Egypt Table of Contents

The Determinants of Foreign Policy

Geopolitics inevitably shaped Egypt's foreign policy. Egypt occupies a strategic position as a landbridge between two continents and a link between two principal waterways, the Mediterranean Sea and the Indian Ocean. It must therefore be strong enough to dominate its environment or risk becoming the victim of outside powers. Its security is also linked to control of the Nile, on whose waters its survival depends. It has, therefore, had historical ties with Sudan and has sought satisfactory relations with the states on Sudan's southern borders, Uganda and Zaire. The landbridge to Asia, route of potential conquerors, had also to be secured, and Egyptian rulers traditionally tried to project their power into Syria and Arabia, often in contest with other powers in Anatolia (present-day Turkey), or the Euphrates River valley (present-day Iraq). In contemporary times, Israel, backed by a superpower, located on Egypt's border, and blocking its access to the East, was perceived as the greatest threat to Egyptian security.

Egypt was also politically strategic. As Nasser saw it, with considerable justice, Egypt was potentially at the center of three "circles," the African, the Arab, and the Islamic. Egypt viewed itself as playing a major role in Africa and, beyond that, was long a leading mover in the wider Third World camp and a major advocate of neutralism and nonalignment. This geopolitical importance made the country the object of interest to the great powers, and when Egypt was strong enough, as under Nasser, allowed it to play the great powers against each other and win political support and economic and military aid from all sides. Even the weakened Egypt of Mubarak was able to parlay its strategic importance in the ArabIsraeli conflict and as a bulwark against Islamic political activism into political support and economic aid from both the West and the Arab world.

A second constant that shaped Egypt's foreign policy was its Arab-Islamic character. To be sure, Egypt had a long pre-Islamic heritage that gave it a distinct identity, and in periods such as the British occupation it developed apart from the Arab world. Egypt's national identity was never merged in an undifferentiated Arabism; Egyptians were shaped by their own distinct geography, history, dialect, and customs. But the content of Egyptian identity was indisputably Arab-Islamic. Egypt was inextricably a part of the Arab world. It was the largest Arabic-speaking country and the intellectual and political center to which the whole Arab world looked in modern times. It was also a center of Islamic civilization, its Al Azhar University one of Islam's major religious institutions and its popular culture profoundly Islamic. Although a portion of the most Westernized upper class at times saw Egypt as Mediterranean or pharaonic, for the overwhelming majority, Egypt's identity was Arab-Islamic. Indeed, Egypt saw itself as the leader of the Arab world, entitled to preeminence in proportion to the heavy burdens it bore in defense of the Arab cause. This Arab-Islamic identity was a great asset for Egyptian leaders. To the extent that Egyptian leadership was acknowledged in the Arab world, this prestige bolstered the stature of the ruler at home, entitled Egypt to a portion of Arab oil wealth, and gave credence to Egypt's ability to define a common Arab policy, hence increasing the country's strategic weight in world affairs. This leadership position also meant that Egypt was a natural part of the inter-Arab power balance, typically embroiled in the rivalries that split the Arab world and a part of the solidarities that united it. In the 1950s, modernizing, nationalist Egypt's rivals were traditional pro-Western Iraq and Saudi Arabia, and its main ally was Syria. In the 1970s, an alliance of Egypt, Syria, and Saudi Arabia led the Arab world in its search for peace with honor; when Sadat made a separate peace, Syria became Egypt's main rival. The country's Arab-Islamic identity also put certain constraints on foreign-policy decision makers: to violate it risked the legitimacy of the whole regime.

Finally, Egypt's foreign policy was pulled in contrary directions by the ideals of anti-imperialist nonalignment and the webs of dependency in which the country was increasingly enmeshed. Egypt's long history of subordination to foreign rulers, especially European imperialism, produced an inferiority complex, an intense anti-imperialism, a quest for dignity, and, particularly under Nasser, a powerful national pride among Egyptians. Egypt's national ideal was to be independent of both East and West, to be a strong prosperous state, to stand up to Israel, and to lead the Arab world. Yet, as a poverty-stricken developing country and a new state actor in the international power game, Egypt could not do without large amounts of economic aid and military assistance from the advanced economies and the great powers. Such dependency, of course, carried heavy costs and threats to national independence. The problem of dependency could be minimized by diversifying aid sources, and Nasser initially pursued a policy of balance between East and West, which won aid from both sides and minimized dependence on any one.

United States support for Israel after the June 1967 War made Egypt ever more dependent on the Soviet Union for military aid and protection, but this dependence was, in part, balanced by increasing financial aid from the conservative Arab oil states. By the late 1970s, Sadat, in choosing to rely on American diplomacy to recover Egyptian land from Israel and in allowing his ties to the Soviet Union and the Arab world to wither, had led Egypt into heavy economic and military dependency on the United States. This dependency, by precluding foreign-policy decisions displeasing to Israel and Washington, sharply limited Egypt's pursuit of a vigorous Arab and independent foreign policy. The basic dilemma of Egypt's foreign policy was that its dependence on foreign assistance conflicted with its aspiration for national independence and its concept of its role as an Arab-Islamic and traditionally nonaligned entity.

Foreign Policy Decision Making
The Development of Foreign Policy

More about the Government and Politics of Egypt.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress