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officially Arab Republic of Egypt, country in northeastern Africa and southwestern Asia. It is bounded on the north by the Mediterranean Sea, on the east by Israel and the Red Sea, on the south by Sudan, and on the west by Libya. The country has a maximum length from north to south of about 1085 km (about 675 mi) and a maximum width, near the southern border, of about 1255 km (about 780 mi). It has a total area of about 1,001,450 sq km (about 386,662 sq mi). Cairo is the capital and largest city.
The land of the Nile River, Egypt is the cradle of one of the world’s greatest ancient civilizations and has a recorded history that dates from about 3200 BC. The descriptive material that follows is pertinent to modern Egypt. The History section covers Egypt from ancient times, including the Dynastic Period (3200 BC-343 BC), the Hellenistic Period (332 BC-30 BC), Roman and Byzantine Rule (30 BC-AD 638), the Caliphate and the Mamelukes (642-1517), Ottoman Domination (1517-1882), and British colonialism (1882-1952) as well as modern, independent Egypt (1952- ).
Land and Resources
Less than one-tenth of the land area of Egypt is settled or under cultivation. This territory consists of the valley and delta of the Nile, a number of desert oases, and land along the Suez Canal. More than 90 percent of the country consists of desert areas, including the Libyan Desert in the west, a part of the Sahara, and the Arabian Desert (also called the Eastern Desert), which borders the Red Sea and the Gulf of Suez, in the east. The Libyan Desert (also known as the Western Desert) includes a vast sandy expanse called the Great Sand Sea. Located here are several depressions with elevations below sea level, including the Qattara Depression, which has an area of about 18,000 sq km (about 7000 sq mi) and reaches a depth of 133 m (436 ft) below sea level, the lowest point in Africa; also found here are the oases of Siwa, Kharijah, Bahr?yah, Farafirah, and Dakhilah. Much of the Arabian Desert occupies a plateau that rises gradually east from the Nile Valley to elevations of about 600 m (about 2000 ft) in the east and is broken along the Red Sea coast by jagged peaks as high as about 2100 m (about 7000 ft) above sea level. In the extreme south, along the border with Sudan, is the Nubian Desert, an extensive region of dunes and sandy plains. The Sinai Peninsula consists of sandy desert in the north and rugged mountains in the south, with summits looming more than about 2100 m (about 7000 ft) above the Red Sea. Mount Catherine (Jabal Katr?nah) (2637 m/8652 ft), the highest elevation in Egypt, is in the Sinai Peninsula, as is Mount Sinai (Jabal Mos?), where, according to the Old Testament, Moses received the Ten Commandments. The Nile enters Egypt from Sudan and flows north for about 1545 km (about 960 mi) to the Mediterranean Sea. For its entire length from the southern border to Cairo, the Nile flows through a narrow valley lined by cliffs. Lake Nasser, a huge reservoir formed by the Aswan High Dam, extends south across the Sudan border. The lake is about 480 km (about 300 mi) long and is about 16 km (10 mi) across at its widest point. About two-thirds of the lake lies in Egypt. South of a point near the town of Idfu, the Nile Valley is rarely more than 3 km (2 mi) wide. From Idfu to Cairo, the valley is about 23 km (about 14 mi) in width, with most of the arable portion on the western side. In the vicinity of Cairo the valley merges with the delta, a fan-shaped plain, the perimeter of which occupies about 250 km (about 155 mi) of the Mediterranean coastline. Silt deposited by the Rosetta (Arabic Rashid), Damietta (Arabic Dumyat), and other distributaries has made the delta the most fertile region in the country. However, the Aswan High Dam has reduced the flow of the Nile, causing the salty waters of the Mediterranean to erode land along the coast near the Nile. A series of four shallow, brackish lakes extends along the seaward extremity of the delta. Another larger lake, Birkat Qarun, is situated inland in the desert north of the town of Al Fayyum. Geographically and traditionally, the Nile Valley is divided into two regions, Lower Egypt and Upper Egypt, the former consisting of the delta area and the latter comprising the valley south of Cairo.
Although Egypt has about 2450 km (about 1520 mi) of coastline, two-thirds of which are on the Red Sea, indentations suitable as harbors are confined to the delta. The Isthmus of Suez, which connects the Sinai Peninsula with the African mainland, is traversed from the Mediterranean to the Gulf of Suez by the Suez Canal.
The climate of Egypt is characterized by a hot season from May to September and a cool season from November to March. Extreme temperatures during both seasons are moderated by the prevailing northern winds. In the coastal region average annual temperatures range from a maximum of 37? C (99? F) to a minimum of 14? C (57? F). Wide variations of temperature occur in the deserts, ranging from a maximum of 46? C (114? F) during daylight hours to a minimum of 6? C (42? F) after sunset. During the winter season desert temperatures often drop to 0? C (32? F). The most humid area is along the Mediterranean coast, where the average annual rainfall is about 200 mm (about 8 in). Precipitation decreases rapidly to the south; Cairo receives on average only about 29 mm (1.1 in) of rain a year, and in many desert locations it may rain only once in several years.
Egypt has a wide variety of mineral deposits, some of which, such as gold and red granite, have been exploited since ancient times. The chief mineral resource of contemporary value is petroleum, found mainly in the Red Sea coastal region, at Al ‘Alamayn (El ‘Alamein) on the Mediterranean, and in the Sinai Peninsula. Other minerals include phosphates, manganese, iron ore, and uranium. Natural gas is also extracted.
Plants and Animals
The vegetation of Egypt is confined largely to the Nile delta, the Nile Valley, and the oases. The most widespread of the few indigenous trees is the date palm. Others include the sycamore, tamarisk, acacia, and carob. Trees that have been introduced from other lands include the cypress, elm, eucalyptus, mimosa, and myrtle, and various types of fruit trees. The alluvial soils of Egypt, especially in the delta, sustain a broad variety of plant life, including grapes, many kinds of vegetables, and such flowers as the lotus, jasmine, and rose. In the arid regions alfa grass and several species of thorn are common. Papyrus, once prevalent along the banks of the Nile, is now limited to the extreme south of the country. Because of its arid climate Egypt has few indigenous wild animals. Gazelles are found in the deserts, and the desert fox, hyena, jackal, wild ass, boar, jerboa, and ichneumon inhabit various areas, mainly the delta and the mountains along the Red Sea. Among the reptiles of Egypt are lizards and several kinds of poisonous snakes, including the asp and the horned viper. The crocodile and hippopotamus, common in the lower Nile and Nile delta in antiquity, are now restricted to the upper Nile. Birdlife is abundant, especially in the Nile delta and Nile Valley. The country has approximately 300 species of birds, including the sunbird, golden oriole, egret, hoopoe, plover, pelican, flamingo, heron, stork, quail, and snipe. Birds of prey found in Egypt include eagles, falcons, vultures, owls, kites, and hawks. Many species of insects are found in Egypt?beetles, mosquitoes, flies, and fleas being especially numerous; scorpions are found in desert areas. About 100 species of fish can be found in the Nile and in the deltaic lakes.
Most Egyptians are descended from the indigenous pre-Muslim population (the ancient Egyptians) and the Arabs, who conquered the area in the 7th century AD. Elements of other conquering peoples (Greeks, Romans, Turks) are also present, especially in Lower Egypt. The mixture has given the inhabitants of the Nile Valley physical characteristics that set them apart from the other Mediterranean peoples of the region. The Nubians, an indigenous people, are an important minority group in Egypt. The Nubians lived in villages along the Nile in southern Egypt and northern Sudan for thousands of years. However, the formation of Lake Nasser inundated many of these villages. The proportion of the population living in rural areas is decreasing as people move to the cities seeking employment and a higher standard of living. About 45 percent of the Egyptian population lives in urban areas. Some nomadic and seminomadic herders, mostly Bedouins, continue to live in the desert regions.
