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Strategic Posture Review: Egypt

Author: Steven A. Cook, Eni Enrico Mattei Senior Fellow for Middle East and Africa Studies
November 15, 2010
World Politics Review


Egyptians like to say that their country is Umm al Dunya, or "the Mother of the World," and that, as the crucible of a great civilization dating back 7,000 years, its natural place is among both regional and global powers. In many ways, the boast is entirely accurate.  By dint of its history, geography, and demography, Egypt has played a central role in Middle East politics and security policy since World War I. Successive global powers such as Great Britain, the Soviet Union and, most recently, the United States have come to regard Egypt as an indispensable asset for achieving their regional and global ambitions.  The Suez Canal remains critical to the security of the Persian Gulf and its vast energy reserves, as well as to global trade. Egypt also maintains the region's largest and most powerful Arab military.  In addition, at approximately 80 million citizens, almost one in four Arabs is Egyptian.  

Beyond these hard-power indicators, however, Egypt has historically maintained a reservoir of soft power that has had a profound influence on the politics of the region and beyond.  Consequently, for the better part of the last three decades, Egypt has been a pillar of the United States' Middle East policy.  Cairo -- along with Riyadh as well as junior partners in Rabat, Amman, and the small Gulf states -- has helped create a regional political order that has made the pursuit of U.S. objectives in the Middle East -- namely, the free flow of oil, Israel's security, preventing other external powers from becoming influential, and confronting rogue states -- relatively less expensive. The question remains, however, whether Egypt will continue to be able to play this influential role as other regional powers emerge and domestic problems increasingly buffet the country.

Foreign Policy

The Free Officers' coup of July 1952, which ended the almost 150-year reign of an Albanian-Ottoman dynasty, altered the political trajectory of Egypt and the entire Middle East.  Although the United Kingdom and the United States were interested in cultivating Egypt's new rulers and including Cairo in post-war security arrangements for the Middle East, the Egyptians chose not to participate.  Instead, in mid-1955, Egypt's leader, Gamal Abdel Nasser, declared that from that time on, Egypt would pursue a policy of "positive neutralism" in foreign affairs.  

In practice, Nasser was willing to deal with both the East and the West, striking one of the largest weapons deals at the time with a Soviet satellite, Czechoslovakia, and negotiating the financing for the Aswan High Dam with Washington, London, and the International Bank of Reconstruction and Development (the precursor to the World Bank).  Washington, London, and the IBRD ultimately reneged on the deal after Nasser raised questions about the terms of repayment and recognized the People's Republic of China.  In response to what he considered the West's betrayal, Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal, declaring in October 1956 that the waterway was an Egyptian asset that would be used solely for Egypt's development.

The result was the British-French-Israeli invasion of Egypt of October-November 1956, often referred to as the Tripartite Aggression.  Washington opposed the military action, which effectively ended European influence in Egypt.  As for the Aswan High Dam, the Soviets provided the financing for the project beginning in 1958.

Although Cairo was drawing closer to the Soviet Union, Egypt's foreign policy in the 10-year period following the nationalization of the Suez Canal focused almost exclusively on inter-Arab politics.  This was a time when Nasser's domestic power was at its zenith, and Cairo was making a bid for Arab leadership. In March 1958, Nasser agreed to a union between Egypt and Syria, turning his rhetoric about pan-Arab unity into a reality -- at least temporarily. The United Arab Republic failed in a little less than three years, foundering on conflicting expectations, Egyptian high-handedness, and Syria's internecine political struggles.  Its break-up may have brought an end to Egypt's experiment with Arab unity, but Nasser continued to pursue a policy of solidarity with the region's republican forces.  In October 1962, he committed Egyptian troops in support of republican forces against royalists in Yemen's civil war. However, Egypt's forces quickly became bogged down there, and it was only the emergency of the June 1967 that prompted Cairo to bring them home.

Israel's crushing defeat of Egypt after just six days of fighting in June 1967 had significant consequences for Egyptian foreign policy.  First, Nasser was forced to repair his relations with the region's monarchies, especially Saudi Arabia, whose resources he would need to confront Israel and rebuild his armed forces.  He had been extremely critical of these regimes during much the 1950s and 1960s.  Second, Egypt drew ever closer to the Soviet orbit, as Moscow was Cairo's only source of weaponry after the near-total destruction of its forces in Sinai during the brief conflict.  

Cairo's efforts to forge good relations with its previous competitors in the Arab world paid off six years later, when the Egyptian armed forces successfully overran Israeli positions on the East Bank of the Suez Canal in October 1973.  Combined, the power of Soviet-built arms and the Arab world's "oil weapon" proved effective in helping Egypt achieve its aims in the war: to alter the geostrategic environment in a way that would force the Israelis and their American allies to the negotiating table.  Indeed, the October war began a process of negotiation between Egypt, the United States, and Israel that ultimately led Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, who succeeded Nasser in September 1970, to Jerusalem in November 1977.  

Sadat had long harbored the desire to move Egypt away from the Soviet Union into the orbit of the United States, because he believed that Washington, as Israel's patron, was central to Middle East peace and, equally important, that the U.S. was a more-suitable partner to help Egypt in its quest for modernization. For his part, Sadat argued that Egypt could serve as a bulwark against Soviet penetration of the Middle East and East Africa, a launching point for U.S. forces in the event of a crisis in the Persian Gulf, and a general force for regional stability.  This was particularly appealing to the Nixon and Ford administrations, as Egypt's geostrategic reorientation would effectively end the Arab military option against Israel and mean a net loss for Moscow in the zero-sum game of Cold War politics.  

Still, Egypt was unable to benefit fully from American largesse until it took the dramatic step to end its state of war with Israel.  With Sadat's visit to Jerusalem and the subsequent Egypt-Israel peace treaty of March 1979, Cairo's transformation from Soviet to American client was complete.  Peace was accompanied by an American commitment of $2.2 billion in annual economic and military assistance.  

Egypt's agreement with Israel came at a steep cost, however.  Although hailed in the West as a singular achievement, the assumption in the United States and Europe that Egypt's peace deal with Israel would be the first step toward comprehensive regional peace proved to be wholly inaccurate.  Rather, Egypt's separate peace prompted the Arab states to break diplomatic relations with Cairo and move the Arab League to Tunis.  Still, the treaty with Israel enhanced Egypt's relations with the West, which poured resources into the development of Egypt's economy, infrastructure, public health system, and educational sector.

The assassination of Anwar Sadat on Oct. 6, 1981, suddenly ushered in the era of President Hosni Mubarak.  The new leader's immediate foreign policy priorities were to develop strategic ties to the United States in order to keep economic and military aid flowing, while at the same time to return Egypt to the Arab fold.  In practice, this meant a delicate balancing act of keeping Israel at a distance, but not so far that it created difficulties in the U.S.-Egypt relationship.  

Mubarak was largely successful in achieving these goals.  In 1989, the Arab world restored diplomatic relations with Egypt, even as peace with Israel became institutionalized, if hardly warm.  Cairo also worked to make itself a partner of the United States in the region, with the high point of the relationship coming in 1990 when Egypt dispatched 35,000 troops to Saudi Arabia to take part in Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm.  . . .

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