Michael Doran’s book on the shaping of Egypt’s foreign policy concentrates on the brief but eventful four-year period between the end of World War II and the Arab-Israeli war of 1948. Yet the book, he notes, “is haunted by the specter of Gamal Abd al-Nasser.” For a decade and a half after 1952, when Nasser and the “Free Officers” associated with him seized power and overthrew the Egyptian monarchy, Nasser dominated the Arab Middle East, embodying Arab aspirations for unity and for a leader who would undo the Arab defeat at Israeli hands in the 1948 war.
In 1954, Nasser signed an agreement that ended England’s seventy-year occupation of the Canal Zone and finally brought about Britain’s military withdrawal from Egypt. The following year, he startled the West by accepting arms from the Soviet bloc. In 1956, he galvanized the Arab world by nationalizing the Suez Canal. England and France then secretly conspired with Israel to invade Egypt and bring about Nasser’s downfall; they failed, further enhancing Nasser’s already considerable popularity among Egyptians and on the Arab streets. In 1958, Syria’s leaders negotiated a hurried union with Egypt, seeking to enlist Nasser’s prestige to bolster their own shaky hold on power. Although the United Arab Republic, as the union was called, unraveled three years later, for a moment the Nasser steamroller appeared unstoppable; the eventual union of all the Arab states under Nasser’s aegis seemed only a matter of time. Finally, in 1967, Nasser stumbled into war with Israel. In Egyptian official rhetoric, this was to be the moment of Israel’s humiliation; but the war ended in considerable loss of Arab territory.
In the minds of most Egyptians and many historians, Egypt during the Nasser era was inextricably committed to Pan-Arabism and anti-Zionism. Under Nasser, Egyptian leadership of the Arab struggle against Israel appeared to reflect the natural order of Arab politics. When President Sadat made his dramatic trip to Israel in 1977, fellow Arab leaders responded by breaking diplomatic relations, expelling Egypt from the Arab League, and treating Sadat as a pariah. By making peace with Israel, Sadat had broken with the Arab consensus. He also appeared to violate firmly established principles of Egyptian foreign policy.
Doran, a young American historian, argues otherwise. He intends to show that the Egyptian attitude toward the Arab-Israeli conflict was from the beginning characterized by a great degree of ambivalence, and that Egyptian foreign policy in the immediate postwar period was driven less by Arab nationalism or the Palestine question than by the determination of Egypt’s ruling elite to rid the country of British tutelage, and particularly British military occupation and control of the Suez Canal. From this fateful decision, in Doran’s account, much else followed. “Once the Egyptian government decided to deny the Empire the right to use the Canal Zone bases,” he writes, “it had no choice but to oppose the British everywhere in the region.”
Egypt in consequence was driven to seek leadership of the Arab world because it needed to enlist a bloc of Arab states in its anti-British campaign. From 1946 on, it sought to turn the Arab League into an instrument of its foreign policy. It viewed the relations of London with every other Arab state as impinging directly on Egyptian interests. England’s Arab protégés became, by implication, Egypt’s potential enemies. Egypt came up with a variety of schemes, including an all-Arab defense organization, that were intended to discredit and replace the Middle East security alliances proposed by Great Britain. Cairo, Doran argues, embraced Pan-Arabism not because of popular pressure but in order to make use of the powerful Arab yearning for unity for its own national purposes. Even Egypt’s decision to intervene militarily in Palestine in 1948 and its subsequent conduct of the war, Doran writes, were determined more by the struggle with England and inter-Arab rivalries than by a determination to prevent the establishment of a Jewish state:
Cairo fought against Israel primarily in order to preserve the position of Egypt as the dominant power in the Arab world. The Egyptian elite directed operations on the battlefield not with the aim of destroying Israel but rather of preserving the special status of Egypt among the Arab states.
