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LOCATION: Egypt (northeastern Africa)
POPULATION: 80 million
RELIGION: Islam (Primarily Sunni; minorities of Shia and Sufi); Coptic Christian; other Christian denominations. [Fewer than 1,000 Jews.]


The Arab Republic of Egypt is more commonly known as Egypt. Throughout Egypt's 6,000-year history, it was the focus of ambitions of many foreign powers, who wished to dominate this country that occupies a strategic position linking the continents of Africa and Asia. Conquerors of Egypt have included the Ptolemies, Romans, Greeks, Arabs, Fatimids, Mamluks, Ottomans, French, and British. Britain was the last colonial power to conquer Egypt. British forces withdrew in 1954, leaving Egypt independent under the leadership of President Jamal 'Abd al-Nasir.

A key event in the ancient history of Egypt was the unification of Upper (southern) and Lower (northern) Egypt, by the legendary King Menes, in the third millennium bc. This began the famous Pharaonic Age, in which a god-king, or pharaoh, held power over all of Egypt. The legacy of the pharaohs is preserved in the pyramids and in the stories etched in stone in hieroglyphic symbols across the face of Egypt.

A second key event, one of the most influential in the development of modern Egypt, was the Arab Muslim conquest in ad 641 by 'Amr Ibn al-'As. This conquest led to the spread of the Arabic language and Islamic religion across Egypt. This was not affected by the absorption of Egypt into the Ottoman Empire in 1517, since the Ottomans were themselves also Muslim, and Islamic institutions were maintained. An attempt to free Egypt from Ottoman rule, led by Muhammad 'Ali in the first half of the 19th century, failed. The British occupied Egypt in 1882 in order to control the Suez Canal and safeguard the British route to India. Egypt never became a British colony, but it did become part of the British Empire, with Egyptian King Faruk as ruler.

In 1952, a group of Egyptians called the Free Officers, led by Lieutenant Colonel Jamal 'Abd al-Nasir, overthrew King Faruk. 'Abd al-Nasir became President of Egypt in 1954 and immediately began a series of nationalizations, including the nationalization of the Suez Canal in 1956, a move that infuriated the countries that depended on safe passage through the canal. This led to the 1956 Tripartite Invasion of Egypt by Britain, France, and Israel. Following threats that the Soviet Union would attack Britain and France if they did not withdraw from Egypt and pressure by the United States on Britain and France, by the end of the year, the three forces had all withdrawn. As Israel withdrew from the Sinai, it destroyed roads, railroads, and military installations. During Nasir's presidency, Egypt was also embroiled in the June 1967 Arab–Israeli War, in which Israel occupied Egypt's Sinai peninsula.

Upon Nasir's death in 1970, Anwar Sadat became president of Egypt. During his term, Egypt launched the 1973 Arab–Israeli War across the Suez Canal, hoping to recapture the Sinai from Israel and liberate Palestinian territories that had also been occupied by Israel in 1967. Although the goals of the war were not achieved, Sadat nevertheless felt victorious because his forces had inflicted heavy damage on the Israeli forces.

In 1977, in a move that took the world by surprise, Sadat visited Israel in preparation for peace negotiations. By 1979, President Anwar Sadat of Egypt and Prime Minister Menachem Begin of Israel had signed the Camp David Peace Accords, ending the progression of Egyptian-Israeli wars and returning the Sinai to Egyptian sovereignty in 1982. There have been no Egyptian-Israeli wars since Camp David and, following a period in which Egypt was shunned by the Arab world for forging a separate peace with Israel, Egypt now plays the role of mediator between Israel and other Arab nations, working to promote a comprehensive peace in the region.

President Sadat was criticized in some domestic circles for his peace overtures toward Israel. He was also increasingly criticized for the economic program he introduced in 1974, known as Infitah, or “the opening.” Infitah focused on cutting back the size of the huge public sector by reducing government spending and restricting the hiring of new employees by the government. Previously, every university graduate was guaranteed a job in the public sector. Under Sadat, this promise of employment was curtailed, leaving thousands of university graduates without jobs. Infitah also had an adverse effect on the cost of living, by removing many subsidies on food and thus leading to rampant inflation. Sadat grew increasingly frustrated as he tried to deal with increasing opposition to his political and economic reforms, and he enacted new laws meant to give himself more power and curtail public criticism. As the opposition became more intense, Sadat reacted by arresting at least 1,500 opponents in September 1981. One month later, on 6 October 1981, Sadat was assassinated by a member of an Islamic opposition group, known as the Jihad (holy struggle) organization.

