History of Egyptian Military Dictatorship Pt.4: The US scored a major strategic victory turning Sadat and the Egyptian military into their Middle East ally
The Real News Network (TRNN) editor in chief PAUL JAY interviews GILBERT ACHCAR
Gilbert Achcar grew up in Lebanon, and is currently Professor at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) of the University of London. His books include The Clash of Barbarisms: The Making of the New World Disorder, published in 13 languages, Perilous Power: The Middle East and U.S. Foreign Policy, co-authored with Noam Chomsky, and most recently the critically acclaimed The Arabs and the Holocaust: The Arab-Israeli War of Narratives.
TRANSCRIPT + VIDEO
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome back to The Real News Network. I’m Paul JAY. In Egypt the military dictatorship hangs on, and so does its commander-in-chief, President Mubarak. Likely there will be a new commander-in-chief sooner or later, but unlikely there will be anything but a military dictatorship. How does that carry and how did it come into being? To discuss that we’re joined again by Gilbert Achcar. He’s a professor of development studies and international relations at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, author of the book The Arabs and the Holocaust: The Arab-Israeli War of Narratives. Thanks for joining us again, Gilbert.
PROF. GILBERT ACHCAR, SCHOOL OF ORIENTAL AND AFRICAN STUDIES: Thank you, Paul.
JAY: So just to remind everybody again, here’s a map of Egypt. Here’s the Suez Canal. And you can see why it’s so strategic. Still a great deal of oil and other goods goes through the Suez from the Middle East to Europe and products coming back the other way. And, of course, Egypt is the most populous Arab country, strategically of great significance, also because of its current alliance with Israel. But how did all this come to pass? So we pick up our history. And if you haven’t watched part one of this interview, then I encourage you to, and then you’ll be able to join us at this point. So we left off, Nassar is getting increasingly in confrontation with the United States. He’s started to nationalize sections of the economy. He’s, in order to diminish his dependency on the United States, if I understand it correctly, started buying weapons from Czechoslovakia and got off the weapons system of the United States, which is a very big move of independence. So pick up the story from there, Gilbert.
ACHCAR: Yeah. Well, the Nasser regime was dealt a very, very decisive blow in 1967 by Israel. The 1967 War was launched by Israel for several reasons combined. We could say that, on the one hand, of course it wanted to occupy the rest of Palestine, that is, the West Bank and Gaza, which weren’t occupied by the Zionist movement in 1948, and left until the next opportunity, which was ’67. And also it wanted to deal a heavy blow leading to possible overthrow of the two most radical regimes in the Arab world in the environment of Israel, which were Egypt, on the one hand, and Syria, at that time, on the other hand. And in that respect, of course, this was a very important war for the United States, because in so doing, Israel was also doing a big service to the United States in trying to put down the two main challengers of the United States in the region.
JAY: Now just let me jump in for a sec. Just in fairness’ sake, the Israeli narrative of this is that they thought Egypt might attack, and they decided to knock out the Egyptian Air Force before there could be an attack, and they knocked out the Air Force in three days. I mean, just quickly, do you have any sense of the truth of either narrative here? Or are they both true?
ACHCAR: I mean, in the Israeli perception of thing, it can be explained as a preemptive strike. But they had a lot of information. And the United States definitely had information about the fact that Egypt was not really serious on attacking Israel, there wasn’t any real imminent threat. And they knew about that. But in any case, I mean, the two countries were in a state of confrontation. And Israel, if Israel needed to seize the West Bank and Gaza, it would have anyhow gone into a war with the two countries. So better for Israel to, you know, take the initiative as they did, destroy the Egyptian aviation before it can even, you know, take off, and achieve the tremendous victory they achieved in June ’67. So basically that’s–as I said, I mean, that is a war through which Israel had a direct goal for itself, which was the conquest of the rest of Palestine, and another one, which is combined with US interests, and which is dealing these two regimes, Syria and Egypt, a fatal blow, the two regimes being the fiercest enemies of both Israel and the United States in the region.
JAY: So what happens next?
ACHCAR: Well, what happens next is that–and that’s a huge, again, difference between what now–what we have now and at that time. You know, as a result of the war, Nasser proclaimed on television–a very dramatic speech–his resignation from his post as head of state. And so you can already see a very big difference. And the result of that was absolutely huge demonstration in Cairo and all over Egypt asking him to stay in power and not–completely reverse situation to what we have seen in the last few days. But it’s a testimony to the real popularity of Nasser, who undoubtedly has been one of the most popular leaders of the Third World, one of the most popular leaders of what used to be called or is still called the Non-Aligned Movement, which was born in the mid ’50s, this alliance of African, Asian, and Latin American countries, which was usually–at that time had–these countries had mostly in common some degree of anti-imperialist stance. And so Nasser also was extremely popular for Egypt, because despite the dictatorship, despite the military dictatorship, in terms of social transformation of the country there were real gains for the Egyptian masses. Well, the peasants were–I mean, huge numbers of peasants were empowered by becoming landowners. The conditions of the workers in the state industries were relatively advanced, compared at least to the environment that you had in the Arab world. They were definitely advanced in terms of rights, of social rights (I’m not speaking of political rights, of course), and education. Democratization of the education was very deep. And so you have a lot of social changes that were brought in by the regime, which compensated, if you want, in the people’s mind the problem of its being a dictatorship, a military dictatorship, a regime ruled by the army and by its Mukhabarat, its secret service.
