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Nile River allowed Egypt to emerge, beginning from the sixth millennia BCE, as one of the world’s first hydraulic civilizations. Building canals and dikes, Egypt developed a redistributive economy and a complexly ordered, unified society under one king by 2950 BCE. Even as a part of other empires in other eras, Egypt became an icon of Western civilization, with a distinctive artistic canon recognizable today by the general public.
Egypt has long been accorded a paramount place in world history. This is particularly true of ancient Egypt, which has exerted a powerful influence on both popular and scholarly imaginations to the point that it has been incorporated into the standard view of Western civilization. Other epochs in Egyptian history were also of great importance, however, and not only to Egypt but also to the history of the world.
The Gift of the Nile
As the climate of northeastern Africa dried out during the Holocene period, the peoples of the region had to move to wetter areas, either to the south or to the east to the Nile Valley. By the sixth millennium BCE, most of Egypt’s population had migrated to the valley of the Nile, a remarkable river that was the material basis for Egyptian civilization. Besides providing almost all of Egypt’s water, the Nile annually inundated the fertile land along its banks, leaving behind pools, depositing new soil, and washing away excess minerals, thereby avoiding the salinization that was the bane of other hydraulic civilizations such as ancient Mesopotamia. The river was continuously navigable throughout Egypt, from the broad delta in the north to the first cataract at Aswan, 900 kilometers (559 miles) to the south, providing ready communication and the means to convey heavy loads over long distances. (A cataract, of which the entire Nile has six, is a place where boulders break the water’s surface or where rapids flow; boats pass them only with difficulty.) The river was ideal for sailing craft: the steady current carried vessels north while the prevailing north wind propelled them south. Even today 95 percent of Egypt’s population lives within a few kilometers of the river.
This was the matrix from which one of the world’s first hydraulic civilizations emerged. During Predynastic times (c. 5300–2950 BCE) increasingly complex social and political organizations developed to manage and maximize the river’s gift through construction of canals, dikes, and artificial pools, and through water-raising devices. Control of the resulting agricultural surpluses enabled an exploitative elite to establish a redistributive economy with increasing social stratification and differentiation of labor. A series of kingdoms developed along the Nile, growing ever larger and inevitably coming into conflict with each other and consolidating into still larger kingdoms. Little is known about the process apart from what can be interpreted from enigmatic artistic representations on items such as ceremonial palettes and maces, although it is fairly clear that the unifying impulse came from the south. By 2950 BCE at the latest, Egypt was united under one king, providing one of the earliest models of state formation, and one unmatched in scale by any of its preceding or contemporary societies.
From the intensely innovative and creative experiences of Late Predynastic and early pharaonic times emerged fixed forms of social usage, religion, and artistic expression so suitable to the Egyptians that they remained fixed for thousands of years. At the apex of society was the king, or pharaoh, who ruled with the status of a god. Monumental accomplishments such as the vast pyramid fields of Giza, Saqqara, and Dahshur demonstrated his command of the kingdom’s people and resources. Highly complex systems of religion and magic connected people with the universe and assigned them a place in this life and the next, for which they made elaborate preparation through mummification and tomb construction. Ethical values such as ma’at, which might be loosely translated as justice or truth, guided personal and official conduct. Prodigious artistic production was regulated by an artistic canon that produced works so distinctive that they are readily recognizable today as ancient Egyptian, even by the general public. Stimulated by the need to keep royal records, the art of writing appeared early in Egypt and was expressed in stately hieroglyphic script by a privileged group of learned scribes. Through its monuments, art, and literature, ancient Egypt communicated a compelling impression of itself to succeeding ages.
