Egypt is one of the world’s oldest civilizations. The land of Pyramids, Pharaohs and the Nile River, it still retains a sense of the mysterious in the minds of many westerners. Egypt has long been a crucial part of the Middle East, yet for millennia it has struggled to exert any major influence or power over its neighbours. It has long been the playground of foreign empires, from the Romans and Greeks, to the Arabs and the Persians, all the way up to the British and French Empires.
This article will explore why Egypt struggles to develop economically and politically, and why its geography allowed Egypt to flourish four thousand years ago, yet flounder in the 21st century. We will also look at the challenges that Egypt will face during the coming decades.
- Population – 88,457,396 (July 2015 est.)
- Size – 1,001,450 square km
- Official Languages – Egyptian Arabic
- AKA – Arab Republic of Egypt
Egypt is located in Northern Africa, with coastlines on both the Mediterranean and Red Seas. There are four main regions in Egypt that are easily identifiable. There are the Western and Eastern deserts, which lie either side of the Nile River valley and delta. Lastly, there is the Sinai Peninsula, which borders Israel.
Without the Nile, human civilization would never have arisen in Egypt – not today, not yesterday, not four thousand years ago. The world’s longest river winds through ten countries before arriving in Egypt. These other countries have their own lakes and other rivers to rely on, but Egypt has always only had the Nile. The Nile’s steady flow, together with its predictable flooding, have made its banks fertile and productive since ancient times.
While Ancient Egypt might not have been the first ‘civilization’ the world produced, it was certainly one of the first, and remains among the longest-surviving inhabited lands in the world. The Nile, along with the deserts that surround it, allowed for productive agriculture to take place without a real threat of invasion or attack. Egyptian civilization formed inside a kind of protective bubble, thanks to these huge deserts providing a natural barrier to any invading force. The Nile itself allowed for a dense, centrally-located population, and easy transportation up and down river. Ancient Egyptian trade, bureaucracy and culture simply could not have developed without the Nile.
These favourable factors helped Ancient Egypt to develop into one of the most advanced civilizations in the world. The Nile, with its sophisticated (man-made) irrigation system, actually allowed for a surplus of food to be produced, which almost certainly led the Ancient Pharaohs and leaders of Egypt to focus more on the construction of Pyramids and other great works. The densely populated banks of the Nile allowed for these Pharaohs to more easily project their power and spread their bureaucracy as well.
However, the Nile also arguably led to the downfall of Ancient Egypt. While the Nile is an incredible river, it is not a river lined by trees. In fact, Egypt has hardly any native trees at all. This, in addition to the natural protection afforded Egypt by the surrounding deserts, meant that Ancient Egypt never developed any kind of serious naval power, as ancient navies required large amounts of lumber to be constructed. The difficult and tougher terrains of Persia, Anatolia, Greece and the Italian peninsula gave the Empires that emerged from these places much more practice when it came to projecting military might over land and sea.
First the Persians, then the Greeks, then the Romans, then the Arabs, then the Ottomans – for centuries, Egypt found itself dominated by foreign powers. After the Ottoman Empire fell apart, the British and the French were quickly there to exert control over Egypt. Only in 1953, when the modern Republic of Egypt was founded, was Egypt ruled once again by native Egyptians. Until that time, Egypt had been ruled by outsiders for over 2300 years.
The Nile has allowed Egypt to support a population much larger than its neighbours. For a long time, the fertile banks of the river have allowed for consistent and stable population growth. Egypt in 2016 is a remarkably young country, with over 75% of the population being under the age of 25. This contrasts sharply with most developed countries, which tend to lack young people, and have the financial burden of elderly people to manage. While a lack of young people and an aging population may be a serious challenge for many developed countries in Europe and elsewhere, Egypt has the polar opposite problem: there are too many young people and not enough jobs. Economic development in Egypt has not kept up with its explosive population growth in the 20th century.
The population in Egypt is huddled along the narrow banks of the Nile, which results in an incredibly dense population. A young population with high rates of unemployment and limited economic prospects is a recipe for social unrest; this predicament has contributed to Egypt’s political upheavals in recent years.
Egypt is an overwhelmingly Islamic country, with roughly 90% of Egyptian people adhering to Sunni Islam. There is also a large population of Coptic Christians, who, according to the CIA World Factbook, make up around 10% of the population. The Coptic Orthodox Church is one of the oldest Christian churches in the world, being founded in the first century AD in the city of Alexandria. In the seventh century AD, Islam was introduced to Egypt during the Islamic conquest of the region.
It is worth noting that the amount of Christians in Egypt is often questioned. For instance, while the CIA World Factbook claims that 10% of the population belong to a Christian denomination, various religious groups inside Egypt claim that the true figure is much higher, perhaps up to 20% of the population. Official Egyptian government statistics refute this and suggest a much lower figure of 10% or less. Due to the political nature of Islam in Egyptian society (all laws passed must also agree with Islamic law) the issue of religious demographics is a contentious one.
Looking forward, the rapid growth of the Egyptian population will prove challenging for any government. Desertification, drought and dam construction in other countries (such as Ethiopia) could seriously impact the state’s ability to provide food and water to the large population.
