Egypt is located in northern Africa with the Mediterranean coast on its northern border; the Red Sea, Gaza Strip, and Israel on its eastern border; Libya on its western border; and Sudan on the southern border. Egypt controls the Sinai Peninsula, the only land bridge between Africa and Asia. Summers are usually hot, with temperatures reaching up to 40 °C (104 °F), and winters are generally mild with temperatures ranging from 0°C (32 °F) to 18 °C (64.4 °F). The Nile River winds through the middle of the country creating a narrow region of lush arable land where most Egyptians choose to live. The Nile is the longest river in the world, one of the few fresh water resources in Egypt and an important transportation network. Thus, the Nile is Egypt’s lifeline.
Climate change is a pressing concern for Egyptians who live and farm in the Nile Delta, where the Nile empties into the Mediterranean Sea. As the Mediterranean Sea rises, it increases salinity in the delta, making it impossible to grow crops in the affected areas. This problem is exacerbated by irrigation techniques that locals use which contribute to the salination of the Nile delta. Another problem is water availability per capita. “Water poverty” is defined as having less than 1000 cubic meters available per person, and in 2013, Egypt only had 700 cubic meters available per person, most of this coming from the Nile and limited rainfall. In response to these issues, Egypt has adopted a National Water Policy that attempts to achieve the optimal use and development of available water resources through the improvement of irrigation techniques and the implementation of strategies that minimize water losses.
HISTORY & GOVERNMENT
Current archaeological evidence suggests that the earliest human settlements in prehistoric Egypt date to around 30,000 BCE, when nomadic groups began to settle, take up farming and form villages. There is some evidence that these villages engaged in periodic warfare with each other. This state of affairs is thought to have lasted for around 27,000 years, until the ancient Egyptian dynasties unified all of Egypt under one ruler, known as the Pharaoh. Ancient Egypt was characterized by the rule of the pharaohs, who built large stone pyramids to serve as their tombs after they died. The largest of the pyramids is the Great Pyramid of Giza, which was built around 2560 BCE by the Pharaoh Khufu.
For the 2,500 years following the rise of the pharaohs, Egypt was ruled by a succession of dynasties, a series of rulers usually sharing part of the same family. Ancient Egyptian history saw the rule of 31 dynasties. Dynastic succession could sometimes be brutal and violent, and whenever one ruler’s death ended a dynasty it was not always clear who the next ruler should be.
When this happened, Egypt would often fall into a state of warfare among various factions. These times of political instability are now called the Intermediate periods. There were three intermediate periods in Egyptian history. Historians use these periods as dividing markers that separate Egyptian history into what are called “Kingdoms”. The Old Kingdom was the period from 2868 BCE – 2181 BCE, the Middle Kingdom from 2055 BCE – 1650 BCE, and the New Kingdom from 1550 BCE – 1069 BCE. The New Kingdom was followed by the Third Intermediate Period, and the period of time that followed after the resolution of the Third Intermediate Period is known as the Late Period of Ancient Egyptian History. The Late Period lasted from 664 BCE – 332 BCE.
The Dynastic pattern was not broken when the Persian Achaemenid Empire conquered Egypt during the 26th dynasty in 525 BCE. Egypt even briefly regained independence in 401 BCE under the Pharaoh Amyrtaeus, but it was reconquered by the Persians in 343 BCE. Greeks led by Alexander the Great conquered Egypt in 332 BCE, an event that marked not only the end of the Late Period but also the end of Egypt’s dynastic rule. It did not mark the end of conquests by foreign powers though, and Egypt was conquered again by the Romans under Caesar Augustus in 30 BCE and the Persian Sassanids in 619 CE.
History & Government Resources
INTERNATIONAL & REGIONAL ISSUES
The Hala’ib Triangle on the Red Sea has been disputed between Sudan and Egypt since the 19th century. The British placed the Hala’ib region under Egyptian power when the boundaries were drawn in 1899. In 1902, however, a separate “administrative” boundary was drawn in which the region was placed under Sudanese control, as the residents of the area had closer ties to Khartoum than Cairo. In 1992, the issue resurfaced when Sudan allowed an oil company to work off the coast of Hala’ib. Ownership of the Hala’ib Triangle is still disputed today, though the presence of Egyptian military units there grants Egypt de facto control over the area.
A longstanding, similar dispute existed between Egypt and Saudi Arabia over the Tiran and Sanafir islands. These islands were Egypt-administered, but claimed by Saudi Arabia. The islands are a strategic point in the narrowest part between the Gulf of Aqaba and the Red Sea. With the exception of a few Egyptian soldiers, the islands were uninhabited. In April 2016, Egypt transferred sovereignty of Tiran and Sanafir to Saudi Arabia as a sign of the republic’s gratitude for the kingdom’s continued promises of investment and aid.
