In the changing vicissitudes of regional and international orders, Egypt remains a lynchpin, writes Hussein Haridy
Sixty years ago, Operation Musketeer came to an end, and with it a new world order had come into being whereby Third World countries had begun playing a significant role in world affairs. At the heart of this new world order, or the post-1956 international system, Egypt stood tall among leading members of the newly-established Non-Aligned Movement (NAM).
Operation Musketeer was the code name for what is known as the Tripartite Aggression against Egypt on 29 October 1956. Great Britain, France and Israel conspired to topple the revolutionary regime in Egypt led by late president Gamal Abdel-Nasser. The declared reason was his bold decision to nationalise the Suez Canal, announced 26 July 1956, in a move that was seen by the imperial powers of a dying world order as a provocation by a small power, Egypt, and a very grave challenge to the image and role of those empires. Israel under David Ben Gurion had been the driving force behind attacking Nasser’s Egypt, and it found ready accomplices in both Great Britain and France. The former, the occupying power of Egypt for 72 years from 1882 to 1956, wanted to teach Nasser a lesson, while the latter wanted to quash the Algerian Revolution, or Algeria’s War of Independence, by getting rid of Nasser who had stood firmly behind the Algerian National Liberation Front. Israel, for its part, wanted to contain revolutionary Egypt and pressure it to sign a peace treaty, on the one hand, and to prevent Egypt from becoming a military power to reckon with, on the other. Ben Gurion knew full well that there would never be peace between his country and the rest of the Arab world before peace were achieved with Egypt. The three conspiring countries had failed to see that the world in 1956 was changing and that a new configuration of forces was emerging on the world scene. Great Britain and France, the imperial powers of yore, were giving ground to the United States and the former Soviet Union was determined to expand its presence and influence in the Third World. The year 1956 became the dividing line between European supremacy in the Arab world and the beginning of a struggle for influence in the Middle East between the United States and the former Soviet Union. Egypt became the focal point of this struggle that waxed and waned for several decades after.
The post-1956 world order saw the power of developing countries grow by the day with many of these gravitating around Moscow, not necessarily because they were pro-communist, but rather out of interest to defend their newly-acquired independence and sovereignty. Furthermore, Moscow had been willing to provide them with both military and economic assistance without strings attached, which was not always the case with the West under American leadership. The financing of the Aswan High Dam was a case in point. After the Americans pressured the World Bank to withdraw its offer to finance the construction of the dam, Moscow stepped in. Hand in hand with the financing of the High Dam of Aswan came military assistance and generous economic support that transformed Egypt and catapulted it from the status of a small power to being a middle power with a strong army and well-functioning industries in the framework of a master plan to make Egypt a magnet and a leader for the Arab world and among Third World countries. The revolutionary appeal of Egypt was so strong that Cairo became the free conscience of the developing countries.
The rising curve of revolutionary Egypt was too costly to bear in Western capitals, Israel and some Arab capitals. The latter had grown very fearful of the impact of Egypt’s revolutionary appeal on the stability of their rule.
In the meantime, the United States became mired in Vietnam and belief in the domino theory; namely, that if the then South Vietnam would fall to the Vietcong of North Vietnam, then all South East Asia would come under communist rule. Back then, the West feared that it would lose to the former Soviet Union and to international communism. These fears were, of course unfounded, but still drove the Americans to get bogged down in South Vietnam with no end in sight. Egypt had stood by North Vietnam, which was a logical policy, not because Cairo wanted to adopt anti-American positions but rather as a reflection of its own revolution — a position that was not well-taken by Washington. Meanwhile, Israel, after it had lost its bet in 1956, was readying itself for a future war with Egypt at a time of its own choosing. From 1956 till the next war, that took place 5 June 1967, Egypt was going through an unprecedented modernising process while meeting challenges and threats from without. It missed the gathering storm on its eastern borders. This was a major strategic miscalculation on its part that cost us, regrettably, Sinai on 9 June 1967. The Americans were more than happy to see pro-Moscow Egypt occupied by one of their closest allies in the Middle East, Israel.
Egypt the ascendant, revolutionary Egypt, armed and supported by the former Soviet Union, was occupied by Israeli forces whose main arms and military hardware was American made. Thus, a chapter in the history of the Middle East and Egypt came to an end. The intervening years between 1967 and 1979, the year Egypt signed a peace treaty with Israel, saw the death of president Nasser, the October War and the crossing of the Suez Canal by the Egyptian army and a determined American push to use Egypt as springboard to chase the Soviets not only out of Egypt, but also out of the Middle East entirely. In this they met with enormous success. After 1979, the Middle East had come under American domination.
In the span of the last 60 years, Washington has seen 11 presidents whose aim has been to turn the United States into the sole arbiter of the destinies of the Middle East. The Cold War years, that reached a climax in the post-1956 world, ended with the Soviet Union out of the Middle East. Today, Russia, the successor state, is back in full force in the politics and the dynamics of the region. Russia’s presence and influence is here to stay. This time around, and in the wake of the election of Donald Trump as the next US president, it seems that the two superpowers will cooperate on certain questions in the Middle East. And that is one of the major differences between the post-1956 world order and the international system emerging in the first quarter of the 21st century. Back in 1956, the Arabs perceived the United States as a new superpower that had no imperial designs on the region, unlike European powers. They saw a new world order coming into being and Egypt had been the centre of the international storm that heralded the advent of this new order. Today, the Arabs are also witness to a crumbling regional order in the context of a new emerging configuration of powers in the international system, and Egypt, too, is the centre and the prize in these tectonic shifts in the international order and regional orders. In 1956, Egypt had been a revolutionary power, and today Egypt has become, maybe against its own will this time, a revolutionary power that cannot accept the status quo that threatens its territorial integrity, independence and sovereignty.
In 1956, Egypt was a revolutionary power by choice. Egypt in 2016 is a revolutionary power by necessity. However, the underlying premises remain the same. A strong and an independent Egypt, free, secure, stable and a prosperous land for a free and proud people. That’s immortal Egypt.