The Development of Foreign Policy

Egypt Table of Contents

Despite certain constants, Egyptian foreign policy underwent substantial evolution shaped by the differing values and perceptions of the country's presidents and the changing constraints and opportunities of its environment. Under Nasser the core of the regime's ideology and the very basis of its legitimacy was radical nationalism. Nasser sought to end the legacy of Egypt's long political subordination to Western imperialism, to restore its Arab-Islamic identity diluted by a century of Westernization, and to launch independent national economic development. He also aimed to replace Western domination of the Arab states with Egyptian leadership of a nonaligned Arab world and thus to forestall security threats and to enhance Egypt's stature as head of a concert of kindred states.

Nasser's foreign policy seemed, until 1967, a qualified success. He adeptly exploited changes in the international balance of power, namely the local weakening of Western imperialism, the Soviet challenge to Western dominance, and the national awakening of the Arab peoples, to win a series of significant nationalist victories. The long-sought British withdrawal from Egypt, the defeat of the security pacts by which the West sought to harness the Arabs against the Soviet Union, the successful nationalization of the Suez Canal, and the failure of the 1956 French-British- Israeli invasion put Egypt at the head of an aroused Arab nationalist movement and resulted in a substantial retreat of Western control from the Middle East. This policy also won political and economic benefits internally. The Arab adulation of Nasser was a major component of the regime's legitimacy. It was as leader of the Arab world that Egypt won substantial foreign assistance from both East and West.

Nasser's success was, of course, only relative to the failure of previous Arab leaders, and his policies had mounting costs. The other Arab regimes were unwilling to accept Egyptian hegemony and, although largely on the defensive, worked to thwart Nasser's effort to impose a foreign policy consensus on the Arab world. The effort to project Egyptian influence drained the country's resources; Egyptian intervention in support of the republican revolution (1962-70) in the Yemen Arab Republic (North Yemen) was particularly costly. Generally, Nasser's Egypt failed to become the Prussia of the Arab world, but it played the decisive role in the emergence of an Arab state system independent of overt foreign control.

Pan-Arab leadership, however, carried heavy responsibilities, including above all the defense of the Arab world and the championing of the Arab and Palestinian cause against Israel. These responsibilities, which entailed grave economic burdens and security risks, eventually led Nasser into the disastrous June 1967 War with Israel. Nasser did not seek a war, but he allowed circumstances to bring on one that caught him unprepared. Nasser's challenge to Western interests in the region had earned him accumulated resentment in the West where, many perceived him as a Soviet client who should be brought down. At the same time, a rising Syrian-Palestinian challenge to Israel was peaking, threatening to provoke an Israeli attack on Syria. Despite an unfavorable military balance, Nasser, as leader of the Arab world, was obliged to deter Israel by mobilizing on its southern front. This opened the door to an Israeli "first strike" against Egypt. The rapid collapse of the Egyptian army in the war showed how far Nasser's foreign policy ambitions had exceeded his capabilities. Israel occupied Egypt's Sinai Peninsula. The same nationalist foreign policy by which Nasser had ended the Western domination of Egypt had led him into a trap that entrenched a new foreign presence on Egyptian soil.

Nasser's response to the crisis was two-fold. In accepting the plan of United States secretary of state William P. Rogers, he signaled Egypt's readiness for a peaceful settlement of the Arab- Israeli conflict. This meant the acceptance of Israel and acknowledged the role of the United States as a dominant power broker in the Middle East. Convinced that diplomacy alone, however, would never recover Sinai and skeptical of American intentions, he launched a major overhaul and expansion of the armed forces and in the War of Attrition (1969-70) contested Israel's hold on the Sinai Peninsula. But the shattering of Egyptian self-confidence in the 1967 defeat, the growing belief that the Soviet Union would not supply the offensive weapons for a military recovery of Sinai, and the conviction that the United States would keep Israel strong enough to repulse any such recovery, combined to convince a growing portion of the Egyptian political elite that the United States "held the cards" to a solution and that Cairo would have to come to terms with Washington.

Sadat came to power ready for a diplomatic opening to the West, a political solution to the crisis and a compromise settlement, even if it were a partial one. He sought a United States-sponsored peace, believing that only those who provided the Israelis with the means of occupation had the means to end it. The expulsion of the Soviet advisers from Egypt in 1972 was in part an effort to court American favor. He also struck a close alliance with the conservative Arab oil states, headed by Saudi Arabia, whose influence in Washington, money, and potential to use the "oil weapon" were crucial elements in building Egyptian leverage with Israel. Once it was clear that Egypt's interests would be ignored until Egyptians showed they could fight and upset a status quo comfortable to Israel and the United States, Sadat turned seriously to war as an option. But rather than a war to recapture Sinai, he decided on a strictly limited one to establish a bridgehead on the east bank of the Suez Canal as a way of breaking the Israeli grip on the area and opening the way for negotiations. Such a limited war, Sadat calculated, would rally the Arab world around Egypt, bring the oil weapon into play, challenge Israel's reliance on security through territorial expansion, and, above all, pave the way for a United States diplomatic intervention that would force Israel to accept a peaceful settlement. The price of an American peace, however, would almost certainly be an end to Egypt's anti- imperialist Arab nationalist policy.