Husni Mubarak succeeded Sadat and has been president of Egypt since October 1981. Mubarak has followed Sadat's lead by continuing to pursue Infitah and by upholding the peace with Israel. He has allowed political parties to operate but maintains a ban on Islamic parties and the state of emergency imposed after the death of Sadat remains in force more than one-quarter century later. When the Islamic opposition gets out of line, as it has increasingly done in the 1980s and 1990s, Mubarak authorizes hundreds and thousands of arrests. There are at least three Islamic trends in Egypt. Many in the general population tend to be religiously observant—fasting, praying, and dressing conservatively, but seeing no need to make Islam into a political force. Second, a mainstream, politically active Islamic opposition group, known as the Muslim Brotherhood, seeks to change the Egyptian legal system by basing it on Islamic shari'a, or law. The Brotherhood, or Ikhwan as they are known in Egypt, have renounced the use of violence against the government and seek to impose Islamic law by working from within the political system. The third Islamic trend is militant and is represented by the Jihad organization. This group seeks to impose Islamic law on the country by overthrowing the current government. Battles between Jihad members and Egyptian security forces have become frequent, causing President Mubarak to crack down on Islamic political opposition, even against members of the Ikhwan.


Egypt has a population of about 80 million, with 99% of its people living along the banks of the Nile River. Population density in the Nile Valley is one of the highest in the world, exceeding 1,500 persons per sq km. The population grows by 1.7% per year. Sixty percent of Egypt's population is under the age of 25.

The country occupies approximately 1 million sq km in north-eastern Africa. Of this, only 35,000 sq km (the Nile Valley and Delta) are cultivated. The rest of the land consists of the Western (Libyan) Desert, the Eastern (Arabian) Desert, and the Sinai Peninsula. Egypt is bordered on the west by Libya, on the south by the Sudan, on the east by the Red Sea, on the northeast by southern Israel, and on the north by the Mediterranean Sea. The Nile River runs through Egypt from Sudan, flowing from south to north and ending at the Mediterranean Sea. Three central African rivers flow into the Nile. These are the White Nile, originating in Uganda; the Blue Nile, originating in Ethiopia; and the Atbarah, also originating in Ethiopia. Along the banks of the Nile lies the Nile Valley and Delta, an extensive oasis on which 99% of Egypt's population lives.


All Egyptians speak Arabic, the national language. Arabic is a highly evolved Semitic language related to Hebrew and Aramaic. Written Arabic is in the form of classical Arabic or a simpler version called “modern standard,” which is the form taught in schools throughout the Arab world and originally based on the Quran. This Arabic is used in the media, government, and literature throughout the Arab world, tying the Arab world together culturally. Egyptians speak two major dialects of Arabic. In Cairo and most other urban centers, to mention just one of the many differences between colloquial Egyptian Arabic and the Arabic spoken in most of the rest of the Arab world, the sound j is pronounced as g (as in the word “girl”). Thus, a boy whose name is pronounced “Jalal” in most of the Arab world is known is “Galal” in Cairo. In most of the countryside, however, the j sound is maintained. In Cairo, the word for carrot is gazar. In the countryside, and in most of the Arab world, it is jazar. A mountain in Cairo is gabal, and in the countryside and most of the Arab world it is jabal.

Common boys' names are Ramadan and Sha'ban, which are also the names of Islamic months. Other common names are Gamal, Mohammad, and Ahmad. Common girls' names are Mona, Su'ad, Magda, Fatima, and Lobna. Egyptians often use nicknames for friends and relatives. Very common nicknames are Mimi for Mohammad, and Fifi for Fatima.


Some of Egypt's most popular legends are stories of liberation from foreign rule and domination. Ahmad Arabi is famous for his opposition to British and French interference in Egypt's finances in the late 19th century, and Sa'ad Zaghlul is famous for his opposition to British domination during the early 20th century.

Most folklore in Muslim countries tells stories of important figures in religious history. One such story that is also cause for annual commemoration throughout the Islamic world is that of al-Isra' wa al-Mi'raj. According to legend, on the 26th day of the Islamic month of Rajab, the Prophet Muhammad traveled at night from Mecca, Saudi Arabia (then Hijaz) to Jerusalem. From Jerusalem, he rode his wondrous horse, al-Burak, on a nocturnal visit to heaven.

Another item of folklore commonly believed in some Islamic communities, including Egypt, is that evil spirits, called jinns, live in haunted places. Jinns are demons that are believed to take on the form of an animal or human. Some Egyptians also believe in the “evil eye” and take measures to prevent being inflicted by it.


