12 facts that will help you understand what’s going on in Egypt
1. Egypt is huge.
80 million people live in Egypt, 37 million in Cairo, of whom some millions are currently protesting each day. 80 million people is about a fourth of the Arab world’s population.
2. Egypt is militarily strong.
3. Egypt is culturally central to the Middle East.
Although Mecca and Medina are in Saudi Arabia, Egypt contains the thousand-year-old al-Azhar University, the first Islamic university, a renowned center of learning and particularly of Islamic jurisprudence; the pyramids and other remnants of ancient cultures of Egypt, many of which are stored in the Egyptian Museum; the Coptic Orthodox Church; and the ancient cities of Alexandria and Cairo.
Many Egyptian political movements, including the supporters of Nasser and the Muslim Brotherhood, have spread in one form or another throughout the Middle East during the last century.
4. Tunisia was just overthrown by a popular revolution.
A Tunisian popular revolt overthrew the dictator of Tunisia in December. Tunisia, which contains the ruins of Rome’s old rival Carthage, is a small Arab country on the other side of Libya from Egypt. It had been ruled by the dictatorship of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali since 1987, who overthrew the previous “president for life” in a bloodless coup.
5. Egypt kicked out the Brits in a popular uprising.
Modern Egypt was ruled by a dynastic monarchy from 1805 until 1952, although from 1883 to 1919 it was really controlled by the British empire. Egypt, from the British empire through popular uprisings in 1919 and 1921 (similar to the one we see today) was led by the Wafd Party.
6. Egypt has been ruled by a military dictatorship since 1952.
In 1952, a military coup led by Gamal Abdel-Nasser overthrew the monarchy, and Nasser became the first “president” of Egypt.
Since 1952, Egypt has been ruled by three successive military dictators using the title “president”. No incumbent president in Egypt has ever lost an election or declined to run again; power passed to Nasser’s vice-president Sadat when Nasser died, and to Sadat’s vice-president Hosni Mubarak when Sadat died.
Nasser was very popular during his reign, Sadat was somewhat less popular, and Mubarak is very unpopular.
7. Egypt’s dictatorship is brutal.
Torture of innocent people is a common technique in police investigations in Egypt. The US government has sent many prisoners to be tortured by the Egyptian police.
The Egyptian police have no accountability. Last year, for example, they beat Khaled Said to death because he disobeyed an illegal order to produce identification. The numerous innocent people tortured by the police have no legal recourse.
Political figures that oppose the president have frequently been arrested in Egypt (including within the last month) but not assassinated and rarely expelled from the country.
8. Egypt’s dictatorship is a major ally of the US.
Egypt’s last two dictators, who have ruled the country for forty years, have enjoyed very strong support from the US. This is in part because Anwar Sadat, Hosni Mubarak’s predecessor, made peace with Israel. Egypt controls one of the borders of the Gaza Strip, one of the Palestinian territories, and has built a wall along it to prevent Palestinians from going in and out.
9. Egypt receives a lot of military aid from the US.
Egypt is the second-largest recipient of US military aid, US$1.3 billion per year. This pays for military equipment. It is widely believed in Egypt that Egypt’s dictatorial regime would have fallen long ago without US support.
10. Egypt is still a poor country.
11. The Muslim Brotherhood is the biggest opposing political party in Egypt.
The Muslim Brotherhood was founded in 1928, and although it has always advocated nonviolent reform, it has been illegal but tolerated under Mubarak. “Independent” candidates belonging to the MB won 20% of the parliamentary seats in the rigged Egyptian parliamentary election of 2005. It advocates a fairly conservative version of Islam, promoting, for example, the separate education of girls.
The MB condemned the attacks on the US on September 11, 2001, and has generally opposed political violence.
Its ultimate goal is political reunification of the Muslim world under Islamic law.
International branches of the MB are influential in a number of states, and one of them, Hamas, is the current democratically elected government of the Palestinian occupied territories.
12. Mohamed ElBaradei has returned to Egypt.
He won the Nobel Peace Prize for his work controlling nuclear weapons proliferation around the world as the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency. He has opposed Mubarak’s dictatorship for several years, but left the country a few years ago to live in Vienna, saying that the Egyptian press refused to talk to him.
Now he has returned, and a coalition of opposition parties, including the Muslim Brotherhood and the Wafd Party, have nominated him as their spokesman.
Be sure to check out How to Follow the Egyptian Uprising on Twitter, written by Nick Rowlands.
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