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Egypt's cultural shift reflects Islam's pull
With her long, dark tumble of glossy hair, sensuous lips and provocative stare, Hala Shiha reigns as "the Aphrodite of the Egyptian cinema."
Producers throw starring roles at the 25-year-old actress' feet. Teenage girls decorate their rooms with her posters. Fan magazines scramble to feature her in their pages.
But the cover shot of Shiha on an issue of the popular Egyptian movie magazine Al Kawakeb showed a side of the star that few fans ever imagined.
Scarcely a trace of makeup on her ethereally pallid face, Shiha appeared wearing a snowy white hijab, the traditional Muslim head scarf, primly pinned under her chin and modestly draped over her chest.
"This is something I wanted for a long time," she told the magazine, whose name means "the planets." "Being a star isn't a dream anymore. I'm only busy in my religion now. I know the veil will lessen the roles offered, but maybe this will make me look for another job besides acting."
Shiha's embrace of the veil, a rising phenomenon among Egyptian women, is the most visible symbol of a conservative Islamic resurgence that is sweeping across Egypt. But it is not the only one.
During the past 30 years, a conservative Islamic revival has been quietly transforming the nation's culture and society, forcing Egyptians and their political leaders to engage in an increasingly difficult balancing act between mosque and state.
The result is a nation that daily is becoming less secular. That such a thing could happen in sophisticated Cairo, once the Middle East's cosmopolitan Hollywood on the Nile and heart of Arabic publishing, portends a cultural trend that could sweep through moderate Arab nations and set them on an even more anti-Western tilt.
The shift away from the moderate style of Islam long practiced in Egypt is pronounced, according to Nagwa Shoeb, director of public relations at the liberal American University in Cairo.
"What you're seeing is an overt sign of your faith. We never did it before. It used to be a private affair," said Shoeb.
Public displays of piety are everywhere.
Egyptian men point with pride to the zabibas on their foreheads--large, bruise-colored calluses raised by the constant thumping of the forehead to the floor in prayer.
Audiences at movie theaters rise in protest against films that offend increasingly conservative Islamic sensibilities.
On the airwaves, a new, flashier brand of media-savvy preacher woos young Muslims away from decadent Western ways, emphasizing praying over partying.
Government censors, sometimes at the behest of students, yank books from college curricula for containing what they consider offensive depictions of sex, religion or the Egyptian state.
In some countries, such as Iran and Saudi Arabia, the practice of Islam is imposed from above.
But in Egypt, the move toward a more conservative Islam is bubbling up from a population frustrated by decades of ineffective leadership, recurring humiliation of Arabs at the hands of Israel and the West, rampant corruption and heavy-handed suppression of dissent.
Having tried everything from Pan-Arabism to socialism, many Egyptians, rich and poor, see a return to Islam as a way to restore hope, peace and dignity to their lives. Threatened by a changing world, rife with Western influences, they perceive Islam as a comforting source of strong family values, an unyielding moral code and a clear guide to life.
Not every Egyptian is happy or willing to ride this wave of stricter Islamic observance. Indeed, barely two months after renouncing acting in early 2003, the nubile starlet Shiha shed her veil and resumed her career.
"The real hijab," she told an Egyptian magazine, "is that of the heart and soul . . . and not just the covering of the head."
But Egypt, the Arab world's largest nation and long its political and cultural capital, cannot reverse course so easily. And that poses a big problem for the country's political leaders.
Even though the state controls Egypt's major newspapers, censors all media and appoints and pays the sheik of Cairo's Al-Azhar University, the Muslim world's highest authority on Sunni scholarship, small but powerful groups of Islamic activists can undermine the political establishment.
Aware of the threat to its authority but anxious not to appear unIslamic, the government of President Hosni Mubarak veers between throwing Islamists into prison and tossing them political sops, such as its release last fall of the ailing Karam Zohdy, a leader of the radical Islamic Group, who was convicted of plotting the 1981 assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat.
