Egypt and Egyptians

Cairo is undoubtedly a populous urban center; however the majority of Egyptians inhabit rural areas. These are mostly the fellahin (farmers) whose way of life has centered in villages and the fields surrounding them. The construction of the High Dam in Aswan ended the flood cycle of the Nile and drew the fellahin even further into the world economic system. Other elements of the Egyptian population traditionally rooted in non-urban areas are the Bedouin, and the Nubians, people who lived in an area south of Aswan along the Nile. When the rising water behind the High Dam displaced the Nubians, the Egyptian government relocated them to new villages, mainly north of Aswan. Cities like Cairo and Alexandria are a blend of many peoples and cultures resulting from successive invasions and migrations since pharaonic times. Greeks, Romans, Jews, Armenians, Arabs and Italians, among others, came from outside Egypt. Some groups formed their own communities and others mixed more readily with the local population. Today’s migration to the urban centers is composed mainly of Egyptians from rural areas who swell the ranks of the urban poor — people beginning the transition from an agricultural economy to the industrial and service sectors. The urban middle class is growing as the modern economic sector expands; it includes businessmen, educators, government officials and other professionals. The urban upper class consists of families that have been prominent for generations as landowners and the educated elite, as well as newly arrived members from the middle class who achieved prosperity during and since the Nasser and Sadat eras. The children of the urban middle and upper classes are AUC’s main constituency.

The weather in Cairo is hot in the summer and chilly in winter. The average annual rainfall is 1.6 inches. Most of the rain falls during the winter, usually as brief showers. Winter days in Cairo are often sunny, but after sundown the temperature drops sharply to as low as 45 degrees Fahrenheit (8 degrees Celsius). Warmer temperatures in the spring are sometimes accompanied by the khamaseen, a hot, dry wind from the south, which fills the air with fine dust, intermittently, over a period of fifty days. Newcomers not familiar with a desert climate are usually prepared for the heat, but not for the cold.

Dust and pollution are to be expected when one is dealing with the Sahara Desert and life in a big city. If you have respiratory problems that may be exacerbated by the dust, seek your physician’s advice. Air pollution by industry and automobile exhaust is a year-round problem. Smoking is not the social taboo it is in Western countries, so be prepared to find smokers everywhere. Some attempts are being made to create smoke-free environments and AUC has instituted a no smoking rule applied to all AUC buildings.

Sometimes newcomers wonder why we are not asked to separate our garbage in our homes for recycling. In fact, Egypt has one of the most thorough recycling systems in the world. The garbage collectors ("zabbaleen") take all of the garbage to an area where every single thing is sorted by hand and then recycled. What cannot be recycled is very often burned, which, unfortunately, adds to the pollution. You can find more information about the garbage collectors here.

Traffic in Cairo is something to be considered. Getting around Cairo has become in the recent years a problem throughout the day. Traffic and car horns also contribute heavily to noise pollution. Some AUC relocated faculty members own cars but others, daunted by the traffic and parking problems, manage without one. There are taxis, buses and minibuses. The Cairo metro provides convenient low-cost transport to areas of Cairo, but is often crowded during rush hours.

Travel within Egypt is easy and affordable. Inner Egypt travel can be accommodated via comfortable A/C buses, first class sleeper trains and domestic flights. However, for security reasons there are still some areas off the main roads and away from the heavily frequented tourist sites where foreigners may not usually travel without a police escort. It is also very common to see police cars escorting tourist buses.


As a result of historical, cultural and regional factors, spoken and written Arabic have evolved differently through the centuries. Colloquial Arabic is the term used to describe the various dialects that most Arabs use in conversation. These dialects differ from one another on several levels. Customarily, colloquial Arabic is not a written language, although today there is a body of modern literature, especially plays by distinguished playwrights, using colloquial dialects.

Classical Arabic is the term used to designate the traditionally written forms of Arabic. There are essentially three forms of Classical Arabic: Quranic, literary, and modern standard. Modern standard Arabic is the form used by educated Arabs today for reading and writing, and occasionally for speaking. It evolved from Quranic and literary Arabic much as modern English evolved from the English of Chaucer and Shakespeare. A special form of modern standard is media Arabic, which one hears on radio and television, especially in news broadcasts. Media Arabic is a somewhat simplified form of modern standard and is influenced from one region to another by local dialects.

When taking up the study of Arabic, one must be reasonably sure of one’s purpose. Learning colloquial Arabic and the Arabic script, while not obligatory, will help the newcomer feel more at ease and independent. It certainly helps in communicating orally in everyday situations and in reading store and street signs. Those with a long-term commitment to learning to read standard Arabic will then later want to study modern standard Arabic. Egyptians appreciate any efforts foreigners make to learn Arabic, so one need not feel uncomfortable as a beginner.

