Egypt, country located in the northeastern corner of Africa. Egypt’s heartland, the Nile River valley and delta, was the home of one of the principal civilizations of the ancient Middle East and, like Mesopotamia farther east, was the site of one of the world’s earliest urban and literate societies. Pharaonic Egypt thrived for some 3,000 years through a series of native dynasties that were interspersed with brief periods of foreign rule. After Alexander the Great conquered the region in 323 BC, urban Egypt became an integral part of the Hellenistic world. Under the Greek Ptolemaic dynasty, an advanced literate society thrived in the city of Alexandria, but what is now Egypt was conquered by the Romans in 30 BC. It remained part of the Roman Republic and Empire and then part of Rome’s successor state, the Byzantine Empire, until its conquest by Arab Muslim armies in AD 639–642.
Until the Muslim conquest, great continuity had typified Egyptian rural life. Despite the incongruent ethnicity of successive ruling groups and the cosmopolitan nature of Egypt’s larger urban centres, the language and culture of the rural, agrarian masses—whose lives were largely measured by the annual rise and fall of the Nile River, with its annual inundation—had changed only marginally throughout the centuries. Following the conquests, both urban and rural culture began to adopt elements of Arab culture, and an Arabic vernacular eventually replaced the Egyptian language as the common means of spoken discourse. Moreover, since that time, Egypt’s history has been part of the broader Islamic world, and though Egyptians continued to be ruled by foreign elite—whether Arab, Kurdish, Circassian, or Turkish—the country’s cultural milieu remained predominantly Arab.
Egypt eventually became one of the intellectual and cultural centres of the Arab and Islamic world, a status that was fortified in the mid-13th century when Mongol armies sacked Baghdad and ended the ʿAbbāsid caliphate. The Mamlūk sultans of Egypt, under whom the country thrived for several centuries, established a pseudo-caliphate of dubious legitimacy. But in 1517 the Ottoman Empire defeated the Mamlūks and established control over Egypt that lasted until 1798, when Napoleon I led a French army in a short occupation of the country.
The French occupation, which ended in 1801, marked the first time a European power had conquered and occupied Egypt, and it set the stage for further European involvement. Egypt’s strategic location has always made it a hub for trade routes between Africa, Europe, and Asia, but this natural advantage was enhanced in 1869 by the opening of the Suez Canal, connecting the Mediterranean Sea to the Red Sea. The concern of the European powers (namely France and the United Kingdom, which were major shareholders in the canal) to safeguard the canal for strategic and commercial reasons became one of the most important factors influencing the subsequent history of Egypt. The United Kingdom occupied Egypt in 1882 and continued to exert a strong influence on the country until after World War II (1939–45).
In 1952 a military coup installed a revolutionary regime that promoted a combination of socialism and Pan-Arab nationalism. The new regime’s extreme political rhetoric and its nationalization of the Suez Canal Company prompted the Suez Crisis of 1956, which was only resolved by the intervention of the United States and the Soviet Union, whose presence in the Mediterranean region thereafter kept Egypt in the international spotlight.
During the Cold War, Egypt’s central role in the Arabic-speaking world increased its geopolitical importance as Arab nationalism and inter-Arab relations became powerful and emotional political forces in the Middle East and North Africa. Egypt led the Arab states in a series of wars against Israel but was the first of those states to make peace with the Jewish state, which it did in 1979.
Egypt’s authoritarian political system was long dominated by the president, the ruling party, and the security services. With opposition political activity tightly restricted, decades of popular frustration erupted into mass demonstrations in 2011. The uprising forced Pres. Ḥosnī Mubārak to step down, leaving a council of military officers in control of the country. Power was transferred to an elected government in 2012, and a new constitution was adopted at the end of the year. This elected government, however, was toppled a year later when the military intervened to remove the newly elected president, Mohammed Morsi, a member of the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, following a series of massive public demonstrations against his administration. (For a discussion of unrest and political change in Egypt in 2011, see Egypt Uprising of 2011.)
The ancient Greek historian Herodotus called Egypt the “gift of the Nile.” Indeed, the country’s rich agricultural productivity—it is one of the region’s major food producers—has long supported a large rural population devoted to working the land. Present-day Egypt, however, is largely urban. The capital city, Cairo, is one of the world’s largest urban agglomerations, and manufacturing and trade have increasingly outstripped agriculture as the largest sectors of the national economy. Tourism has traditionally provided an enormous portion of foreign exchange, but that industry has been subject to fluctuations during times of political and civil unrest in the region.
Egypt’s land frontiers border Libya to the west, Sudan to the south, and Israel to the northeast. Egypt’s border with Sudan is notable for two areas, the Hala’ib Triangle along the Red Sea and Bir Tawil further inland, that are subject to differing claims by the two countries (see Researcher’s Note). In the north its Mediterranean coastline is about 620 miles (1,000 km), and in the east its coastline on the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aqaba is about 1,200 miles (1,900 km).
The topography of Egypt is dominated by the Nile. For about 750 miles (1,200 km) of its northward course through the country, the river cuts its way through bare desert, its narrow valley a sharply delineated strip of green, abundantly fecund in contrast to the desolation that surrounds it. From Lake Nasser, the river’s entrance into southern Egypt, to Cairo in the north, the Nile is hemmed into its trenchlike valley by bordering cliffs, but at Cairo these disappear, and the river begins to fan out into its delta. The Nile and the delta form the first of four physiographic regions, the others being the Western Desert (Arabic Al-Ṣaḥrāʾ al-Gharbiyyah), the Eastern Desert (Al-Ṣaḥrāʾ al-Sharqiyyah), and the Sinai Peninsula.
The Nile divides the desert plateau through which it flows into two unequal sections—the Western Desert, between the river and the Libyan frontier, and the Eastern Desert, extending to the Suez Canal, the Gulf of Suez, and the Red Sea. Each of the two has a distinctive character, as does the third and smallest of the Egyptian deserts, the Sinai. The Western Desert (a branch of the Libyan Desert) is arid and without wadis (dry beds of seasonal rivers), while the Eastern Desert is extensively dissected by wadis and fringed by rugged mountains in the east. The desert of central Sinai is open country, broken by isolated hills and scored by wadis.
Egypt is not, as is often believed, an entirely flat country. In addition to the mountains along the Red Sea, mountainous areas occur in the extreme southwest of the Western Desert and in the southern Sinai Peninsula. The high ground in the southwest is associated with the ʿUwaynāt mountain mass, which lies just outside Egyptian territory.
The coastal regions of Egypt, with the exception of the delta, are everywhere hemmed in either by desert or by mountain; they are arid or of very limited fertility. The coastal plain in both the north and east tends to be narrow; it seldom exceeds a width of 30 miles (48 km). With the exception of the cities of Alexandria, Port Said, and Suez and a few small ports and resorts such as Marsā Maṭrūh and Al-ʿAlamayn (El-Alamein), the coastal regions are sparsely populated and underdeveloped.
The Nile delta, or Lower Egypt, covers an area of 9,650 square miles (25,000 sq km). It is about 100 miles (160 km) long from Cairo to the Mediterranean, with a coastline stretching some 150 miles (240 km) from Alexandria to Port Said. As many as seven branches of the river once flowed through the delta, but its waters are now concentrated in two, the Damietta Branch to the east and the Rosetta Branch to the west. Though totally flat apart from an occasional mound projecting through the alluvium, the delta is far from featureless; it is crisscrossed by a maze of canals and drainage channels. Much of the delta coast is taken up by the brackish lagoons of lakes Maryūṭ, Idkū, Burullus, and Manzilah. The conversion of the delta to perennial irrigation has made possible the raising of two or three crops a year, instead of one, over more than half of its total area.
The cultivated portion of the Nile valley between Cairo and Aswān varies from 5 to 10 miles (8 to 16 km) in width, although there are places where it narrows to a few hundred yards and others where it broadens to 14 miles (23 km). Since the completion of the Aswan High Dam in 1970, the 3,900-square mile (10,100 square km) valley has been under perennial irrigation.
Until it was flooded by the waters impounded behind the High Dam to form Lake Nasser, the Nubian valley of the Nile extended for 160 miles (250 km) between the town of Aswān and the Sudanese border—a narrow and picturesque gorge with a limited cultivable area. The 100,000 or so inhabitants were resettled, mainly in the government-built villages of New Nubia, at Kawm Umbū (Kom Ombo), north of Aswān. Lake Nasser was developed during the 1970s for its fishing and as a tourist area, and settlements have grown up around it.
The Eastern Desert comprises almost one-fourth of the land surface of Egypt and covers an area of about 85,690 square miles (221,900 square km). The northern tier is a limestone plateau consisting of rolling hills, stretching from the Mediterranean coastal plain to a point roughly opposite Qinā on the Nile. Near Qinā, the plateau breaks up into cliffs about 1,600 feet (500 metres) high and is deeply scored by wadis, which make the terrain very difficult to traverse. The outlets of some of the main wadis form deep bays, which contain small settlements of seminomads. The second tier includes the sandstone plateau from Qinā southward. The plateau is also deeply indented by ravines, but they are relatively free from obstacles, and some are usable as routes. The third tier consists of the Red Sea Hills and the Red Sea coastal plain. The hills run from near Suez to the Sudanese border; they are not a continuous range but consist of a series of interlocking systems more or less in alignment. A number of peaks in the Red Sea Hills rise to more than 6,000 feet (1,800 metres), and the highest, Mount Shāʿib al-Banāt, reaches 7,175 feet (2,187 metres). They are geologically complex, with ancient igneous and metamorphic rocks. These include granite that, in the neighbourhood of Aswān, extends across the Nile valley to form the First Cataract—that is, the first set of rapids on the river. At the foot of the Red Sea Hills the narrow coastal plain widens southward, and parallel to the shore there are almost continuous coral reefs. In popular conception and usage, the Red Sea littoral can be regarded as a subregion in itself.
The Western Desert comprises two-thirds of the land surface of Egypt and covers an area of about 262,800 square miles (680,650 square km). From its highest elevation—more than 3,300 feet (1,000 metres)—on the plateau of Al-Jilf al-Kabīr in the southeast, the rocky plateau slopes gradually northeastward to the first of the depressions that are a characteristic feature of the Western Desert—that containing the oases of Al-Khārijah and Al-Dākhilah. Farther north are the oases of Al-Farāfirah and Al-Baḥriyyah. Northwestward from the latter the plateau continues to fall toward the Qattara Depression (Munkhafaḍ al-Qaṭṭārah), which is uninhabited and virtually impassable by modern vehicles. West of the Qattara Depression and near the Libyan border is the largest and most populous oasis, that of Siwa. It has been inhabited for thousands of years and is less influenced by modern development. South of the Qattara Depression, and extending west to the Libyan border, the Western Desert is composed of great ridges of blown sand interspersed with stony tracts. Beyond the Qattara Depression northward, the edge of the plateau follows the Mediterranean Sea, leaving a narrow coastal plain.
The Sinai Peninsula comprises a wedge-shaped block of territory with its base along the Mediterranean Sea coast and its apex bounded by the Gulfs of Suez and Aqaba; it covers an area of approximately 23,000 square miles (59,600 square km). Its southern portion consists of rugged, sharply serrated mountains. These reach elevations of more than 8,000 feet (2,400 metres); among them is Mount Catherine (Jabal Kātrīnā), Egypt’s highest mountain, which has an elevation of 8,668 feet (2,642 metres). The central area of Sinai consists of two plateaus, Al-Tīh and Al-ʿAjmah, both deeply indented and dipping northward toward Wadi al-ʿArīsh. Toward the Mediterranean Sea, the northward plateau slope is broken by dome-shaped hills; between them and the coast are long, parallel lines of dunes, some of which are more than 300 feet (100 metres) high. The most striking feature of the coast itself is a salt lagoon, Lake Bardawīl, which stretches for some 60 miles (95 km).
Apart from the Nile, the only natural perennial surface drainage consists of a few small streams in the mountains of the southern Sinai Peninsula. Most of the valleys of the Eastern Desert drain westward to the Nile. They are eroded by water but normally dry; only after heavy rainstorms in the Red Sea Hills do they carry torrents. The shorter valleys on the eastern flank of the Red Sea Hills drain toward the Red Sea; they, too, are normally dry. Drainage in the mountains of the Sinai Peninsula is toward the gulfs of Suez and Aqaba; as in the Red Sea Hills, torrent action has produced valleys that are deeply eroded and normally dry.
The central plateau of the Sinai drains northward toward Wadi al-ʿArīsh, a depression in the desert that occasionally carries surface water. One of the features of the Western Desert is its aridity, as shown by the absence of drainage lines. There is, however, an extensive water table beneath the Western Desert. Where the water table comes near the surface it has been tapped by wells in some oases.
Outside the areas of Nile silt deposits, the nature of such cultivable soil as exists depends upon the availability of the water supply and the type of rock in the area. Almost one-third of the total land surface of Egypt consists of Nubian sandstone, which extends over the southern sections of both the Eastern and Western deserts. Limestone deposits of Eocene age (i.e., some 35 to 55 million years old) cover a further one-fifth of the land surface, including central Sinai and the central portions of both the Eastern and Western deserts. The northern part of the Western Desert consists of limestone dating from the Miocene Epoch (25 to 5 million years ago). About one-eighth of the total area, notably the mountains of the Sinai, the Red Sea, and the southwest part of the Western Desert, consists of ancient igneous and metamorphic rocks.
The silt, which constitutes the present-day cultivated land in the delta and the Nile valley, has been carried down from the Ethiopian Highlands by the Nile’s upper tributary system, consisting of the Blue Nile and the ʿAṭbarah rivers. The depth of the deposits ranges from more than 30 feet (10 metres) in the northern delta to about 22 feet (7 metres) at Aswān. The White Nile, which is joined by the Blue Nile at Khartoum, in Sudan, supplies important chemical constituents. The composition of the soil varies and is generally more sandy toward the edges of the cultivated area. A high clay content makes it difficult to work, and a concentration of sodium carbonate sometimes produces infertile black-alkali soils. In the north of the delta, salinization has produced the sterile soils of the so-called barārī (“barren”) regions.
Egypt lies within the North African desert belt; its general climatic characteristics, therefore, are low annual precipitation and a considerable seasonal and diurnal (daily) temperature range, with sunshine occurring throughout the year. In the desert, cyclones stir up sandstorms or dust storms, called khamsins (Arabic: “fifties,” as they are said to come 50 days per year), which occur most frequently from March to June; these are caused by tropical air from the south that moves northward as a result of the extension northeastward of the low-pressure system of Sudan. A khamsin is accompanied by a sharp increase in temperature of 14 to 20 °F (8 to 11 °C), a drop in relative humidity (often to 10 percent), and thick dust; winds can reach gale force.
The climate is basically biseasonal, with winter lasting from November to March and summer from May to September, with short transitional periods intervening. The winters are cool and mild, and the summers are hot. Mean January minimum and maximum temperatures show a variation between 48 and 65 °F (9 and 18 °C) in Alexandria and 48 and 74 °F (9 and 23 °C) at Aswān. The summer months are hot throughout the country’s inland, with mean midday high temperatures in June ranging from 91 °F (33 °C) at Cairo to 106 °F (41 °C) at Aswān. Egypt enjoys a very sunny climate, with some 12 hours of sunshine per day in the summer months and between 8 and 10 hours per day in winter. Extremes of temperature can occur, and prolonged winter cold spells or summer heat waves are not uncommon.
Humidity diminishes noticeably from north to south and on the desert fringes. Along the Mediterranean coast the humidity is high throughout the year, but it is highest in summer. When high humidity levels coincide with high temperatures, oppressive conditions result.
Precipitation in Egypt occurs largely in the winter months; it is meagre on average but highly variable. The amount diminishes sharply southward; the annual average at Alexandria is about 7 inches (175 mm), Cairo has about 1 inch (25 mm), and Aswān receives virtually nothing—only about 0.1 inch (2.5 mm). The Red Sea coastal plain and the Western Desert are almost without precipitation. The Sinai Peninsula receives somewhat more precipitation: the northern sector has an annual average of about 5 inches (125 mm).
In spite of the lack of precipitation, the natural vegetation of Egypt is varied. Much of the Western Desert is totally devoid of any kind of plant life, but where some form of water exists the usual desert growth of perennials and grasses is found; the coastal strip has a rich plant life in spring. The Eastern Desert receives sparse rainfall, but it supports a varied vegetation that includes tamarisk, acacia, and markh (a leafless, thornless tree with bare branches and slender twigs), as well as a great variety of thorny shrubs, small succulents, and aromatic herbs. This growth is even more striking in the wadis of the Red Sea Hills and of the Sinai and in the ʿIlbah (Elba) Mountains in the southeast.
The Nile and irrigation canals and ditches support many varieties of water plants; the lotus of antiquity is to be found in drainage channels in the delta. There are more than 100 kinds of grasses, among them bamboo and esparto (ḥalfāʾ), a coarse, long grass growing near water. Robust perennial reeds such as the Spanish reed and the common reed are widely distributed in Lower Egypt, but the papyrus, cultivated in antiquity, is now found only in botanical gardens.
The date palm, both cultivated and subspontaneous, is found throughout the delta, in the Nile valley, and in the oases. The doum palm (Hyphaene thebaica; an African fan palm) is identified particularly with Upper Egypt (the southern part of the Nile valley) and the oases, although there are scattered examples elsewhere.
There are very few native trees. The Phoenician juniper is the only native conifer, although there are several cultivated conifer species. The acacia is widely distributed, as are eucalyptus and sycamore. Several species of the genus Casuarina (beefwood order), imported in the 19th century, are now the country’s most important timber trees. Other foreign importations, such as jacaranda, royal poinciana (a tree with orange or scarlet flowers), and lebbek (Albizia lebbek; a leguminous tree), have become a characteristic feature of the Egyptian landscape.
Domestic animals include buffalo, camels, donkeys, sheep, and goats, the last of which are particularly noticeable in the Egyptian countryside. The animals that figure so prominently on the ancient Egyptian friezes—hippopotamuses, giraffes, and ostriches—no longer exist in Egypt; crocodiles are found only south of the Aswān High Dam. The largest wild animal is the aoudad (a type of bearded sheep), which survives in the southern fastnesses of the Western Desert. Other desert animals are the Dorcas gazelle, the fennec (a small, desert-dwelling fox), the Nubian ibex, the Egyptian hare, and two kinds of jerboa (a mouselike rodent with long hind legs for jumping). The Egyptian jackal (Canis lupaster) still exists, and the hyrax is found in the Sinai mountains. There are two carnivorous mammals: the Caffre cat, a small feline predator, and the ichneumon, or Egyptian mongoose. Several varieties of lizard are found, including the large monitor. Poisonous snakes include more than one species of viper; the speckled snake is found throughout the Nile valley and the Egyptian cobra (Naje haje) in agricultural areas. Scorpions are common in desert regions. There are numerous species of rodents. Many varieties of insects are to be found, including the locust.
Egypt is rich in birdlife. Many birds pass through in large numbers on their spring and autumn migrations; in all, there are more than 200 migrating types to be seen, as well as more than 150 resident birds. The hooded crow is a familiar resident, and the black kite is characteristic along the Nile valley and in Al-Fayyūm. Among the birds of prey are the lanner falcon and the kestrel. Lammergeiers and golden eagles live in the Eastern Desert and the Sinai Peninsula. The sacred ibis (a long-billed wading bird associated with ancient Egypt) is no longer found, but the great white egret and cattle egret appear in the Nile valley and Al-Fayyūm, as does the hoopoe (a bird with an erectile fanlike crest). Resident desert birds are a distinct category, numbering about 24 kinds.
The Nile contains about 190 varieties of fish, the most common being bulṭī (Tilapia nilotica; a coarse-scaled, spiny-finned fish) and the Nile perch. The lakes on the delta coast contain mainly būrī (gray mullet). Lake Qārūn in Al-Fayyūm governorate (muḥāfaẓah) has been stocked with būrī and Lake Nasser with bulṭī, which grow very large in its waters.
The population of the Nile valley and delta, which are home to the overwhelming majority of Egyptians, forms a fairly homogeneous group whose dominant physical characteristics are the result of the admixture of the indigenous African population with those of Arab ancestry. Within urban areas (the northern delta towns especially), foreign invaders and immigrants—Persians, Romans, Greeks, Crusaders, Turks, and Circassians—long ago left behind a more heterogeneous mixture of physical types. Blond and red hair, blue eyes, and lighter complexions are more common there than in the rural areas of the delta, where peasant agriculturists, the fellahin, have been less affected by intermarriage with outside groups.