For Doran, then, President Sadat’s 1977 journey to Jerusalem was not a break with an established Egyptian foreign policy tradition but a return to it. After all, he notes, there were precedents for Egypt’s putting state interests ahead of Pan-Arab ones, and for making commitments to larger Arab causes and then withdrawing from them. In 1949, Egypt abandoned the war in Palestine, left its allies in the lurch, and was the first to sign an armistice agreement with Israel. In both 1949 and in 1977, with Sadat’s visit, Doran writes, Egypt “jumped out first.” In Doran’s view, then, what requires explanation is not Egypt’s abandonment of its role as leader of the Pan-Arab cause and of the struggle against Israel, but why it took on this role during the postwar period, particularly under Nasser.
Doran’s purpose is therefore ambitious, even if his focus is narrow. He invites us to reexamine widely held assumptions about the sources of Egypt’s foreign policy and, by implication, about the entire postwar history of the Middle East. In Israel in recent years, a younger generation of historians, most prominently Simha Flapan, Benny Morris, Avi Shlaim, and Ilan Pappe, have been using access to the Israeli and British archives to revise and rewrite the history of the founding of Israel and Israel’s early relations with the Arab states. 1 Benny Morris, to take only one example, has shown that the Palestinian refugee problem resulted not primarily from the policies of the Arab states but from the chaos of war and deliberate Israeli policies of expulsion.2 Doran’s work appears to mark the beginning of a similar process of revisionism for the Arab side.
At the end of World War II, Egypt was governed by King Farouk and the politicians who cooperated with him, who were under increasing pressure from the nationalist Wafd Party. The country’s leaders found themselves in a quandary. Britain, the dominant power in the Middle East, sought to keep Egypt within its imperial sphere of influence. Both Churchill and Attlee believed that Britain’s interests in international trade, defense, and access to oil dictated that it maintain continued control of the Suez Canal. The weight of Egyptian national opinion, on the other hand, called for independence from England and for Egyptian sovereignty over the Sudan, then nominally a joint Anglo-Egyptian condominium but in practice almost exclusively under British control.
Doran tells us that Egyptian statesmen responded to this dilemma in two ways. Some, concluding that Britain could not be dislodged from Egypt, hoped to negotiate a better deal for their country under a new treaty. Others aimed, in the popular expression, at al-Istiqlal al-tamm, or total independence, and at the expulsion of the British from Egypt. Prime Minister Ismail Sidqi Pasha, an advocate of the first line of thinking, negotiated a new treaty with British Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin in October 1946, securing for Egypt much improved terms, including total withdrawal from Suez in three years, but with a right to return in case of war.
Doran challenges the commonly held view that the agreement foundered over the future of the Sudan, an issue he regards as of secondary importance. The Bevin-Sidqi agreement, he writes, was from the beginning a nonstarter because Egyptian opinion would no longer condone a military alliance which relegated Egypt to the role of “puppet” and cast England in the role of “puppet master.” Opposition groups, led by the Wafd Party and the Islamic Brotherhood, skillfully mobilized popular opinion, politicians, and the press against the agreement. No Egyptian politician, Doran notes, subsequently showed an inclination to negotiate with England on the basis of the Bevin-Sidqi agreement.
Sidqi’s successor as prime minister, Mahmud Nuqrashi Pasha, took the second tack, demanding Britain’s immediate, complete, and unconditional withdrawal. To Doran, this decision marks “a major…turning point—certainly in Egyptian foreign policy, but also in Middle Eastern history in general,” planting the seeds for “an international revolution in the region.” Egypt was now committed to a postwar Middle East order that excluded Britain; and this shaped its policies toward the other great powers, fellow Arab states, and the Palestine conflict. Egypt, from here on, would be deeply engaged in inter-Arab politics.
