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'Egypt: A Short History'.

Summary: Art & Culture

Since the fall of Hosni Mubarak last February, the eyes of the world are still very much on Egypt. The country is facing an uncertain future. An imposing list of foreign rulers who reigned over Egypt after the pharaohs, underlines the importance of the upcoming and unprecedented democratic elections. Before the 1952 military coup d'etat, which brought an end to centuries of foreign rule, Egypt had been governed by Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Arab Muslim conquerors, North African Fatimids, Ayyubids, Mamluk, Ottoman Turks, French Bonapartist, the Albanian dynasty of Muhammad Ali, and lastly, the British. Unable to recommend a book covering such a long period of history in a brief and concise form, Robert Tignor decided to "try his hand at such a study." In this first paperback edition of "Egypt: A Short History," the author has added a new afterword, "Egypt Transformed?" written at the end of February 2011. He highlights the daunting tasks facing the Supreme Military Council, a "little-used body, hastily invoked to deal with the collapse of the central government." Indeed, the new rulers of Egypt, the group of generals, are overwhelmed with the duties that fell on their shoulders the day after Mubarak's departure. They have stumbled from crisis to crisis and ruling by trial and error, attempting to please everyone, while in effect, satisfying no one. The revolution by itself cannot answer all the demonstrators' demands, and although the demonstrators in Tahrir abolished the idea of dictatorship, the system is still the same. A brief look at Egypt's history can help us both understand the making of Egypt and the reasons behind what has already been dubbed Egypt's unfinished revolution. "Change and continuity" are, according to Tignor, characteristics of Egypt's long history, which began with the predynastic era from 5500 to 4000 BCE. Some historians believe that Egypt was the first nation-state in the world. Its ancient history comprises three periods of high cultural and political success: the Old Kingdom (2686-2181 BCE), the Middle Kingdom (2055-1650 BCE) and the New Kingdom (1550-1069 BCE), which were interrupted by periods of political and cultural instability. The three great pyramids built in Giza, a suburb of Cairo, are the only one of the Seven Wonders of the World still standing today. Designed by King Djoser's (2667-2648) chief minister, Imhotep, these pyramids truly symbolize the Old Kingdom and show how talented the ancient Egyptians were in mathematics. "Just how the Egyptian learned to build in stone with such incredible precision and unmatched beauty is yet another of the mysteries of this ancient culture," says Tignor. The Pharaonic era finally came to an end in 332 BCE when Alexander the Great invaded Egypt. Consequently, for more than two millennia, native-born Egyptians would not rule their country. A few years after Alexander's death in 323 BCE, Egypt was ruled by a Greek general who took the title of Ptolemy I. His dynasty lasted for three centuries until the year 30 BCE when the Roman emperor Caesar Augustus incorporated Egypt, then ruled by Queen Cleopatra, into the Roman Empire. The move of the center of the Roman Empire from Rome to Constantinople (renamed Byzantium under Theodosius's reign) meant that Egypt looked to Byzantium for its political leadership for three centuries until the Arab Muslim conquest of Egypt in 640. Egypt was swiftly integrated into the Islamic world. Amr Ibn Al-As signed a treaty in 641 with the Byzantine commander who conceded control over Egypt. Caliph Umar reminded Amr that he should chose a capital for Egypt which looks eastward, toward the Arabian Peninsula, rather than toward the Mediterranean. Syria and Iraq became the centers of the Arab world during the Umayyad and Abbasid dynasties, but things would change again for Egypt when in 969 -- a brilliant Fatimid general, Jawhar, masterminded the conquest of Egypt from North Africa. Commanding an army of 100,000 men, the Fatimid caliph al-Muizz conquered Egypt. The Fatimids founded the city known in Arabic as "Al-Qahira," or Cairo in English, and ruled until 1171 when Saladin restored Egypt to the Abbasid Empire. Like his predecessors, he relocated the seat of government, on the Muqattam hills, situated to the east of Fustat and Al-Qahira where he built the Citadel, one of the most striking monuments in today's Cairo. It is said that the ruler placed meat, at various