September 2011 Attack on the Israeli Embassy in Cairo
Many non-Egyptians fear that the revolution will lead to war with Israel in support of a Palestinian state. Some say that a stronger role for the Muslim Brotherhood in Parliament will lead to abrogation of the 1978 Camp David accords and the 1979 treaty with Israel. From my understanding of Egyptian history and culture and multiple visits since February 2011, I am convinced that war is not imminent and that the accords and treaty will be respected. However, Egypt will become a more active player in the efforts to establish a Palestine state. Such a role will grow out of the efforts of Egyptians to establish a separation of powers among democratic institutions, civilian control of the military and transitional justice.
Until recently, analysts have considered the decisions of Egyptian leaders to be the most important factor in the country’s relations with Israel, Palestine and other Arab countries. Today, Egypt’s engagement on Middle East political issues is more dependent on the establishment of its own responsive democratic institutions, modern political parties and effective advocacy groups. Voices suppressed for decades are now in a position to influence government policy. At the same time, the power of the military to influence foreign policy has become more overt. Revolutionary groups have become important players in both domestic and foreign policy.
The interplay of these forces will lead to changes in Egypt’s role in the Middle East. It is impossible to predict exactly what positions or actions the Egyptian Government will take. We can be sure, however, that its actions vis-a-vis Israel and Palestine will correspond more closely to the desires of the Egyptian population.
To appreciate the factors that will influence Egypt’s Middle East policy, it is important to understand modern Egyptian history and the relationship between its leaders and people. I will present an overview of the events that have shaped Egyptians' feelings on Israel and Palestinian rights in three blog posts. This post traces Egypt’s history from the Ottoman Empire until Egypt’s defeat in the 1967 Six-Day War with Israel.
The Ottoman Empire
Egypt and Palestine were part of the Ottoman Empire for hundreds of years. In 1882, the British occupied Egypt. While many Egyptians objected to Ottoman control of Egypt, they were pleased that the Ottomans, a Muslim but non-Arab people, controlled Jerusalem. British colonialism was strongly opposed by Egyptians, especially after the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire following World War I and the creation of the British mandate for Palestine in 1922.
British Control, Liberal Democracy and the Monarchy
Saad Zaghlul, Founder of the Wafd Party and First Prime Minister of Independent Egypt
Three of the ideologies that influence post-revolutionary Egypt and its role in the Middle East were forged during the British occupation – liberal nationalist, communist and Islamist. Opposition to British control in Palestine led Palestinians to revolt in 1920, 1929 and 1936. In Egypt, the British allowed the development of a liberal democracy based on a modern constitution, with an effective Parliament and active political parties. Nationalists in Egypt led uprisings in 1919 and 1921, which forced the British to formally recognize the independence of Egypt under King Fuad, with nationalist leader Saad Zaghlul as Prime Minister. However, the British continued to occupy Egypt and interfere with its governance. Communists and the Muslim Brotherhood competed with liberal nationalists in opposing the British. Some of them joined with Arab nationalists in Palestine to support the 1941-42 drive across North Africa led by Nazi General Rommel, which was eventually stopped by the British General Montgomery in November 1942.
The 1948 Arab-Israeli War, Creation of Israel and Palestinian Displacement
May 1948 Israeli Declaration of Independence and Beginning of Arab-Israeli War
Both Egyptian leaders and citizens showed solidarity with the Arabs of Palestine during the 1947 Partition, the1948 Arab-Israeli war, the creation of the state of Israel and the displacement of Palestinians from their lands. The Egyptians, under King Farouk, Fuad’s successor, and the nationalist-dominated Parliament rejected the 1947 UN Partition Plan for Palestine and sent 20,000 troops to join other Arab League members fighting in the 1948 Arab-Israeli war. Farouk saw this war as a means to build Egypt’s leadership of the Arab world and a way of extending Egypt’s authority to southern Palestine. The 1949 armistice gave the Gaza Strip to Egypt.
The creation of the State of Israel and the annexation of the West Bank and Jerusalem by Jordan were bitter blows to Egyptian leaders, who spent the next eight years in a cold peace with Israel. Egyptian citizens were disappointed in the performance of their military. In solidarity with other Arabs, Egyptian leaders voiced the sympathy of their citizens for the hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees displaced during the war.
