Egyptians like to say that their country is Umm al Dunya, or “the Mother of the World,” and that, as the crucible of a great civilization dating back 7,000 years, its natural place is among both regional and global powers. In many ways, the boast is entirely accurate. By dint of its history, geography, and demography, Egypt has played a central role in Middle East politics and security policy since World War I. Successive global powers such as Great Britain, the Soviet Union and, most recently, the United States have come to regard Egypt as an indispensable asset for achieving their regional and global ambitions. The Suez Canal remains critical to the security of the Persian Gulf and its vast energy reserves, as well as to global trade. Egypt also maintains the region’s largest and most powerful Arab military. In addition, at approximately 80 million citizens, almost one in four Arabs is Egyptian.
Beyond these hard-power indicators, however, Egypt has historically maintained a reservoir of soft power that has had a profound influence on the politics of the region and beyond. Consequently, for the better part of the last three decades, Egypt has been a pillar of the United States’ Middle East policy. Cairo — along with Riyadh as well as junior partners in Rabat, Amman, and the small Gulf states — has helped create a regional political order that has made the pursuit of U.S. objectives in the Middle East — namely, the free flow of oil, Israel’s security, preventing other external powers from becoming influential, and confronting rogue states — relatively less expensive. The question remains, however, whether Egypt will continue to be able to play this influential role as other regional powers emerge and domestic problems increasingly buffet the country.
The Free Officers’ coup of July 1952, which ended the almost 150-year reign of an Albanian-Ottoman dynasty, altered the political trajectory of Egypt and the entire Middle East. Although the United Kingdom and the United States were interested in cultivating Egypt’s new rulers and including Cairo in post-war security arrangements for the Middle East, the Egyptians chose not to participate. Instead, in mid-1955, Egypt’s leader, Gamal Abdel Nasser, declared that from that time on, Egypt would pursue a policy of “positive neutralism” in foreign affairs.
In practice, Nasser was willing to deal with both the East and the West, striking one of the largest weapons deals at the time with a Soviet satellite, Czechoslovakia, and negotiating the financing for the Aswan High Dam with Washington, London, and the International Bank of Reconstruction and Development (the precursor to the World Bank). Washington, London, and the IBRD ultimately reneged on the deal after Nasser raised questions about the terms of repayment and recognized the People’s Republic of China. In response to what he considered the West’s betrayal, Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal, declaring in October 1956 that the waterway was an Egyptian asset that would be used solely for Egypt’s development.
The result was the British-French-Israeli invasion of Egypt of October-November 1956, often referred to as the Tripartite Aggression. Washington opposed the military action, which effectively ended European influence in Egypt. As for the Aswan High Dam, the Soviets provided the financing for the project beginning in 1958.
Although Cairo was drawing closer to the Soviet Union, Egypt’s foreign policy in the 10-year period following the nationalization of the Suez Canal focused almost exclusively on inter-Arab politics. This was a time when Nasser’s domestic power was at its zenith, and Cairo was making a bid for Arab leadership. In March 1958, Nasser agreed to a union between Egypt and Syria, turning his rhetoric about pan-Arab unity into a reality — at least temporarily. The United Arab Republic failed in a little less than three years, foundering on conflicting expectations, Egyptian high-handedness, and Syria’s internecine political struggles. Its break-up may have brought an end to Egypt’s experiment with Arab unity, but Nasser continued to pursue a policy of solidarity with the region’s republican forces. In October 1962, he committed Egyptian troops in support of republican forces against royalists in Yemen’s civil war. However, Egypt’s forces quickly became bogged down there, and it was only the emergency of the June 1967 that prompted Cairo to bring them home.
Israel’s crushing defeat of Egypt after just six days of fighting in June 1967 had significant consequences for Egyptian foreign policy. First, Nasser was forced to repair his relations with the region’s monarchies, especially Saudi Arabia, whose resources he would need to confront Israel and rebuild his armed forces. He had been extremely critical of these regimes during much the 1950s and 1960s. Second, Egypt drew ever closer to the Soviet orbit, as Moscow was Cairo’s only source of weaponry after the near-total destruction of its forces in Sinai during the brief conflict.
Cairo’s efforts to forge good relations with its previous competitors in the Arab world paid off six years later, when the Egyptian armed forces successfully overran Israeli positions on the East Bank of the Suez Canal in October 1973. Combined, the power of Soviet-built arms and the Arab world’s “oil weapon” proved effective in helping Egypt achieve its aims in the war: to alter the geostrategic environment in a way that would force the Israelis and their American allies to the negotiating table. Indeed, the October war began a process of negotiation between Egypt, the United States, and Israel that ultimately led Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, who succeeded Nasser in September 1970, to Jerusalem in November 1977.
Sadat had long harbored the desire to move Egypt away from the Soviet Union into the orbit of the United States, because he believed that Washington, as Israel’s patron, was central to Middle East peace and, equally important, that the U.S. was a more-suitable partner to help Egypt in its quest for modernization. For his part, Sadat argued that Egypt could serve as a bulwark against Soviet penetration of the Middle East and East Africa, a launching point for U.S. forces in the event of a crisis in the Persian Gulf, and a general force for regional stability. This was particularly appealing to the Nixon and Ford administrations, as Egypt’s geostrategic reorientation would effectively end the Arab military option against Israel and mean a net loss for Moscow in the zero-sum game of Cold War politics.
Still, Egypt was unable to benefit fully from American largesse until it took the dramatic step to end its state of war with Israel. With Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem and the subsequent Egypt-Israel peace treaty of March 1979, Cairo’s transformation from Soviet to American client was complete. Peace was accompanied by an American commitment of $2.2 billion in annual economic and military assistance.
Egypt’s agreement with Israel came at a steep cost, however. Although hailed in the West as a singular achievement, the assumption in the United States and Europe that Egypt’s peace deal with Israel would be the first step toward comprehensive regional peace proved to be wholly inaccurate. Rather, Egypt’s separate peace prompted the Arab states to break diplomatic relations with Cairo and move the Arab League to Tunis. Still, the treaty with Israel enhanced Egypt’s relations with the West, which poured resources into the development of Egypt’s economy, infrastructure, public health system, and educational sector.
The assassination of Anwar Sadat on Oct. 6, 1981, suddenly ushered in the era of President Hosni Mubarak. The new leader’s immediate foreign policy priorities were to develop strategic ties to the United States in order to keep economic and military aid flowing, while at the same time to return Egypt to the Arab fold. In practice, this meant a delicate balancing act of keeping Israel at a distance, but not so far that it created difficulties in the U.S.-Egypt relationship.
Mubarak was largely successful in achieving these goals. In 1989, the Arab world restored diplomatic relations with Egypt, even as peace with Israel became institutionalized, if hardly warm. Cairo also worked to make itself a partner of the United States in the region, with the high point of the relationship coming in 1990 when Egypt dispatched 35,000 troops to Saudi Arabia to take part in Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm.
In the three decades since Mubarak came to power, the watchword of Egyptian foreign policy has been stability. For example, although the Egyptians have sent forces to Darfur as part of the African peacekeeping force there, Cairo is opposed to Western efforts to prosecute Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir for genocide at the International Criminal Court. The Egyptians fear that this will have a destabilizing effect on Sudan and bring a hostile government to power in Khartoum. This concern is accentuated by the fact that Sudan is the only place where the headwaters of the Nile River — Egypt’s lifeline — can be dammed. For these reasons, Cairo also opposes the emergence of a new country in Southern Sudan, believing that the resulting instability will negatively affect Egypt’s most important security concern.
The emphasis on stability has also translated into Egypt’s continued efforts to broker talks between Israelis and Arabs as well as among the Palestinians’ warring factions. This is a role that the Egyptians have sought to play since their peace treaty with Israel. Cairo’s fear is that as long as the core Palestinian-Israeli conflict remains unresolved, many of the security challenges buffeting the region, especially terrorism, will continue to be a problem. To date, however, the Egyptians have very little to show for their efforts. The Palestinians remain hopelessly divided, literally and figuratively, between the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip and the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority of the West Bank. Meanwhile, Israel and the Palestinian Authority remain at loggerheads over the core issues of the conflict (borders, settlements, refugees and Jerusalem). Although Egyptian proposals about borders have been useful in the effort to restart negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians, there have been no breakthroughs.
In 2007, it seemed that Riyadh would wrest the Palestinian file from Cairo, but the Saudis achieved little and were hampered by the fact that they did not have diplomatic relations with Israel. As a result, the Saudis soon gave up their efforts, and Egypt returned to prominence on the issue.
On Iraq, Mubarak supported U.S.-led effort in the early 1990s to reverse Saddam Hussein’s annexation of Kuwait. Yet, when it came to Operation Iraqi Freedom, Cairo took a dim view of regime change, counseling President George W. Bush not to undertake such a project. Understanding, however, its responsibilities as a strategic ally and, more importantly, wanting to ensure the continued flow of American largesse, Egypt provided critical logistic support for the invasion and occupation of Iraq, including refueling American aircraft in transit to the Persian Gulf and short-notice transit through the Suez Canal for American warships. Egypt’s public opposition to the 2003 invasion of Iraq was based on its fears that undermining Saddam Hussein’s regime would unleash forces in the region that would contribute to instability. It should also be noted that a democratic, pro-American Iraq would have posed a challenge to Egypt’s regional partnership with the United States, the continued flow of American aid, and the prestige that comes from the strategic relationship.
Of course, Iraq has not worked out the way the Bush administration planned. As a result, Egypt’s primary concern there has not been a successful Iraq, but the rise of Iran and its efforts to influence the region. The Egyptians argue that Washington has upset the natural balance in the Gulf, giving Tehran free reign to exercise its power. Mubarak also looks warily upon Tehran’s efforts to develop nuclear technology, which would undermine the regional order that Cairo, Washington, and other regional powers have worked to maintain.
Notwithstanding the traditional view that Egypt is the central Arab political actor in the Middle East, there is a growing sense among American policymakers, analysts, and other observers that Cairo’s regional influence is on the decline. This is especially the case in relation to nimbler and better-endowed regional players such as tiny Qatar, non-Arab Turkey, and Saudi Arabia, which has seemingly limitless financial resources to spread around the region. Over the last five years, the Egyptians have played a largely peripheral or negative (from the perspective of Arab public opinion) role in most major regional issues. In addition to its quiet support for the United States in Iraq, the Egyptians have aligned themselves with Israel at critical moments. During the 2006 war in Lebanon, despite sending a planeload of officials — including Mubarak’s son, Gamal — to Beirut during a lull in the fighting, Cairo sided with Israel. The Egyptians once again lined up with the U.S. and Israel during the latter’s invasion of Gaza in December 2008 and January 2009, and has scrupulously maintained a blockade on the Hamas-controlled area since June 2007.
Yet, Egypt has been unable to deliver on the one issue that a peace treaty with Israel and a foreign-policy alignment with the United States uniquely positioned it for: statehood for the Palestinians. To be sure, this is difficult given the nature of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, but Egypt’s inability to play the role that it envisioned for itself suggests its waning regional influence. The question for many is whether Egypt is in terminal decline, or if its condition is instead temporary, a function of the country’s domestic political obsessions as the Hosni Mubarak period comes to an end.
Egyptian defense policy is a reflection of Cairo’s emphasis on stability. Since the early 1980s, Egypt and the United States have undertaken a joint effort to transform the Egyptian military from a force equipped and trained by the Soviets to one supplied and molded by the Americans. The project is approximately half-complete and emphasizes a defensive military posture across five military zones — central, eastern, western, southern and northern. The Egyptians base two mechanized infantry divisions and one armored division or armored cavalry division in each zone.
Overall, Egypt has close to a half-million men under arms and another half-million in reserve. With a force of 340,000, including both conscripts and officers, the army is by far the largest branch. The most important components of Egypt’s ground forces are its four armored corps divisions and seven mechanized infantry divisions. Egypt has about 4,000 tanks, of which a quarter are American M1A1 Abrams tanks and another 1,000 are older M60 tanks. The rest are Soviet T-62s, T-54s and T-55s that are in storage and have little military value on the modern battlefield. In addition to the tanks, the Egyptian army boasts some 5,000 artillery pieces of varying sizes and vintages. Together these weapons give Egypt’s land forces significant firepower.
