By Tim Lambert

Medieval Egypt

In the 4th century the Roman Empire split into two. Egypt was part of the eastern half, known to us as the Byzantine Empire. However in the 7th century the Arabs conquered it. The Arabs invaded Egypt in 639 and by 642 all of Egypt was in their hands. It became part of an Islamic Empire and was ruled from Baghdad. However in 868 an administrator called Ahmed Ibn Tulun declared Egypt independent but independence did not last long. His son and successor was assassinated and rule from Baghdad was reimposed.

Then in 969 Egypt was conquered by the Fatimids of Tunisia. The Fatimids ruled Egypt until 1171 and they built Cairo, which became the capital.

However in 1171 a Syrian named Salah-ad-Din, known in the West as Saladin, became ruler of Egypt. He founded a dynasty called the Ayyubids who ruled Egypt for nearly 80 years. Then in 1250 a man named Beybars seized power in Egypt. He and his successors were called the Mamluks and they ruled Egypt until 1517.

During that period Egypt was rich and powerful. However in 1517 Egypt was conquered by the Ottoman Turks.

Modern Egypt

Under the Ottomans Egypt was allowed some autonomy. As long as Egypt paid taxes the Ottomans were content to let the Egyptians administer themselves. Nevertheless, the 17th and 18th centuries were ones of economic decline for Egypt and in 1719 the country suffered a devastating outbreak of plague.

Then in 1798 a French army led by Napoleon landed at Egypt. (Napoleon hoped that if he occupied Egypt British links with India would be disrupted). Napoleon defeated the Egyptians on land at the battle of the Pyramids but he was utterly defeated at sea by the British navy. So Napoleon abandoned his army and left Egypt. Afterward British and Ottoman forces defeated the French army and forced them to surrender. However, the French expedition led to a renewed interest in Ancient Egypt in Europe.

After the French left there was a power struggle in Egypt. It was eventually won by Albanian mercenaries led by Mohammed Ali, who became the Viceroy of Egypt. (Nominally he was under the control of the Ottoman Sultan but in practice, he was more or less independent). Ali tried to modernize Egypt and he built factories and shipyards. However, he died in 1849.

In 1859 work began on the Suez Canal. It was built by the French engineer Ferdinand de Lesseps (1805-94).

Khedive Ismail (1863-79) carried on the policy of trying to modernize Egypt, establishing a postal service and building railways. In 1869 the Suez Canal was completed. However, he had to borrow from European lenders at high rates of interest to fund modernization. Eventually to avoid bankruptcy Ismail was forced to sell his shares in the Suez Canal to the British in 1875. He was followed by his son Tewfik in 1879.

In 1882 there was an uprising in Egypt. Worried about their investments in the Suez Canal the British sent troops to occupy Egypt. They kept Khedive as a puppet ruler. Naturally, the Egyptians resented becoming a British colony and in 1919 anti-British riots swept Egypt. In 1922 Britain recognized Egypt as an independent state. Yet the British still controlled the Egyptian communication system, its legal system, and its foreign policy! The British made a successor of Khedive called Fuad king of Egypt but he had only limited power. In 1935 he was followed by his son Farouk.

Then in 1942 German troops invaded Egypt but they were repulsed by the British at the Battle of El-Alamein. However, following anti-British riots, the last British troops were withdrawn from Egypt in 1947.

In 1948 Egypt was defeated in a war with Israel. Farouk was blamed for the disaster and in 1952 a group of army officers called the Free Officers staged a coup and forced Farouk to abdicate. Their leader, General Naguib became the leader of Egypt but in 1954 he was replaced by Gamal Abdel Nasser. In 1956 Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal. Britain, France, and Israel formed an alliance and in October 1956 Israel invaded Sinai. The British and French sent troops to Port Said but American pressure forced them to withdraw.

Nasser introduced a socialist regime and moved Egypt closer to the Soviet Union. Under him, education and health care improved but it was a repressive regime and the economy stagnated. Egypt was defeated by Israel in the Six-Day War of 1967 and Nasser died in 1970.

He was replaced by Anwar Sadat who reversed the discredited socialist policies and encouraged foreign investment. As a result, the Egyptian economy boomed (although Egypt fought another unsuccessful war with Israel in 1973). In 1978 Sadat made peace with Israel by the Camp David Agreement. However, he was assassinated by extremists in 1981 and was replaced by Hosni Mubarak.

Today Egypt faces the problems of a rapidly rising population and a lack of farming land. However, the tourist industry is booming and Egypt has great potential for exporting natural gas.

In 2011 after demonstrations in Egypt Hosni Mubarak was forced to resign and a new chapter in the history of Egypt began. Egypt gained a new constitution in 2014. In 2020 the population of Egypt was 100 million.

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A Brief History of Morocco

A Brief history of Ethiopia


Last revised 2020