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Egypt: History of Modern Egypt

by Mitchell G. Bard

Egypt has a long, proud history dating back to nearly the beginning of recorded civilization, which influences their views of themselves, their neighbors, and their fellow Arabs.

Egypt also has been a strategically important area because of its position at the junction of Africa and the Middle East. It became of particular value to the Western powers after the construction of the Suez Canal in 1869. The Suez Canal is strategically vital because it provides a shortcut for ships operating between both European and American ports and ports located in Southern Asia, Eastern Africa, and Oceania.

As the dominant imperial power in the region, Great Britain exercised significant influence over Egypt. Because of its established role, Egypt was not included in the secret wartime negotiations and the British used the country as a base of operations throughout World War I.

After the war, Egypt became gripped with nationalist fervor as growing numbers of Egyptians protested against the British presence in the country. As violence escalated, the British gradually came to the conclusion that it was best to end its role as protectorate and allow Egypt to become independent. Of course, the British also reserved the right to protect their interests.

Egypt was led by King Fuad I who was succeeded by Farouk I in 1936. Like Fuad, Farouk was favorably disposed toward the British and signed a treaty creating an alliance that secured Britain’s interests in the Suez Canal. Egypt subsequently became Britain’s principal base in the Middle East during World War II.

Internal Conflict

Two competing internal movements developed over the course of the war. One was the pro-Islamic, anti-Western Muslim Brotherhood, which was formed in 1929 by Sheikh Hassan el-Banna, and the other was the secular, anti-Western intellectuals and students drawn to communism. Both were opposed to the government, which cracked down on each of them.

A member of the Muslim Brotherhood assassinated Prime Minister Nokrashi Pasha in December 1948. A few months later, the Brotherhood’s leader, Hassan el-Banna, was murdered.


After World War II, the British and Egyptians feuded as the former were reluctant to withdraw their troops. Egypt soon became distracted by the Palestine issue and joined the invading armies that sought to destroy Israel in 1948. The defeat at the hands of Israelis was a particular humiliation for the proud Egyptians who, after all, had a population of 20 million from which to raise an army that was bested by an army of 40,000 Jews.

Egypt did not end its belligerent stance toward Israel and soon began to block Israeli shipping and send terrorists to attack Israeli targets. This would ultimately provoke the Suez war.

In the meantime, Egypt was also turning on the British. Riots broke out to protest the foreign presence, and the Egyptian government abrogated its treaty with Great Britain. Egypt also was adopting a hostile policy toward the United States, largely because of the American support for Israel.

Revolutionary Tidings

While the nation was in turmoil, a group of army officers was secretly plotting to overthrow the government. On July 23, 1952, the Revolutionary Command Council (RCC) made up of 11 officers seized power and forced King Farouk to leave the country three days later. Mohammed Naguib took control of the military, and Ali Maher Pasha became prime minister. They began to institute a series of social and economic reforms, but also adopted repressive measures that stifled political opposition and provoked internal dissension.

The RCC had its own internal conflicts, and one of the younger officers — who had been the real leader of the group from the beginning — gradually striped Naguib of power and took it for himself. That officer was Lieutenant-Colonel Gamel Abdul Nasser.

As Nasser came to assume power, he began to focus more attention on foreign affairs than domestic reforms. He was particularly angered by Western influences in the Arab world and opposed the alliances that the United States was trying to promote against the Soviet Union. Still, Nasser was willing to deal with the Americans if he thought he could get something from them. In particular, Nasser was interested in obtaining arms and money to build a new dam on the Nile in the area of Aswan to provide electric power and increase the cultivable area of Egypt.

When the United States expressed reluctance about providing arms to Nasser, he began to negotiate with the Soviet Union. The United States was prepared to help fund the dam project until Eisenhower learned that Nasser had gone behind his back to the Soviets for arms. He was further angered when Egypt recognized Communist China, at which point he rescinded the U.S. offer.

Although the United States would consistently try to win his favor, Nasser never again seriously negotiated with the Americans and came to be the Soviets’ principal client in the region. Nasser also decided to finance the Aswan Dam with revenues from the Suez Canal, which he nationalized, and money that he coaxed from the Soviets. This step — along with Nasser’s decisions to set up a unified military command of the Syrian, Jordanian, and Egyptian armies — to block Israeli shipping in the Gulf of Aqaba and to send terrorists to attack Israel provoked the 1956 Suez war.

All for One — as Long as It’s Nasser

After the war, Nasser focused his attention on trying to eradicate Zionism, imperialism, and feudalism. Most other Arab states shared these goals, but they were less enthusiastic about his Pan-Arab ideas — especially when it became clear that Nasser wanted to dominate the unified Arab nation he sought to create. This was one of the main reasons the union with Syria ultimately failed.

Egypt had a brief union with Yemen from 1958 to 1961, but collapsed because of the differences between the conservative Yemeni monarchy and the revolutionary socialist Egyptian government. In 1962, the Yemeni military overthrew the monarchy and proclaimed a republic. Egypt offered assistance to the revolutionary leaders, but the Saudis decided to back the conservative monarchy in an effort to return it to power.

For Nasser, Yemen became a quagmire. He did not extricate himself from the country until the end of 1967, after his army had been humiliated by the Israelis in the Six-Day War. Shortly after Egyptian troops withdrew from the country, the pro-Nasser government was overthrown by a group that resented Egypt's domination of the country

Following the collapse of the union with Syria, Nasser focused more of his attention on domestic issues. He further cemented his hold on power by establishing a constitution that affirmed his dictatorial powers, and then began to implement a socialist economic program that included the nationalization of private companies and land confiscations, some of which were targeted at political enemies.

