Egypt (Arabic: Masr) is located in northeast Africa, with the Mediterranean Sea 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 104°F, and winters are generally mild, with temperatures ranging from 32°F to 64.4°F. The Nile River winds blow from south to north in the central part of the country, creating a narrow region of lush arable land where most Egyptians choose to live. Ancient Egypt was divided into two regions, namely Upper Egypt and Lower Egypt. To the north was Lower Egypt, where the Nile stretched out, with its several branches to form the Nile Delta. To the south was Upper Egypt, stretching to Syene. These geographical divisions are still used today. The Nile is the longest river in the world. It is one of the few freshwater resources in Egypt and an important transportation network. Thus, the Nile is often called 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 that contribute to the salinization 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 2020, Egypt had only 570 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 Resources Plan that attempts to achieve the optimal use and development of available water resources through the improvement of irrigation techniques and strategies that minimize water losses.
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 sporadic 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 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, while the next era is known as the Late Period of Ancient Egyptian History which 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 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 by the Persian Sassanids in 619 CE.
A referendum in 2014 established the current Egyptian constitution following the ousting of democratically elected president Mohamed Morsi by the military. It was modeled after the 2012 constitution, written following the Arab Spring uprisings, but removed some of the more conservative religious language. The constitution establishes Egypt as a republic governed by a popularly elected president and parliament. The president is directly elected to serve as both the head of state and the executive. In April 2019, Egypt voted to amend its constitution through several referendum votes. These amendments increased the president’s term duration to six years from four and allowed the president to serve up to three terms instead of two. The president is also responsible for appointing the prime minister from the parliamentary majority. As a result of the 2019 constitutional referendum, the president also has the power to appoint key judicial leaders. This includes the chief justice of the Supreme Constitutional Council. The 2019 referendum is considered by some to be controversial. The referendums were approved by 88.8% of voters, only 44.3% of eligible voters voted. Many recall there being little to no oversight in vote counting, and the state media was used to persuade citizens to vote “yes” on their ballots. Additionally, some members of the opposition felt that these new amendments paved the way for Sisi to consolidate even more power and “will lead to absolute dictatorship,” due to his increased control of the judiciary.
The 2019 referendums changed the Egyptian Parliament from a unicameral body to a bicameral body. The new “upper house” is called the Consultative Council (or Senate) and has 180 members. Of these 180 members, one-third are directly elected by the Egyptian citizens, and two-thirds are directly appointed by the president. Senators serve a five-year term. The Senate’s primary focus is to offer opinions to maintain the goals of the 2011 and 2014 revolutions. This includes, but is not limited to matters of social unity, national identity, constitutional amendments, and strengthening democracy. The Senate does not have major legislative responsibilities. The “lower house” or House of Representatives has 450 (lowered from 596 before the 2019 referendum). Representatives are elected through proportional representation voting systems in which smaller parties are guaranteed some sort of representation. The 2019 referendum also reserves at least 112 (¼ )of House seats for women. The House of Representatives mainly deals with creating legislation, ratifying proposed laws, and approving the national budget.
Although freedom of expression is nominally guaranteed in the constitution, in reality, the Egyptian press is fairly unfree. In 2017, Freedom House rated Egypt’s press freedoms at 77 out of 100, with 100 being “least free,” due largely to its well-documented imprisonment and forced disappearance of dissident journalists. In 2017 alone, over 90 news websites were banned and dozens of Egyptian journalists were jailed. The next year Al-Sisi signed a cybercrime law that allows the government to block any website deemed a threat to national security or the economy. Anyone who visits the blocked websites could find themselves in jail or facing a fine. The Cairo-based Association of Freedom of Thought and Expression said over 500 websites had been blocked prior to the new law. In July 2019, Parliament passed the Media Regulation Law, which further restricts journalists, allows for censorship without a judicial order, levies severe fines for violating the law, and creates prison sentences for those “inciting violence.” Controversy arose in 2020 when the Egyptian government detained seven doctors for posting their concerns over public health amidst the COVID-19 pandemic due to their dissent for the way that COVID-19 was spreading throughout the country.
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 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. Except for a few Egyptian soldiers, the islands were uninhabited. In April 2016, Egypt transferred the 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.