"There is kind of a divorce between the government and the people. People trust more in what is organized by the people, especially Islamic groups," said Montasser Al Zayat, a lawyer in his late 40s who represents dissidents from the Muslim Brotherhood and its radical offshoots, the Islamic Group and Islamic Jihad, all groups in the crosshairs of America's war on terrorism.
"Maybe the United States has succeeded in accomplishing what the groups themselves could not do. It has re-established again the link between the groups and the people," he said, with a faint smile.
Nowhere is the impact of Egypt's Islamization more evident than in its arts community, particularly the once-booming movie industry.
"The pressures used to be from censorship. Today, the pressures are coming from the public," said Inas El Degheidy, 45, one of Egypt's leading female film directors.
"And this," she said, "is much more dangerous than censorship."
El Degheidy drew public criticism over her 2001 film, "Memoirs of a Teenager," which explored black market surgeries to restore girls' virginity.
"When it was released to the public, fanatics took it to court. They considered the girls in the film were doing things that Egyptian girls wouldn't do," said El Degheidy, herself the mother of a teenage girl.
"Mothers help daughters do that because in Egypt men aren't used to marrying girls who are not virgins," she said. The lawsuit against her has come to naught.
Sitting in her office in the trendy Mohandiseen quarter of Cairo, El Degheidy is tall and slim with a high, blond ponytail. She is fashionably dressed in a low V-neck cashmere sweater and wears skintight leopard-print capri pants by Christian Dior and tan suede boots with stiletto heels; a Louis Vuitton satchel is at her feet.
"When I used to go to secondary school, I used to wear a miniskirt. I cannot even go on the street the way I am dressed now," she said, unless she stays in upscale precincts where there are more foreign residents.
If she ventures elsewhere, she said, men will ask her: "Where are you going to hide from God?"
The concerns of artists such as El Degheidy are reflected every day in the rustling darkness of Cairo theaters. Moviegoers get the same things--popcorn, Coke and previews--that mark the movie-house experience from Peoria to Paris. The difference is in what comes first.
The image of an officially stamped Ministry of Culture form, often crudely filled out by hand, precedes every trailer and every film, certifying that it was reviewed for objectionable religious, sexual and political content and approved by state censors.
Religious themes, particularly any depiction of Allah or the Prophet Muhammad, are especially delicate. For example, Egyptian censors recently banned the Jim Carrey movie "Bruce Almighty" because it features an actor, Morgan Freeman, "playing the role of God." When Western films are shown, they are stripped of "objectionable scenes."
But directors say state censors pale in comparison with Egyptian audiences, whose Islamic tastes are reflected in the content of most current local films.
What most Egyptians see--and demand to see--these days is far different from what entertained their parents and grandparents.
For most of its history, which began in 1923, the Egyptian movie industry provided a variety of films, including many with an unvarnished view of Egyptian social problems. One example is a 1960s-era film whose title translates roughly as "A Woman With a Bad Reputation."
In the movie, a husband encourages his demure, young wife to dance with his boss at a party to promote the husband's career. Many of the female partygoers wear miniskirts and hot pants; they drink, smoke and dance. There isn't a veil in sight. The wife becomes the boss' mistress. We see them in bed together. We see her life become corrupt, her husband fired and her marriage in tatters. Finally, she accepts gifts from the boss in a desperate bid to raise money to treat her sick son.
The star of that film, one of the most beautiful and glamorous of Egypt's actresses, was Shams al-Baroudi. But, in the early 1980s, she was one of the first Egyptian actresses to renounce acting as sinful and take the veil. These days, she wears niqab--the total shrouding of the body in black fabric with only the eyes showing. And the only appearances she makes are on religious satellite television.
"I am working on a new book called `Cinema As a Sin,'" said Samir Farid, dean of Egyptian film critics, dryly. It will chronicle actresses, such as al-Baroudi, who took the veil and "repented" their acting as sinful, he said.
