Egypt has the oldest recorded history in Western civilization, dating back 5,000 years. In early times, the desert provided protection against marauders, while the Nile River provided bread. Therefore, by 3400 BC the civilization of Egypt was well developed. The country was united about 3100 BC by Menes (or Narmer), king of Upper Egypt, who conquered Lower Egypt and established the first of some 30 dynasties, ruled over by a divine king, or pharaoh. Menes created a centralized state; under his dynastic successors, trade flourished, and the hieroglyphic form of writing was perfected. During the so-called Old Kingdom, the pharaohs of the fourth dynasty (c.2613–2494 BC ), of whom Cheops (Khufu) was the most notable, began to build the great pyramids as royal tombs. The twelfth dynasty of the Middle Kingdom (c.1991–1786 BC ) built vast irrigation schemes and developed a thriving civilization at Thebes; under their rule, a system of cursive writing was developed. After a century of domination by Semitic peoples known as the Hyksos, who introduced the horse-drawn chariot, ancient Egypt attained its apex during the eighteenth dynasty (c.1570–1320 BC ) of the New Kingdom, under pharaohs Thutmose III, who extended the empire into Asia as far as the Euphrates; Amenhotep III and his son, Amenhotep IV (Akhenaten, or Ikhnaton), who, with his queen, Nefertiti, attempted forcibly to replace Egyptian polytheism with monotheistic worship of the sun god Aten, or Aton; and the boy-king Tutankhamen.
In subsequent centuries, political instability weakened the kingdom, and Egypt was invaded by Assyria (673–663 BC ), annexed by Persia (525 BC ), and conquered by Alexander the Great (332 BC ). Alexander established the Macedonian dynasty of the Ptolemies, which ruled Egypt from 323 to 30 BC . During this period, the city of Alexandria flourished as the intellectual center of the Hellenistic world. The best-known ruler of this dynasty was Queen Cleopatra VII (sometimes designated as VI), who was defeated, together with her lover Mark Antony, at the Battle of Actium in 31 BC by Caius Octavius, later the Roman emperor Augustus. After the official division of the Roman Empire following the death of Theodosius in AD 395, Egypt became part of the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire.
Egypt played an integral role in the Muslim world after the Arab conquest by 'Amr ibn-al-'As in 639–42. Egypt's conquerors brought in settlers from Arabia and established firm control under the Abbasid caliphate (established in 749) and the Fatimids (909–1171), who founded Cairo as their capital in 969. The Fatimids were overthrown by Saladin (Salah ad-Din), founder of the Ayyubid dynasty, which gave way about 1250 to a local military caste, the Mamluks. The Mamluks continued to control the provinces after the conquest of Egypt by the Ottoman Turks in 1517.
Egypt remained a Turkish satrapy for four centuries. In 1805, an energetic Albanian soldier, Muhammad 'Ali, was appointed ruler (wali) of Egypt. He succeeded in establishing his own dynasty, which ruled the country, first under nominal Ottoman control and later as a British protectorate. Muhammad 'Ali destroyed Mamluk feudalism (already weakened by Napoleon's Egyptian campaign in 1798), stabilized the country, encouraged the planting of cotton, and opened the land to European penetration and development.
After the completion of numerous ambitious projects, including the Suez Canal (1869), Egypt became a world transportation hub and heavily burdened by debt. Ostensibly to protect its investments, England seized control of Egypt's government in 1882 and, at the time of the outbreak of World War I, made Egypt a protectorate. After the war, in 1922, the UK took account of the gathering momentum of Egyptian nationalism and recognized Egypt as a nominally sovereign country under King Fuad, but retained control over the conduct of foreign affairs, defense, security of communications, and the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan. Militant nationalism was represented by the Wafd Party, led by Sa'ad Zaghlul Pasha and, after his death, by Nahas Pasha. The conditions of association were revised in the 1936 Anglo-Egyptian Treaty, under which Britain maintained armed forces only in specified areas and especially along the Suez Canal. In that year, Faruk ascended the throne.
Egyptian nationalism gathered further momentum in World War II, during which Egypt was used as an Allied base of operations, and in 1951 the government in Cairo abrogated the 1936 treaty. Royal extravagance, government corruption, the unsuccessful Palestine campaign against Israel in 1948, and delays in long-expected social and political reforms motivated a successful coup on 23 July 1952 by a group called the Society of the Free Officers. Faruk was dethroned and replaced by his seven-month-old son. A republic was proclaimed on 18 June 1953, with Gen. Muhammad Naguib (Najib), the nominal leader of the officers, as its first president. He, in turn, was forced out of power in 1954 by a younger man, Lt. Col. Gamal Abdel Nasser (Jamal 'Abd al-Nasir), leader of the revolution.
To increase the productive capacity of his country, Nasser entered into preliminary agreements with the United States, the UK, and the UN to finance in part a new high dam at Aswan. At the same time, he also negotiated economic aid and arms shipments from the Soviet Bloc when he was unable to obtain what Egypt needed from the West. Financial backing for the dam was subsequently withheld by the United States, whereupon, on 26 July 1956, President Nasser proclaimed the nationalization of the Suez Canal and announced that profits derived from its operations would be used for the building of the dam. (The last British occupation troops had been evacuated from their Suez Canal bases a month earlier.) The dam was completed with aid and technical assistance from the USSR.
Simultaneously, a crisis erupted between Egypt and Israel. Incidents involving Egyptian and Palestinian guerrillas (fadayin) and Israeli border patrols multiplied. On 29 October 1956, as part of a three-nation plot to bring down Nasser and reassert control over the Canal, Israeli armed forces swept into Egypt's Sinai Peninsula. The UK and France then issued an ultimatum to the belligerents to cease fire. When Egypt rejected the ultimatum, Britain and France took military action in the Port Sa'id area, at the northern end of the canal, landing troops and bombing Egyptian cities from the air. However, the intervention of the United States and the USSR, acting through the UN, led to the withdrawal of the British, French, and Israeli forces by March 1957.
On 1 February 1958, Egypt and Syria proclaimed their union in the United Arab Republic (UAR), under one head of state, one flag, a common legislature, and a unified army. The proclamation was approved by a plebiscite vote of 99.9% in Egypt and 99.98% in Syria. Nasser became president of the UAR, and a new cabinet was formed in March 1958, consisting of 2 Egyptian and 2 Syrian vice presidents, as well as 22 Egyptian and 12 Syrian ministers. Differing economic and political conditions prevented a complete fusion of the two regions, however. Nasser's economic measures were generally accepted, but his program of socialism and nationalization of banks and other commercial establishments were resented and opposed by Syrian businessmen. Syrian opposition to the union was crystallized when Nasser eliminated the separate regional cabinets and set up a unified cabinet in August 1961. On 28 September, the Syrian army revolted, and two days later it proclaimed Syrian independence. Even after the failure of the merger with Syria, Egypt, consistent with its Arab unity ideology, persisted in its attempts to form a union with other Arab states. Cooperation agreements were signed with Iraq, Yemen, Syria again, and Libya during the 1960s and early 1970s. None of these agreements produced a lasting, meaningful political union.
One reason for these political maneuverings was the continuing tension with Israel, which again erupted into open warfare on 5 June 1967, after the UN Emergency Force had on 19 May been withdrawn from the Egyptian-Israeli border at Egypt's demand; on 23 May, Egypt closed the Gulf of Aqaba to Israeli shipping. Israel quickly crippled the Egyptian air force and occupied the Gaza Strip and the Sinai to the Suez Canal, which was blocked and remained so until June 1975. A cease-fire was established on 8 June 1967. On 22 November 1967, the UN Security Council passed a resolution calling on Israel to withdraw from occupied Arab territories and for the recognition by the Arab states of Israel's right to independent existence within peaceful and secured frontiers. But neither side would agree to peace terms, and Israel continued to occupy the Gaza Strip and the Sinai. During the years after 1967, a "War of Attrition" was fought along the Canal with each side shelling the other and Israeli planes bombing Egyptian cities.
When Nasser died on 28 September 1970, his vice president, Anwar al-Sadat, became president. After a political crisis that resulted in the dismissal from office in May 1971 of 'Ali Sabri and other left-wing leaders who had been close to Nasser (they were subsequently convicted of treason), President Sadat firmly established his hold on the government and began to implement pragmatic economic and social policies. Beginning in July 1971 with the announcement of a 10-year development program, he quickly followed with the introduction in September of a permanent constitution and a series of financial measures designed to give more freedom to the banking system and to encourage investment of foreign and domestic capital. In a surprise move on 18 July 1972, Sadat ordered the expulsion of the 15,000 Soviet military advisers and 25,000 dependents who had come to Egypt after the 1967 war. After the ouster of the Russians, Egypt was able to improve relations with the United States, Europe, and the more conservative Arab states, which provided substantial financial assistance under the Khartoum Agreement to replace Suez Canal revenues (which had ceased when the Canal was closed by the 1967 war with Israel).
Frustrated in his ambition to recover the Sinai, President Sadat broke the 1967 cease-fire agreement on 6 October 1973 by attacking Israeli forces in the Sinai Peninsula; this assault was coordinated with a Syrian attack on Israeli forces occupying the Syrian Golan Heights. After initial successes, the Egyptian strike forces were defeated by the rapidly mobilized Israeli troops, who then crossed the Canal south of Isma'iliyah, destroyed Egypt's surface-to-air missile sites, and cut off the Egyptian 3d Army. A cease-fire that came into effect on 24 October left Egyptian troops in the Sinai and Israeli troops on the west bank of the Canal. A series of disengagement agreements negotiated by US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger left Egypt in full control of the Canal and established a UN-supervised buffer zone in the Sinai between the Egyptian and Israeli forces. In November 1975, the Sinai oil fields at Abu Rudeis and Ra's Sudr were returned to Egypt.
President Sadat took a bold step toward establishing peace with Israel by going to Jerusalem in November 1977 and by receiving Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin at Isma'iliyah the following month. In September 1978, he entered into negotiations with Begin, mediated by US President Carter, at Camp David, Md., where the two Middle East leaders agreed to a framework for a comprehensive settlement of the conflict. Following further negotiations, Sadat signed the Egyptian-Israeli Peace Treaty in Washington, D.C., on 26 March 1979. The treaty provided for the staged withdrawal of Israeli forces from the Sinai, which was completed on schedule by 25 April 1982; set limits on forces and armaments for both sides; established a UN force to supervise the terms of the treaty; and called for full normalization of relations. However, the two nations were unable to agree on the question of autonomy for the Palestinians of the West Bank of the Jordan and in Gaza, as provided for in the Camp David framework. For their roles as peacemakers, Sadat and Begin were jointly awarded the 1978 Nobel Peace Prize. But other Arab leaders denounced the accords and sought to isolate Egypt within the Arab world.
Domestically, Sadat encouraged a shift from Nasser's socialism to greater free-market conditions and some political liberalization, one result of which was an upsurge of activity by religious extremists. In early September 1981, Sadat ordered the arrest of 1,536 Muslims, Christian Copts, leftists, and other persons accused of fomenting violent acts. One month later, on 6 October, Sadat was assassinated in Cairo by four Muslim fundamentalists. The vice president, Muhammad Hosni (Husni) Mubarak, who had been Sadat's closest adviser, succeeded him as president and immediately pledged to continue Sadat's policies, particularly the terms of the peace treaty with Israel. Relations with Israel cooled during 1982, however, especially after Israeli troops moved into Lebanon. In 1986, renewed efforts at normalization of diplomatic relations with Israel led to the resolution in Egypt's favor of a dispute over Taba, a tiny sliver of land, which had not been returned with the rest of the Sinai.
As a result of Arab fears of an Iranian victory over Iraq in their eight-year war (1980–88), Egypt, which has the largest army in the Arab world as well as an important arms industry, was welcomed back into the Arab fold following the Amman Arab summit conference in November 1987. Egypt quickly renewed diplomatic relations with a number of Arab states and in May 1989 ended its isolation by rejoining the Arab League, the headquarters of which returned to Cairo. Mubarak continued Sadat's policies of moderation and peacemaking abroad and gradual political liberalization and movement towards free market reforms at home. In July 1989, he became chairman of the Organization of African Unity for one year. In 1990, Egypt played a key role in the coalition to expel Iraq from Kuwait and in 1993 and 1994 was active in promoting the Israeli-Palestinian peace accord.
Mubarak was reelected president in 1987 and 1993. Parliamentary elections in 1987 were termed the fairest since 1952; 100 members of the opposition were elected to the 458-seat chamber. Opposition political forces, however, had become increasingly disenfranchised over the years and after Mubarak's third election, he conceded to their concerns and announced the government would hold a National Dialogue to hear the grievances of any legal political party. Representatives of the Muslim Brotherhood, an illegal but tolerated political grouping with massive appeal, were not invited. Just before the meeting, the Nasserists and the New World Party announced they would not participate, essentially nullifying the Congress' work.