About 90% of Egyptians are Sunni Muslims, 8.5% are Coptic Christians, and 1.5% are other Christian denominations—Greek Orthodox, Eastern and Latin Rite Catholics, and Protestants. There are fewer than 1,000 Jews in Egypt. Christianity came to Egypt during Roman rule in the 1st century ad. The Copts have been a significant minority in Egypt since medieval times. They are led by a patriarch based in Alexandria, Egypt—Pope Shenudah III—and he is known as the pope of the Coptic Church worldwide.

Islam, Egypt's national religion, teaches that Allah (the Arabic word for God) regularly sent guidance to humans in the form of prophets. Islam accepts the earlier Semitic prophets, including Abraham, Moses, and Jesus. Muslims also believe that Muhammad was the last in the line of prophets sent with the message and that there is only one God. Muslims believe in heaven and hell, the day of Judgment, and angels. The Quran is the holy book of Muslims, and it teaches that, in order to get to heaven, men and women must believe in God and do good works by struggling in God's way. Belief and good deeds are tightly bound together in Muslim literature.

The Islamic religion has five pillars: (1) Muslims must pray five times a day; (2) Muslims must give alms, or zakat, to the poor; (3) Muslims must fast during the month of Ramadan; (4) Muslims must make the pilgrimage, or hajj, to Mecca; and (5) each Muslim must recite the shahada—ashhadu an la illah ila Allah wa ashhadu an Muhammadu rasul Allah— which means “I witness that there is no god but Allah and that Muhammad is the prophet of Allah.”


Egypt commemorates Muslim religious, secular, Coptic, and Roman Catholic holidays. One major Muslim holiday is Eid al-Fitr, which comes at the end of the month of fasting, Ramadan. During Ramadan, Muslims refrain from eating, drinking, or having sex during daylight hours, in order to reflect on God and on the plight of the unfortunate who do not have enough food. At the end of the month, Muslims celebrate Eid al-Fitr for three days. The other major Muslim holiday is Eid al-Adha, which commemorates the willingness of the Prophet Abraham, as well as his son, to obey God's command in all things, even when Abraham was told to sacrifice his son.

It is traditional to buy new clothing for these two holidays, and the shops of Cairo and other urban centers stay open later than usual before the holidays. Swarms of people fill the streets, shopping for clothing for these exciting events. The religious holidays are celebrated by going to the mosque for group morning prayers and then coming home to large meals with family and visiting relatives. Part of the feast is normally given to relatives and to the poor. Egyptian children are given small amounts of money by visiting relatives. Other Islamic holidays that are celebrated to a lesser degree are the Islamic New Year, the Prophet Muhammad's birthday, and the Tenth of Muharram. The latter is the tenth day of the Muslim month of Muharram, commemorated because Moses led the Israelites out of Egyptian slavery on this day. The Prophet Muhammad instructed all Muslims to fast on this day.

Orthodox Christians celebrate Christmas on 7 January and Easter on a different date each year. All Egyptians celebrate Sham al-Nisim, a Coptic holiday with Pharaonic origins, on the first Monday after Easter.

Secular holidays include New Year's Day (1 January); Sinai Liberation Day (25 April); Labor Day (1 May); Mother's Day (31 March); Evacuation Day, commemorating the withdrawal of the British (18 June); Revolution Day (23 July); National Day (6 October); and Victory Day (23 December).


Egyptian boys are circumcised, usually at birth, but often later in the child's youth. The birth of a baby is an important event, and the baby's first week of life is commemorated on the seventh day with a celebration called the subu'. Graduation from high school is also important, although many of Egypt's children do not finish 12 years of school because they drop out to help their families earn a living. A 2005 study by UNICEF reports that primary school attendance is above 90% for both boys and girls.

Marriage is an important rite of passage, but increasingly Egyptian men and women are getting married in their late 20s and 30s. This is based more on financial ability to support a family than on a preference for delayed marriage. In order to get married, a man must typically provide a furnished apartment at the very least and also have an expensive wedding ceremony. Millions of Egyptian men simply cannot afford this considerable expense. Some charitable organizations are attempting to help by providing weddings free of charge, but this serious social issue is a cause of great concern to the government.

All adults hope to conduct the Islamic hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca, sometime before their death. Those who do so are thereafter given the title Hajj preceding their name, such as Hajj Mustafa (man) or Hajjah Fatima (woman). Upon a loved one's death, the burial is carried out as soon as possible, preferably on the same day. The condolence period lasts for three days, during which mourners recite passages from the Quran. If the deceased was a public-sector employee, his or her family receives a death benefit from the government to help it deal with the loss.


