Joe Boyles – Guest Columnist
For the last couple of weeks, I’ve spoken about the revolution taking place in Egypt. What follows is some background information and why these events are important to us.
Egypt links the African continent with the Middle East. It is and has been for centuries a strategic crossroads. With some 80 million people, it is the second most populous nation in Africa and the very heart of the Islamic world.
To join the Mediterranean with the Red Sea and circumvent a long, costly and hazardous voyage around the Horn of Africa, engineers dreamed for centuries of constructing a canal. This was accomplished by the French and Ferdinand de Lesseps in 1869 using slave labor in much the same way that Pharaohs had in constructing the pyramids. Today, the Suez Canal is 120 miles long, 800 feet wide and 79 feet deep and can accommodate nearly every ship that plies the seas. It is an engineering marvel and its value to world transportation is incalculable.
It is fairly simple to describe Egypt’s geography – desert (some mountainous) and the Nile River Valley. Fully 95 percent of Egypt’s population lives in the fertile, ancient river valley. It is no accident that the world’s first civilizations formed on the banks of the Nile. Egypt is a land starved of water, and the world’s longest river, originating in the highlands of Central Africa, flows northward, emptying into the Mediterranean Sea. In that three thousand mile journey, there is ample opportunity to draw the water to irrigate fields and quench the thirst of people and animals. We who live in the bounteous Suwannee River Valley can certainly appreciate the importance that the Nile plays in this parched land.
Tourism is a vital part of the Egyptian economy and has suffered during the recent populist revolt. The dry desert climate attracts many from cold, clammy Europe, and the ancient wonders near Cairo and Luxor are an important attraction. Egypt played an major role in Biblical history and Christians flock to the ancient land to walk in the footsteps of history. Did you know that until the Eiffel Tower was built a little over a hundred years ago that the Great Pyramid at 481 feet was the world’s tallest structure for more than 20 centuries?
Most Egyptians are Sunni Moslems. While most of the ancient sites of the religion are further to the east, Egypt is considered the heart of Islam with its cultural centers and universities. An important religious minority is the Coptic Christians which make up 10-20 percent of the population.
In modern times, The Egyptians were colonized by the European powers, notably France and England. That changed with a popular uprising six decades ago. Since then, Egypt has had three rulers –Nassar, Sadat, and Mubarak – all of whom came from the Army. We heard during the recent revolt that the Army, now in charge following Mubarak’s fall, is held in great respect. The Army is large at nearly one million and is very representative of the people. While the police are held in contempt, the people respect the Army. During the three week uprising, the Army held its fire and persuasively worked to restore order and calm.
There is great concern over the Muslim Brotherhood, the foundation of radical Islam, begun in Egypt in 1928. The roots of al-Qaeda can be traced to the Brotherhood. They were not in charge of the recent popular revolt and struggled to gain a foothold, but they are the best organized of the former regime’s opposition. Will they hijack the revolution begun by young people with social media such as Facebook and Twitter that the Brotherhood abhors?
Some have likened this revolution to what happened in Iran in 1979, but there is an important difference. The Ayatollah had been exiled to Paris for more than a decade by the Shah. The people clamored for his return to lead their revolution. No such exile or leader is behind the Egyptian revolt. This was a spontaneous demonstration by the man-on-the-street, spurred by similar dissension in nearby Tunisia. Where will it spread next? Perhaps Iran — wouldn’t that be great!