Refugees in Egypt
Egypt hosts refugees from various conflicts. The Egyptian government does not operate refugee camps, so refugees are scattered throughout the country making it difficult for them to receive aid. The UN Human Refugee Agency, however, has stepped up efforts to increase refugee registration, deliver necessary aid, and help integrate them into Egyptian society.
Egypt has a unique geographical position in North Africa, being seen as the gateway to the Middle East. As such, it is a huge hub for migrants either fleeing conflicts westward or migrants attempting to travel to the Middle East (especially to Israel).
Egypt shares a Southern border with Sudan, as well as a common history as they have been under one rule at various points. It was under these conditions that the wadi al nil agreements were passed, which gave the Sudanese unfettered access to education and healthcare in Egypt. Egyptians in Sudan were also treated as citizens. However, after the 1995 assassination attempt of Mubarak (allegedly) by Sudanese Islamists, these rights were restricted and today the Sudanese are treated like any other foreigners. In order to receive protections by the Egyptian governments, they have to be classified as refugees, the criteria for which is very restrictive in Egypt. Thus today there are about two million Sudanese migrants in Egypt, much of them fleeing conflicts like Darfur and the South Sudan civil war, but with only about 20,000 being registered as refugees.
The Sudanese face increasing discrimination in Egypt amid deteriorating economic conditions. The Sudanese are often charged exorbitant rent because they are not allowed to own property. Access to education and healthcare is expensive and hard to manage. Further, many Sudanese face abuse and discrimination by security forces.
Egypt has about 115,000 Syrian refugees at the moment, due to the Syrian Civil War. Similar to treatment of Sudanese refugees, Syrians face discrimination at the hand of the Egyptian government, much of which is illegal considering their status as Asylum seekers. The Egyptian government will capture incoming Syrians, put them in jail indefinitely and prevent them from registering with the UN as refugees. If Syrians are not registered as refugees the Egyptian government does not have to provide them with any protections. Those Syrians who are held in jail are often held in substandard conditions. Egypt holds Syrians in jail until they agree to be sent back to Syria or another country. This is called refoulment, when asylum-seekers are sent back into harmful and dangerous positions. Among those who are released into the population, they report many similar experiences to the Sudanese.
There are currently also around 70,000 refugees from the West Bank and the Gaza Strip living in Egypt, nearly 8,000 people from Somalia, and about 6,000 other refugees from the Iraqi conflict.
Egypt shares a common border with Israel and the Gaza Strip, an autonomous Palestinian territory. Because of the economic and physical blockade imposed by Israel and Egypt on Gaza after the 2007 Hamas military and political takeover of Gaza from the Fatah political party, Hamas began to build a network of tunnels that extended across the Egyptian-Gaza border, through the border town of Rafah.
These tunnels have been used to smuggle everything from necessary construction materials, food, fuel, and people to and from the Gaza Strip. Though many of the people crossing the border through tunnels do so because of the expense and difficulty of leaving Gaza through legal means, the tunnels have also been used to smuggle cash, drugs, and weapons.
The Egyptian government has opposed the tunnels, actively searching for and destroying cross-border tunnels. This is done in a variety of ways, including the use of deadly chemical gas, sealing the ends of tunnels, and flooding by sea water. Recently it has come to light that the use of sea water to seal tunnels has had adverse environmental impacts on the region and negatively affects Palestinian agricultural output. Most recently, the Egyptian government has announced a buffer zone between the Rafah border crossing and Egypt itself.
Israel adamantly opposes the Gaza tunnel network, vigorously uncovering and destroying tunnels. It cites tunnels as key points of entry for fighters and arms. Gaza also has tunnels that extend into Israel, though those are used mainly for military purposes, providing cover for fighters and weapons, as well as strategic points of entry into Israel.
PEOPLE & LANGUAGE
Egypt is the most populous country in the Middle East with 88,487,396 citizens and an annual growth rate of 1.79%. The official language is Arabic, but many people (especially among the educated) also speak either French or English. Most of the population lives in the Nile Delta area, along the Nile, or on the Mediterranean coast. 43.1% of the population lives in urban areas. Egypt’s population is 99.6% Egyptian, though there are small pockets of Nubians around the Aswan Dam in the south and Berbers around the Siwa Oasis in Western Egypt. These minorities make up 0.4% of the population.
There are both government and private schools in Egypt. The government schools are free for all Egyptians. Private schools charge tuition, but often offer subjects and curricula that government schools do not. Participation in basic level education is mandatory from age 6-14. Students take an exam at the end of their basic education to determine which type of secondary school they will attend. The secondary level has three different tracks: general, vocational/technical, or dual-system vocational (two days spent in class, four days at a job). General education lasts three years, vocational/technical three to five years, and dual-system three years. In order to get into university, students from each track must earn their Secondary School Certificate, which is received after successful completion of a test given the last two years of secondary school.
Female illiteracy in Egypt is more widespread than male illiteracy, and female literacy rates differ between rural and urban areas. Women in rural areas are also poorer than their urban counterparts, and are not granted as much access to educational opportunities. Rural areas in Upper (southern) Egypt have the lowest amount of literate residents, 42.4%, and urban areas in Lower (northern) Egypt have the highest, 83.2%. About 82% of Egyptian males are literate, and overall, 74% of the population can read and write
Overall Egyptian Literacy Rate
Population Literacy Gap
There are both public (free) and private higher education institutions in Egypt. Though schooling is compulsory until age 15, enforcement of this law is not strict. Roughly 25% of Egyptians end up going to college, though only about half of those who go graduate. QS World University Rankings judges American University of Cairo to be the best school in Egypt, though Cairo University, Al Azhar University, Ains Shams University, and Alexandria University are also considered excellent schools.
Al Azhar University is the oldest university in Egypt, and for much of its history it was part of the Al Azhar Mosque, one of the oldest and most respected institutions in the Islamic world. The Grand Imam there is one of the highest authorities in Sunni Islam. This long history continues to influence the university, which includes the propagation of Islam and Islamic culture as part of its mission, and today it is the chief center of Islamic learning and Arabic literature in the world.
Ancient Egyptians believed in a multitude of gods. Ra, the sun god; Osiris, the god of the underworld; Set, the god of evil; and Isis, goddess of magic and healing, are examples of some of well-known ancient Egyptian gods. The worship of Egyptian gods declined as the region was conquered, first by Christians and then by Muslims. Today, Islam is the state religion. Though freedom of religion is guaranteed by the constitution, in practice some restrictions do exist; for example, the right of Muslims to convert to other religions is not guaranteed.
Currently, 90% of Egyptians are Sunni Muslim and 9% are Coptic Christian. Coptic Christianity dates back to 42 CE and follows the Christian tradition introduced to Egypt by St. Mark. In 451, the Egyptian Christians chose to separate themselves from mainstream Christians after the Council of Chalcedon voted on the nature of Jesus. Coptic Christians believed he had one nature, a combination of divine and human, or Miaphysitism. The council rejected this belief, stating that Jesus had two distinct natures, one human, and one divine.
Egyptian culture and society continue to captivate people across the world. Its diverse and storied history, and continued position as a major geo-political player ensure the ongoing global significance of the country. From its ancient architectural feats to artful portrayals of the 2011 revolution, Egyptian culture can satisfy all types of interests.
Let’s start with Egyptian food! Egypt’s cuisine is typical for the Middle East, drawing on Ottoman and Greek influences. Much of the food is made from wheat, beans and peas, vegetables, and fruits, reflecting the diversity of crops that grow in the fertile Nile Delta. Bread is served at every meal in Egypt and sometimes can be the main dish for lower income Egyptians. Accordingly, the name for bread in Egypt is aeesh, which means life in Arabic. Bread has been famously subsidized by the government and its distribution long been used to offset the political repression Egyptians face every day.
Kushari is considered one of two national dishes in Egypt. Kushari is made up of macaroni, rice, and lentils and is sometimes garnished with chickpeas and fried onions. Kushari’s origins came from lower income families who at the end of the month had a smattering of everything left over and would create a dish made up of all the remaining ingredients. Today kushari is sold at every level, from street carts to high-class restaurants.
Ful medames is a dish made up of cooked fava beans, cumin, parsley, oil, and lemon. Ful is the second of Egypt’s two national dishes. The food itself is inexpensive and can be found all over the Middle East, Somalia, Ethiopia, and Armenia. Typically ful is eaten at breakfast, but can be eaten anytime.
Modern dress in Egypt today is similar to western clothing (think pants and t-shirt), though it is more modest in style. Some women choose to wear a hijab, which is a scarf-like material that covers one’s hair. Others choose to wear no head covering while some opt for the more extensive coverage provided by the niqab which leaves an opening for the eyes. Some women may wear the Abaya, a loose-fitting robe that cover women’s bodies completely.
