At the nexus: A confluence of culture, history and geography
From the affairs of the ancient Mediterranean world through Ottoman times to today’s modern Middle East, Egypt has long been a dominant player in the politics and economics of the region. Egypt’s role in the Arab Spring, which began in 2011 and led to the ouster of octogenarian President Hosni Mubarak, proves that the country today is just as dynamic and forward moving as it was six millennia ago.
HISTORY: Today’s Arab Republic of Egypt was founded in 1953, but the first territorial claim for the Egyptian nation came in 3150 BC under King Menes. The next three millennia were characterised by dynastic kingdoms, a period referred to as the pharaonic era, during which Egypt’s famous ancient structures, like the pyramids, temples and tombs, were constructed. The age of the pharaohs came to an end in 343 BC with the invasions of the Greco-Macedonians and Romans, which brought 2000 years of foreign rule. Power changed hands from the Greeks to the Romans, Byzantines, Persians, Arabs, Ottomans, French and eventually the British, until independence in 1953. The shifting seat of power carried implications for society, and Christianity, which was introduced by the Byzantines in the form of the Egyptian Coptic Church in the first century AD, was superseded by Sunni Islam in the seventh century. Although still Egypt maintains a sizeable Christian minority of roughly 7.5m people, over 90% of Egyptians today follow Islam, with the largest sect being Sunni.
POLITICS: Shortly after the official declaration of independence, Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser, the force behind the 1952 revolution that had unseated the monarchy, staged a military coup in 1954, overthrowing President Mohamed Naguib and dealing a blow to remaining British control. Nasser assumed the presidency in 1956, and remained in power until his death in 1970. A magnanimous figure remembered for his pioneering role in Arab nationalism, Nasser revolutionised Egyptian society through a series of secular and nationalist reforms. Soon after his rise to power, the Suez Canal was wrested from the British and nationalised. The canal remains a prized national economic asset today. Nasser was succeeded by Anwar Sadat, who shifted the country’s allegiance during the Cold War from the Soviet Union to the US. The policy change was accompanied by a period of economic restructuring during which Sadat implemented a series of economic liberalisation schemes. Sadat was assassinated in 1981 by a militant angry over the president’s peace treaty with Israel. The then vice-president, Mubarak, assumed the presidency and maintained much of Sadat’s macroeconomic and foreign policies.
In January 2011 a wave of protests, dominated by angry citizens tired of economic mismanagement and Mubarak’s 30 years of uninterrupted rule, brought down the president. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, under the leadership of Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, presided over Egypt together with an interim government for roughly 18 months until the country’s first free presidential elections took place on May 23, 2012. Victory went to Mohamed Morsy of the Freedom and Justice Party, a political party founded by the Muslim Brotherhood.
GEOGRAPHY & CLIMATE: As the 30th-largest country and roughly twice the size of Spain, Egypt’s territory reaches a total of 1,001,450 sq km. The country shares a 1273-km border with Sudan to the south, a 1115-km border with Libya to the west as well as borders with Israel (266 km) and Gaza Strip (11km) in the east. Running 6650 km, the Nile River is the longest river in the world and the main feature of Egyptian geography. It has been central to Egyptian civilisation, culture and identity throughout the millennia. The lush green valleys of the Nile and its delta are in sharp contrast to the rest of Egypt’s arid desert landscape. To the east is the Sinai Peninsula, the portion of Egypt lying in Asia. Sinai is home to the religiously significant Mt Sinai where the Prophet Moses is said to have received the 10 Commandments, as well as Egypt’s highest peak, Mt St Catherine, which reaches 2629 metres. The peninsula has developed into a major tourist destination, famous for its beaches and excellent snorkelling and scuba diving opportunities that attract visitors from around the globe. It has also been the site of numerous high-level political and economic gatherings.
Upper Egypt in the southern half of the country receives very little annual rainfall, while the northern coast along the Mediterranean receives slightly more significant amounts that go as high as 40 cm per year. Temperatures around the country average 27-32°C in the hot summer months and 13-21°C in the winter.
