times higher than they could earn in Egypt. During the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988), many peasants migrated to Iraq and took farm jobs, replacing Iraqis who had left to fight in the war.

Both trends—migration from the countryside to the cities and working abroad—continued in the 1990s. By the early 2000s only about 35 percent of the labor force was engaged in the traditional occupations of farming, herding, and fishing. An estimated 2.5 million Egyptians worked abroad at any given time.

Ways of Life in Egypt

Two major socioeconomic groupings exist in Egypt. One grouping consists of a wealthy elite and a Western-educated upper middle class. The other grouping, which includes the vast majority of all Egyptians, is made up of peasants and the urban lower middle class and working class. There are great differences in clothing, diet, and consumer habits between the two groupings.

In the 1970s the government introduced economic liberalization policies known as the open door (infitah in Arabic). These policies greatly expanded the numbers of middle-class professionals (importers, financiers, commercial agents, and various kinds of middlemen) with connections to foreign capital and foreign culture. These professionals are major consumers of imported luxury cars, European fashions, and European and American films and music. The lifestyle of the old, wealthy elite is similar.

The wealth, lifestyle, and foreign cultural orientation of the old elite and the newly rich contrast sharply with the poverty of the vast majority of the population. Most Egyptians cannot afford, and in some cases do not want, much of what they see advertised on television, in the newspapers, and on urban billboards, or glorified in Western television serials.

Both major groupings enjoy a few of the same aspects of popular culture. These include soccer, the popular music of legendary Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum, and the comic films of actor ‘Adil Imam.

In the past, women from peasant and poor urban families worked in the fields or in the shops of their families, while women from the elite and the middle class remained at home as a symbol that the male head of the household was wealthy enough to support the family without its women working outside the home. Today maintaining a middle-class lifestyle usually requires married women to work for wages. Many wear headscarves as a way of asserting that they remain good Muslim women despite working outside the home.

The most popular items of Egyptian cuisine are flatbread, boiled or deep-fried fava beans, kushari (a dish combining pasta, lentils, and onions), and fresh fruits and vegetables. Tea and coffee are the most popular beverages and are essential components of social and business visits. Wealthier Egyptians frequently eat European food, especially French cuisine.

Social Issues in Egypt

Egypt’s most serious social issues are poverty and overpopulation. There are few wealthy people and many poor people. When adjusted for inflation, the incomes of peasants and working people rose only modestly between the mid-1970s and the end of the 20th century. Overpopulation has strained the physical infrastructure—including roads, sewer systems, water supply, and utility lines—and social service networks of Cairo and other cities. Middle-class housing is expensive and difficult to find. Violent crimes, relatively rare until the late 20th century, have increased as urban life has become more difficult.

Social Services in Egypt

Employees of the government and of state-owned enterprises receive substantial social benefits, including health care, a pension, and unemployment insurance. Large private firms also may provide such benefits. Smaller privately owned firms are not required to do so, and most do not. Egypt has no system of income support for the poor. Under the open door policy, which aimed at encouraging private enterprise and loosening state controls on the economy, government subsidies that lowered the prices of basic consumer goods were radically cut. As a result, the prices of these goods rose considerably. However, bread sold in poorer neighborhoods is still subsidized.


Egypt has long been a center of Arabic and Islamic literature, architecture, and decorative arts (see Arabic Literature; Islamic Art and Architecture). Performances of epic poetry, murals depicting the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca, Sufi (Islamic mystic) singing and dancing (see Sufism), and other expressions of popular culture are all part of Egypt’s artistic heritage. In the pre-modern period, the country’s elite supported artists who worked in formal Islamic styles that tended to be austere and centered on Arabic calligraphy. In the modern period many elements of European-style art, literature, and cinema have been incorporated into Egyptian cultural life.

For coverage of Egyptian arts prior to the Islamic conquest in the 7th century AD, see Ancient Egypt. The following section deals primarily with Egyptian arts in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Literature in Egypt

The Nahda, a renaissance of Arabic literary culture that occurred in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, was centered in Egypt. At that time many Christian journalists from Syria immigrated to Cairo and founded several newspapers and magazines, which disseminated modern concepts of science, society, and culture. Arabic short stories first appeared in Egypt in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Zaynab (1914), by Egyptian writer Muhammad Husayn Haykal, is often erroneously considered to be the first Arabic novel.

Other leading Egyptian writers of the 19th and 20th centuries include Taha Husayn, known for his autobiography al-Ayyam (The Days, 3 volumes, 1925-1967); Yūsuf Idrīs, considered the master of the Arabic short story and also a noted dramatist; Naguib Mahfouz, a celebrated novelist and winner of the 1988 Nobel Prize for literature; and Sonallah Ibrahim, who has experimented boldly with the novel form. Tawfiq al-Hakim, whose novel The Return of the Spirit (1933) was a favorite of Gamal Abdel Nasser, is known for both fiction and dramatic writing.

Art and Architecture of Egypt

Islamic norms prohibit the representation of people and animals in art. As a result, Egyptian Islamic art relies heavily on Arabic calligraphy and abstract arabesque designs. The Fatimid era (969-1171) and the Mamluk era (1250-1517) were especially rich in architectural monuments, many of which remain standing in Cairo today. The principal surviving monuments of the Fatimid era are Al-Azhar mosque and the city’s northern gates. The grandest monument of the Mamluk period is the madrasa (Islamic school) of Sultan Hasan.

In the 1920s and 1930s, Mahmud Mukhtar, who ignored the Islamic prohibitions, became a well-known and highly respected sculptor and a leading figure in the emergence of modern Egyptian plastic arts. His statue Egypt Awakening (1928) is an icon of nationalist cultural modernism. Twentieth-century architect Hasan Fathy became known for promoting elements of traditional peasant design. Among his better-known public buildings is the mosque in Gurna, a village near Luxor in Upper Egypt.

Music and Dance in Egypt

Sayyid Darwish, who composed musicals, operas, and popular songs, was the leading figure in Egyptian music in the early 20th century. Other prominent musical figures of the 20th century were female singers Umm Kulthum and Layla Murad, composer and singer Muhammad Abd ‘al-Wahhab, and singer Abd al-Halim Hafiz. Umm Kulthum was the leading lady of Egyptian (and Arab) song in the 20th century. Layla Murad, often considered the second greatest female Egyptian singer of the 20th century, was also a movie star. Muhammad Abd ‘al-Wahhab was the leading male vocalist of the 20th century, while Abd al-Halim Hafiz was especially popular with younger audiences in the 1950s and 1960s. The national dance company, the Reda Dance Troupe, specializes in modern adaptations of folkloric dances. Belly dancing is popular among all classes and is performed in a variety of settings ranging from nightclubs to family celebrations.

Theater and Film in Egypt

The first modern Arabic plays were performed in Cairo in the 1870s. Leading 20th-century dramatists include Mahmud Taymur, Tawfiq al-Hakim, Yūsuf Idrīs, and Nu`man`Ashur. Egypt has been the center of film production in the Arab world since the 1930s. The best-known director, Youssef Chahine, made his reputation in the 1950s and 1960s with nationalist works of social realism such as Bab al-Hadid (1958, also released as Central Station and Gare centrale) and Al-Ard (1969, The Land).

Libraries and Museums in Egypt

The Egyptian Museum, in Cairo, houses the world’s largest collection of ancient Egyptian art, including the treasures from the tomb of Pharaoh Tutankhamun. The Museum of Islamic Art, also in Cairo, has a rich collection of illuminated Qur’ans (Korans), wood carvings, pottery, and other Islamic artifacts. Cairo’s Coptic Museum has an especially fine collection of textiles made by Copts. The Greco-Roman Museum, housing collections of art from the periods when Egypt was under Greek and, later, Roman rule, is located in Alexandria. The Egyptian National Library and the Al-Azhar University Library, both in Cairo, house major collections of Arabic manuscripts.


For most of Egypt’s history, its economy was based almost entirely on farming, despite the fact that more than 95 percent of the country’s land area is infertile desert. Long an exporter of cereals, in the 19th century Egypt began to specialize in growing cotton, which is still an important cash crop. The first significant industries were set up only in the 1930s. Industrialization increased in the 1960s after much of the industrial sector was brought under state control. In the late 20th century other important sources of revenue included tourism, oil production, and remittances from the 3 million Egyptians working in the Persian Gulf states. Despite its economic and social development in the 20th century, Egypt was a relatively poor country in world terms, with a gross domestic product (GDP) in 2007 of $130.5 billion, or $1,728.90 per capita.

