Egypt has endured as a unified state for more than 5,000 years, and
archeological evidence indicates that a developed Egyptian society has
existed for much longer. Egyptians take pride in their "pharaonic heritage"
and in their descent from what they consider mankind's earliest civilization.
The Arabic word for Egypt is Misr, which originally connoted "civilization"
Archeological findings show that primitive tribes lived along the Nile
long before the dynastic history of the pharaohs began. By 6000 B.C., organized
agriculture had appeared.
In about 3100 B.C., Egypt was united under a ruler known as Mena, or
Menes, who inaugurated the 30 pharaonic dynasties into which Egypt's ancient
history is divided--the Old and the Middle Kingdoms and the New Empire.
The pyramids at Giza (near Cairo), which were built in the fourth dynasty,
testify to the power of the pharaonic religion and state. The Great Pyramid,
the tomb of Pharaoh Khufu (also known as Cheops), is the only surviving
monument of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Ancient Egypt reached
the peak of its power, wealth, and territorial extent in the period called
the New Empire (1567-1085 B.C.).
Persian, Greek, Roman, and Arab Conquerors
In 525 B., Cambyses, the son of Cyrus the Great, led a Persian invasion
force that dethroned the last pharaoh of the 26th Dynasty. The country
remained a Persian province until conquered by Alexander the Great in 322
BC, ushering in Ptolemeic rule Egypt that lasted for nearly 300 years.
Following a brief Persian reconquest, Egypt was invaded and conquered
by Arab forces in 642. A process of Arabization and Islamization ensued.
Although a Coptic Christian minority remained--and remains today, constituting
about 10% of the population--the Arab language inexorably supplanted the
indigenous Coptic tongue. For the next 1,300 years, a succession of Arab,
Mameluke, and Ottoman caliphs, beys, and sultans ruled the country.
The Ottoman Turks controlled Egypt from 1517 until 1882, except for
a brief period of French rule under Napoleon Bonaparte. In 1805, Mohammed
Ali, commander of an Albanian contingent of Ottoman troops, was appointed
Pasha, founding the dynasty that ruled Egypt until his great-great grandson,
Farouk I, was overthrown in 1952. Mohammed Ali the Great ruled Egypt until
1848, writing the first chapter in the modern history of Egypt. The growth
of modern urban Cairo began in the reign of Ismail (1863-79). Eager to
Westernize the capital, he ordered the construction of a European-style
city to the west of the medieval core. The Suez Canal was completed in
his reign in 1869, and its completion was celebrated by many events, including
the commissioning of Verdi's "Aida" for the new opera house and the building
of great palaces such as the Omar Khayyam (originally constructed to entertain
the French Empress Eugenie, which is now the central section of the Cairo
In 1882, British expeditionary forces crushed a revolt against the Ottoman
rulers, marking the beginning of British occupation and the virtual inclusion
of Egypt within the British Empire. In deference to growing nationalism,
the U.K. unilaterally declared Egyptian independence in 1922. British influence,
however, continued to dominate Egypt's political life and fostered fiscal,
administrative, and governmental reforms.
In the pre-1952 revolution period, three political forces competed with
one another: the Wafd, a broadly based nationalist political organization
strongly opposed to British influence; King Fuad, whom the British had
installed during World War II; and the British themselves, who were determined
to maintain control over the Canal. Other political forces emerging in
this period included the communist party (1925) and the Muslim Brotherhood
(1928), which eventually became a potent political and religious force.
During World War II, British troops used Egypt as a base for Allied
operations throughout the region. British troops were withdrawn to the
Suez Canal area in 1947, but nationalist, anti-British feelings continued
to grow after the war. On July 22-23, 1952, a group of disaffected army
officers (the "free officers") led by Lt. Col. Gamal Abdel Nasser overthrew
King Farouk, whom the military blamed for Egypt's poor performance in the
1948 war with Israel. Following a brief experiment with civilian rule,
they abrogated the 1923 constitution and declared Egypt a republic on June
19, 1953. Nasser evolved into a charismatic leader, not only of Egypt,
but the Arab world, promoting and implementing "Arab socialism." He nationalized
Nasser helped establish the Non-aligned Movement of developing countries
in September 1961, and continued to be a leading force in the movement
until his death in 1970. When the United States held up military sales
in reaction to Egyptian neutrality vis-a-vis Moscow, Nasser concluded an
arms deal with Czechoslovakia in September 1955.