locations around the city, and chose the site where the meat stayed fresh the longest. Saladin and the Ayyubids reigned until 1250 when they were overthrown by the Mamluks. Foreign born but locally trained military men, the Mamluks perfected a system of political power, which reached its height in Egypt during the 13th and 14th centuries. The bubonic plague known as the Black Death spread throughout Europe, Africa and Asia and reached Egypt in 1347. According to the well-known Egyptian chronicler Al-Maqrizi, "Cairo became an empty desert, and there was no one to be seen in the streets." China and Europe recovered much faster than Egypt where the Mamluks did not manage the crisis properly. Weakened and disliked by the population, the Mamluks were easily defeated by the better armed Ottoman forces in 1517. The Ottoman Empire lasted longer than any other in world history (1400-1919). "Its administrators demonstrated talents of governance that today's ruling elite, unable to accommodate religious, ethnic, and linguistic division at home and abroad, must truly admire" remarks Tignor. From 1798 until 1882, three great figures, Napoleon Bonaparte, Muhammad Ali and Khedive Ismail, dominated the political life. Muhammad Ali's modernization program was continued by the Khedive Ismail, but all these efforts created a class of native-born educated Egyptians who now dreamed of seizing power for themselves. Furthermore, the Canal Company, remarks Tignor, "became an object of Egyptian nationalist resentment and a symbol of rapacious European capitalism. Should anyone have been surprised at the joy that the Egyptian population expresses when Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal Company in July 1956." The British originally invaded Egypt to protect the access to the Suez Canal. Lord Cromer, Britain's consul general in Egypt, ruled as an absolute autocrat from 1883 until1907. He was also very suspicious of educated Egyptians whom he regarded as "potential critics of British rule." His unwillingness to promote elections combined with a gross misunderstanding of Islam and his despotic rule triggered much discontent, which eventually gave birth to deeply entrenched nationalist ideas. This led to the 1919 revolution, which advocated the creation of a new constitution, the proclamation of Egypt's independence as well as a newly elected government. Egypt would have to wait until July 22, 1952 to see a military coup, organized by a group of young officers who vowed to rule in the interest of the Egyptian people. However, Nasser chose the Soviet economic model -- an ill-fated decision. As a result, the economy grew very little and its foreign policy was also marred by spectacular failures, which culminated with Nasser's ill-fated demand for the UN to withdraw its observers from Egyptian territory. Fearing an attack, the Israelis launched an air strike destroying 300 out of a total of 430 combat airplanes. Sadat, who succeeded Nasser in 1970, launched a surprise attack against Israel in October 1973, which eventually prepared the grounds for an Egyptian rapprochement with the US and for new relations between Israel and Egypt. His subsequent visit to the Knesset and unpopular peace treaty with Israel, sowed anger and discontent, which eventually led to Sadat's assassination on Oct. 6, 1981. His successor, Hosni Mubarak, pursued Sadat's "infitah" open door policies, and its effects could clearly be seen by 2000. The author rightfully says that although Nasser, Sadat and Mubarak claimed to restore authority to the people, they ruled as autocratically as their predecessors. The Egyptian people deeply resented Mubarak's rule, and although the revolution took everyone by surprise, few doubted that the regime was long overdue. However, the fall of this unpopular president has not brought so far any substantial changes in a country already beset by widespread poverty and rampant unemployment. Tourism has also been hurt a great deal and the country is suffering from the repercussions of the financial trouble in the euro zone and the United States. As Egypt embarks on a new era, Egyptians, are finally being asked what they want, for the very first time in their 7,000 year long history. "EGYPT: A SHORT HISTORY" With a new afterword by the author Robert L. Tignor Published by Princeton University Press Paperback 371 pages

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Publication:Arab News (Jeddah, Saudi Arabia)
Geographic Code:7EGYP
Date:Dec 27, 2011
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