The inhabitants of what is termed the middle Nile valley—roughly the area from Cairo to Aswān—are known as the Ṣaʿīdī, or Upper Egyptians. Though the Ṣaʿīdī as a group tend to be more culturally conservative, they are ethnically similar to Lower Egyptians. In the extreme southern valley, Nubians differ culturally and ethnically from other Egyptians. Their kinship structure goes beyond lineage; they are divided into clans and broader segments, whereas among other Egyptians of the valley and of Lower Egypt only known members of the lineage are recognized as kin. Although Nubians have mixed and intermarried with members of other ethnic groups—particularly with Arabs—the dominant physical characteristics tend to be those of sub-Saharan Africa.
The deserts of Egypt contain nomadic, seminomadic, and sedentary but formerly nomadic groups, with distinct ethnic characteristics. Apart from a few non-Arab tribal groups and the mixed urban population, the inhabitants of the Sinai and the northern section of the Eastern Desert are all fairly recent immigrants from Arabia, who bear some physical resemblances to Arabian Bedouin. Their social organization is tribal, each group conceiving of itself as being united by a bond of blood and as having descended from a common ancestor. Originally tent dwellers and nomadic herders, many have become seminomads or even totally sedentary, as in the northern Sinai Peninsula.
The southern section of the Eastern Desert is inhabited by the Beja, who bear a distinct resemblance to the surviving depictions of predynastic Egyptians. The Egyptian Beja are divided into two tribes—the ʿAbābdah and the Bishārīn. The ʿAbābdah occupy the Eastern Desert south of a line between Qinā and Al-Ghardaqah; there are also several groups settled along the Nile between Aswān and Qinā. The Bishārīn live mainly in Sudan, although some dwell in the ʿIlbah Mountain region, their traditional place of origin. Both the ʿAbābdah and Bishārīn people are nomadic pastoralists who tend herds of camels, goats, and sheep.
The inhabitants of the Western Desert, outside the oases, are of mixed Arab and Amazigh (Berber) descent. They are divided into two groups, the Saʿādī (not to be confused with the Ṣaʿīdī, Upper Egyptians) and the Mūrābiṭīn. The Saʿādī regard themselves as descended from Banū Hilāl and Banū Sulaym, the great Arab tribes that migrated to North Africa in the 11th century. The most important and numerous of the Saʿādī group are the Awlād ʿAlī. The Mūrābiṭīn clans occupy a client status in relation to the Saʿādī and may be descendants of the original Amazigh inhabitants of the region. Originally herders and tent dwellers, the Bedouin of the Western Desert have become either seminomadic or totally sedentary. They are not localized by clan, and members of a single group may be widely dispersed.
The original inhabitants of the oases of the Western Desert were Amazigh. Many peoples have since mixed with them, including Egyptians from the Nile valley, Arabs, Sudanese, Turks, and, particularly in the case of Al-Khārijah, sub-Saharan Africans—for this was the point of entry into Egypt of the Darb al-Arbaʿīn (Forty Days Road), the caravan route from the Darfur region of Sudan.
In addition to the indigenous groups, there are in Egypt a number of small foreign ethnic groups. In the 19th century there was rapid growth of communities of unassimilated foreigners, mainly European, living in Egypt; these acquired a dominating influence over finance, industry, and government. In the 1920s, which was a peak period, the number of foreigners in Egypt exceeded 200,000, the largest community being the Greeks, followed by the Italians, British, and French. Since Egypt’s independence the size of the foreign communities has been greatly reduced.
The official language of Egypt is Arabic, and most Egyptians speak one of several vernacular dialects of that language. As is the case in other Arab countries, the spoken vernacular differs greatly from the literary language. Modern literary Arabic (often called Modern Standard Arabic or al-fuṣḥā, “clear” Arabic), which developed out of Classical, or medieval, Arabic, is learned only in school and is the lingua franca of educated persons throughout the Arab world. The grammar and syntax of the literary form of the language have remained substantially unchanged since the 7th century, but in other ways it has transformed in recent centuries. The modern forms of style, word sequence, and phraseology are simpler and more flexible than in Classical Arabic and are often directly derivative of English or French.
Alongside the written language, there exist various regional vernaculars and dialects of Arabic (these are termed collectively al-ʿammiyyah, “common” Arabic), which differ widely from the literary variant as well as from one another. Within the amorphous grouping referred to as Egyptian colloquial, a number of separate vernacular groups can be discerned, each fairly homogeneous but with further strata of variation within the group. (Variations from one locale to another are often subtle but at other times are quite profound.) One of these is the dialect of the Bedouin of the Eastern Desert and of the Sinai Peninsula; the Bedouin of the Western Desert constitute a separate dialect group. Upper Egypt has its own vernacular, markedly different from that of Cairo. The Cairo dialect is used, with variations, throughout the towns of the delta, but rural people have their own vernacular. Direct contact with foreigners over a long period has led to the incorporation of many loanwords into Cairene colloquial Arabic. (Cairo’s prominence as a centre of the Arab film industry has also ensured that its dialect is widely understood throughout the Arab world.) The long contact with foreigners and the existence of foreign-language schools also explain the polyglot character of Egyptian society. Most educated Egyptians are fluent in English or French or both, in addition to Arabic.
There are also other minor linguistic groups. The Beja of the southern section of the Eastern Desert use an Afro-Asiatic language of the Cushitic branch known as To Bedawi (though some speak Tigre and many use Arabic). At Siwa Oasis in the Western Desert there are groups whose language is related (but not too closely) to the Berber languages of the Afro-Asiatic family. Nubians speak Eastern Sudanic languages that, although technically of the Nilo-Saharan language family, contain some Cushitic features. There are other minority linguistic groups, notably Greek, Italian, and Armenian, although they are much smaller than they once were.
At the time of the Islamic conquest, the Coptic language, a latter incarnation of the ancient Egyptian language, was the medium of both religious and everyday life for the mass of the population. By the 12th century, however, Arabic had come into common use even among Christian Copts, whose former tongue continued only as a liturgical language for the Coptic Orthodox Church.
Islam is the official religion of Egypt, and nearly all Egyptian Muslims adhere to its Sunni branch. The country has long been a centre of Islamic scholarship, and al-Azhar University—located in Cairo—is widely considered the world’s preeminent institution of Islamic learning. Likewise, many Muslims, even those outside Egypt, consider al-Azhar’s sheikhs to be among the highest religious authorities in the Sunni world. The Muslim Brotherhood, a transnational religio-political organization that seeks to expand conservative Muslim values, was founded in Egypt in 1928. Sufism is also widely practiced.
Copts are far and away the largest Christian denomination in the country. In language, dress, and way of life they are indistinguishable from Muslim Egyptians; their church ritual and traditions, however, date from before the Arab conquest in the 7th century. Ever since it broke with the Eastern Church in the 5th century, the Coptic Orthodox Church has maintained its autonomy, and its beliefs and ritual have remained basically unchanged. The Copts have traditionally been associated with certain handicrafts and trades and, above all, with accountancy, banking, commerce, and the civil service; there are, however, rural communities that are wholly Coptic, as well as mixed Coptic-Muslim villages. The Copts are most numerous in the middle Nile valley governorates of Asyūṭ, Al-Minyā, and Qinā. About one-fourth of the total Coptic population lives in Cairo.
Among other religious communities are Coptic Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Greek Catholic, Armenian Orthodox and Catholic, Maronite, and Syrian Catholic churches as well as Anglicans and other Protestants. Few Jews remain in the country.
Physiographically, Egypt is usually divided into four major regions—the Nile valley and delta, the Eastern Desert, the Western Desert, and the Sinai Peninsula. When both physical and cultural characteristics are considered together, however, the country may be further divided into subregions—the Nile delta, the Nile valley from Cairo to south of Aswān, the Eastern Desert and the Red Sea coast, the Sinai Peninsula, and the Western Desert and its oases.
About half of the population of the delta are peasants (fellahin)—either small landowners or labourers—living on the produce of the land. The remainder live in towns or cities, the largest of which is Cairo. As a whole, they have had greater contact with the outside world, particularly with the rest of the Middle East and with Europe, than the inhabitants of the more remote southern valley and are generally less traditional and conservative than those in other regions of the country.
The inhabitants of the valley from Cairo up to Aswān governorate, the Ṣaʿīdīs, are more conservative than the delta people. In some areas women still do not appear in public without a veil; family honour is of great importance, and the vendetta remains an accepted (albeit illegal) means of resolving disputes between groups. Until the building of the High Dam, the Aswān governorate was one of the poorest regions in the valley and the most remote from outside influences. It has since experienced increased economic prosperity.
The majority of the sedentary population of the Eastern Desert lives in the few towns and settlements along the coast, the largest being Raʾs Ghārib. No accurate figures are available for the nomadic population, but they are believed to constitute about one-eighth of the region’s total population. They belong to various tribal groups, the most important being—from north to south—the Ḥuwayṭāt, Maʿāzah, ʿAbābdah, and Bishārīn. There are more true nomads in the Eastern Desert than the Western Desert because of the greater availability of pasture and water. They live either by herding goats, sheep, or camels or by trading—mainly with mining and petroleum camps or with the fishing communities on the coast.
Outside the oases, the habitable areas of the Western Desert, mainly near the coast, are occupied by the Awlād ʿAlī tribe. Apart from small groups of camel herders in the south, the population is no longer totally nomadic. Somewhat less than half are seminomadic herdsmen; the remainder are settled and, in addition to maintaining herds of sheep and goats, pursue such activities as fruit growing, fishing, trading, and handicrafts. The Western Desert supports a much larger population than the Eastern Desert. Marsā Maṭrūḥ, an important summer resort on the Mediterranean Sea, is the only urban centre. Other scattered communities are found mainly near railway stations and along the northern cultivated strip. The oases, though geographically a part of the Western Desert, are ethnically and culturally distinct. The southern oases of Al-Khārijah and Al-Dākhilah have been developed to some extent as part of a reclamation project centred on exploiting underground water resources. Other oases include Al-Farāfirah, Al-Baḥriyyah, and Siwa.
The majority of the population in the Sinai Peninsula are Arabs, many of whom have settled around Al-ʿArīsh and in the northern coastal area, although substantial numbers in the central plateau and the Sinai mountains continue to be nomadic or seminomadic. Another concentration of sedentary population is found at Al-Qanṭarah, on the east side of the Suez Canal.
The settled Egyptian countryside, throughout the delta and the Nile valley to the High Dam, exhibits great homogeneity, although minor variations occur from north to south.
The typical rural settlement is a compact village surrounded by intensively cultivated fields. The villages range in population from 500 to more than 10,000. They are basically similar in physical appearance and design throughout the country, except for minor local variations in building materials, design, and decoration. Date palms, sycamore and eucalyptus trees, and Casuarina species are common features of the landscape. Until comparatively recently, the only source of drinking water was the Nile; consequently, many of the villages are built along the banks of its canals. Some of the oldest villages are situated on mounds—a relic of the days of basin irrigation and annual flooding.
In the delta the houses, one or two stories high, are built of mud bricks plastered with mud and straw; in the southern parts of the valley more stone is used. The houses are joined to one another in a continuous row. In a typical house the windows consist of a few small round or square openings, permitting scant air or light to enter. The roofs are flat and built of layers of dried date-palm leaves, with palm-wood rafters; corn (maize) and cotton stalks, as well as dung cakes used for fuel, are stored on them. For grain storage, small cone-shaped silos of plastered mud are built on the roof and are then sealed to prevent the ravages of insects and rodents. Rooftops are also a favourite sleeping place on hot summer nights.
The houses of the poorer peasants usually consist of a narrow passageway, a bedroom, and a courtyard; part of the courtyard may be used as an enclosure for farm animals. Furniture is sparse. Ovens are made of plastered mud and are built into the wall of the courtyard or inside the house. In the larger and more prosperous villages, houses are built of burnt bricks reinforced with concrete, are more spacious, and often house members of an extended family. Furniture, running water, bathroom installations, and electricity are additional signs of prosperity.
Typical features of the smaller Egyptian village, in both the delta and the valley, are a mosque or a church, a primary school, a decorated pigeon cote, service buildings belonging to the government, and a few shops. Most of the people in the smaller villages engage in agriculture. In the larger villages, there may be some professional and semiprofessional inhabitants as well as artisans, skilled workers, and shopkeepers. Outside the larger settlements, combined service units—consisting of modern buildings enclosing the social service unit, village cooperative, health unit, and school—are still sometimes found, although most of such government establishments had been disbanded by the early 21st century. Much of the rural community has turned to similar services offered by nongovernmental Islamic organizations.
Unless situated on a highway, villages are reached by unpaved dirt roads. Inside the villages the roads consist mainly of narrow, winding footpaths. All villages, however, have at least one motorable road.
The Western Desert oases are not compact villages but small, dispersed agglomerations surrounded by green patches of cultivation; they are often separated from each other by areas of sand. Al-Khārijah, for example, is the largest of five scattered villages. Traditionally, the houses in the oases were up to six stories high, made of packed mud, and clustered close together for defense. Modern houses are usually two stories high and farther apart.
Although for census purposes Egyptian towns are considered to be urban centres, some of them are actually overgrown villages, containing large numbers of fellahin and persons engaged in work relating to agriculture and rural enterprises. Some of the towns that acquired urban status in the second half of the 20th century continue to be largely rural, although their residents include government officials, people engaged in trade and commerce, industrial workers, technicians, and professional people. One characteristic of towns and, indeed, of the larger cities is their rural fringe. Towns and cities have grown at the expense of agricultural land, with urban dwellings and apartment buildings mushrooming haphazardly among the fields. There is little evidence of town or city planning or of adherence to building regulations; often mud village houses are embraced within the confines of a city.
Buildings in towns and smaller cities are usually two-storied houses or apartment blocks of four to six stories. The better ones are lime-washed, with flat roofs and numerous balconies; other houses and buildings are often of unpainted red brick and concrete.
Whereas most of the cities of Egypt do not have many distinctive features, some, such as Cairo, Alexandria, and Aswān, have special characteristics of their own. Cairo is a complex and crowded metropolis, with architecture representing more than a millennium of history. Greater Cairo (including Al-Jīzah and other suburban settlements) and Alexandria, together with the most important towns along the Suez Canal—Port Said, Ismailia, and Suez—are, like most other major urban centres worldwide, modern in appearance.
Most of Egypt’s people live along the banks of the Nile River, and more than two-fifths of the population lives in urban areas. Along the Nile, the population density is one of the highest in the world, in excess of 5,000 persons per square mile (2,000 per square km) in a number of riverine governorates. The rapidly growing population is young, with roughly one-third of the total under age 15 and about three-fifths under 30. In response to the strain put on Egypt’s economy by the country’s burgeoning population, a national family planning program was initiated in 1964, and by the 1990s it had succeeded in lowering the birth rate. Improvements in health care also brought the infant mortality rate well below the world average by the turn of the 21st century. Life expectancy averages about 72 years for men and 74 years for women.
Although the constitution of 1971 described the economy as one based on socialism, with the people controlling all means of production, the public sector thoroughly dominated the economy for only about two decades following the revolution of 1952—prior to which time the country had a free market. Most major nationalization took place between 1961 and the early 1970s, when most important sectors of the economy either were public or were strictly controlled by the government. This included large-scale industry, communications, banking and finance, the cotton trade, foreign trade as a whole, and other sectors. During that time, private enterprise came gradually to find its scope restricted, but some room to maneuver was still left in real estate and in agriculture and, later, in the export trade. Personal income, as well as land ownership, was strictly limited by the government.
Moreover, the government, when not actually in possession of the means of production, regulated all important aspects of production and distribution. It imposed controls on agricultural prices, controlled rent, ran the internal trade, restricted foreign travel and the use of foreign exchange, and appointed and supervised the boards of directors of corporations. The government initiated projects and allocated investment.
As part of the infitāḥ ("opening") economic policy adopted in the early 1970s, some of these restrictions were relaxed in the last quarter of the 20th century, permitting greater private-sector participation in various areas. Although the everyday running of corporations is now left to their boards of directors, those boards receive instructions from public boards, and the chairmen of boards often coordinate their production policies with the appropriate state minister. The government formulates five-year development plans to guide economic development. Likewise, since the early 1970s, the Egyptian government has campaigned for increased foreign investment—initially receiving financial aid from the oil-rich Arab states. Although Arab aid was suspended as a punitive measure after Egypt signed a 1979 peace treaty with Israel (see Camp David Accords), the subsequent return of several Western and Japanese corporations, encouraged by the normalization of Egyptian relations with Israel, increased the potential for further foreign investment in the country. Much of the effort exerted by the government in the early 1980s was devoted to adjusting the economy to the situation resulting from the 1979 treaty. Defense expenditures were reduced, and increased allocations were made available for developing roads, bridges, oil pipelines, telephone lines, and other infrastructure. Egypt’s economy began to become more resilient, primarily because of new oil and natural gas discoveries but also because Western aid increased. In the late 1990s and the first decade of the 21st century, Egypt’s per capita gross domestic product (GDP) rose markedly, as the government sought to raise domestic production and foreign trade.
However, the economy has continued to face many hurdles. The general standard of living in Egypt remains rather low, and in relation to the size of its population, its economic resources are limited. Land remains its main source of natural wealth, but the amount of productive land is insufficient to support the population adequately. Increases in population have put pressure on resources, producing chronic underemployment, and many Egyptians have sought employment abroad. Political uncertainty in the aftermath of the 2011 uprising that toppled Pres. Hosni Mubarak had a negative effect on most sectors of the economy, with the worst impacts being felt in tourism, construction, and manufacturing.
About 96 percent of Egypt’s total area is desert. Lack of forests, permanent meadows, or pastures places a heavy burden on the available arable land, which constitutes only about 3 percent of the total area. This limited area, which sustains on the average 8 persons per acre (20 per hectare), is, however, highly fertile and is cropped more than once a year.
Agriculture remains an important sector of the Egyptian economy. It contributes nearly one-eighth of the GDP, employs roughly one-fourth of the labour force, and provides the country—through agricultural exports—with an important part of its foreign exchange. The rapid increase in Egypt’s population prompted an intensification of cultivation almost without parallel elsewhere. Heavy capital is invested in the form of canals, drains, dams, water pumps, and barrages; the investment of skilled labour, commercial fertilizers, and pesticides is also great. Strict crop rotation—in addition to government controls on the allocation of area to crops, on varieties planted, on the distribution of fertilizers and pesticides, and on marketing—contributes to high agricultural yield.
Unlike the situation in comparable developing countries, Egyptian agriculture is geared overwhelmingly toward commercial rather than subsistence production. Field crops contribute some three-fourths of the total value of Egypt’s agricultural production, while the rest comes from livestock products, fruits and vegetables, and other specialty crops. Egypt has two seasons of cultivation, one for winter and another for summer crops. The main summer field crop is cotton, which absorbs much of the available labour and represents a notable portion of the value of exports. Egypt is the world’s principal producer of long-staple cotton (1.125 inches [2.85 cm] and longer), normally supplying about one-third of the world crop; total Egyptian cotton production, however, constitutes just a tiny fraction of the global yield.
Among other principal field crops are corn (maize), rice, wheat, sorghum, and fava (broad) beans (fūl). Despite a considerable output, the cereal production in Egypt falls short of the country’s total consumption needs; a substantial proportion of foreign exchange is spent annually on the import of cereals and milling products. Other important crops include sugarcane, tomatoes, sugar beets, potatoes, and onions. Many varieties of fruit are grown, and some, such as citrus, are exported.
Until the completion of the Aswān High Dam in 1970, the pattern of inundation and falling water, of high Nile and low Nile, established the Egyptian year and controlled the lives of the Egyptian farmers—and most Egyptians were tied to a life on the land—from birth to death, from century to century. On the regular behaviour of the Nile rested the prosperity, the very continuity, of the land. The three seasons of the Egyptian year were even named after the land conditions produced by the river: akhet, the “inundation”; peret, the season when the land emerged from the flood; and shomu, the time when water was short. When the Nile behaved as expected, which most commonly was the case, life went on as normal; when the flood failed or was excessive, disaster followed.
Construction of the Aswān High Dam enabled not only control of the Nile’s floods but also the reclamation of vast tracts of land for farming. The total land reclaimed as a result of the Aswān High Dam project reached more than 1,000,000 acres (400,000 hectares) by 1975, in addition to some 700,000 acres (284,000 hectares) converted from basin (one crop per year) irrigation to perennial irrigation. During the same period, however, an agricultural area almost as large was lost to industry and growing towns. Conscious of the need to conserve and to increase arable land, the Egyptian government has encouraged the establishment of new settlements in desert areas and has promoted projects to bring large areas of unproductive desert under cultivation. The New Valley project, begun in 1997, was initially slated to bring roughly 500,000 acres (200,000 hectares) under production in the southern Western Desert by pumping water from Lake Nasser through a long canal. Its most important structure, the Mubarak Pumping Station, was completed in 2005, but only a fraction of the projected land area was brought under production after two decades. Similar programs have been undertaken in the western delta and the Sinai Peninsula, and a project to make more than 1,500,000 acres (630,000 hectares) of desert cultivable was inaugurated in 2015.
Egypt has been the scene of one of the most successful attempts at land reform. In 1952 a limit of 200 acres (80 hectares) was imposed on individual ownership of land, and this was lowered to 100 acres (40 hectares) in 1961 and to 50 acres (20 hectares) in 1969. By 1975 less than one-eighth of the total cultivated area was held by owners with 50 acres or more. The success of Egyptian land reform is indicated by the substantial rise of land yields after 1952. This was partly the result of several complementary measures of agrarian reform, such as regulation of land tenure and rent control, that accompanied the redistribution of the land. Rent control has since been discontinued for land and new constructions but remains in effect for older real estate.
Egypt’s biological resources, centred around the Nile, have long been one of its principal assets. There are no forests or any permanent vegetation of economic significance apart from the land under cultivation. Water buffalo, cattle, asses, goats, and sheep are the most important livestock. Although animal husbandry and poultry production have been promoted by the government, growth has been sluggish.
Following the construction of the Aswān High Dam, the Egyptian government encouraged the development of a fishing industry. Construction of such projects as a fish farm and fishery complex at Lake Nasser have led to a considerable increase in the number of freshwater fish and in the size of the yearly total catch. At the same time, catches of sea fish in the waters off the Nile delta have declined, because of the change in the flow and character of Nile water after the construction of the Aswān High Dam.
Compared with the physical size of the country and the level of its population, Egypt has scanty mineral resources. The search for petroleum began earlier in Egypt than elsewhere in the Middle East, and production on a small scale began as early as 1908, but it was not until the mid-1970s that significant results were achieved, notably in the Gulf of Suez and portions of the Western Desert. By the early 1980s Egypt had become an important oil producer, although total production was relatively small by Middle Eastern standards.
The bulk of Egypt’s petroleum comes from the Morgan, Ramadan, and July fields (both onshore and offshore) in the Gulf of Suez, which are operated by the Gulf of Suez Petroleum Company (commonly known as Gupco), and from the Abū Rudays area of the Sinai on the Gulf of Suez. Egypt also extracts oil from fields at Al-ʿAlamayn (El-Alamein) and Razzāq in the Western Desert. Active drilling for oil, involving several international interests, including those of the United States and several European countries, has continued in both the Eastern and the Western deserts, with marked success during the 1990s and early 21st century.
In the process of searching for oil, some significant natural gas deposits have been located, including substantial deposits in the delta and in the Western Desert, as well as offshore under the Mediterranean Sea. Wells have been established in the Abū Qīr area, northeast of Alexandria. A joint Egyptian-Italian gas discovery was made in the north delta near Abū Māḍī in 1970; this was developed partly to supply a fertilizer plant and partly to fuel the industrial centres in the north and northwest delta. In 1974 Abū Māḍī became the first Egyptian gas field to begin production. Other natural gas fields are located in the Western Desert, the delta, the Mediterranean shelf, and the Gulf of Suez, and by the early 21st century natural gas production had begun to rival that of oil, both as a source for domestic consumption and as a commodity for export. Egypt has several oil refineries, two of which are located at Suez. The first of Egypt’s twin crude pipelines, linking the Gulf of Suez to the Mediterranean Sea near Alexandria, was opened in 1977. This Suez-Mediterranean pipeline, known as Sumed, has the capacity to transmit some 2.5 million barrels of oil per day. The Sumed pipeline was financed by a consortium of Arab countries, primarily Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Egypt. In 1981 a crude oil pipeline was opened to link Raʾs Shukhayr, on the Red Sea coast, with the refinery at Musṭurud, north of Cairo. Additional oil pipelines link Musṭurud with Alexandria, and fields near Hurghada to terminals on the Red Sea.
Several of Egypt’s major known phosphate deposits are mined at Isnā, Ḥamrāwayn, and Safājah. Coal deposits are located in the partially developed Maghārah mines in the Sinai Peninsula. Mines located in the Eastern Desert have been the primary source for manganese production since 1967, and there are also reserves of manganese on the Sinai Peninsula. Iron ore is extracted from deposits at Aswān, and development work has continued at Al-Baḥriyyah Oasis. Chromium, uranium, and gold deposits are also found in the country.
The Nile constitutes an incomparable source of hydroelectric energy. Before the completion of the Aswān High Dam power station in 1970, only a small volume of Egyptian electricity was generated by hydropower, with thermal plants burning diesel fuel or coal being the principal producers. For several years after the High Dam station went into operation, most of the country’s electricity was generated there. Its original 12 turbines have a generating capacity of about 2 million kilowatts; the Aswān II hydroelectric power station (completed 1986) has added another 270,000 kilowatts of capacity to the system. Actual power production from the High Dam has been limited, however, by the need to reconcile demands for power with the demands for irrigation water. Moreover, Egypt’s booming population and growing need for energy has forced the government to construct additional thermal plants, many of them fueled by the country’s abundant reserves of natural gas. Thermal plants now generate some four-fifths of the country’s electricity.
During the 20th century, manufacturing grew to be one of the largest sectors of Egypt’s economy, accounting (along with mining) for roughly one-fourth of the GDP by the 21st century. Domestic manufactures were weak from the late 19th century until about 1930 because of free trade policies that favoured importing foreign products. Motivated by the need to increase national income, to diversify the economy, and to satisfy the aspirations of nascent nationalism, the government imposed a customs tariff on foreign goods in 1930 that promoted the development of Egyptian manufactures. The Bank of Egypt also extended loans to Egyptian entrepreneurs in the 1920s and ’30s to help stimulate Egyptian domestic production. A succession of companies were founded that engaged in printing, cotton ginning, transport, spinning and weaving (linen, silk, and cotton), vegetable oil extraction, and the manufacture of pharmaceuticals and rayon. Egypt was a major Allied base during World War II (1939–45) but was largely cut off from European imports; this situation further fueled the development of manufacturing, particularly of textile products.
Most large-scale manufacturing establishments were nationalized beginning in the 1950s, and emphasis was placed on developing heavy industry after a long-term trade and aid agreement was reached with the Soviet Union in 1964. Another aid agreement with the Soviets in 1970 provided for the expansion of an iron and steel complex at Ḥulwān and for the establishment of a number of power-based industries, including an aluminum complex that uses power generated by the High Dam. An ammonium nitrate plant was opened in 1971, based on gases generated in the coking unit of the steel mill at Ḥulwān. There is also a nitrate fertilizer plant at Aswān.
By the beginning of the 21st century, most large manufacturing enterprises were still owned or operated by the state, although the government had begun to sell substantial holdings to the private sector. Major manufactures included chemicals of all sorts (including pharmaceuticals), food products, textiles and garments, cement and other building materials, and paper products as well as derivatives of hydrocarbons (including fuel oil, gasoline, lubricants, jet fuel, and asphalt). Iron, steel, and automobiles were of growing importance to the Egyptian economy.
Modern banking activities date from the mid-19th century. The Bank of Egypt opened in 1858 and the Anglo-Egyptian Bank in 1864. The French bank Crédit Lyonnais began operations in Egypt in 1866, followed by the Ottoman Bank (1867) and then other French, Italian, and Greek banks. The National Bank of Egypt (1898) and the Agricultural Bank of Egypt (1902) were founded with British capital. The first purely Egyptian Bank was the Banque Misr (1920).
From its inception the National Bank of Egypt assumed the main functions of a central bank, a status that was confirmed by law in 1951. In 1957 all English and French banks and insurance companies were nationalized and taken over by various Egyptian joint-stock companies; thereafter, all shareholders, directors, and managers of those financial institutions were bound by law to be Egyptian citizens. Banque Misr, long responsible for controlling a number of industrial companies in addition to conducting ordinary banking business, was nationalized in 1960. As of 1961 the National Bank of Egypt—which had also been nationalized in 1960—was divided into a commercial bank that maintained the original name and the Central Bank of Egypt, which functioned as a central bank. Later that year, all remaining financial institutions were nationalized, and their operations were concentrated in five commercial banks, in addition to the central bank, the government-sponsored Public Organization for Agricultural Credits and Co-operatives, the Development Industrial Bank, and three mortgage banks. The national currency, the Egyptian pound (Arabic: ginīh), is issued by the central bank.
The government again reorganized the banking system in the early 1970s, merging some of the major banks and assigning special functions to each of the rest. Two new banks were created, and foreign banks were again permitted in the country as part of a program aimed at liberalizing the economy. Of particular interest were joint banking ventures between Egyptian and foreign banks. In 1980 Egypt’s first international bank since the revolution was opened and a national investment bank was established. Islamic banks have been set up in Egypt, paying dividends to their investors instead of interest, which is proscribed under Islamic law. In 1992 the stock exchanges at Cairo (1903) and Alexandria (1881), which had been closed since the early 1960s, were reopened, and in 1997 they were fully merged as the Cairo and Alexandria Stock Exchange.
The supply of money has, in general, followed the development of the economy; the authorities have aimed at tolerable increases in the price level, although some prices soared during the 1970s and ’80s. Long pegged to the U.S. dollar, the pound was allowed to float in January 2003.
Egypt is a member of the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Since World War II the international liquidity of the Egyptian economy, including the Special Drawing Rights, added in 1970, has been depressed. In the late 1970s both internal and external debts rose, primarily because of large government subsidies to the private sector. In the 1980s and ’90s the government gradually introduced price increases on goods and services, effectively reducing (though not eliminating) subsidies for food and fuel. In 1991 Egypt signed an agreement with the IMF and the World Bank called the Economic Reform and Structural Adjustment Program, which reduced the fiscal deficit, removed consumer subsidies, eliminated price controls, liberalized trade, reformed labour laws, and privatized state-owned enterprises. Although the program strengthened Egypt’s economy during the 1990s, economic growth slowed in the early 21st century.
The value of imports into Egypt is usually equal to about one-third and exports about one-tenth of the GDP. Since World War II exports have tended to fall short of imports. The trade deficit was particularly sizable from 1960 to 1965 as expenditure on development rose, reaching a peak in 1966. After the 1973 war with Israel, there was a decided effort to restrict imports and stimulate exports, but this met with little success. The trade deficit rose to record highs in the early and mid-1980s, largely because of the decline in revenue from petroleum exports and the increase in food imports. These problems have persisted in the early 21st century. The large visible trade deficit was partially offset by transfers from abroad, such as aid from Western governments and remittances from Egyptians working in other countries.
Nearly two-fifths of imports consist of raw materials, mineral and chemical products, and capital goods (machinery, electrical apparatuses, and transport equipment), some one-fifth are foodstuffs, and the remainder are other consumer goods. Its most important exports include petroleum and petroleum products, followed by raw cotton, cotton yarn, and textiles. Raw materials, mineral and chemical products, and capital goods are also exported. Among agricultural exports are rice, onions, garlic, and citrus fruit. Egypt’s most important trading partners include China, the United States, Italy, Germany, and the Gulf Arab countries.
The service sector—including retail sales, tourism, and government services—is one of the largest in the economy. The government alone is one of the biggest employers in the country, and government contracts help fuel other sectors of Egypt’s still heavily socialized economy. Despite privatization and fiscal austerity measures in the late 20th century, construction projects, particularly major public-works projects, have been an important source of employment and a major source of national spending. Tourism has traditionally been an important source of foreign exchange, with millions visiting Egypt each year, mostly from Europe, Asia, and other Arab countries. Warm winters, beaches, and gambling casinos draw as many tourists as do Egypt’s ancient monuments. Although the number of tourists per year and the amount they spend in Egypt rose in the 1990s and the first decade of the 21st century, security problems have at times hurt the industry. The 1997 massacre of dozens of tourists at the temple of Hatshepsut in Luxor caused visitor numbers to dip briefly. A steeper and longer-lasting drop in tourism followed the uprising that overthrew Pres. Hosni Mubarak in 2011 but began recovering rapidly in 2018.
Nearly one-fourth of the population derives its living from agriculture, although a growing proportion of the labour force—more than one-tenth—is engaged in manufacturing and mining. Most of the rest of the working population is employed in the service, trade, finance, and transportation sectors. Because of the shortage of land, labour underemployment began to be manifest in agriculture early in the 20th century. Since then the development of nonagricultural jobs has failed to keep pace with a rapidly growing labour force, and unemployment grew during the 1990s as the government shed large numbers of unproductive positions from the bureaucracy as part of a fiscal austerity policy. The rural population, especially landless agricultural labourers, has the lowest standard of living in the country. The salaries of professional groups are also low. Industrial and urban workers enjoy, on the whole, a higher standard. The highest wages are earned in petroleum, manufacturing, and other industries, where many workers receive additional benefits of social insurance and extra health and housing facilities. To some extent, low wages had been partly offset by the low cost of living, but since the late 1970s this advantage has been neutralized by persistent high inflation rates.
Beginning in 1976, trade unions were closely controlled by the government through the Egyptian Trade Union Federation (ETUF) and umbrella organizations with close ties to the government. Hundreds of independent trade unions sprang up after President Mubarak’s removal, but board elections that would enable these unions to be formalized were continuously delayed. When elections were finally held in 2018, the process was tightly restricted by the state, and the ETUF remained dominant. Trade unions are often vocally active in national policy making but are seldom the instrument for negotiating higher wages or better work conditions. Labour legislation of the early 21st century has legalized some strikes, provided the union gives advance notice. However, unauthorized strikes also have taken place. There are well-defined rules regarding child labour—children as young as age 12 may work in seasonal agriculture, and children age 14 and older may engage in industrial work part-time only—but authorities have found these rules difficult to enforce. In farm families, for instance, everyone works, and even Egyptians who have left rural life may still regard children as economic assets. Discrimination based on gender is illegal, but social custom has rendered a wide variety of occupations inaccessible to women. As in many Islamic countries, the workweek is Sunday through Thursday. Since the 1960s, several new employers’ associations have arisen, and the Federation of Egyptian Industries (FEI; 1922) has regained powers it once lost, such as the authority to reject government-proposed trade boycotts.
With the majority of the population earning very low incomes, direct taxation falls on the few wealthy; income-tax rates are made sharply progressive in an attempt to achieve a degree of equality in income distribution. Nevertheless, the income gap between rich and poor Egyptians has widened noticeably since the 1960s. Direct taxes on income, mostly levied on businesses, account for about one-fourth of governmental revenue. Sales taxes generate more than one-third of revenue.
Transportation and telecommunications Almost the entire communications system is state-controlled. It is adequate in terms of coverage, but stresses sometimes arise from excessive usage. The main patterns of transport flow reflect the topographical configuration of the country—that is to say, they follow the north-south course of the Nile, run along the narrow coastal plain of the Mediterranean Sea, and expand into a more complex system in the delta.
About four-fifths of Egypt’s total road network is paved. Rural roads, made of dried mud, usually follow the lines of the irrigation canals; many of the desert roads are little more than tracks. The Cairo-Alexandria highway runs via Banhā, Ṭanṭā, and Damanhūr. The alternate desert road to Cairo from Alexandria has been extensively improved, and a good road links Alexandria with Libya by way of Marsā Maṭrūḥ on the Mediterranean coast. There are paved roads between Cairo and Al-Fayyūm, and good roads connect the various delta and Suez Canal towns. A paved road parallels the Nile from Cairo south to Aswān, and another paved road runs from Asyūṭ to Al-Khārijah and Al-Dākhilah in the Western Desert. The coastal Red Sea route to Marsā al-ʿAlam is poorly paved, as are the connecting sections inland.
Railways connect Cairo with Alexandria and with the delta and canal towns and also run southward to Aswān and the High Dam. Branchlines connect Cairo with Al-Fayyūm and Alexandria with Marsā Maṭrūḥ. A network of light railway lines connects the Fayyūm area and the delta villages with the main lines. Diesel-driven trains operate along the main lines; electric lines connect Cairo with the suburbs of Ḥulwān and Heliopolis. The Cairo Metro consists of three commuter rail lines; further extension of the third line is underway.
The Suez Canal, which was closed at the time of the Six-Day War with Israel in 1967, was reopened in 1975 and was subsequently expanded to accommodate larger ships; it serves as a major link between the Mediterranean and Red seas. The Nile and its associated navigable canals provide an important means of transportation, primarily for heavy goods. There are roughly 2,000 miles (3,200 km) of navigable waterways—about half of this total is on the Nile, which is navigable throughout its length. The inland-waterway freight fleet consists of tugs, motorized barges, towed barges, and flat-bottomed feluccas (two- or three-masted lateen-rigged sailing ships).
Blessed with a long coastline, Egypt has nine ports, of which the busiest are Alexandria, Port Said, and Suez. Alexandria, which has a fine natural harbour, handles most of the country’s imports and exports, as well as the bulk of its passenger traffic. Port Said, at the northern entrance to the Suez Canal, lacks the berthing and loading facilities of Alexandria. Suez’s main function is that of an entry port for petroleum and minerals from the Egyptian Red Sea coast and for goods from Asia.
Cairo is an important communication centre for world air routes and is served by three international airports. The enlarged airport at Heliopolis, Cairo International Airport, with three terminals operational year-round and an additional seasonal terminal, is used by major international airlines. The Sphinx International Airport opened in 2019 just west of Cairo, located near the tourist destinations of the Great Sphinx and the Pyramids of Giza. To the east, the Capital International Airport opened later the same year to serve a new city set to become Egypt’s capital in 2020. Other international airports can be found throughout Egypt, including at Alexandria and Sharm el-Sheikh. The national airline, EgyptAir, runs external services throughout the Middle East as well as to Europe, North America, Africa, and the Far East; it also operates a domestic air service.
In the mid-19th century Egypt was one of the first countries in the Middle East to establish a telegraph system, followed shortly by a telephone system. Since that time Egypt has been a regional leader in the telecommunications field. The telecommunications infrastructure is better developed in urban areas, especially in Lower Egypt; in addition, the government has dedicated extensive resources to upgrading it. Telephone density is relatively high, with about one phone line for every 10 people. Cellular phones were introduced in the mid-1990s, and within a decade their use surpassed that of landlines. State-owned Telecom Egypt formed joint ventures with various foreign-owned companies to provide the country’s cellular telephone services.
Television and radio are ubiquitous. In 1998 the government-owned Egyptian Radio and Television Union launched Egypt’s first communication satellite, Nilesat, which offers access to private television broadcasters. Satellite dishes, which receive Egyptian and foreign broadcasts, are popular and relatively common among middle-class and affluent households. More than two-fifths of the population has access to the Internet. Internet cafés are popular access points, and many Egyptians connect wirelessly via mobile phones and USB adapters.
Egypt has operated under several constitutions, both as a monarchy and, after 1952, as a republic. The first and most liberal of these was the 1923 constitution, which was promulgated just after Britain declared Egypt’s independence. That document laid the political and cultural groundwork for modern Egypt, declaring it an independent sovereign Islamic state with Arabic as its language. The vote was extended to all adult males. This constitution provided for a bicameral parliament, an independent judiciary, and a strong executive in the form of the king. In 1930 this constitution was replaced by another one, which gave even more powers to the king and his ministers. Following vigorous protest, it was abrogated five years later. The 1923 constitution again came into force but was permanently abolished after the revolution in 1952. The Republic of Egypt was declared in 1953. The new ruling junta—led by a charismatic army officer, Gamal Abdel Nasser—abolished all political parties, which had operated with relative freedom under the monarchy, and a new constitution, in which women were granted the franchise, was introduced in 1956. To replace the abolished political parties, the regime formed the National Union in 1957—from 1962 the Arab Socialist Union (ASU)—which dominated political life in Egypt for the next 15 years. An interim constitution was promulgated in 1964.
At the heart of the postrevolutionary regime was a commitment to Pan-Arabism, the nationalist philosophy that called for the establishment of a single Arab state, and during the following decades Egypt engaged in several abortive attempts to forge transnational unions with other Arab countries. In 1958 Egypt and Syria were merged into one state, called the United Arab Republic, a name that was retained by Egypt for a decade after Syria’s secession in 1961. In 1971 Egypt, Libya, and Syria agreed to establish the Federation of Arab Republics, but the federation never actually materialized.The capital of the federation would be Cairo. In 1977, however, deteriorating relations between Egypt and other Arab states over Egypt’s peace negotiations with Israel led to the end of the federation and to Egypt’s suspension from the Arab League, a regional organization of which it had been a founding member.
In 1971 a new Egyptian constitution was adopted by referendum to replace the interim constitution of 1964. It was amended in 1980, 2005, and 2007. In 2005 Egypt held its first presidential election in which multiple candidates vied for the office and which was conducted by popular vote. Prior to that time, a single candidate had been chosen by the legislature and then confirmed by national plebiscite.
