Looking at it on a map, Egypt seems vast and spread out, but, in fact, almost the whole population is concentrated in a thin green band of arable land that stretches down the Nile Valley from the High Dam to Cairo and on to Alexandria. It broadens dramatically into the Nile Delta just below Cairo, but even so the strip of land never gets to be more than about 300km (200 miles) wide. The result is that most of the 76 million Egyptians live on about 33,000 square kilometers (13,000 sq. miles) of land, or an area only marginally bigger than the state of Maryland. With 13 times the population, however, Egypt is significantly more crowded.

Dollars & Sense

Economically and socially, the country struggles with deep-seated problems, most of which stem from poor planning and corruption. Looking purely at broad statistics, the economy has been doing well in recent years, with annual growth rates around 5% to 7%. What the growth numbers mask, however, is that cronyism steers just about all of that extra cash into the pockets of the wealthiest 10% of the country, while the economic policies that are driving the growth -- privatization and liberalization -- are meanwhile driving the cost of living for the poorest 50% of the population steadily upward. Egypt, once a huge exporter of wheat, has become the world's biggest importer, spending around $2.7 billion dollars in 2007 buying grain on the international market. Despite subsidies, anecdotal evidence suggests that the price of many staples has as much as quadrupled in the last 2 years, forcing families already at subsistence level to cut back on food purchases. There is a very real possibility that, following this path, where the rich get richer and the poor get progressively hungrier, will have a destabilizing effect on the country. It is an accepted journalistic practice at this point to balance that possibility against the immense capacity of Egyptians to get along peacefully despite the absurdities that have been foisted on them by generation after generation of corrupt and incompetent rulers. It doesn't take most people very long in the country to start scratching their heads, however, and start asking just how much more these people can take.

The good news is that the growth rate of the population seems to be leveling off. Projections indicate that by the second decade of the 21st century, there will be fewer babies than children in Egypt. Though this indicates that the population may be retreating from the disastrously explosive growth that followed World War II, it leaves the thorny question of what to do with the vast numbers of unskilled workers that the overwhelmed and underfunded public education system continues to pour into the labor pool every spring. A study a few years ago estimated that the economy would have to grow by 44% per year -- an obviously unattainable number -- in order to accommodate them all and make any meaningful dent in the current levels of unemployment.

Tourism continues to be the biggest earner and highest-profile employer in the Egyptian economy. The government boasts of more than 43 million "tourist nights" (1 tourist for 1 night; 2 people a week would thus count as 14, give or take), bringing in around $9 billion in 2007. The industry is heavily underwritten by foreign aid, with the United States and the European Union investing particularly heavily in the preservation of tourist-drawing monuments in Upper Egypt, attempting to protect sensitive ecosystems in tourist areas, and building infrastructure on the Sinai Peninsula. The next biggest source of money for the country is remittances by Egyptians living abroad sending their earnings home. In 2006, these amounted to more than $5 billion, much of it coming from the Gulf countries, where large numbers of Egyptians work in low-status jobs. The third source of money here is the Suez Canal, seized from the British and French by the Egyptian government in 1956. The fees paid by ships for traversing the 163km (101-mile) artificial waterway topped $4 billion in 2007.


Politically, the country is at a point of transition, though it is unclear what comes next. The army, which seized power in 1952 and has run the country ever since, has lost much of its credibility as the engine of modernity and nationalism over decades of economic mismanagement and the loss of two wars with Israel. The current regime of Hosni Mubarak is widely unpopular and, with the president in his late 70s, the question of succession is openly raised.

Apart from the military itself, there are only two political organizations in Egypt that are capable of making a serious bid for power. The first is the National Democratic Party (NDP), usually referred to in the press as the "ruling NDP party" because it is the parliamentary arm of the Mubarak military regime. Despite substantial internal debate, it would appear that the NDP is preparing to line up behind Mubarak's son Gamal as his anointed successor. The electoral position of the NDP is shored by the security forces, which collude openly in fixing elections by beating and detaining members of the opposition and closing polling stations to their supporters.

The other viable political force in Egypt is the Muslim Brotherhood. Founded in 1928 by Hassan al Banna, the Brotherhood has been through various stages and incarnations in its 80 years of activity. Its claims to have moved beyond violence as a means of gaining power have some credibility, while its claims to having moved into a modern and democratic framework have less. It is clear that it remains a party based on Islamic principles, calling for sharia law to be the source of secular law and the standard by which it should be judged legitimate. It is also clear that as an organization as well as a set of principles, the Brotherhood in Egypt has widespread and deeply committed support in the population.

In order to maintain control of the country through the coming succession, the NDP needs to retain the support of the foreign community, reinvent itself as the competent custodian of Egypt's modernization, and throw off its aura of corruption and incompetence. The Brotherhood, meanwhile, will continue to present itself as a modernized, moderate party capable of taking over a secular government that can work with regional realities that it has opposed -- at times violently -- in the past. Their relative success will determine the course of Egyptian politics for decades to come.

The Islamic Movement

Though the 1980s and 1990s saw a number of successful attacks by Islamic groups, including the assassination in 1981 of then-President Anwar Sadat, the end of the 1990s also saw Egypt put the era of homegrown Islamic-inspired terrorism, at least on a scale that could threaten the stability of the state, behind it. This was due to two factors: first, a heavy crackdown in which internal security forces killed most of the leadership and potential leadership of any remaining cells, and second, a loss of credibility and legitimacy in the economically disastrous aftermath of the Luxor attacks in 1997. Seeing the virtual disappearance of tourist revenues, very few people in Egypt were willing to support a violent solution. Those who did were easily enough picked off.

What is left now is an essentially peaceable Islamic movement, followed by broad swathes of the middle and upper-middle classes and led by the Muslim Brotherhood, but also bringing in major Islamic institutions such as Al Azhar University. The Mubarak regime continues to talk and act as though it were still facing the threat of violent terrorist groups, but this is largely political maneuvering designed to discredit the opposition and to maintain its position as the second-largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid in the world. This rhetoric represents a policy of hiding its head in the sand when it comes to the threat represented by a moderate, modernized, and politically astute Islamic movement, and points to a brighter political future for the Islamist groups than for the old-guard military.

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