On 28 February 1922, Egypt declared itself free from British colonial rule. When the British left, the country was in debt and more than half the population was impoverished. 95 years later the land of the pharaohs has risen to become the most populous country in North Africa, as well as a key player in the Middle East. Africa.com spoke to Political science professor at the University of South Africa, Dirk Kotze, and Afro Middle East Centre researcher Ebrahim Deen about Egypt’s successes and struggles.
- Regional Power
When Egypt gained its independence it was the second African nation to do so. Gamal Abdel Nasser took over as president in 1956 he looked to strengthen relations within Africa as well as in the Middle East. He did this by joining the Arab League, and helping with the creation of the Organisation of African Unity in 1963. Nasser became close friends with freedom fighters like Kwame Nkrumah, Patrice Lumumba and Ahmed Sekou Toure making the country a key ally to many African states during their fight for independence. Egypt became the first African country to sit on the United Nations Security Council, as a non-permanent member, they highlighted the plight of apartheid South Africa. It was one of the biggest financial donors when the OAU was renamed the African Union in 2002.
Egypt’s rich history and unique landmarks make it a favourite among tourists. From the pyramids, the Nile River and relatively well-developed infrastructures it is seen as a truly unique tourist destination. The country’s government realised this early by investing in infrastructure to accommodate tourists and ensured that existing landmarks were well preserved. In 1988 tourism contributed 8.5 percent to Egypt’s GDP but by 2007 it was 19.5 percent. Unlike many other industries, tourism in Egypt has managed to become diversified. People don’t just go to see the ancient pyramids or the Red Sea, they also attend cultural festivals that are held annually.
Egyptian relics continue to captivate the world. Even in the twenty-first century there are discoveries of ancient tombs and priceless artefacts. Today Egyptian museums are home to thousands of ancient artefacts and other relics. During colonialism many tombs were raided and artefacts were stolen which gave rise to one of Egypt’s greatest archaeologists, Zahi Hawass, who has led the mission to return what was stolen during that era. When he was head of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, Hawass claims to have organised the return of around 5 000 artefacts. Egypt has opened more than 40 museums in the last 95 years and has held exhibitions around the world. The most famous being the Tutankhamen and the Golden Age of the pharaoh’s exhibition which generated more than $110 million and toured seven cities in Europe and the U.S.
Egypt has one of the greatest military forces on the continent. When President Anwar Sadat signed the Camp David agreement with Israel in 1979, Egypt walked away with funding for their army and the Sinai Peninsula while Israel received recognition from the Arab nation. Every year since then Egypt has received billions in military funding from the US and accounts for more than 8 percent of its annual budget. The military also lends its support to the UN and is involved in 37 peacekeeping missions around the world sending over 30, 000 peacekeepers.
When Egypt got its independence in 1922, close to 75 percent of the population was illiterate which prompted the government to initiate programmes to change this. As a result, enrolment at schools more than doubled and more opportunities in business led to a growing middle class. Now more than 75 percent of Egypt’s population is literate. Despite some controversy, building the Aswan High Dam has ensured that thousands of villagers have reliable water supply, the Dam also helped reduce flooding caused by the Nile River. With more arable land, farming picked up, provided reliable jobs and also helped stabilise electricity supply. Egypt has also been at the forefront of land reform which saw millions of Egyptians finally own land.
- Arab Spring Aftermath
The Arab Spring was praised for putting an end to oppressive governments in some Arab countries. In Egypt, President Hosni Mubarak’s 30 year rule came to an end. But since then Egypt has struggled to rebuild itself. Politically the democratically elected government was in power for only twelve months. Economically the effects are still being felt. Tourism which was a large contributor to GDP has decreased considerably due to the instability. Unemployment levels have increased from single digits to double; it currently stands at over 12 percent. Foreign investment once stood at $13 billion but since the uprising it’s dropped considerably.
True multiparty democracy continues to elude Egypt. Egypt has only had six presidents in its 95 years, with those elected serving multiple terms in office. While elections have taken place there has always been suppression of opposition parties. Sadat was the first president to allow multiparty elections. His predecessor Nasser was responsible for banning the Muslim Brotherhood and was known to take a firm stance on dissent. After Sadat’s assassination in 1981, Egypt was placed under a state of emergency. It lasted 31 years, and Mubarak’s regime used it to oppress the opposition. Opposition leaders were jailed without cause and detained without trial. Egypt held its first democratic elections in 2012; the Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate Mohammed Morsi was elected president, but in July 2013 military chief Abdel Fatah al-Sissi removed him from office and detained him. Morsi’s party was once again banned.
- Overreliance On The Nile
Egypt has defended the belief that the Nile River belongs to them historically, so much so that they haven’t adequately diversified how they get their water. The Nile supplies more than 95 percent of Egypt’s water needs. They use it for agriculture, as well as electricity. With the low rainfall and limited access to groundwater aquifers Egypt could see itself facing a water shortage by 2025. The Nile flows through ten upstream countries before reaching Egypt. Their heavy reliance on the Nile means that they are dependent on the nations that share the River with them not to rock the boat.
The Arab Spring brought much needed regime change but it also resulted in instability for the region. The conflict in Libya and the crisis in Egypt left the Sinai Peninsula open to extremists. The army has tried to crackdown on Islamist insurgents based in the Sinai but it’s difficult. They adopted various tactics most recently scorched-earth tactics. In 2015 an ISIS-linked insurgency claimed responsibility for bombing Russian Flight 9268 where 224 people died on board the plane. IS have also begun attacks in Cairo, they bombed a Coptic cathedral during Sunday mass killing at least 25 worshippers.
- Media Censorship
Since Nasser’s time in office journalists have come under threats in Egypt. There are laws in place to crackdown on journalists who criticise the government. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, Egypt is the world’s second-worst jailer of journalists in 2015. Military leadership in Egypt has seen media outlets shut down without justification. Publications that move away from the sanctioned narratives usually face legal prosecution and gag orders. While journalists who do the same are physically assaulted or jailed. In 2016 four journalists from Al Jazeera were arrested on charges of spying. The network has denied the accusations and called for the immediate release of the journalists, but this hasn’t happened.