The People

Nearly 50 million Egyptians live in this flat, hot, dry land the size of Texas, Oklahoma and Arkansas combined. Most of them are crowded into a fertile strip along the Nile River and its delta. In greater Cairo, the seventeenth largest city in the world, population density is an astounding 27,092 people per square kilometer. Egypt‘s population is growing at a rate of 2.52 percent per year; almost half of Egyptian woman are in their childbearing years, marriage is nearly universal and contraception was practiced by only 24 percent of couples in 1982. Egypt is also becoming increasingly urban. By 1976 one third of its people lived in cities of over 100,000.

Almost all Egyptians are of the same Arab ethnic background and are Sunni Muslims. (Shi‘i Islam is not officially recognized.) Four percent are from minority ethnic groups (Nubians, bedouin and others) and seven percent from other religions (Coptic, Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant Christian groups).

The Land

Egypt’s land can be described simply as two deserts and a river. The great Nile River brings waters from equatorial Africa northward through 935 miles of Egypt before emptying into the Mediterranean. Until irrigation systems were built in the 1960s, the Nile’s annual floods deposited silt to enrich the land along its valley. Only the narrow strip of irrigated land along the Nile, a rain-fed slice of the Mediterranean coast, and a few scattered oases — less than three percent of Egypt’s area — are cultivated. The rest is desert.


Less than half of Egyptians can read and write. Literacy was 44 percent overall in 1981, but the rate is much lower for women and girls, reflecting their second-class status in Egyptian society. Although education is compulsory until age 12 and free through university, only about 88 percent of all boys and 56 percent of all girls go to primary school, and only about half of these children go on to secondary school. Still, Egypt has 500,000 university students — more than any other Arab country.


Egyptian health care has been slowly improving, but the demands of a rapidly growing population make progress difficult. In the 1950s, an Egyptian could expect to live only about 41 years on average, while by the mid-1980s life expectancy was up to nearly 58. But Egypt’s infant mortality rate — a key measure of health conditions — is still 100 out of every 1,000 babies born. And there is only one doctor for every 770 people. The distribution of medical services is also quite unequal: rich urban neighborhoods have patient-doctor ratios comparable to the West, while impoverished quarters and rural areas lack even basic services. Only one out of every four Egyptians has access to safe, clean drinking water, and a study done in the early 1980s showed that less than half of city people and only 10 percent of those in the countryside had adequate sanitation services (indoor toilets or outdoor pit privies). Many Egyptians, especially in the countryside, are extremely poor, but government subsidies on bread and flour have until now made starvation virtually unknown.

Work, Wealth, Poverty

The government dominates the economy through a public sector which controls virtually all industry and employed 28 percent of the labor force in 1983. Agriculture employed 40 percent of the labor force in 1983; 20 percent worked in industry (textile mills, iron and steel, consumer goods) and 40 percent in services. But labor force statistics include only a little over half of all those of working age; peasant and poor urban women, who are important producers, are not counted. Egypt’s GNP in 1984-1985 was some $30.3 billion, of which 19 percent came from agriculture, 31 percent from industry and 45 percent from services. Per capita income in that year was $721, ranking it among the poorest one-third in the world.

The 1967 Arab-Israeli war devastated Egypt’s economy. Israel had captured its oil wells in Sinai and closed the Suez Canal and Egypt diverted government spending into a war economy. In 1973, after a partial victory against Israel, Sadat initiated his economic infitah (opening) to attract foreign investment, and the oil boom in the Gulf sent millions of Egyptians there to work. The money they sent home rose from $128 million in 1973 to $2.1 billion in 1981-2 by official estimates. By the 1980s, the oil boom had faded, remittances fell and Egypt’s economy faced a crisis worsened by a balance of payments deficit, a debt of nearly $40 billion by 1987, and the need to import huge amounts of food to feed its increasing population.


4000 BC Oldest archaeological records of ancient Egyptian civilization.
341 BC Last native dynasty falls to the Persians, who are in turn replaced by Greeks, Romans, Byzantines and Arabs (who introduced Arabic and Islam).
1250 Mamluk empire rules Egypt.
1517 Ottoman Turks control Egypt.
1798 Napoleon leads French invasion.
1882 Britain occupies Egypt.
1914-1922 British protectorate.
1936 Treaty strengthens Egyptian autonomy, but Britain retains effective control.
1940-42 Britain fights Italy and Germany from Egypt.
1948 Egypt joins war against Israel.
1951 Egypt abrogates 1936 treaty.
1952 July 23 revolution led by Free Officers forces King Faruq to abdicate.
1953 Egyptian Republic proclaimed June 18 under President Maj. Gen. Muhammad Naguib.
1954 Lt. Col Gamal Abdel Nasser deposes Naguib and becomes premier.
1956 Nasir elected president. Suez War with Israel, Britain and France. Women gain the right to vote.
1961 Eighty percent of Egyptian industry nationalized.
1967 Arab-Israeli War. Israel captures Sinai Peninsula and Gaza Strip.
1970 Nasser dies. Anwar al-Sadat becomes president.
1971 Aswan High Dam project, begun in 1960, is completed; provides water to irrigate more than a million acres of land.
1972 Sadat orders 20,000 Soviet military advisers and personnel to leave Egypt.
1973 October War with Israel. Egyptian surprise attack, partial victory.
1974 Infitah policy of economic opening to the West begins.
1977 Bread riots in Cairo. Sadat visits Jerusalem in November.
1981 Sadat crackdown on Islamists and other opposition forces; Islamist militants assassinate him October 6. Husni Mubarak assumes presidency October 14.
1985 US intercepts Egyptian airliner carrying hijackers of the Achille Lauro.
1986 Security police conscripts riot in Cairo; over 100 killed, 700 injured.

Sources: Middle East Research Institute, University of Pennsylvania, Egypt (Dover, New Hampshire: Croom Helm, 1985); EIU Regional Review: The Middle East and North Africa, 1986 (London, Economist Publications, 1986); World Resources Institute, World Resources 1986 (New York: Basic Books, 1986); World Bank; Richard Adams, Development and Social Change in Rural Egypt (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1986); Joel Beinin, Alan Richards, “Egypt,” Colliers Encyclopedia (forthcoming); The World Almanac and Book of Facts, 1987.

How to cite this article:

Martha Wenger "Egypt: A Primer," Middle East Report 147 (July/August 1987).

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