In 1995, legislative elections were again held, but, unlike the 1990 polling, the opposition parties announced they would not boycott these elections. The elections were held on 29 November and 6 December and the ruling NDP won 316 seats, losing several but retaining a vast majority. Although independents won more than 100 seats, nearly all of them were in reality firmly allied with the NDP. In January 1996, Mubarak replaced the sitting prime minister, Dr. Alif Sidqi, with Kamal Ahmed al-Ganzouri.
The most serious opposition to the Mubarak government comes from outside the political system. Religious parties are banned and, as a consequence, Islamic militants have resorted to violence against the regime, singling out Christian Copts and posing a threat to tourism, a major source of foreign exchange earnings. Starting in the mid-1990s, security forces cracked down hard on the militants, resorting to authoritarian measures, including arbitrary arrest, imprisonment, and torture to subdue the movement. However, it continued to gather strength, fueled by discontent with poor economic conditions, political autocracy, corruption, secularism, and Egypt's ties with the United States and Israel. In November 1997, militants murdered over 70 persons at a popular tourist site in Luxor. It was alleged that Gamma Islamiyya, one of Egypt's Islamic groups, was responsible for the attacks. However, in 1998 and 1999 the number of violent incidents decreased, and the government began releasing some of the jailed members of Islamist groups, said to number 20,000 by that time.
In September 1999, weeks after surviving an assassination attempt, Mubarak was elected to a fourth six-year term as president, running unopposed. Political opponents and Western observers have criticized the ruling NDP's refusal to open up the political system, one result of which, they say, would be to channel some of the political passion now given to outlawed Islamists into legal political parties, who could then use it to create a more open society—thus further marginalizing the extremists. However, the government has refused to implement electoral reforms. In February 2003, the state of emergency first declared in 1981 was renewed for another three years by President Mubarak.
Following the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States, the United States called upon all states to adopt counterterrorism measures. The attacks on the United States gave Egypt a reason for increasing its restrictions on the Islamic opposition, including members of the Muslim Brotherhood and Gamaa Islamiyya. After 11 September, Egyptian authorities referred increasing numbers of cases of Islamic militants to military courts. One of the leaders of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Muhammed Atta, was Egyptian, as is Ayman al-Zawhiri, the leader of Egyptian Islamic Jihad, who appeared with Osama bin Laden in videotapes following 11 September. The high-profile positions of these Egyptians in the al-Qaeda organization caused some to place increased scrutiny on Egypt's ability to control Islamic extremism.
Following the increase in violence in Israel and the West Bank and Gaza Strip in early 2002, and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's sequestration of Yasser Arafat in his Ramallah headquarters, Egypt in April downgraded its relations with Israel, restricting its contacts to those who "serve the Palestinian cause." At an Arab League summit that March, Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Abdullah introduced a peace proposal for Israel and the Palestinians, offering Israel normalized relations with the Arab states and a guarantee of peace and security in exchange for a full Israeli withdrawal from the territories occupied by Israel after the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, a "just solution to the Palestinian refugee problem," and Israeli recognition of a Palestinian state with its capital at East Jerusalem. Mubarak stated he supported the Saudi proposal. However, Egypt's role as the leader of the Arab world was seen to have been jeopardized. Mubarak's relationship with US President Bush were regarded as chilly, irrespective of the fact that Egypt receives US$2 billion annually in civilian and military aid from the United States, and that Egypt remains a key ally for the United States in the Arab and Muslim worlds.
In February 2003, Mubarak invited newly reelected Israeli Prime Minister Sharon to Cairo for talks on restarting the Middle East peace process. It would have been the first visit by Sharon to an Arab leader since he took office in February 2001. Prior to the US-led war on Iraq in March, Mubarak had warned that unless Iraq complied with UN resolution 1441 passed on 8 November 2002, calling on Iraq to immediately disarm itself of weapons of mass destruction, to allow the reintroduction of UN and International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) weapons inspectors, and to comply with all previous UN resolutions regarding the country since the end of the Persian Gulf War in 1991, it would be attacked. Although official Egyptian statements were critical of Iraq, Mubarak had met with Arab leaders to discuss ways to avoid war.