Egyptians are very friendly people, and even the poorest among them will show hospitality to a stranger. The Egyptian greeting is typically “as-salamu 'alaykum,” or “peace be with you,” and the response is “wa 'alaykum as-salam,” or “and peace be with you as well.” Egyptians shake hands upon greeting, although two men or two women who have not seen each other for a while might kiss on the cheek. An unmarried man and woman, however, would not kiss due to Muslim and social mores, and a very pious man and woman might not even shake hands. In formal situations, a man is referred to as sayyid (Mr.), a married woman as sayyida (Mrs.), and a single woman as anisa (Miss). Anyone with a doctorate or Ph.D. or a medical degree is referred to respectfully as “Doctor,” even in informal settings. Children must show respect for their elders and can never refer to an adult by his or her first name without attaching “aunt” or “uncle” to the name. Thus, a child would address a female adult acquaintance as “'mti (Aunt) Fatima,” and a male adult acquaintance as “'mo (Uncle) Muhammad.” The same words are used to address a child's actual aunt and uncle.

Dating in the Western sense between the sexes is a social taboo because Islamic values prohibit an unmarried man and woman to be alone together. Public ritualized socializing is widespread, however, and the parklands built along the Nile are crowded with young couples sitting on benches, sharing meals or tea, and even exchanging flowers. Marriage tends to be arranged by matchmakers, although a man and woman who are interested in each other may declare their intentions to their families, formally (publicly) announce their intention, and then see each other in the presence of a third party, usually a family member. Such careful measures are the society's way of preserving the dignity and honor of their children and making sure that girls remain virgins until they are married. Premarital and extramarital sex are strictly forbidden.


The government increased spending on health care after the 1952 Revolution, and the result has been a decrease in the infant mortality rate and an increase in life expectancy. Diarrhea and the dehydration that sometimes accompanies it account for many deaths among infants and children. One reason for this is the lack of safe water for drinking and cooking among 25% of the population. Among adults, the main causes of death are respiratory and digestive ailments. In 2003, there was about one physician per 835 inhabitants, and almost as many certified nurses. The country has public, government-run hospitals and clinics as well as more expensive, private hospitals and clinics. There are also numerous low-cost clinics located in neighborhood mosques and run by Islamic charitable organizations. These are frequented by both Christian and Muslim patients and are often considered to be better providers of health care than government clinics.

The rapidly growing population of Egypt is a challenge to authorities responsible for meeting the housing needs of the country. Population size, coupled with a shortage of skilled laborers and construction materials, has resulted in a shortage of affordable housing. Nowhere is this more evident than in the mausoleums of Cairo's cemeteries, where more than 500,000 poor people have set up their homes. The cemeteries are so populated that they are now called “The City of the Dead.” One fifth of all Egyptians live in the 400 slums that surround Cairo. The majority of Egyptians live in crowded apartment buildings in very densely populated communities. Some people have built semi-legal housing of wood, cardboard, and metal on the flat rooftops of apartment buildings. There is little space for single-family houses, although these can be found in a few areas. The government has been trying to deal with the urban crowding by building new cities on the outskirts of Cairo. These include Madinat Nasr and The Tenth of Ramadan towns. While some families have been eager to move to these new towns, Cairo is still more attractive to most people because of the lack of employment in the new areas.

One of the most prosperous established sections of Cairo is Zamalek, a small island in the Nile River, where the per-capita income is $15,000 per year, in contrast to the $150 per-capita income in some of the slums.


The family is the center of social organization. Every Egyptian is expected to get married and produce children in order to continue the family lineage. When a child is born, the parents' new roles are acknowledged with new titles: The father becomes Abu (“father of”) the new child, and the mother becomes Ummu (“mother of”) the new child. Thus, the parents of a child named Ahmad are known as Abu Ahmad and Ummu Ahmad. The father is the head of the household, and he is responsible for providing for the family. The mother manages the household and is the primary caregiver and child rearer. Many wives now work to help support the family, but they are still responsible for maintenance of the home. Today's families tend to be primarily nuclear (parents and their unmarried children), whereas not long ago most Egyptians lived in extended families. Urbanization and migration in search of employment have split up extended families. Upon marriage, a son tries to arrange for housing near his parents, and it is common to find a family trying to add apartment units to its dwelling in order to prepare housing for its sons. Sons who cannot afford to live independently might bring their brides to their parents' home and live with the family until independent living arrangements can be made. A daughter who gets married moves into her new husband's home, and the best “catch” is a man who already has his own apartment and doesn't have to rely on his parents. Single sons and daughters, for the most part, stay at home until they are married.

Children are taught to show respect for their parents and other adults, and children are given responsibilities at a young age. Girls help their mothers with housework and take care of their younger siblings. Boys in poorer families are expected to learn a trade early on, often interrupting their chances to attend school. It is not uncommon to find poor children selling merchandise on street corners in order to contribute to the family income. Children of wealthier families have the luxury of focusing most of their attention on school. Enrollment of girls in rural areas lags behind that of boys, and girls drop out of primary school more frequently than boys.


