Culture Name

Egyptian; Arab Egyptian; Arab

Alternative Names

Official name: Arab Republic of Egypt

Previously: The United Arab Republic. Before 1952: The Egyptian Kingdom


Identification. Egypt is the internationally used name but not the name used by the people of the country. It derives from the Greek Aegyptos, which in turn probably comes from ancient Egyptian words referring to the land ( Hut-ka-ptah, or "house of the essence [ka] of Ptah," a local god). Western names derive from this, as does the word "Copt" (in Arabic, qibt ). "Copt" can be taken to mean "Egyptian" in general, but now commonly means an Egyptian Christian, technically one belonging to the majority Coptic Church.

In Arabic, the name is Misr. This name is older than the Muslim conquest, but is attested to in the Koran. It can refer to either the whole country or the capital city. The name itself is an icon, spoken, written, or sung.

The population of Egypt is relatively homogeneous. The overwhelming majority (over 90 percent) are Arabic-speaking Sunni Muslims. About 6 percent are Christians, who are indistinguishable in other respects from the Muslims. Most of the Christians belong to the Coptic Orthodox Church, the historic church of Egypt, but minorities within the minority are Catholic or Protestant, or derive from the churches of the Levant (Maronite, Greek Orthodox, Greek Catholic). There are a few small linguistic minorities, of which the largest is the Nubians, who speak two Nubian languages (Kenuz and Mahas) related to the Nilo-Saharan languages of the Sudan. They represent less than 1 percent of Egypt's population, and are concentrated around Aswan. Other linguistic minorities include a few thousand Berber speakers in Siwa oasis, the easternmost outpost of Berber speech, and the small population of Beja (Ababda and Bisharin) in the eastern desert east of Aswan. All these groups are Muslim. There are also urban linguistic enclaves of Armenians, Greeks, Italians, and others. Another urban enclave was the Jews, now largely emigrated, who spoke either Arabic or various European languages. The urban minorities were much larger before the middle of the twentieth century.

Location and Geography. Egypt has an area of 385,229 square miles (1,001,000 square kilometers). The country is separated from its neighbors by either ocean or sparsely populated desert. To the north is the Mediterranean Sea, and to the east the Red Sea. Egypt is separated from Libya and North Africa by the western desert, from Palestine and Israel by the desert of the Sinai Peninsula, and from the centers of population in the Sudan by desert except along the narrow Nile River. Among the major geographical features of Egypt are the Nile River and the Suez Canal, which joins the Red Sea and the Mediterranean Sea, and also separates Egypt proper from Sinai. The highest point is Mount Catherine in the Sinai, at 8,743 feet (2,665 meters).

Egypt is the gift of the Nile. Rainfall is not adequate to sustain agriculture or a settled population, and water instead comes from the Nile. The Nile rises far to the south of Egypt, in Ethiopia and in the drainage basin of Lake Victoria. It reaches Egypt in Lake Nasser, behind the Aswān High Dam. After the dam, the Nile continues to flow north in a single channel paralleled by irrigation canals until it reaches Cairo, 550 miles (860 kilometers) away. North of Cairo, the Nile Delta begins. The Nile breaks into two main channels, the western Rosetta branch and the eastern Damietta branch, for the final 120 miles (200 kilometers) before the water reaches the Mediterranean. The two main regions of

Egypt are thus the Valley, or Sa'id, in the south, and the Delta in the north, separated by Cairo at the apex of the Delta.

The Nile receives about 85 percent of its water from the Ethiopian highlands. Before the construction of dams and barrages, floodwaters would spill out of the river's banks and, channeled by sluices and dikes, cover most of the agricultural land. Egyptians then practiced a form of recession agriculture, planting winter crops in the mud left behind by the receding river.

In the twentieth century, people have increased their control of the river. This culminated in the construction of the Aswān High Dam, completed in 1971 but which first held back the floodwaters in 1964. Control of the Nile has made it possible to cultivate year round. On average, there are two crops a year.

About 96 percent of Egypt's population lives in the Nile Valley, which comprises about 4 percent of the area of the country; most of the economic and social activity occurs there. The rest of the country is desert. This includes the scrub desert along the Mediterranean coast between the Nile Delta and Libya, and along the north coast of the Sinai Peninsula; the mountainous desert between the Nile Valley and the Red Sea; and the western desert west of the Nile Valley. Rainfall in these areas is rare to nonexistent. Only the Mediterranean coast has rain that is reliable enough to support marginal human activity, with some agriculture and animal husbandry. The Western Desert has five oases that support a settled population and serve as communication centers (Khārga, Dakhla, Farafra, Baharīya, and Siwa). There are smaller oases in the Sinai peninsula (Firan), and even in the arid Eastern desert there are occasional springs, two of which provide water to Christian monasteries.

It is an article of faith in contemporary Egypt that agriculture and settled life should spread beyond the confines of the Nile Valley. Major efforts have been made to "reclaim" land on the fringes of the Nile Valley, particularly east and west of the Delta. Over a million acres have been reclaimed since the middle of the twentieth century. Recent discovery of fossil underground water in the extreme southwest corner of Egypt is leading to the development of irrigated agriculture in that area.

Demography. At the end of 1996, the total population of Egypt was 65,200,000, of whom about 1,900,000 were considered to be living abroad temporarily, presumably mostly in the oil countries of the Arab Gulf but also including some in the West. The 1996 population represented a 21.7 percent increase over the 1986 population. The annual growth rate was calculated at 2.1 percent, down from 2.8 percent in the period of 1976–1986. The lower growth rate was also reflected in the figure for those under 15 years of age, which was 35 percent of the overall population in 1996 as against 38.8 percent in 1986. Egypt's population is predicted to double between 1996 and 2029. According to the Egyptian Human Development Report 1997-98 , life expectancy at birth in Egypt was 66.7 years, up from 55 in 1976. Infant mortality was 29 per 1,000 live births in 1996. The total fertility rate was 3.3 in 1997, with urban areas quite a bit lower than rural areas. Just over one-third of the population was below a poverty line based on consumption needs, calculated by the Egyptian government.

Males were 51.2 percent of the total population, contrary to the demographic norm that postulates more women than men. Egypt is part of a broad band of countries, extending east to Korea, where there are "missing women."