Although the army is the biggest service in terms of raw numbers, the most prestigious is the air force. This is a reflection of the fact that prior to becoming president, Mubarak was a bomber pilot who rose through the ranks until Gamal Abdel Nasser named him Commander of the Air Force after the 1967 debacle. Air force personnel total 30,000, including 10,000 conscripts. Egypt has the largest air force in the region with more than 500 aircraft, approximately half of which are of Western design and manufacture. Its frontline fighters are a mix of French-made Mirages, American F-16s of the A-, C- and D-block variants, and Soviet MiG-21s. Egypt’s ground-attack forces consist of two squadrons of F-4E Phantom II’s and two squadrons of MiG-19s. Among its other frontline weapons are six squadrons of American-made AH-64A attack helicopters.
Given Israel’s historical ability to establish air superiority over Egypt in various conflicts between the two countries, the Egyptian military has placed a premium on its Air Defense Command. As a result, there are five air-defense divisions located throughout the country. Among the command’s equipment are 100 anti-aircraft gun battalions, 65 SA-2 surface-to-air missile (SAM) battalions, 60 battalions of SA-3 SAMs, and about a dozen American-made Hawk systems design to combat low- and medium-altitude aircraft.
The smallest of Egypt’s military services is the navy, with a total manpower of 18,500 conscripts and officers. Divided into the Mediterranean and Red Sea fleets, it operates four Romeo-class attack submarines that are obsolete and 10 surface combatants — a mix of frigates that were previously part of the Spanish, American, and Chinese navies. The rest of the force is made up of a variety of coastal-patrol, mine-warfare, and coast-guard ships. The Egyptian navy has not played a significant role in any of the country’s contemporary conflicts.
Egyptian defense policy emphasizes three basic areas of concern. First, Egypt’s leadership wants to continue improving the capabilities of the armed forces and the interoperability of Egyptian services with their Western — and primarily American — counterparts. To showcase progress in this area, Egypt conducts the Bright Star exercises — the largest combined-arms training exercise in the world — biennially in its western desert. Bright Star includes as many as 11 militaries with an additional 33 countries observing. Second, the Egyptians also train to meet any threat emanating from its eastern border, whether that means responding to a potential crisis with Israel or preventing instability generated by the Palestinian-Israeli conflict from adversely affecting Egyptian security. Finally, although the situation in the Palestinian areas receives tremendous attention in Egypt, as it does globally, Egypt’s primary strategic security interest is in the stability of Sudan. Egypt’s military establishment has made it clear that it considers any effort to disrupt the flow of the Nile a casus belli.
Notwithstanding the Egyptian commitment to defend its interests in the flow of the Nile and its extensive training in American military doctrine, the Egyptian armed forces cannot project power. From time to time, Israel and its supporters express concern at what they perceive to be an Egyptian military buildup, but the fact remains that the Egyptians use the vast majority of their weaponry in a defensive posture. For example, Egypt’s armored corps uses its M1A1 tanks as set battlefield pieces rather than as components of maneuver warfare, primarily because the Egyptians have logistics problems, making it difficult to service and resupply the tanks over long distances. Egypt’s response to the piracy epidemic in the Indian Ocean and Gulf of Aden is also revealing in this regard: Given the importance of the Suez Canal to international shipping and, consequently, of canal tolls to Egypt’s hard-currency revenues, the Egyptians have been more adversely affected than most by the recent wave of piracy in both areas. Yet, Cairo was both unwilling and unable to participate in the multinational Combined Task Force 151 anti-piracy operation responding to the threat.
Egypt’s strategic priorities are to ensure both regional and domestic stability, but its foreign policy stances derive from the larger, more-important goal of maintaining social cohesion within Egypt. Consequently, the priority that Cairo places on widening the circle of Arab-Israeli peace is directly related to its perception that the stalemate radicalizes Arab publics — including in Egypt. Egyptian officials often assert that “more than half” of the region’s problems would be resolved if the Palestinian-Israeli conflict were finally settled. Chief among those problems is extremism and terrorism. This perception is not surprising given the widely held and not totally inaccurate belief that Egyptian President Anwar Sadat was murdered because he made peace with Israel.