Walking through Egypt's cities, one finds a myriad of clothing types, ranging from the traditional galabiyya worn by men and milaya worn by women to the Islamic shari'a worn by women to Western-style business suits and dresses. The galabiyya, Egypt's national attire for men, is a long, robe-like garment with long sleeves and trim around the neckline. The galabiyya tends to be light in color, with gray, beige, and white being the most common colors. The galabiyya is worn over a shirt and slacks, and is worn mainly by traditional older Egyptian men. The milaya, worn by Egypt's traditional older women, is usually black, and is also a long robe-like garment with long sleeves. It is worn over a light dress. Women wearing the milaya also wrap their heads in a black scarf or shawl.

The Islamic shari'a attire is worn by religious women, usually women who are younger than those who wear the milaya. Shari'a dresses are common in university settings and in the work place. This dress is also long, with long sleeves and buttons down the front, resembling a long jacket. Some religious women also wear long skirts and dresses that differ from Western wear only by virtue of their length and full-body coverage. Any woman wearing the shari'a dress or the long dress-like religious attire will also don a long scarf that she wraps around her head. Some of these scarves are quite beautiful, with hand-stitched sequins and/or beads. Fashion-conscious religious women might also wear fancy little hats over their scarves. Scarves, hats, and religious attire are color-coordinated, with the long dresses and skirts being much more brightly colored than the shari'a attire, which usually has a solid neutral tone.

Many Egyptians wear typical Western attire, and Western clothing shops abound in the city. Women wear dresses and skirts—usually below the knee in length. Women also wear slacks and suits. These women generally do not cover their heads. Men wear Western business suits, slacks, jeans, and so on. In the cities, the Western look is the most common, although Islamic attire is becoming increasingly popular for women, particularly in universities.


Most of the population consumes bread, rice, beans, fruits, and vegetables on a daily basis. Those who can afford to also eat red meat, poultry, and fish.

The typical Egyptian breakfast consists of ful mudammas (fava bean dip) with pita bread, hard-boiled or scrambled eggs, and a cup of hot tea with boiled milk. There are two major variations of ful mudammas, and recipes for them follow.

Ful mudammas with tomato

1 15-ounce-can cooked fava beans
¼ cup olive oil
1 small onion, chopped
4 ounces tomato sauce
½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon black pepper
¼ teaspoon paprika
A few sprigs of fresh parsley
pita bread

In a skillet, sauté the chopped onion in the olive oil until the onion is transparent. Add salt, pepper, and tomato sauce. Drain and rinse the fava beans, and add to the tomato mixture. Cook over medium heat 5 to 7 minutes, stirring occasionally. Pour into serving dish, and garnish with paprika, parsley, and olive oil. Eat with pita bread.

Ful mudammas with lemon and garlic

1 15-ounce-can cooked fava beans
½ cup water
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
¼ teaspoon garlic powder
¼ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon black pepper
¼ cup olive oil
¼ teaspoon paprika
a few sprigs of fresh parsley
pita bread

Drain and rinse fava beans. Place beans in a skillet, and add 1/2 cup water. Heat over medium heat, allowing water to evaporate. Add lemon juice, garlic, salt, and pepper and cook 3 to 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Pour into serving dish, and garnish with paprika, parsley, and olive oil. Eat with pita bread.

Ful mudammas is available in carryout restaurants in almost every neighborhood in Egypt and is an inexpensive yet nutritious meal. The same restaurants that serve ful also serve ta'miyya, known as falafil in most of the Arab world and in the West. Ta'miyya is a deep-fried patty made of a dough-like paste that consists of fava beans, onions, garlic, cumin, coriander and parsley. The patties are served in sandwiches with pickles, and are often a quick meal at lunch time.

Egypt's national dinner is a spinach-like vegetable known as mulukhiyya. This leafy vegetable is a member of the hibiscus family and is grown in abundance in Egypt. When in season, Egyptians pick the leaves off the stems and cook them fresh. Out of season, mulukhiyya is available dried. Middle Eastern and Greek stores in the United States sell dried and/or frozen mulukhiyya. A recipe for mulukhiyya follows.


1/3 pound dried mulukhiyya
1 whole chicken, cut into pieces
1 quart water
1 teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon black pepper

6 to 7 cloves of garlic, mashed or finely chopped
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon dried coriander

Boil the chicken pieces in water, skimming off and discarding the froth that appears during the boiling process. Add salt and pepper, and cook chicken until tender (about 30 minutes). Add mulukhiyya and simmer for 20 minutes, stirring occasionally. Meanwhile, sauté garlic in olive oil. Add coriander to garlic and stir well. When mulukhiyya soup is finished cooking, pour garlic mixture into soup and simmer another 2 minutes. Serve mulukhiyya over a bed of rice or eat with pita bread.