During the Old Kingdom and Middle Kingdom periods (c. 2613–1640 BCE), Egypt functioned largely as a cultural oasis, separated from the rest of the world by deserts, restricted land approaches, and lack of a natural seaport. The ancient Egyptians probably felt little need for external contact, but cultural self-sufficiency can lead to complacency and technological backwardness, as was made apparent by the invasion and domination of Egypt by the foreign Hyksos during the Second Intermediate Period (c. 1640–1550 BCE). That humiliating episode prompted the Egyptians to import innovations such as the horse-drawn chariot, the curved sword, the compound bow, and body armor, as well as improved looms and potters’ wheels, and superior strains of plants and animals.
With the resurgent New Kingdom (c. 1550–1069 BCE), whose monumental remains are so abundant at ancient Thebes (present-day Luxor), Egypt developed closer outside ties as it acquired imperial possessions in Syria through the campaigns of monarchs such as Thuthmose III and Ramses II. The emergence of other powers in the Near East required maintenance of diplomatic contacts, as is shown by the archives of the heretic king Akhenaten. Diplomacy became even more important during the Third Intermediate and Late Periods (c. 1069–332 BCE) when Egypt was often internally divided and occasionally subjected by foreign entities such as the Nubians, the Assyrians, and the Persians. A Greek merchant presence penetrated into the delta, and Greek mercenaries served in Egypt. Greek scholars and travelers were drawn to Egypt, including the fifth century BCE historian Herodotus who famously observed that “Egypt is the gift of the Nile.” Egyptian influences on Greek art are obvious in sculpture and architecture.
Alexandria, the Ptolemies, and Rome
Egypt had fallen under Persian domination when Alexander of Macedon (Alexander the Great) arrived in 332 BCE. Alexander soon departed to complete his conquest of the Persian Empire, but not before establishing a new city, Alexandria, which provided a major seaport to a country that previously had none and firmly connected Egypt to the Mediterranean world. Out of the struggle for power following Alexander’s death in 323 BCE, one of his Macedonian generals, Ptolemy, son of Lagus, secured Egypt for himself and his descendants, establishing a dynasty that lasted three centuries. Although the Ptolemies presented and justified their rule through traditional pharaonic trappings to the masses of Egyptians, they superimposed a Greek-speaking elite class and its foreign culture on Egypt.
The Ptolemies ruled the most powerful state in the eastern Mediterranean, an empire that extended far beyond Egypt, and that was usually able to hold its own and more with its chief rival, Seleucid Syria, another product of the breakup of Alexander’s ephemeral empire. The immense, ever-renewed resources of Egypt enabled the Ptolemies not only to maintain their military power but also to sustain magnificent achievements in material culture and intellectual life. Alexandria became by far the greatest city of the eastern Mediterranean. Its two harbors, guarded by the Lighthouse, teemed with commercial and military vessels. The city was filled with thousands of sumptuous palaces, temples, and public buildings. The Museum became the intellectual center of the Mediterranean world, attracting the greatest scholars and the best collection of books to its incomparable Library.
Under its first three kings—Ptolemy I Soter, Ptolemy II Philadelphus, and Ptolemy III Euergetes—who reigned from 306 to 221 BCE, the Ptolemaic dynasty retained its preeminence, but later rulers were often less capable, and at times the dynasty fell into unscrupulous hands. Rome emerged from the Second Punic War (218–202 BCE) as the strongest power in the Mediterranean and progressively extended its sway eastward, interfering increasingly in Egypt’s affairs throughout the second century BCE. By the following century Egypt was virtually a Roman puppet state. Cleopatra VII (r. 51–30 BCE) attempted to exploit internal Roman competition for power to reassert the independence of her kingdom, hence her liaisons with Julius Caesar and Marcus Antonius. In the end, however, the faction led by Octavian, later styled Augustus, prevailed. Egypt became a Roman province in 30 BCE.
If anything, the Roman Empire exploited Egypt more ruthlessly than had the Ptolemies. Besides substantial taxes, Egypt regularly shipped vast quantities of grain to Rome, the first of several times that Egypt served as the breadbasket of a foreign power. By the second century CE the Egyptian economy was experiencing severe stress from the burdens imposed on it. But Egypt also exerted a strong allure on the Roman Empire. The several Egyptian obelisks that were transported to Italy served as reminders of the ancient land through the centuries. Egyptian religious cults such as that of Serapis and Isis spread through the empire. Alexandria remained supreme in intellectual life. Ideas in geography, astronomy, and medicine that were nurtured there circulated in both the West and the Middle East as late as the nineteenth century. Alexandria was foremost in philosophy, being especially notable in the development of Neoplatonism. Another cultural product of Roman Egypt, Hermeticism— a mix of philosophy, metaphysics, alchemy, and astrology that was based on the mythical Hermes Trismegistus—was particularly influential during the European Renaissance. But when the Roman Empire entered a period of extended crisis during the third century CE, probably no province suffered as much as Egypt, weakening old certainties and institutions while opening the way for new ones.
Though usually underappreciated by Christians in general, Egypt played a central role in the establishment and spread of Christianity. Much of Christian orthodoxy was initially hammered out in Egypt; the Nicene Creed, for example— “I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of all things both visible and invisible, and in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Word of God”—was formulated by Egyptian churchmen; the New Testament in its canonical form was first compiled in Egypt; and Egypt contributed greatly to the development of many of the church’s most important institutions such as monasticism. Traditionally brought to Egypt by Saint Mark, the early development of Christianity in Egypt is obscure, but there can be no doubt that the new religion found fertile soil along the banks of the Nile. The vicissitudes of the third century only made it grow stronger as people turned to it for comfort and support. By the late fourth century, through a combination of conversion, aggressively antipagan measures, and imperial favor, the religion had triumphed. Egypt became almost monolithically Christian.
Byzantines, Persians, and Muslims
With the collapse of the Western Roman Empire at the end of the fifth century, Egypt remained a province of the Eastern or Byzantine Empire. As before, it was regarded as an imperial breadbasket, although the grain shipments went to Constantinople (later called Istanbul), not Rome. Relations between Constantinople and Egypt were far from smooth as irreconcilable areas of conflict developed. Alexandria, the preeminent city of the eastern Mediterranean for more than six centuries, resented its displacement by the upstart capital of Constantinople. Worse, the imperial capital began to assert theological as well political supremacy. Egyptian resentment was exacerbated by the emergence of serious doctrinal differences that found expression during the great church councils of the first half of the fifth century in disputes over matters such as monophysitism, the belief that Christ’s humanity is absorbed by his deity; thus he has only one nature, not two. Imperial attempts to impose its ideas of orthodoxy were vigorously resisted in Egypt.
At the beginning of the seventh century, the Byzantine Empire fell into a bloody civil war that devastated Egypt. Hardly had that conflict been resolved when the Byzantine and Persian empires began a prolonged struggle during which Egypt endured a sustained Persian occupation before the Byzantines finally prevailed. The Byzantine Empire was badly shaken by its conflict, however, and had difficulty in reimposing its rule in Egypt or even in protecting its borders against a new and totally unexpected force. United under the banner of Islam, Arab armies emerged from the Arabian Peninsula and drove the Byzantines from Syria in 636 CE, isolating Egypt from the imperial center. In 639, a small Arab force marched south from Syria to Egypt. An incompetent Byzantine defense and the welcoming attitude of the Egyptian people, who saw the Arabs as liberators from their hated oppressors, quickly delivered the province to the Arabs.
The consequences of the Muslim conquest of Egypt were momentous. One consequence, of course, was the establishment of Islam in Egypt, which became a predominantly Muslim land, although Egypt retains to this day a substantial Christian minority. Another consequence was Egypt’s adoption of the Arabic language. And an entirely new capital, Fustat, was established near the apex of the Nile Delta, displacing Alexandria as the center of government and beginning the long decline of the latter city until its resurgence in the nineteenth century.