The October 1973 War did upset the status quo and ended with Egyptian forces in Sinai. But because Israeli forces had penetrated the west bank of the Suez Canal, Sadat badly needed and accepted a United States-sponsored disengagement of forces. Sinai I removed the Israelis from the west bank but, in defusing the war crisis, also reduced Arab leverage in bargaining for an overall Israeli withdrawal. In subsequently allowing his relations with the Soviet Union and Syria to deteriorate and hence decreasing the viability of war as an option, Sadat became so dependent on American diplomacy that he had little choice but to accept a second partial and separate agreement, Sinai II, in which Egypt recovered further territory but was allowed a mere token military force in Sinai. This so undermined Arab leverage that negotiations for a comprehensive peace stalled. A frustrated Sadat, hoping to win world support and weaken Israeli hard-liners, embarked on his trip to Jerusalem. Even if Israel refused concessions to Syria or the Palestinians, it might thereby be brought to relinquish Sinai in return for a separate peace that took Egypt out of the Arab-Israeli power balance.

At Camp David and in the subsequent negotiations over a peace treaty, Sadat found out just how much his new diplomatic currency would purchase: a return of Sinai and, at most, a relaxation of Israeli control over the West Bank ("autonomy"), but no Palestinian state. By 1979 Egypt was finally at peace. But because the separate peace removed any remaining incentive for Israel to settle on the other fronts, Egypt was ostracized from the Arab world, forfeiting its leadership and the aid to which this had entitled the country.

Simultaneously, as Sadat broke his links with the Soviet Union and the Arab states and needed the United States increasingly to mediate with the Israelis, to provide arms, and to fill the aid gap, Sadat moved Egypt into an ever closer American alliance. Particularly after the fall of the shah of Iran, he openly seemed to assume the role of guardian of American interests in the area. Joint military maneuvers were held, facilities granted to United States forces, and Egyptian troops deployed to prop up conservative regimes, such as that of Zaire. Sadat seemingly reasoned that Washington's support for Israel derived from its role in protecting American interests in the area, and if he could arrogate that role to himself, then Egypt would be eligible for the same aid and support and the importance of Israel to Washington would decline. The Egypt that had led the fight to expel Western influence from the Arab world now welcomed it back. Mubarak's main foreign policy challenge was to resolve the contradiction between the standards of nationalist legitimacy established under Nasser and the combination of close United States and Israeli connections and isolation from the Arab world brought on by Sadat's policies. It took Mubarak nearly a decade to make any significant progress, however, because Sadat's legacy proved quite durable. The regime's dependence on the United States was irreversible: for arms, for cheap food to maintain social peace, and--especially as oil-linked earnings plummeted--for US$2 billion in yearly aid to keep the economy afloat. Dependency dictated continuing close political and military alignment largely aimed at radical nationalist forces in the Arab world--not at Israel, Egypt's traditional enemy since 1948. Mubarak had to maintain the Israeli connection despite the lack of progress toward a comprehensive peace or recognition of Palestinian rights. He remained passive during the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, a major blow to the Arab world made possible largely by Israel's no longer needing to station substantial forces along the southern front as a result of the Camp David Accords. This invasion and the Israeli raids on Iraq in 1981 and on Tunis in 1986 showed how Sadat had opened the Arab world to Israeli power as never before.

Mubarak did recover some foreign policy independence. He rejected pressures from the United States government in late 1985 and early 1986 for joint action against Libya, and he restored Cairo's diplomatic relations with Moscow. Moreover, he had some leverage over the United States: Washington had invested so much in Egypt and gained so much from Sadat's policies--defusing the threat of an Arab-Israeli war, rolling back the influence of the Soviet Union and radicals in the Arab world--that it could not afford to alienate the regime or to let it go under.

The continuing Israeli-American connection deepened Egypt's crisis of nationalist legitimacy, however. Israel was widely seen in Egypt as having "betrayed" the peace by its rejection of Palestinian rights; its attempt to keep the Sinai enclave of Taba; and its attacks on Iraq, Lebanon, and Tunis. Evidence of the Egyptians' deep resentment of Israeli policy was demonstrated by the way they made a folk hero of Sulayman Khatir, a policeman who killed Israeli tourists in 1985. Egyptians also resented economic dependency on the United States, and the United States' forcing down of an Egyptian aircraft after the Achille Lauro incident in October 1985 was taken as a national insult and set off the first nationalist street disturbances in years. This sentiment did not become a mass movement able to force a policy change despite demands by opposition leaders and isolated attacks on Israeli and American officials by disgruntled "Nasserist" officers. But few governments anywhere have been saddled with so unpopular a foreign policy.