Ful, ta'miyya, and mulukhiyya are Egypt's most popular foods. Other common foods include stuffed cabbage leaves, stuffed grape leaves, musaqqa'a (eggplant and tomato casserole), macaroni baked with béchamel sauce, shish kebab, and shawirma (gyro) sandwiches.

Common desserts include kunafa, a baked pastry made of layers of shredded wheat dough and nuts and covered with syrup; baqlawa (baklava), a baked pastry made of layers of filo dough and nuts and covered with syrup; and basbusa, a baked caked made of semolina flour and soaked in syrup.

Common drinks include hot tea with mint, Turkish coffee, a licorice root drink known as 'irk sus, and fresh fruit juice—including carrot juice and sugar cane juice squeezed fresh by street-side vendors.

Because they are predominantly Muslim, Egyptians do not consume pork and are prohibited from drinking alcoholic beverages. The latter, however, are served in expensive restaurants, hotels, and a few pubs and drinking establishments, even in relatively poorer areas of Cairo.


Before the 19th century, most education in Egypt was religious and for boys only. Theological seminaries, mosques, and churches taught males to read and write Arabic and to memorize religious texts. Secular education was established in the early 19th century by Egypt's ruler, Muhammad 'Ali. In 1873, the first school for girls was built. When Egypt was under British administration, between 1882 and 1922, public education was not expanded, but many private schools were established. And, although education for all children was proclaimed a national goal after the British withdrawal from Egypt, by 1952 some 75% of the population over 10 years of age was still illiterate, with 90% of females over 10 years of age were illiterate.

After the Free Officers Revolution in 1952, educational opportunity was expanded, and government spending on education increased. Enrollment in schools doubled in the first decade after the revolution and doubled again in the following decade. Enrollment rates continued to increase after 1975, although not at such dramatic rates. In 1981, the government decreed that all children must complete the first 9 years of school—6 years of compulsory primary school and 3 years of compulsory preparatory school. By 2005, 88% of children between the ages of 7 and 12 were enrolled in primary school. Attendance rates in secondary schools dropped off dramatically in rural areas, where in 2005 only 6% were in regular attendance. Despite these disparities in educational opportunities 2005 reports from the US government say 71% of the population above 15 is literate.

Education at all levels is free, from primary school through university education. The school system, however, is greatly overpopulated with students and has a chronic shortage of teachers. In 2005 the ratio of students to teachers was 86 to 1 and 99 to 1 for female teachers. In recent years, some schools have operated two shifts per day to cut down on class size. Many teachers find it more lucrative to work abroad in other Arab countries, where class sizes are much smaller and the salaries are much higher. Many teachers offer private tutoring in order to bring home extra income. This means that many children spend time outside school trying to improve their education. The cost of tutoring is often too high for the poor, who frequently complain that their children are being forced, by an inadequate educational system, into private lessons which they cannot afford.

Students are required to pass a series of end-of-the-year exams in order to make it from one level in the school system to the next. This is particularly important at the end of middle school, when grades determine the type of high school a student will attend. Those who do well in middle school attend an academic, college-prep secondary school. Others might attend a technical or vocational school or, if their grades are very discouraging, they might simply drop out.

At the end of high school, students take another set of exams. Secondary school students whose grades merit have the option of enrolling in a university. Egypt's leading universities are Cairo University, Alexandria University, 'Ein Shams University, Asyut University, and the American University at Cairo. The first four of these are public universities, and the last is private. In addition, there are a number of smaller universities throughout the country. There are a variety of technical institutes of higher learning available for those who do not make it into college. These schools offer training in such fields as hotel management and secretarial services.


Ancient Egyptians left behind a rich artistic heritage in the form of pyramids, pharaonic painting and sculpture, hieroglyphics, and architecture. The Egyptian pharaohs believed in life after death and built 75 pyramids that would serve as their dwellings after death. The best known of these, The Great Pyramid, was built about 2690 bc at Giza. (Earlier pyramids were constructed in Saqara) It contains more than 2 million blocks of limestone, some weighing up to 15 tons. Pyramids and wall sculptures are found in Giza, in Upper Egypt (the south), in the Valley of the Kings, in Luxor and Karnak, and on Philae Island. The Cairo Museum houses a large collection of antiquities. The museum displays about 100,000 exhibits, including some of the coffins excavated from the pyramids and treasures from the tomb of Pharaoh Tutankhamun (King Tut).

Literature is greatly enjoyed in Egypt, and Cairo's publishing companies generate an abundant supply and variety of literary works. The Cairo Book Fair is a major annual event in which recent international publications are featured with great fanfare. A variety of literary forms are enjoyed in Egypt, with short stories, poetry, and novels being quite popular.

One of Egypt's most famous authors was a blind essayist named Taha Husayn (d.1973), whose literary output was immense. Some of his writing has been translated into English, including Tales from Egyptian Life and An Egyptian Childhood (an autobiography). The modern Egyptian novelist best known in the Western world is probably Naguib Mahfouz, (d. 2006) winner of the 1988 Nobel Prize for Literature. Virtually of his Mahfouz's work has now been translated, the better known of which include such classics as Midaq Alley and The Cairo Trilogy. Mahfouz had a penchant for writing about the lives of ordinary Egyptians, particularly the poor and middle classes. His stories feature observations of the socio-economic and political conditions of Egyptian society, with direct and indirect commentary on issues such as women's emancipation, polygamy, the British occupation of Egypt, and the Egyptian response to that occupation.


Agriculture is the largest source of employment in Egypt—32 percent of Egyptians work in this sector. Farmers plant berseem (clover) for livestock feed, as well as corn, wheat, vegetables, rice, cotton, and fruit. Since 1974, when the government announced economic reforms that would include industrialization, rural residents have flocked to greater Cairo in search of employment. Cairo's population grew from 7 million in 1976 to 20 million in 2006. Those who find work with the manufacturing sector work in industries such as iron and steel, aluminum, and cement. Some work in oil production, and others produce consumer goods.

Despite the industrialization that has taken place, Egypt's cities do not offer enough employment opportunities to the migrant masses. Urban residents thus end up depending on the government for jobs, and the waiting period can be as long as 10 years. When attempts to find work fail, the unemployed migrate to neighboring countries in search of employment. From the late 1970s to the early 1980s, 90% of new jobs were either provided by the public sector or were in neighboring oil states. In 2005 the government introduced some free market reforms, taking tentative steps away from the state dominated economic model championed by Egypt's still revered President Nasir. As a result of these reforms there was a large rise in the stock market, GDP grew at approximately 6–7% a year for 2005–2007. Little of this increased wealth saw its way to the poor of the Cairo or the rural areas.

The unemployment rate in 2007 was 10.1%. After agriculture, Egypt's major employment sectors are industry (17%) and services (51%). Twenty percent of Egyptians live below the poverty line. The per capita GDP is 5,400 US dollars per year.

Many who do work hold more than one job to make ends meet. This is particularly true for public sector employees. It is common to find a man (seldom a woman) working at a government-run factory during the day and moonlighting in a second job at night.


Egyptians take soccer, which they, like the rest of the non-American the world, call football, very seriously. Competitions are held among the many teams nationwide and are broadcast on radio and television with great enthusiasm. National soccer teams also compete in regional soccer competitions with other Arab and African states. The national team has won the African Cup of Nations a record six times and won its second consecutive title in 2008 in an upset victory over favored Cameroon. FIFA currently ranks the team as the 29th best in the world. Swimming and scuba diving are enjoyed along the beaches of the Mediterranean Sea and the Red Sea. The Red Sea in particular is considered one of the great diving locations in the world. Indoor swimming pools and tennis courts are located in sports clubs, but generally only the middle class and wealthy can afford these.


There are more than 100 cinemas in Cairo, some run by the government and others privately owned. There are also many cinemas in Port Sa'id and Alexandria. Egyptian-made movies range from comedy to drama and often attempt to convey a political message relevant to contemporary political and economic conditions. One famous actor, 'Adil Imam, is renowned for his comedic movies, but has recently ventured onto political turf in his movies, Terrorism and Kebab and The Terrorist. In both films, Imam plays the lead role of a young Egyptian inadvertently caught in a web of poverty and anti-state terrorism.

Cairo has about 17 theaters, and Alexandria has about 6. Egyptian theaters host a variety of shows, including opera, orchestra, folk art, and choral troupe performances.

Egypt has been the home of many musical performers known throughout the Arabic-speaking world. Solo singers Um Kalthum, Farid al-Atrash, and 'Abd al-Halim Hafiz (all now deceased) were classical performers whose songs were known to last up to two hours each. While the classical style is still popular, there is now a new style of Egyptian music that blends the classical with more Western-sounding music. Muhammad Munir and “Four M” are samples of this new sound, which is very popular with the younger generation. Music cassettes are sold by street vendors. These are very popular and cost about $1 to $2 each.

