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Origins

From: The Encyclopedia of Canada's Peoples/Egyptians/Fouad Assaad

Egyptians in Canada are of various ethnic and religious backgrounds which reflect the diversity that characterized the population of Egypt in the nineteenth and for most of the twentieth centuries. Located in the far northeastern corner of the African continent, Egypt’s landmass of just over 1 million square kilometres is washed by the Mediterranean Sea in the north and the Red Sea in the east, and it borders Libya in the east, Sudan in the south, and, along its Sinai peninsula, Israel in the far northeast. Ninety percent of the country is covered by desert, so that the vast majority of its 55.6 million people as well as its agricultural lands are concentrated in the Nile valley. The Nile runs the entire length of the country from the far south to a broad delta where its many tributaries empty into the Mediterranean Sea.

Egypt is renowned as one of the world’s oldest civilizations, whose empire, founded about 3200 B.C.E. and ruled by native rulers known as pharaohs, was to last for nearly three thousand years. When Egypt was finally conquered by Persia in 525 B.C.E., the country entered a period marked by foreign domination that was to last until the second half of the twentieth century. Some of the new rulers brought with them innovations that were to have a lasting impact on Egyptian culture. The Hellenic Greeks (332 B.C.E.–30 C.E.) replaced the hieroglyphic signs of the language of the pharaohs with the Greek letters of the Coptic language. Under Roman and Byzantine rule (30–640 c.e.), Christianity became the dominant religion although the indigenous Coptic Christians refused to surrender their traditional beliefs despite opposition from the Byzantine authorities. The Arabs, who conquered Egypt in 640 and incorporated the country into their caliphate, brought the Islamic faith and the Arabic language. The Egyptians, the majority of whom were Christian Copts, did not oppose the Arab invasion, seeing in the new political order a chance to liberate themselves from the unpopular Byzantium. Arabic became the official language and by the ninth century the majority of Egyptian Copts had converted to Islam.

Following the fall of the Arabic caliphate, much of the Islamic Middle East was ruled by the Mamelukes, a military caste of Circassian, Turkoman, or Mongol origin, who during their presence in Egypt (1250–1517) made the country the centre of the Arabic-speaking Muslim world. Then, in 1517, Egypt fell to the Ottoman Empire. Ottoman rule was largely nominal, however, so that Egypt, like many of the empire’s other provinces, was left largely under the authority of a local governor (pasha). Under such a system, Egypt had, by the nineteenth century, effectively become a semi-independent state, most especially during the long rule (1805–49) of Pasha Mehemet Ali.

The second half of the nineteenth century witnessed the growing influence of European powers in Egypt, in particular France and Great Britain, whose primary concern was that their own strategic interests not be threatened by any internal or external forces which might undermine further the increasingly weakened Ottoman Empire. French influence culminated with the construction in 1869 of the Suez Canal connecting the Red Sea with the Mediterranean. When an Egyptian revolt against increasing European domination broke out in 1882, the British landed troops, crushed the revolt, and then remained to administer the country directly for the next forty years.

The nineteenth century also witnessed the demographic transformation of Egypt. Encouraged by its local governors, large numbers of immigrants from Europe and from nearby Lebanon and Syria were welcomed. As a result, by the outset of the twentieth century Egypt’s population consisted of three broad categories: native Egyptians (the overwhelming majority), semi-Egyptianized groups, and foreigners.

The native Egyptians – both Muslims (mainly Sunnis) and Christian Copts – are considered to be descendants from the time of the Pharaohs and the Arab conquerors. Although their religion differs, both groups share a common language (Arabic) and a common history. Muslims still represent the vast majority (over 85 percent) of Egypt’s population, while Christian Copts account for between 6 and 10 percent.

Although a minority, the history and traditions of the Copts are uniquely Egyptian. The very word “Copt” is derived from the Greek word for the country – “Aegyptus.” Moreover, in contrast to other minorities, the Copts have remained actively involved in all aspects of Egyptian life and share many cultural traits with the Muslim majority. They also fought alongside Muslims in the defense of Egypt, as was demonstrated during the struggle against British occupation in the early twentieth century. Nevertheless, ever since becoming a minority following the seventh-century Arab conquest, the Copts have been subject to various degrees of discrimination and persecution. Partly in response to their plight, they have increased their value to society by specializing in certain professions (for example, land surveying, accounting, tax collecting, and governmental services), by placing great importance on education, and by learning foreign languages (usually English or French).