Thus Egypt became part of a new world empire, governed first from Arabia, then from Damascus under the Umayyad dynasty (661–750 CE). When the Umayyads were overthrown by the Abbasids in 750, the last Umayyad caliph, Marwan II, made his final stand in Egypt. After the Abbasids established a new imperial capital at Baghdad, Egypt became more peripheral and was usually loosely governed, especially as the authority of the Abbasid caliphate steadily diminished. That made Egypt vulnerable to the ambitions of a rival Shi’a Fatimid caliphate that had established itself in present-day Tunisia and was determined to wrest control of the Islamic world from the Sunni Abbasid caliphate in Baghdad. Egypt was the logical first step.
Fatimids, Mamluks, and Ottomans
Through a combination of effective propaganda and Abbasid weakness, at a moment when Egypt was riven with internal divisions, the Fatimids took Egypt almost without opposition in 969. The new dynasty immediately founded a new city a short distance north of Fustat, which became known as Cairo, although Fustat remained of major importance until it was destroyed during a crusader invasion in 1168. Once again Egypt was the center of a major empire, well led and capably administered, and strong both militarily and economically. Fatimid gold coinage, which retained its value almost to the end of the dynasty, set the monetary standard in the eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East. But the Fatimids never achieved their ambition of destroying the Abbasid caliphate, and less able rulers in less favorable times were hard pressed to meet a new and unexpected challenge in the Middle East.
Egypt does not come readily to mind when thinking of the crusades, which were ostensibly aimed at the Holy Land, but it was involved in them from beginning to end. An Egyptian Fatimid garrison lost Jerusalem to the First Crusade in 1099, and an Egyptian Mamluk army expelled the crusaders from the Asian mainland at the end of the thirteenth century. Several major crusading efforts were primarily directed not at the Holy Land but at Egypt, and on more than one occasion the crusaders came close to success. At such a moment of crisis Salah al-Din, known in the West as Saladin, displaced the enfeebled Fatimid dynasty. Salah al-Din turned back the crusader threat to Egypt and recaptured Jerusalem in 1197. His rivalry with Richard the Lionheart during the subsequent Third Crusade became the stuff of chivalric legend. In Egypt he returned the land to the Sunni fold and established the Citadel, one of Cairo’s major features. He ruled as sultan, paying lip service to the authority of the Abbasid caliph in Baghdad. The dynasty that he established, with extensive holdings in Syria as well as Egypt, is called the Ayyubid.
The Ayyubid realms were never functionally integrated, however, and they often failed to support each other effectively. When the French king Louis IX invaded Egypt in 1249 at the head of a strong army, it appeared almost certain that he would succeed. What saved Egypt was a new force of slave soldiers, the Mamluks (literally “owned men”). These formidable warriors met the French at the deltan town of Mansura, defeated them, took Louis IX captive, and turned back the last major crusader threat to Egypt. Within a few years the Mamluks again proved their mettle when the Mongols were about to invade Egypt having recently devastated Baghdad and killed the caliph. After dealing similar destruction to Damascus, the Mongols demanded that Egypt surrender or suffer a similar fate. Not waiting for invasion, the Mamluks rode north into Palestine and engaged the hitherto invincible Mongols at Ain Julut in 1260, defeating them utterly and chasing them out of the region. Within a few decades more the Mamluks had also conquered the last crusader stronghold on the Asian mainland. A crusader or Mongol conquest of Egypt would have had incalculable consequences not only for Egypt but also for world history.
Slave soldiers had long been a factor in Islamic governments. In Egypt the Mamluks institutionalized themselves as the dominant force with one of their number ruling as sultan. Their ranks were replenished by fresh supplies of slave youths from beyond the Muslim world who were brought to Egypt and raised in the arts of war and instructed in Islam from childhood. From slavery they could rise high in the Mamluk hierarchy, commanding groups of Mamluk soldiers, even becoming the sultan. But the system was not hereditary. The only way to become a Mamluk was to enter the system as a slave. Fullfledged warriors and their military establishments were supported by the revenues from extensive grants of land. Yet, for all their warlike orientation, the Mamluks were great patrons of the arts, especially architecture. Many splendid Mamluk buildings still adorn Cairo.