The 1971 constitution was suspended in February 2011, following a popular uprising that forced the resignation of Pres. Hosni Mubarak. An interim constitutional declaration was issued on March 30, 2011, by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (Egypt’s interim military government). It incorporated provisions from the 1971 constitution as well as new measures, approved by referendum in March 2011, to make elections more open, impose presidential term limits, and restrict the use of emergency laws. The constitutional declaration also included provisions for legislative and presidential elections and for the drafting of a new permanent constitution.
In 2012 a 100-member Constituent Assembly was appointed by the newly elected legislature to write a draft constitution to be approved by a national referendum. Because Islamist parties had won a more than two-thirds majority in the legislature, Islamists were appointed to the majority of seats in the Constituent Assembly. Tensions between the Islamist bloc and a loose minority coalition of liberal, secular, and Christian members of the assembly quickly developed into a deadlock over questions of human rights and the role of religion in the state, and the Islamist majority ultimately passed a draft constitution in spite of legal challenges and walkouts by the opposition. The constitution was approved in a national referendum in December 2012.
The 2012 constitution was suspended in July 2013, when Pres. Mohammed Morsi was removed from power following several days of massive demonstrations against his rule. An interim administration led by the chief justice of the Supreme Constitutional Court was created to govern the country. In September the new administration convened a 50-member panel to replace the 2012 constitution.
The new constitution, approved by Egyptian voters in January 2014, left out much of the conservative religious language featured in the 2012 document. A series of amendments were approved in a referendum in 2019. Among other provisions, they extended presidential terms and reestablished an upper chamber of the legislature (originally eliminated from the 2014 constitution).
The Egyptian constitution proclaims the Arab Republic of Egypt to be a democratic state with Islam as its state religion and Arabic as its national language. It recognizes public and private ownership and guarantees the equality of all Egyptians before the law and their protection against arbitrary intervention by the state in the legal process. It also affirms the people’s right to peaceful assembly and the right to organize into associations or unions and to vote. It forbids the formation of political parties based on religion.
The president of the republic is the head of state and, together with the cabinet, constitutes the executive authority. The president is required to be Egyptian, born of Egyptian parents, and at least 40 years old. The presidential term is for six years and may be extended for one additional term. The president appoints the prime minister (who is the head of government), ministers, and deputy ministers. The cabinet is obligated to present its platform to the legislative body, the House of Representatives.The president has the right to grant amnesty and reduce sentences and the power to appoint civil and military officials and to dismiss them in a manner prescribed by the law. The president is the supreme commander of the armed forces but can declare war only in consultation with the National Defense Council, a council comprising military officers and civilians, and with the approval of a two-thirds majority in the House of Representatives.
Legislative power resides in the House of Representatives, which is composed of members who are elected under a complex system of proportional representation for terms of five years. The House of Representatives ratifies all laws and examines and approves the national budget. Members of the House of Representatives have the right to question members of the cabinet and can dismiss the prime minister, cabinet ministers, or entire cabinets by passing a motion of no confidence with a simple majority. The House of Representatives can also impeach the president with a two-thirds majority. The president is not permitted to dissolve the House of Representatives without a public referendum.
An upper chamber of the legislature, the Senate, was introduced through constitutional amendments that were passed in 2019 and was slated to come into effect the following year. Senators will serve five-year terms, with two-thirds elected directly and another one-third appointed by the president. The Senate will be tasked primarily with providing opinions and proposals on matters of national unity, social cohesion, government structure, and constitutional amendments. The chamber will have no duties regarding the appointment or removal of members of the government.
Until 1960 all government administration was highly centralized, but in that year a system of local governance was established to decentralize administration and promote greater citizen participation at the local level. The 1960 Local Administration Law provides for three levels of subnational administration—muḥāfaẓāt (governorates; singular muḥāfaẓah), markaz (districts or counties), and qariyyah (villages). The structure combines features of both local administration and local self-government. There are two councils at each administrative level: an elected people’s council and an executive council that is appointed. Although these councils exercise broad legislative powers, they are controlled by the central government.
The country is divided into 27 governorates. Four cities—Cairo, Alexandria, Port Said, and Suez—have governorate status. The governor is appointed and can be dismissed by the president of the republic. The governor is the highest executive authority in the governorate, has administrative authority over all government personnel except judges in the governorate, and is responsible for implementing policy.
The governorate council is composed of a majority of elected members. According to law, at least half of the members of the governorate council are to be farmers and workers. In practice, however, it has not been possible to achieve this ratio, in part because farmers work long hours with little spare time to run for office, let alone attend long meetings. Moreover, many older farmers and workers do not have a high enough level of formal education to serve effectively. The town or district councils and the village councils are established on the same principles as those underlying the governorate councils.
Governorate and local councils perform a wide variety of functions in education, health, public utilities, housing, agriculture, and communications; they are also responsible for promoting the cooperative movement and for implementing parts of the national plan. Local councils obtain their funds from national revenue, a tax on real estate within the governorate, miscellaneous local taxes or fees, profits from public utilities and commercial enterprises, and national subsidies, grants, and loans.
The 2014 constitution emphasizes the independent nature of the judiciary. There is to be no external interference with the due processes of justice. Judges are subject to no authority other than the law; they cannot be dismissed and are disciplined in the manner prescribed by law. Judges are appointed by the state, with the prior approval of the Supreme Judicial Council. The council is also responsible for the affairs of all judicial bodies; its composition and special functions are specified by law.
The court structure can be regarded as falling into four categories, each of which has a civil and criminal division. These courts of general jurisdiction include district tribunals, tribunals of the first instance, courts of appeal, and the Court of Cassation; the latter is the highest court of appeal and has the power to override the rulings of lower courts. Court sessions are public, except where consideration of matters of public order or decency decides otherwise. Sentence is passed in open session.
In addition, there are special courts, such as military courts and courts of public security—the latter dealing with crimes against the well-being or security of the state. The Council of State is a separate judicial body, dealing especially with administrative disputes and disciplinary actions. The Supreme Constitutional Court in Cairo is the highest court in Egypt. Its functions include judicial review of the constitutionality of laws and regulations and the resolution of judicial conflicts among the courts.
Egypt was the first Arab country to abolish the Sharīʿah (Islamic law) court system (1956); other courts dealing with religious minorities were also closed. Personal status issues—such as marriage, divorce, and inheritance—are now adjudicated by civil courts. The civil and penal codes as well as court procedure are based on French law, but these are influenced by Sharīʿah.
After 1962 all popular participation and representation in the political process were through the Arab Socialist Union (ASU). In 1976, however, the ASU was split into three “pulpits”: left, centre, and right. Other political parties soon formed and were recognized by a law adopted in June 1977. Having been eclipsed by the new political parties by 1978, the ASU was officially abolished by constitutional amendment in 1980.
Until 2011 the National Democratic Party (NDP), formed by Pres. Anwar Sadat in 1978, served as the official government party and held nearly all the seats in the People’s Assembly. Officially unrepresented were the communists, the Muslim Brotherhood, and the extreme religious groups. However, dozens of candidates who were elected as “independents” in the 2005 election for the People’s Assembly were actually members of the Muslim Brotherhood. Following Mubarak’s resignation in 2011, the NDP was dissolved. A variety of political groups, including some that had previously been banned, began to organize political parties and seek official recognition. The Muslim Brotherhood launched its political party, the Freedom and Justice Party, in early 2011. The party outperformed all others in legislative and presidential elections in 2011 and 2012 and operated freely until July 2013, when Morsi was deposed by the military and a massive crackdown against the Muslim Brotherhood was undertaken. Constitutional amendments that were passed in early 2014 restored a pre-2011 ban on political parties based on religion.
Egypt maintains one of the largest and strongest military forces in the region. Roughly three-fourths of its overall military strength is in the army. The remainder is divided between the air force (including the air defense command) and navy. The army is equipped with large numbers of state-of-the-art main battle tanks along with field artillery and other armoured equipment. The air force has several hundred high-performance combat aircraft, and the navy has a small fleet composed mostly of coastal patrol craft, but that also includes frigates, destroyers, and submarines. Most importantly, the country is one of the few in the region with its own military industrial complex. Egyptian firms connected with the government manufacture light armoured vehicles and missiles (short and medium range) and assemble some of their heavy armoured vehicles under contracts with foreign firms. The officer corps has traditionally played a prominent role in politics. As part of the peace process with Israel, the United States has provided the country with large amounts of military aid.
There are a number of paramilitary units, which are mostly responsible for internal security. The largest of these, the Central Security Forces (CSF), reports to the Ministry of the Interior and maintains troop strength nearly as high as the army. Much smaller are the National Guard, Border Guard Forces, and the Coast Guard. As is the case with many countries of the region, the intelligence services are ubiquitous and play an important role in internal security.
Both the military and paramilitary services rely on conscription to fill their ranks, with the service obligation for males beginning at age 18. An additional period of service in the military reserve is generally required after discharge. Living conditions, particularly for members of the CSF, are poor and pay is low. A short rebellion by members of the CSF in the mid-1980s led to several hundred deaths.
The Ministry of the Interior has direct control and supervision over all police and security functions at the governorate, district, and village levels. At the central level, the deputy minister for public security is responsible for general security, emigration, passports, port security, criminal investigation, ministerial guards, and emergency services. The deputy minister for special police is responsible for civil defense, traffic, prison administration, tourist police, and police transport and communications.
The budget of the Ministry of Health has reflected an increasing expenditure on public-health programs, especially since the 1990s. The numbers of government health centres, beds in public hospitals, doctors, and dentists have increased significantly. An important aspect of health-care development in Egypt always has been the expansion of facilities in the rural areas. In the mid-20th century, rural people had access to health care primarily through a local facility that functioned simultaneously as a health centre, school, social-welfare unit, and agricultural extension station. By the early 21st century, hundreds of hospitals and thousands of smaller health units were serving rural communities. The quality of these facilities was often low, however, prompting many rural residents to seek treatment at Islamic health care centres, which were generally superior to those of the government.
Well-trained physicians and specialists are available in large numbers in the cities and larger towns. The medical profession has prestige, and only the better qualified high school graduates are accepted into medical schools.
Significant efforts have been made to promote preventive medicine. Compulsory vaccination against smallpox, diphtheria, tuberculosis, and poliomyelitis is enforced for all infants during their first two years. Schistosomiasis, a parasitic disease that is widespread among the rural population, presents a serious health problem. All health centres offer treatment against it, but reinfection can easily occur. Epidemics of malaria have been eliminated, but the disease still exists in endemic form, mainly in southern Egypt. Treatment for malaria is provided at all health centres, and the spraying of houses in mosquito-breeding areas is carried out regularly. Attention has also been given to the problem of tuberculosis; centres have been established in every governorate, and mass X-ray and immunization campaigns have been carried out.
The government has attempted to socialize medicine through such measures as nationalizing and controlling pharmaceutical industries, nationalizing hospitals run by private organizations and associations, and expanding health insurance. Since the 1970s, however, private hospitals and clinics have outstripped the quality of state-run facilities. A health insurance law, passed in 1964, provides for compulsory health coverage for workers in firms employing more than 100 persons, as well as for all governmental and public employees. Poorer Egyptians often seek medical care at clinics or hospitals run by Islamic groups.
Egypt has faced a serious urban housing shortage since World War II. The situation subsequently became aggravated by increased migration from rural to urban areas, resulting in extreme urban overcrowding. Although there is considerable concern over the housing problem, the combined efforts of both public and private sectors have struggled to meet the growing demand. Nearly three-fifths of all private investment went into residential construction during the mid-1980s. In the late 1990s, enormous resources were devoted to improving hundreds of identified slums, and nearly a score of new development areas and cities were constructed. Confounding the problem, however, was the increase in the urban population, estimated at more than two-fifths during the same period. In 2004 the available housing amounted to roughly a quarter million units, but the demand continued greatly to exceed that supply. Furthermore, many units remained vacant because they were overpriced or subject to assorted legal restrictions and other bureaucratic obstacles.
In the rural areas villagers build their own houses at little cost with the materials available; however, local contractors are forbidden by law from converting valuable topsoil into bricks. The government has experimented in aiding self-help projects with state loans. Ambitious rural housing projects have been carried out on newly reclaimed land; entire villages with all the necessary utilities have been built.
At the end of the 19th century, there were only three state-sponsored secondary and nine higher schools in Egypt; the educational structure continued to be based on maktabs, or kuttābs (schools devoted to teaching the Qurʾān), for primary education, and on madrasahs (Islamic colleges) for higher education. In 1923 a law was passed providing free compulsory education between the ages of 7 and 12, although that was not fully enforced until the early 1950s. There was a sharp increase in funding for education after World War II, and following the revolution of 1952 progress accelerated. One of the most significant features of this progress has been the spread of women’s education, and there has been a sharp increase in the number of women attending university. Women are no longer confined to the home; many fields of employment, including the professions and even politics, are now open to them. A further result of the expansion of education has been the emergence of an intellectual elite and the growth of a middle class, consisting of members of the professions, government officials, and businessmen. Because of advances in the provision of education services, literacy rates have gradually risen; a growing two-thirds of men are literate, while the proportion for women—though increasing quickly—is still roughly half.
There are three stages of state general education—primary (six years), preparatory (three years), and secondary (three years). Primary education between ages 6 and 12 is compulsory. Pupils who are successful in examinations have the opportunity to continue their education first at the preparatory and then at the secondary level. There are two types of secondary schools, general and technical. General high schools offer a scientific, a mathematical, and a liberal arts curriculum; most technical schools are either commercial, agricultural, or industrial.
Alongside the Ministry of Education’s system of general education, there is that provided by the institutes associated with al-Azhar University, centred on al-Azhar Mosque (founded 970) in the old quarter of Cairo. Al-Azhar has been an Islamic teaching centre for more than 1,000 years. Instruction is given at levels equivalent to those of the state schools, but in order to allow for greater emphasis on traditional Islamic subjects, the duration of training is lengthened by one year at the preparatory stage and two at the secondary. A large-scale modernization of the college-level curriculum, making it comparable to those of other state universities, has been carried out since 1961.
In the 1950s there were almost 300 foreign schools in Egypt, the majority of them French; many of these have since become, to varying degrees, Egyptianized. Pupils who attend these schools, at all levels, sit for the same state certificate examinations as those in the normal state system.
The oldest state universities are Cairo (1908), Alexandria (1942), ʿAyn Shams (1950), and Asyūṭ (1957). More universities were added to the state system during and since the 1970s. There are also several private universities, the oldest being the American University in Cairo (1919).
There are many institutes of higher learning, such as the Academy of Arts, comprising the higher institutes of ballet, cinema, theatre, Arab music, Western music, folklore, art criticism, and child care. Other institutes specialize in commerce, industry, agriculture, the arts, physical culture, social service, public health, domestic economy, and languages. Courses of study lead to a degree.
Cultural milieu In spite of the many ancient civilizations with which it has come into contact, Egypt unquestionably belongs to a social and cultural tradition that is Arab and Islamic. This tradition remains a constant factor in determining how Egyptians view both themselves and the world.
The story of the cultural development of modern Egypt is, in essence, the response of this traditional system to the intrusion, at first by conquest and later by the penetration of ideas, of an alien and technology-oriented society of the West. This response covered a broad spectrum—from the rejection of new ideas and reversion to traditionalisms through self-examination and reform to the immediate acceptance of new concepts and the values that went with them. The result has been the emergence of a cultural identity that has assimilated much that is new, while remaining distinctively Egyptian. The process is at work in all branches of contemporary culture.
The population density of the inhabited area is such that the presence of people is obvious everywhere, even in the open countryside. In the early morning and the late afternoon, the fellahin can be seen in large numbers on the roads, going to or coming from the fields with their farm animals. During the entire day, the men, with their long tunics, or djellabas (gallābiyyahs), tucked up around the waist, can be seen working the land with age-old implements such as the fās (hoe) and minjal (sickle); occasionally a modern tractor is seen. In the delta older women in long black robes, younger ones in more colourful cottons, and children over age 6 help with the less strenuous tasks. In some parts of the valley, however, women over age 16 do not work in the field, and their activities are confined to the household. They seldom appear in public except with a black muslin headdress covering their heads and faces. Young children can be seen everywhere—an omnipresent reminder of the country’s high birth rate.
Lifestyles in the larger cities vary greatly from those of the countryside and are, in many ways, more akin to patterns found in urban culture worldwide. Although modesty is maintained in urban modes of dress—particularly given the tendency from the early 1980s onward for women to return to wearing the hijab—urban clothing styles differ only marginally from those found in many European cities. Likewise, foreign manners and values, mostly Western, have heavily influenced urban tastes in art, literature, cuisine, and other areas.
Throughout Egypt, the family remains the most important link in the social chain. In rural areas, particularly among the Saʿīdī of Upper Egypt and the Bedouin of the deserts, tribal identity is still strong, and great stock is put into blood relationships. There, where the control of the state is weakest, the vendetta is still a pervasive threat to civil order. Tribal affiliations are all but extinct in urban areas, but even there the day-to-day navigation of state bureaucracy and business relationships is commonly facilitated by extensive patronage systems linking the local family with far-reaching groups of relatives and friends.
Foreign influences on Egyptian cuisine as a whole have come mostly from other areas of the Mediterranean, including Greece, Turkey, and the Levant. Urban tastes, however, have been most heavily and diversely influenced from abroad. Rural tastes are represented by such dishes as fūl mudammis (ful medmes), consisting of slowly cooked fava (broad) beans and spices that is usually served with side dishes and bread and is widely considered the national food. Also much loved is mulūkhiyyah, a thick, gelatinous soup based on the leaf of the Jew’s mallow (Corchorus olitorius) that is served with meat or fowl. Kuftah, a type of spiced meatball, is also common fare. Two types of bread predominate: a whole-grain flatbread known as ʿaysh baladī (“native bread”), and a variety from refined flour known as ʿaysh shāmī (“Syrian bread”). Falafel, a fried cake of legumes, is a staple throughout the region and probably originated in Egypt. Because of the country’s dominant riverine culture, fish are prevalent, but they do not make up an enormous part of the diet. As in other countries of the Middle East, mutton is the most commonly consumed meat. Chicken is ubiquitous, and pigeon is extremely popular as a delicacy (with pigeon cotes a common sight in many villages). Some desserts have been adapted from Turkish dishes, which can be seen in the common use of the paper-thin sheets of phyllo pastry in them. Honey is the most common sweetener, and native fruits—particularly figs and dates—are used in most puddings and other desserts. Although the consumption of alcoholic beverages is proscribed under Islam, locally brewed and fermented drinks are found, and some are imported. Coffee and tea are popular refreshments.
Egyptians celebrate a number of secular and religious holidays. The former include Labor Day, Revolution Day (1952), and Armed Forces Day. Religious holidays include the two ʿīds (ʿĪd al-Aḍḥā and ʿĪd al-Fiṭr), the Prophet’s birthday, (mawlid), and Coptic Christmas (January 7).
Egypt is one of the Arab world’s literary centres and has produced many of modern Arabic literature’s foremost writers. The impact of the West is one of the recurring themes in the modern Egyptian novel, as in Tawfīq Ḥakīm’s Bird of the East (1943) and Yaḥyā Ḥaqqī’s novella The Lamp of Umm Hashim (1944). A further theme is that of the Egyptian countryside—depicted romantically at first, as in Muḥammad Ḥusayn Haykal’s Zaynab (1913), and later realistically, as in ʿAbd al-Raḥmān al-Sharqāwī’s The Land (1954) and The Peasant (1968) and in Yūsuf Idrīs’s Al-Ḥarām (1959; “The Forbidden”). A capacity to catch the colour of life among the urban poor is a characteristic quality of the early and middle work of Egypt’s greatest modern novelist, Naguib Mahfouz (Najīb Maḥfūẓ), notably in Midaq Alley (1947). Mahfouz later won the Nobel Prize for Literature for The Cairo Trilogy (1956–57). Egyptian novelists continued to enjoy critical and popular success in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, with authors such as Sonallah Ibrahim, Nawal El Saadawi, Bahaa Taher, and Alaa Al Aswany rising to international prominence.
The modern theatre in Egypt is a European importation—the first Arabic-language plays were performed in 1870. Two dramatists, both born at the turn of the 20th century, dominated its development—Maḥmūd Taymūr and Tawfīq al-Ḥakīm. The latter, a versatile and cerebral playwright, has reflected in his themes not only the development of the modern theatre but also, in embryo, the cultural and social history of modern Egypt. The changes in Egyptian society are reflected in the themes adopted by younger dramatists.
With the country’s low rates of literacy, electronic media have played an important role in spreading mass popular culture. Egyptian television has had a powerful influence on regional tastes, and viewers throughout the Arab world tune in to Egyptian programs. The country’s most popular actors enjoy wide recognition abroad.