JAY: So this explains why there’s still–at least partly explains why there’s such respect for the army and people don’t necessarily see it as an antagonist, at least in terms of the mythology around the army. So what happens to Nasser?
ACHCAR: Well, he stayed in power for three more years until he died in 1970. And when he died, his successor was Anwar El Sadat, who was one of the most–I mean, one of the most right-wing members of the military clique in power, the military group in power. And Sadat very quickly embarked on a program of de-Nasserization of Egypt, which basically was one of–you know, a kind of forerunner of what will be called, later on, structural adjustment programs [inaudible]
JAY: Does the United States have any hand in the rise of Sadat?
ACHCAR: No, not in the rise of Sadat. But Sadat quickly shifted Egypt from the alliance with the Soviet Union into an alliance with the United States. So Egypt moved from one camp to another in a quite radical manner. In 1972, Sadat expelled Soviet experts from Egypt. All those Soviet experts, who were there as advisors and trainers for the Egyptian army, mostly, they were expelled from Egypt. He invited Nixon to Egypt. And gradually the country turned into a key ally of the United States in the region. And, by the way, since you’re mentioning that, people are not always aware of the fact that for the Nixon-Kissinger kind of team that you had in the United States, you had a kind of, I mean, exchange, in a sense, at the global level between Vietnam that they lost, but they moved out of Vietnam in 1973. And one of the things that facilitated that for them is that they achieved a major gain in a much more strategic area than Southeast Asia, which is the Middle East, and this strategic gain that they achieved was winning Egypt over. That was absolutely huge for the United States. And that also explains why Egypt has become–still is, and has been like that for many years–the second recipient of US foreign aid–after Israel, of course. Israel is the first, but Egypt is number two. And the bulk of this aid that–so-called aid that United States gives to Egypt is actually military aid. That is, the United States is one of the key funders of the Egyptian military. So this military has completely changed its nature. This is no longer the kind of army that was represented by Nasser or had as a kind of symbolic figure Nasser. This is a different army. And despite the fact that Sadat, for instance–I mean, Sadat in particular led Egypt into the 1973 war against Israel, which is one where Egypt this time had the initiative, and which was presented as a great triumph and victory of Egypt. And that was a completely false presentation of things, because the truth is that it ended with Egypt on the verge of a military disaster and the Israelis having crossed the canal in the other direction. But leave that aside. Despite all that and the glory that Sadat wanted to give himself, actually his social policies of de-nationalization, of re-privatization, of opening–the Arabic term is the Infitah, about opening for private capital, opening the public sector. And all that led to such terrible social results–of inflation, of unemployment, or all kind of problems–that he quickly became very much unpopular. And you had the major social revolt in 1977 in Egypt caused by the rising prices of bread and other basic commodities. That was quelled. And Sadat ended up being assassinated in 1981. And when you compare the kind of funerals that he had with those of Nasser, you get the measure of the–I mean, the difference between the two. I mean, Nasser’s funeral was, again, absolutely a huge outpouring of popular, you know, sentiments, of popular grief, and huge, huge, huge mass demonstrations, whereas Sadat’s funeral was, you know, quite–I mean, done in a quite cold atmosphere. This man was not popular at all, and you can say the same of the regime in general.
JAY: So by Sadat’s death, the Egyptian army, and by extraction the Egyptian state, has more or less become a client state of the United States.
ACHCAR: It has become a client state of the United States. And even the character of the army–although, of course, the army was corrupt, bureaucratic, whatever we want to say, even under Nasser, but its nature also changed through the switch of allegiance. The nature of–I mean, at the same time that the country was–I mean, there was a reduction of the space for state capitalism for the public sector in the country and an increasing space for the private sector, and all sorts, also, of corruption and greed. The army itself also turned into some kind of, you know, a trust of–with capitalistic interests it has, it owns. Its a huge institution. It owns industries and economic sectors. And the officer caste of the Egyptian army today is much further, much more cut from the social roots and the people than what they used to be in the ’50s and ’60s.
JAY: So in the next segment of our interview, we’ll begin the Mubarak era. Thanks again for joining us with Gilbert Achcar on The Real News Network.
End of Transcript
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