The history of Egypt is as rich as the land, as varied as the landscape and as long as the Nile, longer than most in the world. As recent events continue to show, it can also be as lively as the character of its people. While much of Europe was still wrapped in animal skins and wielding clubs, ancient Egyptians enjoyed a sophisticated life, dedicated to maintaining order in the universe and to making the most of their one great commodity, the Nile.
The Nation’s Gift
The Greek historian Herodotus observed that Egypt was the gift of the Nile, and although it might now be a cliché, it also happens to be true. The ancient Egyptians called it simply iteru, the river. Without the Nile, Egypt as we know it would not exist.
The exact history is obscure, but many thousands of years ago the climate of North Africa changed dramatically. Patterns of rainfall also changed and Egypt, formerly a rich savannah, became increasingly dry. The social consequences were dramatic. People in this part of Africa lived as nomads, hunting, gathering and moving across the region with the seasons. But when their pastures turned to desert, there was only one place for them to go: the Nile.
Rainfall in east and central Africa ensured that the Nile in Egypt rose each summer; this happened some time towards the end of June in Aswan. The waters would reach their height around the Cairo area in September. In most years this surge of water flooded the valley and left the countryside hidden. As the rains eased, the river level started to drop and water drained off the land, leaving behind a layer of rich silt washed down from the hills of Africa.
Egyptians learned that if they planted seed on this fertile land, they could grow a good crop. As more people settled along the valley, it became more important to make the best use of the annual floodwater, or there would not be enough food for the following year. A social order evolved to organise the workforce to make the most of this ‘gift’, an order that had farmers at the bottom, bureaucrats and governors in the middle and, at the top of this pyramid, the pharaoh.
Egyptian legend credited all this social development to the good king Osiris, who, so the story went, taught Egyptians how to farm, how to make the best use of the Nile and how to live a good, civil life. The myth harks back to an idealised past, but also ties in with what we know of the emergence of kingship: one of the earliest attributions of kingship, the predynastic Scorpion Macehead, found in Hierakonpolis around 3000 BC, shows an irrigation ritual. This suggests that even right back in early times, making use of the river’s gift was a key part of the role of the leader.
The rise of the Nile was a matter of continual wonder for ancient Egyptians, as it remained right up to the 19th century, when European explorers settled the question of the source. There is no evidence that ancient Egyptians knew where this lifeline came from. In the absence of facts, they made up stories.
One of the least convincing of all Egyptian myths concerning the rise of the Nile places the river’s source in Aswan, beneath the First Cataract. From the cataract, the river was said to flow north to the Mediterranean and south into Africa.
The river’s life-giving force was revered in many ways, most obviously as a god, Hapy. He was an unusual deity in that, contrary to the slim outline of most gods, Hapy was most often portrayed as a pot-bellied man with hanging breasts and a headdress of papyrus. Hapy was celebrated at a feast each year when the Nile rose. In later images he was often shown tying papyrus and lotus plants together, a reminder that the Nile bound together the north and south of the country.
But the most enduring and endearing of all Egyptian myths concerning the river is devoted to the figure of Isis, the mourning wife. Wherever the river originated, the annual rising of the Nile was explained as being tears shed by the mother goddess at the loss of the good king Osiris.
Matters of Fact
Wherever it came from, the Nile was the beginning and end for most Egyptians. They were born beside it and had their first postnatal bath in its waters. It sustained them throughout their lives, made possible the vegetables in the fields, the chickens, cows, ducks and fish on their plates, and filled their drinking vessels when they were thirsty. When it was very hot or at the end of a day’s work, it was the Nile that provided relief, a place to bathe. Later, when they died, if they had the funds, their body would be taken along the river to the cult centre at Abydos. And it was water from the Nile that the embalmers used when they prepared the body for burial. But burial was a moment of total separation from this life source for, if you were lucky, you were buried away from the damp, where the dry sands and rocks of the desert would preserve your remains throughout eternity.
Not everything about the river was generous – it also brought dangers in many forms: the crocodile, the sudden flood that washed away helpless children and brought the house down on your head, the diseases that thrived in water, and the creatures (among them the mosquito) that carried them. The river also dictated the rhythm of life and everything started with the beginning of the inundation: New Year fell as the waters rose. This was a time of celebration and also, for some, of relaxation. As the land was covered with water and a boat was needed to travel from one village to the next, farmers found time to catch up on long-neglected chores, fixing tools and working on their houses. This was also the period of the corvée, the labour system by which it is thought many civic projects were built, among them the pyramids, the canal cut through from the Nile to the Red Sea and, in the 19th century, the Suez Canal.
