Massace of the Mamluks in Egypt, by Horace Vernet

Massace of the Mamluks, by Horace Vernet

What Is Egypt?

A state on the Mediterranean, an ancient state with a long history. People think of pharaohs and pyramids. Distant lands, desert, the Nile and sun. The current ideological struggle between the West and Islam gives many the idea that Egypt has no place in Europe. Or, in the European Union. Besides, it is not even in the geographical area that we call Europe. Egypt is, quite clearly, located on the African continent.

However, none of that is a barrier to Egypt integrating closer with the European Union. On the contrary, the EU is the most interesting regional power.

The Beginning

Egypt was one of the cradles of civilization, its history started in 3150 BC. Thousands of years ago farmers settled the Nile delta and formed a state. The pyramids still inspire awe, amazement, and the tourist industry. Egypt had a fairly isolated location, which allowed it to spend its efforts on constructing magnificent monuments. Egypt was protected by the desert on the west, the Mediterranean on the north, and the Red sea on the East. To the south, following the Nile, was Nubia. Along the coast to the north-east there was a threat from the peoples living in the Levant, the most serious danger in Egypt’s history.

Although everyone is familiar with the history of Pharaohs and pyramids, less is known about the period that followed.

The Conquests Of Egypt

Although no match for Egypt during most of its history, Nubia did seize power in 760 BC. The Nubian Dynasty lasted around a century until 656 BC, which is when the Assyrians conquered Egypt. This dynasty, which was the 25th, is the only time where Egypt was ruled by a sub-Saharan power.

In 332 BC Alexander the Great took control of Egypt. After his death Egypt was ruled by the Ptolemaic Dynasty – one of the successor kingdoms to Alexander’s empire. It was heavily influenced by the Hellenic culture – although Hellenic is simply how the Greeks call themselves. Cleopatra was not really an Egyptian pharaoh, she would be better described as the queen of a Greek colony. The Greek rule lasted three centuries, and was ended by the Roman conquest in 30 BC.

Roman rule in Egypt lasted until 642. After the fall of the Western Roman Empire, Egypt remained as a part of the Eastern Roman Empire. Egypt at this time was still known as the breadbasket of the Mediterranean. Initially the grain was shipped to Rome, later to Constantinople. It was a very wealthy province to rule and extract taxes from. Moreover the grain shipments flowing into the cities allowed for dense urban populations.

At this moment in time, Egypt had been under the influence of sub-Saharan powers for about one century, while being under the influence of European powers for close to a thousand years.

The Move Away From Europe

European influenced ended with the Arab Islamic invasion. Although initially Christian, Christianity decreased up to the point where today we see the small Coptic minority in Egypt. After the invasion, Egypt turns into an Islamic area. We can not call it a country anymore at that point as it becomes a part of the caliphate. Egypt regained its independence in 1250, when the Mamluks took control. The Mamluks are a caste of Circassian slaves. Circassia is a region in eastern Europe, just north of the Caucasus. Currently the region is part of Russia.

After the three-century intermezzo of independence, the Ottomans arrive in Egypt in 1517. Ottoman influence continues until 1882. Excluding the Mamluk rule, we witness that at the moment in time there is an almost thousand year long control of Egypt by Islamic rule.

The Uncertainty

In 1882 the British have a strong influence in Egypt, which continues until 1952. Then, the Egyptians revolt. After the revolution Egypt redefines itself as an Arab state. This becomes most apparent under Nasser who speaks of creating a pan-Arab state. The multiple wars against Israel, which mostly ended in failure for the Arabs, crushed that idealism. There is not a single power in the region that could actually unify all.

Although Islam is very present in Egyptian culture nowadays, the pan-Arab utopia never came to be. Any integrated form of Arab Unity appears unlikely for the near future. The Arab Spring has shown us that Egypt, like many other Arab countries, is still searching for its path.

Closer relations with sub-Saharan Africa have never appeared very appealing. Egypt is wealthier and the Sahara forms a serious barrier to high-volume trading.

At this point, it should be clear that Egypt’s history and place in the world is not as clear-cut as many believe. Although European influence is longer ago than Islamic influence, it does highlight one aspect. Egypt is not a European country, but it is also not an African country, and not really an Arab country. It is, above all, a Mediterranean country. And that is exactly why Egypt may eventually seek to join the European Union.

Relations With The EU

There already exists a free trade area between Egypt and the EU. Since 2004, trade between the two areas has doubled – the EU now being the biggest export partner. More thorough agreements were signed in 2011 and plans to increase cooperation and ease access to European markets are already being discussed.

The EU already considered Turkey as a potential candidate to join the EU. Even though that ascension is on hold due to Erdogan’s increasingly authoritarian rule, it shows us two lessons to keep in mind. The first is that the EU is not concerned by 90% of Turkey not being a geographical part of Europe. The second is that having a culture that is very different from the average European country is not a problem either.

The EU has never hinted at where the limits of its expansion are, and most member states had association treaties before officially joining. The association treaty with the Ukraine for example, is also widely observed as a move to pull the Ukraine into the EU in the future.


Admittedly, it is highly unlikely Egypt will join the EU anytime soon. Nonetheless, it is clear the EU is trying to draw Egypt into its sphere of influence. Further agreements may expand on trade relations, but they may also expand upon working visa regulations to make it easier to access the labour supply in Egypt.

Geographically, reaching out to the Mediterranean countries makes sense for the EU. Similarly, Egypt has been part of Mediterranean empires for centuries. Frankly, the desert is a barrier and an isolating factor, the sea is a factor that connects.