Much of the ancient Egyptian art that has survived to the present day consists of paintings on tomb walls. Many of these have a religious or symbolic nature, and often depict Ancient Egyptian notions of life, death, and the afterlife. Sculptures of gods or rulers are also common. One of the most famous and sought-after pieces of Ancient Egyptian art in the world is the bust of Nefertiti, thought to have been sculpted around 1350 BCE.
Hieroglyphs are another form of ancient art. This was the writing system used by Ancient Egyptians and is considered to be one of the earliest writing systems in the world, emerging around 3200 BCE. Many of the ancient writings painted onto the walls of tombs have survived because of the dry climate. There are over 700 hieroglyphic symbols, and they can be read left to right, right to left, or up and down. The Rosetta Stone, discovered by Napoleon’s army in 1799, allowed Egyptologists to decode hieroglyphs because it featured the same lines of text written in hieroglyphs (for priests), demotic (for commoners), and Greek (for government administration).
Modern art in Egypt varies; artists often weave political and religious themes into paintings, films, and sculptures. One form of modern art that played an important role in the Arab Spring was graffiti. Artists use this medium to express dissent with the established authority. Aya Tarek started producing graffiti in 2008 when she was 18 and is considered one of the pioneers of “urban art.” Her work is known for dealing with social and political issues and can be seen around Alexandria and Cairo. Another female artist, Nermine Hammam, has received international acclaim for works which places representations of war and conflict in bucolic, postcard-like settings.
Literature and Film
Egypt has the longest literary tradition in the entire world. The first book ever was written in Ancient Egypt on Papyrus, which was a thick paper made from the pulp of a reed which grows along the Nile river bank. Ancient Egyptian literature was most often instructive in nature, a notable example being The Book of the Dead, a book detailing the afterlife. However, mythology, poetry, and stories were also featured in ancient Egyptian literature.
Egyptian literature flourished for millennia. The famous Library of Alexandria was situated in the Egyptian city of Alexandria and promoted Egypt as a literary hub for centuries before being burned down, possibly as part of the Roman conquest of Egypt.
There was a massive change in Egyptian literature following Egypt’s conquering by Muslim Arabs in the eighth century. Novels and literature in this period shifted their focus to Islam, though Coptic Christian literature still persisted. Many stories from One Thousand and One Nights, or Arabian Nights, have been attributed to stories written in Egypt at this time.
Egypt underwent a cultural renaissance in the late 19th and early 20th century. Referred to as al-nahda (the awakening), this literary movement took ideals from Western society and advocated their application in an Islamic context. This was occurring during a period of instability and weak governance in the Ottoman Empire, and thus was the perfect time for a paradigm shift in Egypt and the Middle East in general. Al-nahda literature was characterized by an emphasis on contemporary social and political themes, like anti-colonialism, as well as a departure from classical forms both in prose and poetry. One notable example of an author from this period is Khalil Gibran, a Lebanese American poet whose work is popular worldwide.
Today, Egyptian literature is characterized by a radical break from traditional forms. Stories are often times fractured in their narratives; the concept of time is not linear in these stories. These stories are much more personal than previous literature. Political and social themes are explored through the individual rather than from a more objective perspective.
There has also been a proliferation of printing presses, which makes publishing much more accessible. This has had a number of consequences for Egypt’s literary scene, including the growing presence of female authors. Literature written by women is often criticized by more conservative elements of society; negatively, some call it kitabat al-banat, which means “girl books.”
Graphic novels are also a popular medium for expression. Oftentimes they are politically charged and thus utilize the medium for expressing injustice and repression in an immediate sense. Government and conservative forces have censored these novels because of political and moral concerns. A notable graphic novel is Metro, a novel about a young man who has a falling-out with a loan shark. In Metro, the Mubarak regime and its corruption is explored. Consequently, this book was banned in Egypt until 2012.
Cairo is the Middle East’s equivalent to Hollywood. Producing three quarters of all Arab films ever made, Egypt has long been at the center of Middle Eastern cinema and media in general. Egypt’s first film was produced in 1896, kicking off nearly forty years of silent film production. Egypt then began its film renaissance with the advent of sound, creating feel-good films with a generally predictable plotlines, similar to 1950s Hollywood. After 1965 however, the film industry was nationalized and placed under the state’s control during Nasser’s regime. This limited the potential for political expression through the films. Some commentators believe this made Egyptian films start following a specific format, limiting the diversity in genres and plot.
Today Egyptian film is venturing into more social and political commentary, with a number of small firms producing art films that receive a wide viewership internationally. Whether or not film as a medium will be able to continue to express larger messages on politics and society under the Sisi regime is unknown, only time will tell.