The river also brought the taxman, for it was on the level of flood that the level of the annual tax was set. The formula was simple. Bureaucrats watched the rise of the river on Elephantine Island, where a gauge had been cut along the side of the rock. Each year’s flood was recorded at its height. If the water rose to the level of 14 cubits, there would be enough food to go around. If it rose to 16, there would be an abundance – and abundance meant higher taxation. And if there were, say, only eight cubits, then it was time to prepare for the worst because famine would come and many would follow Osiris to the land of spirits beyond the valley.
Even when the old gods were long dead, and roads and railways ran alongside the river, the Nile exerted its magic and its power. In the 18th and 19th centuries it was the way in which foreigners uncovered the mysteries of the past, sailing upriver when the winds blew from the north, and finding themselves face to face with unimaginable splendour. Even then, Egyptians clung to their habits and their dependence on the river. In the 1830s the British Orientalist Edward Lane recorded that 17 June was still called the Night of the Drop. ‘It is believed', he wrote, ‘that a miraculous drop then falls into the Nile; and causes it to rise.’ Lane also recorded the custom of creating a figure of a girl, the ‘Bride of the Nile’, out of mud, which was then washed away as the river rose, an echo of an ancient ceremony in which effigies – and perhaps also young women – were sacrificed to the rising river.
Some 100 years later, in 1934, the Egyptologist Margaret Murray spent a mid-September night in a Coptic village, celebrating the night of the high Nile, giving thanks ‘to the Ruler of the river, no longer Osiris, but Christ; and as of old they pray for a blessing upon their children and their homes’. (The Spendour that was Egypt, 1963, p.233)
This kind of spiritual bond with the river was broken when dams and barrages stopped the annual flood. But Egyptians, whether they live along the river or in one of the new satellite cities in the desert, remain as dependent on the Nile as ever. Now, instead of praying to the ‘Ruler of the river’, they put their faith in engineers, who, like kings of old, help them make the most of the water; and in politicians, who are currently renegotiating water-sharing agreements with Nile-basin neighbours. Wherever they pin their hopes, they know that, as ever, their existence depends on water flowing past Aswan on its way to the Mediterranean.
In the Beginning
Coptic tradition states that Christianity arrived in Egypt in AD 45 in the form of St Mark. According to this tradition, St Mark, originally from Cyrene in modern-day Libya, was in Alexandria when his sandal broke. He took it to a cobbler, Ananias, who hurt his hand while working on the sandal and shouted ‘O One God’, at which St Mark recognised his first convert to the new religion. While there is no way to prove the story, there is no denying the basic truth that Christianity arrived early in Egypt, direct from Palestine.
At the height of their power, ancient Egyptians had exported their religions – Amun of Thebes was known and feared throughout the Mediterranean. And even in times of weakness, the cult of the goddess Isis spread throughout the Roman Empire. But Egyptians were also open to foreign religious ideas. The Persians did little to impose their gods on the country when they sacked Thebes in the 6th century BC and made Egypt part of their empire. Two centuries later, Alexander the Great viewed things differently, at least in the north of the country: while he built shrines to Amun at Karnak and was happy to be welcomed as pharaoh by the priests at Memphis, he also encouraged Greeks and Jews to bring their gods to his new city. Alexandria, under the Macedonian’s successors, the Ptolemies, became a centre for multiculturalism, where people of many different beliefs and religions lived and worshipped side by side.
The Early Church
Egypt’s Coptic Christians absorbed much from both the form and the content of the ancient pagan religion. It is impossible to make direct parallels, but the rise of the cult of Mary appears to have been influenced by the popularity of Isis: both were said to have conceived through divine intervention. According to the late Coptic musicologist Dr Ragheb Moftah, the way in which the Coptic liturgy was performed seems to have evolved from ancient rites and in it, even today, we can hear an echo of ancient Egypt’s rituals. Even the physical structure of Coptic churches echoes the layout of earlier pagan temples in the use of three different sacred spaces, the innermost one containing the altar reserved for priests. This is hidden from the rest of the congregation by the iconostasis, with its images of saints, just as ancient priests were hidden behind walls decorated with gods and pharaohs.
The early need to hold hidden prayer, the desire to follow Jesus’s example of retreat from the world, the increasing difficulty of reconciling spiritual values with the demands and temptations of urban life, and perhaps also the memory of pagan hermits, led some Christians to leave the Nile Valley and seek spiritual purity in the desert. The man credited with being the first is St Paul, born in Alexandria in AD 228. He fled to the Eastern Desert to escape the persecutions around 250. The desert life obviously suited him for he is said to have survived there for almost a century, dying around 343. Although there are 5th-century accounts of the man, there is still some controversy as to whether St Paul existed. There is no such problem with the man he is said to have inspired.