People fill the street in a Cairo market.
People fill the street in a Cairo market.

The level of education is increasing; those over the age of ten who were literate increased from 50.4 percent in 1986 to 61.4 percent in 1996. Figures for graduates from different levels of education also grew—those holding a higher education degree increased from 4.3 percent in 1986 to 7.3 percent in 1996. The rural population was 57 percent in 1996, compared to 56 percent in 1986, but this includes some people living in settlements of 20,000 or more. A settlement is defined as urban according to its administrative function.

Linguistic Affiliation. Egypt is part of the Arabic speech community of about 250 million people, spread from Morocco to Oman. Arabic is a branch of the Semitic languages, which in turn belongs to the Afro-Asiatic language family together with Berber, Ancient Egyptian, Chadic, and Cushitic. Egypt became Arabic-speaking as a result of the Muslim conquest in the seventh century, though the full replacement of the earlier languages took several centuries. In Egypt, as elsewhere in the Arab world, the Arabic language is characterized by diglossia. That is, there is a substantial difference between the written language, influenced by the Koran, and the spoken language. There are some regional dialects in Egypt, notably the speech of Upper Egypt, but nothing that prevents understanding.

Radio and television impose the Cairo-spoken language as the standard dialect of Egypt. Egyptian cultural influence is transmitted to the rest of the Arabic-speaking world in the Cairo dialect. English is the most common foreign language spoken in Egypt, followed by French.

Symbolism. The dominant symbols in the formal and semiformal sphere derive mainly from aspects of Egypt's history, especially the Pharaonic and Islamic periods.

The three Giza pyramids (sometimes together with the Great Sphinx) represent the most important and obvious visual symbol of the Egyptian nation. It is the most widespread "postcard" image, and also the title of the major daily newspaper Al-Ahram (with the three pyramids on the top of the front page). The symbol of Egypt Air, the national airline, is Horus, a figure from ancient Egyptian religion represented as a falcon.

Other symbols derive from the country's Islamic heritage. The nineteenth-century Mohammed Ali mosque built on top of a medieval citadel is visible from different parts of Cairo. Of more architectural significance are the Ibn Tulun and Sultan Hassan mosques in Cairo and the Qaitbey mausoleum and school in the northern cemetery.

One important symbol is derived from the country's geography: the Nile River. The Nile is invoked in different contexts, each representing a facet of the country's identity or prevalent themes of the culture. It is associated with immortality, romance, or glory (the construction of the high dam). In recent years, Nile cruises have become a favored tourist attraction, and "cleaning up the Nile" has become an environmental slogan.

The flag is an abstract tricolor, with black standing for the past of oppression, red for sacrifice, and white for the future. A centerpiece of a falcon completes the design. Reflecting a sense of Arab unity, the flags of several other Arab countries have the same colors. The current national anthem is the music of the song "Biladi" (meaning "My Country"), a patriotic song that was popular during the 1919 uprising against the British occupation.

History and Ethnic Relations

Emergence of the Nation. The land of Egypt has a distinctiveness within the region because of the development of major civilizations in the Nile Valley, sometimes phrased as seven thousand years of civilization. After the Pharaonic and Greco-Roman periods, Christianity came to Egypt. For several centuries Egypt was essentially a Christian country. The Muslim conquest in the seventh century C . E . brought a new force, but it was some time before there was a Muslim majority in Egypt. In the sixteenth century, Egypt became part of the Ottoman Empire, ruled from Constantinople (now Istanbul). On the eve of modernization, Napoleon and the French army conquered Egypt in 1798, and remained through 1801. Many writers identify this period of three years as a major turning point in Egyptian cultural history, while others argue that the process began earlier and lasted longer.

Shortly after the British expelled the French from Egypt in 1801, the Ottoman military leader Muhammad 'Alī Pasha and his troops took over in 1805. Muhammad 'Alī Pasha remained the ruler of Egypt until his death in 1849, and his descendants continued as the rulers until the overthrow of the monarchy in 1952.

The British occupied Egypt in 1882, working under the nominal authority of the descendants of Muhammad 'Alī Pasha. In 1919, in the aftermath of World War I, unrest aiming at Egyptian independence began. The main nationalist political party, the Wafd, was created that year. The agitation resulted in the recognition of Egypt's independence in 1922 and the establishment of a constitution in 1923. This amounted to internal self-government under King Fu'ād, with an elected parliament and a prime minister. In 1936 and 1937 further treaties with the United Kingdom led to international recognition of Egypt's independence, and it joined the League of Nations in 1937. Egypt was the scene of major battles in World War II, and the country formally joined the war in its last year, 1945. At this time, Egypt also joined the United Nations and helped found the Arab League.

In 1952 the "Free Officers" from the Egyptian army forced King Farouk, son of King Fu'ād, to abdicate. A year later the monarchy was abolished and a republic established. Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser emerged as the strongman of the new regime, and he became president in 1954. The new regime initiated many new social policies in Egypt. This was a genuine revolution that shared power and wealth more equally with all elements of the population and encouraged education for the masses. From a cultural point of view, the new regime released Egyptians from the feeling of oppression due to foreign rule, and allowed for the flowering of an unencumbered Egyptian identity, making it possible to be both modern and Egyptian. This was also the period of maximum Egyptian involvement in warfare. The most devastating moment came with the defeat of

A pile of pottery water jugs in Luxor Village along the Nile River. Irrigation is central to Egyptian agriculture and water is supplied by the government.
A pile of pottery water jugs in Luxor Village along the Nile River. Irrigation is central to Egyptian agriculture and water is supplied by the government.
Egypt by Israel in the Six-Day War in 1967; the Israeli army overran the remainder of Palestine and occupied the Sinai Peninsula.

Anwar el-Sadat became president after Nasser died in 1970. After the fourth war against Israel in 1973, Sadat moved to make peace and to recover the Sinai. Under Sadat, too, many of the social reforms of the Nasser period were frozen or reversed. Sadat was assassinated in 1981 and was succeeded by his vice president, Hosni Mubarak, who was elected for a fourth six-year term in September 1999. To date, all four of Egypt's presidents have been military men.

