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
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
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
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
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
Egypt’s ‘peace’ with Israel is a war
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
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
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
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