Egypt has for millennia been one of the most strategically important places on earth, and often one of its most culturally influential. Despite serious structural issues that have held back its economic development, and the past few years of political changes and instability, it remains a country of great global importance. At the meeting point of Asia, Africa and Europe, Egypt is African, Middle Eastern and Mediterranean. Its fertile Nile Valley and Delta cultivated one of the world’s first great civilisations, and its geographical location has seen great empires come and go, many of them making Cairo a capital.
Having long been one of the region’s most culturally and politically influential cities, in the middle of the 20th century Cairo became one of the centres of the pan-Arab movement, with other countries looking to Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser for inspiration. During this period, Egypt reaffirmed its position as arguably the cultural leader of the Arab world, with Egyptian Arabic becoming a lingua franca, and Egyptian films and music enjoyed from the Atlantic to the Gulf and beyond. To a large extent, Egypt remains the heartbeat of the Arab world, as its most populous country, while retaining a unique character shaped by its geography.
Geography and Climate
Egypt’s land area is just over 1m sq km, around twice the size of Spain and somewhat more than twice the size of California. Some 97% of the country is desert, but the Nile Valley and Delta create an area of extremely fertile land, where 95% of the population of around 90m lives. The Nile is generally regarded as the world’s longest river, at 6650 km, with 1500 km running through Egyptian territory. The Nile has been the source of wealth in the country for centuries. Egypt depended on the Nile flood until 1970, when the Aswan High Dam was completed, creating Lake Nasser, a reservoir that runs into Northern Sudan. The dam regulates the river’s flow and alleviates both high flooding and drought. Egypt’s land borders run for 2665 km, including from east to west, an 11-km frontier with the Gaza Strip, 266 km with Israel, 1273 km with Sudan and 1115 km with Libya. Its total coastline is 2450 km, on the Mediterranean and Red Seas, which are connected by the Suez Canal, one of the world’s most important trade arteries.
The desert climate is hot and dry, with colder nights. In summer, average temperatures vary from 25°C to 35°C, and in the winter between 15°C and 25°C. There are geographical differences, however: the far south is hotter and drier, while the Mediterranean coast tends to be wetter and cooler. Across the country, average annual rainfall is just 100-200mm a year, though this is higher in the far north.
Cairo has vied for primacy in Egypt with Alexandria for more than two millennia. The capital lies at the juncture of the Nile and its delta, close to the ancient Egyptian city of Memphis; the latter, formally founded by Alexander the Great, is on the other side of the delta on the Mediterranean. The delta at its widest points stretches around 250 km and consists of a fertile agricultural plain.
Egypt as a whole is not particularly mountainous, though the Sinai Peninsula is. This is where the country’s highest mountain, Jebel Katarina, at 2629 metres, is found, which is near Mount Sinai, where Moses is said to have received the Ten Commandments, a place of pilgrimage to this day. The lowest point, at 133 metres below sea level, is in the Qattara Depression in the Western Desert.
Official statistics at the end of 2014 suggested that the population was nearing 87.5m. The 2006 census found that 99% of the populace were ethnic Egyptian, with minorities including Nubians, Turkmen and Armenians. Egypt also has a significant population of non-citizen refugees and other immigrants, particularly from Syria, Palestine and Sudan. The country has a large diaspora and emigrant community, from those who have been settled in countries like the US for generations to guest workers in the Gulf. Remittances are a major source of foreign currency income for the country, one of the world’s largest recipients of remittances, bringing in approximately $20bn in 2013, according to World Bank estimates.
The population is young, with around half of all Egyptians under the age of 25, and one-third under 15. The growth rate is approximately 1.5% annually, meaning another million-plus Egyptians are born every year. In 2013 the population growth rate reached 2.5%, according to the Central Agency for Public Mobilisation and Statistics.
According to official figures, the country’s population lives on 7.7% of its total land area and is concentrated in major cities. The city of Cairo has the highest population density with 47,285 people per square kilometre, while South Sinai has the lowest with 9.7 people per square kilometre.
Egypt’s official language is Arabic, the mother tongue of 99% of the population. The language has a formal, classical version known as fusha, used in contexts including literature, newspapers and religion, and the version used in day-to-day conversation, which varies geographically. The Cairene dialect dominates media, films and music, and is arguably the best-understood variant of Arabic globally, a testament to Egypt’s cultural importance. Other dialects in Egypt include Bahari (the dialect of rural areas in the delta) and Saidi (the Upper Egyptian dialect) and a number of Bedouin dialects. A variant of Berber is spoken in the oasis of Siwa in the western desert near the Libyan border. English or French are widely taught in urban-area private schools as second languages.
Around 90% of Egyptians are Muslims. Islam is the official state religion, and the Al Azhar Mosque in Cairo is considered one of the world’s leading authorities on Islamic jurisprudence.
Most of the country’s Christians adhere to the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria, though some follow Greek Orthodoxy, the Armenian Orthodox Church and other branches.
Egypt has a well-balanced economy by regional standards, diversified across manufacturing, extraction activity (which includes the mining, oil and gas sectors), agriculture, construction, tourism and the various segments of the rapidly emerging services sector.
Despite the broadening of the country’s economic base, agriculture still plays a central part in economy, contributing 16% to the nation’s GDP in first half of FY2013/14, according to the Central Bank of Egypt data. The extraction sector, which includes petroleum, gas and mining activity, is the second-largest contributor to GDP, accounting for 15.7% of the total in the 2013/14 financial year. Egypt is the largest non-OPEC oil producer in Africa and is a significant producer of natural gas.
With its developed and well-resourced manufacturing industries in areas such as clothing, textiles, furniture, paper, cement and pharmaceuticals, manufacturing is the third-largest contributor to Egypt’s GDP, accounting for 15.6% of the total in 2013/14.
While the country runs a trade deficit, its export activity has continued to grow over recent years. According to the Ministry of Finance, total exports reached LE143.1bn ($20.3bn) in the revolutionary year of 2010/11, and by 2012/13 the value of exports had risen to some LE160.5bn ($22.8bn).
Egypt’s biggest trading partner is the EU, which accounted for 32.6% of its exports in 2012/13.
Over the past decade, Egypt has invested heavily in education, and the literacy rate stood at 74% in 2012, according to the World Bank. Spending on education amounted to 3.9% of GDP in 2008, the last year for which figures are available, while in 2010 the primary school completion rate had reached 100%. Passed in a referendum in January 2014, Egypt’s new constitution commits the state to spending a minimum of 4% on pre-university education, 2% on higher education and 1% on scientific research.
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