National Identity. Unlike many third-world countries, Egypt does not have a clear moment when it became "independent." Instead there was a process beginning with the anti-British movement of 1919 and the constitution of 1923, and continuing through international recognition in 1937 and the departure of the last British soldier in 1956. Arguably the process continues still, as Egypt deals with the meaning of an Egyptian identity and national independence in a globalizing world dominated economically and culturally by the United States.

Ethnic Relations. The main issue in ethnic identity arises not within the nation, but in terms of the nation being part of the wider Arab world. People debate whether being Egyptian or being Arab is more important. The Arab world is tied together by shared language and culture, including shared Islamic values and practices, and by a sense of shared political problems—even when countries and people take different positions, they focus on the same problems. Arab unity is concretized in the Arab League, whose headquarters is in Cairo.

Urbanism, Architecture, and the Use of Space

Villages and cities are the two major settlement types. There has been, however, an increasing overlap in social and economic functions which, in turn, manifests itself in an increasing blurring of distinctions regarding architectural features of both city and village.

Villages consist of a core residential area surrounded by fields, and agricultural land. The core consists of contiguous one-story mud-brick houses built along narrow dirt roads. The houses incorporate a stable for the farm animals. Owning a cow or a water buffalo represents a high investment, and since animal theft is feared, farmers are keen to keep their animals closely supervised. Rooftops are used for storage of dung cakes or straw, for ovens and mud granaries, or to keep chickens or rabbits.

Since the mid-1970s the mud-brick houses have progressively been replaced by houses made of fired bricks, and growing population and prosperity have led to an expansion of the built-up surface of the village. Red-brick houses are healthier, provide more amenities, and are more practical for modern life, though they are more expensive and less adapted to the climate. People can build them several stories high, which uses less of the scarce agricultural land.

The money earned by migrants to oil-rich countries was mainly used to build new houses based on urban models. Urban Egyptians generally decried this transformation of the village-scape as a blind emulation of urban lifestyles, and a change for the worse in the peasant character. This alarmed reaction from urban middle-class voices underscores an important aspect of rural-urban relations and perceptions where the "traditional village" is seen as the locus of authenticity and reservoir of tradition of the Egyptian nation.

Each village has at least one mosque. The mosque is communal and public for men. Many of the mosques are collectively built by the villagers themselves. Another public space is the guest house, which is usually a large hall built and used collectively by an extended family. Here mourners receive condolences, and well-wishers extend congratulations for returning pilgrims. Again, guest houses represent mainly male space. Churches often include a space for social gatherings of a family or religious nature. Both women and men actively participate in the marketplace. Weekly markets in big villages or district towns are both a place where commodities are traded and an important social arena where people exchange news and maintain social relationships.

The urban character of the national culture is most apparent in the two major cities: Cairo and Alexandria. One aspect of the political culture is a centralized bureaucracy. This feature manifests itself in a huge government building that dominates Cairo's main square. This building houses various government departments that handle bureaucratic dealings with the public from all over the country. Government buildings are more functional than beautiful.

The architecture and layout of Cairo reflect the various epochs of its history. Very roughly, old Cairo is the medieval part, the heart of popular Cairo, and also where the Islamic and Coptic monuments are. The modern city center was built in the nineteenth century and was modeled after Paris.

Cairo is a continuously expanding city, and numerous squatter settlements are built on the outskirts. These squatter areas have poor water and sewage connections, and lack services such as schools, clinics, and police.

Urban Egyptians usually live in rented apartments. Individual houses are rare. One of the reforms of socialism was to establish a form of rent control that kept rentals low. Newer apartments, however, are not under rent control, and rents are much higher. Some people own apartments in a condominium-like arrangement. Occasionally an extended family may own an entire building and make the apartments available to its members. In the 1980s and 1990s living conditions in urban areas improved, albeit unequally, and such amenities as telephones, television, and air conditioning became more common. Nationwide 73.5 percent of households are connected to the potable water system, and 95.7 percent to the electrical system.

Egypt is crowded. The built-up areas of villages have very high population densities. People have largely accommodated to this forced proximity. In older parts of Cairo the streets are sinuous with many dead ends, while in newer parts, where the building pattern follows the lines of long narrow fields, the streets are themselves long and narrow. Despite or because of the crowding, there is segregation by gender. For example, there are often two different queues for men and for women, and often separate cars for women on trains.

Residential and urban areas, as well as agricultural zones, are spreading into the desert. There has been considerable increase in the use of the coastline, initially by foreign tourists and now increasingly as a vacation area for the Egyptian elite. The tradition of going to the Mediterranean towns in the summer is older, but now some people are exploring areas further afield, particularly along the Sinai coast and on the western shore of the Red Sea.

Food and Economy

Food in Daily Life. Eating is an important social activity, and is central to marking special events and ceremonial occasions.

The most important food item in daily life is the bread loaf. In rural areas, bread is usually baked by women in mud ovens at home. In cities, bread is sold in bakeries. The standard loaf is strictly regulated by the government in terms of weight and

People taking the local ferry in Aswān, Egypt.
People taking the local ferry in Aswān, Egypt.
price, and is one of the very few items that still receives a state subsidy.

The indigenous cuisine relies heavily on legumes. The main national dish is foul . This is a dish of fava beans cooked slowly over low heat and seasoned with salt, lemon, cumin, and oil. It is usually eaten for breakfast. Another common dish is tamiyya or falafel which is made from crushed fava beans mixed with onions and leeks and fried in oil. Also popular is koshari , a mixture of rice, black lentils, and macaroni covered with tomato sauce and garnished with fried onions. These dishes are prepared at home, but are also sold in stalls all over Cairo.

The level of consumption of animal protein depends almost entirely on wealth (and is itself a sign of wealth). Well-to-do households eat animal protein (beef, lamb, poultry, or fish) every day. Muslims do not eat pork. Less-affluent families eat animal protein once a week or even once a month.

Restaurants are widespread all over the country. They vary from stalls selling traditional street food to posh restaurants serving international cuisine.

One main distinction between traditional, usually rural, and urban middle-class eating habits concerns the seating and service of food. In villages, people sit on a carpet, and food is placed on a very low round wooden table. Each person has a spoon, and everyone eats directly from the service dish. In cities, people sit on chairs around Western-style dining tables. Each person has his or her own plate, spoon, fork, and knife. In rural areas, the main meal is after dark; in the urban areas it is often in late afternoon after office workers return home.

Food Customs at Ceremonial Occasions. Several Muslim feasts are marked by special meals. The 'Id al-Adha, which celebrates Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son (who is then miraculously turned into a ram), requires those who can afford it to sacrifice a ram. Part of the animal is distributed to the poor and part consumed by members of the household.

The 'Id al-Fitr after the fast of Ramadan is celebrated by baking special cookies ( kahk ) which are later sprinkled with powdered sugar. These cookies are usually offered to guests who bring the greetings of the feast.

The Prophet's Birthday, which marks the birth of the prophet Muhammad, is celebrated by the consumption of halawet al-mulid, which is a variety of sweets cooked with different types of nuts. Children are given dolls (girls) or horses (boys) made entirely of sugar and decorated with colored paper.

On the eve of both Christmas day and Easter day, Orthodox Copts break their fast with a variety of dishes made of beef and poultry. One of the main food items that marks the feast are cookies similar to those prepared for the 'Id al-Fitr. Sham al-Nassim (Easter Monday) is mainly marked by a breakfast of salted fish, spring onion, lettuce, and colored eggs, which is consumed outdoors in gardens and open areas. This festival is celebrated nationwide in practically all regions and by all social classes. It is the ancient Egyptian spring and harvest festival.

Fasting is seen as a spiritual exercise by both Muslims and Christians. The Muslim fast entails abstaining from food and drink from sunrise to sundown, notably during the lunar month of Ramadan (either twenty-nine or thirty days). Some particularly devout Muslims also fast on other days in the Islamic calendar, such as the days celebrating the birth of the prophet Muhammad or his miraculous "Night Journey," the days representing the middle of the lunar month (days thirteen, fourteen, and fifteen), or each Monday and Thursday. The result is that nearly half the days in the year can be considered fasting days by some. Virtually all Egyptian Muslims fast during Ramadan, while the voluntary fasts are followed by a smaller number.

The number of days that Egyptian Christians can theoretically fast is even larger. The number is variable, but it includes over 200 days a year, mostly in the periods leading up to Christmas and Easter, plus the Wednesdays and Fridays of each week outside the fasting periods. Christian fasting means avoiding meat, fish, eggs, milk, butter, and cheese. In the Christian tradition, one theme of fasting is the domination of the body and of emotions by the mind in order to reach a greater purity.

Basic Economy. About 25 percent of the gross domestic product comes from industry and about 18 percent from agriculture. The remaining 57 percent includes all other activities, primarily services, including tourism, and the "informal sector" (small-scale enterprises that often escape government supervision). There is also an extensive network of banks and a major construction industry. A stock market on which about thirty stocks are traded emerged in the 1990s.

Egypt is a rich agricultural country, with some of the highest yields per unit of land in the world. The main crops are cotton, sugarcane, wheat, maize, and fava beans with substantial areas given over to fruit orchards (primarily citrus) and to vegetables. Livestock (cattle, water buffalo, sheep, and goats) is also important and some land is used to grow fodder crops for these animals. There are two crops a year on average. Individual farmers try to be self-sufficient in certain crops such as wheat, but on the whole they market what they grow and procure their own food also from the market.

Elaborate market networks composed of small-scale traders purchase food crops and trade them into the urban areas, or sometimes between rural areas. On the whole, the marketing sector is characterized by a plethora of small units, although a few large-scale trading companies operate. Being too small to bargain on price, farmers have to accept the trader's offer.

The main inputs to agriculture are land, water, and labor. Land is generally owned by private individuals in small holdings, with an average of about 2.5 acres (1 hectare). From 1952 to 1997 tenancies were guaranteed (those renting farmland could not be expelled except under rare conditions), but this guarantee was repealed in 1997. By that year, rented land covered about one-sixth of the farmland, and tenants tended to be poorer than farmers who were also owners. Nevertheless, tenants had learned to treat farmland as if they owned it, and after 1997 had to adjust to higher rents or the loss of the land.

Irrigation is central to Egyptian agriculture, and water is supplied by the government to the farmer through a network of canals. Payment for water is indirect, through the land tax paid by the larger farmers. Water is perceived to be free, and the government continues to support the policy that water should be provided free to farmers. Since farmers must lift the water from the canals to their fields they do incur a cost.

Farm labor is primarily family labor, based on the rural family household. The head of this household mobilizes labor from his family, but may also hire outside labor from time to time, particularly for tasks that require a large group working together. Egyptian agriculture tends to be labor-intensive and indeed could better be described as gardening.

Many members of these rural households work as agricultural laborers or outside agriculture, and it is probable that many of these households would not survive without the income from this work. The most common off-farm sources of income are government work (as teachers, clerks, or guards), private business (trucking agricultural goods or trading), and factory work.

A man collecting water from the Dakhla Oasis. Payment for water use is indirect, with fees generated as a land tax by larger farmers.
A man collecting water from the Dakhla Oasis. Payment for water use is indirect, with fees generated as a land tax by larger farmers.

In Egyptian agriculture, the tasks that can be done by a tractor (e.g., plowing, hauling) or a water pump are mechanized. Other tasks (e.g., planting, weeding, harvesting) are still done by hand. Since most farmers cannot afford to own machinery, they rent it as they need it. On the whole, tractors and pumps are owned by the richer farmers who rent out their excess capacity.

Major Industries. Egypt is a relatively industrialized country, especially in textiles and garment manufacture, cement, metal works of various kinds, and armaments. Various makes of automobile are assembled in Egypt. In the second half of the twentieth century, many of these industries were government-owned. At the end of the twentieth century, they were in the process of being privatized. There are also many small private workshops producing shoes, door frames, furniture, clothing, aluminum pots, and similar items for local consumption.

Trade. Egypt tends to import more than it exports. Imports include consumer goods, including food, and raw material for industry; exports are largely agricultural products and services. A major Egyptian export consists of workers who labor outside the country but who send money back home.

Social Stratification

Classes and Castes. In Egypt there is an enormous gap between the very wealthy and the very poor. The culture also encourages deference of the weak, poor, or subaltern to the rich and powerful, in terms of speech, posture, and acquiescence. The differences among individuals and families in Egypt can be represented by income level or source of income. They can also be represented in choices of consumption style—housing, transport, dress, language, education, music, and the like. Marriage negotiations bring all these differences of taste and income to the forefront. What is less evident in Egypt is a strong class consciousness that might turn potential classes into real ones. One finds only broad and loose categories that are the subject of much public discussion.

The increasing prosperity of Egypt means that the middle class is increasing in relative size, while the gap between the top and the bottom is increasing. One-third of the population is below a poverty line established by the Egyptian government. The growing middle class aspires to a home, a car, and marriage and family life, and increasingly is able to achieve this.

Political Life

Government. Egypt has had a republican form of government since the overthrow of the monarchy in 1952. The government is headed by a president elected for six years. The president designates a prime minister and a council of ministers. The Parliament is elected for five years from 222 constituencies, each of which elects one person to represent workers and peasants and one other. In addition, the president nominates up to ten others to provide representation to groups that might not otherwise be represented in Parliament. In recent years this has allowed the president to nominate leaders of parties that did not win any seats; Christians, who are rarely elected; and women. In addition, there is a kind of upper house, the Consultative Council, which is two-thirds elected and one-third appointed, and which is supposed to provide for more reflective debate on fundamental issues. Through the minister of interior, the president also names governors for the twenty-six governorates of Egypt. Elected councils function at the local level.

Egypt is a "dominant party" system in which one party regularly controls an enormous majority in Parliament. This dominant party is the National Democratic Party (NDP), which represents the political establishment. There are fourteen other parties, only a few of which have ever been represented in Parliament. These include the Wafd party, heir to the tradition of the struggle for national independence in the 1920s and 1930s, and with a procapitalist orientation; the Socialist Labor Party, heavily dominated by Islamic-oriented leaders; the Progressive Party, heir to the Egyptian leftist tradition; and the Liberal Party.

Relatively few women are elected to Parliament, though there are always some. In the late 1970s seats were set aside for women, and this increased their number, but this provision was later ruled unconstitutional. Usually there are a few women ministers. One of the key roles for women in the current political system is the role of the wife of the president. The current "first lady" has taken on a role of organizing campaigns for literacy and health in support of the government's policies.

The extraparliamentary opposition is the Islamic movement, which is not a single movement. Since specifically religious parties, Muslim or Christian, are prohibited, politically active Muslim militants must either join another party, which many do, or remain outside the formal process, which others do. There is a sense in which the main political struggle in Egypt is between the secularists of the NDP, linked to the world of business and the high administration, and the values represented by one or another version of the Islamic trend, representing the "opposition."

In villages and urban neighborhoods there are elected councils that manage zoning, garbage collection, and some public-interest construction, such as a new water system. These local councils work in tandem with local representatives of the different ministries (such as interior, health, or agriculture) to carry out their tasks.

Social Problems and Control. Street crime is relatively rare in Egypt. Most crimes reported in the press are either family dramas or con games of one kind or another. Drugs are illegal, though present, in Egypt, and the users tend to be discreet.

Despite the visible presence of traffic police and police guards in areas where there are foreigners, there are also large areas of Cairo, and many villages, with no police presence at all. People are thus thrown back on their own resources to settle disputes, and there are well-known techniques of intervention (to break up fistfights) and of mediation for more complicated disputes. Even the police often act as mediators rather than prosecutors. In rural Upper Egypt in particular, disputes between extended families over property and power can develop into feuds.

Social control appears to be maintained by a combination of strong values, expressed as Islamic, and by the constant presence of witnesses due to crowded streets and apartments. Anonymity in large Egyptian cities, let alone in villages, is nearly impossible. Perhaps another way to express the same point is to say that Cairo is a village of fifteen million people.

Military Activity. Egypt fought many wars in the second half of the twentieth century, mostly with Israel: around the creation of Israel in 1947–1949; over the nationalization of the Suez Canal Company and the "tripartite aggression" of Israel, France, and the United Kingdom in 1956; the Six-Day War in 1967; the war of attrition in the early 1970s; and the October War of 1973. In addition, Egypt was involved in the Yemeni civil war in the 1960s, when Saudi Arabia was involved on the other side, and contributed troops to the allies who confronted Iraq over the invasion of Kuwait in 1990–1991. Egypt suffered considerable loss of life in the wars with Israel between 1947 and 1973, so the situation since then seems more peaceful.

Social Welfare and Change Programs

Egyptian citizens are entitled to free education and health care, in addition to employment guarantees for graduates. Services are poor, however, and there are many hidden costs, such as time spent waiting. The transition from socialism to the market system has left the majority of the population without a real safety net. Part of the social policy includes efforts to restructure welfare, and to help unemployed youth set up their own businesses. Attempts are underway to establish national health insurance and social security systems.

Nongovernment efforts in the area of welfare are sporadic. There is an increasing return to philanthropy in a traditional sense of charity and patronage, in addition to some community-based foundations and associations that provide services.

Islamist groups have been active in providing services in poor areas, particularly in health care and educational services. This was the main source for their popularity in the past decade. With government restrictions on Islamist groups, however, such activity has been considerably curtailed.

Nongovernmental Organizations and Other Associations

Egypt has a long tradition of voluntary associations. Currently there are over fourteen thousand associations, most of which are devoted to charitable purposes. They are mostly small and local, and none has a mass membership. After 1964, the associations were governed by a law that stipulated fairly close governmental control. A new law allowing somewhat more flexibility was passed in 1999 but was declared unconstitutional a year later, so the older law continues to apply. This law was contested by many environmental and human rights associations, because it appeared to prevent them from taking political positions.

The main national associations are the professional syndicates for doctors, lawyers, teachers, agricultural officials, and others. They lobby for their members, and also sometimes play a role on the political scene. Their internal politics tends to be a reflection of national politics, with the main competition between the NDP and the Islamists. The professional syndicates are also governed by restrictive laws, and are periodically suspended by the government for infringing these restrictions.

People wait outside a spice shop in Khan el-Khalili. Business queues are often separated by gender.
People wait outside a spice shop in Khan el-Khalili. Business queues are often separated by gender.

Gender Roles and Statuses

Division of Labor by Gender. Household work and child rearing are almost exclusively women's responsibility. Women also contribute significantly to productive work outside the home, especially in cities. But since the majority of women work in the informal sector, the size of their contribution is often underestimated. In rural areas, women work in the fields in most regions. In addition, women's household responsibilities in villages involve many productive and profitable activities, although they are not generally recognized as "work." These activities include caring for animals and processing dairy products. Women may also take part in some stages of preparing crops for market.

