American Cold War foreign policy and the Egyptian military

US support for the Egyptian military is inhibiting the development of an Egyptian national, progressive bourgeoisie able to form the backbone of a genuinely democratic system.

Maged Mandour
9 September 2013

The logic of American support for the Egyptian military and its muted response to the massacres that took place in Cairo on August 14 seems clear enough. It is based on two intertwined arguments. First, the Egyptian military is a staunch American ally, and as the ruling institution in Egypt, its support is necessary for the maintenance of “stability” in the region. Secondly, the conviction that American aid and political support to Egypt are necessary for the preservation of the peace treaty with Israel.

This double rationale, while partially correct, presents a truncated view of American foreign policy in relation both to the Egyptian military and the wider region. On deeper examination, one must conclude that since the rise of American power, the US has supported anti-progressive forces in the region, actively inhibiting the development of nationalist forces that might clash with the interests of the United States in the Middle East.    

In order to gain a deeper understanding of American foreign policy, one needs to place it in historical context. The best place to start is Operation Ajax in 1953, when the democratically elected Prime Minister Mossadeqh of Iran was deposed in a military coup orchestrated by the CIA. The Iranian Prime minister was elected on a platform of oil nationalization, which he did, sparking an international crisis that eventually led to his downfall. This was the first American intervention against a democratically-elected government in the third world and unfortunately not the last.  

Some commentators have argued that Operation Ajax was justifiable as an attempt to curb the nativist policies of the Iranian government which would eventually lead to a communist take-over under Mossadeqh. This American intervention was, it is argued, part of a classic containment strategy.

In order to substantiate this claim, an analysis of the different players at the time needs to be undertaken. The first player is the National Front led by Mossadeqh; this was the ruling coalition at the time and it consisted of a variety of Iranian political forces ranging from Islamists to liberals. It is worth mentioning that the Iranian communist party, the Tudeh Party, was not part of the National Front and thus not involved in the direct governance of the country.  However, the threat of communist take-over is cited as the main reason for the coup. On the other hand, it seems that mid-level CIA Iran specialists saw no real threat of a communist take-over and little need for a coup. The decision was taken by higher-level officials in the CIA. This view was also supported by Paul Nitze, who was the head of the Policy Planning Staff at the time and who played a large role in drafting the joint Anglo-American proposals in September 1952 and January 1953. He described Mossadeqh as “a well-educated elitist. He had a great contempt for his fellow Iranians and had no inclination whatsoever toward communists”.

All of the above casts doubt on the thesis that a communist take-over was imminent in Iran instead tending to confirm the notion that the coup was directed against a nationalist government with the aim of returning control of the state to the Shah

This raises another set of possible reasons for the coup. One can argue that the intervention in Iran was aimed at maintaining the control of the state in the hands of the old élite. The outcome would be the creation of a vassal state that would define its national interests, as well as survival, in terms of its alliance with the United States. Mossadeqh like Lumumba  in Congo, Allende in Chile, and Arbenz Guzman in Guatemala represented a threat to American interests, not because they were leading the way for a communist takeover, but because they represented nationalist forces that wanted to break with dependence on the west and take control of their own resources and development. They threatened American domination in their respective regions.

Some might argue that the policy of the United States changed as the Cold War came to an end, with the collapse of the USSR. However, one can see a remarkable level of consistency with regards to American foreign policy stretching from the end of the Second World War until today . Look again at the Egyptian military. Aid to the Egyptian military started with the Camp David Accords. At the time it was considered an incentive presented by the United States to Egypt to maintain stability  and peace with Israel and, most importantly, as an incentive to keep Egypt away from the Soviet sphere of influence. But at the end of the Cold War, military aid and political support to the Mubarak regime continued unabated, the rationale of maintaining peace with Israel and regional stability remaining a constant. Throughout the whole period from the Egyptian uprising in 2011, including the massacre of protestors by the military before the presidential elections, the coup that removed President Morsi from power as well as the massacres of August 14, the United States did not take any action that would indicate a change of policy. American support for the Egyptian military has remained steadfast, under the same rationale. But is this logic valid at this stage?