Egypt was encouraged in its anti-British campaign by evidence that the British Empire was in crisis. After the war, Britain’s economy was in great difficulty and its international strength was declining. In a brief six-month period after December 1946, England granted independence to Burma, decided on the partition of India, turned over defense of Greece and Turkey to the US, and informed the United Nations that it could no longer administer the Palestine mandate. In January 1948, violent riots in Baghdad forced the Iraqi government to abandon the Portsmouth Agreement, which its prime minister had just negotiated in London, and which had left in place Britain’s military bases in Iraq.
Egyptian leaders were also encouraged by the growing involvement of the US in the region. From the perspective of Cairo, America had successfully edged England out of Saudi Arabia by cultivating close ties with King Saud. President Truman refused to follow the British lead on policy in Palestine, although his endorsement of partition and the creation of a Jewish state was not what the Arabs had in mind. Washington gave generous aid to Greece and Turkey without military or colonial strings attached—examples particularly appealing to Cairo. During a visit to Washington in September 1946, Prime Minister Nuqrashi Pasha asked for American military assistance and advisers and hinted he would welcome American investment in Egyptian industry. Doran perhaps makes too much of Egypt’s US initiative, which appears to have been vaguely formulated and short-lived, and which did not elicit a favorable American response. But the prime minister’s efforts provide another illustration of Egypt’s restless search for ways to escape Britain’s embrace.
Egypt was more successful in getting the support of a bloc of fellow Arab countries. England’s postwar attempts to organize the defense of the Mid-dle East, by pushing the Arab countries into a common military alliance headed by England, had the effect of splitting the Arab states into two rival camps. One bloc was made up of the Hashemite rulers of Iraq and Transjordan, as Jordan was then known. The other linked Egypt, Syria, and Saudi Arabia in what Doran calls the Triangle Alliance. Other historians, most strikingly Patrick Seale in The Struggle for Syria,3 have described the postwar contest between the Hashemites and this Egyptian-led coalition. For Doran, as for Seale, inter-Arab rivalries and the struggle over the regional balance of power provide the key for understanding the modern history of the Middle East. Doran shows that, to a large degree, rivalry among the Arab states shaped Egypt’s foreign policy. There were good reasons for hostility between the Triangle Alliance and the Hashemite rulers, who had been British protégés since the end of World War I. Unlike Egypt, Iraq strongly supported British efforts to be the dominant military power in the region. The ambitions of Emir Abdullah, the ruler of Transjordan, were especially worrisome to the members of the Triangle Alliance.
Abdullah was the scion of a family that traced its ancestry back to the Prophet and had the loyalty of various Arab tribes but had been forced out of Saudi Arabia. In 1915, Britain had vaguely promised his father the crown of a unified Arab kingdom that the Hashemites hoped would stretch from Syria to the Arabian Peninsula. These hopes were never realized. At the end of the war Abdullah’s brother, Faisal, attempted to found a great Arab state centered in Syria, but the French unceremoniously expelled him from Damascus in July 1920. The British then offered Faisal the crown of the newly created state of Iraq, while Abdullah was installed as emir of Transjordan, a mini-state carved out of historic Palestine. Abdullah retained close ties with Britain. His British-officered and British-financed Arab Legion was the best trained and most effective fighting force in the Arab Middle East.
Abdullah dreamed of creating the greater Syria that had eluded Faisal. In August 1946, Doran shows from Israeli accounts, he told Eliyahu Sasson, the representative of the Jewish Agency and its chief expert on Arab affairs, of his grand plan to create a single, “great and powerful” Hashemite kingdom. He would attach the Arab part of a partitioned Palestine to Transjordan, extend his rule over Syria, combine Transjordan and Iraq in a federation, and then invite the Jewish part of Palestine to unite with the Hashemite kingdom. Meantime, Doran writes, Iraq’s regent, Abd al-Ilah, was urging Abdullah to stir up the tribes in Syria to provide a pre-text for an Iraqi-Jordanian invasion of Syria. Little wonder, then, that Hashemite ambitions and designs on Syria aroused anxieties in Cairo, Riyadh, and Damascus.
As Doran shows, Egypt came up with a variety of strategies to neutralize Abdullah and weaken British influence in Amman. In October 1947, Cairo urged the Arab League to replace the British in financing the Arab Legion. Abdullah would then presumably send the Legion’s British officers home, while the Legion would come under the control of its Arab paymasters. At other times, Egypt proposed an all-Arab collective security arrangement; it schemed to bring the Arab Legion under joint Arab command. The Arab League’s decision to intervene militarily in Palestine in 1948 was complicated by fears among the members of the Triangle Alliance that Abdullah would use the intervention to annex parts of Palestine.
Doran writes that just before the 1948 war, Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to London suggested to the British that King Saud might go to war to stop Abdullah from seizing the Arab parts of Palestine. The Saudi threat may have been only half-serious, but it reflects the intensity of the rivalry among the Arab nations on the eve of the Arab League’s decision to make war to prevent the establishment of Israel. The secretary general of the Arab League, Azzam Pasha, an Egyptian who was charged with coordinating the policies of the seven member Arab states, described his predicament to the Jewish Agency’s Eliyahu Sasson, saying that he was “married to seven wives,…each one fearing her fellow wife, competing with her and trying to undermine her.”
Doran explains Egypt’s decision to intervene militarily in Palestine against this background of Arab national rivalry and Cairo’s larger struggle against Britain. He reminds us that Egypt was a reluctant participant in the 1948 war and that its opposition to the UN partition plan was not a foregone conclusion. During two visits to Cairo in August 1946, Sasson had urged the Egyptians to support the partition of Palestine as a solution to their own difficulties with Britain. The Zionists, he said, would persuade the British to evacuate Suez and move their military base inside the new Jewish state. Egypt’s prime minister and foreign minister, among other politicians, and the secretary general of the Arab League did not reject Sasson’s proposals out of hand. In the end, Egypt finally joined other Arab states in opposing partition, but as late as October 1947 Egypt’s prime minister was telling the Arab League that his country, engaged in a conflict with Britain, could not commit troops to Palestine. The Egyptian decision to send troops into Palestine came only on May 11, 1948, four days before the end of the mandate, suggesting considerable hesitation on Egypt’s part.
Egypt went into Palestine, Doran writes, fully aware of its own military weakness and that of its allies, Syria, Lebanon, and Saudi Arabia. Four weeks before the outbreak of fighting, the chairman of the military commission of the Arab League, General Ismail Safwat, an Iraqi officer and commander of the Arab forces in Palestine, described in detail for the member countries the inadequacy of Arab arms as compared to the much better equipped Zionist forces. Only Jordan, among the Arab Legion states, had a well-trained, well-equipped army, largely thanks to its British backers. At a secret meeting of the Egyptian Senate on May 11, former Prime Minister Sidqi Pasha presented a powerful argument against armed intervention, emphasizing Egypt’s military unpreparedness, its pressing social issues at home, and its few concrete interests in Palestine. Egypt had not exhausted the possibilities of negotiating an understanding between Arabs and Jews, he said.
Sidqi’s plea was futile. But Doran’s point is that in 1948, Egypt joined the war against Israel entirely aware that the chances of victory were doubtful. He rejects the argument that Egypt was a “cork on the waves,” a weak government pushed into a hopeless military venture by enraged public opinion. The anti-Israel feelings of the Egyptian public mattered, he concedes, but for Egypt regional and international considerations were far more important factors. At the end of the war, he notes, Egypt, supposedly hostage to fervent public opinion, signed an armistice agreement with Israel and secretly even discussed with the Israelis the outlines of a full peace treaty. “Compromise, when it suited their interests,” he writes, “came naturally to [Egypt’s leaders].”