In its heyday, the Mamluk Empire was the mightiest state in the Middle East, but a number of factors attenuated their strength over time. The Black Death, the horrific outbreak of bubonic plague that appeared in 1347, hit Egypt especially hard, destroying perhaps a third of the population, dealing a devastating blow to the economic foundations of the Mamluk system and depleting Mamluk numbers. Plague reappeared with such regularity in Egypt over the next five centuries that Egypt became intimately associated with the disease in the Western imagination. But the Mamluk system also deteriorated from within as its unique training system lost its rigor. New innovations in tactics and military technology were ignored. The Mamluks never successfully adopted artillery, and they despised handguns as unworthy of mounted warriors. This made them vulnerable to the expanding Ottoman Turks who eagerly embraced new military techniques and weapons. After the decisive battle at Marj Dabiq in 1516, Egypt became a province of the Ottoman Empire and remained so in one form or another for four centuries.
Once again Egypt was relegated to the periphery as imperial policy was directed from Istanbul, as Constantinople was now called, and administered within Egypt by a long series of Ottoman governors. Relatively little is known about the first two centuries of Ottoman Egypt because of a dearth of historical sources, but it is clear that Egypt derived some benefit from being part of the extensive Ottoman imperial and commercial systems. Egypt particularly profited from becoming a transshipment point in the coffee trade as that new beverage gained avid markets throughout the Mediterranean and in Europe. Ottoman rule was light in Egypt, allowing the resurgence of the Mamluks as a privileged economic and military power. Eventually these neo-Mamluks became so powerful that they, not the Ottoman governors, were paramount within the land. It was in the wake of a failed attempt to reassert effective imperial authority at the end of the eighteenth century that another disruptive force intruded into Egyptian affairs.
French and British Intervention
At the direction of the revolutionary government of France, General Napoleon Bonaparte invaded Egypt in 1798. The intentions were to sever Britain’s overland ties with India and secure Egypt and its agricultural riches for France. The ambitious young general may also have dreamed of winning an eastern empire for himself. But after some early but superficial successes, the situation became hopeless; Napoleon abandoned his army to seek greater things in Paris, and the French were expelled from Egypt by British and Ottoman forces in 1801. The British evacuated soon after. But Egypt had become firmly fixed in Europe’s political and diplomatic sights.
Another consequence of Napoleon’s Egyptian expedition was the European rediscovery of ancient Egypt. This was initiated to a large degree by the scholars who accompanied the French expedition but was quickly taken up by droves of scholars and travelers, intently followed by a growing reading public in Europe that was fascinated by the resulting flood of publications and the intriguing objects from Egypt that were filling Western museums. By the end of the nineteenth century, Egyptology was becoming a highly institutionalized discipline, one with appeal far beyond the scholarly community. The impact of ancient Egypt on the popular imagination is difficult to overstate. Probably no other vanished civilization has exerted so powerful an allure.
It was reasonably assumed that Ottoman authority would be reestablished in Egypt in the wake of the Napoleonic expedition, but the unexpected again intruded. Muhammad Ali (1769–1849), an Albanian officer in command of one of the Ottoman contingents sent to Egypt, exploited the chaotic situation to establish a personal ascendancy and compel a reluctant Ottoman sultan to grant him the office of pasha, or governor, of Egypt in 1805, which he held until his death in 1849. Steadily consolidating his power, Muhammad Ali exterminated the odious Mamluks and imposed a degree of order on Egypt unknown for centuries. Through ruthless measures he greatly increased the productivity of the country, built a powerful army and navy, and established industries in Egypt. Though nominally loyal to his master, the Ottoman sultan in Istanbul, Muhammad Ali was in fact much more powerful than the sultan with whom he fought two successful wars. So successful was he that the Western powers intervened to prevent the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire—and because of resentment that a non-Western polity could accomplish so much. Muhammad Ali was compelled to dismantle most of his military and industrial establishments, but in return he was granted the hereditary right of rule in Egypt for himself and his family, who retained it until 1952.