POPULATION: Egypt has the largest population in the Middle East and the third largest on the African continent. Although 2012 estimates range, the country’s population figures hover around 85m, and the World Bank pegs the growth forecast at 1.9% per year. According to the International Organisation for Migration, around 2.7m Egyptians live abroad and contribute actively to the development of their country by sending home remittances (totalling some $8bn in 2011). Additionally, Egypt is host to many Palestinian, Iraqi and Sudanese refugees, as well as many from other African nations, with estimates placing the total at as few as 500,000 or as many as 3m.
The majority of Egyptians have made their home along the Nile River and its delta (particularly in Cairo and Alexandria), as well as along the Mediterranean and Red Sea coasts. Egyptians are by far the largest ethnic group at about 99% of the population, although there are Turkish, Greek, Bedouin and Nubian minorities as well. Egypt’s population has swelled by approximately 13m over the past 10 years, resulting in a young population with a median age of 24. The population seems on track to swell to nearly 100m by 2020, a situation that will weigh heavily on the country’s economy and ability to create jobs. Much of the human density is concentrated around the major cities where economic opportunities are the highest, and roughly 43% of Egyptians are now urban dwellers.
LANGUAGE: Arabic is the official language of the country, but English is also widely used within the business community. Egyptian Arabic colloquial, known as Masry, is widely understood throughout the Middle East and North Africa due to the country’s heavy cultural influence via films, literature and music. However, several dialects exist within the country itself, including Saidi, Bedawi and Sudanese Arabic, spoken in various rural areas. Egyptians are regularly taught English, Spanish, French and German in school.
EDUCATION: Over the last decade, Egypt has made big strides in promoting adult literacy, and the current rate stands at 72%. Egypt’s education system, the largest in the Middle East and North Africa, has over 18m students enrolled in total, and the government offers free education at all levels. The majority of students (about 16.5m) attend public schools supported by the government. The centralised educational system had been undergoing reform by the previous government and improvements have received great attention in recent years. According to the 2011 World Bank’s “World Development Indicators” report, spending on education accounted for 3.8% of GDP in 2008.
CULTURE & RELIGION: Egyptian culture has been shaped by its long history of diverse rulers and its strategic position between Africa, Europe and Asia. Not surprisingly, Egypt has long served as a link between East and West. In fact, Cairo is often referred to as umm Al dunya, or “mother of the world”.
Although Islam was first introduced to Egypt in the sixth and seventh centuries, it is in modern times that tension has grown over the role religion should play in policy. The rising debate remains unclear today, despite the ideological background of recently elected Morsy and the new parliament’s heavy Islamist make-up, due in part to a strong recent tradition of secularism. That said, Islamic culture plays a prominent role in the family and social structures of the country. Egypt is home to the most important Sunni institution in the world, Al Azhar, which is both a mosque and a university and is headed by Grand Imam Ahmed El Tayyip.
Coptic Christians account for 9% of the population and are the biggest minority in the country. The Coptic Orthodox Church is still awaiting the announcement of a new leader following the death of Pope Shenouda III in March 2012. Muslims and Christians in Egypt have long lived as neighbours, sharing a common ethnicity, race, language and culture. More recently, however, tensions have flared, mostly within the scope of the charged political atmosphere.
NATURAL RESOURCES: Egypt has large hydrocarbons reserves that have been a significant contributor to GDP. Although oil production has fallen from its highs in the late 1970s and early 1980s, recent discoveries of natural gas reserves and increased exploration activity have boosted investment in the energy sector.
Egypt’s mineral wealth is not as significant as its hydrocarbons reserves, although the mining of iron, manganese, limestone, lead and talc have been traditional mainstays for years. The resurgence of gold has drawn significant attention recently, but 2012 proved to be a difficult year for the industry as both rising costs and political uncertainty slowed production down.
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