Egypt thus became a reluctant participant in the 1948 war, Doran argues, for reasons of Realpolitik. It wanted to deny Abdullah a free hand in Palestine and to protect its position as the leader of the Triangle Alliance and as the dominant power in the Arab world. It also wanted to secure a place at the table in the final disposition of the Palestine problem and retain its leverage against Britain. Doran makes much of Egypt’s determination to prevent at all costs a partition of Palestine between the Zionists and Abdullah that would enlarge and strengthen Jordan at Egypt’s expense and, in turn, enhance the regional influence of the British. Like other members of the Triangle Alliance, Egypt feared a collusion between the Jews and Jordan that would lead to such a partition.4
Here Doran’s argument is particularly controversial. Egypt, after all, considered the Arab Legion the strongest army on the Arab side and essential to the war effort. Cairo eventually supported Abdullah’s demand that he be given overall command of the Arab armies. (Syria was opposed to Abdullah precisely because it suspected him of expansionist aims.) Abdullah did indeed have territorial ambitions in Palestine, but Egypt would appear to have handed him the means to realize them.
Doran, for his part, argues that the title of supreme commander given to Abdullah was empty of military significance and that Egypt believed it could control him both through the Arab League and “the tremendous weight of anti-imperialist and anti-Zionist opinion sentiment in the Arab world.” By forcing Jordan to fight a superior Israel, Egypt would weaken Abdullah and drive a wedge between Israel and Jordan. Egypt’s primary purpose was therefore not to prevent the establishment of a Jewish state but to thwart Jordan; and to achieve this end Egypt was willing to accept half a loaf.
If Cairo stopped short of destroying Zionism and yet still succeeded, say, in creating a Palestinian state sandwiched on the West Bank between Jordan and Israel, then it would have achieved its fundamental goals of preventing the expansion of Jordan and thwarting the creation of an Amman-Tel Aviv axis.
Doran has an equally unexpected explanation for the refusal of Egypt and other members of the Triangle Alliance to renew the first four-week cease-fire arranged between the Arabs and Israelis in June 1948. This refusal, and the resumption of hostilities in July, proved catastrophic for the Arab armies. A brief ten days of fighting resulted in significant Israeli advances, including the capture of Lydda and Ramleh and the expulsion of their 30,000 inhabitants. Of the renewed offensive, John Bagot Glubb, the British commander of the Arab Legion, later wrote that he could “recollect no precedent in history for such irresponsible action on the part of those in power.”
Abdullah, too, thought the refusal to renew the cease-fire amounted to monumental folly. But Doran argues that Egypt, once again, was driven by its fear of creating a more powerful Jordan. During the first cease-fire, on June 28, the UN mediator, Count Folke Bernadotte, put forward his own partition proposals. Instead of separate Arab and Jewish states, he proposed a “union,” in which Jordan would acquire Arab Palestine, the Negev, and all of Jerusalem, and incorporate the Jewish state as an autonomous unit. Egypt, in Doran’s account, chose to resume the fighting precisely in order to prevent this outcome. During the actual fighting, too, Egypt’s military operations were directed primarily at curbing Jordan and ensuring Egyptian control of the Negev rather than at the newborn Israeli state.
From Doran’s perspective, then, Egypt’s leaders entered the war with limited aims. They were realistic enough to know they could not defeat Israel, but they did not anticipate a rout of the Arab armies either. They calculated that the great powers, anxious to have friendly relations with the Arabs, would intervene to halt the fighting, insulating the Arab states from defeat. Doran draws a striking parallel between Egypt’s war aims in 1948 and the purpose of Sadat’s bold crossing of the Suez Canal in 1973:
On the basis of the available evidence, the calculations of Cairo in 1948 appear to have been similar to its calculations in 1973. The Sadat regime, knowing that it could not destroy Israel, hoped that, by striking a blow powerful enough and by holding on to territory long enough, it could create an international political atmosphere more favorable to its interests.