An introduction to basic Egyptian Arabic course is offered at the New Faculty Orientation before the fall semester starts.


In most respects, professional and collegial relations in Egypt are very much like their counterparts elsewhere. Faculty relocated from Europe, North America or Australia may find that the personal lives of their Egyptian friends and colleagues are more conservative than they are accustomed to, however, since tradition, family, religion, paternal authority and social-class distinctions are very important, It is important to be respectful of the protocols of Egyptian society. A few aspects that warrant special attention are: ethnic identity, clothing, male-female relations, drugs, alcohol, gambling and religion.


While Egypt (with the exception of the Sinai Peninsula) lies geographically on the African continent, most Egyptians consider themselves to be more Mediterranean and Arab than African. In fact, Egyptians often refer to themselves as the descendants of the pharaohs in describing how they are different from other peoples, including other Arabs. Except for sharing the same continent, Egyptians often seem not to relate to the cultures of sub-Saharan Africa. African and African-American people are often surprised by this fact when they come to Egypt. Even if you are Muslim, you will still be primarily identified as a foreigner in Egypt and will be expected to adjust yourself, as sensitively as possible, to the prevailing customs and norms.


The first concern of most young Egyptians is their family. Most live at home in a close-knit family atmosphere and have social obligations to family members. Traditionally, any major decision for the child, such as the choice of a school or a mate, is a collective family decision. A primary concern in such decisions revolves around how that choice will reflect on the family and be perceived by broader society. With the advent of modern university co-education, young people have more opportunities to meet and work with members of the opposite sex without parental supervision, but social life on or off campus still occur mainly in groups, often at parties in homes. Dating before becoming engaged is not a common practice.

In Egyptian society as a whole, the degree of social conservatism of a woman’s background may govern where and in whose company she may go and what she may do. Most non-Egyptian women enjoy considerably more latitude than their Egyptian counterparts but any woman, Egyptian or foreign, needs to be sensitive. The woman who ignores social conventions may face social disapproval and unwelcome advances.

While young Egyptian men are free to associate with the opposite sex and may date, women—both Egyptian and foreign—who do so risk being assumed to be sexually available. The international media convey an often exaggerated picture of the lives of young people in Europe and North America as quite libertine and amoral; obviously, this is inaccurate, but it does color how Egyptians interpret the behavior of foreigners, particularly young women. Some of this is situational: male foreigners have found that some young Egyptian women who are willing to talk to them on campus are shy to do so off campus because convention dictates that unmarried men and women should not mix freely unsupervised.

Although the conventional greeting among friends and often colleagues is a light kiss on both cheeks, particularly religious men sometimes prefer not to shake hands with women. Beyond holding hands, public displays of affection, even between married couples, are inappropriate and embarrassing to Egyptians.


The crime rate in Egypt has considered low and violent crimes are rare compared to many big cities in the world. However, since January 2011, pickpockets, purse-snatchers and car robberies have increased. Women harassment in the streets, especially in crowded areas, has also dramatically increased, whoever women are or wear. There is still considerable social self-policing in Egyptian society; often a woman in distress will find someone coming to her aid.

Egyptian law prescribes severe punishments for persons found guilty of using illegal drugs and even more severe penalties for those selling them.

Egyptian law prohibits the serving or drinking of alcohol in public except in licensed restaurants, hotels, tourist establishments and clubs. Locally made beer and wine are available in shops around Cairo. Imported wine and spirits can be purchased at Duty Free Stores within 48 hours after each arrival in Egypt, up to a maximum of four arrivals per calendar year. There are several duty free shops in Cairo, in addition to the airport shop. A passport confirming date of arrival must be presented by the owner at the time of purchase.

Gambling is also frowned upon and is actually forbidden by Islamic religious law. There are gambling casinos in Cairo serving the international tourist trade where Egyptians are not admitted.

All foreigners in Egypt are subject to Egyptian law. If an American is arrested, the American consul can only provide the individual with a list of Egyptian attorneys, visit him or her in prison, and help him or her to communicate with relatives.


Religion is a powerful influence in Egyptian life. Whether Muslim or Christian, and despite many different levels of adherence, all Egyptians take religion seriously. Most Egyptians cannot conceive of one being agnostic or atheist. Phrases like "enshallah" (God willing) and il-ham-du lil-leh (thanks be to God) are heard frequently in conversations among Egyptians, and they are usually spoken with heartfelt sincerity.

Take care to show proper respect for Egyptians’ attitudes and sensitivities concerning religion. Refrain from initiating conversations with Egyptians in which you compare Islam or Coptic Christianity unfavorably with your own religious beliefs. Keep in mind that proselytizing is forbidden by law in Egypt and can lead to the non-renewal of a foreigner’s work permit, deportation or jail.