He also began to reach out beyond the Arab world to other Third World nations that shared his anti-imperialist outlook and were seeking to form independent alliances to counter the influence of the superpowers. Toward that end, Nasser became friendly with leaders in places such as India.

Israel Unites the Arabs

Nasser also maintained his belligerent attitude toward Israel, building up his forces, threatening war, ordering the UN Emergency Force out of the Sinai, and once again blockading the Gulf of Aqaba to Israeli shipping. Although they would not support his broader Pan-Arab vision, Nasser did attract the support of Syria, Jordan, and other Arab states for his more limited goal of destroying Israel. Anticipating an Egyptian-led attack, Israel struck first and defeated the combined Arab forces in just six days.

The humiliation had little impact on Nasser’s popularity as he refused to acknowledge the defeat and make peace. Instead, he vowed to continue the fight and, within weeks, began to shell Israeli positions in the hope of exhausting Israel’s mostly reserve army in a prolonged war of attrition. That too failed.

On September 28, 1970, Nasser died of a heart attack. Despite having failed to destroy Israel or unite the Arabs, he was revered as a hero who represented worthy goals that Arab leaders who succeeded him were expected to fulfill.

Enter Sadat

Nasser was succeeded by his vice president, Anwar Sadat, who shelved Nasser’s Pan-Arab vision and adopted more liberal domestic policies aimed at improving the worsening economic situation in the country. Given the country’s lack of natural resources and exploding population, Sadat’s efforts had little hope of success, and he soon had to resort to repressive measures to keep the disgruntled elements of the population in check.

One of Sadat’s more pressing concerns was the restoration of Egyptian honor, which had been devastated by the defeat in 1967. Toward that end, he built up his military to the point in which they succeeded in mounting a surprise attack against the Israelis and nearly defeated them in October 1973. Paradoxically, while Israel won that war, Israelis were psychologically traumatized by the fact that they had been caught unprepared and were in danger of being destroyed. The Egyptians, who had lost, emerged with a new respect for themselves and from the rest of the Arab world. This helped make it possible for Egypt to make peace with Israel.

Sadat also made a personal psychological leap to accept the idea of negotiating peace with Israel, though the process would take more than five years to complete. In the course of the negotiations mediated by Henry Kissinger, Egypt began to move closer to the United States and away from the Soviet Union.

Ultimately, Sadat saw that American support for Israel would make defeat of the Israelis difficult if not impossible and that the Soviets could not trump that Israeli advantage. More importantly, he discovered that the Americans were anxious to reward him for his friendship and began to provide Egypt with generous amounts of financial assistance and, after signing the peace treaty with Israel, nearly as generous grants of military aid.

In a final, decisive break with the Pan-Arabist legacy, Sadat took an independent course in negotiating with the Israelis and ignored the objections of other Arab states. After signing the treaty with Israel, Sadat paid for this policy first by the ostracism of Egypt by the rest of the Arab world and then with his life when he was assassinated by Islamic terrorists on October 6, 1981. Although it was a military defeat, Egyptians viewed the outcome of the 1973 war as a victory. It was at a celebration of the crossing of the Suez Canal in 1981, while he was reviewing a military parade, that Sadat was assassinated.

Uncertain Succession

Sadat was succeeded by his vice president, Hosni Mubarak, who, at the time, was largely unknown and not expected to stay in power. He has defied his critics, however, and remained firmly in control of the nation ever since. His longevity is because of his ruthless suppression of opponents, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood, and his cautious foreign policy that has kept Egypt out of any military conflicts while rhetorically supporting popular Arab causes.

For example, Mubarak was never as hostile toward the Soviet Union as Sadat, but he also remained closely allied with the United States to ensure the continued flow of aid and arms. Most important, he did the absolute minimum required to maintain the peace treaty of Israel, while giving rhetorical support to its opponents and expressing fealty to the Palestinian cause.

While Israelis expected to normalize relations with Egypt and have a brisk flow of trade and tourism, Mubarak has made sure that the little of both that exists goes primarily in one direction, from Israel to Egypt. He has also allowed the government-controlled press to pursue a vitriolic, and often anti-Semitic, editorial policy toward relations with Israel and has done nothing to encourage the Egyptian public to embrace the treaty. Although he has met with Israeli officials many times in Cairo, he has gone to Israel only once — to attend the funeral of Yitzhak Rabin. In part because he has kept the peace with Israel at this frigid level, the other Arab states accepted Egypt back into the fold and the nation’s traditional leadership position was restored.

On the other hand, although Mubarak has taken a rhetorical hard line, he has scrupulously observed the terms of the treaty with Israel in terms of military activity and resisted calls from other Arabs, in particular the Palestinians, to intervene on their behalf. From the U.S. perspective, the greatest frustration has been Mubarak’s resistance to move in the other direction; that is, to use Egypt’s influence to a greater degree to prod the other Arabs, and especially the Palestinians, to be more compromising in negotiations with Israel.

Mubarak is now in his seventies and has no designated successor. Concerns are now being expressed about what will happen in Egypt when he is out of power. The succession in Egypt is crucial to the future. If that nation were to change its orientation toward Israel and/or the United States — especially now that it has billions of dollars of America’s most sophisticated weapons — the geostrategic situation in the region would change overnight and the concerns of today, such as the threats from Iran and Iraq, would pale in significance with the dangers presented by a militant Egypt.

Sources: Mitchell G. Bard,The Complete Idiot's Guide to Middle East Conflict. 4th Edition. NY: Alpha Books, 2008.