Free Officers Movement, Creation of a Republic Government and the 1956 Suez Crisis
Free Officers Movement, including Nasser and Sadat
A fourth major ideology affecting Egypt’s role in the Middle East today was born in the 1950’s – Nasserism. A coup d’état by the “Free Officers Movement” in 1952 led to the fall of the monarchy, the creation of a republican government in 1953 and the assumption of power by Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1954. In 1956, as the British pulled out of the Suez Canal, their last remaining foothold in Egypt, Nasser nationalized the Canal, and barred Israeli shipping through the Canal as well as through the Straits of Tiran leading to Israel’s port of Eilat. Israel then invaded and occupied the Sinai. Britain and France undertook a bombing campaign and sent troops to secure the Suez Canal. Pressure from the US eventually led to withdrawal of these forces and the establishment of UN Peacekeepers in the Sinai, but the Egyptian population was left with a stronger view of Israel as the enemy and greater pride in the Egyptian military.
Gamal Abdel Nasser – Arab Nationalism and Repression
Gamal Abdel Nasser
The vast majority of Arabs throughout the Middle East viewed Nasser as a hero. Most Egyptians were proud of Nasser’s strong Arab nationalistic rhetoric, anti-imperialism, support for revolutionary movements in Algeria and Yemen and vehement opposition to Israel.
Nasser transformed Egypt by investing heavily in infrastructure, building the government bureaucracy and pursuing a significant program of land reform. His goal was the establishment of a secular, militarized State. However, over the next decade, Nasser created a totalitarian state that gave primacy to the military. He established tight control of the military and intelligence services; abolished all but the ruling political party; led campaigns of severe repression against Islamists, communists, minorities and foreigners; and took total control of the media and national Muslim institutions. In 1965, he imprisoned and eventually executed Sayyad Qutb, the Muslim Brotherhood’s leading theoretician. Egyptians showed their support for Nasser in electing him as President in referenda where he was the only candidate.
Consequently, any opposition to Nasser’s intervention in Israel was repressed. Those voices who opposed or supported another approach to his Israel and Palestine policies, whether communist, Islamist or liberal, were not part of the public discourse.
Creation of the PLO
Nasser Addressing the PLO
To demonstrate his leadership of the Arab world and ability to use Palestinians to pressure Israel, Nasser helped organize the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) by passing a resolution at an Arab League summit meeting in Cairo in January 1964. The founding conference of the PLO took place in Jerusalem in May 2004, resulting in the creation of the Palestinian National Council, serving as the Palestinian parliament-in-exile. It also issued the Palestinian National Charter. The Charter sought the establishment of a Palestinian state in the place of Israel, affirmed the Palestinians’ right to return and called for armed struggle to liberate Palestine. It also aimed for the elimination of Zionism, which it called racist, fanatic, aggressive, expansionist, colonialist and fascist.
Many Egyptians hailed this initiative in support of their Arab brethren and the recuperation of what Nasser called “Arab land.” As tension mounted with Israel from 1965-1967, the vast majority of Egyptians supported the efforts of Nasser to use the PLO to prepare for the Six-Day War that broke out in June 1967.
The Six-Day War and its Aftermath
Egyptian Soldiers Surrendering to Israelis
Persuaded by a massive domestic public relations campaign of the strength of the Egyptian army, most Egyptians were proud that Nasser had decided to use the military forces again after 11 years for his purpose of recovering “Arab land” from Israel and “restoring the rights of the Palestinian people.” His first step was to demand the removal of UN troops from the Sinai. Then, as in 1956, he ordered the military to blockade the Straits of Tiran to prevent shipping to the Israeli port of Eilat. After Nasser massed Egyptian troops in the Sinai, Israel started hostilities on June 5 by bombarding and destroying the Egyptian air force. Its troops then encircled and bombed the Egyptian army, which performed poorly and was confused by a retreat order. The Israelis took Gaza on June 7 and arrived at the Suez Canal by June 8. The Egyptian army had been defeated, even though most of its units had little chance to fight. Unlike in 1956, Israel remained in control of the Sinai and Gaza after the war, a bitter loss to Egypt.
Nasser was deeply shamed by the poor performance of the Egyptian military and the loss of the Sinai and its oil fields. Almost all Egyptians were in a state of shock, finding it difficult to believe that Nasser could have led their country into such a cataclysm. Some of them could no longer view him as a hero and began to think of his Arab nationalist project as a bad dream. Nasser never recovered psychologically and died in 1970. His Arab nationalist movement died with him, as Egypt increasingly became a militarized police state with an ever-growing bureaucracy.
Nasser did leave a legacy of frustrated and repressed idealists, whether Arab nationalists, liberals, communists, Islamists or those who supported the supremacy of the military. Each of these groups remained committed to the rights of the Palestinian people, coming from their own ideological perspectives. The interaction of these groups and their attempts to support the Palestinians provided some of the seeds of the 2011 Egyptian revolution.
Cross-posted from Post-Revolutionary Egypt