The U.S. and Egypt Since the Suez Crisis

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Dr. Cook explained that Egypt is one of the United States’ most important allies in the Middle East. It’s the largest Arab country, it sits on the Suez Canal so it is geographically critical, particularly to the U.S. military. It has the largest armed forces in the region. Since 1979, it has been at peace with Israel, and it is in many ways a cultural bellwether of the region.

For all these reasons, Washington has since the early 1980s invested close to $70 billion in Egypt. At the same time, Egypt is an extraordinarily vexing and difficult ally. It has a particularly harsh authoritarian political system, it differs from Washington on a variety of important issues ranging from Sudan and Israel to the origins of transnational terrorism and importantly, political change in the region. Particularly when it comes to terrorism, Egypt has produced an all-star cast of the transnational jihadist movement. Ayman al-Zawahiri was part of the plot that assassinated Anwar Sadat in October 1981. He is also the number-two of Al Qaeda. So although the head of Al Qaeda is Saudi of Yemeni origins, it’s in many ways an Egyptian organization.

To understand U.S.-Egyptian relations since the Suez Crisis, one has to go back to the July 1952 coup d’etat that brought to power a group of disaffected military officers known as the Free Officers. This coup represented a radical disjuncture in Egyptian politics. It ended an alien monarchy that ruled first as suzerains of the Ottomans since 1801, an Albanian dynasty; and then those same kings ruled as British puppets. It was nationalism and reform that motivated the officers. Indeed, the officers came to power at the fulcrum of anticolonial movements around the globe. Between the allies’ victory in Europe in WWII and the 1952 coup, 13 new countries won their independence or came into being, with many more to follow suit.

Initially, neither President Truman nor President Eisenhower were hostile to the new regime. Despite Truman’s recognition of Israel and Eisenhower’s continuation of that policy, the U.S. was not regarded with as much suspicion as the British, French, or other colonial powers in the Middle East and Africa.

In 1955, the Eisenhower administration offered the Egyptian government $56 million toward the construction of the Aswan Dam. This was the central component of Egypt’s ceaseless quest for modernization. Building this dam was going to be the initial step toward bringing Egypt into the modern world. That $56 million agreement and another $20 million from the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (now the World Bank) faltered for a number of reasons.

First, the strong man of the Egyptian junta, Gamal Abdul Nasser, consummated a deal with the Soviet Union to buy weapons from Czechoslovakia. This aroused deep concern among Cold Warriors in the Eisenhower administration. In addition, Nasser and the Free Officers government recognized Communist China, and Nasser was becoming quite prestigious within the non-aligned movement, which despite its name wasn’t really non-aligned, but was closer to the eastern bloc.

Egyptians weren’t very happy with this agreement, either. The deal came with financing terms from the IBRD that were a nationalist affront. The coup became a revolution in 1956, when, largely in response to domestic political pressures, Nasser abrogated an agreement between Egypt and the British that allowed Britain access to the canal zone and, on July 26, nationalized the Suez canal. This is an extraordinarily important date in Egyptian history. This represented the end, so they thought, of foreign domination of Egypt. The following October, Israel, France and the UK invaded Egypt. The Israelis took Sinai, the British and French landed in the canal zone.

The military operations, particularly for the Israelis, were largely successful. But Washington forced a ceasefire, and then ultimately a withdrawal of all those forces. Eisenhower was put in a terribly awkward position by this invasion, because while he was denouncing the Hungarians and the Soviets for putting down a revolution in Hungary, his closest European allies and Israel were invading another country. In addition, the Soviets actually threatened to assist the Egyptians and to harm London and Paris.

In response, the UN was asked to deploy a force to the Sinai called the UN Emergency Force (UNEF), which would play an important role in the run-up to the June 1967 War.

Despite Eisenhower’s essentially taking the side of the Egyptians in the Suez crisis, relations didn’t improve much. During this time, Secretary Dulles and Eisenhower became increasingly concerned about Nasser’s turn to the Soviet Union, and indeed the Suez Crisis accelerated the pace of Egyptian-Soviet relations that were to last until the early 1970s.

