Major and trace element data on Tertiary continental basalt flows from the Shalatein area, Red Sea coastal plain of Egypt, have been presented and used to obtain more information about their source region and the processes involved in their generation. The rocks are mainly alkali olivine basalt with MgO and Mg no. in the range of 9.8–5 wt% and 65–46, respectively. They display wide variations in incompatible element concentrations, particularly LREE, Zr, Nb, K, Y, Ba and Sr. There is no evidence of significant crustal contamination or a lithospheric mantle signature in these rocks. Normalized trace element patterns and diagnostic elemental ratios are very similar to those of modern ocean-island basalts (OIB) a feature which suggests that the mantle source region was the asthenosphere. Comparison with the different types of OIB indicates that the basalts may be derived from a high U/Pb (HIMU) source with slightly elevated K and Ba contents. The basalts show general trends of increasing incompatible elements (K2O, Nb, Y, Sr and Yb), and decreasing contents of compatible elements (Cr, Ni, Sc and Ca) with decreasing Mg no. Furthermore, TiO2, P2O5, LREE and Th define maxima at about Mg no. = 56, suggesting late fractionation of Fe–Ti oxides and apatite. Although these variations are consistent with fractional crystallization processes, the wide variations in LREE contents and the incompatible trace element ratios Ce/Y (1.2–3.8), Zr/Nb (2.3–7.1) and Nb/Y (0.6–4) in the least fractionated samples (Mg no. > 56) suggest that fractional crystallization involving the observed phenocryst assemblage (olivine and clinopyroxene) cannot fully explain such compositional variations. Modelling of the mafic rocks (Mg no. > 56) using REE suggests varying degrees of partial melting of an enriched mantle source region in the garnet stability field. Partial melting is attributed to plume-related mantle upwelling beneath the Red Sea rift system.