Almost one quarter of the world’s Arab population lives in Egypt, an area known for its ancient history, rich Nile River deposits, and strategic location.

Egypt’s experience with colonialism was less oppressive than the experience of most of the Maghrebi countries. But although Egypt was only a protectorate during WWI, the British exercised considerable power over the region beginning as early as 1882, in order to protect their interests in the Suez Canal, which connects the Mediterranean and Red Seas. In 1923, Egypt’s nationalist Wafd party successfully convinced Britain to accept Egypt’s constitutional monarchy. The same party worked to achieve Egypt’s formal independence in 1936, though the agreement allowed British forces to continue to control the Suez.

Several years later, nationalist hostility to British forces and frustration with the corrupt King Farouk led to a military coup, which instituted Gamal Abd al-Nasser as president in 1954. Nasser is known for advocating Arab nationalism, leading to the short-lived United Arab Republic – a unity government between Egypt and Syria in 1958 – and for enacting socialist policies, including land redistribution and the nationalization of Egypt’s banks, key industries, and the Suez Canal.

In 1967, Egypt, Syria, and Jordan suffered defeat by Israeli forces, leading to the Israeli occupation of the Sinai, and causing a blow to Nasser’s popularity. Three years later, Anwar Al-Sadat succeeded Nasser at his death, and in 1973 Sadat launched the October (or Yom Kippur) War against Israel, regaining the west bank of the Suez. Sadat used the opportunity presented by the ensuing national pride to institute capitalist reforms.

In 1978, Sadat signed the Camp David Accord, a peace treaty with Israel at the mediation of US President Carter, which returned the Sinai to Egypt’s control. The peace treaty provoked the anger of much of the Arab World, which expelled Egypt from the Arab League. In 1979, Sadat was assassinated, allegedly by members of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood.

Hosni Mubarak succeeded Sadat and continued many of his economic policies, while reestablishing diplomatic ties with the Arab World, eventually causing the Arab League to readmit Egypt in 1987. Mubarak struggled throughout his thirty-year reign to control the Muslim Brotherhood, resorting to corruption, censorship, and rigged parliamentary elections.

Inspired by Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution, protestors gathered in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, forcing President Mubarak to step down on February 11th. The revolution was notable for its relative nonviolence and for the neutrality of the military. Since that time, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) has governed the country in an attempt to ease the democratic transition. By an overwhelming majority, the people passed a constitutional referendum in March instituting some basic democratic reforms. Currently, the country is debating whether to rewrite the Constitution now, under the control of the SCAF, or to wait until after the parliamentary elections at the end of the year. The role of the military and the place for religion in government are among many issues up for debate in Egypt’s new, vibrant political culture.

To read more about Egypt’s current constitution debate, see Michele Dunne, “Egypt: Elections or Constitution First?” Carnegie Endowment.

Historical information from “Egypt.” A Dictionary of Contemporary World History. Jan Palmowski. Oxford University Press, 2008. Oxford Reference Online. Oxford University Press.  Princeton University.  23 June 2011

Colleen McCullough

Summer 2011 Maghreb Center Intern

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