Located at a crossroads between Africa, Asia and Europe, Egypt remains one of the world’s most strategically important countries, as it has been for millennia. Lying astride trade routes linking West, East, North and South, Egypt has long been at the heart of regional and global commerce. For the past century and a half, the Suez Canal has been a major conduit for international trade, including oil. At once Arab, African and Mediterranean, Egypt has been home to great civilisations such as the Greeks of Alexander and Ptolemy, the Romans, the early Arab conquerors, the Abbasids, Fatimids, Ayybids and Mamluks, followed by the Ottomans, and briefly the French and British. These were all preceded by one of the world’s first great civilisations, Ancient Egypt, which grew from the immensely fertile Nile Valley and Delta.
Following atrophy under colonial oversight, Egypt experienced a resurgence in the second half of the 20th century as President Gamal Abdel Nasser made the country a leader in the postcolonial world. Cairo became the heart of the pan-Arab movement, and the cultural capital of the Arab world. Egyptian Arabic became the lingua franca of Arabs from the Atlantic to the Gulf, in no small part thanks to Egypt’s cultural exports, particularly films and music. Today, Egypt remains one of the leading nations of the Middle East, Africa and the Mediterranean.
Egypt’s land territory is just over 1m sq km, around twice the size of Spain and slightly more than twice the size of California. However, with desert covering 97% of this land area, about 95% of Egypt’s population of around 90m lives in the exceptionally fertile Nile Valley and Delta.
The Nile is regarded as the longest river on earth, with a length of 6850 km, reaching deep into Africa. Flowing northwards into the Mediterranean, the mighty river is formed by two branches that join at Khartoum in Sudan, the White Nile from Lake Victoria, and the Blue Nile from Lake Tana in Ethiopia.
Egypt has 2665 km of land borders. From the east, it has an 11-km border with the Gaza Strip, 266 km with Israel, 1273 km with Sudan, and 1115 km with Libya. Egypt lies on the Mediterranean and Red Seas, with a total coastline of 2450 km. Since 1869, the seas have been connected by the Suez Canal, allowing straightforward sea passage from Europe to Asia, East Africa and Australasia, without rounding the Cape of Good Hope.
The Nile has been the lifeline of Egypt since before recorded history, as the only truly significant source of water in this desert region. Until 1970, the country was dependent on the river’s annual flood, bringing silt-laden waters to the valley. This came to an end with the completion of the Aswan High Dam, which created Lake Nasser, a huge reservoir that runs into Northern Sudan. The dam moderates the river’s flow to prevent both high flooding and drought. The Nile Delta runs along 250 km of the Mediterranean coast, tapering to the river valley just north of Cairo. The rapid growth of Egypt’s population has led to urban areas encroaching on the fertile agricultural land of the Delta, placing pressure on agricultural resources from both supply and demand sides.
On either side of the Delta, Alexandria and Cairo have long vied for primacy in Egypt. The former was founded by Alexander the Great in 332 BCE and built a reputation of multiculturalism that lasted into the second half of the 20th century. While other ports closer to the Suez Canal have taken some traffic from Alexandria, the city is an economic engine for the north, and remains an important centre for modern Egyptian culture. Cairo, closer to the interior, lies near the site of the ancient Egyptian city of Memphis and the Pyramids of Giza. The fortified city of Old Cairo still stands next to a mosque founded by the Arab general Amr Ibn Al As in 642.
Egypt’s desert climate is hot and dry, with temperatures dropping at night. In summer, average temperatures vary from 25°C to 35°C, and in the winter between 15°C and 25°C. Geographical differences are significant, however. The Mediterranean coast is cooler and wetter, while the far south is hotter and drier. In the mountainous Sinai Peninsula, temperatures drop sharply at night in winter. Average rainfall across the country is 100 mm to 200 mm per year, with rainfall higher in the far north.
Egypt’s basic education system has expanded significantly in recent decades, with some of its universities ranking among the best in the Arab world. The total literacy rate is 74%, according to UNICEF, while youth literacy is 92%, suggesting that Egypt is moving towards full literacy. Education is compulsory for nine years between the ages of 6 and 15. Egypt’s new constitution commits the state to spending a minimum of 4% on pre-university education, 2% on higher education and 1% on research.
Egypt’s population reached 90m in December 2015, according to the Central Agency for Public Mobilisation and Statistics (CAPMAS). The last Egyptian census, in 2006, found that 99% of the population declared itself ethnic Egyptian. Minorities include Nubians, Turkmen and Armenians. Over the past decades, Egypt has also become home to a substantial population of non-citizens, including Palestinians, Sudanese and, more recently, Syrians and Libyans. Despite political difficulties since 2011, Egypt has remained a regional safe haven for refugees of conflict and instability, and is likely to remain so.
There are around 8m Egyptians living abroad, according to CAPMAS, with the diaspora of people of Egyptian descent likely even larger. Egyptians abroad include migrant workers and professionals in the Gulf, and living in countries like the US for generations. Remittances from abroad contribute an estimated $20bn to the Egyptian economy per year, three times the revenue generated by the Suez Canal, according to World Bank figures. These are a major generator of foreign currency earnings, and support many families within Egypt. Rapid population growth in recent decades has made Egypt a young country, with a third of Egyptians under the age of 15, and half under 25. The population continues to grow at around 1.5% a year, increasing the Egyptian population by more than 1m people annually.
Cairo is by far Egypt’s biggest city, with a population of more than 20m. Alexandria, with a population nearing 5m, ranks second. Greater Cairo includes a number of districts officially considered cities in their own right. Other major cities include Port Said, Suez and El Mahalla El Kubra.
Egypt’s official language is Arabic, which is the mother tongue of 99% of the population. Egyptian Arabic is often considered the most universal form of the language worldwide. Formal, Arabic known as “fus-ha” is used in religious contexts, literature and newspapers, and is broadly understood across the Arab world. The Cairene dialect is regarded as the most widely understood, partly thanks to Egypt’s export of film, music and television. However, it is not the only dialect in Egypt, with others, such as Saidi, used in Upper Egypt and Bahari being the dialect of rural areas of the Nile Delta. The Bedouin people also have a variety of dialects. Non-Arabic languages include a variant of Berber spoken around Siwa Oasis in the Western Desert, and European languages including English and French, spoken as second languages and used for instruction.
Egypt is one of the world’s most populous Muslim countries. Around 90% of its citizens are Muslims, and the Al Azhar Mosque in Cairo and its related university have for centuries been regarded as one of the world’s leading centres of Islamic thought and jurisprudence. Egypt’s substantial Christian population includes adherents of a range of churches, most prominently the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria, with significant communities of Greek and Armenian Orthodox believers, among others.
Egypt has the third-largest GDP in the Arab World, after oil-rich Saudi Arabia and the UAE. It is considerably more diversified than many economies in the region, with manufacturing and agriculture key contributors, making up 14.5% and 15.7% of GDP, respectively, according to the Central Bank of Egypt (CBE), as well as oil and gas extraction. Egypt is the largest oil producer in Africa that is not a member of OPEC. Egypt has been attracting foreign visitors to its historic sites for centuries, and tourism is a major generator of revenues, jobs and foreign currency earnings, although the sector has suffered from Egypt’s political and social turbulence in recent years.
The IMF forecasts that Egypt’s economy will grow by 4.3% in 2016, following a 4.2% expansion in 2015. The country’s economic strengths include its large domestic market, diversified economic base, favourable trade relations with major partners such as the EU, and geographic location. Challenges include bureaucracy, red tape and patchy infrastructure, issues that the government has been committed to resolving.
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