A tall, courtly man with thick salt-and-pepper hair and nattily dressed in a navy-blue suit, Farid, 60, has been reviewing movies for the daily newspaper Al-Gomhuria, or The Republic, since 1965 and has written a number of books on cinema.
"The question of the veil and the question of sin is only in Egypt," he said, noting that such issues have not come up among Syrian, Lebanese, Moroccan or Tunisian actresses. Consequently, many of them are now sought after for roles Egyptian actresses refuse, such as those involving a kiss, a skimpy swimsuit or sexual content.
And, only in Egypt have movie audiences booed and hissed films they find offensive, Farid said. One such case was 2001's "Secrets of the Girls," starring Hala Shiha's sister, Maya. The film is critical of society's harsh treatment of unwed mothers, a subject some audiences find indecent.
"If you read any of the criticism magazines, they have a new expression called `clean cinema,'" added Dawood Abdel Sayed, 57, one of Egypt's leading writer-directors, while sipping coffee on the terrace of the Cairo Opera.
"They mean by this cinema that is clean of sex, even kisses," said Sayed, fashionably dressed in black and sporting thin, tortoiseshell glasses. "The purpose of this is to allow the whole family--husband, wife, children--to go to the cinema and see things which won't offend their sensibilities." According to Farid, "This is cinema with a veil--not on the head, but on the mind."
An example is the recent hit movie "Thieves in Thailand." A mindless romp spiced with lush Thai landscapes, the film revolves around a romance--but not a single kiss sullies the screen.
Farouk Sabry, vice chairman of the quasi-governmental Egyptian Chamber of Cinema Industry, is not surprised by the trend.
Owner of 26 movie theaters and producer of more than 80 films, Sabry has the look and gruff delivery of an old-style Hollywood mogul.
A middle-age, heavyset man sporting a pencil mustache, gold-tinted aviator glasses and shiny black patent-leather shoes, he fingered rosewood worry beads with his right hand as he talked and brandished a thick cigar with his left.
"Why happy, stupid films? Because of the international troubles affecting everybody. Everybody is sad. They want to pay money not to cry again. They can cry on the bus in the morning," he said, noting that of the average 20 Egyptian films produced annually, nearly all are comedies or action pictures.
"Cinema in Egypt is finished," said Farid, the critic, referring to the dwindling number of films made in Egypt and what he considers the decline in quality.
His eyes welling with tears, Farid said he retreats to his personal archives to see Egyptian films that present an uncensored world. Some 400 are even banned from television, he said. "The word `backward' really exists. You can touch it. You can feel it. You can smell it."
A call to prayers
Around midday on Friday, the Muslim holy day, the relentless cacophony that is Cairo drops an octave. Suddenly, loudspeakers from mosques blare so many sermons into the dusty streets that the city seems to become one vast, unavoidable, open-air service.
Never, Cairenes say, have Friday prayers been so well attended, affirmed by the weekly scene at Al-Hussein Mosque in the heart of what is called Islamic Cairo.
Worshipers cram into the huge sand-colored mosque, routinely overflowing the spacious interior, spilling out onto its broad marble terrace. So nervous is the government that fiery and provocative sermons will ignite riots, it routinely stations vans full of police in riot gear near Al-Hussein and other major Cairo mosques.
As Friday prayers end, the clatter of rising security gates echoes through the labyrinthine passageways of the adjacent Khan el-Khalili bazaar. A winding warren of stalls, the sprawling 700-year-old market brims with goods of every description from 22-karat gold sold by the ounce to spices sold by the kilo to belly-dancing outfits for tourists sold in toddler sizes.
Merchants said an increasing number of their neighbors shut down during Friday prayers and even for daily prayers, hanging up "Gone for 10 minutes to pray" signs in Arabic and English.
Many Egyptians trace the Islamic revival to Israel's stunning defeat of the Arabs in 1967's Six-Day War--a debacle many blamed on Egyptians' getting too close to the West and too far away from traditional Islam.
The movement also draws heavily from the purist tenets of Wahhabism. This most austere and puritanical version of the faith, which rejects Western influence and demands a way of life and government based on Shariah, or Islamic law, emanates from Saudi Arabia. Hundreds of thousands of Egyptians worked in the kingdom during the oil boom years and returned home as a conservative middle class with rigid Wahhabi beliefs, a new taste for clean cinema and enough money to buy a $5 movie ticket to see it.
Although those returning from Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Islam, and other Persian Gulf states use religious symbols to express this new Islamic fervor, the movement has flowered as a social and political ideology in a society bereft of alternatives. Nationalism, Pan-Arabism, socialism or capitalism--none of these movements, so far, have brought modern Egyptians the pride, political participation and prosperity they crave. And, in the absence of vibrant and viable political parties to challenge the Mubarak regime, a healthy democracy is yet to be realized.
Into this vacuum stepped the closest thing Egypt has to an organized opposition, the Muslim Brotherhood. The world's oldest and largest Islamic militant group, it has adopted new tactics that resemble ward politics more than war.
Egypt gave birth to militant Islam. Founded by Hassan al-Banna in 1928, the Muslim Brotherhood drew its modern ideology from the 1964 book "Signposts on the Road," by the militant Egyptian philosopher and author Sayyid Qutb. The Brotherhood spawned such extremist groups as Islamic Jihad, the Islamic Group and Hamas in Gaza and the West Bank.
The ultimate goal of the Brotherhood is to restore an Islamic caliphate, or empire, in the world. Short term, the dream is to transform Egypt into a true Islamic state, replacing secular government with Shariah, which includes stringent rules on alcohol, the role of women and dress codes.
Although long officially banned, the Brotherhood has been one of the most effective engines driving the Islamization of Egypt. And Egyptians, devout or not, agree their country is in the throes of a deep cultural change that has profound ramifications.
"For the past 100 years, people have drifted away from traditional values, and now they're coming back," said Gen. Fouad Allam, retired deputy chief of Egypt's counterterrorism unit, fingering a set of malachite worry beads.
The silver-haired Allam interviewed every major Islamic militant in Egypt from 1967 until his retirement in 1988. "The Islam on the increase is the right kind of Islam," he said, referring to the peaceful nature of this revival compared with the years of bloodshed that preceded it.
The non-violent approach came at least partially in response to a government crackdown. Egypt has been ruled under an emergency law since the Oct. 6, 1981, assassination of Sadat by radical Islamists. Human-rights groups say the law, which suspends some civil liberties and permits indefinite detention without charges, has been abused to imprison and sometimes torture thousands of political prisoners, homosexuals and others who run afoul of the state.
No question, Egypt suffered wrenching bouts of violence from radical Islamists; in the 1990s more than 1,000 people were killed by the kind of terrorism now wreaking havoc in countries such as Spain, Turkey, Morocco, Indonesia and Saudi Arabia.
Egyptians and most of the world were horrified in 1997 when Islamic militants shot and hacked to death 58 foreign tourists at the temple of Queen Hatshepsut in Luxor's fabled Valley of the Kings.
It was one of the worst acts of Islamic terrorism to bloody Egyptian soil and, to date, it also was the last. The government came down hard, banning radical Islamic groups, jailing thousands of their members and suppressing any kind of dissent.
After the Luxor massacre, faced with the pressure from the government and repudiation by a citizenry shocked by the carnage and the resulting devastation of a tourism-dependent economy, the nation's most violent militant organizations, Islamic Jihad and the Islamic Group, effectively left Egypt.
But, they only switched their focus from what they view as the near enemy, the secular Egyptian government, to the distant enemy, the West. Ayman al-Zawahiri, Islamic Jihad's Egyptian-born leader, joined forces with Saudi terrorist leader Osama bin Laden and his Al Qaeda organization in Afghanistan.