Between the Suez Crisis and Nasser’s death in 1970, the relationship between Washington and Cairo remained somewhat hostile, with Egypt’s growing status as a Soviet client state, Nasser’s bid to lead the region at the expense of America’s allies in the region, notably Saudi Arabia and Jordan. Nasser and the Saudis were also engaged in a proxy war in Yemen during the 1960s. So there was a real Cold War and to some extent a hot war going on between Nasser’s Egypt and those aligned with it and its Soviet patron, on the one hand, and the U.S. and more traditional monarchies in the region.

Then came the 1967 defeat, known as the Six-Day War or the June War. It really was a pair of three-day campaigns on two different fronts: the Israelis cleaned up the Egyptians first and then turned their attention to the Jordanians and the Syrians. All of these things sowed distrust and hostility between the U.S. and Egypt. In fact, during the Six-Day War, the Egyptians severed relations with the U.S.

In the early 1970s, the increasing importance of Israel to American foreign policy made it difficult for the U.S. and Egypt to have cordial relations. In fact, in 1970, Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon discovered how important a strategic ally Israel could be when war between the PLO and King Hussein broke out in Jordan and the Israelis activated their armed forces to protect the king against the predatory policies of another Soviet client, Syria.

After Nasser died of a heart attack in September 1970, he was succeeded by Anwar Sadat, who is famous for his November 1977 trip to Jerusalem. It was previously unthinkable that an Egyptian leader would visit Israel, address the Knesset, and ultimately make peace with the Israelis in the first handshake on the White House lawn in March 1979. Sadat was part of the Free Officers, but he was more a political activist than a military officer. He was a conduit between the Free Officers and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, another nationalist activist organization. The Muslim Brotherhood provided the intellectual and theoretical roots for what we see in the Arab world and beyond today in terms of Islamism and Islamist extremism. Sadat had also dabbled with the Nazis against the British during WWII.

All that being said, despite his checkered history, one can’t diminish Sadat’s importance in world history. While he was the vice president of Egypt, he sought openings with the Nixon administration. In the post-1967 years, immediately after the defeat, the Soviets had become the guarantor of Egyptian national security. However, Egyptian-Soviet relations in the early 1970s were extremely difficult. Sadat was perennially frustrated with Soviet promises to provide the most advanced weapons to counter American deliveries to Israel, and this reached a peak in 1972, when Sadat expelled all 15,000 Soviet advisors, including the Soviet pilots and technicians operating the Soviet equipment.

Still, in the months prior to the October 1973 war, the Soviets continued to deliver weapons that were subsequently manned only by Egyptians, not Soviets.

The 1973 war, often referred to as the Yom Kippur War, is called the Ramadan War or more often al-Ubur, “the Crossing,” in Egypt, celebrating Egypt’s singular military achievement in the twentieth century, which was crossing the Suez Canal and bloodying the Israelis. This was essentially Sadat’s strategy, which was to hurt the Israelis enough to bring the U.S. into the conflict diplomatically and to force Israel to the negotiating table.

In fact, the war was a turning point in U.S.-Egyptian relations. The war’s aftermath provided an opportunity for both Kissinger and Sadat. For Kissinger, the prospect of flipping Egypt from the Soviet to the U.S. camp was tantalizing—without the largest Arab country, with the largest military, and politically powerful Arab state, Moscow’s efforts to penetrate the strategically vital Middle East would be reversed. Flipping Egypt to the U.S. would also end the Arab war option against Israel.

For Sadat, the U.S. relationship was equally attractive. Egypt would get a new sponsor, allowing it to get out from under the constraints of Nasser’s legacy. U.S. largesse would help Egypt’s economy. In return, Sadat argued convincingly to Kissinger and Nixon that Egypt could be a strategic asset to the U.S.

The relationship between the two countries would not and could not, however, blossom without some sort of change in the Egyptian-Israeli relationship. Egypt needed peace with Israel for the sake of Egypt. From a crude strategic calculation, Sadat determined that going to Jerusalem would be the way to develop strategic ties with the U.S.

In fact, at least the way Sadat interpreted it, President Carter had told him that if Egypt made peace with Israel, it could have relations with the U.S. on the same level as Israel. Indeed, Egypt received annually about $2.2 billion: $1.3 billion to equip its armed forces and $900 million to reform its economy. The economic aid portion has decreased significantly over the years, to about $250 million, but military aid remains the centerpiece of the relationship. Egypt became Washington’s strategic ally in the region, providing stability in the eastern Mediterranean, a bulwark against Soviet influence in the Middle East and the horn of Africa, and a launch-point for U.S. forces in the event of a crisis in the Persian Gulf.

Sadat was reviewing a military parade honoring the Crossing when he was assassinated in 1981. His successor, Hosni Mubarak, was an air force general. He has now been in power longer than either Nasser or Sadat. Although critics have always questioned his abilities, he has been able to best all of his opponents. Mubarak’s policy essentially split the difference between Nasser and Sadat. He worked hard to bring Egypt back into the Arab fold after it was isolated for its separate peace with Israel; held the U.S. at arms length while continuing to secure Washington’s largesse; and repressed Egypt’s Islamic extremists, while at the same time appropriating Islamist symbols. This all worked extremely well. The conventional view of Egypt is that Mubarak is the old soldier who has held the line on the Islamists, kept the Suez Canal open for the U.S. military, and maintained peace with Israel. Stability has become the hallmark of Mubarak’s 28-year presidency.

The high point in the U.S.-Egypt relationship, at least from Washington’s perspective, over these years was 1990-91, when Egypt dispatched 35,000 troops to participate in Gulf War I. The actual military contribution of those forces was negligible, but Egypt’s participation was invaluable politically to the U.S.-led coalition that President George H.W. Bush had formed to force Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait. Egypt’s participation provided a pan-Arab blessing for the operation.

In return, the U.S. got Egypt’s creditors to forgive half of the country’s considerable external debt, helping to set the stage for Egypt’s economic development over the next decade.

The key to the relationship had been the notion that Egypt is an asset to the U.S. in the Arab world, a broker of peace between Israelis and Palestinians, a moderate in inter-Arab councils, who has helped in the Gulf and on counterterrorism. Along with Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Jordan, and the Gulf States, Egypt has helped create a regional order in the Middle East in which it’s relatively less expensive for the U.S. to pursue its interests in the region. Without Egypt’s help, our difficulties in the Middle East would be compounded.

That’s the good part of the relationship. There are difficulties, as well. There’s overall agreement on things like Arab-Israeli peace, but it’s meaningless when the U.S. and Egypt have differed so profoundly on questions such as how to get to Arab-Israeli peace, how to deal with Saddam’s Iraq, what to do about reform in the region, what are the roots of terrorism in the Middle East. In fact, those are the bases of our differences and what makes Egypt such a vexing ally for the U.S.

For example, the Egyptian government sees Israel’s settlements as the obstacle to peace and resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict. There are many different factors that contribute to this conflict, and in fact the Egyptians are the leading proponent of the idea that if you resolve this conflict, “more than 50 percent of the region’s problems will be resolved.” On Iraq, the Egyptians counseled against the war. They did very little publicly to support the U.S. in the invasion. In fact, in the darkest days during the conflict, there was a sense in Cairo that “you break it, you bought it” – we are not going to help you diplomatically. But the Egyptians did open up their air space, provide the Suez Canal, and provide a transit route for U.S. forces going to Iraq. When the Turkish parliament in March 2003 refused to allow American forces to transit through southeastern Turkey on their way to Iraq, the Egyptians opened up the Suez Canal and allowed the Fourth Infantry Division expedited access through the canal on their way to the Persian Gulf.

On terrorism, for the Egyptians, the Arab-Israeli conflict and Israel’s settlement activity in the West Bank and previously Gaza was the crucible of terrorism. The dispossession of the Palestinian people was the cause of terrorism in the Middle East, and post-9/11, the then Egyptian foreign minister, Ahmed Maher, despite offers of condolences to President Bush, more than implied that American policy was to blame for that tragedy.

The U.S. has a very different view of these matters. Resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict would be an important thing, of course. But that conflict is not the crucible of terrorism in the region. We believe that there is something about the nature of the regimes in the Middle East that fosters political alienation, where there’s limited economic opportunity, married with the extremist ideologies of organizations such as the Muslim Brotherhood and others that creates an environment where primarily young angry men are willing to take up arms, not just against their own state, but against the U.S.

As a result, the U.S. embarked after 9/11 on a program of political change and democratic reform in the region, based on the theory that if these same young angry men could process their grievances through democratic institutions, they’d be less likely to join terrorist movements. Egyptians have essentially asked us to stay out of their business. They did everything possible to undermine the so-called freedom agenda.

There is much debate in Washington now about what to do with Egypt. There is a sense that the relationship has run its course over the last thirty years. Its foundations are either weak or obsolete. The Egyptian-Israeli peace is cold, but it is institutionalized. As President Mubarak gets older and there is more talk about who his successor will be, no one questions the fact that whoever comes after him will uphold the peace treaty with Israel. The U.S. in the 1970s did not have bases throughout the Persian Gulf. Thirty years later, U.S. military bases dot the Gulf. Now, there are no Soviets to contain. This relationship has been running on bureaucratic inertia.

So what should policymakers do? The debate falls along three axes. First, some argue that we should go back to authoritarian stability. We should not care about the particularly harsh kind of authoritarian system that has developed in Egypt, or about democracy and human rights there. The history of the last thirty years demonstrates that by maintaining a policy of authoritarian stability, by working with whomever is in power in Egypt, we have an amazing record of success. All of our interests in the region are basically served by this relationship. The Egyptians help us get oil out of the Persian Gulf, they are at peace with Israel, and they have been partners with us in containing terrorists in the region. That is one strain of thought, particularly attractive in the Pentagon.

The second axis around which the debate revolves is that we need to undertake a program of democratization and reform in Egypt. The Bush administration tried this, but it made grievous errors in the process. It essentially told Egypt that it was a great ally, but that the leadership should reform itself out of power while helping the U.S. in a variety of things. Not even Mubarak would take that deal. So the argument is that we should continue to promote democracy and change in the region, but we need to do it better and smarter, based on the theory that the stability that the authoritarian system in Egypt gives us is no stability at all. It produces terrorists, it abets the worst base instincts of Islamist extremists, and ultimately this regime is going to come falling down. We need to provide some sort of soft landing to ensure our core interests in the region and, in the long run, a more democratic, open political system makes Egypt a more stable U.S. partner. Moreover, a policy of democracy promotion is more consistent with the principles by which we live in the U.S.

Finally, the third stream of thought, an emerging one, is that we have to right-size this relationship; that times have changed, the U.S. has changed, Egypt has changed, and the region has changed; that we have no shared projects; that we need to step back from this relationship; and that Egypt should be treated like other important countries around the world. But there is no compelling reason to have a strategic relationship with Egypt, or for Egypt to be the second largest recipient of our foreign aid. In fact, a healthy bit of distance between the U.S. and Egypt, by this thinking, may actually be better for both parties, as well as for the relationship.

The reason Sadat and Mubarak pursued a relationship with the U.S. is not necessarily because they love the U.S. Sadat personally may have liked the U.S., as many Egyptians do. But those in Egyptian decision-making circles are making a calculation having to do with continuity in Egyptian foreign policy going back to the days of the Khedive Ismail in the 1860s-70s. That is, the relationship with the U.S. is not about aspiring to be like us or be close to us in any way. It is about extracting the resources necessary to either help Egypt become a modern state or for Egypt to survive. So there are swings in Egyptian foreign policy moving in close connection to one great power or another throughout history. The reason the Khedive invited both Union and Confederate Army officers to Egypt after the U.S. Civil War to help train the Egyptian army was because he wanted to break away from the Ottoman empire.

A few years later, the Khedive turned to the French and the British for the construction of the Suez Canal. In the early days after the 1950 coup, the Egyptians sought U.S. assistance. When that didn’t work out, they became Soviet clients. When that no longer worked for them, they turned to the U.S.

From the U.S. perspective, the relationship has gone on for thirty years, the U.S. has invested $70 billion in Egypt, and yet the latter sees us as interfering in their domestic affairs. But it’s not just us; while a Soviet client, Egypt also resisted interference from the Soviet Union.

For now, Egypt maintains that it has no alternative to the United States … yet. But they will likely continue to look for another strategic partner to provide them the largesse that at a minimum will help them to survive and muddle through their historic tribulations.