Egypt’s Christians played a decisive role in the evolution of the young religion. In a series of meetings with Christians from across the empire, Copts argued over the nature of divinity, the duties of a Christian, the correct way to pray and many other aspects of religious life. In one matter in particular, Copts found themselves isolated. Many Christians argued that, as Jesus was born, there must have been a time when he was not divine and part of God. The Coptic clergy, particularly one Athanasius, argued that this idea of a dual nature was a throwback to polytheism. The crunch came in 325 at a council in Nicea, organised by the emperor, at which the Alexandrians triumphed: the Nicene Creed stated unequivocally that Father and Son are one. With this success, Alexandria confirmed its status as the centre of Mediterranean culture.
Death of the Old Gods
In 391 AD Emperor Theodosius issued an edict that banned people from visiting pagan temples, but also even looking at pagan statues. While the edict was ignored in some places, it was taken seriously in Alexandria, where the Temple of Serapis still stood in the city centre. The golden statue of the god remained in his sanctuary, adored by the faithful, until the Christian patriarch of Alexandria stirred a crowd and led them in an attack on the temple: the god was toppled from his plinth – proving false the prophets who foresaw doom should he be damaged – and then dragged through the streets and burned. The crowd is also believed to have set fire to the temple library, which had contained one of the largest collections of scrolls in the world since the Alexandrian ‘mother library’ had been burned during an attack by Julius Caesar. The patriarch then built a church over the ruins.
Constantine had moved his capital to the city of Byzantium, renamed Constantinople (now Istanbul), in 330 and from that moment power seeped from Alexandria. More than a century later, in 451, the Egyptians were officially sidelined at the Council of Chalcedon. Refusing to accept that Jesus was one person but had two natures, which again seemed a revival of polytheism, the Egyptians split with the rest of Christianity, their patriarch was excommunicated and soon after Alexandria was sacked.
Yet in spite of the religious split, Egypt was still part of the Byzantine Empire, ruled by a foreign governor, and its fortunes were tied to the empire. This caused ever-greater tension, which peaked in the reign of Emperor Justinian (528–565). Alexandrians stoned the emperor’s governor, who retaliated by sending his army to punish the people. In 629 a messenger travelled to the emperor in Byzantium from Arabia. He had been sent by a man named Mohammed to reveal a new religion, Islam. The messenger was murdered on the way. Ten years later, Arab armies invaded Egypt.
Under their brilliant general Amr Ibn Al As, the Arabs swept through a badly defended and ill-prepared Egypt, defeated the Byzantine army near Babylon and found the gates of Alexandria opened to them without a fight.
Amr didn’t force Egyptians to convert to the new religion, but did levy a tax on nonbelievers and showed preference to those who did convert. Slowly, inevitably, the population turned, although how fast is open to dispute. Eventually, however, some monasteries emptied and Coptic writing and language, the last version of the language of the pharaohs, stopped being spoken in public. Christian communities remained strongest in the new capital, Cairo, and in the valley south as far as the ancient capital, Thebes (Luxor). Increasingly, Christians also fell back on the monasteries. In places such as Wadi Natrun and studded along the Nile Valley, monastic communities hid behind their high walls, preserving the old language, the old traditions and, in their libraries, some of the old wisdom.
By the middle of the 19th century, even the monasteries were under threat and European travellers sailing up the Nile were shocked to discover monks swimming naked up to their boats to beg for food and money. The decline continued until the 20th century. By then, only around 10% of Egyptians were Christians and the great monasteries were at their lowest ebb. Ironically, Christianity responded to these threats by enjoying something of a revival. Modernising influences in the early 20th century sparked a cultural renewal that breathed new life into, among other things, the long-defunct tradition of icon painting. Islamist violence aimed at Copts in the 1980s and 1990s had the effect of significantly increasing the number of monks. At St Anthony’s Monastery numbers rose from 24 in 1960 to 69 in 1986, and in St Bishoi from 12 to 115.
The election of a Muslim Brotherhood–led government in 2012, in the wake of the downfall of President Mubarak, did nothing to ease tensions and Copts continued to find themselves targeted with impunity. Many wealthier Copts chose to emigrate to the US, Canada or Australia. Also in 2012, the popular Coptic Pope Shenouda III died. He was succeeded by His Holiness Pope Tawadros II, the 118th Patriarch of Alexandria.