Egypt’s position as a literary and cinematic giant in the Arab world has allowed them to spread their influence far and wide. For example, it is widely said that the best understood dialect in the Arab world is Egyptian, simply due to its frequent presence through Egyptian cinema.
Literature and Film Resources
The best records of early Egyptian music are from the Old Kingdom, when Egyptians played harps, flutes, and double clarinets. Percussion instruments, lyres, and lutes were added during the Middle Kingdom. Egyptian music today is a combination of Turkish, Arabic and Western music. Egyptian-born Umm Kulthum, one of the most popular female singers, heavily influenced music in her country. Her songs of love, longing, and loss had a modern style that introduced Egypt to less traditional types of music.
Shaabi is a distinctly Egyptian genre that emerged in the 1960s. Translated as the “music of the people,” shaabi music grew in popularity because its cheeky lyrics and social commentary resonated with the working class. Ahmed Adaweyah was one of the most popular shaabi artists in Egypt due to his use of popular slang and his fervent criticism of the middle class and broader Egyptian society.
The al jeel genre developed not long after shaabi, and was primarily influenced by Western pop and rock music. Similar to Algerian Rai music, al jeel draws sounds and rhythms from Bedouin and Nubian sources and brings in more modern sounds like synthesizers. Amr Diab is one of the most famous Egyptian al jeel artists.
Egypt contains some of the most recognizable historical sites in the world. One of the most well-known is the Great Pyramid of Giza. It is the last of the Seven Ancient Wonders of the World that still stands. Built by Pharaoh Khufu of the 4th Dynasty in 2550 BCE, the Great Pyramid stands at 481 feet tall. The pyramid was built using 2.3 million stone blocks, each weighing between 2.5 and 15 tons. There are three burial chambers inside the pyramid, one for the king in the middle, one underground to keep supplies for the afterlife, and one above ground for a statue of the pharaoh.
The Valley of Kings was the burial place for royal members of the 18th-21st dynasties. The Valley was intended to be a more private and hidden cemetery in deliberate contrast to the visible pyramids of earlier dynasties. Hidden in the cliff sides of Thebes, south of modern-day Cairo, it holds 63 tombs and is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Some of the tombs are open to the public, including the tomb of Tutankhamen, which is an established and very popular tourist destination. Tutankhamen’s tomb was almost completely intact upon its discovery in 1922, a rarity for tombs in the Valley of Kings. This, along with sensationalized media accounts of an alleged curse on the tomb, has contributed to Tutankhamen’s modern-day fame.
The Sinai Peninsula, the land bridge that connects Africa to Asia, is popular due to its role in the Bible—rumored to be the Mount Sinai from which Moses received the Ten Commandments—and it is home to St. Catherine’s Monastery, considered to be the oldest working monastery in the world. Originally, the peninsula was known for its turquoise deposits, but now it is also known for its coral reefs and beachside resorts.
Tourism, a large contributor to the Egyptian economy, has been affected by the protests and violence following the Arab Spring and coup d’état against President Morsi. 4.5 million fewer people visited Egypt in 2011 than in 2010, and the numbers have not yet recovered.
There are a number of Islamic monuments around Egypt that are also attract many visitors. The Abu al-Abbas al-Mursi Mosque in Alexandria is among the most important mosques in the country. Built over the tomb of Saint Abu El Abbas El Mursi in 1775, the mosque became a pilgrimage destination for those who travelled to and from Mecca through Alexandria.
Ancient Egyptians participated in many sports that exist today, including gymnastics, weightlifting, and wrestling. They also had sports such as handball in which each team tossed a leather ball stuffed with plant fibers or papyrus leaves to the other team at the same time. Handball players could stand on their own feet or top of their teammates’ backs. Today, Egypt has a handball team that became the first non-European team to reach the World Championship semi-finals in 2001. They placed first in the 2011 and 2015 Pan Arab Games, 2011 Pan Africa Games, and 2013 Mediterranean Games.
Football (U.S. soccer) is one of the most popular sports in Egypt. Their national team, nicknamed “The Pharaohs,” has won the African cup seven times (1957, ‘59, ‘86, ‘98, 2006, ‘08, and ‘10). Egypt first participated in the Summer Olympic Games in 1912 and has competed in all but two of the games (1932 and 1980) since. They have won a total of 26 medals, 7 Gold, 9 Sliver, and 10 Bronze. The majority of these medals come from weightlifting and wrestling. Weightlifting is one of the oldest sports in Egypt with the earliest depictions of it dating back to 3,500 BCE. Egypt participated in the Winter Olympics once in 1984, but without success.