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The Last Great Myth About Egypt

Author: Steven A. Cook, Hasib J. Sabbagh Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies
July 21, 2014
Foreign Policy

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In the 1970s, Henry Kissinger fell in love with Anwar Sadat. To Kissinger, the Egyptian president "had the wisdom and courage of the statesman and occasionally the insight of the prophet." It was from this romance that a set of ideas about Egypt became inculcated in American Middle East policy: Egypt would be a bulwark against the Soviet Union, a base from which U.S. forces would launch in the event of a crisis in the Persian Gulf, and a mediator between Arabs -- especially the Palestinians -- and Israelis.

Of these, only the last remains relevant to contemporary U.S. policy. It is, however, nothing more than a myth that American officials and analysts tell each other. Kissinger's hagiography of Sadat notwithstanding, the Egyptians have never been the effective, impartial negotiators that Americans expect them to be.

As Israel's "Operation Protective Edge" nears its second week, with hundreds of lives lost, what are the Egyptians up to? They're doing pretty much what they always do -- looking out for themselves. For all the dramatic changes in Egypt since Hosni Mubarak's fall, the Egyptian military and intelligence services view Gaza in much the same way they have for the better part of the previous decade or more. They want to keep the Palestinians, especially Hamas, in a box, prevent the conflict from destabilizing the Sinai Peninsula, ensure that the Gaza Strip remains principally an Israeli responsibility, and exclude other regional players from a role in Gaza.

Because of the way American policymakers and other observers have come to think about Egypt, they expect that a cease-fire serves these goals. The reality is, however, that it may or may not.

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