There is a relatively long tradition of filmmaking in Egypt dating to World War I, but it was the founding of Miṣr Studios in 1934 that stimulated the growth of the Arabic-language cinema. Modern Egyptian films are shown to audiences throughout the Arab world and are also distributed in Asian and African countries. The industry is owned privately and by the state—there are many private film-production companies, as well as the Ministry of Culture’s Egyptian General Cinema Corporation. Outside Egypt, the best-known Egyptian director is Youssef Chahine, whose career as a film director spanned more than 50 years. Others include Salah Abu Sayf and Muhammad Khan. Actor Omar Sharif, who was well known among Western moviegoers of the 1960s and ’70s, first emerged as an Egyptian film celebrity in 1954 and continued to star in Egyptian films into the 21st century. Prominent singers and composers such as Umm Kulthūm, Layla Murad, Farid al-Atrash, and Muhammad Abd al-Wahhab also earned immense sums for their movie acting. Notable films include Flirtation of Girls (1949), Cairo Station (1958), Terrorism and the Kebab (1993), and Nasser 56 (1996).
Music and dance have long played an important part in Egyptian culture. Given the country’s ethnic heterogeneity, traditional Egyptian musical styles are quite diverse. Yet the types of instruments found throughout the country are similar to those used elsewhere in the Middle East and North Africa. They include the ʿūd, qānūn (a type of zither), nāy (flute), riqq (tambourine), and rabāb (type of two-string fiddle). Although much Egyptian music might suggest a minor key to the Western ear, numerous genres and repertoires employing an array of scales (or melodic frameworks) in fact yield great musical variety. Many religious groups technically eschew music, but musical traditions are ubiquitous. Muslims of the Sufi branch, for instance, are noted for their dhikr, communal repetition of the names of God, often with instrumental accompaniment and dancing. Especially in the rural south, the zār is a common purification ceremony involving singing, dancing, and playing of musical instruments. Although the muezzin’s call to prayer and the recitation of the Qurʾān have obvious melodic qualities, these practices stand in a category separate from, and not to be confused with, that of music. Nevertheless, famous Qurʾān reciters frequently have mass followings similar to those of pop stars. A variety of martial dances have been practiced by groups throughout the country, particularly among Bedouin tribes, and in earlier generations, a class of female singers known as ʿawālim (singular ʿālimah, “learned”) thrived in urban areas, performing in private venues and in the salons of the elite. During this same period, bawdy female street dancers known as ghawāzī (singular ghāziyyah) were seen as disreputable, yet that term today is often applied with much less disapprobation to women who practice rural dances. The art of raqs sharqī (“eastern dance”)—or belly dancing, as it is known in the West—thrives among a class of professional dancers who entertain at weddings, birthdays, and other holidays.
Contemporary Egyptian music embraces indigenous forms, traditional Arab music, and Western-style music. The revival of traditional Arab music, both vocal and instrumental, owes much to state sponsorship. The advent of musical recordings and, later, of radio and motion pictures fueled the rise of popular stars. The first of these was Sayyid Darwīsh (1892–1923). Muḥammad ʿAbd al-Wahhāb (c. 1900–91) was one of the leading figures in the development of this genre, as both a composer and a singer. Umm Kulthūm (1904–75) was the leading female vocalist not only of Egypt but also of the whole Arab world for almost 50 years. ʿAbd al-Ḥalīm Ḥāfiẓ (1929–77) had a successful career as both a singer and an actor. Western-style music has been a familiar component in Egyptian musical culture since the 19th century. Pioneers such as Yūsuf Greiss (1905–61) and Abū Bakr Khayrat (1910–63) succeeded in incorporating Arab elements into their Western-style compositions to give them a national colour.
A return to local lore as a source of inspiration for the arts is a generalized phenomenon in modern Egyptian culture. It has resulted in a revived interest in traditional crafts, in the collection of indigenous music, and the maintaining, with government sponsorship, of two folkloric dance ensembles—the Riḍā Troupe and the National Folk Dance Ensemble. In the visual arts the innovative and striking use of local themes gave rise to an active school of Egyptian painting and sculpture. An early product of the new aesthetic was The Awakening of Egypt (1928), a statue by Maḥmūd Mukhtār, which stands in front of Cairo University.
Egypt has one of the richest architectural traditions in the world, one that spans thousands of years and includes edifices from the Pharaonic, Hellenistic, Roman and Byzantine, Islamic, and European traditions. Numerous locations in the country have been designated UNESCO World Heritage sites for both their historic and architectural significance. From the ancient world, these locations include the ruins of the ancient city of Memphis and its necropolis, located south of Cairo, and adjacent pyramid fields—including the Pyramids of Giza and the stepped pyramid at Dahshūr; the city and necropolis at Thebes in Upper Egypt, including such prominent features as the nearby villages of Karnak and Luxor and the many tombs and ruins associated with the Valley of the Kings and the Valley of the Queens; and a series of monuments running from the ones at Abu Simbel to the Nile island of Philae in far southern Egypt. Sites from the Roman and Byzantine periods include the early Christian church of St. Menas (Abū Mīnā) near Alexandria and the Byzantine monastery of Saint Catherine’s on Mount Sinai. From the Islamic period, the old city of Cairo—often termed Islamic Cairo—is replete with prominent mosques, citadels, madrasahs, and bathhouses and fountains.
Contemporary European influences can be seen, particularly in Alexandria and Cairo, where sections of each city’s corniche are fronted by townhouses, hotels, and mansions of a distinctly European design. In all of the major cities, there are sections where such styles are dominant. Western influence can also be seen in many public buildings—particularly those from the colonial period—such as the Egyptian Museum in Cairo (1900). Ultramodern structures include the new incarnation of the ancient Library of Alexandria, Bibliotheca Alexandrina (opened 2002). There has also been a movement, beginning in the late 20th century, to combine European and Islamic architectural styles in new construction
The oldest secular learned academy in Egypt, the Institut d’Égypte, was founded in 1859, but its antecedents go back to the institute established by Napoleon in 1798. The institute was badly damaged by a fire during the uprising against Pres. Hosni Mubarak in 2011, and thousands of historic books and documents were destroyed. It reopened a year later. The Academy of the Arabic Language (1932), which was presided over by the veteran educator Taha Husayn, became, in terms of prestige and influence, one of the most important cultural institutions in Egypt.
Learned societies in Egypt support a wide variety of interests, including the physical and natural sciences, medicine, agriculture, the humanities, and the social sciences. The government has long been concerned with research, especially in science and technology. The National Research Centre was founded in 1947, and laboratory work in both pure and applied science began there in 1956. The Atomic Energy Organization was established the following year. The Academy of Scientific Research and Technology, the government body that oversees the work of many specialized research institutes, was inaugurated in 1971.
Most of the learned societies and research institutes have library collections of their own. In addition to large collections at the universities, the municipalities of Alexandria, Al-Manṣūrah, and Ṭanṭā maintain libraries. There is also a central public library in each governorate, with branches in small towns and service points in the villages. The Ministry of Culture is responsible for the Egyptian National Library (1870; Dār al-Kutub) and the National Archives (1954), both in Cairo, and the Public Libraries Administration. The Egyptian National Library, which has a large collection of printed materials, is also a centre for the collection and preservation of manuscripts. Construction of the new Bibliotheca Alexandrina was a joint venture between UNESCO and the Egyptian government.
The Ministry of Culture is also responsible for the Egyptian Museum (1902), the Coptic Museum (1910), and the Museum of Islamic Art (1881), all in Cairo; the Greco-Roman Museum (1892) in Alexandria; and for other institutions, including fine-arts museums such as the Mukhtār Museum (which houses the sculptures of Maḥmūd Mukhtār), the Nājī (Nagui) Museum, and the Museum of Modern Art, all in Cairo, and the Museum of Fine Arts in Alexandria.
The sporting culture of modern Egypt traces its roots to ancient Egypt, where wrestling, weightlifting, stick fencing, and ball games were practiced for both amusement and physical training. The 1952 revolution resulted in unprecedented government investment in sports infrastructure for schools, universities, training institutes, and clubs in an effort to expand the country’s international status.
Contemporary sports culture reveres prominent wrestlers, weightlifters (who have won most of Egypt’s Olympic medals), boxers, and swimmers. Since the early 1980s, basketball’s popularity in Egypt has risen thanks to the achievements of the men’s national team, which won the African championship in 1983. Volleyball is another team sport that enjoys a wide following, and various martial arts (including judo and tae kwon do) are popular individual sports. However, football (soccer) remains the most popular sport in the country. The Cairo clubs al-Ahlī and Zamālik can attract as many as 100,000 spectators to their games, and between them the two teams have won dozens of domestic championships and continentwide trophies. The national team, the Pharaohs, was the first African representative at the World Cup (1934) and has won the African Cup of Nations a number of times since that competition began in 1957. In 2010 Egypt became the first country to win three consecutive African Cup of Nations titles.
The Egyptian Olympic Committee was founded in 1910, and an Egyptian first participated in the Summer Games in 1912. On several occasions Egypt has boycotted the Olympics for political reasons, first in 1956 (in protest over the Suez Crisis) and again in 1976 (against apartheid in South Africa) and 1980 (over the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan). Egypt has not typically sent athletes to the Winter Games.
Although privately owned periodicals are permitted, all newspapers and magazines in Egypt are subject to supervision through the government’s Supreme Press Council. Daily newspapers include the long-established Al-Ahram, published in Cairo, and other Arabic-language papers, together with dailies in English and French. The government owns and operates the Egyptian Radio and Television Corporation, which provides programs in a variety of languages. Independent satellite companies began broadcasting in the 1990s. Egypt launched its first satellite toward the end of that decade, and Egyptians increasingly have watched programs of international origin. Despite government and Islamic censorship, all sorts of arts and information are accessible through the Internet, as well as video compact discs (VCDs) and digital videodiscs (DVDs). Cairo long has been the largest centre of publishing in the Middle East, a position increasingly challenged by Beirut and other Arab cities.
This section presents the history of Egypt from the Islamic conquests of the 7th century AD until the present day. For a discussion of Egypt’s earlier history, see Egypt, ancient.
The period of Egyptian history between the advent of Islam and Egypt’s entrance into the modern period opens and closes with foreign conquests: the Arab invasion led by ʿAmr ibn al-ʿĀṣ in AD 639–642 and the Napoleonic expedition of 1798 mark the beginning and end of the era. Within the context of Egyptian internal history alone, this era was one in which Egypt cast off the heritage of the past to embrace a new language and a new religion—in other words, a new culture. While it is true that the past was by no means immediately and completely abandoned and that many aspects of Egyptian life, especially rural life, continued virtually unchanged, it is nevertheless clear that the civilization of Islamic Egypt diverged sharply from that of the previous Greco-Roman period and was transformed under the impact of Western occupation. The subsequent history of Egypt is therefore largely a study of the processes by which Egyptian Islamic civilization evolved, particularly the processes of Arabization and Islamization. But to confine Egyptian history to internal developments is to distort it, for during that entire period Egypt was a part of a great world empire; and within this broader context, Egypt’s history is a record of its long struggle to dominate an empire—a struggle that is not without its parallels, of course, in both ancient and modern times.
The sending of a military expedition to Egypt from the caliphal capital in Medina came in a second phase of the first Arab conquests. Theretofore the conquests had been directed against lands on the northern borders of Arabia and were in the nature of raids for plunder; they had grown in scale and momentum as the Byzantine Empire and Persian Sāsānian dynasty—the two dominant political entities of the time—put up organized resistance. By 635 the Arabs had realized that in order to meet this resistance effectively they must begin the systematic occupation of enemy territory, especially Syria, where the Byzantine army was determined to halt the Arab forays.
The Arabs defeated the Byzantines and occupied the key cities of Syria and Palestine, and they vanquished the Persian army on the eastern front in Mesopotamia and Iraq. The next obvious step was to secure Syria against a possible attack launched from the Byzantine province of Egypt. Beyond this strategic consideration, Arab historians call attention to the fact that ʿAmr ibn al-ʿĀṣ, the Arab general who later conquered Egypt, had visited Alexandria as a youth and had himself witnessed Egypt’s enormous wealth. In spite of the obvious economic gain to be had from conquering Egypt, the caliph ʿUmar I, according to some sources, showed reluctance to detach ʿAmr’s expedition from the Syrian army and even tried to recall the mission once it had embarked; but ʿAmr, with or without the caliph’s permission, undertook the invasion in 639 with a small army of some 4,000 men (later reinforced). With what seems astonishing speed, the Byzantine forces were routed and had withdrawn from Egypt by 642. An attempt by a Byzantine fleet and army to reconquer Alexandria in 645 was quickly defeated by the Arabs.
Various explanations have been given for the speed with which the conquest was achieved, most of which stress the weakness of Byzantine resistance rather than Arab strength. Certainly the division of the Byzantine government and army into autonomous provincial units militated against the possibility of a concerted and coordinated response. Although there is only dubious evidence for the claim that the Copts welcomed the Arab invasion in the belief that Muslim religious tolerance would be preferable to Byzantine enforced orthodoxy and repression, Coptic support for their Byzantine oppressors was probably unenthusiastic at best. (See Coptic Orthodox Church.)
In Egypt—as in Syria, Iraq, and Iran—the Arab conquerors did little in the beginning to disturb the status quo; as a small religious and ethnic minority, they thus hoped to make the occupation permanent. Treaties concluded between ʿAmr and the muqawqis (presumably a title referring to Cyrus, archbishop of Alexandria) granted protection to the native population in exchange for the payment of tribute. There was no attempt to force, or even to persuade, the Egyptians to convert to Islam; the Arabs even pledged to preserve the Christian churches. The Byzantine system of taxation, combining a tax on land with a poll tax, was maintained, though it was streamlined and centralized for the sake of efficiency. The tax was administered by Copts, who staffed the tax bureau at all but the highest levels.
To the mass of inhabitants, the conquest must have made little practical difference, because the Muslim rulers, in the beginning at least, left them alone as long as they paid their taxes; if anything, their lot may have been slightly easier, because Byzantine religious persecution had ended. (See Melchite, monophysite, Council of Chalcedon.) Moreover, the Arabs deliberately isolated themselves from the native population, according to ʿUmar’s decree that no Arab could own land outside the Arabian Peninsula; this policy aimed at preventing the Arab tribal armies from dispersing and at ensuring a steady revenue from agriculture, on the assumption that the former landowners would make better farmers than would the Arab nomads.
As was their policy elsewhere, the conquerors refrained from using an established city such as Alexandria as their capital; instead, they founded a new garrison town (Arabic: miṣr), laid out in tribal quarters. As the site for this town they chose the strategic apex of the triangle formed by the Nile delta—at that time occupied by the Byzantine fortified township of Babylon. They named the town Al-Fusṭāṭ, which is probably an Arabized form of the Greek term for “encampment” and gives a good indication of the nature of the earliest settlement. Like garrison towns founded by the Arabs in Iraq—Al-Baṣrah and Al-Kūfah—Al-Fusṭāṭ became the main agency of Arabization in Egypt, inasmuch as it was the only town with an Arab majority and therefore required an extensive knowledge of Arabic from the native inhabitants.
The process of Arabization, however, was slow and gradual. Arabic did not displace Greek as the official language of state until 706, and there is evidence that Coptic continued to be used as a spoken language in Al-Fusṭāṭ. Given the lack of pressure from the conquerors, the spread of their religion must have been even slower than that of their language. A mosque was built in Al-Fusṭāṭ bearing the name of ʿAmr ibn al-ʿĀṣ, and each quarter of the town had its own smaller mosque. ʿAmr’s mosque served not only as the religious centre of the town but also as the seat of certain administrative and judicial activities.
Although Alexandria was maintained as a port city, Al-Fusṭāṭ, built on the Nile bank, was itself an important port and remained so until the 14th century. ʿAmr enhanced the port’s commercial significance by clearing and reopening Trajan’s Canal, so that shipments of grain destined for Arabia could be sent from Al-Fusṭāṭ to the Red Sea by ship rather than by caravan.
For more than 200 years—that is, throughout the Umayyad caliphate and well into the ʿAbbāsid—Egypt was ruled by governors appointed by the caliphs. As a province in an empire, Egypt’s status was much the same as it had been for centuries under foreign rulers whose main interest was to supply the central government with Egyptian taxes and grain. In spite of evidence that the Arab governors tried in general to collect the taxes equitably, taking into account the capacities of individual landowners to pay and the annual variations in agricultural yield, resistance to paying the taxes increased in the 8th century and sometimes erupted into rebellion in times of economic distress. Periodically, religious unrest was manifested in the form of political insurrections, especially in those exceptional times when a governor openly discriminated against the Copts by forcing them to wear distinctive clothing or, worse, by destroying their icons. Still, the official policy, especially in Umayyad times, was tolerance, partly for fiscal reasons. In order to maintain the higher tax revenues collected from non-Muslims, the Arab governors discouraged conversion to Islam and even required those who did convert to continue paying the non-Muslim tax. New Christian churches were sometimes built, and the government took an interest in the selection of patriarchs.
More than just a source of grain and taxes, Egypt also became a base for Arab-Muslim expansion by both land and sea. The former Byzantine shipyards in Alexandria provided the nucleus of an Egyptian navy, which between 649 and 669 joined in expeditions with Muslim fleets from Syria against the islands of Rhodes, Cyprus, and Sicily and defeated the Byzantine navy in a major battle at Phoenix (present-day Finike, Tur.) in 655. By land, the Arab armies advanced both to the south and to the west. As early as 651–652 the governor of Egypt invaded Nubia and imposed a treaty that required the Nubians to pay an annual tribute and to permit the unmolested practice of Islam in the province. Raids against North Africa by Arab armies based in Egypt began in 647; by 670 the Arabs had succeeded in establishing a garrison city in Ifrīqiyyah (now Tunisia), called Kairouan (Al-Qayrawān), which thenceforth displaced Egypt as the base for further expansion.
While some Arabs were passing through Egypt on their way to campaign in North Africa, others were being sent to the Nile valley on a permanent basis. In addition to tribal contingents that at times escorted newly appointed governors to Egypt (some of which settled in towns), tribesmen were sometimes imported and settled in an effort to increase the Arab-Muslim concentration in the vicinity of Al-Fusṭāṭ. The settlement of large numbers of anarchic tribesmen in Egypt, with tribal ties and allegiances elsewhere in the empire, meant that Egypt often became embroiled in political difficulties with the central government. Civil strife centring on the assassination of the caliph ʿUthmān ibn ʿAffān (656) began in Egypt, where the tribesmen resented the favouritism shown by the caliph to members of his own family. Uprisings led by the dissident Khārijite sect were frequent in the mid-8th century. In the 9th century the ʿAbbāsid caliph al-Maʾmun (reigned 813–833) himself led an army from Iraq to put down a rebellion raised both by tribesmen and by Copts; repression of the Copts accompanying their defeat in 829–830 is usually cited as an important factor in accelerating conversion to Islam.
The difficulty inherent in ruling Egypt from Baghdad, which was itself undergoing stress and turbulence, is evident from the rapid turnover in governors assigned to Egypt; al-Maʾmūn’s father, the caliph Hārūn al-Rashīd (ruled 786–809), for example, appointed 24 governors in a reign of 23 years. In order to strengthen their armies, the ʿAbbāsid caliphs had begun early in the 9th century to form contingents of Turkish slaves known as mamlūks (“owned men”). To finance these new military formations and, in particular, to pay the Turkish commanders who headed them, the caliphs began to give them administrative grants (iqṭāʿ in Arabic, usually translated, albeit inaccurately, “fief”) consisting of tax revenues from certain territories.
Possibly as a means of both removing the governorship from the level of tribal strife and paying the central government’s Turkish mamlūks, the caliphs began assigning the administration of Egypt to Turks rather than to Arabs. But this policy resulted in no tangible improvement in the administration of Egyptian affairs until 868, when Egypt was granted as a fief to the Turkish general Babak, who chose to remain in Iraq but appointed his stepson, a young mamlūk named Aḥmad ibn Ṭūlūn, as his agent in Egypt. Ibn Ṭūlūn’s great achievement was that he quickly established his own authority in Egypt and backed it up with an army of his own creation, powerful enough to defy the central government of Baghdad and to embark upon foreign expansion.
Though short-lived, the Ṭūlūnid dynasty succeeded in restoring a measure of Egypt’s ancient glory and inaugurated a new phase of Egyptian history. For the first time since the pharaohs, Egypt became virtually autonomous and the bulk of its revenues remained within its borders. What is more, Egypt became the centre of a small empire when Aḥmad conquered Syria and Palestine in 878–879. These developments were paralleled in other provinces of the ʿAbbāsid empire and were the direct result of the decline of the caliph’s power.