But Muhammad Ali’s successors fell increasingly under the sway of the West. Ismail, who ruled with the exalted title of khedive from 1863 to 1879, pursued an especially ruinous policy of borrowing from Western bankers at usurious terms. Debts mounted to unsustainable levels to finance grandiose projects. The most expensive was the Suez Canal, which opened in 1869, but only brought more debt to Egypt while greatly enhancing the importance of the country to covetous imperialist eyes. When debts mounted to levels where the Egyptian government could no longer pay, European governments intervened to take control of the country’s finances. That provoked a nationalist rising which Britain crushed militarily in 1882.
British intervention in Egypt was initially intended to be temporary, but it lasted more than seventy years. Withdrawal would mean the return of unacceptable conditions in Egypt—and leave Egypt and the Suez Canal, which had become Britain’s lifeline to India, vulnerable to other predatory imperialist powers—so the British occupation became institutionalized. Although Britain maintained the diplomatic fiction that it ruled Egypt in the interests of the Ottoman Empire, Egypt was very much part of the British Empire.
The British accomplished much in Egypt in the area of administrative reform, and they thoroughly overhauled the vital irrigation system, with highly beneficial results. But they largely deprived Egyptian officials of administrative responsibility and experience, while discouraging industrialization in favor of agriculture, causing Egypt to fall ever further behind. Education stagnated as the British refused to devote substantial resources to it at any level. Not until 1908 was a national university established in Egypt. Lord Cromer, the British consul-general and de facto ruler of Egypt, calculated that the Egyptians would be so grateful for the efficiency of British control that they would acquiesce in it indefinitely. When that calculation proved mistaken during the first decade of the twentieth century, reluctant steps were taken towards the establishment of a representative parliamentary democracy. But just as that promising process was being implemented, World War I broke out, and Britain found itself at war not only with the German Empire but with the Ottoman Empire as well.
The British were more firmly in control than ever as they suspended Egyptian political activity and imposed a state of emergency. Since they could no longer maintain the fiction of governing in the interests of the Ottoman Empire, they established a formal protectorate in Egypt. The Ottoman menace to the Suez Canal required large numbers of British soldiers to be stationed in Egypt. The country was compelled to make heavy contributions of produce, money, and manpower to the war effort—although Egyptians were not conscripted into the army in large numbers because the British did not want to create a large cadre of trained Egyptian fighting men.
At the conclusion of World War I, to which Egypt had so heavily contributed, and inspired by talk of national self-determination, Egyptians expected their national concerns to be taken seriously. When they learned that their case was not even being considered and that the British intended to continue the protectorate, the country exploded. Realizing that Egypt had become ungovernable, Britain granted independence to Egypt in 1922, but with reservations. These included continued military presence in the canal zone and deferment of the final disposition of Sudan, which the Egyptians considered theirs by right of conquest but which had effectively functioned as a separate British colony since 1899. Britain also reserved the right to intervene to defend Egypt. The result might be better described as autonomy rather than full independence.
The constitutional monarchy that was established in 1923 confronted serious problems from the outset. The new king, Fouad I, a descendent of Muhammad Ali, inclined towards autocracy whereas the parliamentary leaders wanted to exert genuine authority. Given time, political realities would probably have produced a working relationship between the two, but a third factor, repeated British interference, prevented the emergence of equilibrium. Even so, modest advances were made in areas such as education and the economy, although lack of investment capital inhibited development, as did the Great Depression. Intellectual and cultural life flourished. Nor was the political scene altogether devoid of accomplishment. A treaty was negotiated in 1936 that provided for full Egyptian sovereignty and British withdrawal from Egypt, albeit after twenty years.
