Monday,11 December, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1314, (6 - 12 October 2016)
Monday,11 December, 2017
Issue 1314, (6 - 12 October 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Two cheers for Sadat

As Egypt marks the anniversary of the 1973 October War, two cheers should be given to former president Anwar Al-Sadat’s management of the nation’s foreign policy, writes Haro L Karkour

Al-Ahram Weekly

“Great men are so rare that they take some getting used to.”

Former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger was not alone in needing time to get used to former Egyptian president Anwar Al-Sadat.

Failing to understand his approach to foreign policy, conservative Arab monarchs at the outbreak of the October War in 1973 considered Al-Sadat to be a better ally than his predecessor Gamal Abdel-Nasser. Unknown to them were Al-Sadat’s strategic intentions. In waging the October War to secure a just peace with Israel, Egypt’s president did not only announce the end of Nasser’s era of pan-Arabism, but also opened a new era in Egyptian foreign policy – the era of raison d’état.

In this new era, Egypt’s national interest, rather than inviolable principles, became the goal of Egyptian foreign policy. Free from ideological commitments, as Al-Sadat saw them, a nation could define its interests by order of priority, conduct negotiations on the basis of flexibility, and, above all, find common ground for a just and lasting peace.

When Al-Sadat came to power in 1970, Egypt had many internal economic and social problems. Externally, it had lost a humiliating war three years earlier, making it impossible to negotiate a peace deal with Israel to regain occupied territory in Sinai. The national interest to Al-Sadat therefore meant Sinai’s return to Egypt, a just peace with Israel, Egypt’s social unity, and the economic well-being of its people. And none of this could be achieved, in Al-Sadat’s view, without closer ties with the US.

Thus, although in 1972 Al-Sadat informed the Americans that the expulsion of the Soviets from Egypt was “a purely national decision, not taken to please or displease anyone,” with this move he created a psychological environment that would ease a later US-Egyptian rapprochement.

To his critics Al-Sadat’s raison d’état had well-known opportunity costs in Egyptian foreign policy. As had become evident in his predecessor’s time, constraints on Egypt’s freedom of action accompanied Al-Sadat’s shift towards the US. After Al-Sadat, moreover, Egypt lost its leadership role in the wider Arab-Palestinian cause. One might ask today, on the 43rd anniversary of the October War, whether these costs were the natural consequence of Al-Sadat’s approach to foreign policy. But to answer this question in the affirmative is to misunderstand Al-Sadat’s foreign policy thinking.

Egypt’s freedom of action, to Al-Sadat, meant its capabilities. In what later became known as his “year of decision” in 1971, Al-Sadat knew that Egypt had to look after itself. In realist foreign policy jargon, he had come face to face with an anarchic realm in which in the absence of international government there was only one rule for survival – self-help.

As Egypt was heavily dependent on Soviet arms for its survival at the time, Al-Sadat saw Egypt’s freedom of action as being proportionate to Soviet military support. Unfortunately, both before and during the war time and again the Soviets disappointed Al-Sadat. He writes in his memoirs that “while the US satellite hourly transmitted information to Israel, we received nothing at all from the Soviet satellite which followed up the fighting. I would like to put this on record as a point of historical significance insofar as the Soviet Union claims to champion the Arab cause.”

Al-Sadat concluded that Egypt’s freedom of action could only be augmented by US economic and military support. This was not because Egypt and the US shared an ideology – although Al-Sadat took steps in that regard with his Open Door Policy on the economy – but instead was because Egypt’s national interest demanded it. Al-Sadat’s approach thus did not dictate that Egypt would or should unquestionably follow the US, as if it were a natural ideological partner, but that Egypt should and would refrain from such ideological commitments and seek the support of those who would best serve its national interests.

Had the Soviets made it possible to regain Sinai, US rapprochement would have been unnecessary. Would US rapprochement become a burden, as it became later under former president Hosni Mubarak? The question for Al-Sadat was not whether or not to serve a US-friendly policy, but instead whether or not it served the Egyptian national interest.

With regard to Egypt’s leadership role in the Arab-Palestinian cause, to the ears of those who consider this cause to be inviolable Al-Sadat’s raison d’état sounded like blasphemy. In its acceptance of violability, it was indeed blasphemous, for it prioritised the possible over the non-negotiable. It dealt with the relative rather than the absolute. It divided the truth, which by definition was indivisible. And just like those who were convicted of blasphemy against the church in the European Middle Ages, Al-Sadat in the end paid for his sin with his life.

The problem with the inviolability of any political cause, however, is that a cause can only be inviolable in the abstract. But as Al-Sadat saw it politics does not work in the abstract – it deals with the concrete. When turned into practice, in Al-Sadat’s view the inviolable strips politics of the flexibility necessary for negotiations on concrete matters.

Al-Sadat’s raison d’état, therefore, did not abandon Egypt’s leadership role in the Arab-Palestinian cause. It only rejected the unnecessary rigidity of Al-Sadat’s contemporaries who followed their thinking in the inviolability of their cause. The inflexibility of the latter mode of thinking, Al-Sadat concluded from his experiences under Nasser, had stalled negotiations on the Arab-Palestinian cause.

In rejecting the inviolability of political causes, Al-Sadat’s raison d’état sought a peace that would be based on the accommodation of diverging national interests. This is what Al-Sadat meant by a “just peace.” This just peace is of course still absent from the Middle East today. For instead of seeking a common conception of justice that accommodates various interests, the parties to the conflict are still engaging in further “just wars” instead to impose – while still interest-based – exclusionary forms of justice.

These are wars, that is to say, over the inviolable. Thus, 17th-century Europe’s 30 Years War is today once again being fought out in the Middle East over Westphalian versus post-Westphalian visions of regional order, on the one hand, and on the sectarian Sunni versus Shia level on the other.

Events in Sinai have showed that Egypt is not completely immune from the consequences of this regional disorder, but Egyptian foreign policy today is a means towards resolving its own internal economic and social problems. It is due to Al-Sadat’s legacy in Egyptian foreign policy that these problems, rather than inviolable ideological commitments, dictate Egypt’s national interest today.

The fact that Al-Sadat with his Open Door Policy and his predecessors failed to adequately manage these problems is not a refutation of his approach to foreign policy, for it was this approach that gave them priority in the first place.

As the world remembers the October War today, one can therefore give two cheers to Al-Sadat’s approach to foreign policy. This was an approach that gave the national interest a true place in foreign policy, that taught the necessity of flexibility in politics in order to attain results, and that preached lasting peace through rejecting the inviolable and instead persisting in the accommodation of diverging interests under a common conception of justice.


The writer holds a PhD in international relations and teaches at the University of Leicester, UK.

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