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Arab Republic of Egypt

Type of Government

The Arab Republic of Egypt is the modern political entity that governs one of the world’s oldest unified states. Its constitution enumerates the pillars of the Egyptian state as peace, Arab unity, national development, and individual freedom. The three branches of government—executive, legislative, and judicial—do not share power equally; the office of president is a position with considerably more power than in other multiparty systems.

Background

Egypt is a desert land in North Africa bisected by the Nile River. Out of the fertile Nile Valley and Delta arose one of the world’s first mighty civilizations and some of the first written codes to define administrative divisions and the duties of public officials. The rule of the pharaohs began about 3150 BC, reaching its peak of influence between 1500 and 1000 BC. Egypt was subsequently conquered by Persians, Greeks, Romans, and Byzantines before an Arab invasion during the seventh century AD, which established Islam. Various Muslim powers ruled Egypt after that point, ending in 1882 when the British seized control. A nationalist movement arose in the early decades of the twentieth century, leading to a decision by the British to grant the country its independence in 1922 and establish modern Egypt’s first government, a constitutional monarchy known as the Kingdom of Egypt. The former Sultan, Ahmed Fuʾād (1868–1936), became King Fuʾād I. However, the British arrangement proved problematic because the ruling family did not have the support of the majority of Egyptians and was derided as a mere puppet regime of a foreign power. Nationalist groups such as the Wafd Party continued to agitate for independence, and political unrest continued. Fuʾād and his successors regularly ignored the constitution, dissolving parliament if it was in disagreement with the wishes of the throne, and the outcomes of elections were rigged.

In 1952 a group calling themselves Free Officers of the Egyptian Army carried out a military coup that successfully seized major government buildings in Cairo. The group, led by Lieutenant Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser (1918–1970), allowed the king to leave the country unharmed. The 1923 constitution was abolished, and Egypt was proclaimed a republic on June 19, 1953. The economy was nationalized, all political parties were outlawed, and an Egyptian Army general, Mohammad Naguib (1902–1984), was installed as the republic’s first president. Relations between Naguib and Nasser disintegrated in a power struggle, and Naguib was removed from power in 1956 after an assassination attempt on Nasser. Nasser went on to serve as Egypt’s president for the next fifteen years.

Following Nasser’s death in 1970, his vice president Anwar as-Sadat (1918–1981) succeeded him, and was elected in October of that year. Sadat, who had been one of the Free Officers who participated in the 1952 coup, quickly enacted several democratic reforms, including a new constitution that went into effect on September 11, 1971.

Government Structure

Egypt’s president is elected by the Majlis Al-Shaʾab, or “People’s Assembly,” and needs a two-thirds majority vote from its 454 members to win office. The winning candidate must then be confirmed by popular referendum. There is no limit on how many six-year terms the president may serve. The president appoints a prime minister as well as a vice president—or more than one or none, as the constitution permits—and the cabinet. Generally the president oversees Egypt’s foreign policy, while the prime minister’s sphere of influence is domestic.

Egypt’s legislative branch is bicameral, but the People’s Assembly wields the greater power of the two bodies. The People’s Assembly consists of 444 elected representatives and another ten who serve by presidential appointment. The legislators serve five-year terms, and are elected by absolute majority vote from 222 electoral districts. Each district sends two representatives to the People’s Assembly, but by law one of them must be a worker or a peasant. The People’s Assembly can vote to impeach the president, or issue a no-confidence vote on the prime minister; conversely, the president has the power to dissolve the National Assembly, but must call new elections within sixty days.

The upper house of the Egyptian legislature is called the Majlis El-Shura, or Shura Council, which came into being after a 1980 constitutional amendment. It serves as a consultative body, with 176 elected members who serve 6-year terms, and another 88 who are appointed by the president. The Shura Council functions primarily as an advisory body on such issues as constitutional amendments and foreign treaties. There are no term limits for members of either house.

Egypt’s judiciary is independent, and judges cannot be removed from office. At its head is the Supreme Constitutional Court, which reviews the constitutionality of legislation. The Supreme Judicial Council is an oversight body that ensures the independence of courts, and submits to the president lists of judge-candidates for bench vacancies. Another watchdog body is the Council of State, which oversees potential abuses of power by government officials and civil servants. There is no trial by jury in Egypt; some crimes such as murder are deemed capital offenses, but death sentences are rarely carried out. At the lowest level, the district tribunal courts serve as the courts of first instance, followed by five separate courts of appeals. Egypt’s constitution includes a provision for freedom of the press, but journalists are prohibited from printing certain information under a 1993 Press Law, and face prison terms of up to five years for criticizing the government.