Aḥmad’s first step upon his arrival in Egypt was to eliminate possible rivals. From an early date the administration of Egypt had been divided between the amīr (military governor), appointed by the caliph, and the ʿāmil (fiscal officer), who was sometimes appointed by the caliph, sometimes by the governor. When Aḥmad entered Egypt in 868 he found the office of ʿāmil filled by one Ibn al-Mudabbir, who over a period of years had gained control of Egyptian finances, enriching himself in the process, and was therefore reluctant to acknowledge Aḥmad’s authority. A struggle for power soon broke out between the two, which ended four years later with the transfer of Ibn al-Mudabbir to Syria and the assumption of his duties and powers by Aḥmad. An even more important step for Aḥmad was the acquisition of an army that would be independent of the caliphate and loyal to him. To build such an army, Aḥmad resorted to the same method the caliphs themselves used—the purchase of mamlūks who could be trained as military units loyal to their owner.
In 877, when Aḥmad failed to pay Egypt’s full contribution to the ʿAbbāsid campaign during the Zanj rebellion in Iraq, the caliphal government, dominated by the caliph’s brother al-Muwaffaq, realized that Egypt was slipping from imperial control. An expedition dispatched by al-Muwaffaq to remove Aḥmad from the governorship failed. Taking advantage of the caliphate’s preoccupation with the revolt, Aḥmad in 878 invaded Palestine and Syria, where he occupied the principal cities and garrisoned them with his troops. Thereafter he signified his autonomy by imprinting his name on the coinage along with that of the caliph. Although the regent al-Muwaffaq lacked the resources to engage Aḥmad in battle, he did have him publicly cursed in the mosques of the empire as a means of retaliation.
Internally, Aḥmad took active measures to raise Egyptian agricultural productivity and thereby to increase tax revenues; the huge surplus he left in the state treasury at his death in 884 is a measure of his success. Another tangible indication of his achievement for Egypt is the enormous mosque, the Mosque of Ahmad ibn Tulun, which he erected in a suburb of Al-Fusṭāṭ that is now Cairo; in contrast, no building comparable in grandeur had even been contemplated by the governors who preceded him.
The great benefits Aḥmad had gained for Egypt by keeping its resources within the country were squandered by his son and successor, Khumārawayh. He expended huge sums on luxurious appointments for his residence and paid a fortune as a dowry for a daughter he married to the caliph al-Muʿtaḍid (reigned 892–902) in 895. Nevertheless, Khumārawayh was able to maintain the Egyptian armies in the field, and he led them to victory both in Syria and in Mesopotamia. He resolved his father’s conflict with the caliphate by a combination of arms and diplomacy, so that Khumārawayh’s authority over Egypt, Syria, and Mesopotamia was given official caliphal recognition. This apparent strength evaporated when Khumārawayh was murdered in 896, leaving no funds with which his 14-year-old heir could pay the troops. The entire country fell into anarchy, which lasted until 905 when a caliphal army invaded Egypt and momentarily restored it to the status of a province ruled by governors sent from Baghdad.
For 30 years the governors were unable to restore stability in Egypt. During this time, Egypt was subjected to attacks from the Shīʿite Fāṭimid dynasty based in North Africa and to the rampages of an unruly domestic army. The appointment of Muḥammad ibn Ṭughj, from Sogdiana in Central Asia, as governor in 935 led to a repetition of Aḥmad’s achievement; by bold measures Muḥammad established his authority over the treasury and the army, reasserted Egyptian influence in Syria, thwarted the Fāṭimids, and won the governorship of the holy cities of Arabia (Mecca and Medina). In addition, he founded a dynasty; his sons inherited his Sogdian princely title of ikhshīd, but their authority was usurped by their Abyssinian (Ethiopian) slave tutor, Abū al-Misk Kāfūr, who eventually ruled Egypt with the caliph’s sanction. When Kāfūr died in 968 the Ikhshīdids were unable to maintain order in the army and the bureaucracy. In the following year the Fāṭimids took advantage of the disorder in Egypt to launch yet another attack, this one so successful that it led to the occupation of the country by a Berber army led by the Fāṭimid general Jawhar.
The establishment of the Fāṭimid caliphate in 973 in the newly built palace city of Cairo had dramatic consequences for the evolution of Islamic Egypt. Politically, the Fāṭimids went a step further than the Ṭūlūnids by setting up Egypt as an independent rival to the ʿAbbāsid caliphate. In fact, an avowed aim of the early Fāṭimid propagandists (Arabic: duʿāh, singular dāʿī) was to achieve world dominion, eradicating the ʿAbbāsid caliphate in the process. For a variety of reasons they achieved neither of these goals; nevertheless, at the height of Fāṭimid power at the beginning of the 11th century, the Fāṭimid caliph could claim sovereignty over the whole of coastal North Africa, Sicily, the Hejaz and Yemen in Arabia, and southern Syria and Palestine. Although actual political-military control was never firm except in Egypt, allegiance paid to the Fāṭimids by their provinces was just as meaningful as that paid to the ʿAbbāsids and for a time was certainly more widespread. Even when the Fāṭimid state fell into decline later in the 11th century and abandoned its imperial vision, Egypt continued to play an independent role in the Islamic world under the leadership of Armenian generals who had gained control of the Fāṭimid armies.
It is difficult to estimate the religious change effected by the new dynasty except on the level of the governmental elite, which espoused the official doctrine of Ismāʿīlī Shīʿism—the branch that held all authority to inhere in the line of Ismāʿīl, who had predeceased his father, the sixth ʿAlid imām Jaʿfar ibn Muḥammad. Because they believed that the Fāṭimid caliph was the only legitimate leader, the practice of Sunni Islam was theoretically outlawed in Fāṭimid domains. But the practical difficulties which the Ismāʿīlī minority faced in imposing its will on the Sunnī majority meant that the Muslim population of Egypt remained predominantly Sunni throughout the Fāṭimid period. Certainly there was no public outcry when Saladin, who founded the Ayyūbid dynasty, restored Egypt to Sunni rule in 1171. Regarding non-Muslims, the Fāṭimids, with one notable exception, were known for their tolerance, and the Copts continued to serve in the bureaucracy. Several Copts held the highest administrative post—the vizierate—without changing their religion. Jews also figured prominently in the government; in fact, a Jewish convert to Islam, Ibn Killis, was the first Fāṭimid vizier and is credited with laying the foundations of the Fāṭimid administrative system, in which the viziers exercised great power. Christians and Jews even managed to survive the reign of the so-called mad caliph, al-Ḥākim (reigned 996–1021), who ordered the destruction of Christian churches in Fāṭimid territory, including the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, and offered his non-Muslim subjects the choice of conversion to Islam or expulsion from Fāṭimid territory. This period of persecution undoubtedly accelerated the rate of conversion to Islam, if only on a temporary and superficial level.
In comparison with Iraq, Egypt contributed relatively little to Arabic literature and Islamic learning during the early ʿAbbāsid period. But the Fāṭimids’ intense interest in propagating Ismāʿīlī Shīʿism through a network of missionary propagandists made Egypt an important religious and intellectual centre. The founding of the mosque-college of al-Azhar as well as of other academies drew Shīʿite scholars to Egypt from all over the Muslim world and stimulated the production of original contributions in literature, philosophy, and the Islamic sciences.
The Arabization of Egypt continued at a gradual pace. The early Fāṭimids’ reliance on Amazigh (Berber) troops was soon balanced by the importation of Turkish, Sudanese, and Arab contingents. The Fāṭimids are said to have used thousands of nomadic Arabs in the Egyptian cavalry and to have further stimulated Arabization by settling large numbers of Arabian tribesmen in Upper Egypt to deprive the Qarmaṭians—their Ismāʿīlī rivals in Iraq and Arabia—of Arab tribal support. On the other hand, the Fāṭimids reduced the Arab population of Egypt in the mid-11th century when they incited the Banū Hilāl and the Banū Ṣulaym tribes to emigrate from Egypt into the neighbouring Amazigh kingdom of Ifrīqiyyah.
One of the most far-reaching changes in Fāṭimid times was the growth of Egyptian commerce, especially in Al-Fusṭāṭ, which had become the port city for Cairo, the Fāṭimid capital. Theretofore, Iraq in the east and Tunisia in the west had been flourishing centres for trade conducted both within the Muslim world and between the Muslim and the Christian empires of the West. A number of factors contributed to alter this situation in favour of Egypt. As centralized power declined in Iraq, Mesopotamia, and Syria during the 9th and 10th centuries, traffic on the trade routes across these areas also declined. In Egypt, however, the establishment of a strong government, which soon controlled the Red Sea and maintained a strong navy in the eastern Mediterranean, offered an attractive alternative for the international transit trade between the Eastern and Western worlds. In addition to having the political stability essential for trade, the Fāṭimids encouraged commerce by their low tariff policy and their noninterference in the affairs of merchants who did business in Egypt. These factors, along with increased European mercantile activity in the Italian cities, helped restore Egypt as a great international entrepôt.
The Fāṭimid achievement in restoring to Egypt a measure of its ancient glory was remarkable but brief. Halfway through their history the political-religious authority of the Fāṭimid caliphs was vitiated by military uprisings that could be put down only by force. By 1163 the Fāṭimid caliph had been shunted aside in a power struggle between the vizier and the chamberlain, who were themselves so impotent that they had to seek help from the Sunni and even from the Crusader powers of Syria and Palestine. Thus began a series of invasions at the behest of Fāṭimid officials, which ended in 1169 with the occupation of Egypt by an army from Syria, one of whose commanders—Saladin—was appointed Fāṭimid vizier. Two years later Saladin restored Egypt to ʿAbbāsid allegiance, abolished the Fāṭimid caliphate, and, in effect, established the Ayyūbid dynasty.
Under Saladin and his descendants, Egypt was reintegrated into the Sunni world of the eastern caliphate. Indeed, during the period of the Crusades, Egypt became champion of that world against the Crusaders and, as such, chief target of the Crusader armies. But this was a gradual process that required Saladin first to build an army strong enough to establish his power in Egypt and then to unite the factions of Syria and Mesopotamia under his leadership against the Europeans. By so doing he reconstituted the Egyptian empire, which included, in addition to the areas just named, Yemen, the Hejaz, and, with his victory at Ḥaṭṭīn and subsequent capture of Jerusalem (1187), a major part of the Holy Land.
The abolition of the Fāṭimid caliphate and the official reinstitution of Sunni Islam seems to have caused little perturbation in Egypt except for an uprising by the Fāṭimid palace guard, quickly suppressed. This undoubtedly meant that Ismāʿīlī Shīʿism was confined to Fāṭimid ruling circles.
Saladin’s remission of all taxes not explicitly sanctioned by Islamic law must have contributed to his own popularity as well as to the stability of his regime. To ensure the defense of his state against both internal and external enemies, he strengthened the fortifications of Cairo by building a citadel and extending the Fāṭimid city walls. Despite the major military and propagandistic efforts he mounted against the Crusaders, Saladin continued to treat the Christians of Egypt with tolerance; the Coptic Church thrived under the Ayyūbids, and Copts still served the government. Saladin also treated the Christians of Jerusalem with magnanimity after the conquest of that city. Under Saladin the Jewish community enjoyed protection, and such noted scholars as Moses Maimonides—who was the sultan’s personal physician—settled there.
Much to the consternation of the popes, trade between Egypt and the Italian city-states remained brisk, and the Egyptians were able to use raw materials provided by the Italian merchants to forge weapons against the Crusaders. The administration of Egypt stayed in the hands of the vast, mainly civilian, bureaucracy but was supervised by military officials.
The Ayyūbids introduced a significant change in the governance of their empire that was decisive for the history of their rule in Egypt. Though the Ayyūbids were themselves of Kurdish descent, Saladin followed the Turkish practice of assigning the provinces as fiefdoms to members of his family. In theory, such a measure would ensure the loyalty of the provinces to the central government of Egypt through the loyalty of Ayyūbid kinsmen to their family leader. In practice, however, the measure led to recurrent power struggles in which each governor used his province as a base from which to defy the supreme Ayyūbid power of Egypt. The sultans al-Malik al-ʿĀdil (reigned 1207–18) and al-Malik al-Kāmil (reigned 1218–38) each succeeded in reuniting Syria and Egypt under his own leadership. Kāmil, especially, was able to exploit Frankish attacks—in the form of the Fifth Crusade, directed against Damietta—to rally family and provincial support for the defense of Egypt. Nevertheless, given the dissension within the Ayyūbid empire, it was clearly in the interest of the Egyptian sultan to reach a peaceful settlement with the Crusaders; this was achieved in 1229 by a truce between Kāmil and the Holy Roman emperor Frederick II. The agreement stipulated that Kāmil exchange possession of Jerusalem and other territory in the Holy Land for Frederick’s guarantee to support the sultan against aggression from any source.
The only real security for Ayyūbid Egypt lay in its independent military strength. This explains why one of the last sultans, al-Ṣāliḥ Ayyūb (reigned 1240, 1245–49), resorted to increased purchase of Turkish mamlūks as a means of manning his armies. Although slave troops had formed an important part of Egyptian armies since the time of Aḥmad ibn Ṭūlūn, their strength had been checked by racial dissension among the various slave units and by the presence of nonslave elements. But after the death of al-Ṣālih Ayyūb in the course of the Crusade of Louis IX—which mamlūk troops were crucial in thwarting—a group of rebellious mamlūks assassinated his son and successor Tūrān-Shah and elevated al-Ṣālih’s wife Shajar al-Durr to the throne in 1250. Her brief rule marked the first time a woman had ruled Egypt since Roman times, but, pressured by the rebellious Ayyūbid emirs in Syria and by the ʿAbbāsid caliph in Baghdad (all of whom demanded that a man rule Egypt), she married a mamlūk general named Aybak. The assassination in 1257 of both queen and consort occurred barely a year before Mongol armies stormed Baghdad and put an end to the ʿAbbāsid caliphate, leaving military slaves to rule Egypt with no legitimizing authority. High ranking mamlūks had played a role in politics in the Islamic world since the 9th century; some had even seized political control (as in the Ghaznavid dynasty of Turkey). But for the first time a system arose—in what otherwise might have been a dynastic interregnum—wherein former slaves stood at the head of a self-perpetuating slave dynasty. This new order, which came at a time when the light of Baghdad had been extinguished and which lasted for two and a half centuries, brought Egypt to a new cultural and political flowering.
During the Mamlūk period Egypt became the unrivaled political, economic, and cultural centre of the eastern Arabic-speaking zone of the Muslim world. Symbolic of this development was the reestablishment in 1261 under the Mamlūk rulers of the ʿAbbāsid caliphate—destroyed by the Mongols in their sack of Baghdad three years earlier—with the arrival in Cairo of a youth claiming ʿAbbāsid lineage. Although the caliph enjoyed little authority, had no power, and was of dubious authenticity, the mere fact that the Mamlūks chose to maintain the institution in Cairo is a measure of their determination to dominate the Arab-Islamic world and to legitimize their own rule. It is curious that the Mamlūks—all of whom were of non-Arab (most were Turks and, later, Circassians), non-Muslim origin and some of whom knew little if any Arabic—founded a regime that established Egypt’s supremacy in Arab culture.
Mamlūk legitimacy also rested on the regime’s early military successes, particularly those against the Mongols, who were seen by many contemporaries as undefeatable and as a threat to the very existence of Islam as a political culture. In 1260, two years after the demoralizing sack of Baghdad, the Mongol leader sent an ambassador to Egypt to deliver terms of surrender. The Mamlūk leader, Quṭuz, who had come to power after the death of Aybak and Shajar al-Durr, ordered the Mongol ambassador put to death, thus insuring war against what seemed an unbeatable adversary. After their victory at the Battle of ʿAyn Jālūt later that year, however, the Mamlūks were able to roll back the Mongol armies from the Levant. This victory, and the success of subsequent Mamlūk sultans against the Crusaders in Syria and Palestine, lent a certain sanction to Mamlūk rule that it may otherwise never have attained.
The political history of the Mamlūk state is complex; during their 264-year reign, no fewer than 45 Mamlūks gained the sultanate, and once, in desperate circumstances, a caliph (in 1412) was briefly installed as sultan. At times individual Mamlūks succeeded in establishing dynasties, most notably Sultan Qalāʾūn (reigned 1279–90), whose progeny ruled Egypt, with two short interruptions, until 1382. Often the Mamlūks chose to allow a sultan’s son to succeed his father only for as long as it took another Mamlūk to build up enough support to seize the throne for himself. In reality there was no principle of legitimacy other than force, for without sufficient military power a sultan could expect to be overthrown by a stronger Mamlūk. It was a period of raw political brutality seldom paralleled in world history.
Nevertheless, several sultans succeeded in harnessing the energies of the Mamlūk system to establish internal stability and to embark on foreign conquests. Soon after the Mamlūk victory over the Mongols at ʿAyn Jālūt in 1260, Baybars I seized power by assassinating Quṭuz. He was the true founder of the Mamlūk state, and he campaigned actively and with success against the remaining Crusader possessions in Palestine and Syria. He ruled until 1277. During the long reign of al-Malik al-Nāṣir (reigned 1293–1341), the Mamlūks concluded a truce with the Mongols (1323) after several major battles and, despite widespread famine, outbreaks of religious strife, and Bedouin uprisings, maintained economic prosperity in Egypt and peaceful relations with foreign powers both Muslim and Christian.
Although the state began to decline politically and economically after the death of Nāṣir in 1341, Egypt continued to dominate the eastern Arab world. But the cumulative effect of the plague (which swept Egypt in 1348 and on many occasions subsequently), Timur’s victory in Syria in 1400, and Egypt’s loss to the Portuguese of control over the Indian trade, along with the sultans’ inability to keep their refractory Mamlūk corps under control, gradually sapped the strength of the state. The best efforts of such a vigorous sultan as Qāʾit Bāy (reigned 1468–96) failed to make Egypt strong enough to defend its Syrian provinces against raids by the Turkoman states of Anatolia and Azerbaijan and campaigns of the Ottoman Empire.
By the time of the Mamlūks, the Arabization of Egypt must have been almost complete. Arabic had been the language of the bureaucracy since the early 8th century and the language of religion and culture even longer. Moreover, the prevalence of Arabic as a written and spoken language is attested by the discovery in the genizah (storeroom) of a Cairo synagogue of thousands of letters and documents—called the Genizah Documents—dating from the 11th through the 13th century. Though often written in Hebrew characters, the actual language of most of these documents is Arabic, which proves that Arabic was widely used even by non-Muslims. The main incentive for learning Arabic must have come from the desire of a subject population to learn the administrative and scholarly language of the ruling and learned elite. The immigration of Arab tribesmen during the early centuries of the occupation, and their intermarriage with the indigenous inhabitants, must also have contributed to the gradual spread of Arabic in Egypt.
The specific Mamlūk contribution to Arabic culture (i.e., the ethnically diverse community united by the Arabic language), however, lay above all in military achievement. By defeating the Mongols, the Mamlūks provided a haven in Syria and in Egypt for Muslims fleeing from Mongol devastation. The extent of this haven was narrowed by subsequent Mongol attacks against Syria, one of which led to a brief Mongol occupation of Damascus in 1294–95, so that Egypt received an influx of refugees from Syria itself as well as from areas farther east.
This accidental displacement of scholars and artisans into Egypt does not, however, wholly account for the efflorescence of certain types of cultural activity under the Mamlūks. In the same way that they supported the caliphate as a visible symbol of their legitimate claim to rule Islamic territory, the Mamlūks cultivated and patronized religious leaders whose skills they needed in administering their empire and in directing the religious sentiments of the masses into safe (i.e., nondisruptive) channels. Those divines who cooperated with the state were rewarded with government offices in the case of the ʿulamāʾ (religious scholars) and with endowed zāwiyahs (monasteries) in the case of the Sufis (mystics). On the other hand, those who dared criticize the prevailing social and moral order were thrown into prison; such was the fate of renowned legist Ibn Taymiyyah (1263–1328), who, having emigrated from Mesopotamia to escape the Mongols, was incarcerated in Cairo by the Mamlūks for spreading doctrines that their religious functionaries considered heresy.
Concrete evidence of the stimulus the Mamlūks gave to cultural life in an era of economic prosperity can be found chiefly in the fields of architecture and historiography. Dozens of public buildings erected under Mamlūk patronage are still standing in Cairo and include mosques, madrasahs (colleges), hospitals, zāwiyahs, and caravansaries. Historical writing under the Mamlūks was equally monumental, in the form of immense chronicles, biographical dictionaries, and encyclopaedias. (See Ibn Khallikān, al-ʿUmarī, Ibn Kathīr, Ibn Khaldūn.)