For its part, the Muslim Brotherhood forswore violence and tempered its militancy to a form that may turn out to be far more persuasive.
Currently composed primarily of doctors, lawyers, engineers and other professionals, the Brotherhood and its rallying cry--"Islam is the solution"--offer a sense of identity, political participation, personal empowerment and hope that an autocratic government does not.
The movement in Egypt feeds on the widespread belief that the U.S. unconditionally favors Israel and that the war on terrorism truly is a war against Islam. In a rare survey of Egyptian public opinion, a 2002 study by the Pew Global Attitudes Project found that only 6 percent of Egyptians held a favorable view of America.
The increasingly popular idea that Islam is under attack by the West--amplified by near-daily satellite television coverage throughout the Arab world of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict--gained further currency after the U.S.-led wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
In Egypt, a country of 74 million with nearly half the adults illiterate, television images, often far more graphic than those seen in the U.S., carry a particular power to persuade.
There is also discontent with a government many perceive as corrupt, autocratic and a puppet of the U.S., which sends $2 billion in annual aid. With Islamic activists, like the well-heeled Brotherhood, often supplying clinics, schools and other social services that the government fails to adequately provide, the attraction of this conservative ideology deepens.
"They [the Brotherhood] have teachers willing to teach. Doctors willing to treat people. They convince the people of their power," said Mohamed Abdel Moneim, editor of the pro-government weekly political magazine Rose El-Youssef.
"If you are cornered, then the only way out is religion," he said, shaking his head.
Society's move toward Islamization is reflected in the many religious channels on satellite television, such as the Saudi-owned Iqraa, which means "read" or "recite"--the first order given to the Prophet Muhammad by the Angel Gabriel.
Last August, Cairo's Al-Azhar University, the oldest university in the world, announced plans to launch its own satellite channel to propagate Islamic teaching.
Indeed, among the latest groups to express an interest in setting up a satellite channel is the Muslim Brotherhood.
Much of Egyptian television these days emanates from the stark, antenna- and dish-studded headquarters of Nilesat, the 7-year-old Egyptian Satellite Co., which sits in the desert just outside Cairo, among the newly planted palms, freshly paved roadways and recently built suburban developments of 6th of October City.
Inside the gleaming, futuristic control room, a bank of 180 monitors constantly displays what many in the Arab world--including 1.5 million Cairenes--are watching.
The choices are as dizzying as the vividly colored images flickering from a wall covered in a crazy quilt of television screens. Here is Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in his Ramallah headquarters. There is a sheik earnestly preaching. Here, a soccer game or soap opera. There, a woman getting a facial or a surfer catching a wave. Satellite television channel providers, except pay-per-view programmers, sign a contract with Nilesat agreeing not to broadcast material that is overtly sexual or critical of religion or the Egyptian government.
Some of the programs originate just down the road in Egyptian Media Production City, a sprawling 7-year-old complex of glass and coral-colored stone office buildings, indoor and outdoor movie sets, a theme park, convention center and hotel. Some 28 television programs ranging from Middle East Broadcasting's megahit "Who Wants To Be a Millionaire" to Arab Radio and Television Network's popular religious shows on the 24-hour channel Iqraa, originate at the facility.
The ever-expanding reach of satellite television provides a key to another Egyptian phenomenon: the pop-culture-conscious preacher.
One of the most popular of this new, younger, hipper breed of imams who preach on television and CD and through MP3 players is Amr Khaled. Dubbed the "sheik to the chic," Khaled, a thirtysomething Egyptian and accountant by profession, has become a sort of religious rock star to the trendsetting young rich and their parents since the late 1990s.
Young people identify with his close-cropped hair, his designer suits and his low-key approach in which he urges women to wear the veil. And they respond to his message that religion and fun are not mutually exclusive, there is no shame in wealth and there is salvation in Islam.
