Long central to the cultural, political and economic history of the MENA region, Egypt, its most populous nation, found itself once again at the centre of Middle Eastern affairs when it stood in the vanguard of the political changes sweeping the region in 2011. While the road forward from that point has been rocky, Egypt still has huge potential in terms of manpower and resources, and is looking to ensure and cement its position as a leader in the region.
The country has a rich historical pedigree. Hunter-gatherers roamed the area around the Nile River from 6000 BCE, with the first Egyptian dynasty established around 3000 BCE. Following a series of rich and prosperous dynasties, first Greek and then Roman influence took hold from around 300 BCE until the 7th century CE. Egypt was briefly a Christian country, under Roman and Byzantine rule, until the Arab conquests of the 7th century. The country was ruled by a number of dynasties, including the Abbasids, the Fatimids, the Mamluks and the Ottomans. As with much of the region, European influence increased in the country throughout the 19th century, culminating in British occupation in 1882. In 1922 Egypt gained independence as a parliamentary monarchy. Three decades later, in 1952, Gamal Abdel Nasser seized power and transformed the country into a republic. Following more than half a century of rule by Nasser and his successors, Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak, the Arab Spring brought further changes. The latest constitution, approved in 2014, is based on the 1971 constitution and lays out the terms of governance for the executive and legislative branch, as well as guaranteeing gender equality and ensuring certain freedoms, such as freedom of belief and freedom of expression, with certain exceptions.
Egypt is a presidential republic. The current president is Abdel Fattah El Sisi, who was elected to his first four-year term in May 2014 following the removal of the previous administration of Mohamed Morsi. The head of state is elected by absolute majority, over two rounds if necessary. The current head of government is Prime Minister Sherif Ismail, who was appointed by President El Sisi and approved by the House of Representatives in September 2015.
The legislative branch is unicameral. The House of Representatives is a 596-seat body. The vast majority of representatives (448) are elected under an individual candidacy system, under which candidates can run as independents or through an affiliation with a party. A further 120 seats are filled through a vote using party list constituencies, while the remaining 28 representatives are appointed by the president. The last election was held in December 2015, with the majority of seats (351) filled by independent candidates.
Over the last 15 years, Egypt has been undergoing a transformation into an increasingly market-oriented economy. It currently holds lower-middle-income status. GNI per capita stood at $3340 during FY 2014/15, according to World Bank figures. While there is substantial potential to push the country towards middle-income status, GDP growth rates were stalled – first by the global economic crisis and then by political instability. Nevertheless, the economy grew at a rate of about 4% in FY 2014/15 and FY 2015/16. The economy has a significant degree of diversification. Manufacturing is the biggest industry, accounting for 16.6% in FY 2015/16, according to a report from Beirut-based Bank Audi. This is followed by wholesale and retail trade (12.9%) and the extractive industries (12.8%). While the country has limited arable land, agriculture still comprises a key part of Egypt’s economic make-up. In 2015 it accounted for 11.2% of GDP.
Other important contributors to the economy, beyond a public sector that accounts for approximately 11.2% of GDP, are construction (4.8%), and transportation and storage (4.3%). Tourism has traditionally played a significant role in the country’s economy, but political turmoil and security concerns have meant that in FY 2014/15 it accounted for only 1.8% of GDP.
Egypt’s land area, which covers 995,450, sq km, is dominated by an expansive desert. On the Sinai Peninsula in the east, this manifests itself in a dry, barren mountainscape. In the west, there is a rolling desert punctuated by oases. To the south, the land merges into the great sand seas of the Sahara. However, the fertile Nile Valley bisects an inhospitable environment that dominates much of the country. The valley culminates in the sprawling Nile Delta on the North Coast. Egypt also has 2450 km of Mediterranean coastline and borders Israel, the Palestinian Territories, Libya and Sudan.
The Egyptian landscape is a binary affair, with lonely, hostile deserts and lush, fertile flood plains. This climatic and topographical contrast means that 95% of the country’s population lives on less than 5% of the country’s land along the banks of the Nile River. Indeed, the Nile Valley is among the most densely populated areas in the world, with an average of 1540 people per sq km.
Egypt is subject to a desert climate with mild winters and hot, dry summers. In the desert interior, summer temperatures range from an average high of 43°C to a nighttime low of 7°C. In the winter, it ranges from an average low of 0°C to a high of 18°C. The range along the coastal strip is not quite as wide. Summer temperatures there average a high of 30°C, while the winter low is 14°C. Although the coast has more manageable temperatures, it is prone to summer humidity. In Alexandria, humidity can reach as high as 77% during the summer. The north of the country is also subject to the khamseen, a spring wind lasting for 50 days that brings sand, dust and heat. These wind gusts can reach speeds of up to 140 km per hour.
Given the tough climatic and topographical conditions, it is perhaps unsurprising that Egypt does not have an abundant environment for agricultural development. According to figures from the Ministry of Water Resource and Irrigation, the country is already water-scarce, with less than 1000 cu metres of water per capita available in 2014. By 2025 the ministry expects this to reach “absolute scarcity”, with less than 500 cu metres per person available each year. Much of this consumption occurs in the agricultural sector, which accounts for 85% of usage. However, the industry is not only limited by water availability. According to the World Bank, agricultural land accounts for around 3.8% of the country’s total land area, while arable land takes an even smaller share, at 2.7%.
Population, Language & Ethnicity
Egypt is the third-most-populous country in Africa and the 15th worldwide, according to World Bank figures. As of 2017 the number of residents was estimated to have reached 92m. It is still a predominantly rural population, but this is changing. As of 2015, 43.1% of the population lived in urban areas, and the number of city and town dwellers is estimated to be growing at 1.68% per year. There is little sign of easing in the general demographic pressure that the country faces, with a population growth rate of 2.13%, according to the World Bank figures.
Arabic is the official language and the only one widely understood across the entire country. In certain areas of the biggest cities and the business community, English, and to a lesser extent French, are used. Around 90% of Egyptians are Muslim, the vast majority of whom adhere to the Sunni denomination of Islam, with the other 10% mostly Christian.
Given its long and distinguished history, it is hardly surprising that the country has become a global centre for archaeological research and a site of world famous finds. Indeed, the discoveries from antiquity have become an essential component of the Egyptian national story. Perhaps the most famous discovery was one of the first of the 20th century. In 1922-23 the British archaeologist and Egyptologist Howard Carter uncovered the tomb of Tutankhamun in the Valley of the Kings, near Luxor. Carter’s team unearthed a deep trove of artefacts, including the iconic mask of Tutankhamun, a king who ruled from around 1332 BCE to 1323 BCE. Perhaps the only artefact to rival that of the blue and gold mask of Tutankhamun is the Rosetta Stone. Discovered in 1799 by a team attached to Napoleon Bonaparte’s military expedition, the stone contains a decree on behalf of the pharaoh, Ptolemy V. The importance of the discovery, which dates back to 196 BCE, lies not so much in the decree itself as in the fact that it is written in three languages – namely, Ancient Greek, Demotic (an ancient Egyptian language) and hieroglyphs. As such, the stone became a tool through which linguists and archaeologists could crack the codes of Demotic and hieroglyphs, languages that until that point were unknown.
While incremental progress and the slow labour of field research has dominated the local archaeological scene in recent years, this all changed in 2016. In November 2016 the Supreme Council of Antiquities announced the discovery of a 7000-year-old city and a cemetery dating back to the first dynasty in the southern province of Sohag. Beyond its academic implications, the discovery could provide a fillip to the tourism industry, illustrating the potential for further groundbreaking archaeological discoveries in the country.