The Modern Pharaohs I

A three-part series on BBC TV entitled “The Modern Pharaohs” describes the reigns of the three modern Egyptian dictators Gamal Abdul Nasser, Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak.

Gamal Abdel Nasser was responsible for forming the officers group that overthrew King Farouk in 1952 and installed Gen. Naguib as the President of Egypt.  But, Naguib did not last long and was replaced by the power behind the throne, Nasser, in 1956.  Nasser then ruthlessly suppressed the Muslim Brotherhood (Ikhwan) that had been active in Egypt since the 1930’s.  Nasser saw the Ikhwan as a threat to his rule and so he imprisoned and murdered their leaders. In 1956, he kicked the British out of the Suez Canal zone and nationalized it and this led to the Suez Campaign, in which British and Israeli forces defeated the Egyptian forces, but were then forced to withdraw under international pressure.  Nasser was not only the ruler of Egypt, but he was the “poster boy” for the whole of the Arab world and he became the leader of the so-called pan-Arab movement.

In 1962, Nasser initiated sweeping socialist reforms in Egypt and also began work on the Aswan Dam on the Nile.  But, his policies left Egypt nearly bankrupt.  His moment of glory was to come in 1967 when, contrary to international law, he closed the Straits of Tiran to Israeli shipping going to Eilat and kicked the UN peace-keeping force out of Sinai.  The Egyptian mobs bayed for Israeli blood, but the incredible victorious Israeli victory in 6 days, in which the Egyptian Air Force was decimated and the Egyptian army dealt a total defeat, caused Nasser to resign.  However, the Egyptian mobs called for Nasser’s return to power and he willingly obliged.  He tried to carry out further attacks against Israel in the War of Attrition in 1968, but this also failed and his sudden and untimely death in 1970 dealt the death knell to so-called pan-Arabism.

Nasser’s successor was his deputy, Anwar Sadat, who was regarded as a quiet and ineffectual leader.  Almost immediately after he was proclaimed President other pro-Nasser leaders together with some Army leaders began to plot to overthrow him.  But, he struck first.  He released the leadership of the Ikhwan and used them to counter-attack his enemies and also found loyal members of the Armed forces.  With this coalition he managed to remain in power.  But, it was an insecure situation.  Meanwhile his enemies accused him of being soft on Israel.  To outflank them he took over the Nasserist plan to re-attack Israel and made it his own plan, although he delayed it until 1973.

In 1973, Sadat launched the Yom Kippur War that although they had ample warning took the Israeli intelligence community by surprise (they underestimated the Egyptian improvements).  Using Soviet hand-held anti-tank missiles and a large Soviet anti-air missile system, the Egyptians were able to overcome the Israeli defences on the Suez Canal and push into the Sinai desert.  But, because they were winning and because Pres. Assad of Syria, who had launched a coordinated attack, was in dire trouble on the Golan, the Egyptians went beyond the range of their air-defense system.  The Israelis immediately counter-attacked and the rest is history.

Some think that Sadat calculated that he could not defeat the IDF and wanted a stalemate so that he could negotiate a ceasefire/peace.  This required the Americans to act as intermediary, notably Henry Kissinger, US Secty. of State.  This allowed Sadat to get out from under the Soviets and move to the US side and to start modernizing Egypt. However, this move to the American side and dealing with Israel caused a great deal of opposition within Egypt from all the leftist organizations and the Ikhwan. In order to proceed Sadat had them all arrested and in effect sealed his fate.  In 1979 Sadat visited Israel and signed the Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty.  At the ceremony in 1981 honoring the second anniversary of the Treaty, Sadat was assassinated by the brother of one of those he had executed, Khalid Istambouli, an Army officer and a member of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, a violent offshoot of the Ikhwan and a precursor of al Qaeda.

Correction.  In my last blog posting “An unlikely alliance” the word “not” in the third paragraph should be “now”



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