The Relative Status of Women and Men. In general, men and women have equal legal rights. But equality is not determined only by law. For example, the principle of equal pay applies only in the formal sector. Women working in the informal sector are often paid less than men. Women do not have the same legal rights as men in the domain of personal status (marriage, divorce, child custody). Only Egyptian men have the right to pass on Egyptian nationality to their children. Various feminist and human rights groups, however, are active in promoting legal change in areas of discrimination against women.

At home men have more power than women, and are supposed to make the major decisions. Nevertheless, women have much influence and informal power.

Marriage, Family, and Kinship

Marriage. One of the critical decisions a woman can make is the choice of marriage partner. The pattern here is one of negotiation among the members of her family about whom she will marry. She is a participant, and must in some sense agree, but many others are involved, including matchmakers. Similarly a young man may find constraints on his choice of marriage partner.

The trend is for marriage partners to be increasingly more like one another in age and level of education. The old hierarchical marriage is giving way to a companionate marriage, especially in the urban middle classes. Marriage to cousins, however, remains frequent, accounting for 39 percent of marriages in a 1995 sample. Since premarital sex is rare, the pressure to marry is high, and almost everyone marries.

The actual marriage ceremony is distinct from the legal contract of marriage. It is a major event in the lives of all involved. The young couple must prepare a place to live, while at the same time seeing that the often considerable costs of the ceremony are covered. People spend as much as they can, if not more, on a marriage, and in the upper classes, the sky is the limit.

Polygyny (having more than one wife) among Muslims is rare, and declining. Around 5 percent of Muslim men have more than one wife, and most of them only two. A polygynous man usually maintains two households. Divorce is formally easy though families try to reconcile the partners. The rate of divorce is declining, while the absolute number is increasing. When a divorced couple has children, the mother retains custody only while they are young. The father may then claim them. Copts recognize neither polygyny nor divorce.

An important signal of family identity is the personal name. Egyptians frequently do not have "family" names in the current Western sense of a last name that is shared by all members of an extended family. Instead, each person has a given name, followed by the given names of his or her father, grandfather, and so on. For legal purposes one's name is usually "given name, father's name, grandfather's name," resulting in three given names (e.g., Hassan Ali Abdallah). Thus one carries one's paternal lineage and one's status in one's name. In certain parts of rural Egypt, where genealogy is important, people learn to recite a long list of paternal ancestors. Muslim men are likely to have religious names but some have secular names. Christians may carry the names of saints, or may be given names that are Arabic rather than religious. Women also have religious names but sometimes have more fanciful ones, including names of foreign origin. Women often do not change their names upon marriage.

Domestic Unit. Although most households now are organized around a nuclear family, there are some extended family households. Marriage was historically patrilocal (brides moved to the household of the husband), though in cities the young couple often establishes a new residence, at least after a couple of years. Even when residence is not shared, extensive kin ties are maintained through frequent family gatherings. Authority tends to be patriarchal, with the senior male in the household generally given the last word and otherwise expecting deference. Wives, for instance, often are reluctant to assert that they have any serious independent power to make decisions.

Inheritance. Islamic law requires partible inheritance. The property of a dead person must be divided among the heirs, usually children and surviving spouse. Male heirs are favored over female heirs by receiving a share that is twice as large. Moreover, any group of heirs should include a male, even if that means tracking down a distant cousin. A person may not dispose of more than one-third of his or her estate by will, and may not even use this provision to favor one legal heir over another. In other words, a person cannot will this one-third to one son at the expense of another, but could will it to a charity or a nonrelative. Use of this provision is rare, as people accept the Islamic rules and prefer to keep property in the family. Arrangements among heirs, particularly brothers and sisters, however, may result in a different outcome. For instance, a father may set up his daughter in marriage in lieu of an eventual inheritance.

Kin Groups. Egyptian kinship is patrilineal, with individuals tracing their descent through their fathers.


Child Rearing and Education. In all parts of Egypt and among all social classes, having children is considered the greatest blessing of all. Caring for children is primarily the women's responsibility. Many Egyptian women (both Copt and Muslim) abide by the Koranic directive to breast-feed children for two years. Grandparents and other members of the extended family play an active role in bringing up children.

There is a general preference for boys over girls, although in infancy and early childhood children of both sexes are treated with equal love and care. The preference to have at least one son is related to the desire to have an heir, and so provide continuity from father to son.

Education is highly valued in Egypt, and families invest a lot in that area. Even low-income families try to educate their children as much as possible. Education, especially having a university degree, is considered an important avenue for social mobility. But many families cannot afford to educate their children beyond the elementary level. In addition, many children have to work at an early age to help support their families.


Public modesty in dress and deportment is highly valued in Egypt. There is a form of dress code that affects women more than men, and that requires clothing that covers all the body but the hands and face. For women, this most visibly means wearing a head scarf that covers the hair and ears and is pinned under the chin, though there are many other styles ranging from simply covering the hair to covering the entire face. This is the sense in which veiling exists in Egypt, but the situation is volatile, with a good deal of variety. Many women do not veil at all. What is proper, or required, or necessary, is hotly debated in contemporary Egypt. The motivations for veiling are numerous, and range from those who accept that this is a requirement of Islam to those who cover themselves essentially to satisfy their relatives, male and female. Men are also enjoined to dress modestly, but the changes are not as striking, involving for instance loose trousers and long sleeves. For both men and women, the principle is that clothes should disguise the shape of the body.

Another rule of etiquette is that greetings must precede all forms of social interaction. A person joining any kind of group, even of strangers, is expected to greet those already present. In less anonymous situations handshakes are due. Embracing is also common as a form of greeting, usually among members of the same sex.

People are generally addressed by their given name, often preceded by a title of some kind (' am, or uncle, is the all-purpose title for men; others include hajj for a pilgrim returned from Mecca or simply for an older man, duktor for a person with a doctorate, and muhandis for an engineer). To address someone by name alone is impolite.

One important rule of etiquette is to treat guests cordially and hospitably. An offering, usually tea or a soft drink, is the least a visitor expects. The first drink is sometimes called a "greeting." Cigarettes are often also offered as hospitality. In rural areas, some people avoid visiting those they consider to be of lower status than themselves. From this point of view, visits are always "up," and hospitality is always "down," i.e., the higher-status host provides hospitality for the lower-status guest.

In general, young defer to old and women to men. Members of the younger generation are expected to show signs of respect and not to challenge their seniors and must use the special terms of address for aunts, uncles, and grandparents, as well as for older nonrelatives. Juniors should not raise their voices to elders, nor should they remain seated while an older person is standing up. With increasing disparities between classes and the spread of patronage ties, there is an inflation in deferential terms of address. This includes the resurgence in the use of terms that were previously official titles but were abolished after 1952, such as Pasha and Bey.


Religious Beliefs. Egypt is a country of "everyday piety." The central belief in Islam is in the oneness of God, whose truths were revealed through the prophet Muhammad. The statement of this basic profession of faith is one of the five pillars of the religion. The other four are the Ramadan fast, the pilgrimage to Mecca, the five daily prayers, and the giving of alms. For many Muslims these five pillars sum up the belief system and indicate the practices. Egyptians frequently invoke the notion of God and his power. Any statement about the future, for instance, is likely to contain the injunction, "God willing," showing that the ultimate determination of the intention is up to God.

In Egypt, there are other possible elaborations. For some, who focus on God as all-powerful, religious practice involves seeking God's help in over-coming problems and seeking favorable outcomes, for instance, with regard to recovery from disease or misfortune. Around this notion has grown up a series of practices involving visits to shrines, often

The Egyptian Museum in Cairo features artifacts from the tombs of pharaohs.
The Egyptian Museum in Cairo features artifacts from the tombs of pharaohs.
where individuals believed to be beloved of God are buried, to seek their intercession with God. Foremost among these shrines are those in Cairo associated with the family of the prophet Muhammad. But every village and town has such shrines, whose importance varies. This form of religion is often attacked by religious purists who argue that to give such importance to these "saints" undercuts the oneness of God.

Also very common in Egypt are associations of mystics (Sufi brotherhoods). These male-dominated groups are under the leadership of a shaykh , or a hierarchy of shaykhs, devoted to helping their members attain a mystical experience of union with God. This mystical experience is often attained through collective rituals, proper to each order, called zikr. There are nearly one hundred officially recognized associations, plus numerous unrecognized ones, and they claim around six million members (about one third of the adult male population).

Current mainstream practice in Egypt is to focus on the core beliefs of Islam, and to be concerned with learning the "law" of Islam, the particular details of everyday life that believing Muslims must follow to be in accord with God's will as interpreted by specialists. The authority here is the word of God as found in the Koran. The prayer leader (imam) can be anyone in religious good standing, although established mosques usually have a regular imam. The Friday sermon is said by a khatib, many of whom are trained in religious institutes. There have been debates over whether women can play these roles, especially that of a teacher of religion to women and girls.

The two top religious leaders in Egyptian Islam are the Shaykh al-Azhar, who heads the religious bureaucracy, and the Grand Mufti, who offers authoritative interpretations of the Koran. The individuals in these posts have been known to take different positions on some issues.

The two main Muslim religious holidays are the feast following Ramadan, the fasting month, and 'Id al-Adha, which corresponds to the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca. The Ramadan holiday comes after a month of fasting and family visits and people usually just rest. The 'Id al-Adha celebrates Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son, who then miraculously turned into a ram, so that most families try to sacrifice a ram on this day. Other religious holidays include Moulid an-Nabi, commemorating the birth of the prophet Muhammad, which is especially important for sufis; and Islamic New Year, the first day of the month of Moharram.

In Islam, Friday is the day of the main congregational prayer, and marks a break in the workweek without being a "day of rest" in the formal sense. In contemporary Egypt, the two-day weekend is Friday and Saturday. The regular work and school week is thus Sunday through Thursday, although some also work on Saturday. Christians who work on this schedule attend church in the evenings, and make use of Friday for major gatherings.

The Coptic Orthodox Church is the descendant of the churches associated with the early Christian Patriarchate of Alexandria. It is the main Christian church in Egypt. Its theology is monophysite, holding that in Jesus Christ there is only one nature, both human and divine. The Coptic church is headed by a patriarch and supported by bishops and parish priests. Monasticism is also central to the Coptic church, and the patriarch comes from the ranks of the monks rather than the priests. When a patriarch dies, his successor is chosen by lot (i.e., by God) from a small number of candidates who have survived a vetting process. The monasteries also serve as pilgrimage and retreat centers for Copts. Currently the Virgin Mary is revered, and many churches are dedicated to her.

The two main Christian holidays are the Christmas season and the Easter season. Minor holidays include some that are extensions of these seasons such as 'Id al-Ghattas (Epiphany), the baptism of Christ, Palm Sunday, and some associated with the Virgin Mary (Ascension, in mid-August, is a main one).

In most aspects of life apart from religion, Egyptian Muslims and Christians are indistinguishable. Everyday devotion is common among both, and many religious values are shared at a general level. The attentive observer can sometimes note marks of distinction: "Islamic" dress marks Muslim women; both men and women among Christians may have a cross tattooed on the inside of the right wrist; names are often but not always indicative. For most people, most of the time, the distinction is not relevant. But every so often there are individuals on one side or the other who stress the difference and claim or practice some form of discrimination or injustice. Such speech rarely leads to more violent action. Nonetheless, the boundary is maintained and both groups discourage or prohibit intermarriage and conversion. Muslims and Christians are not residentially segregated; instead, there are clusters of Christians scattered among a Muslim majority. In modern times, the presence of both Muslims and Christians has impeded the drive to define Egypt as a Muslim country and thus at least indirectly has favored secularism.

Rituals and Holy Places. Rituals marking the different stages of life are also an important area of religious practice, and one that is largely shared by Muslims and Christians. Egyptians celebrate a naming ceremony normally one week after a baby's birth; this is a mixture of Islamic (or Coptic) and "traditional" elements, and is basically a family celebration to incorporate the newborn into the family. All boys are circumcised, generally as infants, and girls are usually also "circumcised" before they reach puberty. (Although the form of female genital mutilation varies, surveys suggest that about 97 percent of Egyptian females, both Christians and Muslims, are affected.) Marriage is a major focus of Egyptian culture. For Muslims it is considered a contract the signing of which is later followed by a family celebration; for Christians the sacrament takes place in a church, usually followed the same day by a family celebration.