Television entered the lives of Egyptians in the mid-1960s, and by the 1980s had become quite common. Televisions are even common among the residents of the cemeteries. Egyptian TV has a wide variety of programming, including comedy, music and dance shows, cartoons, and soap operas. Families are glued to their TV sets in the evening when the nightly soap operas come on. With the proliferation of satellite television, Egyptians can now watch American and European television entertainment and news channels as well.

Egyptian children generally play in the many open fields in their neighborhoods, but new parks have also been built. There are a limited number of amusement parks, the main one called “Sinbad” and located in Cairo. Toys are not very common and did not arrive in Egypt in significant number until the mid-1980s, when fathers returned from jobs in the oil countries, gifts in hand. Although many stores now have ample supplies of toys for children, most people do not spend their money on such luxuries. Children who are fortunate enough to get toys often go out of their way to take care of them, even if this means placing the toy out of reach to keep it from being damaged.


The stores of Khan al-Khalili in Cairo cater predominantly to tourists and feature the hand-made crafts of local artisans. Media such as wood, brass, copper, glass, mother-of-pearl, leather, silver, and gold are cut, shaped, and engraved to form a multitude of items. Some of the most creative handicrafts for which the Egyptians are noted include wooden jewelry boxes covered with mother-of-pearl, engraved silver and hand-painted serving trays, and leather ottomans with intricate designs. Jewelry stores sell handcrafted bracelets, necklaces, rings, and earrings made of silver and gold. In the small village of Kirdasa, in addition to these handicrafts, the stores specialize in hand-made women's dresses that feature embroidery, sequins, and beads.

One of the most unique forms of folk art in Egypt is hajj painting. As a Muslim completes his or her pilgrimage to Mecca, a local artist paints the new pilgrim's front door with a mural symbolizing the hajj. Most hajj paintings are found in the villages.


One of Egypt's biggest problems is socio-economic frustration. Unemployment and underemployment have resulted in a high level of poverty and despair. Among the many effects of this situation is a growing attraction to religion: in 1986, according to government accounting, there was one mosque for every 6,000 Egyptians; by 2005 there was one mosque for every 745 people. A lack of affordable housing has forced hundreds of thousands of Egyptians to live in the mausoleums of Cairo's cemeteries. There are now 400 slums around the capital city. Shanty towns and slums continue to appear all over the metropolitan Cairo area. Housing is poorly constructed, services are few, and basic needs such as drinkable water and sewage are non-existent. The growth of slums has correlated with an increase in crime, violence, and religious militancy. Thefts such as pickpocketing and purse-snatching are common in metropolitan Cairo. Although violence rarely accompanies thefts, there are acts of violence within families and between religious militants and state security forces. White-collar crime is commonplace and includes embezzlement, diversion of subsidized goods, tax evasion, and bribes to officials. Another major problem is the illegal use of drugs. Although hashish has been smoked in Egypt for centuries, recently there has been an increase in the use of “hard” drugs such as heroin and cocaine.

Egyptian prisons are overcrowded. This is due in part to the arrest of criminals, but also to an ongoing political conflict between the government and the opposition. Clashes between government forces and religious opponents to the government periodically take place, sometimes resulting in hundreds of political opponents being arrested. The casualty list during clashes is sometimes quite high. One study found that total casualties (killed and wounded) during state–militants confrontations in the periods of heaviest demonstration in the late 1980s and 1990s went from 322 in 1992 to 1,106 in 1993. (The 1994 figure was 659, and the 1995 figure was 620.) International human rights organizations, such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, have been critical of the Egyptian government's handling of militant opponents to the regime. The major criticism is that not only violent opponents, but also nonviolent political opponents, are being denied their political and civil rights in the state's attempt to maintain control over opposition forces. Political protests of even the most benign sort are regularly put down with brutality and overwhelming force. Human Rights Watch also reports regular, arbitrary arrest of street children in Cairo and Alexandria. The authorities subject them to beatings, sexual abuse, and deny them access to basic human amenities.


Egyptian society is marked with sexual inequality in myriad forms. The streets of Cairo are world renowned among female travelers as being rife with sexual harassing behavior. Men routinely follow, whistle at, and in other ways humiliate women, both Egyptians and tourists. Human Rights Watch reports that both family and criminal law continue to discriminate against women. Criminal law is lax in legislating against violence against women and where laws do exist, they are routinely ignored. A well documented incident occurred in October 2006 in a busy downtown area in which gangs of men, celebrating the end of holy month of Ramadan, attacked scores of women on the streets as police looked on doing nothing. Several women were set upon by dozens of crazed men who stripped them naked. Much of this violence was captured on mobile phone videos and distributed around the world via the Internet.

Small steps in improving the rights of women have been taken in very recent times. In 2007, the Egyptian judiciary received its first female judges and in June 2007, the government banned female genital mutilation.


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—revised by J. Henry