By Arthur I. Cyr
Recent days have delivered dramatic images of heated mass demonstrations in Egypt against President Hosni Mubarek, and also historical footage of President John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address, delivered on a freezing day in Washington D.C. early in 1961.
Beyond this coincidence, U.S. foreign policy has been deeply engaged with Egypt for over half a century. Media emphasis only on current events, plus allusions to Egyptian cooperation in CIA interrogation of alleged terrorists, conceals this. In 1956, nationalist Premier Gamal Abdel Nasser abruptly took over the Suez Canal, which had been under British control. Four years earlier, Nasser had led a group of young Egyptian military officers in ousting the lethargic, ineffective regime of King Farouk. The dynamic new leader personified the aspirations of his new nation after decades of British colonial rule. Nasser was personally honest, with a modest lifestyle, but also given to grandiose visions of leading a comprehensive movement to unite Arabs throughout the Middle East. They would comprise a neutral third force in the Cold War, between the U.S. and Soviet blocs.
U.S. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, suspicious of all forms of neutralism, abruptly canceled foreign aid to construct the enormous Aswan Dam on the Nile River. That blunder prompted Nasser to seize the Suez Canal, and also gave the Soviets an opening to replace Western governments. Britain, France and Israel then launched a surprise military operation to capture the Canal, along with Arab territory.
Incredibly, the U.S. had not been consulted. U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower, immersed in a campaign for re-election to the White House, had maintained enormous sustained public support by quickly ending the Korean War and keeping his nation out of other armed conflicts. Moreover, this old-fashioned European imperialism profoundly offended Eisenhower’s commitment to collective security and working through the United Nations. Ike immediately brought decisive economic pressure to bear. Washington voted with Moscow at the United Nations to condemn the invasion. Governments fell in London, Paris and Tel Aviv, and the Canal returned to Egyptian control. For the remainder of the Cold War, the Middle East was a battleground as Arab states gravitated to the Soviet orbit, while Israel along with Turkey remained closely allied to the U.S. However, the U.S. had demonstrated commitment to the independence of Egypt. In 1957, Senator John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts made a speech strongly attacking France’s costly colonial war in Algeria. As a consequence, he drew harsh criticism from foreign policy leaders, including Democratic Party senior statesmen Dean Acheson and Adlai Stevenson, but he earned points in the Arab world. Nasser, who gave sanctuary to Algerian revolutionaries, was impressed. The Kennedy administration made efforts to develop communication with governments on the political left in developing countries not dominated by the Soviet Union or China. Kennedy and Nasser began a personal correspondence. JFK vowed to invite the Egyptian leader to visit Washington — after safely securing re-election to the White House in 1964. U.S. President Jimmy Carter built on this record of rapport. In 1978, he brokered the historic Camp David peace agreement between Egypt and Israel. The accord has endured. Current U.S. President Obama also can build on this record of American-Egyptian interchange, but their leverage is limited. Ike brought old-time imperialists back to reality, but only the often maligned Carter brought positive historic change. Popular uprisings did not begin with the Internet, and Egypt remains far away from us in politics and culture as well as geography. Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College and author of “After the Cold War.” Contact him at email@example.com