The IVth dynasty saw the construction of such architectural masterpieces as the Great Pyramid, while the XIth and XIIth saw the zenith of Egyptian power at the start of the second millennium. Tutankhamun, whose famous tomb was discovered in 1922, ruled briefly during the XVIIIth dynasty. From the XXth dynasty onwards, the power of Egypt was on the wane and the country was overrun on several occasions by foreign powers. The latest and most permanent of these invasions, which brought the Pharaonic period to an end, was that of Alexander the Great, in 332 BC. During the Hellenic and Augustan Roman period (circa AD 30), the emergence of law and literature in Alexandria allowed for seven centuries of comparative peace and economic stability. From the middle of the fourth century, Egypt became part of the Eastern Empire. Then, in AD 642, an invading Arab army – one manifestation of the rapid Islamic conquests that followed the death of Muhammad – was welcomed by the Coptic Christians in preference to their previous Greek rulers. The Fatamids gained control of the country in the late tenth century, however, their power declined after a century or so. The subsequent revival of Muslim fortunes and the reawakening of the spirit of Jihad (holy war) was largely associated with the career of Saladin, whose control of Egypt enabled him to reunite much of the Muslim world. Under Ottoman rule, Egypt became a somewhat neglected corner of a large and increasingly moribund empire. The arrival of Napoleon in AD 1798 brought Egypt once more into violent contact with a European power. By 1805, however, the struggle for independence had been won, with Muhammad Ali being recognised as Sultan. This was a period of great rivalry between the European powers, during which Egypt was buffeted between them. The Suez Canal was opened in 1869, although subsequent financial problems and internal struggles led to British occupation in 1882, which lasted until 1936. Thereafter, Egypt was formally independent but severely constrained by the British, who retained ultimate political and economic control over the country. Discontentment against the Government culminated in the 1952 revolution, orchestrated by young army officers led by Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser. After consolidating his position as President of the new Government, Nasser took the Suez Canal into public ownership with all revenues directed to the Egyptian treasury. This led to the Suez Crisis of 1956, in which a combined Anglo-French-Israeli military operation attempted to seize and depose Nasser. The failure of that operation greatly enhanced Nasser’s standing and inspired supporters throughout the Middle East who shared his vision of a united Arab world, free from foreign interference. Disputes between Arab countries scuppered these plans. The defeat of Arab forces by Israel in the 1967 Six Day War deprived Egypt of the Sinai peninsula and the Gaza strip, land that was recovered only after another defeat by the Israelis in the Yom Kippur War of 1973 and the subsequent Egyptian-Israeli peace initiative, which culminated in the 1979 Camp David accord. The treaty was signed on the Egyptian side by Nasser’s successor, Anwar El-Sadat, and this, along with the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in Egypt after the Iranian revolution, accounted for his assassination in 1981. Sadat was succeeded by his deputy, Hosni Mubarak, who pursued similar policies to his former boss. However, the rapprochement with the Arab world (especially Saudi Arabia) at the Amman Summit in 1987 instigated a new phase of diplomatic relations within the Middle East and marked the rehabilitation of the Mubarak government into the wider Arab community. Egypt was closely involved in the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations during the early 1990s and broadly supportive of the 1994 Oslo agreement between the two sides. Since then, it has played a largely back-seat role in the Arab-Israel dispute. Not least, this is because it is disinclined to do anything to disturb relations with the USA – after Israel, Egypt is the world’s largest single recipient of US aid. Of more immediate concern has been the domestic rise of militant Islam. Mubarak is aware that Egypt’s deep-rooted social and economic problems render fundamentalism an attractive option for many young Egyptians. The government’s strategy has been to defuse the movement by holding controlled multi-party elections, at which selected Islamic candidates are allowed to stand (although the pro-government National Democratic Party won the October 2000 elections to the Majlis) coupled with fierce repression of Islamic paramilitaries. There has been no repeat to date of the notorious 1997 Luxor incident when 70 people, mostly foreign tourists, lost their lives. Government: The 454-member Majlis al-Sha’ab (People’s Assembly), which functions as the legislature, nominates the President; the nomination is endorsed by popular referendum. The president, who serves a 6-year term, has executive power and appoints one or more Vice Presidents, a Prime Minister and a Council of Ministers. The Majlis al-Sha’ab is elected for a 5-year term. There is also a 210-member advisory assembly, the Majlis ash-Shura.
The history of Egypt is one of the richest, oldest and most varied of any country in the world and the country’s place in the Middle East is as central now as it was in the fourth millennium BC. The unification of the Lower and the Upper Kingdoms, in about 3180 BC, marks a convenient starting point for Egyptian history. This dynamic, culturally sophisticated and powerful kingdom on the banks of the Nile grew into one of the greatest civilisations of the ancient world. The pre-Hellenic period is reckoned in Kingdoms (Old, Middle and New) and subdivided into dynasties.