The new pope stood alongside the Sheikh of Al Azhar and Field Marshal Sisi to announce the overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood government in 2013. But in spite of their continued support for Sisi, Copts face ongoing persecution and a lack of security. In 2017 there were bomb attacks against churches on Palm Sunday, and at least 28 died when a gunman fired at a busload of pilgrims near Minya.
The Coming of the Arabs
Around 628 AD a man called Mohammed, the leader of a newly united Arab force, wrote to some of the most powerful men in the world, including the Byzantine Emperor Heraclius, inviting them to convert to his new religion. The emperor, who had never heard of Islam and who regarded the people of Arabia as nothing more than a mild irritant on the edge of his mighty empire, declined. By the time of Heraclius’s death in 641, Arab armies had conquered much of the Byzantine Empire, including Syria and most of Egypt, and were camped outside the walls of the Egyptian capital, Alexandria.
Egyptians were used to foreign invaders but had never before experienced any like the Arabs, who came with religious as well as political intentions. After Alexandria fell, the Arab general Amr wrote to his leader, the Caliph Omar, to say that he had captured a city of 4000 palaces, 4000 baths, 400 theatres and 12,000 sellers of green vegetables. Omar, perhaps sensing danger in such sophistication, ordered his army to create a new Muslim capital. The site chosen was beside the Roman fort of Babylon, at the place where the Nile fanned out into the delta. Initially a tented camp known as Al Fustat, Arabic for ‘the tents’, it soon grew into one of the region’s key cities, until it was eclipsed by newer neighbouring settlements – the 8th-century Abbassid city Al Askar, the 9th-century Tulunid city Al Katai and, finally, the 10th-century Fatimid city Al Qahira, Arabic for ‘victorious’ and the origin of the word Cairo.
Arabs & Egyptians
The majority of Egyptians were Christian at the time of the Arab conquest and their conversion was a gradual event that took centuries: by the 10th century the majority of people in Egypt were Muslims.
Sunni or Shiite?
The shift of Egypt’s capitals was matched by instability in the Arab empire, whose power centre moved from Mecca to Damascus and then Baghdad. This also reflected the shifting nature of the caliphate, the leadership of Islam, divided between the Sunni and the Shiite factions. The earlier Arab dynasties were Sunni. The Fatimids, who conquered Egypt in the 10th century and created the city of Al Qahira, were Shiite. At the centre of their new city was a mosque, Al Azhar, whose sheikh became the country’s main authority on religious matters. But Saladin (Salah Ad Din), who took power in Egypt in 1171 and created the Ayyubid dynasty, was a Sunni. From then on, and ever since, the sheikhs of Al Azhar have taught Sunni orthodoxy. The majority of Egyptians today are Sunni.
One of the last rulers of Saladin’s Ayyubid dynasty, a man named Sultan As Salih, brought the innovation of a permanent Turkic slave-soldier class. Most sultans relied on friends and relatives to provide a measure of security. As Salih was so despised by all that he thought it wise to provide his own protection and did so by purchasing a large number of slaves from the land between the Urals and the Caspian. These men were freed on arrival in Egypt – their name, Mamluks, means ‘owned’ or ‘slave’ – and formed into a warrior class, which came to rule Egypt.
Mamluks owed their allegiance not to a blood line but to their original owner, the emir. New purchases maintained the groups. There was no system of hereditary lineage; instead it was rule by the strongest. Rare was the sultan who died of old age. Natural-born soldiers, Mamluks fought a series of successful campaigns that gave Egypt control of all of Palestine and Syria, the Hejaz and much of North Africa, the largest Islamic empire of the late Middle Ages. Because they were forbidden to bequeath their wealth, Mamluks built on a grand scale, endowing Cairo with exquisite mosques, schools and tombs. During their 267-year reign (1250–1517), the city became the intellectual and cultural centre of the Islamic world.
The funding for the Mamluks’ great buildings came from trade. A canal existed that connected the Red Sea with the Nile at Cairo, and thus the Mediterranean, forming a vital link in the busy commercial route between Europe and India and east Asia. In the 14th and 15th centuries, the Mamluks worked with the Venetians to control east–west trade and both grew fabulously rich from it.
The end of these fabled days came about for two reasons at the beginning of the 16th century: Vasco da Gama’s discovery of the sea route around the Cape of Good Hope freed European merchants from the heavy taxes charged by Cairo; and the Ottoman Turks emerged as a mighty new force, looking to unify the Muslim world. In 1516 the Mamluks, under the command of their penultimate sultan Al Ghouri, were obliged to meet the Turkish threat. The battle, which took place at Aleppo in Syria, resulted in complete defeat for the Mamluks. In January of the following year the Turkish sultan Selim I entered Cairo, and although the Mamluks remained in power in Egypt, they never again enjoyed their former prominence or autonomy.
