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Egypt and the pharaohs
New Kingdom to Cushites
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Egypt under the Turks
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     Nasser and the Aswan dam
     Suez Crisis
     Egypt and Israel
     Arab Spring and aftermath

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Nasser and the Aswan dam: 1952-1956

The group which has toppled Farouk is a small secret organization, the Free Officers, founded by Nasser with Anwar el-Sadat and others in the Egyptian army in the 1940s. Their aim is to rid Egypt not only of the monarchy but also of the hated British presence.

After the coup of 1952 Nasser wields the real power behind the scenes. But the government is headed at first by Mohammed Naguib, who becomes president when Egypt is declared a republic in June 1953. Meanwhile political parties have been banned. In 1954 after a brief power struggle (Naguib has a greater following than his colleagues realize), Nasser takes open control.


He intends to create a non-aligned socialist state occupying a position of leadership in the Arab and Muslim world. But the proximity of Israel makes non-alignment difficult. Israel's western allies are reluctant to sell arms to Egypt (the Egyptian-Israeli border in Gaza is a dangerous flashpoint), so in 1955 Nasser arranges for a supply of eastern-bloc weapons from Czechoslovakia.

At the same time Nasser is greatly increasing Egypt's trade with the communist nations (China is by now the main market for Egyptian cotton). Nasser considers these economic links compatible with non-alignment. But soon they jeopardize the great domestic undertaking which he is above all determined to achieve.


Nasser's pet project is the construction of a high dam at Aswan, to form a massive lake (inevitably Lake Nasser) some 300 miles in length. The dam will control the annual flooding of the Nile, crucial to Egypt's agriculture, as well as generating vast amounts of electricity.

Early in 1956 Nasser seems able to demonstrate that non-alignment is viable. He secures the offer of loans from the USA and Britain to finance the Aswan dam. But in July of this year the USA withdraws its offer, shortly followed by Britain. Nasser's response is prompt. Within days he declares that the Suez canal is nationalized. Income from the canal will fund his dam - and there is soon Soviet finance on offer, to offset the rebuff from the west.


The Suez Crisis: 1956

Nasser's seizing of the Suez Canal, in July 1956, is made possible by the success of an agreement which he has negotiated two years earlier with Britain. This has provided for the withdrawal over twenty months of all British troops from the canal zone, thus removing the last cause of Egyptian resentment against British imperialism.

Any cause for resentment is now on the British side. The 99-year lease granted to the Suez Canal Company still has twelve years to run, and Nasser is not proposing to pay compensation. In the short term there is little that can be done about this by Britain or France (the other main shareholder in the company) except make forceful protests at the United Nations.


During the autumn of 1956 Britain and France build up their forces in the Mediterranean, but the tension escalates abruptly on October 29 when Israeli troops move into the Sinai peninsula, a province of Egypt. Their pretext is provocation from the Egyptians in successive border incidents. But the Suez Canal lies in the path of the invading Israelis, making the issue of immediate international urgency.

Britain and France issue an ultimatum to both Israel and Egypt, ordering each to withdraw ten miles from the canal. It is a somewhat one-sided demand. Israel as yet has hardly any troops near the canal, of which Egypt is in full possession. The Israelis accept the ultimatum. Egypt disregards it.


The British and the French, in defiance of the wishes of the UN security council and general assembly, begin bombing Egyptian airfields. On November 5 they land marines and paratroops near Port Said. Egyptian forces on the canal (now blocked with sunken vessels) are soon at a disadvantage. But the occupation is still incomplete when international outrage causes Britain and France, along with Israel and Egypt, to accept a ceasefire at midnight on November 6.

Within weeks UN forces arrive. The French and British withdraw after a disastrous fiasco. Israel gains nothing. Nasser has lost his air force (soon replaced by the USSR), but he has secured his ownership of the canal and has gained immeasurably in local prestige.


Egypt and Israel: 1956-1973

Nasser's standing in the Arab world after the Suez crisis brings him the chance of wider leadership. This soon becomes evident in the 1958 merger of Egypt and Syria as the United Arab Republic (to be joined a month later by the kingdom of Yemen, to form the United Arab States).

Nasser is the most prominent figure in this unwieldy political unit, which comes to an abrupt end in 1961 when Syria withdraws. Significantly, Nasser continues till the end of his life to use the name United Arab Republic for Egypt on its own (the nation becomes Egypt again in 1971). But at this time leadership of the Arab world means only one thing - leadership of the opposition to Israel.


While successfully maintaining non-alignment in relation to the power blocs of the Cold War, Nasser is inflexibly antagonistic to his northern neighbour. When hostilities flare up between Israel and Syria in 1967, he is quick to involve Egypt in the escalating crisis.

The Arab side is decisively defeated in the resulting Six Day War, as a result of which Egypt loses both Gaza and the Sinai peninsula (including, at first, even the east bank of the Suez canal). Nasser offers to resign, but he is able to stay in office thanks to vociferous popular demonstrations on his behalf - orchestrated no doubt, but with an undercurrent of genuine enthusiasm.


The war leaves the Suez Canal closed, to the great detriment of Egypt's finances. Negotiations for an Israeli withdrawal are still under way when Nasser dies of a sudden heart attack in 1970. He is succeeded as president by Anwar el-Sadat.

Sadat at first follows Nasser's hawkish policy towards Israel, launching with Syria the surprise attack on Israel during the holiday of Yom Kippur in 1973. In this war Egypt recovers some of the Sinai peninsula, becoming the first Arab nation to win territory from the Israelis. This success prompts Sadat to risk a dramatic volte-face. He attempts to lead the Arab world in negotiation with the shared enemy.


