Dr. Allen H. Merriam
Professor of Communication (Ret.)
Missouri Southern State University
Egyptians love to call their homeland “the Mother of the World” (in Arabic Om el-Donya) in recognition of its many contributions to science, art, and human civilization. Others might associate Egypt with camels, spectacular pyramids, mummies of exotic pharaohs such as King Tut, and Cleopatra, the legendary queen who bore children for both Julius Caesar and Mark Antony.
A closer look reveals an Egypt at the political and commercial center of the Arab world, the recipient of the second most military aid from the United States (after Israel), and the world’s 15th most populous nation with 84 million people.
The “Arab Spring” of 2011 unleashed dramatic upheaval. Popular uprisings and mass demonstrations in Cairo’s Tahrir (Liberation) Square − enhanced by new technologies and social media − led to the Feb. 11 resignation of Egypt’s president Hosni Mubarak. He ruled nearly 30 years under an emergency law giving extensive powers to the military. Opponents charge Mubarak with massive corruption and human rights abuses.
Cairo, the teeming capital, represents Africa’s most populous city with about 12 million people. It was founded in the 10th century during the Fatimid caliphate and named after the Arabic al-Qahirah (the Victorious). In Cairo one can find the 1,000-year-old Al-Azhar University, arguably the most prestigious center of learning in Islam, and the Citadel begun by Saladin, a Muslim hero who defeated Christian Crusaders and recaptured Jerusalem Oct. 2, 1187. President Obama spoke at Cairo University on June 4, 2009, and called for a “new beginning” in U.S.-Muslim relations.
Egypt’s second biggest city, Alexandria, provides a major Mediterranean port at the mouth of the Nile − the world’s longest river. Named after Alexander the Great in 332 B.C., the city soon emerged as the intellectual capital of the Hellenistic world. It became famous for its unparalleled library which contained hundreds of thousands of scrolls and manuscripts. A modern library, built to replace the destroyed original and strikingly designed in the shape of a giant sun dial, was dedicated in 2002. Alexandria also was the site of the 400-foot Pharos lighthouse, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.
Most Egyptians live close to the Nile River, the lifeline of a country where the inhospitable Sahara Desert dominates the topography. Along the Nile in southern Egypt sits Abu Simbel, a temple complex built by the pharaoh Ramses II who reigned for 67 years during the 19th Dynasty (13th century B.C.). UNESCO moved this archeological treasure to higher ground in the 1960s to escape inundation by Lake Nasser, a 300-mile reservoir created by the Aswan High Dam to control flooding, promote irrigation, and generate hydroelectricity.
Egyptian history includes dozens of dynasties spanning several millennia. Subsequently the land has known many occupiers: Hyksos, Assyrians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Ottoman Turks, France, and Britain. Napoleon invaded in 1798 and the French diplomat Ferdinand de Lesseps spearheaded the 1869 completion of the Suez Canal, a strategic waterway linking the Mediterranean and Red Seas. After the last British troops left the area in 1956, President Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalized the Canal which sparked an international crisis finally resolved by the United Nations.
Egyptians live in a highly volatile region. To the west lies Libya, a target of NATO bombing during this year’s anti-Gaddafi uprising. To the south is Sudan, whose southern section seceded this year following two decades of civil war rooted in ethnic and religious differences. And to the east are Israel, Palestinian lands, Jordan, Syria, and Iraq − all places of violent turmoil and conflict.
Arab countries view the presence of Israel and its occupation of Palestinian land as especially contentious. Some Arabs refer to May 14, 1948, when the modern Jewish state came into being, as the Day of the Catastrophe (in Arabic Yawm an-Nakbah). Open warfare between Egypt and Israel erupted in 1948, 1956, 1967 and 1973, with control of the Suez Canal, Sinai Peninsula, and Gaza continuing concerns. President Anwar Sadat’s bold visit to Jerusalem in 1977 and subsequent peace treaty with Israel sought rapprochement, but extremists within the army assassinated him in 1981.
Approximately one-fourth of all Muslims are Arabs. And about one-fourth of all Arabs are Egyptians. Sunni Muslims comprise the preponderance of Egyptians, but about 10 percent of its people claim to be Coptic Christians whose ancestors experienced periodic outbursts of persecution. The word “Copt” derives from Greek meaning Egyptian.
While Saudi Arabia, home to the pilgrimage cities of Mecca and Medina, forms the spiritual center of Islam, Egypt represents the heart of the Arab world. The Arab League’s headquarters are located in Cairo. It bears emphasizing that Iran is not an Arab country. Its language, Farsi or Persian, is an Indo-European tongue unlike Arabic which, with Hebrew, is a Semitic language.
The 2011 Egypt Semester at Missouri Southern State University becomes especially timely given the fast-moving changes currently sweeping across the Middle East. An additional motivation stems from MSSU’s participation in the Model Arab League. Since 1992 Dr. Conrad Gubera, professor of sociology, has guided students in researching an Arab country and then attending an annual convention to debate and discuss topics with other college students. Next spring MSSU will represent Egypt. All expenses are covered by a Harry and Berniece Gockel bequest. This experience offers increased knowledge and understanding of the cultures and issues studied − outcomes wholly consistent with MSSU’s international mission.