When the U.S. and the World Bank withdrew their offer to help finance
the Aswan High Dam in mid-1956, Nasser nationalized the privately owned
Suez Canal Company. The crisis that followed, exacerbated by growing tensions
with Israel over guerrilla attacks from Gaza and Israeli reprisals, resulted
in the invasion of Egypt that October by France, Britain, and Israel.
Nasser's domestic policies were arbitrary and frequently oppressive,
yet generally popular. All opposition was stamped out, and opponents of
the regime frequently were imprisoned without trial. Nasser's foreign and
military policies helped provoke the Israeli attack of June 1967 that virtually
destroyed Egypt's armed forces along with those of Jordan and Syria. Israel
also occupied the Sinai Peninsula, the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, and the
Golan Heights. Nasser, nonetheless, was revered by the masses in Egypt
and elsewhere in the Arab world until his death in 1970.
After Nasser's death, another of the original "free officers," Vice
President Anwar el-Sadat, was elected President. In 1971, Sadat concluded
a treaty of friendship with the Soviet Union, but a year later, ordered
Soviet advisers to leave. In 1973, he launched the October war with Israel,
in which Egypt's armed forces achieved initial successes but were defeated
in Israeli counterattacks.
Camp David and the Peace Process
In a momentous change from the Nasser era, President Sadat shifted Egypt
from a policy of confrontation with Israel to one of peaceful accommodation
through negotiations. Following the Sinai Disengagement Agreements of 1974
and 1975, Sadat created a fresh opening for progress by his dramatic visit
to Jerusalem in November 1977. This led to President Jimmy Carter's invitation
to President Sadat and Prime Minister Begin to join him in trilateral negotiations
at Camp David.
The outcome was the historic Camp David accords, signed by Egypt and
Israel and witnessed by the U.S. on September 17, 1978. The accords led
to the March 26, 1979, signing of the Egypt-Israel peace treaty, by which
Egypt regained control of the Sinai in May 1982. Throughout this period,
U.S.-Egyptian relations steadily improved, but Sadat's willingness to break
ranks by making peace with Israel earned him the enmity of most other Arab
Sadat introduced greater political freedom and a new economic policy,
the most important aspect of which was the infitah or "open door." This
relaxed government controls over the economy and encouraged private, including
foreign, investment. Sadat dismantled much of the existing political machine
and brought to trial a number of former government officials accused of
criminal excesses during the Nasser era.
Liberalization also included the reinstitution of due process and the
legal banning of torture. Sadat tried to expand participation in the political
process in the mid-1970s but later abandoned this effort. In the last years
of his life, Egypt was racked by violence arising from discontent with
Sadat's rule and sectarian tensions, and it experienced a renewed measure
From Sadat to Mubarak
On October 6, 1981, Islamic extremists assassinated President Sadat.
Hosni Mubarak, Vice President since 1975 and air force commander during
the October 1973 war, was elected President later that month. He was subsequently
confirmed by popular referendum for three more 6-year terms, most recently
in September 1999. Mubarak has maintained Egypt's commitment to the Camp
David peace process, while at the same time re-establishing Egypt's position
as an Arab leader. Egypt was readmitted to the Arab League in 1989. Egypt
also has played a moderating role in such international fora as the UN
and the Non-Aligned Movement.
Since 1991, Mubarak has overseen an ambitious domestic economic reform
program to reduce the size of the public sector and expand the role of
the private sector. There has been less progress in political reform. The
November 2000 People's Assembly elections saw 34 members of the opposition
win seats in the 454-seat assembly, facing a clear majority of 388 ultimately
affiliated with the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP). The opposition
parties have been weak and divided and are not yet credible alternatives
to the NDP. The Muslim Brotherhood, founded in Egypt in 1928, remains an
illegal organization and is not recognized as a political party (current
Egyptian law prohibits the formation of political parties based on religion).
Members are known publicly and openly speak their views, although they
do not explicitly identify themselves as members of the organization. Members
of the Brotherhood have been elected to the People's Assembly and local
councils as independents. While concern remains that economic problems
could promote increasing dissatisfaction with the government, President
Mubarak enjoys broad support.