Islam is the official religion, and about 90 percent of all Egyptians are Muslims, most of them members of the Sunni sect. According to official Egyptian estimates, the Coptic Orthodox church, a Christian denomination, has no more than 3 million adherents and constitutes the largest religious minority; Copts themselves claim some 7 million members. An estimated 1 million people belong to the Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Armenian, and various Protestant churches. The country has a very small Jewish community. For information on the religion of ancient Egypt, see Egyptian Mythology.
Arabic is the national and official language of Egypt. Berber is spoken in a few villages in the western oases. French and English are common second languages among the educated. See also Coptic Language; Egyptian Language.
Education is free and compulsory for children between the ages of 6 and 14. Graduates of the primary schools may attend either a general intermediate school, which prepares for a secondary education, or a technical intermediate school specializing in industrial and agricultural subjects. The secondary school system is similarly divided into general schools, with curricula designed to prepare students for a university education, and technical schools. About 48 percent of the adult population is literate.
The Ministry of Culture directs cultural activities in Egypt. The country has various cultural facilities, including the Pocket Theater, the National Puppet Theater, the Opera House, and the National Symphony. Since the early 1960s there has been a growing interest in folk dancing, which is performed by two national dance groups. Egypt is the principal filmmaking country in the Arab world, with a state-operated cinema corporation and numerous private film companies. Among the many outstanding museums in Cairo is the Egyptian Museum, also known as the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities, which houses a vast collection of relics and artifacts from almost every period of ancient Egypt. For more information on the rich and varied heritage of Egypt, see Egyptian Art and Architecture; Egyptian Literature. Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz won the 1988 Nobel Prize for literature, becoming the first Arabic writer to do so. For details on other modern Egyptian writers, see Arabic Literature.
With the promulgation of a series of laws beginning in 1961, the economy of Egypt was rapidly socialized. Foreign trade, wholesale trade, banking, insurance, and most manufacturing enterprises were taken over by the government. Although agriculture, urban real estate, and some manufacturing concerns remained in private hands, stringent regulations were imposed. An economic development plan introduced in 1960 brought about a considerable expansion of industry and increase in production during the succeeding five years. The plan was replaced in 1965 by a seven-year plan that was less successful, partly because of insufficient foreign investment; a comparatively modest three-year plan was introduced in 1967. Losses suffered during the Arab-Israeli War of June 1967 (see the section “Wars of the 1960s” below) and the general economic dislocation that persisted afterward seriously retarded social and economic development. Egypt’s economic ills were a major reason for the peace efforts of the late 1970s, because the country could not afford another war. Although the economy grew rapidly during the late 1970s and early 1980s, the collapse of world oil prices in the mid-1980s, followed by the Persian Gulf crisis of 1990, left Egypt in difficult financial straits.
With one of the highest ratios in the world of population to cultivable land, Egyptian government leaders have acknowledged population growth as the principal cause of the country’s economic difficulties. The economy also is burdened by foreign debt, which in the early 1990s was more than twice the size of the country’s annual budget. In the early 1990s Egypt began putting into place economic reforms recommended by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, including relaxed price controls, reduced subsidies, and a liberalization of trade and investment.
The estimated annual national budget in the mid-1990s included about $16.8 billion in revenues and $19.4 billion in expenditures.
Egypt is predominantly an agricultural country, with about 40 percent of the labor force engaged in crop farming or herding. The pattern of landownership was greatly altered by the Agricultural Reform Decree of 1952, which limited individual holdings to about 80 hectares (about 200 acres), a figure revised in 1961 to about 40 hectares (about 100 acres), and revised again to about 20 hectares (about 50 acres) in 1969. Lands requisitioned by the government were distributed to the fellahin (peasants), but an economic gap still remains between the middle-class farmers and the fellahin. Government programs have expanded arable areas through reclamation, irrigation (notably since the completion of the Aswan High Dam in 1970), and the use of advanced technology (fertilizers, mechanized equipment). The yields of Egyptian farmlands are now among the highest in the world. Egypt is one of the world’s leading producers of long-staple (long-fibered) cotton. Annual cotton lint production in the early 1990s was about 324,000 metric tons. Warm weather and plentiful water permit as many as three crops a year, giving Egypt abundant agricultural yields. In the early 1990s principal crops, ranked by estimated value and annual production in metric tons, included rice (3.9 million), tomatoes (4.7 million), wheat (4.6 million), maize (5.2 million), sugarcane (11.6 million), potatoes (1.8 million), and oranges (1.7 million). A wide variety of other vegetables and fruits are also grown. The principal pastoral industry of Egypt is the breeding of beasts of burden. The livestock population in the early 1990s included about 3 million cattle, 3 million buffalo, 4.4 million sheep, 4.8 million goats, 1.6 million asses, and 44 million poultry.
Crude petroleum, which accounts for about one-half of export earnings, is the most important mineral product of Egypt. Production was about 26.4 million barrels annually in the early 1960s. As a result of the discovery in the 1950s and 1960s of large new fields in the Al ‘Alamayn and Gulf of Suez areas, and a major exploration effort in the 1970s, annual production of crude petroleum increased to approximately 312.2 million barrels in the early 1990s. Proven reserves stood at 6.2 billion barrels in 1992 as Egypt renewed exploration, signing 12 agreements with foreign companies to drill new wells. The country is encouraging natural gas production to supply domestic energy needs, with annual extraction in the early 1990s of 11.6 billion cu m (410 billion cu ft). Other important products of the mining industry in the early 1990s included phosphate rock (1.5 million metric tons), iron ore (1.2 million tons metal content), and salt (1.1 million tons). Uranium ore began to be mined near Aswan in 1991.
Initial moves toward industrialization in Egypt in the 19th century were frustrated by the European powers, primarily Great Britain, which preferred to have the country remain a market for their manufactured goods. During and after World War I (1914-1918), new efforts resulted in the development of a small industrial base capable of meeting some of the domestic demand. During World War II (1939-1945), this base was greatly expanded, especially in the area of textiles. After the overthrow of the monarchy in the early 1950s, the government assigned top priority to industrial expansion. In 1965, after the completion of the first five-year plan, the total value of industrial production, including electric power and mining output, had reached some $2.71 billion annually, and by the early 1990s the gross value of manufacturing and mining exceeded $13 billion per year. Leading branches of the manufacturing sector are processed food, refined petroleum, textiles, and chemicals. Important products of Egyptian industry include cotton yarn (259,000 metric tons per year in the early 1990s), jute yarn and fabrics (45,000), wool yarn (16,000), raw sugar (975,000), sulfuric acid (92,000), nitrogenous fertilizers (676,000), paper (223,000), cement (14.1 million), motor-vehicle tires and tubes (3.3 million units), and television receivers (333,000 units). Other industrial activities included the manufacture of iron and steel (at Hulwan), the assembling of motor vehicles, and the refining of oil (at several locations). These and other industries employed 21 percent of the labor force in the early 1990s.
Smaller-scale industrial enterprises of significance to the economy include tanning, brewing, and the manufacture of pottery, perfumes, handicrafts, cottonseed oil, flour and other processed foodstuffs, and asphalt. Most industrial activity is centered around Cairo and Alexandria.
Egypt is governed by a constitution promulgated on September 11, 1971. The constitution provides for an Arab socialist state with Islam as the official religion. It also stresses social solidarity, equal opportunity, and popular control of production.
The head of state is the president of the republic, who is nominated by the People’s Assembly and elected by popular referendum. The president is elected for a six-year term and has the power to formulate general state policy and supervise its execution. This official can dissolve the People’s Assembly, appoint and dismiss the Prime Minister and other cabinet ministers, attend cabinet meetings, and issue decrees during emergencies, but such measures must be approved by referendum within 60 days. Also, the president declares war after approval by the People’s Assembly, ratifies treaties, commutes penalties, orders plebiscites, and acts as commander in chief of the armed forces.
Legislative authority in Egypt is vested in the unicameral People’s Assembly; 444 of its members are elected for five-year terms, and half of them are always from the worker and farmer groups. Some of the members must also be women. In addition, 10 members of the Coptic community are appointed by the president. The People’s Assembly is empowered to approve the budget, make investigations, levy taxes, and approve government programs or withdraw confidence from the cabinet or any of its members. Suffrage is universal for all Egyptian citizens over age 18.
Judicial authority in Egypt is vested in an independent judicial system, which is based on elements of Islamic, English, and French laws. The Supreme Constitutional Court is the highest judicial body. Courts of general jurisdiction are divided into four levels. The Court of Cassation renders final judgments in civil and criminal matters and is composed of a president, 41 vice presidents, and 92 justices. Below the Court of Cassation are seven courts of appeal, each with jurisdiction over one or more of Egypt’s governorates. In each governorate is a primary tribunal that hears both civil and criminal cases. At the lowest level are summary tribunals, which are branches of the primary tribunals that are situated in various districts and headed by a single judge.
Egypt is divided into 26 governorates, each headed by a governor appointed by the president. The governors are aided by councils, of which most of the members are elected.
From 1961 to 1977 the Arab Socialist Union (ASU) was the only legal political party in Egypt. When a multiparty system was introduced in 1977, the ASU was replaced by several new parties. The number of active political groups grew to 11 by the early 1990s, though political parties must be approved by the government. Laws prohibit the formation of political parties along class lines, which serves to restrict the emergence of some parties, particularly those on the left. In the early 1990s the leading political group was the ruling National Democratic Party. Principal opposition groups were the Socialist Labor Party, the Muslim Brotherhood, and the New Wafd Party. Opposition parties boycotted the 1990 election in an unsuccessful effort to repeal legislation allowing the declaration of states of emergency.
Health and Welfare
Despite progress in the 20th century, particularly in the health of urban populations, services still lag behind the Egyptian population’s needs, especially in rural areas. By the early 1990s the country had about 101,500 physicians and about 108,400 hospital beds (one for about every 550 people). Since the 1960s, the ministry of health has made concentrated efforts to establish “rural combined” centers, each serving about 15,000 to 20,000 people. The aim of the centers is to coordinate medical, educational, social, and agricultural services through village councils. Great progress has been made in stamping out cholera, smallpox, and malaria, but such diseases as bilharzia (a parasitical disease) remain widespread. A comprehensive social insurance program was begun in 1959 and has been greatly expanded since.
Men in Egypt between the ages of 18 and 30 may be drafted for up to 36 months of military service. The total strength of the defense forces in the early 1990s was about 430,000. The army, with about 310,000, consists of eight mechanized infantry divisions, four armored divisions, and various separate brigades. Naval personnel number about 20,000. Air force personnel are estimated at 30,000, and the air defense command numbers about 70,000. Military reserves total about 304,000. Egypt sent troops to Saudi Arabia in 1990 after Iraq invaded Kuwait.
The origins of ancient Egyptian civilization, which many regard as one of the fountainheads of Western culture, cannot be established with certainty. Archaeological evidence suggests that early dwellers in the Nile Valley were influenced by cultures of the Near East, but the degree of this influence is yet to be determined. Describing the development of Egyptian civilization, like attempts to identify its intellectual foundations, is largely a process of conjecture based on archaeological discoveries of enduring ruins, tombs, and monuments, many of which contain invaluable specimens of the ancient culture. Inscriptions in hieroglyphs, for instance, have provided priceless data.
The framework for the study of the Dynastic period of Egyptian history, between the 1st dynasty and the Ptolemaic period, relies on the Aegyptiaca of Manetho, a Ptolemaic priest of the 3rd century BC, who organized the country’s rulers into 30 dynasties, roughly corresponding to families. General agreement exists on the division of Egyptian history, up to the conquest of Alexander the Great, into Old, Middle, and New kingdoms with intermediate periods, followed by the late and Ptolemaic periods, but chronology and genealogy are continually being refined in light of new evidence and by the use of increasingly sophisticated dating techniques.
Some 60,000 years ago the Nile River began its yearly inundation of the land along its banks, leaving behind rich alluvial soil. Areas close to the floodplain became attractive as a source of food and water. In time, climatic changes, including periods of aridity, further served to confine human habitation to the Nile Valley, although this was not always true. From the Chalcolithic period (the Copper age, beginning about 4000 BC) into the early part of the Old Kingdom, people apparently used an extended part of the land. In the 7th millennium BC, Egypt was environmentally hospitable, and evidence of settlements from that time has been found in the low desert areas of southern, or Upper, Egypt; remains of similar occupation have been discovered at Nubian sites in modern Sudan. Enough pottery has been found in Upper Egyptian tombs from the 4th millennium BC (in the Predynastic period) to establish a relative dating sequence. The Predynastic period, which ends with the unification of Egypt under one king, is generally subdivided into three parts, each of which refers to the site at which its archaeological materials were found: Badarian, Amratian (Naqada I), and Gerzean (Naqada II and III). Northern sites (from about 5500 BC) have yielded datable archaeological material of apparent cultural continuity but no long-term sequences such as those found in the south.
The Time of Muhammad Ali
The French occupation of Egypt in 1798, led by Napoleon Bonaparte, was a brief interlude, for the French never acquired full dominion or control. The grain-producing regions of Upper Egypt remained in Mameluke hands. Napoleon’s invasion was too short-lived to have any lasting impact, but it marked the beginning of a renewed European interest in Egypt. In 1801 an Anglo-Ottoman force expelled the French. For the next few years, struggles between Mamelukes and Ottomans for mastery ruined the country until Muhammad Ali, an Ottoman general of Albanian origin, seized power with the cooperation of the local population. In 1805 the Ottoman sultan declared him the governor of Egypt.
Muhammad Ali, a man of genius, slowly and methodically destroyed or bought off all his opponents until he became the only source of power in the country. To gain control of all the trade routes into Egypt, he embarked on wars of expansion. He first conquered Al Hijaz (the Hejaz, now in Saudi Arabia) in 1819 and Sudan from 1820 to 1822; by 1824 he was ready to help the Ottoman sultan put down an insurrection in Greece. The European powers, however, intervened to halt Egyptian advances in Greece, and Muhammad Ali was forced to withdraw his army. At home, Muhammad Ali encouraged the production of cotton to supply the textile mills of Europe, and he used the profits to finance industrial projects. He established a monopoly over all commodities and imposed trade barriers to nurture industry. He sent Egyptians abroad for technical education and hired experts from Europe to train his army and build his manufacturing industries (which, however, were never as successful as he hoped they would be). In 1831 Muhammad Ali invaded Syria, thereby coming into conflict with his Turkish overlord. The Egyptians defeated the Ottoman armies, and by 1833 they were threatening the Turkish capital, Constantinople (present-day Istanbul). Once again, Russia, Britain, and France intervened, this time to protect the sultan. Muhammad Ali’s forces withdrew, but he was left in control of Syria and Crete. Egyptian expansion and control over trade routes conflicted with Britain’s growing interest in the Middle East as a market for its burgeoning industrial production. The threat to the integrity of the Ottoman Empire also disturbed Britain and roused fears of Russian encroachment in the Mediterranean. For these reasons the British opposed Egypt, and when Muhammad Ali again rebelled against the sultan in 1839, they stepped in for the third time to make him back down. He was offered hereditary possession of Egypt, but had to give up his other conquests and remain an Ottoman vassal.
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