Egypt has one key geographical feature that ensures its importance and relevance to global trade, and it’s not the Nile. This feature is a man-made one – the Suez Canal. This canal, constructed by the French-owned Suez Canal Company in the middle of the 19th century, links the Mediterranean Sea to the Red Sea over 190km (120 miles) of Sinai desert. In 2012, more than 17,000 vessels made the journey through the canal.
Much like the Panama Canal, the Malacca Straits and the Strait of Hormuz, the Suez Canal is a crucial part of the international trade system. If it were to close, ships traveling to and from South Asia to Europe would have to sail around Africa, a journey which adds around 7000km (4300 miles) to the voyage. Traveling by sea for that distance would add a considerable amount the cost of shipping any goods between Asia and Europe.
The Suez Canal is one of the major reasons foreign powers have taken a keen interest in Egypt since the end of Ottoman rule in the 19th century. The British, the French, and now the Americans have all had close dealings with Egypt in the past century. The Canal became an important part of the British Imperial strategy during the colonial period in Egypt, as it allowed for trade to flow from British India to Europe.
The Suez Crisis of 1956 was not only a crucial moment in the history of contemporary Egypt, but the western world in general. The crisis began when the President of Egypt, Gamal Abdel Nasser, announced plans to nationalize the canal. This would effectively remove any French or British influence from the Suez Canal and Egypt. In response to this, France, Britain and Israel banded together and invaded Egypt with the aim of deposing Nasser. The conflict was largely one-sided, but due to overwhelming pressure from both the Soviet Union and the United States, Britain and France withdrew from Egypt. This event signified the end of the United Kingdom as a global superpower. President Eisenhower had a large role in ending the crisis in favor of the Egyptians, as he was focused on the larger issue of the Cold War.
The United States saw the Middle East as a key battleground during the Cold War. Eisenhower, among others, was focused on trying to keep Soviet influence out of the region. Egypt was a key part of this strategy. During the initial stages of the Cold War, Egypt and its leaders looked to the (anti-western) Soviet Union as a potential ally, and collaborated with the Soviets on many military and infrastructure projects. However, by the end of the Cold War, Egypt’s relations with the Soviet Union had cooled off dramatically. By the 1980s, Egypt was on a pro-western path.
Today, Egypt and the United States have a close relationship, even after the 2011 revolution and the 2013 military coup. Since the peace treaty signed between Israel and Egypt in 1979, The United States has given billions of dollars in military and economic aid to Egypt. American and Egyptian military and intelligence collaboration is a crucial part of America’s strategy in the Middle East. It ensures that Egypt remains relatively stable and strong while also guaranteeing the safety of Egypt’s neighbour Israel. The Suez Canal is also important part of the global trade system, a system that the United States is invested in maintaining.
Contemporary Egypt has a tense relationship with Ethiopia. This may seem surprising as the two countries do not share a border, but they do share a river. The ‘Blue Nile’ begins in the highlands of Ethiopia, before flowing into Sudan and joining the ‘White Nile.’ The two rivers join and become the Nile, which flows through Egypt and into the Mediterranean. The Blue Nile provides a large amount of the water that eventually makes it way to Egypt and helps to irrigate the lands and feed the people of Egypt.
In 2011, construction began on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. Ethiopian Prime Minster Meles Zenawi laid the first stone in April of that year. The dam will provide a huge amount of hydroelectricity to the rapidly-growing Ethiopia. Construction is set to conclude in 2017. While the project is an important one for Ethiopia, many in Egypt see it as a direct threat to the water supply and security of their country. In 2013, Egyptian leaders were caught on tape discussing sabotaging the dam, and in 2014, Egypt walked away from negoitations with Ethiopia regarding the dam. Egypt ideally wants construction to stop, but for Ethiopia this seems unlikely. However, in 2015, the three countries directly affected by the dam (Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan) signed a ‘Declaration of Principles,’ an agreement which aimed to ease tensions over the dam.
The tensions over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam highlights one of the largest concerns for Egypt: the water in the Nile. Any disruption to the flow of water that sustains over 80 million people will be seen as a threat to Egypt itself, and military action could be a real option during such a scenario. Despite advances in technology which have taken place in transportation, communication and agriculture, the Nile is just as important to contemporary Egypt as it was in Ancient times.
Egypt is a country that faces many challenges. Key among these are demographic and environmental concerns. Despite its relatively large size, Egypt has an incredibly dense and growing population that demands skillful governance if peace is to be preserved. Just feeding such a population will be a clear goal of any Egyptian government. Economic growth is also important, as it represents the best chance for Egypt’s young people to better themselves. In addition to this, Egypt must look to the environment as a crucial part of its future stability. In the face of desertification, and dam construction in other countries, Egypt’s leaders must work to maintain the steady flow of the Nile. Egypt is experiencing a period of native governance for first time in over 2000 years. Possibly, the issues which Egypt has faced during the past half century will turn out to be nothing more than growing pains. The Greek historian Herodotus said in the fifth century BCE: ‘Egypt is the Nile and the Nile is Egypt.’ As long as the Nile continues to flow, it will be hard to imagine a world without Egypt
Source for statistics and figures: CIA World Factbook
[ This article was proofread and edited by my good friend Miles Raymer. Please check out his fantastic blog at http://www.words-and-dirt.com/ and his goodreads profile at http://www.goodreads.com/user/show/7208369-miles ]