Government Role in the Economy of Egypt

The Egyptian economy was dominated by private capital until the revolution of 1952, which replaced the monarchy with a republic. The new government began to reorganize the economy along socialist lines in the late 1950s. The state played an increasing role in economic development through its management of the agricultural sector after the land reforms of 1952 and 1961. These reforms limited the amount of land an individual or family could own. In the early 1960s the government nationalized much of the industrial, financial, and commercial sectors of the economy.

In the 1970s poor performance by much of the state sector and growing shortages of investment capital persuaded the country’s leadership to introduce more liberal economic policies. However, not until 1990 did the government become committed to fundamental economic reforms involving the reduction of subsidies, the removal of price controls, and the privatization of some state-owned industries. These policies were successful in reducing inflation from 20 percent in 1991 to 5 percent in 1997 and in allowing the economy to recover partly from a recession in the early 1990s. Progress toward a purely market economy was slow, however, and huge problems remained. Exports remained sluggish, and in 2007 unemployment stood at 9 percent.

Labor in Egypt

Egypt’s labor force of 24 million is 75 percent male and 25 percent female. The largest proportion of the labor force works in agriculture or fishing, which employ 30 percent of all workers. The services sector employs 50 percent, and industry (including manufacturing and construction) employs the remaining 20 percent. There are few skilled workers, since training is usually rudimentary and one-third of the adult population is illiterate. Workers in the state sector are represented by the Egyptian Trade Union Federation, which was established by the regime in 1961 and remains under government control.

Agriculture of Egypt

In 2007 the agricultural sector (including fishing) contributed 14 percent of the GDP. Before industrialization, agriculture provided most of Egypt’s exports, but by 2002 it contributed less than one percent of the exports. The most important crops include cotton, cereal grains, fruits and vegetables, and animal fodder. Egypt’s area of cultivable land is small but highly fertile. It is located for the most part along the Nile and in the Nile Delta. Yields are high, and almost every piece of land grows at least two crops a year. The country ceased to be self-sufficient in cereals at the beginning of the 20th century, although it still exports some poultry, fruits, vegetables, sugar, and rice. It now imports about a quarter of the cereals it needs and a much higher proportion of the meat and dairy products.

Fishing in Egypt

Fishing is a significant industry in Egypt. Large quantities of fish live in the Nile, the Mediterranean Sea, and the Red Sea.

Manufacturing in Egypt

Industry, including manufacturing, mining, and construction, contributed 36 percent of the GDP in 2007. The main manufactured goods are textiles, chemicals, metals, and petroleum products. More liberal economic policies have led to the establishment of a number of private companies involved in automobile assembly, electronics, consumer durable goods such as refrigerators and other appliances, and pharmaceuticals. The majority of factories are concentrated around the two major cities of Cairo and Alexandria and in industrial zones along the Suez Canal.

Mining in Egypt

Petroleum is Egypt’s most important mineral product. It is a major source of export earnings. In the 1980s the government developed the production of natural gas to supply domestic energy needs. It began exporting natural gas in the 1990s. The main oil and gas fields are located along the Red Sea coast and in the Libyan Desert. Other minerals produced in Egypt include phosphate rock (a source of fertilizer), iron ore, and salt.

Services in Egypt

Services contributed 50 percent of the GDP in 2007. Important services include government social services such as health and education, financial services, and personal services.

Tourism of Egypt

In 2007, 10.6 million tourists visited Egypt, providing $9.3 billion in revenues. The majority of visitors make a simple tour that includes Cairo, the great pyramids nearby, and the sites of other ruins and artifacts of ancient Egypt up the Nile. Many tourists also visit Egypt’s Red Sea resorts to take advantage of the warm winter weather. In 1992 attacks on foreigners by Islamic extremists scared off most tourists, but the industry soon recovered. The tourism industry is made up entirely of privately owned businesses.

Energy in Egypt

Egypt is self-sufficient in energy. Its main sources of electricity are hydroelectric power plants at the Aswān High Dam and steam-driven power plants that burn natural gas. Egypt’s own oil and natural gas provide almost all of the country’s fuel needs. Pipelines supply gas to all major urban centers.

Transportation in Egypt

Egypt has 5,195 km (3,228 mi) of railroads, all of which are owned by the state. The principal line links Aswān and towns north of it in the Nile Valley to Alexandria on the Mediterranean coast. The inland waterways of Egypt are used extensively for transportation. These waterways include the Nile, which is navigable throughout its course in the country; about 1,600 km (about 1,000 mi) of shipping canals; and more than 17,700 km (11,000 mi) of irrigation canals in the Nile Delta.

Two highways connect Cairo with Alexandria. Other highways connect Cairo to Port Said, Suez, and Al Fayyūm. The total length of highways and roads in Egypt is 92,000 km (57,000 mi). International airlines provide regular service between Cairo and Alexandria and major world centers. EgyptAir, the government-owned airline, also provides domestic and foreign service. The country has about 80 airports and airfields. The major seaport is Alexandria, followed by Port Said and Suez, all of which are served by numerous shipping companies. The Suez Canal produces substantial annual toll revenues. In the early 2000s about 18,000 vessels used the canal each year.

Communications in Egypt

Egypt’s press, publishing, and media facilities are the largest and most developed in the Arab world. Much of the press was taken over by the government soon after the revolution of 1952, when the daily newspaper Al Ahram became the regime’s principal mouthpiece. Party and private newspapers are permitted but are subject to censorship. The government controls the national radio and television services, as well as the basic telephone system. Foreign companies have installed cellular telephone networks and operate private payphone systems.

Foreign Trade in Egypt

Before the revolution of 1952, Egypt’s foreign trade consisted mainly of exports of raw materials, particularly long-staple cotton, and imports of manufactured goods. After the revolution, the regime pursued a policy of discouraging imports by using high tariff barriers to protect its growing industries. It also brought most of the country’s commerce under government control. More liberal policies were introduced in the 1970s. However, it was only in the 1990s that steps were taken to open up parts of the Egyptian market to foreign competition. There was also a new emphasis on exports. Apart from exports of crude petroleum and refined petroleum products, this policy has not alleviated trade imbalances. In 2007 exports were sold for $16.1 billion while imports cost $26.9 billion. As a result, the country runs a trade deficit. Part of this deficit is offset by the money Egypt earns from tourism, Suez Canal tolls, and remittances from Egyptians working abroad.

Petroleum and petroleum products contribute roughly 40 percent of Egypt’s export earnings, although the percentage changes from year to year. Other exports include textile yarn and fabrics, fruits and vegetables, clothing and accessories, and aluminum products. The principal imports are machinery and transportation equipment; basic manufactures, particularly iron, steel, and paper; food products, primarily cereals; and chemicals. The United States is Egypt’s main trading partner, followed by Italy, Germany, and France.

Currency and Banking of Egypt

Egypt’s currency is the Egyptian pound, consisting of 100 piastres (5.70 Egyptian pounds equal U.S.$1; 2006 average). The Central Bank was created in 1961, when all the country’s private banks were nationalized. Several specialized state-owned banks were also set up. Foreign banks were allowed to reenter the country as joint ventures with Egyptian investors in 1974 after having been forced to leave during the nationalization period. In the late 1990s the government agreed to partially privatize Egypt’s four giant state-owned banks. More than 80 domestic and foreign banks operate in the country.


Egypt was a constitutional monarchy from 1923 to 1952, when military officers seized control of the government. Although Egypt became a republic in 1953, it essentially remained a military dictatorship dominated by a single political party. In 1978 a multiparty political system was instituted.

Egypt is governed under a constitution that was approved by a national referendum in 1971. The constitution, which was amended in 1977, 1980, 2005, and 2007 provides for an Arab socialist state with Islam as the official religion. It also stresses social solidarity, equal opportunity, and popular control of production.

Political power is concentrated primarily in the presidency. Since 1952 Egypt’s presidents have risen from the military, which holds considerable authority in the government. The orientation and policies of the government have shifted considerably with changes in the presidency. In May 2005 voters approved a constitutional amendment that allowed for multiparty presidential elections by secret ballot. Previously, the president was selected by the legislature and approved by a yes or no referendum. Under the terms of the amendment, any registered political party could participate in the first direct presidential election, which was held in September 2005. In future presidential balloting, however, only candidates belonging to political parties that make up at least 5 percent of the legislature, or independent candidates with the backing of at least 65 members of the lower house, are eligible to run.

In 2007 another referendum on constitutional changes approved greater powers for the Egyptian president. The changes gave the president the power to dissolve Egypt’s bicameral legislature without holding a referendum, limit the role of judges in monitoring elections, and suspend civil rights protections in cases that the president determines are associated with terrorism. The referendum also reconfirmed the existing ban on political parties based on religion, a prohibition that is aimed at the popular Muslim Brotherhood. Opposition groups and human rights organizations said the outcome of the referendum was affected by widespread vote fraud. The government said the referendum passed overwhelmingly with more than 75 percent approval and a voter turnout of about 10 million people.

Executive of Egypt

The head of state is the president of the republic, who is elected by secret ballot for a six-year term. The president, who may serve unlimited consecutive terms, dominates the government. This official may decree emergency measures in the interests of the state, but the constitution stipulates that the president must obtain consent for any such decree by a popular referendum within 60 days. However, a state of emergency that has been in effect since 1981 has set aside the requirement of popular approval for presidential decrees. The president has the power to formulate general state policy and supervise its execution. This official can dissolve the legislature, declare war after approval by the legislature, ratify treaties, commute penalties, suspend civil rights protections in cases associated with terrorism, and order plebiscites.

The president names a prime minister and a council of ministers, or cabinet. Most ministers serve as the executive officers of the government’s various departments, including those dealing with foreign affairs, internal order, social affairs, justice, agriculture, commerce, industry, and education. Some ministers also hold the title of deputy prime minister. Egyptian cabinets help set government policy, but key decisions are often made by the president in consultation with a few close advisers, most of whom are former cabinet ministers or high-ranking military officers.

Legislature of Egypt

Egypt has a bicameral legislature, comprising the People’s Assembly and the Advisory Council. The People’s Assembly consists of 2 elected representatives from each of 222 geographical constituencies, along with 10 members appointed by the president, for a total of 454 members, all serving five-year terms. The Advisory Council, which serves only in a consultative role, consists of 176 popularly elected members and 88 presidential appointees, all of whom serve six-year terms.

Judiciary in Egypt

Egypt’s highest court, the Supreme Constitutional Court, reviews the constitutionality of laws and regulations, resolves jurisdictional conflicts, settles disputes in cases where different lower courts have made conflicting judgments, and interprets the government’s laws and decrees. Below this court are courts of general jurisdiction and administrative courts.

Courts of general jurisdiction include the Court of Cassation, the courts of appeal, the tribunals of first instance, and the district tribunals. The Court of Cassation has final jurisdiction in criminal and civil cases. The courts of appeal have jurisdiction over one or more of Egypt’s governorates, or administrative divisions, and hear appeals of decisions made by lower courts. The tribunals of first instance are the courts that hear major criminal and civil cases. The district tribunals have jurisdiction over minor criminal and civil cases. The Public Prosecution, headed by an attorney general, serves at all levels of courts of general jurisdiction in all criminal and some civil cases. The administrative courts have jurisdiction over cases involving the government or any of its agencies and may investigate administrative crimes committed by officials or civil servants. Other judicial bodies include the Council of State, which settles administrative disputes and deals with disciplinary cases within the judicial system, and the Supreme Judicial Council, which ensures the judiciary’s independence from outside interference and helps regulate other judicial bodies.

Egypt’s legal system is closely patterned on that of France. A panel of judges, as opposed to a jury, reaches verdicts. Religious courts once operated, with separate systems for Muslims, Christians, and Jews, but they were abolished in 1956. Many Muslims argue that Islamic law, or the Sharia, should be the sole basis for all Egyptian legislation. A constitutional amendment adopted in 1980 recognizes the Sharia as a principal source of Egypt’s laws, but the legal system remains secular in character.

Local Government of Egypt

Egypt is divided into 26 governorates, each headed by a governor appointed by the president. Most of the governorates are subdivided into districts and subdistricts. There are local councils at each level, most of whose members are elected, but power over most political matters resides with the central government.

Political Parties of Egypt

From 1923 to 1952 Egypt had a multiparty political system, but the king or his prime minister often limited the parties’ ability to compete freely for popular support or governmental power. From 1952 to 1978 Egypt’s government was effectively a military dictatorship, and the presidents used a succession of single parties to mobilize public opinion to support their policies. In 1978 a multiparty system was again instituted, but religious parties continued to be banned. The present political system tolerates greater diversity of opinion, but it is not yet fully democratic because the government controls the media and uses a vast system of political patronage to influence elections.

Since 1978 the National Democratic Party has been the dominant party. The government tolerates opposition parties that are not based on religion or on ideologies hostile to the state, but it often restricts their ability to propagate their policies and to run candidates for national or local elections. Legal opposition parties include the Ghad Party, the New Wafd Party, the National Progressive Unionist Party, the Liberal Socialist Party, the Socialist Labor Party, and the Nasserist Party. Despite the constitutional ban on religious parties, many Egyptians support the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamic Group, or other technically illegal political movements that are not allowed to present candidates for legislative elections. The Muslim Brotherhood has had some success in electing supporters to the legislature by running them as independent candidates. Egypt held its first-ever multiparty presidential election in 2005. Previously, presidential contests were merely yes-or-no referendums on the nominated president.

Defense of Egypt

Egypt’s armed forces in 2006 totaled 468,500, with 340,000 in the army, 30,000 in the air force, and 18,500 in the navy, and the remainder in the air defense or shared commands. Affiliated with the armed forces are the reserves, the Central Security Forces, and the National Guard. Each branch is headed by a commander, above whom stands the commander in chief of the armed forces. The president has ultimate authority over the military as its supreme commander. There is a three-year period of selective military service. The officer corps exercises great political influence.

International Relations in Egypt

Egypt led in the formation of the Arab League and was a charter member of the United Nations (UN), both of which were formed in 1945. Egypt played a leading role in Arab opposition to Israel, participating in wars against Israel in 1948-1949, 1956, 1967, and 1973 and spearheading an Arab economic boycott against the Jewish state. In 1979, however, Egypt became the first Arab state to sign a peace treaty with Israel. This treaty led to a period of relative isolation, as Egypt was ostracized by other Arab governments. Egypt was ousted from the Arab League, whose secretariat was moved to Tunis. But because Egypt supported Iraq in its war against Iran and also mended its fences with Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat and with Jordan’s King Hussein, relations gradually improved during the 1980s. In an Arab summit meeting held in Amman, Jordan, in November 1987, most Arab leaders agreed to resume diplomatic ties with Egypt, and the Arab League headquarters moved back to Cairo in 1990.

The Middle East peace process has remained a prominent part of Egypt’s foreign policy, and it has sought to persuade other Arab governments to settle their differences with Israel. Although its efforts have often failed, Egypt has undertaken periodic negotiations to defuse Israeli-Arab crises, hosting a summit meeting at Sharm al-Sheikh on the Sinai Peninsula in February 2005.

From 1955 to 1972 Egypt relied primarily on the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) and other Communist countries for military and economic aid. More recently the Egyptian government developed close political ties with the United States, particularly after the United States helped facilitate the 1979 treaty with Israel. Egypt receives substantial economic and military aid from the United States. Before the Persian Gulf War, Egypt sought to mediate disputes between Iraq and Kuwait in 1990. Egypt supported the anti-Iraq coalition after Saddam Hussein’s forces occupied Kuwait in August 1990 and backed the UN resolutions condemning Iraq’s actions. Egyptian troops joined the multinational force against Iraq in 1990 and 1991. In 2002 Egypt tried to mediate in the conflict between the United States and Iraq. It pressured Iraq to admit UN weapons inspectors and opposed the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 (see U.S.-Iraq War).


Egypt has the oldest continuously existing civilization in the world. Most scholars believe that the Egyptian kingdom was first unified in about 3100 BC. Egypt maintained its independence and unity for many centuries thereafter. It suffered disunity now and then and experienced brief periods of foreign domination—by the Semitic Hyksos in the 17th and 16th centuries BC, the Assyrians in the 7th century BC, and the Persians in the 6th and 5th centuries BC—before the arrival of Macedonian conqueror Alexander the Great in 332 BC. Alexander made Egypt a part of his vast empire.

Alexander’s empire broke up after his death in 323 BC. One of his generals, Ptolemy, became ruler of Egypt, and in 305 BC he assumed the title of king. Ptolemy founded the Ptolemaic dynasty. Under these rulers, Egypt became a center of the Hellenistic world—that is, the vast region, encompassing the eastern Mediterranean basin and the Middle East, in which Greek culture and learning were preeminent from Alexander’s conquest until the 1st century BC. Although the Ptolemies preserved many native traditions, they remained unpopular because they kept Egyptians from important governmental posts.

The Romans conquered Egypt in 30 BC, ruling it as a province of their empire for the next several centuries. One of the first countries to be exposed to Christianity, Egypt became predominantly Christian by the end of the 3rd century AD. In 395, when the Roman Empire was divided, Egypt was included in the Eastern Roman Empire, later called the Byzantine Empire. By the 5th century a bitter religious dispute over the nature of Christ, involving a doctrine known as Monophysitism, had developed in the Eastern church. This dispute pitted the Coptic Church, Egypt’s indigenous Christian body, and other Middle Eastern Christians against the Byzantine rulers. The conflict weakened Byzantine rule in Egypt and helped open the way to the conquest of Egypt by an Arab army in 641. Many Egyptians welcomed the Arab conquerors as liberators from foreign taxation and religious persecution.

For a detailed history of Egypt up to the Roman conquest in 30 BC, see Ancient Egypt.

Egypt Under the Caliphate

The Arab conquerors brought Islam to Egypt. The country became part of the vast Islamic realm known as the caliphate. The conquerors established their military and administrative headquarters, which they named Al Fustat, in what had been a Roman fortress called Babylon. Al Fustat was situated on the east bank of the Nile south of the delta. Most Egyptians did not at first feel the effects of Arab rule. The predominantly rural population continued to farm the land, practicing Coptic Christianity and speaking the Coptic version of the ancient Egyptian language.

Over the course of many centuries, the majority of the Egyptians gradually embraced Islam and adopted the Arabic language. These changes were due in part to the immigration of some Arab tribes and intermarriage between Egyptians and Arabs. Some Egyptians converted to Islam out of genuine religious conviction, but others did so to secure political or social advancement.

The first great dynasty of caliphs (leaders of the Islamic realm), the Umayyads, ruled Egypt as a province between 661 and 750. They were based in Damascus (in present-day Syria). Their successors, the Abbasids, ruled from their new capital, Baghdād (in present-day Iraq). The Abbasids controlled Egypt from 750 to 868. They imposed heavy taxes on non-Muslims, causing peasant uprisings. The unity of the Islamic world began to erode in the mid-9th century, and Egypt fell under a succession of autonomous foreign dynasties. Two of these dynasties, the Tulunids (868-905) and the Ikhshidids (934-969), improved agricultural techniques, curbed taxes, and reformed governmental administration.

The next rulers, the Fatimids (969-1171), had established an independent rival caliphate in North Africa in the early 10th century. The Fatimid rulers, originally from Tunisia, claimed the caliphate for themselves on the basis of descent from Fatima, daughter of the prophet Muhammad, the founder of Islam. Their branch of the faith, (see Shia Islam), was a minority sect in opposition to the Abbasid caliphs in Baghdād, who were majority Sunni Muslims (see Sunni Islam).

Despite the dispute over the caliphate, the first century of Fatimid rule over Egypt was marked by religious toleration, economic prosperity, and relative political freedom. It was probably during Fatimid rule that the majority of the Egyptians became Muslims, although they embraced Sunni rather than Shia Islam. The Fatimids extended Al Fustat northward, creating a major commercial and political metropolis that they renamed al-Qāhira, or Cairo. Untroubled by foreign invaders or conquerors, Cairo soon surpassed other Islamic cities such as Baghdād and Damascus in wealth and population.

During the First Crusade (1096-1099), a military campaign by Western European Christians to recapture Jerusalem from the Muslims (see Crusades), Egypt faced a possible invasion. Although the Crusaders captured Jerusalem from a small Fatimid garrison in 1099, they did not invade Egypt. The Fatimids formed diplomatic and commercial ties with the newly established Crusader state known as the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem, with other Crusader states along the Mediterranean coast of the Middle East, and with the various kingdoms and principalities of Christian Europe. Fatimid power declined in the 12th century, and in 1171 Kurdish military adventurer Saladin overthrew the dynasty.

Saladin restored the official status of Sunni Islam and the formal authority of the Abbasid caliphate in Egypt. Soon afterward, he united Egypt with Syria. In 1187 he led the Islamic reconquest of Jerusalem. Saladin’s descendants, the Ayyubids, ruled Egypt, as well as parts of Syria and Yemen, until 1250. Ayyubid relations with the Crusader states varied; some rulers encouraged European Christians to settle in Palestine and even leased Jerusalem to the Crusaders for a short time. However, Egypt’s Nile Delta suffered Crusader attacks from 1218 to 1221 and from 1249 to 1250. The latter invasion, during the Third Crusade, led to the overthrow of the Ayyubid dynasty by the Mamluks (also spelled Mamelukes), who regarded the Ayyubid rulers as weak and corrupt. The Mamluks were slaves from Central Asia and Caucasus whom the Ayyubids used as soldiers.

Mamluk Rule and Ottoman Conquest

Between 1250 and 1517, Mamluk sultans ruled Egypt along with Syria. The Mamluks successfully resisted invasions by the Crusaders and the Mongols, brought about commercial prosperity, and fostered the arts and architecture, most notably in Cairo. A Mamluk sultan usually bequeathed his position to a son or other relative, but a rival Mamluk claimant often toppled the heir and seized the throne.

The Mamluk sultans who ruled from 1250 to 1382 were commonly referred to as the Bahri sultans. They were the descendants mainly of Turkic peoples from Central Asia. The sultans who ruled from 1382 to 1517 were called the Burji sultans. For the most part, they were Circassians, originally from the Caucasus. Egypt prospered under the Bahri sultans but succumbed to plague, famine, and mounting unrest under the Burji rulers.

Under the Mamluks, Egyptians, Syrians, and other Arabs were barred from positions of political or military power. However, they were able to be ulama (Islamic legal experts), merchants, landowners, and administrators. In 1261 the Mamluk ruler Baybars I reestablished in Cairo the Abbasid caliphate, which the Mongols had destroyed at Baghdād in 1258. The caliphs were allowed to perform only religious duties; the Mamluk sultans retained absolute political authority.

Equipped with cannons and other firearms, the armies of the Ottoman Empire defeated the Mamluks in 1516 and 1517. Egypt became an Ottoman province. The Ottomans sent a governor to Cairo, but a general uprising in 1525 convinced them that it would be wiser to delegate local power to the Mamluks. The Ottoman governors retained nominal authority and appointed the highest Muslim judges, but in practice the Mamluks continued to control Egypt in conjunction with the local ulama.

Egypt prospered in the 16th century but later declined as world trade shifted away from Egypt and the Middle East to sea routes around Africa and across the Atlantic. In addition, Mamluk factional strife caused much devastation in the countryside. In the mid-18th century Mamluk prince Ali Bey made a bold attempt to take Egypt and Syria from the Ottomans, as did his lieutenant and successor, Muhammad Bey. In the late 18th century widespread famine reduced the population of Egypt, and factional fighting in Cairo weakened the authority of the Mamluks.

Muhammad Ali

In 1798 France was at war with Britain, and French general Napoleon Bonaparte led a large-scale invasion of Egypt to disrupt British commerce in the region. Bonaparte quickly established French rule in the Nile Delta and Cairo and set out to conquer lands farther east and south. However, he encountered stiff resistance from the Mamluks in Upper Egypt and from the Ottomans in Palestine and Syria. In August 1798 the British navy destroyed the French fleet as it lay at anchor in Abū Qīr Bay near Alexandria. In 1799 Napoleon escaped to France, leaving behind a French army of occupation. British and Ottoman troops expelled this army in 1801, ending the French presence in Egypt.

Neither the Mamluks nor the local ulama and merchants could immediately fill the power vacuum that resulted from the expulsion of the French. In 1805 Muhammad Ali, an Ottoman officer leading an Albanian regiment, seized control. Backed by Cairo’s merchant guilds, he persuaded the Ottoman sultan to make him governor of Egypt. He slowly consolidated power, defeating an invading British army in 1807 and massacring many of the Mamluks in 1811. Between 1811 and 1819 he helped the Ottoman Empire to regain control of Arabia from the Wahhabis, who had seized control of much of it at the start of the 19th century. Starting in 1820, his troops conquered much of what is now Sudan. To maintain the strength of his army, Muhammad Ali began conscripting Egyptian peasants. With the aid of French experts, he transformed his inexperienced peasant soldiers into a powerful army that fought against Greek rebels who rose up against Ottoman rule in the 1820s.

In return for his assistance in Greece, Muhammad Ali demanded that the Ottoman sultan grant him rule over Syria. The sultan refused, and Muhammad Ali invaded Syria in 1831, defeating the Ottoman forces and briefly creating an Egyptian empire that stretched from Crete to Syria and Arabia. Wishing to protect the balance of power in the region, a British-led European force intervened in 1840 to restore Ottoman power and restrict Muhammad Ali to Egypt. Although forced to give up his territories outside of Egypt, Muhammad Ali secured hereditary rule in Egypt. He became viceroy of Egypt and freed the country of Ottoman control in all but name. The descendants of Muhammad Ali ruled Egypt until 1952.

Muhammad Ali and his heirs took the first steps toward modernizing Egypt’s economy. They ordered the construction of new canals, barrages (river barriers), and factories. Egypt could not industrialize on a large scale because of competition from foreign manufactures, but it did modernize its agriculture. A new irrigation method made possible the cultivation of three crops annually on lands that formerly had produced only one, and cash crops such as tobacco, indigo, and especially long-staple cotton replaced subsistence crops in much of the Nile Valley.

In 1848 Muhammad Ali’s son Ibrahim Pasha, who had led many victorious military campaigns, assumed power, but he died soon after becoming viceroy. (“Pasha” was an Ottoman title, roughly akin to “Lord”; it was the title used by the viceroys of Egypt.) His successor, Abbas I, tried to undo Muhammad Ali’s reforms and to dismiss his French advisers. Abbas authorized the construction (by a British firm) of the first railroad linking Alexandria and Cairo. His successor, Said Pasha, resumed some of the reforms and also authorized French entrepreneur Ferdinand de Lesseps to construct the Suez Canal, connecting the Mediterranean and Red seas. Completed in 1869, the canal greatly facilitated transportation and trade between Europe and Asia. However, it brought little benefit to Egypt.

Increased Foreign Involvement

Ismail Pasha was Egypt’s ruler at the time the Suez Canal opened. The Ottoman sultan had granted him the hereditary title of khedive two years earlier. Ismail used the canal’s inaugural celebrations to showcase the country’s Westernization, which included the construction of European quarters in Cairo and Alexandria, sumptuous palaces, the Cairo Opera House, and many factories, railways, and telegraph lines. He dispatched military expeditions to expand his empire in Sudan and to explore the African interior. The government could afford such luxuries because of the booming demand for Egyptian cotton, caused by shortfalls of American cotton as a result of the American Civil War (1861-1865). Foreign banks and individuals eagerly invested in Egypt’s economy.

Economic conditions later deteriorated, forcing Egypt to borrow from foreign creditors to finance its projects. To stave off economic crisis, the government adopted drastic measures such as collecting taxes in advance, selling its shares in the company that operated the Suez Canal, and finally declaring bankruptcy. Egypt’s inability to pay back its loans led to the appointment of foreign debt commissioners to monitor Egypt’s finances in 1876, the inclusion of British and French ministers in Egypt’s cabinet in 1878, and finally the forced abdication of Ismail in 1879. Under European pressure, the Ottoman sultan installed Ismail’s son, Tawfik (also spelled Tawfiq), who cooperated with Egypt’s foreign creditors.

Some Egyptians formed nationalist groups to combat the rising European influence. Inspired by Iranian-born Islamic activist Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, who lived and taught in Egypt for eight years, Egyptians produced plays and published newspapers demanding independence and constitutional rule. Demands for more control over their own country increased when the foreign debt commissioners reduced expenditures on education, economic development, and defense.

During the reigns of Said Pasha and Ismail Pasha, Egyptians had gradually been allowed to enter the officer corps of the military. Egyptian officers organized secret societies in response to discrimination by the traditionally dominant Turkish and Circassian officers. In 1881 an Egyptian colonel named Ahmad Arabi led a mutiny against the war minister and later a larger demonstration against the khedive. He demanded a popularly elected legislature and an increased budget for the army. In early 1882 the nationalists gained control of the cabinet and the army, threatening the Turkish and Circassian officers and even the khedive himself. Riots broke out in the port cities, and Britain and France sent warships to blockade Alexandria harbor.

Arabi, now minister of war, refused an ultimatum to pull down Alexandria’s fortifications. On July 11, 1882, British battleships bombarded Alexandria, setting the city afire. Khedive Tawfik, siding with Britain, declared Arabi a rebel, thus setting the stage for a British invasion and occupation, first of Alexandria, then of the Suez Canal, and finally (after defeating Arabi’s troops at Tel al-Kabir) of Cairo itself. Arabi and his followers were jailed, put on trial, and exiled from Egypt, and the khedive was restored to power.

British Rule

British forces occupied Egypt in 1882. Although the British government intended the military occupation to be brief, Britain became ever more involved in Egyptian affairs. Between 1883 and 1885 British troops attempted to crush a rebellion in Sudan that threatened Egypt’s control of the upper Nile and the Red Sea coast. The rebels, led by Muhammad Ahmad, also known as the Mahdi (“the rightly guided one”), destroyed the British armies that were sent against them. Sudan remained independent until it was conquered by a combined British and Egyptian force between 1896 and 1898.

The British exerted ever more control over Egypt’s government. Their consul general, Sir Evelyn Baring (known after 1892 as Lord Cromer), undertook to reform the country’s finances and to restore public order. His success in reforming finances restored European confidence in Egypt’s economy. However, it also caused a steady increase in the number of British advisers to the Egyptian cabinet and, over time, in the numbers of British irrigation inspectors, judges, police, and army officers. The resentment of ethnic Egyptians, who had long felt excluded from official posts by their Ottoman rulers and Europeans in general, now became focused on the British.

British control led to increased foreign investment in Egypt, greater public security, new public works to improve Nile irrigation, and lower taxation, all of which meant greater prosperity for Egypt. Nevertheless, many Egyptians felt that foreign domination was too high a price to pay for this prosperity. When Abbas II succeeded Tawfik as khedive in 1892, Egyptian nationalists demanded greater control over the ministries. Abbas tried but failed to assert control over the Egyptian army, whose high posts were held by British officers.

Egyptian nationalism was aided by the French and the Ottomans, who resented the substantial British role in Egyptian affairs. The nationalists gained strength under the leadership of Mustafa Kamil, an Egyptian lawyer who had been educated partly in Europe. He founded a newspaper, a school, and finally a political party, the National Party, in his campaign to end the British occupation. In 1906 an altercation between Egyptian peasants and British officers, who were hunting pigeons, stirred up widespread opposition to the British. The British authorities accused the peasants of assaulting the officers, conducted a hasty trial, and sentenced the accused to death, public flogging, or imprisonment. A crisis loomed, but British officials restored calm by making a few concessions and adopting a policy of winning Khedive Abbas over to their side. Mustafa Kamil died in 1908, and his followers split into various factions. After his death the British authorities advised the Egyptian government to muzzle the press.

British Protectorate

The outbreak of World War I in 1914 temporarily halted nationalist activities in Egypt. Soon after the Ottoman Empire entered the war on the side of Germany in November 1914, Britain, which was already at war with Germany, declared Egypt a protectorate. Abbas II was deposed in favor of his uncle, Hussein Kamil, who was given the title of sultan. Legal ties between Egypt and the Ottoman Empire were formally severed, and Britain promised Egypt some changes in government once the war was over. In the meantime, the British stationed more than 100,000 troops in Egypt, mainly to guard the Suez Canal against German and Ottoman attacks coming from the Sinai Peninsula, and imposed martial law to stifle any expression of discontent.

