Egypt Table of Contents

Although the ancestors of the Egyptian people include many races and ethnic groups, including Africans, Arabs, Berbers, Greeks, Persians, Romans, and Turks, the population today is relatively homogeneous linguistically and culturally. Nevertheless, approximately 3 percent of Egyptians belong to minority groups. Linguistic minorities include small communities of Armenians and Greeks, principally in the cities of Cairo and Alexandria; groups of Berber origin in the oases of the Western Desert; and Nubians living in cities in Lower Egypt and in villages clustered along the Nile in Upper Egypt. The Arabicspeaking beduins (nomads) in the Western and Eastern Deserts and the Sinai Peninsula constitute the principal cultural minority. Several hundred Europeans, mostly Italians and French, also lived in Egypt.

In 1989 an estimated 350,000 Greeks constituted Egypt's largest non-Arab minority. Greeks have lived in Egypt since before the time of Alexander the Great. For centuries they have remained culturally, linguistically, and religiously separate from the Egyptians. In 1990 the majority of Greeks lived in Alexandria, although many resided in Cairo.

Armenians have also lived in Egypt for several centuries, although their numbers have declined as a result of heavy emigration since the 1952 Revolution. In 1989 the Armenian community in Egypt was estimated at 12,000. Cairo was traditionally the center of Armenian culture in Egypt, but many Armenians also lived in Alexandria.

An estimated 6,000 Egyptians of Berber origin lived in the Western Desert near the border with Libya. They were ethnically related to the Berber peoples of North Africa. The largest Berber community lived in Siwah Oasis. The Berbers are Muslims, but they have their own language, which is not related to Arabic, and certain unique cultural practices.

About 160,000 Nubians, also Muslims, lived in Egypt in 1990. Most Nubians lived in cities, especially Cairo, Alexandria, and urban areas along the Suez Canal. In the past, Nubians had lived in villages along the Nile from Aswan southward to about 500 kilometers inside Sudan. Before the construction of the Aswan High Dam forced their resettlement, three linguistically separate groups of Nubians lived in this region--the Kenuzi in northern Nubia; the beduin-descended Arabs in central Nubia; and the Fadija-speaking people in southern Nubia near Abu Simbel (Abu Sunbul). Isolated geographically and politically for centuries, the Nubian Valley was only rarely under the control of any central government. Until Egypt's 1952 Revolution, Nubia lacked strong political links with Lower Egypt. Nevertheless, Nubia had persistent economic ties to the rest of Egypt. Since at least the nineteenth century, Nubian men have migrated to the cities of Lower Egypt, where they typically worked for several years at a time as merchants and wage laborers. Nubian society adapted to the migrants' prolonged absences. Complex kinship and property relations enabled men to leave and still take care of their families, guard their wives, and ensure protection of their herds and crops.

After 1952 the central government increased its involvement in Nubia, mostly by building schools and public health services. With the construction of the Aswan High Dam, the government's involvement in the area destroyed Nubia, as water inundated the Nubian Valley. In 1963 and 1964 the government resettled approximately 50,000 Nubians to thirty-three villages around Kawm Umbu, about fifty kilometers north of the city of Aswan. As compensation, the government gave the Nubians new land and homes and provided them with some financial support until their new holdings were productive.

Nubians were dissatisfied with their resettlement for several reasons. They did not like their government-built, cement-block houses, which were uncomfortable and vastly different in design from their old homes. Further, their resettlement at Kawm Umbu disrupted family ties and ignored historical rivalries among the three Nubian ethnic groups. The government also required the Nubian farmers to join agricultural cooperatives and pressured them to cultivate sugarcane, a crop that had not been part of their traditional culture. Dissatisfaction with the resettlement program led many to migrate to cities. A large number of migrants rented their land to sharecroppers and tenants from Upper Egypt. After the Aswan High Dam was completed in 1971, a handful of Nubians left the resettlement area and returned to Nubia, where they established farming villages along the shores of Lake Nasser. By the early 1980s, Nubians had constructed at least four villages, complete with traditional homes.

Egypt's largest minority group consisted of several tribes of beduins who traditionally lived in the Eastern and Western Deserts and the Sinai Peninsula. Because the beduins spoke Arabic dialects, the government did not consider them ethnic minorities. Nevertheless, almost everyone in Egypt--including the beduins-- considered these people as culturally distinct. The beduins have historically been nomads, but since the nineteenth century, most tribes have adopted sedentary agricultural life-styles, in response to various government incentives. Among the beduins, traditional tribal social structure comprised lineage segments linked to specific territories, water, and pasture. Descent was patrilineal, and most beduins sought patterns of kinship and marriage that would strengthen the bonds between patrilineally related males. A patrilineage acted as a corporate group that shared the home territory's resources and lived together for most of the year. In the event of a feud, the group would collectively seek revenge, either through the death of the other group's males or through collective payment of compensation. A family's livelihood depended on its sheep, goats, and camels. Inheritance customs usually kept the family herds in the hands of fathers, sons, brothers, and cousins related through the male line.

In 1990 the total number of beduins in Egypt ranged between 500,000 and 1 million--less than 1 percent of the country's population. Over the centuries, their numbers fluctuated as governments alternately ignored and persecuted them. In the 1890s, beduins comprised as much as 10 percent of the total population. During the twentieth century, sedentarization and urban migration have caused many beduins to become assimilated into Egypt's dominant culture.

Since the 1952 Revolution, Egypt has intensified its efforts to persuade beduins to abandon their nomadic life-style. The beduins of the Western Desert generally resisted pressure to become farmers. Some beduins engaged in the profitable trade of smuggling goods across the Libyan border into Egypt while others became involved in the hotel and restaurant business in the summer tourist town of Marsa Matruh. The beduins in the Eastern Desert continued to maintain close ties with nomads on the Arabian Peninsula and profited from the high demand for meat and livestock in Saudi Arabia. The Aswan High Dam submerged some summer pasture and disrupted some migratory routes along the Red Sea coast that beduins customarily used in bringing their herds to Nubia during that season. Beduin settlements tended to be overcrowded, a situation that exacerbated feuding among various lineages. And, as beduin herds encroached on cropland, friction between agriculturists and pastoralists intensified. An increasing number of beduin families began to emulate tribal leaders by sending sons to college to prepare them for civil service careers in local government.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress