Country profile : Egypt

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Country Profile: Egypt

Egypt is one of the world’s oldest countries. People often say it is stuck in the past and not politically active. But in the last 150 years, Egypt has gone through a dynamic process, fighting for fair self-governance. From the pharaohs till now, there has certainly been a lot of control from the top. But the story of Egypt shows how élite power can lose touch with the people. And the people then learn to look after themselves and their communities.


Sisters Maria Golia

Egypt has changed a lot over the last 150 years. It was a feudalistic Ottoman province, and changed to a sovereign state lead by Mohammed Ali. When Ali’s grandson built the Suez Canal, he planned for Egypt to be the centre of a future global shipping industry. But the Canal attracted imperial interests seeking a shorter route to eastern colonies. A nationalist uprising in 1882, bad for foreign commercial interests, was the excuse for the British Navy to attack Alexandria. They made Egypt ‘a protectorate’ under a puppet monarchy.

In 1919, a nationwide revolt prepared the country for a constitutional monarchy and opposition representation in Parliament but did not reduce the involvement of the British. The Officers Revolution in 1952 got rid of the King and the British. This was the beginning of the Arabic socialist experiment that concentrated economic power by nationalizing industry. But it betrayed workers by nationalizing unions. Egypt’s referendum-elected presidents, Gamal Abdel Nasser, Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak were all military men. They controlled political life and the constitution to keep their power. To stop people disagreeing with him, Islamists (who assassinated Sadat) or others, Mubarak put a lot of money into the internal security which became brutal.


Immediately after the uprising Maria Golia

In January 2011, Egyptians protested in the streets to demand Mubarak’s resignation after 30 years of power, and the right to choose their next leader. On 11 February 2011, after 18 days of protests across the country involving thousands of deaths and arrests, Mubarak left. The Armed Forces, who did not attack the protesters, became the ‘protectors of the revolution’. But military trials for civilians continued and the state security remained. The military organized parliamentary elections with several parties, and the Islamist party won; and presidential elections where the Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate, Mohamed Morsi, won by a tiny majority.


A farmer in north Egypt. Maria Golia

After six months of organizing support, Morsi had enough power to plan Egypt’s next constitution with no improvement to civil rights and more references to Islamic law. The battle for the constitution is still continuing, with demonstrations and street fights. These divide the people, who want democracy and need stability and economic progress. Egypt’s new government has so far failed to unite or to present a vision of the future that people support.


Most of Egypt’s population is young, and they have high unemployment and low skills. They need a government that encourages them to participate. But the leaders now are not prepared for this, and they are unimaginative and defensive like the leaders before. The 2011 uprising has raised the expectations of the people. Now they will not agree to an incompetent government, manipulation or religious appeals to obey.

Egyptians face the threats of not enough water, land and energy and less food sufficiency. How will they govern themselves with these problems? Will they need to give up their rights to stronger countries? Or will they organize themselves across the country and create change? Egyptians have the same problems as the rest of the world, but they do not have much time.

Country Profile: Egypt Fact File

Leader President Mohamed Morsi

Economy GNI per capita $2,340 (Algeria $4,460, UK $38,540). The poor have benefited little from the relatively high growth rates of recent years.

Monetary unit Egyptian Pound

Main exports Crude oil, agricultural and processed food products, chemicals and textiles. In 2011, exports fell 20% because of the Arab Spring unrest.

People Nearly a million sq km, but Egypt is mostly desert, with a population of around 83 million mostly along the banks of the Nile, an area roughly the size of Serbia (77,000 sq km). Population growth rate 1990-2010 is 1.8%.

Health Infant mortality rate 19 per 1,000 live births (Algeria 31, UK 5). HIV rate less than 0.1%. Lifetime risk of maternal death 1 in 380 (UK 1 in 4,700). Diabetes, heart, lung and kidney diseases are common. State healthcare is generally terrible; doctors are terribly underpaid.

Environment Egypt has serious land and water shortages and massive air pollution in urban areas. The Aswan High Dam stopped the Nile’s annual flood deposits of rich silt and encouraged the heavy use of toxic fertilizers.

Culture Egyptians are different from Gulf Arabs because of the history of Pharaohs foreign influences: Roman, Persian, Greek, Turkish, Levantine and European.

Religion Primarily Sunni Muslim with a Christian minority (10 million). Religion has become much more public in the last decade. Sectarian strife has increased since the 2011 uprising.

Language Arabic. Most educated Egyptians also speak English or French.

Human development index 0.644 – 113th of 187 (Algeria 0.698, UK 0.863)

Country Profile: Egypt ratings in detail

Previously reviewed 2003

Income distribution The population’s top 20% has 40.3% of income. Egypt is the world’s 90th most unequal country, around the same as the UK (92nd).

Life expectancy 73 years – up from 68 years in last profile (Algeria 73, UK 80).

Position of women Women are 37% of the workforce and more voted in recent elections than ever before, but there are very few women in government. Paternalist traditions, laws and religious practices limit their role in society.

Literacy 66%, but this UNESCO estimate is misleading. Many graduates of Egypt’s overcrowded, ill-equipped schools can only just read a newspaper article and rarely read a book. There is a big difference between men’s literacy (83.3%) and women’s (65.7%) literacy.

Freedom Over a thousand Egyptians have died in protests since 2011 demanding basic rights. Arrest, intimidation and physical abuse of citizens and journalists still continues.

Sexual minorities Male homosexuality is technically illegal, but society accepts it as a ‘phase’ that ends when men marry and start families.

NI Assessment (Politics) In November 2012 Egypt’s president gave himself more power to make decisions than even Hosni Mubarak, who everyone hated. He is trying to get rid of disagreement with his future policies, including removing subsidies on basic commodities. But the 2011 uprising has empowered civilians who use their right to protest. Egyptians need a government that people can trust and that sees the public as a partner, not as a problem. Two years after Egypt’s revolution, this leadership has not come yet.

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