Egypt’s population of seventy-eight million live in twenty-six administrative subdivisions called governorates. The governors are appointed by the president, and in the case of large cities like Alexandria also serve as mayor. City and village councils, however, are locally elected. The voting age in Egypt is eighteen years, and suffrage is universal. Voting is also compulsory, however, and a citizen whose vote is not registered on Election Day may be called in by local authorities to provide a reason for his or her absence. Elections are not always conducted fairly, and opposition parties claim the presidential and parliamentary ballots are manipulated by the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP).

Political Parties and Factions

In the years before the 1952 military coup and ban on political parties, several organizations served as representatives of various Egyptian interests. The Wafd Party, also known as the Egyptian National Party, dominated Egyptian politics during these years, winning popular support for their ardent opposition to British interference. A communist party and an organization known as the Muslim Brotherhood also gained adherents in the 1920s. From 1952 to 1963 the government-supervised Liberation Rally existed as a quasi-political party, and was joined by another controlled group, the National Union, which promoted both Nasser and his idea of “Arab socialism.” In 1962 the National Union was replaced by the Arab Socialist Union (ASU).

Reforms introduced under Sadat in the mid-1970s allowed the ASU to divide into left, center, and right ideological platforms, and these factions became the basis for genuine political parties once the ban was lifted in 1977. Sadat founded National Democratic Party a year later, and this was still the ruling party in Egypt thirty years later. In late 2005 parliamentary elections were held, with the NDP again emerging victorious with 311 seats, but losing several from the previous session to independent challengers who were widely known to be members of the conservative Muslim Brotherhood. The Brotherhood opposes violence to achieve its means, but its extremist views and call for the establishment of a purely Islamic state governed by sharia, or Islamic law, has influenced fundamentalist groups, among them Osama bin Laden (1957–) and al Qaeda.

Major Events

In 1948, following Israel’s declaration of statehood, a combined pan-Arab military force fought a bitter and bloody war to support the Palestinians who had been ousted from their land by the Jewish state. The effort was unsuccessful, and the Arab defeat was blamed on King Farouk I (1920–1965), which led to his overthrow in 1952 by the Free Officers, a secret group of junior officers who were veterans of the Israeli war.

The 1956 Suez Crisis restored Egypt’s confidence after the defeat by Israel. Built by Egyptian forced labor and opened in 1869, the Suez Canal connects the Mediterranean Sea to the Red Sea, and became a vital shipping route in maritime trade for the British. The privately owned canal allowed ships to reach India, China, and other parts of Asia without circumnavigating the entire continent of Africa, and protection of these commercial shipping interests was an important factor in the British invasion of Egypt in 1882. In 1956, however, when the United States and World Bank decided against financing a massive dam project at Aswān, Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal Company as a means of obtaining funding for the project via canal revenues. The seizure incited a brief international crisis, and an allied force of French, British, and Israeli troops invaded, but the United Nations (UN) intervened and sent in a team of international forces. This was the first time that UN peacekeeping forces were ever deployed.

In June 1967, responding to an escalation of military maneuvers by Nasser’s government, Israeli forces attacked Egypt in what became known as the Six-Day War. Egypt was badly routed, and Israel gained several significant parcels of territory, including the Sinai Peninsula, West Bank, Gaza Strip, and the Golan Heights. Forty years later, the establishment and maintenance of peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors continued to be hampered by disputes related to some of these areas.

The most significant step toward regional peace came in 1978, when President Sadat met with Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin (1913–1992). At the U.S. presidential retreat at Camp David, Maryland, the two leaders formulated a peace treaty with the help of U.S. President Jimmy Carter (1924–). The treaty returned the Sinai Peninsula to Egypt, but both Sadat and Begin faced serious opposition at home and, in Sadat’s case, censure from Egypt’s Arab neighbors. In October 1981 Sadat was assassinated by Islamic extremists. He was succeeded by his vice president, Hosni Mubarak (1928–), who by 2007 was in his fifth consecutive presidential term.

Twenty-First Century

Mubarak and his ruling National Democratic Party face challenges to their continued control of Egypt on two important fronts. On the left, there is a growing democracy movement known as Kifaya (loosely translated from the Arabic as “enough”), which objects to restrictions on public meetings and the formation of political organizations. Rallies and marches must also receive permission from authorities to assemble, but the groups allied with the Kifaya movement have defied this law. On the right, the Muslim Brotherhood calls for the implementation of Islamic law and the restoration of the Caliphate, or supreme ruler of all Muslim lands.

Abdo, Geneive. No God but God: Egypt and the Triumph of Islam . New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Aburish, Saïd K. Nasser: The Last Arab . New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2004.

Shamir, Shimon, ed., Egypt from Monarchy to Republic: A Reassessment of Revolution and Change . Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1995.

Arab Republic of Egypt

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Arab Republic of Egypt