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Egypt is located in North Africa, at the junction between the African continent and the Middle East. It shares borders in Africa with Libya and Sudan, and in the Middle East with Israel and the Gaza Strip. Its coastline to the east lies on the Red Sea and to the north is the Mediterranean Sea.
Egypt’s population is estimated to be more than 85 million (July 2012, CIA World Factbook), which makes it the most populous country in the Arab world and the second most populous country (after Nigeria) on the African continent. The official language is Arabic, though English and French are also spoken. Islam is the primary religion, with Coptic Christians accounting for approximately 9% of the population.
Famous as the historic site of one of the great civilizations of the ancient world, Egypt has faced internal and external conflict in recent decades.
Following territorial wars with Israel in 1948, 1956, 1967, and 1973, Egyptian President Sadat embarked on a path toward peaceful negotiation, traveling to Israel in 1977 and then signing the Camp David accords and the Egypt-Israel peace treaty in 1979.
This marked a major change in the politics of the region, and Sadat’s approach faced opposition in his own country and in the larger Arab world. Egypt was expelled from the Arab League for a decade, and in 1981, Sadat was assassinated by Islamic extremists. Such groups have continued sporadic attacks in recent decades, including the targeting of resort areas and other tourist attractions.
Egypt has been an important actor in efforts to bring peace to the Middle East and to resolve the Israel-Palestinian conflict. President Hosni Mubarak hosted a number of high-level summits in the 1990s, bringing international stakeholders, including the U.S., together with regional leaders to advance the peace process.
Within Egypt, growing calls for political reform took on new life in 2011 as part of the larger Arab Spring movement. As the world watched, mass mobilizations led by young people in and around Tahrir Square in the capital city of Cairo, as well as in other places around the country, ultimately led to the resignation of long-time President Mubarak in February 2011. A military council replaced him as the interim government.
In the aftermath of this watershed moment, Egypt now finds itself in the midst of an unprecedented domestic struggle to define the terms of a new democratic order.
A referendum on constitutional reforms held in March 2011 passed by some 70 percent of the population, setting the stage for democratic elections for parliament in November 2011. Islamist parties took most of the votes. Presidential elections took place in May 2012. Following a run-off vote between the two most popular candidates—Mohamed Morsi of the Islamist Freedom and Justice Party and Ahmed Shafik, an independent who was prime minister under former President Mubarak—the Presidential Election Commission announced Morsi as the winner and Egypt's first democratically-elected president in June 2012. Meanwhile, that same month, the military moved to cement its political power by dissolving the democratically-elected parliament and introducing a new constitution that would increase its powers over the government.On December 22, 2012 Egypt adopted a new constitution, which did less to curb presidential power than many observers had expected.
The early months of 2013 were characterized by high political and social tension. In January, more than fifty people were killed during several days of violent street protests. The government arrest of a popular television talk show satirist in April raised alarm about dangers to freedom of expression in the country.
Enormous obstacles remain in this huge country. In the context of the transformation that has taken place since 2011, and its accompanying stresses, some persistent conflicts have been magnified—between religious and more secular actors, between labor and business, between women's groups and more traditional organizations, and between former Mubarak supporters and the political opposition. Religious tensions and the outbreak of clashes between Muslims and Christians highlight underlying divisions in Egyptian society, and emphasize the growing importance of interfaith dialog to prevent and manage such conflict.
In Egypt, the United States Institute of Peace seeks to assist contending groups in defining approaches and solutions that will promote peaceful democratic change and conflict resolution.
USIP has worked for many years on the ground to improve Coptic-Muslim relations in Egypt, and USIP’s experts have published extensively on this subject. USIP has also held conferences and workshops on the future of democracy in Egypt and prospects for cooperation between the country’s Islamist and non-Islamist political opposition groups.
Through USIP’s grant program, support has been provided to organizations working to advance religious tolerance, pluralism, and interfaith cooperation in Egypt. For example, USIP has worked with the Coptic Evangelical Organization for Social Services to provide training for peacebuilding facilitators and interreligious dialogue activities.
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