Second, the Egyptians place a priority on what they perceive to be the interrelated issues of Iran’s efforts to develop nuclear technology and rising Shiite political activism in the Middle East. There is, of course, also a geostrategic concern with Iran’s nuclear program. Given that the acquisition of nuclear weapons represents a quantum leap in a country’s power, Iran’s drive to develop nuclear technology represents a challenge to Egypt’s perception of itself as a regional powerhouse. More specific to Egypt’s overriding domestic concern, Cairo believes that Iran’s activism will encourage extremism among the region’s Shiite populations. Although less than 1 percent of Egypt’s population of about 80 million is Shiite, since 2005 the state-controlled media, government spokesmen, and Egyptian officials — including Mubarak himself — have implicitly and explicitly warned that the region’s Shiite population represented an Iranian fifth column seeking to destabilize the region. The Egyptians point to southern Lebanon and, closer to home, Gaza as prime examples of the predatory nature of Iran’s influence and how it can negatively affect Egyptian security. As a result, Egypt is an eager participant in the United States’ coalition against Iran.
The third strategic priority for Cairo is combating terrorism. In the mid-1990s, the Egyptian government fought a low-level insurgency against home-grown extremist groups, who over the course of five years killed and wounded almost 1,500 people, including foreigners. That had a dramatic effect on Egypt’s tourism industry, an important component of the country’s economy. The Egyptians have therefore been vigilant in the battle against transnational jihadism, cooperating closely with U.S. intelligence agencies and offering Egypt as a rendition destination for interrogation and torture of suspected terrorists. The Egyptian concern with this issue reflects its regional concerns. They believe that Washington, against Cairo’s advice, unleashed forces — through the invasion of Iraq, an emphasis on political change in the Arab world and America’s abiding support for Israel — that are dangerous and have the potential to undermine Egypt’s stability as well as that of other countries in the region.
Despite its differences with the United States, especially on the issue of democracy promotion, the Egyptian leadership places a premium on maintaining strategic ties with Washington. Although much-diminished in real terms, American largesse and political support are deemed critical to Egypt’s economic development, military modernization, stability, and regional power. To be sure, during President George W. Bush’s tenure in the White House — a period when bilateral relations were most difficult over Iraq, Palestine and democratic reforms — a few Egyptian newspaper columns wistfully recalled the Soviet period. There was also some discussion of alternatives to the United States as a patron state, with China being notably mentioned.
Indeed, for a time in the mid-2000s, the Egyptians seemed in awe of the Chinese. This is not surprising given that Beijing seems to have achieved what Cairo only hopes to do: generate significant economic growth while ensuring the authoritarian nature of its regime. In addition, this was a time when the Bush administration and Mubarak were at loggerheads over Washington’s efforts to promote democratic reform in Egypt. Some Egyptians thus imagined a strategic relationship with China in which Cairo’s human rights record would not be an issue. Finally, with the United States bogged down in Iraq and seemingly incompetent at home in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, some in Egypt began to ask whether the United States was in decline and thus no longer an appropriate partner in Egypt’s quest to modernize.
With all the popular talk of China in Egypt, however, Egyptian officials made it clear that there was not yet an alternative to the United States. Indeed, despite significant discontent among Egyptian officials about the state of relations during the Bush years, Cairo never called into question the overall strategic relationship with Washington and its value to Egypt. Once Bush left office, the Egyptians were eager to start fresh with the Obama administration, which placed less of an emphasis on Iraq and democracy promotion than on issues more in line with Cairo’s core interests: Israel-Palestine peace and countering Iranian regional influence.
As the Hosni Mubarak era comes to a close, Egypt, America and other regional actors are asking, “What next?” Although there are any number of possible scenarios for succession, the most plausible is that some regime-affiliated figure — whether Gamal Mubarak, another leading member of the ruling National Democratic Party, a military officer, or a civilian with a military background — will come next.
In the short run, as the new Egyptian president consolidates his power, there may be some turbulence in U.S.-Egypt relations and Egyptian-Israeli ties, but Cairo’s overall strategic posture is unlikely to change. To be sure, Egypt may be more active when it comes to its core interests in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Sudan, and counterterrorism. Yet, there is unlikely to be much policy innovation. The new Egyptian president will face the same foreign-policy challenges as his predecessor. Without an alternative patron to the United States, Egypt’s foreign policy, defense policy, and strategic priorities will likely remain similar to the policies that Cairo has pursued over the last three decades.
Steven A. Cook is the Hasib J. Sabbagh senior fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of a forthcoming book on Egyptian politics (Oxford University Press).