But with the outbreak of World War II in 1939, the British presence returned full force, for Egypt was of immense strategic importance. Threats from neighboring Italian colonies were turned back early on, but two German offensives in North Africa presented much more serious dangers, especially the second, which was stopped at al-Alamein, just one hundred kilometers (about 62 miles) from Alexandria. The British victory there narrowly prevented the Germans from capturing the Suez Canal and breaking into the Middle East and beyond. Egypt bore less of a burden in this war than in the previous one, but the Egyptians bitterly resented the way their government was coerced into cooperation by the British.
The postwar political situation in Egypt was dismal. King Farouk, who succeeded his father in 1936, degenerated into a caricature of depravity. Parliamentary politics were tarred by corruption, and the political spectrum became increasingly fragmented. Military intervention against the new nation of Israel resulted in a humiliating disaster, further discrediting a government that was increasingly out of control. Attempts at reform came too little and too late. The monarchy was overthrown by a military coup in the summer of 1952.
The figure that emerged supreme was an officer named Gamal Abdel Nasser, who held the office of president until his death in 1970. Determined to make a clean break with the past, the new regime extensively and repeatedly reorganized Egypt’s political and economic systems, introducing a system of state socialism and an outwardly democratic system, but one in which the president was supreme. The British finally withdrew from Egypt in 1956 but returned later that year in an ill-advised joint British- French-Israeli invasion when Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal to pay for construction of the High Dam at Aswan. Britain’s failure in the Suez crisis underscored that nation’s decline as a world power. The British were, however, able to prevent the union of Sudan with Egypt, a point of departure with enormous consequences for both nations. Enhanced in prestige after Suez, Egypt played a prominent role on the world stage during the 1950s and 1960s, with implications for the Cold War, the nonaligned movement, and especially for the Arab world where Egypt asserted a prominent leadership position. But that and Nasser’s espousal of the Palestinian cause led to Egypt’s disastrous defeat when Israel attacked in June 1967.
Under its next two presidents, Egypt gradually changed course in a number of significant ways. Anwar Sadat’s surprise attack on Israeli forces along the canal zone in October 1973 achieved some initial successes and recovered sufficient prestige to enable Egypt to make a peace treaty with Israel that recovered territories lost in 1967, but at the price of alienation from other Arab countries who resented Egypt’s abandonment of a united front against Israel. Sadat also began the process of moving away from a closed system of state socialism toward economic reengagement with the rest of the world. But he alienated many conservative elements within his own country, leading to his assassination in October 1981. Sadat’s successor, Hosni Mubarak, continued Sadat’s move toward more open economic policies and, with some reluctance, toward privatization and free markets. He also restored Egypt’s relations with other Arab countries. Despite some further tentative steps toward democratization, the country remains firmly under presidential control.
The challenges that confront Egypt in the early twenty-first century involve many of the most pressing issues confronting the world today. Egypt has serious demographic concerns. Cairo is the largest city on the African continent, with a population of more than 16 million people, and the entire country contains over 80 million inhabitants with a high rate of increase. Like many other countries, Egypt must also worry about energy, although it has some oil and extensive natural gas fields. Water may prove to be the worst problem of all, as demands upon the Nile approach the river’s maximum capacity. Egypt, which contributes nothing to the river’s supply, yet uses most of the water, will have to share with increasingly water-hungry nations upstream. Also, in a break with millennia of historical precedent, Egypt ceased to be a net food exporter in the mid-twentieth century and became a net food importer. The country can no longer feed itself, much less serve as a breadbasket to other nations. But the extraordinarily strong fabric of Egyptian society, which has withstood many stresses during the long millennia of its existence, will likely prove equal to these challenges as well as others that arise. Meanwhile the complex tapestries of its varied past, which have so often been interwoven with those of world events, will continue to enrich the human imagination.
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