In 1977 Sadat takes the unprecedented step of travelling to Jerusalem to propose a peace plan to the Israeli parliament. His advance is well received by another politician who has been equally hardline in the past, Menachem Begin. Together the two leaders enter a process of negotiation which leads to a peace treaty between their two nations, signed at Camp David in 1978.

But in this important achievement Sadat has moved too far ahead of majority Arab opinion, and in particular of Muslim sentiment.


Fundamentalist Muslims have long been disenchanted with the Egyptian leadership. In 1954 an assassination attempt on Nasser is traced to the Muslim Brotherhood, which as a result is forcefully suppressed (putting an end to the only organized opposition group in Egypt).

Now, in the early 1980s, the peace treaty with Israel revives Muslim opposition - which in its turn provokes repressive measures by Sadat's government. In October 1981 the peacemaker pays with his life. At a military parade to commemorate the war of 1973 Anwar el-Sadat, reviewing the march past from the podium, is gunned down by Muslim terrorists.


Mubarak: from1981

Sadat is peacefully succeeded by his vice-president, Hosni Mubarak, who in broad terms follows the same policies - keeping to the terms of Camp David, and thus ensuring the agreed return of the Sinai peninsula to Egypt in April 1982.

Relations with Israel take a temporary turn for the worse two years later as a result of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, but by the 1990s Mubarak is again following Sadat's example. He becomes the most prominent peacemaker in the middle east, restoring Egypt's position of leadership in the Arab world. He is helped in this role by his own enhanced status in the west - the result of Egypt's support of the USA in the Gulf War. But withiin Egypt his method of rule is brutally authoritarian


In 1994 Mubarak is the broker in peace moves between Israel and the PLO. In 1995 he hosts a summit in Cairo attended by Yitzhak Rabin, King Hussein and Yasser Arafat. But as with Sadat, these initiatives do not endear him to Muslim fundamentalists.

During the 1990s Muslim terrorism becomes an increasing problem for Egypt, severely harming the nation's crucial income from tourism. A prolonged campaign of violence begins in March 1992, leading to some 200 deaths in the following eighteen months. During the decade there are several attempts on Mubarak's life. The most damaging incident in terms of Egypt's economy is the killing in 1997 of some sixty tourists on a visit to the famous funerary temple of Queen Hatshepsut.


From the start the government reacts vigorously, introducing martial law and eventually imprisoning some 20,000 militants. The largest and oldest fundamentalist group, the Muslim Brotherhood, is by now a mainstream movement (though still officially banned) with followers at all levels of society. The premises of Muslim Brotherhood lawyers and other professionals are frequently raided and their occupants arrested, on suspicion of being linked to groups engaged in terrorism.

There are several such groups. One is al-Jihad, responsible for the 1981 assassination of Sadat. The largest and most active is the Islamic Group (Al-Jama'a al-Islamiya), which perpetrated the massacre at the Hatshepsut temple.


There are other causes of tension within contemporary Egypt. The Coptic Christians, amounting to some 10% of the population, feel ill-served by the government (as well as frequently suffering Muslim terrorist attacks). And the prevailing end-of-century demand for democracy gets short shrift.

From the early 1990s, as in many other African nations, the ban on political parties is relaxed. But Mubarak's National Democratic Party (a development of Nasser's original Free Officers) contrives to keep a firm grip on power. By various questionable means, such as on some occasions being the only candidate, Mubarak wiins a new six-year term as president in 1987, 1993, 1999 and 2005. But during the election year of 2011 Egypt's internal situation changes dramatically.


The Arab Spring and aftermath: from 2011

The long-repressed resentment against Mubarak's rule flares up almost immediately in the Arab Spring, in January 2011, just a month after Tunisia's inspiring example. On what becomes known as the Friday of Anger hundreds of thousands of people throughout the country fill the streets and squares after Friday prayers in protest against the government The vast day-and-night crowds in Cairo's Tahrir Square, demanding the resignation of Mubarak, become the most powerful image of people's longing for genuine democracy in the Muslim countries of north Africa and the Middle East. And they achieve success after less than three weeks of escalating violence between police and demonstrators and between pro- and anti-Mubarak factions. On February 11 Mubarak announces his resignation. Since that time he has been charged with a wide range of crimes including the murder of peaceful protesters. Appearing in court on a stretcher after a heart attack, he has been sentenced in various trials to life imprisonment and a fine of 200 million Egyptian pounds (about 18 million).

After Mubarak's resignation Egypt is governed on a temporary basis by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. There is continuing unrest in coming months as people feel that progress towards democracy is not fast enough. But the military keep their word, organizing parliamentary elections late in 2011. The elected representatives meet for the first time on 23 January 2012 and the Council transfers legislative authority to them.

A presidential election follows in the summer of 2012. It is won by Mohamed Morsi, a representative of the Muslim Brotherhood. In December demonstrators demand the resignation of Morsi after he grants himself powers to introduce legislation without any judicial oversight or powers of address. This raises fears that he intends to use these powers to move the country in the direction of the fundamentalist Islamic rule favoured by the Muslim Brotherhood.

By the summer of 2013 the level of demonstration around the country is so high, with violent clashes between groups against and in support of Morsi, that the army intervenes and removes him from office, keeping him in detention. The military leaders insist that their intention is once again to bring the country as quickly as possible to parliamentary rule. But their methods of keeping order at a time of unrest are brutal. On August 14 they declare a state of emergency. On the following day there are large demonstrations by Muslim supporters of Morsi. The soldiers use live rounds to disperse the crowd and in doing so kill about 600 demonstrators.


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