Tension with Ethiopia
In 2011 Ethiopia started construction on the Grand Ethiopian Resistance Dam (GERD) on the Blue Nile River. The Ethiopian highlands supply 85% of the water that flows into the Nile River, and Egypt sees the GERD as a major threat because it depends entirely on the Nile for household and commercial use. Egypt has successfully used old agreements (1929 and 1959) and diplomatic savvy to prevent the construction of any major infrastructure on the tributaries of the Nile River until 2011. Ethiopia was able to raise the funding partly through Ethiopians home and abroad and through Chinese banks which, provided financing to buy larger machinery.
While Ethiopian officials argued that the GERD will not affect the water flow to the Nile and argued that the hydroelectric power would help the whole region, Egypt still attempted to block the project. Egypt had no success in blocking the project and instead switched to securing a political agreement over the timetable for filling the GERD’s reservoir and how it will be managed.
To make the matter more complicated, Sudan is caught between Egyptian and Ethiopian agendas. Initially, Sudan opposed the project due to fears that the GERD could threaten its own dams and development projects. However, Sudan started to soften its position on the dam because of the potential it offers to improve domestic development.
The three countries have been in talks with each other to resolve many of the issues from above. They all agreed that “when the flow of Nile water to the dam falls below 35-40 b.c.m. per year, that would constitute a drought.” However, while Sudan and Egypt want a drought to mean that Ethiopia must release water from the dam’s reservoir, Ethiopia wants to maintain flexibility over decision-making during droughts. In 2015, all parties signed a declaration of principles that spoke about cooperation but had no formal agreement about the GERD. In the past, Egypt and Sudan have brought the issue to the UN Security Council, yet no solution was proposed.
In July 2020, Ethiopia began to fill the dam despite no formal agreement between the three countries. Then in January 2021, the negotiations hit a new impasse with Egypt and Ethiopia frustrated with Sudan for the new issues. Sudan feared that the GERD could overwhelm the Roseires Dam if an agreement is not reached to share data. Throughout the negotiations, Egypt has been consistently frustrated with a lack of Ethiopian compromise and their willingness to move ahead with the project without an official agreement. In late May, Sudan and Egypt participated in a joint military exercise, which experts interpreted as a joint show of force to Ethiopia, highlighting the two countries’ willingness to intervene militarily, if necessary. On July 19th, 2021, Ethiopia completed the dam’s second filling despite the lack of an official agreement with Sudan or Egypt. Ethiopia is planning for the dam’s third filling for the next rainy season in June 2022. The UN is pushing the three countries to continue negotiations under the auspices of the African Union, however; Sudan and Egypt are requesting outside mediation from the UN, EU and, the United States. There is still no agreement in place.
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 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 from the east and south or migrants attempting to travel to the Middle East (especially to Israel). ?? According to a UNHCR report from December 2020, Egypt hosts 179,509 asylum seekers and 79,783 refugees from 58 different countries. Syrians, Sudanese, South Sudanese, Eritreans, and Ethiopians comprise a majority of the asylum seekers and refugees in Egypt.
Egypt shares both Southern border with Sudan and 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 on Mubarak (allegedly) by Sudanese Islamists, these rights were restricted, and today the Sudanese are treated like any other foreigners. In order to receive protection from the Egyptian government, they have to be classified as refugees, the criteria for which are very restrictive in Egypt. Thus today, there are about two million Sudanese migrants in Egypt, many of them fleeing conflicts like Darfur and the South Sudan civil war, but only about 20,000 are officially 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.
As of December 2020, Egypt was hosting 123,034 asylum seekers and 7,543 refugees from Syria, which makes Syrian asylum seekers and refugees 50% of the total refugee population in Egypt, as a result of the civil war, according to a UNHCR report. Similar to the treatment of Sudanese refugees, Syrians face discrimination at the hand of the Egyptian government, much of which conflicts with international law that dictates the humane treatment of asylum seekers. If Syrians are not registered as refugees the Egyptian government does not have to provide them with any protections. Those without official status are frequently jailed in substandard conditions or repatriated to Syria or a third country. This policy of sending asylum-seekers back into harmful and dangerous domestic situations is known as refoulement. Among those who are released into the population, they report many similar experiences to the Sudanese. Syrian refugees tend to work in the unregulated informal economy, leaving them further vulnerable to exploitation. These economic inequalities and social discrimination have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, as many refugees lost their jobs or access to public resources.
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 refugees from the Iraqi conflict.
Egypt shares a common border with Israel and the Gaza Strip. Due to Hamas taking over the Gaza Strip militarily and politically, Egypt and Israel imposed an economic and physical blockade on Gaza. To circumvent the blockade, Hamas built a network of tunnels that extended across the Egyptian-Gaza border through the town of Rafah.
These tunnels are used to smuggle everything from construction materials, food, fuel, to actual 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 seawater. Recently it has come to light that the use of seawater 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, and vigorously uncovers and destroys 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.
Egypt’s Ministry of Health announced its first case of COVID-19 on February 14th, 2020, from a foreigner traveling through France, and its first case of an Egyptian national contracting COVID-19 was on March 5th, 2020. Since the initial outbreak, there have been 319,339 confirmed cases of COVID and 18,015 deaths and counting as of October 2021. For more up-to-date information click here. The actual count of COVID cases may be higher due to limited testing and patients that are treated at home or in private hospitals.
The pandemic has highlighted the inefficiencies in Egyptian healthcare and poor management of COVID-19. At the beginning of 2021, El Husseineya Central Hospital experienced an oxygen shortage which led to four deaths. The Egyptian government denied the oxygen shortage and attributed the deaths to natural causes. However, a video surfaced showing the crisis in the hospital, and other reports from hospitals confirm oxygen shortages across Egypt. Prosecutors decided to open an investigation into the deaths at El Husseineya and two deaths at a government-run hospital in the Nile Delta. The Egyptian government also prevented medical experts from gathering during the peak of the pandemic and denied accusations from the medical community that it was not acknowledging the severity of the disease.
As of October 2021, the Egyptian government is allowing citizens to receive the vaccine at vaccination centers around the country without a prior appointment in an effort to curtail a new wave of COVID within the country. This comes in response to long wait times between appointments. The government has also announced its plan to vaccinate all 4.5 million state employees before the end of September. It is also requiring all students and faculty in schools to receive the vaccine before the start of the academic year in October. Currently, Egypt has access to the AstraZeneca, Sinopharm, Sinovac, Sputnik, and Johnson & Johnson vaccines.
International & Regional Issues Resources
The economy of Egypt traditionally depends heavily on agriculture, tourism, and cash remittances from Egyptians working abroad, mainly in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries. Egypt also relies on foreign aid from a number of countries. The 2016 unemployment rate was 13.1%, but price hikes and austerity measures had resulted in an inflation rate of almost 33 percent by August 2017.
Since the tumult of the Arab Spring, the Egyptian economy has plummeted. Rapid population growth and the limited amount of arable land are straining the country’s resources and economy, and political unrest has often paralyzed government efforts to address the problems. Weak growth and limited foreign exchange earnings have made public finances unsustainable, leaving authorities dependent on expensive borrowing for deficit finance and on Gulf allies to help cover the import bill. Tourism has been affected by the sporadic but ongoing violence targeting both Egyptian citizens and foreign visitors, in addition to the COVID-19 pandemic.
In 2015-16, higher levels of foreign investment contributed to a slight rebound in GDP growth after a particularly depressed post-revolution period. In 2016, Cairo enacted a value-added tax, implemented fuel and electricity subsidy cuts, and floated its currency, which led to a sharp depreciation of the pound and corresponding inflation. In November 2016, the IMF approved a $12 billion, three-year loan for Egypt and disbursed the first $2.75 billion tranche (CIA World Factbook). Economists advise that the government needs the IMF loan to ensure that Egypt’s poorest people can afford to buy food—and to prevent riots by frustrated citizens. The rising prices of imported goods during the summer of 2016 caused a shortage of subsidized baby formula, basic goods like sugar, and common pharmaceuticals. Nonetheless, at the end of September of that year, after announcing plans to build and launch a satellite, Al-Sisi asked Egyptian citizens to donate their spare change to a fund to alleviate government debt. Public reaction was not favorable. The population generally also disapproved of the island exchange deal with Saudi Arabia, accusing Al-Sisi of selling the territory in exchange for Saudi largesse.
