Friday, January 28, 2011

The Egypt Chapter

It looks as though a new chapter in Egyptian history is about to begin. Events on the ground are moving very quickly. I thought it might be helpful to post the chapter on Egypt from my 2003 book, Boomerang!, or How Our Covert Wars Have Created Enemies Across the Middle East and Brought Terror to America. Like the title of the book, this is kind of long, but if you're interested, here you go:

In 1952 CIA officers in Cairo held a series of meetings with coup plotters in the Egyptian army, including Col. Gamal Abdel Nasser. The officers hoped to overthrow King Farouk, the corrupt and buffoonish puppet monarch backed by the British, while the US hoped to replace Britain as the dominant foreign power in the region. These overlapping interests insured that the coup took place in July of that year. Nasser, only 34, remained behind the scenes initially, with a General Neguib as the titular head of the new government. The younger man became prime minister in 1954 and assumed the presidency of Egypt in 1956 following a referendum.

Nasser's first priority, which dovetailed nicely with Washington's interests, was to get British troops removed from the Suez Canal, where they had been stationed since 1882. As the canal no longer held much strategic value to Britain (after the loss of India), an agreement was reached in October of 1954. For the first time in two and a half thousand years, Egypt was no longer under foreign occupation of any kind. This was a great catalyst for Nasser's growing reputation as a hero to Arab nationalists, fanned by his marathon radio broadcasts in colloquial Arabic.

Israel, however, viewed the presence of 80,000 British troops on the canal as a welcome buffer with Egypt. The Israeli secret service, the Mossad, sent agents to sabotage British installations and plant bombs in public buildings, hoping to scuttle the negotiations by blaming the terrorism on Egyptian nationalists. This scheme was derailed when the agents were caught and exposed. France was also upset when, shortly after the British departure from Egypt, Algerian nationalists launched a revolt against French colonial rule; Paris was convinced (with help from the Mossad) that Nasser had encouraged them. To counter Egyptian influence, France then began selling arms to Israel in defiance of a regional arms embargo. In February of 1955 Israel, citing cross-border harassment by Palestinian refugees, attacked an Egyptian army outpost in Gaza, killing 40 soldiers and a number of civilians. Yet an Israeli historian has cited documentary evidence that Egypt was making a serious effort to keep the Gaza border calm.

In fact, Israel had been planning an invasion of the Sinai Peninsula since at least 1953, according to the diaries of Prime Minister Moshe Sharett. The Gaza attack precluded any hope of a peace agreement. At that point, as General Moshe Dayan put it, "one of these days a situation will be created which makes military action possible."

Egypt's relations with Washington had begun to sour as Nasser refused to be bribed. US antagonism was further aroused when he balked at buying arms with strings attached, and so turned to East Bloc sources. This in turn led Nasser to rely further on Soviet financing, and so the fear of a pro-Russian tilt became a self-fulfilling prophecy - the 1950s version of "If you ain't with us you're against us."

In July of 1956, Secretary of State Dulles reneged on a previous commitment to help Egypt build the Aswan Dam, and blocked international funding as well. In response, Nasser exercised his right to re-establish Egyptian sovereignty over the British-built Suez Canal - which was then closed to Israeli shipping. And in response to that, the British and the French made a secret deal with Israel to invade Egypt and seize back the canal. But this deal was made behind the backs of the Americans, and Israeli agents lied to their CIA counterparts about the impending invasion.

On October 29, 1956, the Israelis used their French-supplied arsenal to launch a surprise attack on Egypt, seizing the Sinai. The plan was to falsely announce that Egypt had attacked Israel, after which Israeli troops would occupy the Sinai Peninsula all the way to the east bank of the Suez Canal. Then British and French troops would intervene to prevent a wider war, and hopefully, the whole thing would be so humiliating to Nasser that his people would rise up against him. Britain and France bombed Egyptian territory, and then sent troops to back up the Israelis.

The Eisenhower Administration was outraged, not only by Israeli duplicity, but also by the Europeans' attempt to re-establish their influence in a region where the US now wished to call the shots. In order to counter that influence, the US was even willing to cooperate briefly with the Soviets in condemning the Suez attacks in the UN. Stymied by a US threat to withdraw aid, the Israelis reluctantly withdrew from the Sinai and Gaza, with UN monitors placed on the Egyptian border. Egypt regained control of the canal, subject to international guarantees of Israeli shipping in the Gulf of Aqaba.

Nasser emerged an even bigger hero than before, and began to talk of uniting the Arab world into one big federation. This set off alarm bells in Washington. Nasser's pan-Arabian dreams were short-lived, and amounted only to a brief federation with Syria, (which lasted until the next coup in that country undid the deal). The US countered this alarming spurt of Arab unity by encouraging Jordan and Iraq to band together against the new United Arab Republic, rather than joining it. And no less than eight separate assassination plots were soon launched against Nasser, involving, at various times, America, Israel, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Iraq. These involved at least one CIA assassination plot in 1957. According to the memoirs of former CIA officer Wilbur Crane Eveland, the story goes that Eisenhower had mused that he wished the "Nasser problem" could be "eliminated" - which the CIA chief, Allen Dulles, took as an order to kill. The plot never came to fruition, as Dulles ostensibly realized he had misinterpreted his boss. However, this account bears a marked similarity to other cover stories explaining away known CIA death plots, so it should perhaps not be taken at face value. Britain's secret service MI6 also plotted with the Mossad to kill Nasser on several occasions.

The Nasser problem continued, however, and in June 1967, 11 years after the Suez crisis, Israel tried the same trick again, this time successfully. The Israelis also had territorial designs on the West Bank and the Syrian territory of the Golan Heights, in order to secure control over the headwaters of the River Jordan and the aquifers of its basin. General Moshe Dayan later recounted how Israel had deliberately provoked firefights with Syrian forces. Israeli troops probed the Syrian frontier with tractors, then claimed that the inevitable Syrian reprisals constituted attacks on "peaceful farmers." This cat-and-mouse game intensified in the year leading up to the Six-Day War.

As tensions increased, the Soviets informed the Syrians that Israel was massing troops on its border, though a tank division had been sent several months before, following an earlier skirmish. But for its part, the Israeli government had threatened to invade Damascus if the Syrians did not suppress Palestinian raids. Nasser also called on the Syrians to do so, aware that neither he nor they had the power to prosecute a war with Israel. But as the putative leader of Arab nationalists, he was being goaded by the Syrians, Jordanians and Palestinians to do something about Israeli provocations, and to stop "hiding behind" UN troops.

Eventually Nasser requested that UN forces depart from Gaza; instead the UN withdrew all its troops from the Sinai region. Egypt then moved two token divisions into the Sinai, far from adequate for any offensive action. In solidarity with Syria, Nasser then announced a blockade of ships bringing weapons to Israel through the Gulf of Aqaba. This was the pretext the Israelis required. Though only 5% of their imports came through Aqaba, Israelis told the world that Egypt's "economic stranglehold" threatened their very existence.

Israel also announced at the time that the Arabs had struck first, though that claim too was later abandoned for the more credible formulation that the IDF had launched a "pre-emptive strike", with the ostensible motivation being a massing of Egyptian troops. But as Israeli Chief of Staff Yitzhak Rabin admitted a year later, "I don't believe Nasser wanted war. The two divisions he sent into Sinai May 14 would not have been enough to unleash an offensive against Israel and we knew it." Or as one Israeli cabinet member put it, the "pre-emptive strike" story was "invented of whole cloth and exaggerated after the fact to justify the annexation of new Arab territories."

Most of the Egyptian air force was destroyed on the ground and Israel seized the Sinai and Gaza, as well as the West Bank from Jordan and the Golan Heights from Syria. The latter three territories are occupied to this day. Many in the Israeli government had interpreted certain US statements as giving a "green light" to their invasion plans; at the very least, they found "an absence of any exhortation to us to stay our hand." But US support for the Israeli invasions went further than that; US warplanes, painted with Israeli markings, helped with reconnaissance photography of Arab targets. President Johnson also moved the Sixth Fleet into the eastern Mediterranean, and secretly authorized shipments of spare parts to the Israeli military, while publicly calling for a regional arms embargo. After the war the US also vetoed a UN resolution calling for Israel to return to its previous borders.

The Johnson Administration was so happy to see Israel strike a decisive blow at perceived "Soviet proxies" in the region that it was even willing to overlook an Israeli attack on the USS Liberty in the middle of the Six Day War. For years the attack on the US ship, which killed 34 sailors, has been a mystery, the details covered up by both the US and Israel. A recent book by author James Bamford posits that the American spy vessel had evidence that Israel had massacred Egyptian prisoners of war, and that the IDF destroyed the ship in order to cover up evidence of this war crime.

The Six Day War ended in a cease-fire, which Nasser abrogated the following year, beginning intermittent skirmishes with Israel over the Sinai. The war significantly escalated tensions in the Middle East, leading to an accelerated arms race. As Nasser put it, "The problem now is that while the United States' objective is to pressure us to minimize our dealings with the Soviet Union, it will drive us in the opposite direction altogether. The US leaves us no choice." And indeed, though Israel had decisively defeated the Arabs, US military assistance to Tel Aviv increased dramatically, as did East Bloc arms sales to Egypt. Nasser did show some interest in a land-for-peace swap - indeed, he had begun peace negotiations with Israel in the 1950s before the attack on Gaza - but he died suddenly of a heart attack in September 1970.

He was succeeded by Anwar el-Sadat, who had been on the CIA payroll since 1960. Despite this, the Nixon administration was slow to work with Sadat, viewing Egypt through a Cold War prism. Sadat made a formal peace offer to Israel in February 1971, but Israel responded by expanding settlements in the occupied Sinai. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger preferred to keep Egyptian-Israeli relations in a stalemate, hoping that the Russians would pressure Sadat into further compromise. Even after Sadat purged pro-Soviet elements from the Egyptian government, Kissinger couldn't be bothered. Sadat's intention, later realized, was to convert Egypt to a US client state. He sent Soviet advisors home and intervened to prevent a communist takeover of Sudan. But frustrated by Washington's indifference to his lost sovereignty over the Sinai, Sadat launched a new war on Israel in 1973 with Syrian support.

Both Jordan's King Hussein and Saudi King Fahd warned the Israelis in advance of the coming attack, but Tel Aviv refused to believe the Arab states were strong enough to pull it off. This easily preventable war led to serious losses on the Israeli side, as Egypt regained control of the Suez Canal. At this point the US suddenly became amenable to a negotiated settlement of the Israeli-Egyptian conflict, though Kissinger's ineffectual shuttle diplomacy produced few results for the remainder of his tenure. This eventually led to Sadat's famous trip to Jerusalem and the Camp David Accords, sponsored by the Carter administration.

Egyptian peace with Israel was bought with billions of dollars of US taxpayer funds. Egypt became the second largest recipient of US aid (after Israel), now totaling some $4 billion annually. Sadat bought peace by agreeing to vague promises that the Israelis would later negotiate peace with the Palestinians. In fact, the Israeli Knesset voted on "policy guidelines" stating that Israel had no intention of honoring these promises. The resolution stated that after a "transition period" agreed to at Camp David, Israel would "act to fulfill its rights to sovereignty over Judea, Samaria [their names for the West Bank] and the Gaza district." These "rights" were indeed fulfilled with increased repression and settlements in the West Bank. Israel also broke Camp David pledges regarding water rights, all of which engendered only weak protests from Sadat.

For its part, Israel bought peace by returning (almost) all of the Sinai and removing Jewish settlements from those lands. Prime Minister Begin then exploited peace with Egypt (and later with Jordan) by using his freed-up forces to launch new strikes against Palestinian positions in Lebanon. And for its part, the US used the Camp David talks to derail the international consensus in favor of a multilateral peace conference including Europe, the East Bloc and the Arab states. In this way Washington alone remained in charge of any "peace process."

The Camp David Accords were deeply unpopular both in Egypt and throughout the Arab world. Sadat also alienated his citizens through his economic policies, privatizing many state holdings and cutting food subsidies and other services in accord with World Bank and IMF advice. A hero in the West, he was widely despised at home. There was little public mourning when he was assassinated in 1982, in contrast to the millions who thronged the streets for Nasser's funeral. Sadat was killed by Islamic militants within his own elite guard units while he reviewed a military parade. According to author Douglas Valentine, the guards had been trained by CIA agent William Buckley. Buckley himself sat in the stands during the assassination; also sitting nearby was Sadat's successor, Hosni Mubarak, who had the presence of mind to duck.

Mubarak has ruled with the proverbial iron fist ever since. Egypt had been a police state under Nasser and Sadat, but human rights abuses reached new heights during the Mubarak regime. Mindful of Sadat's fate, he has cracked down on Islamists, moderates as well as radicals. This of course has had the effect of making the Islamic movement in Egypt ever more militant, in marked contrast to states like Yemen and Jordan where they are allowed to compete for parliamentary seats. Many of Egypt's most radical Muslim fighters were trained by Western intelligence services for use in the anti-Soviet war in Afghanistan. The Egyptian arm of the Islamic Jihad has forged ties with Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida network, staging terror attacks against foreign tourists, as well as operating in the US.

Egypt under Mubarak uses its billions in US military aid to detain, beat and torture dissenters, opposition politicians and journalists; many have died in custody. Thousands of political prisoners and pro-democracy activists are held in overcrowded, disease-ridden prisons, without charges or trials. Press restrictions, including newspaper shutdowns, are widespread. Arab nationalists view Egypt as a well-bribed client state of the US and an obstacle to self-determination for its own people as well as its Palestinian neighbors. Nevertheless, the "Lion of Egypt" was re-elected to a fourth term in 1999 with just under 94 percent of the vote; his party holds 97 percent of the legislative seats. He has never named a vice-president.

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