It’s hard to imagine that Tahrir Square was once the epicentre of a revolution. Bassam, a young Egyptian who was among tens of thousands who surged across central Cairo during the uprising of 2011, can scarcely bear to pass through it now. The space has been renovated, as if to erase the memories it contained, and a giant, granite obelisk now sits at its centre. For Bassam, it’s a stake through the heart of his dream of freedom.
The revolution burned bright, but briefly. From January 2011 to the summer of 2013, a diverse street movement seemed at times to contest for power, and a candidate backed by the military narrowly lost a Presidential election to Mohamed Morsi, who stood for the long-banned Muslim Brotherhood.
But the fire was soon snuffed out. The army had stood aside during the events of 2011, judging that President Hosni Mubarak had run out of road, and concerned to protect its own interests and popular legitimacy. Officers bided their time and took advantage of economic stagnation to drive through a counter-revolution, drawing on the age-old hope of prosperity through order.
Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi’s military massacred more than a thousand Brotherhood-aligned activists and their supporters at a sit-in, and held elections to rubber-stamp his rule. No meaningful opposition candidate was allowed to stand.
Once host to the ancient world’s most advanced civilization, Egypt’s fortunes have declined under the pressure of external empires and the rot of internal stagnation. Arab armies conquered Egypt from the Romans in the 7th century, initiating 1,200 years of rule by Islamic caliphates. During the 19th century, taking advantage of societal tumult and new ideas introduced by Napoleon Bonaparte’s 1798 incursion, Mohammed Ali Pasha inaugurated modernizing reforms. Egypt became the most dynamic part of the Ottoman territory, at one point nearly seizing control of the empire itself – prevented only by intercession of European powers.
Britain occupied Egypt in 1882 to secure payment of debts incurred to build the Suez Canal and to protect other economic interests. It vacated most of the country in 1947, and the Canal too in 1956, but after Gamal Abdel Nasser’s government nationalized the Suez Canal Company, Britain reinvaded alongside France and Israel. Britain was forced to accept defeat after US protests and threats to crash sterling. Nasser’s defeat by Israel in a 1967 war marked the death knell of Arab nationalism. The Sinai Peninsula was regained by Nasser’s successor Anwar Sadat in 1973. Following Sadat’s assassination in 1981, Mubarak, his vice-president, took charge. He maintained a ‘cold peace’ with Israel while expanding the welfare state at home, funded by extensive US aid.
Under Sisi’s reign, Egypt’s already-weak economy, still heavily dependent on food imports, has been battered by Covid-19 and war in Ukraine. The cost-of-living crisis is felt throughout society, but the situation is most desperate for the poor.
The IMF recently approved a $3 billion assistance package, requiring ‘fiscal consolidation’ and ‘wide-ranging structural reforms to reduce the state footprint’ in return. Its additional promises to enhance social safety nets and improve government transparency are less credible: more likely is a fire-sale of state assets to Gulf investors and more economic pain.
While few expect a democratic rupture or renewed street movement on the scale of 2011, given the severity of repression, there is a sense that something has to give. President Sisi’s popularity has evaporated and although he is expected to win re-election next year, Egypt’s elite and their Gulf backers are likely to be wondering whether a new public face is in order.
Leader: President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi
Economy: GNI per capita: $3,350 (Jordan $10,320, UK $47,620).
Monetary unit: Egyptian pound (1EGP = $0.032)
Main exports: Natural gas, nitrogen fertilizers, gold. Egypt is heavily reliant on imports for food, particularly wheat, which makes its poor vulnerable to international price shocks.
Population: 112.7 million. Annual population growth: 1.6%. Population density: 113 people per square kilometre (Jordan 115, UK 281). 95% of the population is concentrated in a narrow strip of fertile land along the Nile River, which represents only about 5% of Egypt’s land area, and is much more densely populated.
Health: Under-5 mortality rate: 18 per 1,000 live births (Jordan 16, UK 4). Maternal mortality per 100,000 live births: 17 (Jordan: 30, UK 7).
Environment: Most of Egypt is desert, the Sahara stretching out to the south and west of Cairo. The fertile Nile Delta is increasingly built-up, and Ethiopia’s ongoing construction of a major dam near to the Nile’s source is a worry for farmers.
Culture: Egypt is overwhelmingly Arab, although there is a small Nubian minority. In recent decades most Bedouins have settled down or are only semi-nomadic, but in the Sinai Peninsula and in the south of the country tribal structures remain important.
Religion: Almost 90% of Egyptians are Sunni Muslims. There is a tiny, embattled, Shia minority. Roughly 10% are Christians, who are sporadically subject to discrimination, with the majority belonging to the Coptic denomination, a variant of Eastern Orthodoxy. Atheism is rare, and publicly taboo.
Language: Arabic is universally spoken. The distinctive dialect of Cairo is widely understood throughout the Arab world, due to its usage in popular films and Ramadan television serials. The Nubian community, whose roots lie in the country’s deep south, is working to save its ancient language, which is on the verge of extinction.
Human Development Index: 0.731 (Jordan 0.72, UK 0.929), rank 97 of 191 countries.
Income Distribution: ★★✩✩✩
Egypt is a deeply unequal society: a politically connected elite frequents beach resorts, but roughly three in ten live below the World Bank’s Lower Income Class Poverty Line of $3.20 per day. Much work is menial, casualized and low-productivity.
Adult literacy has crept up to 73%, lower than comparable countries. Public schooling is so bad that even poor families feel duty-bound to pay for private tutoring.
Life Expectancy: ★★★✩✩
Life expectancy sits at 74 years (Jordan 75), which is roughly the global average. There is a public health system but, as in the case of education, it is so poorly funded that patients often have to pay much of the cost of treatment themselves – or go without.
Position of Women: ★✩✩✩✩
Sexual harassment and gender-based violence are common. Societal acceptance of female genital mutilation is falling slowly, but the practice, which has been illegal since 2008, is still commonplace.
Political opposition is all but impossible. Dissenters are either imprisoned on trumped-up charges by a judiciary that considers itself a loyal wing of the security state, or intimidated into silence. Egypt is ranked 166 of 180 on Reporters Without Borders’ 2023 Press Freedom Index. Many critical websites are restricted; critical newspapers do not exist.
Sexual Minorities: ★✩✩✩✩
Homosexuality is effectively criminalized and widely regarded as sinful. Police, and occasionally criminals specializing in extortion, sometimes use dating apps and social media to identify and entrap gay people.
President Sisi’s decade-old administration has squandered public money on absurd boondoggles, such as a new capital city in the desert outside Cairo. But it has done little for the poor, whose position continues to deteriorate amidst an economy run for the elite. The only thing the state does well is repression.