Long known for its pyramids and ancient civilisation, Egypt is the largest Arab country and has played a central role in Middle Eastern politics in modern times.
In the 1950s President Gamal Abdul Nasser pioneered Arab nationalism and the non-aligned movement, while his successor Anwar Sadat made peace with Israel and turned back to the West. The protests that ousted President Hosni Mubarak in 2011 put Egypt at the crossroads once again.
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 have given it a claim to be 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.
But the historic step by President Anwar Sadat to make peace with Israel in the 1979 Camp David agreement led to Egypt being expelled 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.
A popular uprising in January-February 2011 forced President Mubarak from power
President Hosni Mubarak then took a more moderate line, but Islamic groups have continued their campaigns sporadically. They have been responsible for deadly attacks that have often targeted tourists and resort areas, and more recently have begun to target Egypt's Coptic Christian community.
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 1967, apart from an 18-month interruption in 1981.
Widespread anti-government demonstrations in January 2011 – encouraged by the flight of the long-term leader of Tunisia – eventually led President Mubarak to step aside. He was arrested and put on trial in August 2011 over deaths during the demonstrations.
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At a glance
Politics: President Hosni Mubarak stepped down in February 2011 amid widespread street protests, handing power to the military
Economy: The Egyptian economy is the second largest in the Arab world after Saudi Arabia
International: Egypt has been a key ally of the West; it has played a key role in efforts to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict
The military is now in charge but have promised to effect a quick transition to democracy. Under continuing pressure from pro-democracy protesters, a new interim government was formed. In March 2011, a series of constitutional changes paving the way for early elections were approved.
But a key demand of the revolutionaries – the lifting of Egypt's emergency law – has not been fulfilled. The military has promised to do so before the elections.
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.
The economy depends heavily on agriculture, tourism and cash remittances from Egyptians working abroad, mainly in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries.
However, rapid population growth and the limited amount of arable land is straining the country's resources and economy.