The war years resulted in great hardship for the Egyptian peasants, who were conscripted to dig ditches and whose livestock was confiscated by the army. Inflation was rampant, harming the city-dwellers in particular. These factors were responsible for increasing resentment against the British and set the stage for a violent upheaval after World War I ended in 1918.

After the war, several nationalists, led by Saad Zaghlul, asked the top British official in Egypt, High Commissioner Sir Reginald Wingate, for permission to go to London to negotiate for an end to the protectorate. The British government refused to meet Zaghlul, who was then exiled with three of his colleagues to Malta. In March 1919 a nationwide revolt broke out, marked by random violence in the countryside, mass demonstrations in the cities, and expressions of national unity between Copts and Muslims.

Britain recalled Wingate and sent General Edmund Allenby, who had led the conquest of Palestine and Syria during the war, to restore order. Allenby freed Zaghlul and his colleagues to attend the Paris Peace Conference as a delegation (wafd in Arabic; the group became known as the Wafd). Although the Allies (the coalition of the victorious nations in World War I, including Britain) ignored the delegation’s demand for Egyptian independence, the Wafd became the major voice for Egyptian nationalism and democracy.

The unrest continued between 1919 and 1922. The Egyptians wanted complete independence, but the British felt they needed to keep their troops in Egypt to guard the Suez Canal, as well as their airports, their radio transmitters, and their other means of communications with India and the rest of their empire in Asia. In 1922 Allenby offered Egypt qualified, or partial, independence, subject to four reservations to be dealt with in future negotiations. These were the security of British imperial communications, the right of Britain to defend Egypt against outside interference, the right of Britain to protect foreign interests and minorities in Egypt, and continued Anglo-Egyptian control of Sudan, which had been placed under the joint administration of Britain and Egypt in 1899.

Qualified Independence

In 1922 Britain declared Egypt an independent monarchy under Hussein Kamil’s successor, Ahmad Fuad, who became king as Fuad I. The British reserved the right to intervene in Egyptian affairs if their interests were threatened, thereby robbing Egypt of any real independence and allowing British control to continue unabated. Egypt’s politicians agreed in 1923 to draft a constitution making the country a constitutional monarchy. The Wafd won the first parliamentary elections, which were held in January 1924. The organization’s leader, Zaghlul, became prime minister and formed a cabinet. The Wafd government did not last long. In November 1924 the British commander of the Egyptian army was assassinated. The police investigation uncovered a nationwide network of terrorists with ties to the Wafd. Allenby handed Zaghlul a stern memorandum containing demands for Egypt’s apology and reparations. Zaghlul accepted some of the demands but chose to resign rather than accept the others.

King Fuad, who saw the Wafd as a threat to his power, named a cabinet made up of politicians opposed to the Wafd. When new elections again resulted in a Wafd majority, the king locked the deputies out of parliament. The British exploited the rivalry between the Wafd and the king to prolong their occupation of Egypt. In 1930 Fuad, with the aid of anti-Wafd politicians, replaced the 1923 constitution with a new basic law that enhanced the power of the monarchy.

Fuad died in 1936 and was succeeded by his son, Faruk I. The government immediately restored the 1923 constitution and held free elections. The Wafd was again victorious and formed a new government.

In 1935 Italy, under Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini, invaded and conquered Ethiopia, thus challenging Britain’s position as the chief European power in northeastern Africa. The threat from Italy prompted the British and the Egyptian government to negotiate a treaty to resolve matters left outstanding since 1922. The treaty provided for an Anglo-Egyptian military alliance. It enabled Egypt to join the League of Nations and to establish its own embassies abroad. The terms of the alliance allowed British troops to remain in the Suez Canal zone but limited the total number of British troops in Egypt to 10,000 in peacetime. British troops were to evacuate Cairo and Alexandria as soon as the Egyptian government could build new barracks for them elsewhere.

When World War II broke out in 1939, Britain still had troops stationed in Egypt’s major cities. The outbreak of war prompted Britain to increase its garrisons in the canal zone. Many Egyptian nationalists hoped that Britain’s enemies, the Axis Powers (principally Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy), would win the war. The British ambassador to Egypt demanded that King Faruk appoint an all-Wafd government, since the Wafd had negotiated the terms of the 1936 treaty and would carry out Egypt’s alliance obligations.

The Wafd government supported Britain’s war efforts in Egypt. The government soon lost its legitimacy as an advocate for Egyptian nationalism. In a vain effort to maintain its credibility it instituted educational and social reforms in the early 1940s and even spearheaded the drive for Arab solidarity. That drive culminated in the formation of the Arab League in Cairo in 1945.

The war ended in 1945, and British troops left Cairo and Alexandria in 1946 but remained in the canal zone. As nationalist sentiment intensified among Egyptians, disaffection with the Egyptian government also grew. The Muslim Brotherhood, an organization founded in 1928 to bring Islamic principles into government and society, gained prominence in the mid-1940s. The growth of labor unions and the prestige gained by the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) by its victory over Nazi Germany in the war emboldened Egypt’s Communist movement, although it remained fragmented.

In 1948 Egypt, along with other Arab countries, went to war in an unsuccessful attempt to prevent the establishment of the Jewish state of Israel in the historic region of Palestine. A UN armistice ended the fighting in 1949, with Israel securely established in most of what had been Palestine. Because of Israel’s close ties with various Western nations, Egypt’s defeat aggravated anti-Western sentiment. The defeat also discredited King Faruk and inspired some Egyptian army officers to start plotting his overthrow. Although the Wafd won the parliamentary elections in 1950, it had lost many of its ablest politicians to rival parties and failed to devise policies to stem the loss of public trust in the government. In January 1952 a confrontation in which British troops killed 50 Egyptian police officers sparked a mass demonstration in protest of the killings. Widespread looting and arson that destroyed much of downtown Cairo followed, further discrediting the king and the Wafd, which was immediately dismissed from office, never to return.

The armistice that ended the fighting with Israel gave Egypt control of a small region of Palestinian territory known as the Gaza Strip. This region remained under Egyptian administration until its capture by Israel in 1967.

Coup and Independence

In July 1952 a secret society in the Egyptian army called the Free Officers, led by General Gamal Abdel Nasser, took control of the government in an almost bloodless coup. They forced Faruk to abdicate and replaced him as head of state with General Muhammad Naguib. Naguib promised to restore democracy and rid the country of corruption. The officers who formed the government soon realized that Egypt needed more comprehensive reforms.

The new government’s first action was to issue a decree that no person could own more than 80 hectares (200 acres) of agricultural land. This action had the effect of breaking up huge estates and redistributing the land to thousands of peasants who owned no land. In the course of the next year the Free Officers took over government ministries to implement other reforms. They banned the old political parties, tried many politicians for corruption, and postponed indefinitely the restoration of parliamentary rule. In June 1953 they put an end to the monarchy by declaring Egypt a republic. Naguib was named the first president of the republic.

Egypt Under Nasser

When Naguib voiced support for the old parties and the Muslim Brotherhood, most of the Free Officers, under the leadership of Nasser, opposed him. In early 1954 Nasser became prime minister, while Naguib retained the presidency. A failed attempt by the Muslim Brotherhood to assassinate Nasser in late 1954 gave him a reason to clamp down on the Brotherhood and on other groups thought to favor Naguib, who subsequently was dismissed from the presidency and placed under house arrest. Nasser became acting head of state. He was formally elected president in 1956.

The revolutionaries gave precedence to domestic reforms, but they soon turned their attention to foreign affairs. They secured an agreement by which the British would evacuate the Suez Canal bases by June 1956. They also agreed to let the people of Sudan choose between union with Egypt and independence. The Egyptian government fiercely opposed attempts by the Western powers, especially the United States and Britain, to create a Middle Eastern alliance against Communism. In particular, the Egyptians condemned the British-sponsored Baghdād Pact, which brought together Turkey, Iraq, Iran, and Pakistan against the USSR. An Israeli raid into the Egyptian-administered Gaza Strip in early 1955 underscored Egypt’s military vulnerability and hence its need to buy arms from abroad. Unable to purchase any weapons from the West without conditions, Nasser looked to the Communist countries. In September 1955 he concluded a $200 million deal to buy weapons from Czechoslovakia.

One of the new government’s most ambitious domestic projects, construction of the Aswān High Dam across the Nile, soon had a tremendous impact on foreign affairs. Egypt initiated the project in order to increase cultivable land and generate hydroelectric power. Initially, the World Bank, Britain, and the United States offered to lend money for the project. However, in 1956 the United States withdrew its offer, and Britain and the World Bank followed suit. The U.S. government claimed that Egypt would not be able to repay the loans, but it was widely believed that the Americans were punishing Nasser for recognizing the Communist-led People’s Republic of China. Nasser responded a week later by nationalizing the Suez Canal Company, which operated the canal and was owned by the British and French governments and private investors. In 1958 the Soviet government agreed to help finance the dam project.

Suez Crisis

The takeover of the canal company infuriated the British, for whom the Suez Canal was a vital waterway. It also angered the French, who had built and managed the canal. Both governments threatened to force Nasser to relinquish the canal, despite the U.S. government’s opposition to military action. After diplomatic efforts to resolve the crisis failed, Britain and France entered into a secret alliance with Israel, which was already considering military action against Egypt. Egypt had refused to allow Israel to use the Suez Canal and since 1951 had blocked Israel’s access to the Red Sea from its port of Elat through the Egyptian-controlled Strait of Tiran, which lies at the entrance to the Gulf of Aqaba. Furthermore, Egypt was sponsoring Palestinian raids into Israeli territory.

Israel attacked Egypt in October 1956 and soon captured the Gaza Strip and most of the Sinai Peninsula, while Britain and France invaded Port Said and began occupying the canal zone. Within a week, however, the United Nations, at the urging of both the USSR and the United States, demanded a cease-fire, forcing Britain, France, and Israel to withdraw from the lands they had captured.

United Arab Republic

The Suez Crisis enhanced the prestige of Egypt. The canal remained nationalized, Egypt was at last free from British control, and Israel was obliged for the first time to withdraw from Arab territory. The United States and other maritime nations gave Israel an informal guarantee of access to the Gulf of Aqaba. Syria sought to unite with Egypt, and Nasser agreed to the formation of the United Arab Republic (UAR) in 1958. Syrian enthusiasm cooled, however, as it became apparent that Egypt would dominate the UAR. The UAR suffered a further blow when a new regime in Iraq, which had just overthrown the pro-Western monarchy there in July 1958, chose not to enter the union. Newly independent Sudan also chose not to join the UAR. In July 1961, when the Egyptian government moved toward an openly socialist policy, Syria’s business leaders turned against the union. Syria seceded from the UAR soon thereafter.

Nasser was chagrined at the breakup of the union with Syria. Nevertheless, he retained the name of the UAR for his country and looked for other allies in the Arab world. In 1962 he set up a one-party political system in the UAR, with his Arab Socialist Union the sole party. When Algeria gained independence from France in 1962, the UAR hailed its new regime. When a military coup ousted the ruler of Yemen and established the Yemen Arab Republic in 1962, the UAR recognized the republican regime and sent troops to aid it against royalist forces, which Saudi Arabia supported. This action led to a prolonged proxy war with Saudi Arabia that tied up thousands of the best UAR troops. In 1963, coups in Iraq and Syria led by army officers in the Arab socialist Baath Party installed pro-UAR governments, but talks to bring these countries into the UAR broke down.

Although his attempts to create a political union failed, Nasser promoted Arab unity in other ways. When Israel threatened to draw water from the Jordan River for its national irrigation project, Nasser convened the Arab heads of state to develop a common policy against Israel. In 1964 he facilitated the birth of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), created to provide an organized channel for Palestinian nationalism. In 1966 Nasser made a mutual defense pact with Syria, hoping to moderate the stance of the radical wing of the Syrian Baath Party that had taken power. Instead, the pact emboldened Syria to engage Israel in aerial clashes in April 1967. Israel shot down six Syrian fighter jets and warned Syria against future attacks.

The Soviet government warned the UAR that Israel was concentrating its troops for an invasion of Syria. The Israelis denied the warning, which later proved false. Nevertheless, Nasser responded by sending troops into the Sinai Peninsula, which had been demilitarized after the 1956 war. He called for the removal of UN forces from the Gaza Strip and the Red Sea port of Sharm al-Sheikh, where they had been stationed since the end of the 1956 war. After reoccupying these buffer zones, the UAR announced that it would reimpose its blockade of the Strait of Tiran, preventing Israeli ships from entering or leaving the Gulf of Aqaba. The UAR press and radio also made threats against Israel.

War with Israel

In June 1967 Israel, unable to secure military assistance from the United States or any European nations, launched surprise air attacks against its Arab enemies, virtually destroying the air forces of the UAR, Jordan, Syria, and Iraq. In the ensuing Six-Day War, Israel captured the Gaza Strip and the Sinai Peninsula from the UAR. Nasser retaliated by breaking diplomatic relations with the United States, which he accused of aiding Israel, and again closing the Suez Canal. Jordan and Syria likewise suffered defeat and lost territory to the Israelis.

In the wake of its defeat, the UAR sought more weapons and military advisers from the USSR. It also began to make peace with Saudi Arabia, on whom it had to rely for economic assistance. Under the terms of a peace plan for Yemen, Egyptian troops were at last withdrawn from Yemen in December 1967. As Saudi influence increased, the Egyptian government began, imperceptibly at first, moving from Arab socialism toward a more Islamic orientation.

In November 1967 the UN Security Council passed Resolution 242, a peace proposal that called for Israel’s withdrawal from lands taken in the recent fighting. In 1968 UAR and Israeli forces began firing regularly at each other across the Suez Canal, leading Nasser in March 1969 to declare a War of Attrition against Israel. Israel responded with air and land attacks on the UAR. Nasser, in turn, requested more Soviet military assistance.

In 1970 U.S. Secretary of State William Rogers proposed a peace plan that would have extended Resolution 242 by requiring Israel to give back almost all the land it had taken in 1967 in return for peace treaties with its Arab neighbors. Israel rejected the plan, while Nasser decided to join Jordan in accepting the plan. Palestinian commandos who opposed the plan challenged Jordan’s King Hussein. Nasser called another Arab summit in Cairo and managed to reconcile the two sides. He died of a heart attack within hours after the meeting ended. Nasser’s death and funeral led to an outpouring of grief throughout the Arab world.

Egypt Under Sadat

Anwar al-Sadat, who had been vice president under Nasser, became president upon Nasser’s death. Sadat was generally assumed to be too weak to hold power for long. He surprised everyone in May 1971 by removing Nasser’s most trusted lieutenants from key leadership positions. Sadat quickly gained popular support by repealing many censorship policies, calling for a new constitution, and changing the country’s name to the Arab Republic of Egypt.

Sadat’s early initiatives in foreign policy were less successful. He proposed peace with Israel, calling for an Israeli pullback from the Suez Canal in exchange for Egypt’s renunciation of war. His proposal fell on deaf ears. Libya desired union with Egypt, and in 1971 there was hope for a broader federation including Syria and Sudan, but no union ever occurred. In 1971 Sadat signed a friendship treaty with the USSR, but it did not enable him to buy from Moscow the weapons he wanted. Frustrated that the USSR was not providing Egypt with enough weapons, Sadat asked in 1972 that most of the Soviet military advisers in Egypt leave the country.

Sadat came under increasing domestic pressure to initiate a new war against Israel to recapture the territories lost in 1967. He had hoped that the expulsion of most Soviet military advisers in 1972 would prompt the United States, now Israel’s chief ally, to seek reconciliation with Egypt, but there was no such move on the part of the United States. Meanwhile, the leaders of Israel believed that the Soviet exodus would reduce Egypt’s war-making potential, and so they discounted the possibility of an Egyptian attack. In September 1973, during an Israeli election campaign in which the leading candidates favored keeping the captured territories, Sadat made a secret agreement with Syria to attack Israeli positions in the Sinai and in the Golan Heights, Syrian territory that Israel had captured in the 1967 war.