According to Newsweek, many Egyptians are increasingly willing to speak out about their economic hardship, a sign of desperation in a country that stifles political dissent. In October 2016, a taxi driver set himself on fire in Alexandria to protest rising prices; he later died. The same month, a video of an unnamed tuk-tuk driver ranting about the economy went viral.
By 2019, the economic reform program had dropped the budget deficit to 7.8% in July 2020 and the economy was growing at 5.6%. In the 2019 World Investment Report by the UN, Egypt was rated the most attractive country in Africa for direct foreign investment. However, for everyday Egyptians, the reform program doubled or tripled prices for everyday goods and led to a dramatic cut in fuel subsidies. During 2017-18 the percent of Egyptians living under the poverty line rose to 32.5 percent, a 4.7% rise from 2015-16, indicating a worsening standard of living for Egyptians.
The IMF announced a $2.7 billion loan to Egypt in an effort to protect foreign currency reserves and negate the economic effects of COVID-19. Egypt was one of the few countries to see positive economic growth in 2020, despite its tourism industry being completely shut down for months. Due to the 2016 economic reformations, Egypt was able to better weather the economic crises brought 0n by the pandemic. The government also wisely rolled out financial support throughout the peak of the pandemic. It issued fiscal support to businesses and employees in hard-hit sectors like tourism and manufacturing, set low-interest rates on loans, and set a six-month debt moratorium. These actions, in addition to the IMF loan, allowed the economy to rebound quickly as tourism and other sectors came back.
Egypt is the most populous country in the Middle East, with over 103 million people and an annual growth rate of 1.94%. The high population increase has been the cause of some concern in recent years. Due to the high population increase coupled with droughts and climate change, food scarcity for its growing population is an increasing problem for Egypt. Along the same lines, youth unemployment in Egypt at 30%, a huge cause for concern and instability, as seen during the Arab Spring of 2011. The median age is only 24.8 years old.
The official language of Egypt is Arabic, but many people (especially among the educated) also speak either French or English. 95% of the population lives in the Nile Delta area, along the Nile, or on the Mediterranean coast. 42.8% of the population lives in urban areas. According to the CIA Factbook, ethnic Egyptians account for 91% of the total population with Turks, Greeks, Abazas, and Bedouin Arab tribes compromising the largest minorities. There are also 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.
Egypt is ranked fairly low on the Human Development Index, a metric that measures financial development, as well as education and quality of life. Egypt is 116 on that list. The country has seen significant improvements in the areas of child and maternal mortality rates consistent with the global trend. The total per capita expenditure on healthcare has been steadily increasing since 2004, and with the population increase in Egypt right now that number is expected to rise much further as the population ages.
Overall Egyptian Literacy Rate
Population Literacy Gap
There are both public and private schools in Egypt. The public-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 ages 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 highest amount of illiterate residents, 32.2%, while the urban areas in Lower (northern) Egypt have an illiteracy rate of 17.7% according to the census in 2017. About 76% of Egyptian males are literate, and overall, 71% of the population can read and write.
Roughly 25% of Egyptians end up going to college, though only about half of those who go actually obtain their degree. 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 well-known ancient Egyptian gods. For more information on ancient Egyptian religion, click here. The worship of Egyptian gods declined as the region was conquered, first by Christians and then by Muslims.
About 90% of the population is Sunni Muslim, with the other 10% various forms of Christianity. However, the Egyptian government does not make the official number of Christians public in its census, leading to complaints of Christians being undercounted. 90% of Christians in Egypt are Coptic Christians according to local leaders. Most scholars estimate that Shi’a Muslims comprise 1% of the population. 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.
The Egyptian Constitution specifies Islam as the state religion, but also states that “freedom of belief is absolute.” The Constitution also prohibits discrimination based on religion and makes “incitement to hate” a crime. Finally, the Constitution also states that the “canonical laws of Jews and Christians form the basis of legislation governing their respective personal status, religious affairs, and selection of spiritual leaders.” For Muslims, imams must be appointed by the government and are monitored by the Ministry of Awqaf (Religious Endowments). Fines and prison sentences are given to those who preach Islam without a government license. It is also important to note that religious affiliation is required on official identity documents.
The Coptic Orthodox Church and Al-Azhar, a mosque and important Islamic institution, formed the Family House (Beit Al-A’ila) in 2011 to address sectarian disputes through commercial reconciliation. The creation of Family Houses occurred because of a terrorist attack on January 1, 2011, against the Two Saints Church in Alexandria. Through the Family Houses, opposing parties to a sectarian dispute meet with the goal of restoring communal peace through dialogue. There are Family Houses throughout the country, but some are more active than others depending on the location. A criticism of the Family Houses is that they are an informal way of dealing with tension rather than in law.
In 2016, a new law was passed that transferred the power to issue legal permits and to authorize church construction or renovation to governors rather than the president. The governor is required to respond within four months of the application being submitted with any refusals including a written justification. The law also includes provisions to license existing unlicensed churches. Compared to the 2001 law on Muslim mosques the new one is more restrictive in building restrictions and land ownership. For example, a year after the law was passed the government closed 22 Christian Churches.
Egypt has a continued history of violent attacks against Christian churches and congregations. Since 2015, over 140 Christians have died in bombings or shootings by militant groups. There have been multiple, highly-publicized, violent actions against Coptics since the rise of ISIS in the region. In February 2017, ISIS in the Sinai Peninsula called for attacks against Coptics in an effort to bolster recruitment. In 2018, Bedouins loyal to ISIS opened fire at a bus transporting Coptics near Cairo, wounding seven and killing seven more. In 2019, ISIS released a video threatening to take revenge on Egypt’s Christians and an IED was found at the Church of the Virgin Mary in Nasr City. Discrimination in the private sector against Christians continues, especially in sports where out of 540 players in top tier soccer clubs only one is Chrisitan. Some religious leaders and media personalities also continue to utilize discriminatory language against Christians.
Egyptian culture and society continue to captivate people across the world. Its diverse and storied history and continued position as a major geopolitical 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.
Egypt’s cuisine stands out from the Levantine, North African, and Gulf flavors with a style of its own. Of course, it draws on historical influences from the Ottoman and Greek periods. 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 has long been used to offset the political repression Egyptians face every day.
Kushari (above right) is considered one of two national dishes in Egypt. Kushari is made up of macaroni, rice, and lentils and is garnished with chickpeas, fried onions, and a tomato-vinegar sauce. Kushari originated from lower-income families who at the end of the month had a smattering of everything leftover 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. (Photo: Dina Said, CC BY-SA 4.0, http://ow.ly/jVsu30ejBeU)
Ful medames (above left) 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. (Photo: Nadia Stokes, http://ow.ly/CL4330ejBkv)
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 covers women’s bodies completely. Men typically wear Western attire but the robe-style jalabiya (below left) remains popular particularly amongst older generations.
The street scene (below middle) depicts a 2015 demonstration in Cairo. There is a variety of clothing styles and you will notice a mixed crowd of both men and women. (Photo: EPA via Daily Mail UK, http://ow.ly/18g830ejB0I). In the far right photograph, female Egyptian students with and without the hijab make their way through Cairo University. (Photo: Shawn Baldwin, The New York Times, http://ow.ly/Zq8Y30ejMXb)
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 that place representations of war and conflict in bucolic, postcard-like settings.
Art historian Bahia Shehab has long been fascinated with the Arabic script for ‘no.’ When revolution swept through Egypt in 2011, she began spraying the image in the streets saying no to dictators, no to military rule, and no to violence. Learn about her story in the TED talk below.
Literature and Film
Egypt has the longest literary tradition in the world. The first known book was written in Ancient Egypt on papyrus, a thick paper made from the pulp of a reed that grows along the Nile river bank. Ancient Egyptian literature was most often instructive in nature – a notable example is The Book of the Dead, which details the afterlife. However, mythology, poetry, and stories were also featured in ancient Egyptian literature.
Egyptian literature flourished for millennia. The famous library of Alexandria promoted Egypt as a literary hub for centuries before being burned down, possibly as part of the Roman conquest of Egypt.
There was a shift in Egyptian literature following Egypt’s conquering by Muslim Arabs in the eighth century. Literature in this period began to focus on 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 centuries. Referred to as al-nahda (the awakening), this literary movement took ideals from Western society and advocated their application in an Islamic context. This occurred 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.
Naguib Mahfouz is Egypt’s most celebrated novelist; his stories focus on the everyday lives of modern city-dwellers. Born in 1911, Mahfouz was a civil servant who earned a Nobel Prize for Literature in 1988. He passed away in 2006, but not before writing over thirty novels, more than a hundred short stories, and more than two hundred articles. Half of his novels have been made into films that have circulated throughout the Arabic-speaking world.
There has also been a proliferation of printing presses, which makes publishing much more feasible. This has had several 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. They can be politically charged and used to express injustice and repression. 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 75% of all Arab films, 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 plot lines 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.
Egypt’s position as a literary and cinematic giant has made it very influential across the Arab world. For example, it is widely said that the best-understood dialect in the Arab world is Egyptian, simply due to its pervasive presence in Egyptian film and television.
Literature and Film Resources
The best record of early Egyptian music is 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, who was active as a singer and actress in the early to mid-20th century, remains one of the region’s most revered singers and a national symbol of pride. She heavily influenced music and pop culture in her country and beyond such as is depicted in contemporary artist Huda Lutfi’s work to the right in which her image is juxtaposed with militancy that followed the Egyptian revolution. Her songs of love, longing, and loss had a modern style that introduced Egypt to less traditional types of music. For much of the 20th century, Egypt was the center for Arab popular music, with only a few stars from other countries finding similar levels of international success.
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 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. In 2017, based on his length of time in the industry, influence on pop culture, and social media following, Diab earned the top position in Forbes Magazine’s new Arab Celebrity 100 list. Watch the video for his hit song “Leila Nahary” below.
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 cliffsides 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.
Completed in 1971, after more than a decade of construction overseen by Gamal Abdel Nasser, the Aswan High Dam is a grand infrastructure project that indelibly changed life around the resource-rich and life-giving Nile River. Nearly fifty years after its opening, its effects continue to be important and investigated by researchers. On the one hand, the High Dam allowed Egypt to control the often volatile seasonal flooding of the Nile, harnessing a great power source and expanding farmable land by at least 30%. On the other hand, the dam displaced tens of thousands of people, submerged historical sites, and disrupted the natural fertilization process that the river for millennia had provided for its flood plains. The synthetic fertilizers that replace these nutrients change the nature of the soil. Lake Nasser, the enormous reservoir that the dam creates, has become an essential and major source of water for Egypt’s large population. These competing and polarizing views of the dam as either a wonder of modern engineering or an environmental stressor are ripe for exploration in the classroom and continued independent research. There is no dispute, however, that the Dam was, in Nasser’s view, one of his crowning achievements as president of Egypt, and its presence plays a major role in Egyptian life today.
A little-known historical site was discovered during the construction of the Aswan Dam. Abu Simbel, among other major ancient Egyptian sites, was on track to be submerged by the Aswan Dam until conservationists and archaeologists intervened to excavate and in some cases move the artifacts out of the water’s eventual path. Watch more about the preservation of this stunning discovery in the video below.
Above left: visitors to Abu Simbel are dwarfed by the colossi of Pharaoh Ramses II, who sit high and dry along the shore of Lake Nasser. A great international effort, mobilized and led by UNESCO, saved the great monument; it was dismantled piece by piece, its components were moved to higher ground, and it was reassembled with painstaking precision. The rescued colossi have gazed upon waters of the huge man-made lake (above, right), not for millennia, but since the completion of the High Dam in 1971. Photos: Joseph Stanik.
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.
There are a number of Islamic monuments around Egypt that 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.
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.
Ancient Egyptians participated in many sports that exist today, including gymnastics, weightlifting, and wrestling. They also played a version of 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 on top of their teammates’ backs. In modern times, Egypt’s handball team 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 African Games, and 2013 Mediterranean Games. In January 2021, Egypt hosted the World Men’s Handball Championship with an Egyptian team participating, despite the COVID pandemic.
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 39 medals – 8 gold, 12 silver, and 19 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, when they sent alpine racer Jamil El-Reedy to compete. El-Reedy placed 60th in downhill racing, 46th in slalom, and ended up not finishing in giant slalom.