With more than 80 million people living mostly in the large cities along the sea or Nile River, populated Egypt is one of the most densely inhabited countries on earth. Less than 5% of its land is suitable for human habitation. Most of the country -- which is roughly the size of New Mexico, Arizona and Colorado combined -- is desert.

The world’s largest river, The Nile, is Egypt’s sole lifeline. Its predictable and regular floods for more than 5 millennia allowed Egypt to become one of the world’s first great civilizations, a large and unified pharoanic kingdom from about 3200 BC to 341 BC. (For about a thousand years before that there was evidence of an advanced civilization rivaling those of the Indus Valley.) After the Pharaohs’ dynasties, Egypt was ruled by Persians, Greeks, Romans and finally Arabs in the 7th century. It remains an Arabic Moslem society, today.

Occupied briefly for three years by Napoleon of France, the British colonized the country after defeat of the Ottoman Empire in conjunction with World War I. The British granted autonomy in 1922 by installing a monarchy of their choosing, but full sovereignty came after a violent overthrow of the British military in 1952 by Gamal Abdel Nasser, who ruled Egypt until his death in 1970. Nassar took Egypt through the Cold War closely allied with the Soviet Union which assisted in the building of the Aswan Dam, at the time the world’s largest. Nassar was succeeded by a junior officer in the 1952 revolution, Muhammad Anwar al Sadat, who ruled until his assassination in 1981. Sadat changed the course of Egypt substantially, allying it with the west before the crumbling of the Soviet Union. This increased foreign investment, particularly at a time of increased oil demand. Oil is Egypt’s main source of foreign currency. Sadat made peace with Israel to the great consternation of a number of Arab colleagues. He also liberalized politics but his liberal social policies created a serious Moslem opposition that probably contributed to his assassination. He was succeeded by the current president, Hosni Mubarak. Since 1981 Mubarak has further liberalized Egyptian society but at a rate much slower than Sadat.