What saved the regime was that Mubarak's astute diplomacy and the mistakes of his rivals allowed him to achieve a gradual re- integration of Egypt into the Arab world without prejudice to Egypt's Israeli links. The first break in Egypt's isolation came when Yasir Arafat's 1983 quarrel with Syria enabled Egypt to extend him protection and assume patronage of the Palestinian resistance. Then the Arab oil states, fearful of Iran and of the spread of Shia Islamic activism, looked to Egypt for a counterbalance. Thus, Mubarak was able to demonstrate Egypt's usefulness to the Arabs and to inch out of his isolation. Egypt's 1989 readmission to the League of Arab States (Arab League) crowned his efforts.

Mubarak's Egypt viewed its role in the Arab world as that of a mediator, particularly in trying to advance the peace process between Israel and the Arabs. Thus, the regime invested its prestige in the 1989 attempt to bridge differences between Israel and the Palestinians over West Bank elections. By 1990 these efforts had not resolved the stalemate over Palestinian rights, but the restoration of ties between Egypt and Syria amounted to a Syrian acknowledgment that Egypt's peace with Israel was irreversible. Thus, Egypt's rehabilitation as a major power in the Arab world was completed, undoing a good bit of the damage done to regime legitimacy under Sadat.

After Egypt had established its alliance with the United States, the formerly significant roles of non-Arab powers in Egyptian foreign policy waned. Relations with Western Europe remained important, if secondary. With some success, Egypt regularly sought the intervention of West European governments with its international creditors. When the United States commitment to pushing the peace process beyond Camp David stalled, Egypt also looked to Europe to pressure Israel, but the Europeans were, in this respect, no substitute for Washington.

The role of the Soviet Union dwindled even more dramatically. Under Nasser, Moscow was Cairo's main military supplier and political protector and a main market and source of development assistance; Soviet aid helped build such important projects as the Aswan High Dam and the country's steel industry. Without Soviet arms Egypt would have been helpless to mount the October 1973 War that broke the Israeli grip on Sinai. But Sadat's 1972 expulsion of Soviet advisers and his subsequent reliance on the United States to recover the rest of Sinai soured relations with the Soviet Union. Wanting American diplomatic help and economic largesse, Sadat had to portray Egypt to United States interests as a bulwark against Soviet threats; under these conditions Soviet relations naturally turned hostile and were broken in 1980. Under Mubarak amicable--but still low-key--relations were reestablished. Mubarak sought better Soviet relations to enhance his leverage over the United States, but Moscow was in no position to offer a credible threat to American influence.

In 1990 Mubarak governed a state that was the product of both persistence and change. Continuity was manifest in the durability of the structures built by Nasser. The authoritarian presidency remained the command post of the state. Nasserist policies--from Arab nationalism to the food subsidies and the public sector-- created durable interests and standards of legitimacy. Under Sadat Egypt had accommodated itself to the dominant forces in the regime's environment; in Sadat's "postpopulist" regime, charisma, social reform, and leadership of the Arab world achieved by Nasser gave way to their opposites. Sadat had also adapted the state to new conditions, altering the goals and style of presidential power and liberalizing the political structure. The survival of most of Sadat's work under Mubarak suggested that, more successfully than Nasser, he had partially institutionalized it in a massive political structure, an alliance with the dominant social forces, and a web of constraints against significant change. Under Mubarak the state's ability to manipulate its environment retreated before rising societal forces and powerful external constraints. But Mubarak also consolidated the limited liberalization of the political system and restored an Arab role for Egypt. Although it cost the concession of its initial ideology, the Egyptian state resulting from the Nasser-led 1952 Revolution had shown a remarkable capacity to survive in the face of intense pressures.

Yet Sadat's innovations, in stimulating rising autonomous forces while narrowing regime options, had set change in motion. Although the massive bureaucratic state was sure to persist, the capitalist forces unleashed by the infitah contained the seeds of countervailing power, the social basis for further political liberalization. The widening inequality and social mobilization precipitated by capitalist development threatened, however, to produce growing class conflicts. In a regime with precarious legitimacy, these conflicts could spell instability or revolution and could require continuing authoritarian control. Should rising economic constraints force the government to abandon the residues of populism, such a regime might have an ever more repressive face. If this increasing repression were accompanied by accommodation between the regime and political Islam, the end might be conservative rule by consensus; otherwise, a crumbling of the secular state under pressures from the street and defections within could still produce a new Islamic order. At the beginning of the 1990s, however, the regime was continuing its established course, avoiding radical turns to left or right, and mixing doses of limited liberalization, limited repression, and limited Islamization.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress