The Eyptian Gamble

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…

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