Khaled is popular, so much so that his followers attribute his departure to Britain in late 2002 to pressure from a government that views him as a threat. The government denies such charges. Khaled may be gone, but his video and audiotapes still circulate widely.
"He's very convincing," said Mohammed Saied, 18, an English major at American University in Cairo.
"Amr Khaled explains why it's essential to wear the veil," he said, noting his mother and sister are Khaled fans.
While aware of Khaled, Reem Shehata, 19, a computer-science major at AUC, said her decision to take the veil two years ago came "from the inside."
"If we don't veil," she said, "we commit a sin."
A glance at the courtyards and classrooms at the university suggests that Shehata is hardly alone.
A Lawrence Durrellian collection of cream-colored neo-Islamic buildings with arched galleries and tall windows encased in lacy, dark wooden screens, the American University in Cairo has been an enclave of green lawns, palm trees and Western ideas abutting the noise and dust of central Tahrir Square since 1919.
The university, which has about 5,000 students, has educated some of the most influential people in the Middle East including Queen Rania of Jordan and Egypt's first lady, Suzanne Mubarak.
In its palm-shaded courtyards, where well-to-do coeds blithely wore miniskirts a generation ago, veils predominate. In fact, the school recently grappled with whether students have the right to envelop themselves in niqab.
Students admitted in the 2003-2004 academic year were the first to have rules on such matters laid out in the application materials: For reasons of security and of identification, niqab is not allowed on campus.
"I think it would be a very simplistic approach to say that if a woman puts a scarf on her head she is backward," said Nagwa Shoeb of the university's public-relations department. "There are women who are very liberal, very high class and very educated who are veiled."
However, she said, "Even among my friends, when someone veils, we are stunned."
Many young women said that the scarf, which has come to connote virtue, is empowering. Not only does it ward off unwanted male attention but it often leads parents to grant more independence.
Said Shoeb, "I always say if they're covering their hair, it's OK as long as they are not covering their minds."
In recent years, however, the upsurge in conservatism among the primarily affluent AUC student body has prompted government officials to yank books from the curricula and shelves of the campus library for being offensive to Islam, even though they were cleared by the state censors, who review all imported and domestic publications.
In 1999, "For Bread Alone," by Moroccan novelist Mohamed Choukri, and four political-science textbooks, including "Muslim Extremism in Egypt: The Prophet and the Pharaoh" by Gilles Kepel, a leading expert on political Islam, were banned for indecency and slandering Islam.
Many AUC students likely will enter the ranks of the lawyers, doctors, engineers and other professionals who are the intellectual and financial backbone of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.
Why the movement holds such an attraction for the well educated and well to do is no mystery to Saad Eddin Ibrahim. An American-Egyptian sociologist at the university and a human-rights and democracy advocate, he has been jailed four times by the Mubarak regime, most recently for tarnishing the image of Egypt.
"With a high education, good occupation, you expect a good income and, if you have all three, you expect a share in power," said Ibrahim, 65, sitting on the terrace of his home in suburban Maadi.
"They're educated, they're intelligent--but they don't have a share in politics," said Ibrahim, describing the frustration rampant among the ranks of upscale Egyptians as "status inconsistency."
"The Muslim Brotherhood tells them it's because everything is corrupt and the government is an agent of the West. This is soothing to their self-respect," he said.
Slowly, the trend toward Islamization in Egypt is becoming the norm. But, for many Egyptians, it remains problematic.
"People are no longer sure of their life. They're not sure if this is the right thing. Now, they are mostly convinced that their modern look is wrong and, one day, when they get older, they have to be `good' and wear the veil," said Hala Mustafa, head of the political department at the quasi-governmental Center for Political and Strategic Studies at Cairo's Al Ahram Institute.
"The frustration. The lack of enjoyment," she said, sighing. "This is something you can see, how it can affect your life if you live in the Middle East or Arab countries. There is no place here to go out with friends, go for a drink, see good cinema."
Nothing symbolizes this change in Egyptian culture as eloquently as the veil and the growing number of women, rich and poor, who are adopting it.
Recently, the Egyptian media reported that Hala Shiha suddenly pulled out of a starring role in a movie with comic actor Adel Imam. It has been about a year since Shiha donned the veil only to reverse course some two months later.
According to the reports, her father, artist Ahmad Shiha, fears that the starlet is being pressured to resume veiling from former actresses who quit the stage and took the veil--fears that his daughter reportedly denied.
There is no question, however, that the social pressure to take the veil is significant, for movie stars and society matrons alike. According to Iqbal Baraka, editor of the popular women's magazine Hawa and author of the recent book "Al Hijab: A New Vision," the twist is that they are putting on the very thing that an earlier generation fought to take off, considering it a symbol of women's exclusion from public life.
Many educated Egyptian women readily rattle off the famous story of Huda Shaarawi. A wealthy feminist and women's rights activist, she defiantly ripped off her veil in the Cairo train station in 1923.
But these days, Agence France-Presse in Cairo reports, a Shaarawi granddaughter wears the veil.
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Population: 74.7 million (2003 est.)
Percent Muslim: 94 (mostly Sunni)
Government type: Republic
Literacy rate: 57.7 percent
Legal system: Based on English common law, Islamic law and Napoleonic codes
Industries: Textiles, food processing, tourism, chemicals
Agriculture: Cotton, rice, corn, wheat, beans, fruit, cattle
Per capita GDP: $1,470 (2001-02); (U.S.: $37,600)
Sources: CIA World Factbook, U.S. State Department
Egypt since colonialism
1922: Britain ends 40 years of control over Egypt, granting it independence. The following year, Egypt becomes a constitutional monarchy.
1928: The Muslim Brotherhood forms in Egypt. The group later becomes a powerful advocate of Islamic-style political and social reform in the Middle East.
A TIME OF WAR
1939-45: During World War II, Egypt serves as a base for British operations in the region.
1945: Egypt is a founding member of the United Nations and helps establish the Arab League.
1948: Egypt and other Arab nations suffer a humiliating defeat in a war against the newly created Jewish state of Israel.
1952: The Free Officers, military officials who are critical of Egypt's defeat in the 1948 war, overthrow King Farouk. The group is led by Lt. Col. Gamal Abdel Nasser.
1953: Egypt becomes a republic, with a president and prime minister.
1954: Nasser becomes prime minister in April. Six months later, the Muslim Brotherhood is implicated in an attempt on Nasser's life and is banned.
1956 In July, one month after Nasser is elected president, Egypt seizes control of the Suez Canal, prompting an invasion by Britain, France and Israel. The foreign powers eventually withdraw, and Egypt retains control of the canal.
1967: Egypt's air force is largely destroyed in June in the Six-Day War. Egypt also loses the Gaza Strip and Sinai Peninsula.
1970: Nasser dies. Vice President Anwar Sadat is elected president.
1973: Egypt and Syria attack Israel in October. After early gains, the Egyptians are driven back and a cease-fire is declared.
1979: In March, Egypt and Israel sign a peace treaty brokered by U.S. President Jimmy Carter that lays the groundwork for the return of the Sinai Peninsula to Egypt in 1982. The agreement leads to expanded U.S. aid to Egypt.
1981: Sadat is assassinated by Islamic extremists in October. Vice President Hosni Mubarak is elected president.
Early 1990s: The Egyptian government begins a crackdown on radical Islamic groups responsible for violence against Christians and foreigners.
1991: Egyptian troops join the U.S.-led coalition opposed to Iraq's invasion of Kuwait.
1995: Mubarak introduces a law allowing for prison time for journalists who publish material harmful to public officials. The law is voided by Egypt's Constitutional Court, but censorship continues.
2003: Egypt opposes the U.S.-led war in Iraq
Sources: World Book Encyclopedia, Encyclopedia Britannica, U.S. State Dept., Egyptian State Information Service