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The upheaval in Egypt: what impact on U.S. imperialism

The Nasser epoch & the role of the 1979 treaty with Israel

Published Feb 21, 2011 6:08 PM

What is at stake in Egypt for Washington, and what is at stake for the people of Egypt?

Egypt was not always the colony of a foreign power. In the era of Gamal Abdel Nasser, Egypt was a symbol of Arab dignity and freedom and a leader in the Arab world. Egypt was also seen by the world as an anti-imperialist leader.

This era of Egyptian history, which is very different from the current era, began in 1952, when the Free Officers Movement, led by Gamal Abdel Nasser, overthrew Egypt’s ruler, King Farouk, who fronted for British colonial domination of Egypt.

This kicking out of the colonial power and seizure of the government by middle-ranking Egyptian officers was the most progressive event in centuries in the Arab world. It ushered in a whole series of anticolonial revolutionary developments. Soon Syria, Algeria, Libya and Iraq threw out their colonial masters.

The world was electrified again in 1956 when Nasser, then Egypt’s head of state, nationalized the Suez Canal. The canal was on Egyptian soil and has been built by Egyptian workers, but it was “owned” by British and French companies. The Nasser government also nationalized many corporations and all banks and insurance companies in Egypt.

In this era the Egyptian army defended its own sovereignty and Arab dignity in four wars. In 1948 it fought the Zionists who dismembered Palestine. In 1956 it defended Suez Canal nationalization against British, French and Israeli troops. It fought Israel again in 1967 and 1973.

Nasser raised the standard of living for Egypt’s poor

In the 1952-1970 Nasser era the standard of living of Egypt’s workers and peasants rose dramatically.

With help from the Soviet Union, a giant irrigation project, the Aswan Dam, was built to bring more land under cultivation so Egypt could feed its people. Nasser put in place land reform that benefited the Egyptian peasantry.

Under Nasser urban workers saw their wages rise as a minimum wage and a paid-weekly day off became law.

Nasser introduced a new constitution, the National Charter, which called for universal health care and made provisions for housing, building of vocational schools, widening the Suez Canal, increasing women’s rights, and developing a program for family planning.

In short, in this period Egyptians enjoyed unprecedented access to housing, education, health services and nourishment as well as other forms of social welfare.

In 1956 Egyptians took to the streets to defend the Suez Canal nationalization. Again they came out en masse to defend Nasser as their leader after Egypt lost the 1967 war with Israel. And when Nasser died in 1970, mourners filled the streets to show respect for their leader and to affirm the course he had set for Egypt.

Egypt’s revolution was anti-colonial and not socialist. But Egypt still had respect and dignity, was viewed as a world leader in the fight for sovereignty and independence, and had made major economic and social gains for its population.

Egypt’s ‘peace’ with Israel is a war pact

In 1979, however, Egypt’s then head of state, Anwar el Sadat, took Egypt out of the anti-imperialist camp and placed it on the side of the U.S. and Israel. This was done through a U.S.-brokered “peace” treaty that year between Egypt and Israel.

But this was no peace treaty. It was a war pact aimed at the heart of the Arab people. By neutralizing Egypt’s large army on Israel’s southern border, this treaty left the Arab people on Israel’s northern flank vulnerable to attack.

This was not even a sovereign treaty for Egypt. It required Cairo to check with Tel Aviv before it could even send troops into the Sinai Peninsula, Egyptian territory.

This treaty was a huge boon for Washington and Tel Aviv, and has given them the upper hand in this oil-rich, strategic area of the world for the past 30 years. In the words of Gloria Eiland of the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University, “During the last 30 years, when we had any military confrontation, whether in the first or second Lebanon wars, the intifadas, in all those events we could be confident that Egypt would not try to intervene militarily.” (New York Times, Jan. 31)

This treaty made possible Israel’s 1982 invasion and occupation of Lebanon, which killed 20,000 people and forced the Palestine Liberation Organization out of Lebanon, and it then allowed the terrible massacre of unarmed civilians in the Sabra and Shatila Palestinian refugee camps.

This treaty contributed to Israel’s occupation of southern Lebanon for 18 years and to its 2006 war on Lebanon.

This treaty allowed the Pentagon to have a stronger and more menacing presence in the area. Egypt permits U.S. military flyovers, and the Pentagon staged regular maneuvers with the Egyptian military in both the Mediterranean and the Red Sea.

Thanks to this treaty, U.S. Navy nuclear warships receive expedited processing to pass through the Suez Canal. This is crucial for quick U.S. Navy access to the Persian Gulf. “A lot of U.S. military strategy in the Middle East and, in the Persian Gulf especially, presupposes very close relations with the Egyptian government and essentially free access to use the Suez Canal,” reads a February 2010 Congressional Research Service report.

So this 1979 treaty paved the way for the U.S. invasions of Iraq in 1991 and 2003. Egyptian troops invaded Iraq in 1991 alongside the U.S. military.

This treaty with Israel was also a prerequisite for Israel and Washington’s increased pressure in the recent period on the Palestinians in the Occupied Territories. This pressure precipitated the split in the Palestinian leadership. The Israel-Egypt agreement made possible the bombardment and blockade of Gaza, with the Egyptian regime enforcing the blockade on Gaza’s other border.

Under Nasser, many Egyptians saw the military as giving pride and hope. Under Mubarak, the purpose of Egypt’s military became to suppress that very pride and hope in other Arab national liberation struggles.

To be continued in Part 2: The role of U.S. military aid and IMF demands in Egypt.