Napoleon & Description de l’Egypte
When Napoleon and his musket-armed forces blew apart the scimitar-wielding Mamluk cavalry at the Battle of the Pyramids in 1798, which he claimed he was doing with the approval of the Ottoman sultan, he dragged Egypt into the age of geopolitics. Napoleon professed a desire to revive Egypt’s glory, free it from the yoke of tyranny and educate its masses, but there was also the significant matter of striking a blow at Britain. Napoleon found a way to strike at British interests by capturing Egypt, and in the process taking control of the quickest route between Europe and Britain’s fast-growing empire in the East.
Napoleon’s forces weren’t always successful. In 1798 a British fleet under Admiral Nelson had been criss-crossing the Mediterranean trying to find the French force and, on 1 August, they found them at anchor in Aboukir Bay, off the coast of Alexandria. Only three French warships survived the ensuing Battle of the Nile. Encouraged by the British, the Ottoman sultan sent an army that was trounced by the French, which put paid to any pretence that the French were in Egypt with the complicity of Constantinople. Despite these setbacks, the French still maintained rule.
During Napoleon’s time in the newly conquered Egypt, he established a French-style government, revamped the tax system, brought in Africa’s first printing press, implemented public-works projects and introduced new crops and a new system of weights and measures. He also brought 167 scholars and artists, whom he commissioned to make a complete study of Egypt’s monuments, crafts, arts, flora and fauna, and of its society and people. The resulting work was published as the 24-volume Description de l’Egypte, which did much to stimulate the study of Egyptian antiquities.
However, relations between the occupied and occupier deteriorated rapidly and there were regular uprisings against the French in Cairo. When the British landed an army, also at Aboukir, in 1801, the French agreed to an armistice and departed.
The Albanian Kings
The French departure left Egypt politically unstable, a situation that was soon exploited by a lieutenant in an Albanian contingent of the Ottoman army, named Mohammed Ali. Within five years of the French evacuation, he had fought and conspired his way to become pasha (governor) of Egypt. Although he was nominally the vassal of Constantinople, like so many governors before him he soon realised that the country could be his own.
The sultan in Constantinople was too weak to resist this challenge to his power. And once he had defeated a British force of 5000 men, the only threat to Mohammed Ali could come from the Mamluk beys (leaders). Any danger here was swiftly and viciously dealt with. On 1 March 1811, Mohammed Ali invited some 470 Mamluk beys to the Citadel to feast his son’s imminent departure for Mecca. When the feasting was over the Mamluks mounted their lavishly decorated horses and were led in procession down the narrow, high-sided defile below what is now the Police Museum. As they approached the Bab Al Azab, the great gates were swung closed and gunfire rained down from above. After the fusillades, Mohammed Ali’s soldiers waded in with swords and axes to finish the job. Legend relates that only one Mamluk escaped alive, leaping over the wall on his horse.
Mohammed Ali’s reign is pivotal in the history of Egypt. Having watched the old Mamluk army flounder against superior European weapons and tactics, he recognised the need to modernise his new army, as well as his new country. Under his uncompromising rule, Egypt abandoned its medieval-style feudalism and looked to Europe for innovation. In his long reign (he died in 1848), Mohammed Ali modernised the army, built a navy, built roads, cut a new canal linking Alexandria with the Nile, introduced public education, improved irrigation, built a barrage across the Nile and began planting Egypt’s fields with the valuable cash crop, cotton. His heirs continued the work, implementing reforms and social projects, foremost of which were the building of Africa’s first railway, opening factories and starting a telegraph and postal system. Egypt’s fledgling cotton industry boomed as production in the USA was disrupted by civil war, and revenues were directed into ever-grander schemes. Grandest of all was the Suez Canal, which opened in 1869 to great fanfare and an audience that included European royalty, including Empress Eugenie of France.
Khedive Ismail, Mohammed Ali's grandson, had taken on more debt than even Egypt’s booming economy could handle and European politicians and banks were quick to exploit his growing weakness. Six years after opening the canal, Ismail was forced to sell his controlling share to the British government, and soon after that, bankruptcy and British pressure forced him to abdicate. This sort of foreign involvement in Egyptian affairs created great resentment, especially among a group of officers in the Egyptian army, who moved against the new khedive. In 1882, under the pretext of restoring order, the British fleet bombarded Alexandria, and British soldiers defeated a nationalist Egyptian army.
The Veiled Protectorate
The British had no desire to make Egypt a colony: their main reason for involvement was to ensure the safety of the Suez Canal. So they allowed the heirs of Mohammed Ali to remain on the throne, while the real power was concentrated in the hands of the British agent Sir Evelyn Baring. By appointing British ‘advisors’ to Egyptian ministries and himself advising the khedive, Baring operated what became known as the veiled protectorate, colonisation by another name.
British desire to ensure the safety of their passage to India coloured Egyptian policy for the next few decades. For instance, it became increasingly obvious that controlling Egypt meant controlling the Nile and therefore an Egyptian force was sent to protect that interest in Sudan. When they came up against the Islamist uprising of the Mahdi, and following the death of General Charles Gordon in Khartoum in 1885, British troops became involved on the middle Nile.
Under the 'veiled protectorate' the Suez Canal was secured, Egypt’s finances bolstered, the bureaucracy and infrastructure improved, and there were some social advances. But the situation became ever more frustrating for Egyptians with the outbreak of WWI, when Turkey's alliance with Germany allowed Britain to make Egypt an official protectorate.
The Egyptians’ desire for self-determination was strengthened by the Allies’ use of the country as a barracks during a war that most Egyptians regarded as having nothing to do with them. Popular national sentiments were articulated by riots in 1919 and, more eloquently, by the likes of Saad Zaghloul, the most brilliant of an emerging breed of young Egyptian politicians, who said of the British, ‘I have no quarrel with them personally but I want to see an independent Egypt’. The British allowed the formation of a nationalist political party, called the Wafd (Delegation), and granted Egypt its sovereignty, but this was seen as an empty gesture. King Fuad enjoyed little popularity among his people and the British still kept a tight rein on the administration.
The British and their Allies came to Egypt in greater numbers following the outbreak of WWII. The war wasn’t all bad news for the Egyptians – certainly not for shopkeepers and businessmen who saw thousands of Allied soldiers pouring into the towns and cities with money to burn on 48-hour leave from the desert. But there was a vocal element who saw the Germans as potential liberators. Students held rallies in support of Rommel, and a small cabal of Egyptian officers, including future presidents Nasser and Sadat, plotted to aid the German general’s advance on their city.
Rommel pushed the Allied forces back almost to Alexandria, which had the British hurriedly burning documents in such quantities that the skies over Cairo turned dark with the ash, but the Germans did not break through. Instead, the British maintained a military and political presence in Egypt until a day of flames almost seven years after the war.
Emerging from the Ashes
After years of demonstrations, strikes and riots against foreign rule, an Anglo-Egyptian showdown over a police station in the Suez Canal zone provided the spark that ignited the capital. On 26 January 1952, shops and businesses owned or frequented by foreigners in Cairo were torched by mobs and many landmarks of 70 years of British rule were reduced to charred ruins within a day.
While the smoke cleared, the sense of agitation remained, not just against the British but also against the monarchy that most Egyptians regarded as too easily influenced by the British. King Farouk assumed the monarchy would survive the turmoil because it could count on the support of the Egyptian army. But a faction within the officer corps, known as the Free Officers, had long been planning a coup. On 20 July 1952, the leader of the Free Officers, Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser, heard that a new minister of war knew of the group and had planned their arrest. Two nights later, army units loyal to the Free Officers moved on key posts in the capital and by the following morning the monarchy had fallen. King Farouk, descendant of the Albanian Mohammed Ali, departed from Alexandria harbour on the royal yacht on 26 July 1952, leaving Egypt to be ruled by Egyptians for the first time since the pharaohs.
Colonel Nasser became president after the 1956 elections. With the aim of returning some of Egypt’s wealth to its much-exploited peasantry, but also in an echo of the events of Russia in 1917, the country’s landowners were dispossessed and many of their assets nationalised. Nasser also moved against the country’s huge foreign community, and although he did not force them to emigrate, his new measures persuaded many to sell up and ship out.
In the year of his inauguration, Nasser successfully faced down Britain and France in a confrontation over the Suez Canal, which was mostly owned by British and French investors. On 26 July, the fourth anniversary of King Farouk’s departure, Nasser announced that he had nationalised the Suez Canal to finance the building of a great dam that would control the flooding of the Nile and boost Egyptian agriculture. When a combined British, French and Israeli invasion force, sent to take possession of the canal, was forced into an undignified retreat after the UN and US applied pressure, Nasser emerged from the conflict a hero of the developing world. He was seen as a sort of Robin Hood and Ramses rolled into one, and the man who had finally and publicly shaken off the colonial yoke.
Neighbours & Friends
Nasser’s show of strength in 1956 led to many years of drum-beating and antagonism between Egypt and its Arab friends on one side, and their unwelcome neighbour Israel on the other.