The semi-Egyptianized groups include the Syrians and Lebanese, the Armenians, and the Jews. Although not considered native Egyptians, these groups are not really foreigners either, especially since they speak Arabic and have, in part, adopted an Egyptian lifestyle. Although the Syrians and Lebanese have been present in Egypt since its early history, large-scale immigration to the country began in the late eighteenth century. Over the next century and a half their numbers increased from 3,000 to 100,000, so that by the 1940s they had become the second-largest minority in Egypt, living for the most part in Cairo, Alexandria, and other cities near the Suez Canal where they engaged primarily in trade and commerce. Most Syrians and Lebanese in Egypt were Christians (Antiochian Orthodox Melkites or Maronite Catholics), although a considerable number became Muslims who assimilated quickly and easily into Egyptian society. Whether or not they converted to Islam, most were bilingual and the Lebanese particularly were known for their adoption of the French language and French culture.

It is in this sense that the Syrio-Lebanese community in Egypt maintained a transitional status. While their mother tongue was Arabic and their cultural background Middle Eastern, they continued to admire and adopt European cultural traits. On the other hand, even though they were immigrants, Egyptian society usually thought of them as a local people, who had become Egyptian nationals and carried Egyptian passports.

Armenians came to Egypt mainly in the last decades of the nineteenth and outset of the twentieth centuries. By the 1940s, they numbered about 30,000. The Armenians maintained their own language, culture, and religion, and, although many spoke Arabic, they never abandoned their Armenian mother tongue. The majority belonged to the Armenian Apostolic (Gregorian) Church and lived mainly in Cairo and Alexandria where they found employment as merchants and skilled artisans.

Jewish communities in Egypt, especially in Cairo, can be traced back to the seventh century. It was in the nineteenth century, however, that their numbers grew from about 7,000 at the outset to 25,000 (1897) and eventually to 65,000 by the 1940s. About 70 percent had immigrated from other Arab countries and the remainder from Europe. In general, the Jews in Egypt were an Arabic-speaking community, and, while they had their own Jewish schools and synagogues, many of their children were sent to European schools which emphasized the French and English languages. The Jews were concentrated in cities and towns, particularly Cairo and Alexandria, where they were active as merchants, artisans, money-dealers, and, later, professional clerks and agents in commercial enterprises. Although originally considered native to Egypt, by the early twentieth century the Jews could be classified as semi-Egyptianized. This was the result of two factors: the phenomenon of Egyptian-born Jews integrating into the community of Jewish immigrants; and the tendency of Jews to obtain foreign protection and foreign passports. (By the 1930s, it was estimated that only 7 percent of the community were Egyptian citizens.)

The foreign groups (mostly Europeans) began to increase during the first half of the nineteenth century and continued especially after the opening of the Suez Canal (1869) and the economic boom of the 1870s. By 1907 they numbered 147,000. The most numerous were Greeks, Italians, French, and British. Initially, French influence was significant because Egypt’s local rulers appointed many to administrative posts. After the British occupation of Egypt in 1882, however, British personnel had the most extensive influence over the country’s affairs. The European communities were self-contained and self-sufficient. Most Europeans worked in industry, transport, commerce, banking, and the service sector, located in the towns of the Nile Delta region and the Canal Zone.

The influence of Europeans over Egyptian affairs was disproportionate to the size of their population. By 1914 they owned 92 percent of the capital invested in the country, despite the fact that they made up less than 2 percent of the population. This trend continued well into the twentieth century, so that by 1948 foreigners controlled 61 percent of the total capital of corporations operating in Egypt. Europeans also had widespread influence over Egypt’s educational system. By the 1930s, the country had 279 French, 91 Italian, 88 Greek, 78 American, and 74 British schools. It was mainly through these schools that the English and French languages were introduced to the Egyptian populace, particularly among the middle- and upper-class urban-dwellers.

Following the outbreak of World War I, Great Britain declared Egypt its protectorate and assumed responsibility for the defence of the Suez Canal. At the end of the war, Egyptian aspirations for independence, led by the newly formed Wafd Party, led to a revolt in 1919 that was crushed by British troops. Although in 1922 the protectorate came to an end and Egypt was recognized a constitutional monarchy under its own kings, real power remained in the hands of the British. The current political order seemed destined to continue with the signing in 1936 of a twenty-year military alliance between Great Britain and Egypt and the accession to the throne that same year of the pro-British King Farouk.

The future of Egypt and its dependence on Great Britain was to change, however, during the years of crisis in the Middle East just after World War II. In 1948 Britain left Palestine, and the subsequent defeat of the Egyptian troops during the Arab-Israeli War of that year caused popular discontent throughout the country. The pre-war Wafd Party finally came to power in 1950. It unilaterally cancelled the 1936 military treaty with Britain and this led to clashes between British and Egyptian troops in the Canal Zone. Finally, in 1952, Egyptian army officers launched a military coup that drove King Farouk into exile and that one year later transformed Egypt into a republic.

The real power behind Egypt’s revolution was Colonel Gamel Abdel Nasser, who took control of the government in 1954, thereby becoming the country’s first native Egyptian ruler in more than 2,000 years. Nasser set out to create an Egypt not dependent politically or economically on Britain or any other state. His program to nationalize Egypt’s foreign companies, including the Suez Canal, led to a war with Great Britain, France, and Israel in late 1956. But when the war ended after a few months and the canal reopened, it was under the full control of Egypt. As a result of both the 1956 war and the nationalization laws, large numbers of Jews and Europeans began to emigrate from Egypt.

Nasser also sought to bring Egypt closer to the rest of the Arab world, whose interests he felt obliged to defend. The first step in this direction was to join in 1958 with Syria to form the United Arab Republic. Other Arab states were invited to become members, but this did not happen and the union collapsed in 1961. In the early 1960s Nasser passed another series of nationalization laws, this time directed at large landowners and the largest Egyptian-owned, private-sector companies. By the end of the decade he had sent troops into Yemen and had been ignominiously defeated in the Arab-Israeli Six Day War of 1967, which led to Egypt’s loss of the Sinai peninsula. All these events caused a mood of uncertainty in the country and the beginning of a large-scale emigration of Western-oriented groups like the Lebanese as well as native Egyptians. Among the latter were Copts as well as conservative Muslims who were repressed for their opposition to the secular and at times pro-Soviet orientation of Nasser’s government.

Stability continued to elude Egypt during the first few years after Nasser’s death in 1970 and the accession to power of his supporter and former fellow military officer, Anwar Sadat. Sadat attempted to end the Israeli occupation of the Sinai by launching in October 1973 an attack on Israeli troops stationed in the peninsula. While this move compensated somewhat for Egypt’s defeat in 1967, it was not until Sadat visited Israel ten years later and a treaty recognizing that country was signed in 1978 (the Camp David Accords) that Egypt was assured of the Sinai’s return (which eventually occurred in 1982). In contrast to Nasser, Sadat expelled the large number of Soviet advisers that his predecessor had welcomed, and in 1974 he launched a policy of infitah (economic deregulation) that encouraged foreign investment, most especially from Europe and the United States. Although this program did not fulfil expectations, Sadat’s success in reaching peace with Israel did bring with it large sums in American foreign aid that continue to this day.

Sadat was assassinated in 1981 by discontented conservative Muslims, but his policy of supporting ongoing peace negotiations with Israel and its Arab neighbours has been continued by his successor, Hosni Mubarak. Nevertheless, Egypt continues to be plagued by widespread poverty in its overcrowded cities, whose conditions continue to worsen as a result of the rapid rise in population. Since 1960 the number of Egypt’s inhabitants has more than doubled and by the end of the century the population is expected to reach 70 million. Egyptian society is also periodically rocked by attacks on the part of extreme Muslim fundamentalists who are discontent with what they perceive as its government’s secular, Western-oriented social and economic policies.