Recent History of Egypt

Posted on February 8, 2011

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Egypt entered the modern era as a mostly independent subject kingdom within the Ottoman Turk empire. As the industrial revolution  took hold in Britain, the erstwhile Land of the Pharaohs was ruled by the descendants of the mercenary Ali Pasha, who maintained their position by paying tribute to the Sultan and modernizing their armies.  In the beginning they paid for it all from the cotton grown in the Nile Valley, which went to occupy Britain’s new mills. After the American Civil War ended, however, the price of cotton fell drastically, and so did Egypt’s revenues. The Pashas raised taxes and borrowed what they could, but it wasn’t enough.
Many of the loans made to the Pashas were owned by the British and French. The two powers therefore saw the financial stability of Egypt as part of their interests. The British particularly were also interested in the potential advantage and profit of the Suez Canal. Since Egypt was no match for them either politically, or militarily, after a period of turmoil, the British ended up in control, though Egypt was nominally still part of the Ottoman Empire.
By the time the First World War began, the Ottoman Empire had disintegrated so much that even that fiction could be discarded. The British set up a puppet king to declare independence. This backfired, and the country divided itself between the traditional elites, primarily in Alexandria and Cairo, the king, the British, and various parties claiming to represent the common people, including communists and the newly created Muslim Brotherhood. Britain’s main priority was the canal, and eventually they were pushed back into the territory immediately surrounding it.
The fragile edifice of the monarchy was finally dismantled in 1952 by a nationalist revolution that eventually brought Gamal Abdel Nasser to power. Nasser inspired the nation and remained wildly popular even as he steered the nation through fifteen years of internal and external challenges. He made Egypt into one of the key members of the Non-Aligned group of states that managed to avoid choosing sides between the United States and the USSR, and balanced between the two extremes economically as well, involving the state in industry without constructing the restrictions of full communism. He lost some prestige after being soundly defeated by the Israelis, but remained in office until his death in 1970.
Nasser’s Vice President, Anwar Sadat, took power after him. Although in many ways he represented continuity with the beloved Nasser, he eventually changed a lot of the policies that Nasser created. He privatized some of the state controlled enterprises that had made up Nasser’s Arab Socialism experiment after they proved stifling and inefficient. Unfortunately rather than really revitalizing the economy, the privatizations did more to enrich the urban elite and small middle class. He made peace with Israel on fairly favorable terms, which has led to decades of stalemate rather than open war.
Sadat was assassinated and succeeded by Hosni Mubarak, who instituted the economic liberalization recommended by the International Monetary Fund, but stifled political opposition, maintaining Egypt in a permanent “State of Emergency” for the last 25 years to keep the extraordinary, autocratic powers that have kept him in power. Egypt’s economy has grown, but not as fast as its population, and the rigidity of public life has left many well educated young people unable to find good jobs and unable to effect change through normal means.
The world and the Egyptians will see whether this will change in the coming days and months.
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