Egypt, the 15th most populous country in the world, is an Arab nation bordered by Israel, Libya and Sudan. It has a global reputation due to the legacy of its ancient cultural roots. While the country’s heritage remains a source of great pride, Egypt’s contemporary culture has also been shaped by more recent historical events. Many traditional values continue to be defining aspects of Egyptian culture; however, these are now accompanied by new ideas and values. Furthermore, as the gateway between northeast Africa and the Middle East, it has been significantly influenced by various interactions with other cultures and countries.
Geography and Spaces
An overwhelming majority of the population (approximately 95%) reside in the narrow strip of fertile land along the Nile River, which is roughly 5% of the country’s land area. This means that crowded conditions are a normal part of daily life for most Egyptians. Many people have largely adapted to this close proximity.
The Nile River separates the two main regions of Egypt: the ‘Valley’ or ‘Sa’id’ (south of the Nile) and the Delta (north of the Nile). These two regions vary greatly in regard to general attitudes and culture. Those in the south (Sa’id) are often more conservative and religious. They may refer to themselves as people of ‘honour’ (see Honour and Dignity below). Those who live in the north, particularly from the larger cities, are often more liberal and open to a greater diversity of lifestyles. The diversity in the large cities of Cairo and Alexandria is in part due to the presence of immigrants, refugees and tourists. Lifestyle patterns in these areas generally resemble globalised urban culture. In addition, the strong economic and cultural influence of the United States can be seen in the art, literature and cuisine of urban Egypt.
The tendency to adopt more or attitudes often varies according to one’s social class and living arrangements. Those who can afford to live in larger homes often lean towards an mindset. Meanwhile, those in slums or rural areas tend to emphasise a sense of community over individual privacy and private property.
The concentration of the population along the Nile contributes to high birth rates, leading to a rapidly expanding population. Accordingly, over half of the Egyptian population are 24 years old or younger. Young children are seemingly everywhere, serving as a constant reminder of the country’s population growth. These two factors – population growth and density – have led to stress on natural and economic resources. One consequence is chronic underemployment for the predominantly youthful population, leading many Egyptians to seek education and/or employment abroad.
A person’s place of origin and social class are important determinants for guiding how people interact with one another. The social class an Egyptian is born into tends to dictate many aspects of their everyday life and access to opportunities. Status is defined more in terms of one’s family background and reputation rather than wealth, making social mobility difficult.
One marker often used to determine social class is the university one attends. Education is highly valued in Egypt and families invest a lot in educating their children regardless of their income. Attaining a high level of education is one of the few avenues for social mobility. Moreover, being able to speak fluent English or French often indicates that one is highly educated and probably from an upper social class.
In recent years, the rigid social class structure has undergone significant change, with digital media – particularly social media platforms – now playing an important role in the dissemination and expression of Egyptian culture. Given the country’s low rates of literacy, digital media has helped make popular culture and the arts more widely accessible. Moreover, the Internet has provided access to several types of information previously blocked by government censors. Access to alternative ideas led many Egyptians to question the , and this played an important role in the Egyptian Revolution.
The Egyptian Revolution (2011)
In 2011, widespread protests called for an end to the regime of longtime president Hosni Mubarak. Participants in the movement were predominantly middle class citizens that organised and coordinated demonstrations through social media platforms. While they were the main driving force behind the revolt, members of lower social classes also took to the streets. The overall slogan of the revolution, “bread, freedom and social justice” (aīsh, hirriyya, ‘adāla igtimā’iyya), resonated with the wider population, not just the middle class.
Under intense pressure from the public and factions within the military, Mubarak ultimately resigned as president and was later found guilty of a number of crimes and imprisoned. There was virtually no censorship amid the revolution, and much of the Egyptian population was able to be openly critical of Egyptian society and push for new ideas (such as secularism and social capitalism). This turn towards liberalism was short-lived as the conservative Muslim Brotherhood stepped into the power vacuum. A Muslim Brotherhood candidate was democratically elected to replace Mubarak. The Muslim Brotherhood attempted to resume censorship and suppress dissent, which led to a second wave of protests and a military coup. In 2014, former Egyptian defence minister Abdel Fattah el-Sisi was elected as the new president.
The end of Mubarak’s 30-year rule has affected all domains of Egyptian life. Over the past few years, there has been a growth in ‘ashwa’iyyat’ (slum areas) around major cities such as Cairo, reflecting the widening gap between the rich and the poor.
Ethnicity and Identity
Generally, Egypt is quite a homogeneous society, with 99.6% being ethnically Egyptian. Most of the Egyptian population identify as Muslim, with the majority belonging to the Sunni variant (see Islam in Religion). Islamic tradition has a deep influence on the identity of many Egyptians, due to its longstanding presence and position in the culture. Perhaps the most significant unifying component of the Egyptian identity is the language as nearly all Egyptians speak in the Egyptian dialect of Arabic. However, there is significant diversity within Egyptian dialects of Arabic, so much so that some native speakers may not be able to understand each other.
The Egyptian Revolution brought to the forefront questions of and cultural identity regarding Egypt’s position within the wider Arab world. The country is important to the Arab world, with the Arab League headquarters being located in Cairo. Moreover, Egypt is one of the Arab world’s literary centres, producing many of modern Arabic literature’s foremost writers. However, Egyptians continue to debate whether they feel a stronger affinity to being ‘Egyptian’ or ‘Arab’ on both an individual and national level, indicating that Egyptian and Arabic culture are not synonymous.
Honour and Dignity
Some cultural values are generally upheld across all geographic and class distinctions in Egypt. The notion of honour (sharaf) is a central concept that guides behaviour and significantly influences interactions in Egyptian culture. It is deeply intertwined with people’s ideas about their personal dignity (karama). Traditionally, a man’s honour was determined by his ability to protect the women in his care. While many cultural ideas of honourable behaviour may still be related to responsibility, such traditional customs tend to be prevalent only in more rural areas.
Honour in modern-day Egypt is more commonly determined by the degree to which people exhibit and respect common cultural values of modesty, loyalty, honesty and hospitality. For example, the way they dress, the way they present themselves, the hospitality they show friends and guests, and the respect they give the elderly and those in authority can be perceived to reflect their honour and dignity (sharaf and karama). Pride and status is found in being helpful, generous and charitable to others. Everyone is also expected to be loyal to his family and ‘a man of his word’. As Egypt is generally a society, the needs of one’s family or community typically take precedence over one’s personal needs or desires.
One’s honour is intertwined with family reputation in Egypt and, thus, preservation of honour is often understood in terms of the collective rather than the individual. In the event of an individual’s failure or shortcoming, the whole family’s name and honour is often affected, and shame is felt by everyone related to the person. In this way, there is a cultural pressure for individuals to protect their family’s reputation by stressing their positive qualities, emphasising their family members’ achievements and adhering to social expectations. As honesty is highly valued in Egyptian culture, failing to uphold one’s promise is a quick way to bring dishonour on one’s family.
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