The Mamlūk period is also important in Egyptian religious history. With few and therefore notable exceptions, the Muslim rulers of Egypt had seldom interfered with the lives of their Christian and Jewish subjects so long as these groups paid the special taxes (known as jizyah) levied on them in exchange for state protection. Indeed, both Copts and Jews had always served in the Muslim bureaucracy, sometimes in the very highest administrative positions. Even the Crusades apparently failed to upset the delicate balance between Muslims and Christians. Trade with the Italian city-states had certainly continued, and there is no evidence that the local Christians were held accountable for the Crusader invasions of Egypt.
With the establishment of the Mamlūk sultanate, however, it is generally agreed that the lot of the Christians, both in Egypt and in Syria, took a distinct turn for the worse. One indication of this change is the increased production of anti-Christian polemics written by Muslim theologians. A possible reason for the change may have been the association of Christians with the Mongol peril. Because the Mongols used Christian auxiliaries in their armies—Georgians and Armenians in particular—they often spared the Christian populations of towns they conquered, while slaughtering the Muslims. Also, the diplomatic efforts aimed at uniting the Mongols with Christian European powers in a joint Crusade against the Muslims might have contributed to the Mamlūks’ distrust of the Christians. But the dissatisfaction seems to have originated not so much with the Mamlūk rulers as with the masses, and it seems to have been directed not so much against Christians’ sympathy for the Mongols as against their privileged position and role in the Mamlūk state.
On several occasions popular resentment against the Copts’ conspicuous wealth and their employment in the government was manifested in public demonstrations. Both Muslims and Christians resorted to arson, burning the others’ sanctuaries to express their hatred. Under such pressure, the Mamlūk government dismissed Christians from the bureaucracy on no fewer than nine occasions between 1279 and 1447. (It was usually necessary to appoint new Copts, since they alone understood the accounting system that had been used since pharaonic times.) In 1301 the Mamlūks ordered all the churches in Egypt to be closed. As a result of these intermittent persecutions and the destruction of churches, it is believed that the rate of conversion to Islam accelerated markedly in the Mamlūk period and that Coptic virtually disappeared except as a liturgical language. By the end of Mamlūk rule, the Muslims may well have reached the same numerical superiority that they enjoy in modern times—a ratio of perhaps 10:1.
In trade and commerce, the Mamlūk period marks the zenith of medieval Egyptian economic history. During the 13th and 14th centuries (as long, that is, as the sultanate was able to maintain order in Egypt), trade was heavy with Mediterranean and Black sea ports and with India. The Oriental trade was controlled largely by a group of Muslim merchants known as the Kārimīs; the Mediterranean trade was left to European traders, whom the Mamlūks allowed certain privileges in Alexandria. By the 15th century, however, Egypt’s commercial importance rapidly deteriorated as the result of population losses caused by the plague, increased government interference in commerce, Bedouin raiding, and Portuguese competition in the Indian trade.
With the Ottomans’ defeat of the Mamlūks in 1516–17, Egyptian medieval history had come full circle, as Egypt reverted to the status of a province governed from Constantinople (present-day Istanbul). Again the country was exploited as a source of taxation for the benefit of an imperial government and as a base for foreign expansion. The economic decline that had begun under the late Mamlūks continued, and with it came a decline in Egyptian culture.
Some historians attribute the lethargy of Egypt in this era solely to the rule of Constantinople. But, although Ottoman policy was geared to imperial, not Egyptian, needs, it was obviously to the rulers’ benefit to provide a stable government that would maintain Egyptian agriculture at a high level of productivity and would promote the transit trade. To a certain extent Ottoman actions served these purposes. The decisive factor that ultimately undermined Ottoman policies was the perpetuation of the former Mamlūk elite; though they collaborated with the Ottoman government, they often defied it and ultimately came to dominate it. By and large, the history of Ottoman Egypt concerns the process by which the conquered Mamlūks reasserted their power within the Egyptian state.
From the conquest itself, the Ottoman presence in Egypt was entangled with Mamlūk factionalism. There is no doubt that the Ottomans invaded Syria in 1516 to thwart an incipient coalition against Ottoman expansion between the Ṣafavid dynasty of Persia and the Mamlūks of Egypt and Syria. The long-standing enmity between the Ottomans and the Mamlūks arose from their contest to control the Turkoman frontier states north of Syria. After the Ottomans strengthened their hold over eastern Anatolia in 1514, it was only natural that the Mamlūks should attempt to bolster their forces in northern Syria and exchange diplomatic missions with the Ṣafavids. The Ottoman sultan Selim I (the Grim) responded by attacking the reinforced Mamlūk army in Syria, probably as a preliminary step in a new campaign against the Ṣafavids. In 1516, after Selim had defeated the Mamlūks at Marj Dābiq (north of Aleppo), Ottoman goals had probably been met, especially since the Mamlūk sultan Qānṣūh al-Ghawrī died in the battle. But the Mamlūks rallied around a new sultan in Cairo who refused to accept Selim’s terms for a settlement. Spurred on by the Mamlūk traitor Khayr Bey, Selim marched against Egypt in 1517, defeated the Mamlūks, and installed Khayr Bey as Ottoman governor. Khayr Bey died in 1522; thereafter, the Ottoman viceroy (called vali), with the title of pasha, was sent from Constantinople.
In 1525 the Ottoman administration of Egypt was defined and codified by the Ottoman grand vizier, İbrahim Paşa, who was dispatched to Egypt for this purpose by the sultan Süleyman I (the Magnificent). According to the terms of İbrahim Paşa’s decree (kanun-name), Egypt was to be ruled by a viceroy aided by an advisory council (divan) and an army comprising both Ottoman and local corps. The collection of taxes and the administration of the four provinces into which Egypt was divided were assigned to inspectors (kashifs). Although the Egyptian government was headed by bureaucratic officials sent from Constantinople, and supported by Ottoman troops, the Mamlūks were able to penetrate both the bureaucracy and the army. The kashifs were often drawn from Mamlūk ranks; three of the seven military corps formed by the Ottomans in the 16th century were recruited in Egypt, one of which—the Circassians—was composed of Circassian Mamlūks. Their service in the army enabled the Mamlūk amirs to secure high-ranking military posts that entitled them to serve on the divan itself.
By the 17th century a distinct elite bearing the title of bey had emerged, which consisted largely of Mamlūk emirs. These beys held no specific offices but were nevertheless paid a salary by the Ottoman government. The elite was perpetuated through the old Mamlūk system of purchasing slaves, giving them military training, then freeing them and attaching them to one of the great Mamlūk houses of Egypt. Thus, for all practical purposes, the Mamlūks maintained themselves as an elite throughout the Ottoman period. They were no longer the only political-military elite, as they had been in the past, but they ultimately succeeded in reestablishing their dominance. Yet the chief obstacle to the growth of their power was not so much the Ottoman ruling hierarchy as it was their own factionalism. During the 17th and 18th centuries, the Mamlūks were divided into two great rival houses—the Faqāriyyah and the Qāsimiyyah—whose mutual hostility often broke out into fighting and impaired the strength of the Mamlūks as a bloc.
In spite of internal dissension and the resistance of the non-Mamlūk hierarchy, the Mamlūks had emerged by the early 18th century as the supreme power in Egyptian politics. While the beys continued to acknowledge the authority of the Ottoman viceroy and to send tribute to Constantinople, the strongest single figure in Egypt was the bey who held the newly coined title of shaykh al-balad (“chief of the city”), which signified that he was recognized by the other beys as their chief. The Mamlūks’ rise to power was climaxed by the careers of two emirs—ʿAlī Bey and Abū Dhahab—both of whom secured from the Sublime Porte (Ottoman government) de facto recognition of their autonomy in Egypt (1769–75) and even undertook military campaigns in Syria and the Hejaz. The Ottomans attempted to end the Mamlūk domination by sending an army to Egypt in 1786. Although it was initially successful, this attempt failed and the troops were withdrawn a year later. A Mamlūk duumvirate (two-person ruling coalition) was reestablished consisting of Murād Bey and Ibrāhīm Bey and lasted until Napoleon invaded Egypt in 1798.
During the 16th century, when their regime in Egypt was strongest, the Ottomans used Egypt as a base for expansion to the south. Like the Mamlūk rulers before them, they attempted to control the southern approaches to Egypt by instituting their authority in Nubia; this they achieved by annexing Nubia as far south as the Third Cataract of the Nile River. Elsewhere, they undertook to reassert Egyptian command of the Red Sea, which the Portuguese had begun to contest during the early 16th century. Ottoman fleets and troops captured Yemen and Aden (1536–46) and thus dominated the lower Red Sea; in 1557 they strengthened this position by setting up a colony on the Abyssinian coast at Mitsiwa (now Massawa, Eritrea). In the 17th century these outposts began to lose their importance as Ottoman and Portuguese power started to decline and the Dutch took over the spice trade.
Given the political instability and the economic decline that had prevailed in Egypt since late Mamlūk times, it is not surprising that the culture of Ottoman Egypt lacked vitality. Perhaps the most telling example of intellectual quiescence was the dramatic decline in the quantity of historical works produced in Egypt. As already noted, the Mamlūk period is renowned for the number and quality of its historians, partly because the emirs patronized court historians; by contrast, in almost three centuries of Ottoman rule, Egypt produced only one historian worthy of note, Abd al-Rahman al-Jabartī in the late 18th to early 19th century, famous for his observations on the French occupation. The Ottomans also fell short of the Mamlūks’ achievement in architecture; there is no lack of public buildings erected under Ottoman patronage, but even the best of these are imitations of the Byzantine basilica, which had been adopted as the model for mosques.
Like all previous Muslim governments, the Ottomans continued to employ Copts in the financial offices of the bureaucracy. The Ottomans allowed the caliphate, so assiduously preserved in its nominal form by the Mamlūks, to lapse. At first the caliph was installed in Constantinople by Selim I. Later the caliph—purportedly the last of the ‘Abbāsid line—returned to Egypt, where he died in the reign of Süleyman. The claim that the caliph had transferred his authority to the Ottoman sultan is generally considered an 18th-century invention.
Although several projects for a French occupation of Egypt had been advanced in the 17th and 18th centuries, the purpose of the expedition that sailed under Napoleon I from Toulon in May 1798 was specifically connected with the war against Britain. Napoleon had discounted the feasibility of an invasion of England but hoped, by occupying Egypt, to damage British trade, threaten India, and obtain assets for bargaining in any future peace settlement. Meanwhile, as a colony under the benevolent and progressive administration of Revolutionary France, Egypt was to be regenerated and would regain its ancient prosperity. The military and naval forces were therefore accompanied by a commission of scholars and scientists to investigate and report the past and present condition of the country.
Eluding the British Mediterranean fleet under Horatio Nelson, the French landed at Abū Qīr (Aboukir) Bay on July 1 and took Alexandria the next day. In an Arabic proclamation, Napoleon assured the Egyptians that he came as a friend to Islam and the Ottoman sultan, to punish the usurping Mamlūks and to liberate the people. From Alexandria the French advanced on Cairo, defeating Murād Bey at Shubrākhīt (July 13), and again decisively at Imbābah, opposite Cairo in the Battle of the Pyramids on July 21. Murād fled to Upper Egypt, while his colleague, Ibrāhīm Bey, together with the Ottoman viceroy, made his way to Syria.
After entering Cairo (July 25), Napoleon sought to conciliate the population, especially the religious leaders (ʿulamāʾ), by demonstrating his sympathy with Islam and by establishing councils (divans) as a means of consulting Egyptian opinion. The destruction of the French fleet at Abū Qīr by Nelson in the Battle of the Nile on August 1 virtually cut Napoleon’s communications and made it necessary for him to consolidate his rule and to make the expeditionary force as self-sufficient as possible. The savants, organized in the Institut d’Égypte, played their part in this. Meanwhile, Egyptian resentment of alien rule, administrative innovations, and the growing fiscal burden of military occupation was exacerbated when the Ottoman sultan, Selim III (1789–1807), declared war on France on September 11. An unforeseen revolt in Cairo on October 21 was suppressed after an artillery bombardment that ended any hopes of cordial Franco-Egyptian coexistence.
Ottoman Syria, dominated by Aḥmad al-Jazzār, the governor of Acre (now ʿAkko, Israel), was the base from which French-occupied Egypt might most easily be threatened, and Napoleon resolved to deny it to his enemies. His invasion force crossed the frontier in February 1799 but failed to take Acre after a protracted siege (March 19–May 20), and Napoleon evacuated Syrian territory. A seaborne Ottoman invading force landed at Abū Qīr in July but failed to maintain its bridgehead. At this point Napoleon resolved to return to France, and he succeeded in slipping away, past the British fleet, on August 22.
His successor as general in chief, Jean-Baptiste Kléber, viewed the situation of the expeditionary force with pessimism and, like many of the soldiers, wished to return to the theatre of war in Europe. He therefore entered into negotiations with the Ottomans and by the Convention of Al-ʿArīsh (January 24, 1800) agreed to evacuate Egypt. Sir Sydney Smith, the British naval commander in the eastern Mediterranean, sponsored the convention, but in this he had exceeded his powers and was instructed by his superior officer, Admiral Lord Keith, to require the French to surrender as prisoners of war. Although the Ottoman reoccupation was well under way, Kléber and the French determined on resistance and defeated the Turkish forces at the Battle of Heliopolis (March 20). A second revolt of Cairo, fomented by Ottoman fugitives, took about a month to suppress; but French authority had been restored when Kléber was assassinated by a Syrian Muslim, Sulaymān al-Ḥalabī, on June 14.
His successor, ʿAbd Allāh Jacques Menou, a French officer (and former nobleman) who had turned Muslim, was determined to maintain the occupation and administered at first a tolerably settled country, although he lacked the prestige of his two predecessors. In 1801 a threefold invasion of Egypt began. British troops were landed at Abū Qīr in March, while the Ottomans advanced from Syria. Shortly afterward, British Indian forces were landed at Quṣayr on the Red Sea coast. The French garrison in Cairo capitulated in June and Menou himself at Alexandria in September.
The brief episode of the French occupation was to be significant for Egypt in several ways. The arrival of a European army accompanied by scholars and scientists appropriately inaugurated the impact of the West, which was to be felt increasingly afterward. Egypt, insulated for centuries by the Mamlūk and Ottoman sultanates, was no longer immune from European influence; it had become an object of the contending policies of France and Britain, a part of the Eastern Question. Napoleon’s savants had little success in interpreting Western culture to the traditionalist ʿulamāʾ of Cairo; their achievement was rather to unveil Egypt to Europe. They uncovered the celebrated Rosetta Stone, which held a trilingual inscription making it possible to decipher hieroglyphs and which thus laid the foundation of modern Egyptology. Their reports and monographs were collected in the monumental Description de l’Égypte (“Description of Egypt”), which was published in parts from 1809 to 1828 in Paris.
Of more immediate consequence for Egypt was the effect of the French occupation on internal politics. The Mamlūk ascendancy was fatally weakened. Murād Bey, who had made his peace with the French, died shortly before their capitulation in 1801, and Ibrāhīm Bey, who returned to Egypt with the Ottomans, had henceforward little power. The new Mamlūk leaders, ʿUthmān Bey al-Bardīsī (died 1806) and Muḥammad Bey al-Alfī (died 1807), former retainers of Murād, headed rival factions and had in any case to reckon with the British and Ottoman occupation forces. In March 1803 the British troops were evacuated in accordance with the Treaty of Amiens (March 27, 1802). But the Ottomans, determined to reassert their control over Egypt, remained, establishing their power through a viceroy and an occupying army, in which the most effective fighting force was an Albanian contingent. The Albanians, however, acted as an independent party and in May 1803 mutinied and installed their leader as acting viceroy. When he was assassinated shortly afterward, the command of the Albanians passed to his lieutenant, Muḥammad ʿAlī (reigned 1805–49), who, during the ensuing two years, cautiously strengthened his own position at the expense of both the Mamlūks and the Ottomans.
In May 1805 a revolt broke out in Cairo against the Ottoman viceroy, Khūrshīd Pasha. The ʿulamāʾ invested Muḥammad ʿAlī as viceroy. For some weeks there was street fighting, and Khūrshīd was besieged in the citadel. In July Sultan Selim III confirmed Muḥammad ʿAlī in office and the revolt ended.
Muḥammad ʿAlī’s viceroyalty was marked by a series of military successes, some of which were attended by political failures that frustrated his wider aims. After the renewal of war between Britain and Napoleonic France in 1803, Egypt again became an area of strategic significance. A British expedition occupied Alexandria in 1807 but failed to capture Rosetta and, after a defeat at the hands of Muḥammad ʿAlī’s forces, was allowed to withdraw.
In Arabia the domination of Islam’s holy cities, Mecca and Medina, by puritanical Wahhābī Muslims was a serious embarrassment to the Ottoman sultan, who was the titular overlord of the Arabian territory of the Hejaz and the leading Muslim sovereign. At the invitation of Sultan Mahmud II (reigned 1808–39), Muḥammad ʿAlī sent an expedition to Arabia that between 1811 and 1813 expelled the Wahhābīs from the Hejaz. In a further campaign (1816–18), Ibrāhīm Pasha, the viceroy’s eldest son, defeated the Wahhābīs in their homeland of Najd and brought central Arabia within Egyptian control. In 1820–21 Muḥammad ʿAlī sent an expedition up the Nile River and conquered much of what is now the northern portion of the Sudan. By so doing, he made himself master of one of the principal channels of the slave trade and began an African empire that was to be expanded under his successors.
After the outbreak of the Greek insurrection against Ottoman rule, Muḥammad ʿAlī, at Mahmud’s request, suppressed the Cretan revolt in 1822. In 1825 Ibrāhīm began a victorious campaign in the Morea in southern Greece, where his military success provoked intervention by the European powers and brought on the destruction of the Ottoman and Egyptian fleets at the Battle of Navarino (October 20, 1827). The Morea was evacuated the following year.
In 1831 Muḥammad ʿAlī embarked upon the invasion of Syria. His pretext was a quarrel with the governor of Acre, but deeper considerations were involved, particularly the growing strength of the sultan, which might threaten his own autonomy. Syria, moreover, was strategically important, and its products, especially timber, usefully complemented the Egyptian economy. The viceroy’s forces defeated the Ottomans at Kütahya near Konya in Anatolia (December 1832), and in 1833 the sultan ceded his Syrian provinces to Muḥammad ʿAlī.
In 1839 Ottoman forces reentered Syria but were defeated by Ibrāhīm at the Battle of Nizip (June 24). A fortnight later Mahmud II died, and the Ottoman Empire seemed on the verge of dissolution; it was saved only by European intervention. In 1840 the European powers compelled Ibrāhīm to evacuate Syria. Muḥammad ʿAlī’s Arabian empire (which since 1833 had extended into Yemen) crumbled at the same time. Although in 1841 the new sultan, Abdülmecid I (reigned 1839–61), conferred on the family of Muḥammad ʿAlī the hereditary rule of Egypt, the viceroy’s powers were declining. Because of the viceroy’s growing senility, Ibrāhīm took power in July 1848. But the son’s reign lasted only a few months until his death the following November. The next viceroy was ʿAbbās I (reigned 1848–54), the eldest grandson of Muḥammad ʿAlī (who died in 1849).
Muḥammad ʿAlī’s military exploits would not have been possible but for radical changes in the administration of Egypt itself. Muḥammad ʿAlī was a pragmatic statesman whose principal objective was to secure for himself and his family the unchallenged possession of Egypt. His immediate problem on his accession was to deal with the Mamlūks, who still dominated much of the country, and the ʿulamāʾ, who had helped him to power. The strength of these two groups rested largely on their control of the agricultural land of Egypt and the revenues arising therefrom. Gradually, between 1805 and 1815, Muḥammad ʿAlī eroded the system of tax farming (iltizām) that had diverted most of the revenues to the Mamlūks and other notables, imposed the direct levy of taxes, expropriated the landholders, and carried out a new tax survey. In 1809 he divided and outmaneuvered the ʿulamāʾ, and in 1811 he lured many of the Mamlūk leaders to a celebration at the citadel, where he had them massacred. Ibrāhīm expelled their survivors from Upper Egypt, effectively destroying them as a political force.
Muḥammad ʿAlī thus became effectively the sole landholder in Egypt, with a monopoly over trade in crops, although later in his reign he made considerable grants of land to his family and dependents. The monopoly system was extended in due course from primary materials to manufactures, with the establishment of state control over the textile industry. Muḥammad ʿAlī’s ambitious hopes of promoting an industrial revolution in Egypt were not realized, fundamentally because of the lack of available sources of power. The monopolies were resented by European merchants in Egypt and clashed with the economic doctrine of free trade upheld by the British government. Although a free-trade convention that was concluded between Britain and the Ottoman Empire in 1838 (the Convention of Balta Liman) was technically binding on Egypt, Muḥammad ʿAlī succeeded in evading its application up to and even after the reversal of his fortunes in 1840–41.