Death and the Afterlife. After a death, both Muslims and Christians try to bury the body the same day. Condolences are paid immediately, and again after forty days and after a year. The Islamic condolence sessions are often marked by Koran reading. Both Muslims and Christians believe in the soul, distinguishing it from other noncorporeal aspects of the person such as the double, the brother/sister, and the ghost. The "soul" exists before birth and after death, while some of the other aspects disappear with death or only appear at death.

Medicine and Health Care

Health care in Egypt occupies a central place both in people's concerns and in state priorities. There is an extensive network of public hospitals in major towns and cities all over the country. There is a health unit offering basic medical services in practically every village. The standard of the medical service is variable, however, and people often find they have to obtain treatment in private hospitals and clinics. Among more affluent sectors of urban Egypt, people seek out alternative treatments such as homeopathy.

Egyptians tend to combine the modern health system with traditional practices. In villages, the midwife, for example, plays a key role not just during childbirth and the related ceremonial activities, but also in providing general medical advice to women. There are other traditional health practitioners, such as seers and spirit healers. The zar ceremony marks a form of spirit possession cult that establishes a relationship between an afflicted person and the spirits afflicting him or her. This

Egyptians at a festival in Cairo. Many public Egyptian holidays mark important events in the recent political history of the country.
Egyptians at a festival in Cairo. Many public Egyptian holidays mark important events in the recent political history of the country.
relationship must be periodically reaffirmed, with the help of specialists.

Secular Celebrations

The main public holidays are: 25 April, Sinai Liberation Day, which marks the recovery of the Sinai Peninsula in 1982; 1 May, International Labor Day; 23 July, which commemorates the revolution of 1952; and 6 October, Armed Forces Day, which marks the day in 1973 when the Egyptian army crossed the Suez Canal, surprising the Israeli army and scoring a minor military victory that, through later diplomacy, would lead to the return of Sinai to Egypt.

Labor Day in Egypt as elsewhere is used to salute the working class. The others mark important events in the recent political history of the country. All are official affairs, with little popular celebration.

The Arts and Humanities

Literature. Nobel Prize-winning author Naguib Mahfouz (b. 1911) is the best known of the many novelists, poets, and short-story writers whose works have been widely read and translated. Folk tales and folk epics survive but are not robust.

Graphic Arts. Painters are largely self-supporting through the sale of their paintings. There are many art galleries mostly concentrated in Cairo, and the acquisition of paintings has always been a sign of good taste and distinction among members of affluent social groups. Folk painting of house walls is well-known in rural Egypt.

Performance Arts. The Egyptian film industry is one of the oldest in the world. Film production is at once an art, an industry, and a trade. Egyptian films and television dramas are avidly consumed not just in Egypt but all over the Arab world. They range from tacky melodramas to internationally acclaimed, award-winning films of high artistic value. Film production is now almost exclusively in the private sector.

The most famous Egyptian singer was Umm Kalthum (d. 1975), whose songs are still broadcast all over the Arab world. Some more recent singers have also had considerable popularity inside and outside the country. There is also a Cairo Symphony Orchestra, a Cairo Opera Ballet, and other troupes producing classical music and dance.

The State of the Physical and Social Sciences

There are thirteen government universities, some of which have multiple branches, enrolling about one million students. The much smaller American University in Cairo is an old private university, and there are several new ones.

In general, the physical and social sciences are confined to academic departments of the various universities, and to state-sponsored research centers. There is now an increasing tendency to link scientific knowledge to social and economic demands, by emphasizing the "relevance" of such knowledge. Thus, the new Mubarak City for Scientists, which contains one institute for information technology and another for genetics, caters to the demands of industry. The need for research and development is accepted but the realization is more difficult.

The main university subjects took shape at Cairo University in the 1920s. Economics is probably the best developed of the social sciences, and political science and psychology are making progress. Sociology was founded at Cairo in 1925 and is now found in most universities.

The main centers for anthropology are Alexandria and the American University in Cairo. Anthropology is dominated by efforts to come to grips with contemporary patterns of change, often under the heading of development. The main thrust of anthropology in Egypt is not to improve cross-cultural understanding but instead to foster Egyptian development. There are few positions in anthropology, so most trained anthropologists gradually become generalists in development.


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User Contributions:

brianna G
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Ahmad Nawwar
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Terry B.
Just returned from a 12 day tour of Egypt. While there I attempted to determine Egyptian attutudes toward and treatment of the disabled. I had little success and often felt I was being fed the "official line". What I noticed most oten was the absence of disabled persons in public places. Where are they? What are Egyptan cultural beliefs and behaviors toward disabled persons?
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The site is very informative. However, I understand the Female Genital Mutilation is very preveland in Egypt. I am curious to know the cultural reason for this; for instance it is linked to religion or is it considered necessary for the transformation from a girlhood to a womanhood or are the primary reasons to decrease and control a woman's sexual satifaction.
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Thx it helped a lot on my culture speaking task. Every information I needed was included. Thanks.
This page helped me complete my history report! thank you so much!
This site really helped me in writing a paper about Egypt for a Model United Nations. Egypt's culture is so interesting because it intertwines Christians and Muslims into one place.
This is great! I've found tons of great info! Hopefully I'll get an A+ ☺
deepak mishra
i like their culture traditions and clothing i also ancient indiana history so i also their culture and traditions in depth
Alina Farooq
It helped me a lot in my task. It was the best article I ever saw . Keep it up
This is the best information I ever read and I honestly telling you Iam a ten year old girl and I read it on 2nd Jan 2018. This paragraph told me very interesting information that I didn't knew!❤
This really helped me plan for a mock United Nations assembly that I'm attending in a few months as a 13 year old.
Umm... This info is great but there is a really inappropriate comment and I think it is #44 whoever it is is retarded.
hi, it was very great to read about my country in such a neutral way, so thank you for that great article.
I just noticed a small mistake about our flag centerpiece its eagle NOT a falcon.
Thank you so much this helped me get my school assignment done in 4 days!

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