Relations with Israel had been hostile ever since its founding in 1948. Egypt had sent soldiers to fight alongside Palestinians against the newly proclaimed Jewish state and ended up on the losing side. Although Nasser privately acknowledged that the Arabs would probably lose another war against Israel, for public consumption he gave rabble-rousing speeches about liberating Palestine. But he was a skilled orator and by early 1967 the mood engendered throughout the Arab world by these speeches was beginning to catch up with him. Soon other Arab leaders started to accuse him of cowardice and of hiding behind the UN troops stationed in Sinai since the Suez Crisis. Nasser responded by ordering the peacekeepers out and blockading the Straits of Tiran, effectively closing the southern Israeli port of Eilat. He gave Israel reassurances that he wasn’t going to attack but meanwhile massed his forces east of Suez. In June, Israel struck first, launching a surprise attack that destroyed the Egyptian air force before it was airborne and following up with a ground assault.
When the shooting stopped six days later, Israel controlled all of the Sinai Peninsula and had closed the Suez Canal (which didn’t reopen for another eight years). A humiliated Nasser offered to resign, but in a spontaneous outpouring of support, the Egyptian people wouldn’t accept this move and he remained in office. However, it was to be for only another three years; in November 1970 the president died of a heart attack.
Anwar Sadat, another of the Free Officers and Egypt’s next president, instigated a reversal of foreign policy. Nasser had looked to the Soviet Union for inspiration, but Sadat looked to the US, swapping socialist principles for capitalist opportunism. Having kept a low profile for a decade and a half, the wealthy resurfaced and were joined by a large, new, moneyed middle class who grew rich on the back of Sadat’s much-touted al infitah (open-door policy). Sadat also believed that to revitalise Egypt’s economy he would have to deal with Israel.
In November 1977, a time when Arab leaders still refused to talk publicly to Israel, Sadat travelled to Jerusalem to negotiate a peace treaty with Israel. The following year, he and the Israeli premier signed the Camp David Accords, in which Israel agreed to withdraw from Sinai in return for Egyptian recognition of Israel’s right to exist. There was shock in the Arab world, where Sadat’s rejection of Nasser’s pan-Arabist principles was seen as a betrayal. As a result, Egypt lost much prestige among the Arabs, who moved the HQ of the Arab League out of Cairo, and Sadat lost his life. On 6 October 1981, at a parade commemorating the 1973 war, one of his soldiers, a member of an Islamist group, broke from the marching ranks and sprayed the presidential stand with gunfire. Sadat was killed instantly.
Mubarak & the Rise of the Islamist Movement
Sadat was succeeded by Hosni Mubarak, a former air force chief of staff and vice president. Less flamboyant than Sadat and less charismatic than Nasser, Mubarak was regarded as unimaginative and indecisive, but managed to carry out a balancing act on several fronts, abroad and at home. To the irritation of more hard-line states such as Syria and Libya, Mubarak rehabilitated Egypt in the eyes of the Arab world without abandoning the treaty with Israel. At the same time, he managed to keep the lid on the Islamist extremists at home. In the early 1990s the lid blew off.
Theories abound regarding the rise of fundamentalist Islamist groups in Egypt. Some believe it had more to do with harsh socio-economic conditions, despite the use of religion by Islamist groups. More than 30 years after the revolution, government promises had failed to keep up with the population explosion and a generation of youths was living in squalid, overcrowded housing, without jobs and many feeling little or no hope for the future. With a political system that allowed little chance to voice legitimate opposition, many felt the only hope lay with Islamist parties such as the Muslim Brotherhood and their calls for change. They were denied recognition by the state as a legal political entity, and in the 1980s and 1990s the Islamists turned to force. There were frequent attempts on the life of the president and his ministers, and clashes with the security forces. The matter escalated from a domestic issue to a matter of international concern when Islamists began to target one of the state’s most vulnerable and valuable sources of income: tourists.
Several groups of foreign tourists were shot at, bombed or otherwise assaulted throughout the 1990s, including the 1997 fire-bomb attack on a tour bus outside the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, followed a few weeks later by the killing of holidaymakers at the Temple of Hatshepsut in Luxor by members of the Gama’a Al Islamiyya (Islamic Group), a Muslim Brotherhood splinter group.
The brutality of the massacre and its success at deterring foreign visitors destroyed grassroots support for militants, and the Muslim Brotherhood declared a ceasefire the following year. Things were relatively quiet until October 2004, when bombs at Taba, on the border with Israel, and the nearby Ras Shaytan camp, killed 34 and signalled the start of an unsettled 12 months.