The old-style military forces (including the Albanians) on whom Muḥammad ʿAlī relied against his internal opponents and who conquered the Hejaz, Najd, and the Sudan were heterogeneous and unruly. An attempt to introduce Western methods of training in 1815 provoked a mutiny. Muḥammad ʿAlī then decided to form an army of slave troops dependent wholly upon himself and trained by European instructors. The conquest of the Sudan was intended to provide the recruits. But the slaves, encamped at Aswān, died wholesale, and Muḥammad ʿAlī had to seek most of his troops elsewhere. In 1823 he took the momentous step of conscripting Egyptian peasants for the rank and file of his “new model army.” On the other hand, the officers were mostly Turkish-speaking Ottomans, while the director of the whole enterprise, Sulaymān Pasha (Col. Joseph Sève), was a former French officer. The conscription was brutally administered and military life harsh. There were several ineffective peasant revolts, and some potential inductees fled to the towns or to the desert.
As reorganization proceeded, the viceroy gradually built a new administrative structure. While institutions were created and discarded according to his changing needs, Muḥammad ʿAlī depended essentially upon the members of his own family, particularly Ibrāhīm, and loyal servants, such as his Armenian confidant Boghos Bey. Characteristic of his governmental system were councils of officials, convened to deliberate on public business, and administrative departments (divans) that bore some resemblance to the ministries of European governments. In local administration, Muḥammad ʿAlī established a highly centralized system with a clear chain of command from Cairo through the provincial governors, down to the village headmen. Initiative was not encouraged, but firm control had taken the place of anarchy.
These changes necessitated the training of officers and officials in the new Europeanized ways of working, and this in turn resulted in the creation of a range of educational institutions alongside the traditional Muslim schools that prepared the ʿulamāʾ. Much of the foundation work was done by expatriates, while missions of Egyptian students were sent to Europe, especially to Paris. One of these missions was accompanied by Rifāʿah Rāfiʿ al-Ṭahṭāwī (1801–73), who served as its religious teacher and later played the leading part in inaugurating the translation of European works into Arabic. He thus was a pioneer both in the interpretation of European culture to Egypt and in the renaissance of literary Arabic. The establishment of a government printing press in 1822 facilitated the wide dissemination of the new books.
The reign of ʿAbbās I (1848–54) indicates how precarious was the advance of Westernization in Egypt. The effort had already been relaxed in the last decade of Muḥammad ʿAlī’s rule, and ʿAbbās showed himself to be a traditionalist. It was typical of his policy that he closed the school of languages and the translation bureau and sent their director, al-Ṭahṭāwī, to virtual exile in the Sudan. The French, who had played so large a part in Muḥammad ʿAlī’s reforms, fell into disfavour, and for diplomatic support ʿAbbās turned to their British rivals, whose help was needed against the Ottomans. Although initially ʿAbbās was ostentatiously loyal to the sultan, he resented an attempt made at that time to curtail his autonomy. The British, for their part, managed to enhance their communications with India by winning from ʿAbbās a concession to build a railway from Alexandria to Cairo; the line was completed between 1851 and 1856 and was extended to Suez two years later. Saʿīd (reigned 1854–63), who succeeded on ʿAbbās’s mysterious and violent death, inaugurated another reversal of policy. While he lacked Muḥammad ʿAlī’s energy and ability, he was not unsympathetic to the Westernizers. To his French friend Ferdinand de Lesseps (who had been a friend to Muḥammad ʿAlī as well) he granted in 1854 a concession for the cutting of a canal across the isthmus of Suez. This embroiled him both with the sultan, whose prerogative had been encroached upon, and the British, whose overland railway route was threatened by the project; a deadlock lasted throughout his reign.
Ismāʿīl, the son of Ibrāhīm Pasha, who succeeded on the death of Saʿīd, displayed some of his grandfather’s dynamic energy and enthusiasm for modernization. He lacked caution, however, and his reign ended in catastrophe. From his predecessors he inherited a precarious economy and a burden of debt. The decline in North American cotton exports caused by the American Civil War (1861–65) greatly increased Britain’s demand for Egyptian long-staple cotton. This product had been introduced and developed in Muḥammad ʿAlī’s time, but its production had languished until the interruption of supplies of American cotton caused a fourfold increase in price during the war years. When peace returned, prices collapsed with disastrous consequences for the Egyptian economy. In the management of his finances, Ismāʿīl was both extravagant and unwise and laid himself open to unscrupulous exploitation. Ismāʿīl was committed to the Suez Canal project, but he modified the grant in two important respects: by withdrawing the cession of a strip of land from the Nile River to the Suez isthmus, along which a freshwater canal was to be constructed, and by refusing to provide unlimited (and largely unpaid) peasant labour for the project, a practice that had stirred great outcry in England and continental Europe. The matter was submitted to arbitration; a large indemnity was imposed on Ismāʿīl, who also agreed to pay for a large block of shares put by de Lesseps into Saʿīd’s account. French pressure on the sultan succeeded at last in overcoming resistance to the canal project at Constantinople, and a firman (decree from the sultan) authorizing its construction was granted in March 1866. Work had in fact already been going on for seven years, and in November 1869 the Suez Canal was opened to shipping by the empress Eugénie, the wife of Napoleon III of France. The incident symbolized the political and cultural orientation of Egypt in the middle decades of the 19th century.
Ismāʿīl, in other ways, presented himself as the ruler of a new and important state. Although his relations with his suzerain, Sultan Abdülaziz (reigned 1861–76), were normally friendly, he was no less eager than his predecessors to secure the autonomy of his dynasty. In 1866 he obtained a firman establishing the succession by primogeniture in his own line—abandoning the contemporary Ottoman rule of succession by the eldest male. A year later a firman conferred upon Ismāʿīl the special title of khedive, which had in fact been used unofficially since Muḥammad ʿAlī’s time and which distinguished the viceroy of Egypt from other Ottoman governors. A period of strained relations developed between the khedive and the sultan arising from Ismāʿīl’s implied pretensions to sovereignty at the time of the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, but the two were later reconciled; a firman reconfirmed the khedive’s privileges in 1873. These concessions by the sultan, however, cost Ismāʿīl heavy expenditure—in bribes to Ottoman officials in Constantinople—and an increase in the annual Egyptian tribute and were another factor in the growth of Ismāʿīl’s indebtedness.
Ismāʿīl had inherited an African empire in the northern area of the Sudan. Since the middle of the century, in consequence of the abolition of the monopolies, merchants had penetrated south and southwest, up the White Nile and the Al-Ghazāl rivers, in search of ivory. An ancillary slave trade that had developed distressed Europeans, who forgot that their depredations against Africans had continued virtually unabated until the early 19th century, and they prevailed on the khedive to abolish this commerce. Thus, acting on humanitarian and expansionist motives, Ismāʿīl sought to extend Egyptian rule into these remoter regions. He made considerable use of expatriates, notably the Englishmen Sir Samuel White Baker and Sir Charles George (“Chinese”) Gordon, who extended the khedive’s nominal authority to the African Great Lakes. Another series of events led to the conquest in 1874 of the sultanate of Darfur in the west. The khedive also wished to make Egypt the dominant power in the Red Sea region. The sultan granted him the old Ottoman ports of Sawākin and Mitsiwa in 1865. Egyptian control was established on the Somali coast, and in 1875 the city of Hārer was captured. Attempts to invade Abyssinia in 1875 and 1876 were, however, unsuccessful and marked the limits of Ismāʿīl’s imperial expansion.
Like other parts of the Ottoman Empire, Egypt was bound by the capitulations—a system of privileges derived from earlier Western treaties with former sultans. Under the capitulations, European and American residents in Egypt were exempt from local taxation and were subject only to their own consular courts. By patient negotiations over several years, Nūbār Pasha, Ismāʿīl’s Armenian minister, succeeded in establishing the Mixed Courts in 1875. These had jurisdiction in civil cases involving Egyptians and foreigners, or foreigners of different nationalities, and had both foreign and Egyptian judges, who administered codes based on French law.
By that time the social consequences of the agrarian and political changes inaugurated by Muḥammad ʿAlī were clearly appearing. The khedive and his family were Egypt’s principal landholders, possessing extensive personal estates quite apart from the state lands. Around the khedivial family was a parvenu aristocracy that held the principal civil and military offices. Many of its members were also great landowners; most of them were Turkish or Circassian by origin. Although the peasantry’s condition had been harmed by military conscription, by corvées for public works (including large-scale demands for labour on the railways and the Suez Canal), and by ill-considered economic and industrial experiments, the rights of cultivators on their land gradually increased. The richer peasants, from whom the village headmen were recruited, in particular increased in importance. When, in November 1866, Ismāʿīl set up the consultative council known as the Assembly of Delegates, the members of which were chosen by indirect election, the great majority of those elected were village headmen. While Ismāʿīl did not intend to give any of his powers to the Assembly, its establishment and composition pointed to the political growth that would occur among native Egyptians in the next 60 years. Conscription had affected the makeup of the army. The power of the entrenched Turco-Circassians was challenged by native Egyptian officers, who resented the privileges of their foreign colleagues. The defeat of the Circassian commander in chief, Rātib Pasha, by the Abyssinians in 1876 was a blow from which the prestige of the old officer group never recovered.
From the Assembly, the army, and the Westernized intelligentsia emerged politically conscious individuals and groups who drew their ideas from both Western and Islamic sources. Their organization was for the most part small-scale and ephemeral, and their outlook was subversive, being hostile to the autocracy of the khedive, the dominance of the Turco-Circassians, and the pervasive power of the Europeans.
Political tension increased in the last years of Ismāʿīl’s reign. Various expedients to postpone bankruptcy (e.g., the khedive’s sale in 1875 of his Suez Canal shares to Britain) had failed, and in 1876 the Caisse de la Dette Publique (Commission of the Public Debt) was established for the service of the Egyptian debt. Its members were nominated by France, Britain, Austria, and Italy. In the same year, Egyptian revenue and expenditure were placed under the supervision of a British and a French controller (the Dual Control). After an international enquiry in 1878, Ismāʿīl accepted the principle of ministerial responsibility for government and authorized the formation of an international ministry under Nūbār that included the British and French controllers in his cabinet. Ismāʿīl, however, was not willing to give up his autocracy. In 1879 he exploited an army demonstration against the European ministers to dismiss Nūbār, and he worked in alliance with the Assembly of Delegates to destroy international control over Egypt. By this time, however, his standing outside Egypt had been lost; and in June 1879, Sultan Abdülhamid II (reigned 1876–1909), instigated by France and Britain, deposed him in favour of his son, Muḥammad Tawfīq.
European domination was immediately reasserted. The Dual Control was revived, with Evelyn Baring serving as the British controller. By the Law of Liquidation (July 1880), the annual revenues were divided into two approximately equal portions, one of which was assigned to the Caisse de la Dette, the other to the Egyptian government. The Assembly of Delegates was dissolved. The forces of resistance that Ismāʿīl had stimulated were not, however, allayed by these means. There had already come into existence a nationalist group within the Assembly, prominent among whom was Muḥammad Sharīf, prime minister from April to August 1879. In the army a group of Egyptian officers, whose leader was Aḥmad ʿUrābī (Arabi), was disaffected from the khedive and resentful of European control of Egypt. By 1881 these two groups had allied to form what was called the National Party (al-Ḥizb al-Waṭanī).
Tension surfaced when a petition was presented in January 1881 by ʿUrābī and two of his colleagues against the war minister, ʿUthmān Rifqī, a Circassian. They were arrested and court-martialed but were later set free by mutineers. Tawfīq gave in, dismissed Rifqī, and appointed Maḥmud Sāmī al-Bārūdī Pasha, one of ʿUrābī’s allies, as war minister. But the ʿUrābists still feared reprisals; a military demonstration in Cairo in September 1881 forced Tawfīq to appoint a new ministry under Sharīf and to convene a new Assembly. But the alliance between the officers and Sharīf was uneasy.
Meanwhile, the European powers were becoming increasingly alarmed. A joint English and French note sent in January 1882 with the intention of strengthening the khedive against his opponents had the opposite effect. The Assembly of Delegates swung toward the ʿUrābists. Sharīf resigned and al-Bārūdī became premier with ʿUrābī as war minister. Rioting ensued on June 11 after British and French naval forces had been sent to Alexandria. From this point Britain took the initiative. The French refused to join in a bombardment of Alexandria (July 11), while an international conference held at Constantinople was boycotted by the Ottomans and produced no solution of the problem. The British government finally resolved to intervene, having secured Tawfīq’s support, and sent an expeditionary force under Sir Garnet Wolseley to the Suez Canal. The ʿUrābists were soundly defeated at Tall al-Kabīr (September 13, 1882), and Cairo was occupied the next day.
The British occupation marked the culmination of developments that had been at work since 1798: the de facto separation of Egypt from the Ottoman Empire, the attempt of European powers to influence or control the country, and the rivalry of France and Britain for ascendancy in the country. Because of the last-minute withdrawal of the French, the British had secured the sole domination of Egypt. William Ewart Gladstone’s liberal government was reluctant, however, to prolong the occupation or to establish formal political control, which it feared would antagonize both the sultan and the other European powers. But the British were unwilling to evacuate Egypt without securing their strategic interests, and this never seemed possible without maintaining a military presence there.
An incident at the outset of the occupation was a sign of future tensions. On British insistence, the khedive’s government was obliged to place ʿUrābī and his associates on public trial and then to commute the resulting death sentences to exile. Tawfīq’s prestige, slight enough at his accession, and diminished in the three years before the occupation, was still further undermined by this intervention of the British government. Meanwhile, Lord Dufferin, the British ambassador in Constantinople, visited Egypt and prepared a report on measures to be taken for the reconstruction of the administrative system. The projects of reform that he envisaged would necessitate an indefinite continuation of the occupation. The implications of this for British policy were slowly and reluctantly accepted by the ministry in London, under pressure from its representative in Cairo, the British agent and consul general, Sir Evelyn Baring, who in 1892 became Lord Cromer.
Two principal problems confronted the occupying power: first, the acquisition of some degree of international recognition for its special but ambiguous position in Egypt, second, a definition of its relationship to the khedivial government, which formed the official administration of the country. The main European opponents of recognition of the British position were the French, who resented the abolition of the Dual Control (December 1882). The Caisse de la Dette continued to exist, and until 1904 the British had to set their policies to deal with French opposition in this institution. In the early years of the occupation, when Egyptian finances were in disarray, French hostility posed an obstacle, but from 1889 onward there was a budget surplus and consequently greater freedom of action for the Egyptian government. A moderate degree of international agreement over Egypt was attained by the Convention of London (1885), which secured an international loan for the Egyptian government and added two further members (nominated by Germany and Russia) to the Caisse de la Dette. In 1888 the Convention of Constantinople (Istanbul) provided that the Suez Canal should always be open to ships of all countries, in war and peace alike. This was, however, a statement of principle rather than fact; without British cooperation it remained a dead letter.
In matters concerning Egypt’s international status, the decisions were made in London, but where the internal administration of the country was concerned, Cromer usually set the policies. Although throughout the occupation the facade of khedivial government was retained, British advisers attached to the various ministries were more influential than their ministers, while Cromer himself steadily increased his control over the whole administrative machine.
Tawfīq himself gave little trouble, but his prime ministers were more tenacious. Sharīf, premier at the beginning of the occupation until 1884, and his successors, Nūbār Pasha (1884–88) and Muṣṭafa Riyāḍ (Riaz) Pasha (1888–91), resigned because of clashes over administrative control. From then until November 1908, with a break in 1893–95, the prime minister was Muṣṭafā Fahmī Pasha, who proved to be Cromer’s obedient instrument.
The death of Tawfīq and the accession of his 17-year-old son, ʿAbbās II (Ḥilmī), in 1892 opened a new phase of opposition to the occupation. The new khedive would not submit to Cromer’s tutelage, while the British agent resented the attempts of one so much his junior to play a serious role in Egyptian politics. ʿAbbās dismissed Muṣṭafā Fahmī in January 1893 and tried to appoint his own nominee as prime minister. Cromer, backed by the British government, frustrated these endeavours, and Fahmī eventually returned to office. ʿAbbās provoked another crisis in January 1894 by publicly criticizing British military officers, especially Horatio Herbert Kitchener, the sirdar (commander in chief). Once again Cromer stepped in and forced ʿAbbās to make a public apology.
Other considerations apart, the behaviour of ʿAbbās in the early years of his reign indicated the emergence of a new generation who had only been children when the occupation began. One of ʿAbbās’s contemporaries was Muṣṭafā Kāmil (1874–1908), who had studied in France and come to know a group of writers and politicians opposed to the British occupation. On returning to Egypt in 1894, he had reached an understanding with the khedive on the basis of their common opposition to the British occupation. By his speeches and writings (in 1900 he founded his own newspaper, Al-Liwā), he endeavoured to create an Egyptian patriotism that would rally the entire nation around the khedive. A boost was given to nationalism by the campaigns for the reconquest of the Sudan (1896–98)—to which Egypt provided most of the money and troops, although the commanding officers were British—and by the 1899 Anglo-Egyptian Condominium Agreements, which nominally gave Egypt and Britain joint responsibility for the administration of the reconquered territory but in effect made the Sudan a British possession.
A final episode in the reconquest of the Sudan, the confrontation of British and French at Fashoda on the White Nile in 1898 (the Fashoda Incident), was followed by the reconciliation of the two powers in the Entente Cordiale (1904), which, inter alia, gave Britain a free hand in Egypt. This deflated the hopes of Muṣṭafā Kāmil and his alliance with the khedive, who became more willing to cooperate with Cromer. Muṣṭafā Kāmil now turned to Sultan Abdülhamid. When a dispute (the Tābah Incident, 1906) arose between the Ottomans and the occupying power over the Sinai Peninsula, Muṣṭafā Kāmil sought to rally Egyptian nationalist opinion in favour of the sultan, but some Egyptians accused him of harming their national interest in order to favour Islamic unity.
British domination in Egypt and Cromer’s personal ascendancy never seemed more secure than in the period following the Entente Cordiale. But the “veiled protectorate” had hidden weaknesses. Cromer was both out of touch and out of sympathy with the new generation of Egyptians. The occupation had become to all intents and purposes permanent, and the consequent growth of the British official establishment frustrated educated Egyptians, who sought government posts for themselves and their sons. The British, however, saw themselves as the benefactors of the Egyptian peasantry, whom they had delivered from the corvée and the lash. The Dinshawāy Incident showed them in another light. In June 1906 a fracas between villagers at Dinshawāy and a party of British officers out pigeon shooting resulted in the death of a British officer. The special tribunal set up to try the matter imposed exemplary and brutal sentences on the villagers. In the bitter aftermath of this affair, which strengthened Muṣṭafā Kāmil’s nationalists, Cromer retired in May 1907.
Sir Eldon Gorst, who succeeded Cromer, had served in Egypt from 1886 to 1904 and brought a fresh mind to bear on the problems of the occupation. He reached an understanding with the khedive and sought to diminish the growing power and numbers of the British establishment. At the same time, he tried to give more effective authority to Egyptian political institutions. Muṣṭafā Fahmī’s long premiership ended, and he was followed by a Copt, Buṭrus Ghālī. When Gorst died prematurely in July 1911, he had attained only limited success. Many British officials resented his policies, which at the same time failed to conciliate the nationalists. Muṣṭafa Kāmil had died in 1908 and had been succeeded by Muḥammad Farīd, who led the National Party toward greater extremism in its opposition to the British. A project to extend the Suez Canal Company’s 99-year concession by 40 years was thrown out by the General Assembly (a quasi-parliamentary body, set up in 1883), while Buṭrus Ghālī, who had advocated it, was assassinated a few days later by a nationalist. The appointment of Lord Kitchener to succeed Gorst portended the end of conciliation of the khedive. But Kitchener, although autocratic, was not wholly conservative; his attempts to limit the power and influence of ʿAbbās served the interests of the moderate Egyptians who did not belong to the National Party. The Organic Law of 1913 created a new and more powerful Legislative Assembly that served as a training ground for the nationalist leaders of the postwar period. At the same time, the peasants were helped by improved irrigation and by legal protection of their landholdings from seizure for debt.
In November 1914 Britain declared war on the Ottoman Empire and in December proclaimed a protectorate over Egypt, deposed ʿAbbās, and appointed his uncle, Ḥusayn Kāmil, with the title of sultan. Kitchener was succeeded by Sir Henry McMahon, and he by Sir Reginald Wingate, both with the title of high commissioner. Although Egypt did not have to provide troops, the people, especially the peasantry, suffered from the effects of war. The declaration of martial law and the suspension of the Legislative Assembly temporarily silenced the nationalists. Ḥusayn Kāmil died in October 1917 and was succeeded by his ambitious brother, Aḥmad Fuʾād