While best known for its pyramids and ancient civilisations, Egypt has played a central role in Middle East politics in modern times.
Its three wars with Israel in 1948, 1967 and 1973, then its eventual peace with its adversary in 1979, have seen Egypt move from being a warring nation to become a key representative in the peace process
But the historic step taken by President Anwar Sadat in the Camp David agreement with Israel saw the expulsion of Egypt from the Arab League until 1989, and in 1981 Mr Sadat was assassinated by Islamic extremists angry at his moves to clamp down on their activities.
Since then, President Hosni Mubarak has taken a more moderate line, but Islamic groups have continued their campaigns sporadically, being responsible for deadly attacks that have often targeted tourists and resort areas.
Campaigners for political reform have become more vocal in recent times and have taken to the streets in defiance of an emergency law, in force since 1981. Activists say the law restricts political expression.
Although Egypt has changed its constitution to allow the opposition to contest presidential polls, potential candidates must meet strict criteria for participation. A ban remains on religious political parties.
Egypt’s ancient past and the fact that it was one of the first Middle Eastern countries to open up to the West following Napoleon’s invasion means that it is seen by many as the intellectual and cultural leader in the region. The head of Cairo’s Al-Azhar Mosque is one of the highest authorities in Sunni Islam.
Egypt’s teeming cities – and almost all agricultural activity – are concentrated along the banks of the Nile, and on the river’s delta. Deserts occupy most of the country.