In 2005 President Mubarak bowed to growing international pressure to bring the country’s political system in line with Western-style democracy, and proposed a constitutional amendment (subsequently approved by parliament and ratified at a national referendum) that aimed to introduce direct and competitive presidential elections. While some pundits saw this as a step in the right direction, others suspected it was a sham, particularly as popular opposition groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood were still banned and other independent candidates were required to have the backing of at least 65 members of the lower house of parliament. As the lower house was dominated by the National Democratic Party (NDP), the possibility of real change was slight. When the Kifaya! (Enough!) coalition of opposition groups protested at these restrictions, security forces cracked down. Ayman Nour, the leader of the popular Ghad (Tomorrow) party, was jailed on forgery charges. Local human rights organisations questioned the validity of the charges and expressed concern for Nour’s safety, while the US released a statement declaring it was ‘deeply troubled’ by the conviction.
At this stage the banned Muslim Brotherhood began holding its own rallies and there were two isolated terrorist incidents in Cairo aimed at foreign tourists, both carried out by members of the same pro-Islamist family. Soon afterwards, three bombs at the popular beach resort of Sharm El Sheikh claimed the lives of 88 people, most of them Egyptian. Various groups claimed responsibility, tourism took an immediate hit and Egyptians braced themselves for the possibility of further terrorist incursions and domestic unrest.
In 2005 Mubarak won the country’s first multicandidate presidential election with 89% of the vote, after a turnout of just 23% of the 32 million registered voters. There were many reports from observers, such as the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights (EOHR), of disorganisation, intimidation and abusive security forces at the polls, and opposition parties and candidates (including Ayman Nour) alleged the vote was unfair and the result invalid. Still, other observers noted the process was a great improvement on previous elections.
In subsequent parliamentary elections in November 2005, Muslim Brotherhood independents won 88 seats in the 444-seat national parliament (six times the number they had previously held), making the Brotherhood a major player on the national political scene despite its officially illegal status.
Egypt Moving Forward
On 11 February 2011, President Mubarak resigned as president. The most obvious reason for his departure, 30 years into his presidency, was the hundreds of thousands of people who had been demonstrating for months, most notably in an 18-day occupation of Cairo’s Midan Tahrir. Mubarak’s loss of support among the Egyptian military and the US may have been equally significant. Economic problems, particularly a rise in food prices, and the prospect of Gamal Mubarak succeeding his ailing father were among many reasons for the loss of popularity. The huge popular reaction to the death of Khaled Said - killed in Alexandria by security forces in the summer of 2010 - was an indication of how desperate many Egyptians had become in the last years of Mubarak's rule.
The euphoria that followed Mubarak’s departure was heightened by the fact that security forces had not fired on protestors. The army was seen as the protector of the revolution and people in Tahrir chanted ‘the people, the army, one hand’. Mubarak’s old generals, including former minister for defence and head of armed forces Field Marshal Tantawi, took power and formed a ruling council.
The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) presented itself as an honest broker to usher the country towards democracy, but before elections were held, ensured autonomy for the armed forces by passing a decree that future governments will not be able to select the head of the armed forces or intervene in the military’s internal or economic affairs.
Egypt's first open presidential and parliamentary elections in 2012 confirmed the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafist parties. The Brotherhood's Mohammed Morsi became Egypt's first democratically elected president. The euphoria that greeted his election soon faded after he pushed through a pro-Islamist constitution, granted himself unlimited powers, put himself beyond the law and suppressed public protests. By the summer of 2013 Egypt's economic crisis had created huge queues at petrol stations and daily power cuts to homes and business. Millions took to the streets to demand his resignation. When that failed, the army stepped in.
Morsi's defence minister, Abdel Fatah Al Sisi, who was behind the regime change, insisted he had no desire for power. But in spring 2014, with an interim government in place, Sisi resigned from the army, with the rank of field marshal, and announced his candidacy. Only one person opposed him, left-wing politician Hamdeen Sabahi. Sisi won around 96% of the votes. But although he had called for 40 million Egyptians, some 75% of the electorate, to turn out to vote, more than half of them abstained. Although he could claim to have the backing of more Egyptians than Morsi ever had, Sisi's position was weakened by the low turnout. Not that this has stopped him from increasing his grip on power.
President Sisi presented himself as the popular choice and was seen among the people soon after his election, at hospital bedsides, cycling in the streets. But he soon became seen as yet another authoritarian leader. Within a couple of years, he had established a more repressive regime than his predecessors, passing laws that make it almost impossible for there to be a popular uprising against him and outlawing civil rights groups among others. But at the same time, he has failed to defeat the Islamist insurgency in Sinai – bomb attacks against Copts in Tanta and Alexandria in spring 2017 were proof of that.