One can convincingly argue that it is not valid. First, the nature of the current political order in Egypt is not conducive to stability either in the country or the region. As I have argued elsewhere, the nature of the current Egyptian political order is non-hegemonic, highly reliant on coercion rather than consent; this will eventually lead to a clash of class interests between the military and the urban middle class. Egypt will be subject to years of social upheaval and turmoil. Nevertheless, American aid is helping maintain the military’s position of power.

Second, is the notion of maintaining peace with Israel. American aid and political support for the military ruling caste is no longer necessary for the stability of the Camp David Accords: the accords will not collapse due to withdrawal of American aid. This will not occur for a number of reasons. First, there is a clear strategic superiority of the Israeli military over the Egyptian military, the most obvious of which is the de-militarized nature of Sinai which makes it impossible for the Egyptian military to attack Israel without the knowledge of the latter. The possibility of a surprise attack is ruled out. Second, the lesson of 1967 has not been forgotten by the Egyptian military: the defeat weakened the ruling regime to such an extent that it destroyed the ideological base of the regime, namely Arab nationalism, ushering in a phase of hegemonic disintegration. The current nature of the Egyptian political order dictates that a defeat like that of 1967 would be catastrophic for the military caste. A risk to their power base that none of the elites are willing to take. 

Why does the United States continue to support the Egyptian military? The answer comes from a number of meetings between Egyptian generals and their American counterparts, which were leaked by Wikileaks. At one meeting, the Egyptian military painted a picture of the Middle East as a highly unstable region fraught with ethnic tensions and possibilities of war. This even included a reference to Libya as a potential enemy of Egypt. The argument emphasized the role of Egypt as a “balancer”, preventing “other parties” from going to war, a role that Egypt claimed that it had successfully maintained for the past 30 years. Emphasis was placed on the defensive nature of Egyptian military doctrine, in that it did not seek to “offend anyone”. The meeting ended with a plea by the Egyptian military to the United States to increase levels of military aid, claiming that “Egypt is worth more than $1.3 billion”.

Reference was also made to the power imbalance with Israel, but only as a bargaining chip rather than as a real threat, as it was followed by a reference to the 2:3 aid ratio mentioned in the Camp David Accords. This is the ratio of American aid agreed between Egypt, the United States and Israel when signing the Accords. Egypt’s role as a ‘balancer’, it is implied, does not include Israel, given, for example, the emphasis on the defensive nature of its military doctrine which is not intended to offend “anyone”. The use of the word “anyone” can be understood from the context to refer to Israel, the only possible regional threat in terms of military power. This is also inferred from the phrase about preventing “other parties from going to war” and the fact that this role had been successfully fulfilled for the past 30 years. The term “other parties” does not seem to include Israel, as the argument that Egypt was successful in preventing Israel from going to war could not apply to it: the Israeli army launched the invasion of Lebanon in 1982, there were continuous military operations in Gaza and the West Bank during the first and second Intifadas, the invasion of Lebanon in 2006 and Operation Cast Lead in the Gaza Strip. Indeed, if Egypt had been aiming to prevent Israel from going to war, it had failed miserably, and any claim to the contrary would be false. The term “other parties” seems to refer to Syria and other radical states. One concludes that the role of the Egyptian military is to act as a tool for the achievement of American policies in the region, by coopting “radical” and nationalist forces that might pose a threat to the interests of the United States, in exchange for military aid and political support.

How does this impact on the Egyptian Revolution? The Egyptian military, especially its economic empire, is inhibiting the development of an Egyptian national, progressive bourgeoisie that is able to lead the country and form the backbone of a genuinely democratic system. American military aid, has facilitated, although it did not cause, the growth and development of the Egyptian military empire as an independent economic centre heavily penetrating and controlling the state. American political support ensures the flow of loans and financial aid to the Egyptian state. This effectively allows for the further development of the Egyptian rentier state, alleviating the pressure exerted by the Egyptian revolutionary movement and allowing the vast military empire to go untaxed.

The US continues to follow its Cold War policy of supporting anti-progressive forces and inhibiting the development of progressive, nationalist forces that will break Egypt’s cycle of dependency. The Egyptian revolutionary movement, like Mossadeqh, is a threat to American dominance in the region as it expresses the aspirations of the Egyptian masses who wish to take control from the military elites and regain the regional role that Egypt lost after the Camp David accords.

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