In 1973 Sadat played a weak hand with great skill. He was eventually able to make peace with Israel and obtain the return of the Sinai; the Egyptians in 1948, still thinking of Egypt’s place in the regional balance of power, miscalculated. “The Egyptian government did not blunder into war,” Doran writes, “it simply gambled and lost.”5
In reconstructing Middle East history, Doran had access to the British and Israeli archives but not to the archives of Egypt or of the other Arab states. Half a century after the events addressed in his study, these archives remain, with minor exceptions, closed to scholars. Doran has made effective use of the memoirs of a number of Arab statesmen and participants, such as Ismail Sidqi, Taha al-Hashimi, and Fadil al-Jamali, but these cannot fully compensate for the inaccessible archives.
For the most part, Doran must piece together the thinking of Egypt’s leaders from nonarchival sources. He does this extremely well, but he is often forced to resort to speculation. He writes at one point, for example, that “in all likelihood, when the Egyptian archives one day open, researchers will find detailed reports on the hostile American attitude toward British influence in Saudi Arabia.” Again, Doran draws on the recollections of Arab leaders and diplomats of Egyptian fears of a Hashemite-Zionist alliance; but he has no official Egyptian document that directly expresses this concern. He makes a good case for the argument that Egypt’s leaders had a cohesive view of Egypt’s national interests and diligently pursued them, but on his own evidence, under the pressure of events, these leaders often improvised their diplomatic and military moves.
Public opinion probably had a larger part in driving Egypt’s foreign policy than Doran suggests, especially Egypt’s increasingly hostile relations with Britain and its decision to make war on the Zionists in 1948. Doran, however, is trying to redress the balance against historical accounts that he believes have stressed excessively the role of popular and social forces as distinguished from the role of the state and the men who controlled it.
Doran’s book remains a bold, original, and tightly argued interpretation of Egyptian foreign policy, and one that deserves a sequel. His account stops well short of the Nasser and Sadat eras; but he often refers to them, making comparisons and suggesting parallels. He advances a thesis that, he implies, captures essentially pragmatic features of Egyptian foreign policy that persist until today, when meetings between Barak and Mubarak are taken for granted. He could usefully test that thesis by applying it to later periods as well.
November 4, 1999
Some of the issues raised by Israel’s “new historians” are summarized in Avi Shlaim, “The Debate About 1948,” International Journal of Middle East Studies (1995), pp. 287-304. For a critique of the new historiography see Shabtai Teveth, “Charging Israel with Original Sin,” Commentary, September 1989, and Efraim Karsh, Fabricating Israeli History: The “New Historians” (Frank Cass, 1997). ↩
See The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947-1949 (Cambridge University Press, 1987). ↩
Oxford University Press, 1965, reissued, with a new foreword, by Yale University Press, 1987. ↩
In Collusion across the Jordan (Oxford University Press, 1988), Avi Shlaim, using archival sources, contended that in November 1947, Abdullah and the Jewish Agency secretly arrived at an unwritten agreement to partition Palestine among themselves. He also argued that Britain knew and approved of this Jordanian-Zionist understanding, preferring an enlarged Jordan to a Palestinian state under leaders hostile to British interests. He states that at a secret meeting in London in February 1945 with Jordan’s prime minister, Tawfiq Abu’l Huda, Ernest Bevin, the British foreign secretary, gave the Jordanians the green light to deploy their army immediately after the end of the mandate to seize the Arab part of Palestine. ↩
Doran’s view of Egyptian leaders as men driven by the logic of state interest and pursuing a consistent, carefully calculated foreign policy stands in sharp contrast to other interpretations of the behavior of Egyptian, and Arab, statesmen. A different view is to be found, for example, in the writings of the late Elie Kedouri, a well-known historian of the Middle East, who most often depicts the same statesmen as self-serving, inconsistent, absorbed in factional political squabbles, and driven by borrowed ideas and immediate rather than long-term political considerations. See, for example, Kedouri’s Politics in the Middle East (Oxford University Press, 1992) or his essay “Sa’ad Zaghlul and the British,” in The Chatham House Version and Other Middle Eastern Studies (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1970). ↩