Egypt country overview

Geography, People, Culture, and Economic Profile

Egypt information index

Egypt summary

Egypt, a country situated in the northeastern corner of Africa, has a rich history dating back to ancient times. The Nile River valley and delta, which form the heartland of Egypt, were home to one of the major civilizations of the ancient Middle East. Similar to Mesopotamia, this region was also one of the earliest urban and literate societies in the world. Over a span of 3,000 years, native dynasties ruled Egypt, interrupted only by brief periods of foreign domination. After Alexander the Great’s conquest in 323 BCE, urban Egypt became an integral part of the Hellenistic world. The Greek Ptolemaic dynasty fostered an advanced literate society in Alexandria, but in 30 BCE, Egypt was conquered by the Romans. It remained under Roman and Byzantine rule until it was conquered by Arab Muslim armies in the 7th century CE.

Prior to the Muslim conquest, Egyptian rural life had exhibited great continuity. Despite the diverse ruling groups and cosmopolitan nature of urban centers, the language and culture of the agrarian masses remained largely unchanged throughout the centuries. The annual rise and fall of the Nile River, with its inundation, shaped their lives. However, after the conquest, both urban and rural culture began to adopt Arab elements, and the Egyptian language was gradually replaced by Arabic as the common means of communication. Since then, Egypt’s history has been intertwined with the broader Islamic world. Although Egyptians continued to be ruled by foreign elites, the cultural milieu of the country remained predominantly Arab.

Egypt eventually became a significant intellectual and cultural center of the Arab and Islamic world. This status was further solidified in the mid-13th century when the Mongol armies sacked Baghdad, ending the Abbasid caliphate. The Mamluk sultans of Egypt, who presided over a thriving country for several centuries, established a pseudo-caliphate with questionable legitimacy. However, in 1517, the Ottoman Empire defeated the Mamluks and gained control over Egypt, which lasted until 1798 when Napoleon I led a short-lived French occupation.

The French occupation in 1801 marked the first time a European power had conquered and occupied Egypt, paving the way for further European involvement. Egypt’s strategic location as a trade hub between Africa, Europe, and Asia has always been advantageous. This advantage was further enhanced in 1869 with the opening of the Suez Canal, connecting the Mediterranean Sea to the Red Sea. The European powers, particularly France and the United Kingdom, who were major shareholders in the canal, were concerned with safeguarding it for strategic and commercial reasons. This concern played a significant role in shaping Egypt’s subsequent history. The United Kingdom occupied Egypt in 1882 and exerted a strong influence on the country until after World War II.

In 1952, a military coup established a revolutionary regime in Egypt that advocated for a combination of socialism and Pan-Arab nationalism. The regime’s radical political rhetoric and its nationalization of the Suez Canal Company led to the Suez Crisis of 1956. This crisis was eventually resolved through the intervention of the United States and the Soviet Union, whose presence in the Mediterranean region kept Egypt in the international spotlight.

During the Cold War, Egypt’s pivotal role in the Arabic-speaking world increased its geopolitical significance as Arab nationalism and inter-Arab relations became influential and emotionally charged political forces in the Middle East and North Africa. Egypt took the lead among Arab states in a series of conflicts against Israel but was the first to establish peace with the Jewish state in 1979.

Egypt’s political system has long been characterized by authoritarianism, with the president, ruling party, and security services dominating the scene. With limited space for opposition political activity, years of popular frustration culminated in mass demonstrations in 2011. This uprising resulted in the resignation of President Hosni Mubarak, leaving a council of military officers in control of the country. Power was later transferred to an elected government in 2012, and a new constitution was adopted by the end of the year. However, this elected government was overthrown a year later when the military intervened to remove the newly elected president, Mohamed Morsi, who was a member of the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood. This intervention followed a series of massive public demonstrations against Morsi’s administration. 

Egypt has been referred to as the “gift of the Nile” by the ancient Greek historian Herodotus. This is due to its abundant agricultural productivity, making it a significant food producer in the region. Historically, Egypt has had a large rural population dedicated to farming. However, in modern times, the country has become predominantly urbanized. Cairo, the capital city, is now one of the world’s largest urban agglomerations. The national economy has shifted towards manufacturing and trade, surpassing agriculture as the leading sectors. Tourism has traditionally played a vital role in generating foreign exchange, but it has been susceptible to fluctuations during times of political and civil unrest in the region.

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