The joint attack, begun on the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur and during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, broke through the Israeli defenses. Egyptian forces advanced into the Sinai as Syrian forces retook part of the Golan Heights. Neither Egypt nor Syria fully capitalized on their initial gains, however, and soon the Israelis, completely mobilized and rearmed by the United States, went on the offensive. After 18 days of fighting, Israel broke through the Egyptian lines, crossed the Suez Canal, and seized portions of the canal’s west bank down to Suez City. The UN Security Council passed resolutions calling for immediate negotiations between the warring parties. A Soviet threat to attack Israel and a U.S. threat of nuclear war finally ended the conflict. After the fighting ended, Egyptian and Israeli officers met in an attempt to disengage their troops. See Arab-Israeli War of 1973.

Following negotiations by U.S. secretary of state Henry Kissinger with Sadat and Israeli prime minister Golda Meir, the Egyptian and Israeli governments agreed to a peace conference in Geneva, Switzerland, in December 1973. The meeting adjourned after one day and was not reconvened. In January 1974 Kissinger began traveling between Egypt and Israel, negotiating with the countries’ leaders in a technique known as shuttle diplomacy. His efforts produced a disengagement agreement that allowed Egypt to keep territory it had recaptured east of the Suez Canal and established a buffer zone separating the Egyptian and Israeli forces in the Sinai. Sadat agreed to reopen the Suez Canal and to allow the passage of ships to and from Israel. The two governments reached an interim agreement whereby Israel withdrew from additional Egyptian territory in return for a pledge by Egypt not to go to war with Israel.

As Egypt edged toward better relations with Israel, Sadat began a domestic economic policy, known as infitah (meaning ‘opening’), that encouraged private investment in Egypt. He hoped to stimulate Egypt’s economy, which had stagnated under Nasser’s brand of socialism and the effects of two wars with Israel. In the mid-1970s Sadat drew away from the USSR, terminating the 1971 friendship treaty between the two nations, and moved closer to the United States. Continued economic troubles and the election of a conservative government in Israel prompted him to take drastic action to end the costly conflict with Israel. In 1977 Sadat made a historic visit to Israel’s parliament in Jerusalem to offer a peace settlement.

Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem produced no immediate progress, but his initiative led to further meetings and negotiations between Egypt and Israel. In September 1978 U.S. president Jimmy Carter invited Sadat and Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin to the presidential retreat in Camp David, Maryland, to continue negotiations. Although the Palestinians and almost all the other Arab governments opposed Sadat’s actions, Sadat signed the Camp David Accords, a framework for peace that provided for Israel’s phased withdrawal from the Sinai in return for full diplomatic ties with Egypt. Further negotiations led to a comprehensive peace treaty between Egypt and Israel in 1979.

Most Egyptians hailed Sadat’s peace policy, mainly because they hoped that it would improve economic conditions. Instead, the economy suffered further from a boycott by Arab nations that opposed Egypt’s separate peace with Israel. Egypt also became politically isolated from the Arab world. It was expelled from the Arab League, and the league’s headquarters was moved from Cairo to Tunis, Tunisia.

In 1978 Sadat tried to promote political freedom by replacing the one-party political system under the Arab Socialist Union with a multiparty system. However, he tolerated no criticism of his peace with Israel and continued to suppress socialist and Islamist groups that he deemed subversive. In September 1981 he ordered the arrest of more than 1,500 dissident political and intellectual leaders, thereby alienating most educated Egyptians. In addition, he imposed a state of emergency to prevent the Islamist groups from gaining power. On October 6, 1981, while reviewing a military parade in Cairo commemorating Egypt’s victory in the 1973 war, Sadat was assassinated by a group of Islamist officers. Egyptian security forces unearthed a widespread conspiracy of terrorists alienated by Sadat’s peace with Israel and the socioeconomic problems caused by his infitah policies. Few Egyptians or other Arabs mourned Sadat’s death.

Egypt Under Mubarak

Vice President Hosni Mubarak succeeded Sadat as president. Mubarak promised to stress continuity in foreign policy and betterment of economic conditions in Egypt. One of his first acts was to release the politicians whom Sadat had jailed. While maintaining Egypt’s close ties with the United States, Mubarak also pursued closer ties with other Arab countries and kept his distance from Israel. By 1987 most Arab states had restored their diplomatic ties with Egypt. Egypt was readmitted to the Arab League in 1989 and the league’s headquarters was moved back to Cairo.

Within Egypt, the government continued to move away from state-controlled enterprises but also curbed some of the excesses of businessmen and speculators who had taken advantage of Sadat’s infitah policy. Corruption, even among members of Sadat’s family, was exposed and halted. Mubarak allowed new political parties to form and eased some curbs on press freedom, but he maintained the state of emergency that Sadat had imposed in 1981 to prevent the Islamist groups from gaining power. Yet the government seemed less able than the Islamists, who maintained a traditional Islamic social services network, to deliver medical, educational, and social benefits to poor people. Continued inequities between a rich and powerful minority and the impoverished masses appalled most Egyptians.

In 1990 Iraq invaded Kuwait, and Mubarak supported the U.S.-led allied coalition that was formed to reverse the occupation (see Persian Gulf War). Egypt’s intellectuals widely criticized his support of the coalition, and many Egyptians sympathized with the Iraqis. Between 1990 and 1997, radical Islamist groups engaged in violent action to overthrow the government. Members of these groups murdered secular-minded politicians, a leading secularist writer, Copts, and foreign tourists. Mubarak himself barely escaped an assassination attempt in 1995. The government responded by imprisoning or executing numerous radicals. Economic reforms in the 1990s promoted economic development and raised Egypt’s per capita income, but the economy stagnated from 2000 to 2002. Afterward the economy picked up somewhat due in part to a devaluation of the currency in 2003. The peace policy with Israel and Egypt’s close ties to the United States remained widely unpopular. Nevertheless, the Egyptian government formally upheld the peace treaty with Israel and on occasion sponsored meetings aimed at promoting peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

During the early 2000s Mubarak continued his policies of suppressing radical Islamists and permitting only weak opposition from other political parties. He was quick to condemn the September 11 attacks on the United States, and in the wake of those attacks reaffirmed the importance of his crackdown on Islamic fundamentalists. In the meantime more moderate Islamic groups were demanding a more overtly Islamist state based upon Sharia (Islamic law). Although Egyptian legislation is nominally based upon Sharia, some would like to see Sharia more rigorously enforced in practice. Such a policy was opposed by religious minorities, chiefly Coptic Christians (see Coptic Church); some secular liberals; and also by the United States. The holding of relatively free elections by Palestinians and in Iraq in early 2005 led to some publicly expressed Egyptian sentiment in favor of more democracy at home. As Mubarak’s fourth six-year term drew to a close in 2005, some groups called for changes in the constitution, including a two-term limit on the presidency. In May 2005 voters approved a constitutional amendment that allowed for multiparty candidates and direct election of the president by secret ballot.

As presidential elections approached, Egypt became the scene of several terrorist bombings. In October 2004 suicide bombers at two resort towns in the Sinai Peninsula killed 34 people, many of them Israeli tourists. Then in July 2005 three explosive-filled trucks driven by suicide bombers detonated in the Red Sea resort town of Sharm al-Sheikh at the tip of the Sinai Peninsula. The reported death toll in those three explosions ranged from 64 to 88 people.

Nevertheless, Egypt’s first multiparty presidential election took place without violence in September 2005. Mubarak was easily reelected with more than 85 percent of the vote, although voter turnout was low with only about 7 million votes cast from a pool of 32 million registered voters. The turnout of about 22 percent contrasted with a turnout of more than 53 percent in the referendum on the constitutional amendment. Opposition parties charged election fraud and said Mubarak’s campaign dominated the state-owned media.

Mubarak again pushed for changes to Egypt’s constitution in 2007 when a referendum approved several amendments that increased presidential power. The changes gave the president the power to dissolve Egypt’s bicameral legislature without holding a referendum, limit the role of judges in monitoring elections, and suspend civil rights protections in cases that the president determines are associated with terrorism. The referendum also reconfirmed the existing ban on political parties based on religion. Opposition groups and human rights organizations said the outcome of the referendum was affected by widespread vote fraud. The referendum passed overwhelmingly with more than 75 percent approval and a voter turnout of about 10 million people, according to government reports.

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