The United States and the world celebrated Saturday, 20 July, the fiftieth anniversary of the landing on the moon of Apollo 11 with Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on board. Once he touched the lunar surface, Armstrong had uttered a sentence that would reverberate around the globe and down ages to come. “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mank
Looking back, I could not help but think of where Egypt had been 50 years back and what has become of her after five decades that have seen radical changes in world politics as well as the fate of Egypt, the Middle East and the Arab world. Egypt from within has undergone deep and transformative changes. The years that separate us from the day that two daring American astronauts landed on the moon have been years of war, peace and modernisation by fits and starts.
In 1969, Sinai was under Israeli occupation and Egypt had started what is commonly known as the War of Attrition. Of course, the international community called for the application of the UN Security Council Resolution 242, but it had become obvious that international diplomacy wouldn’t help Egypt much in getting Sinai back without strings attached.
To retaliate, the Israelis began targeting vital installations deep inside Egypt after the United States decided to provide it with its latest fighter plane, the F-4, widely-known as the Phantom, which was considered the most modern fighter in the world back then.
The Americans proposed the Rogers Plan in 1969 for a ceasefire that would go into effect one year later, precisely in August 1970, one month before the passing away of Egypt’s president Gamal Abdel-Nasser. He was succeeded by his vice-president, the late Anwar Al-Sadat.
The new Egyptian president had two options: one was dependent on the goodwill of the Americans and the Israelis, and the other was to go to war to get Sinai back from the Israelis. The first option was not possible because the United States wanted nothing less than Egypt to sign a peace treaty that would be based on the fact that Israel had won the war and the defeated party, Egypt and Syria, should acquiesce to Israeli demands and conditions.
On 6 October 1973, war broke out. Egyptian forces stormed the Bar-lev line and established bridgeheads on the eastern side of the Suez Canal in Sinai. Syrian troops succeeded in advancing swiftly enough to wrest almost all of the Golan Heights from the Israelis.
Afterwards, the war developed according to American strategy of separating Egypt from Syria so as not to pose one front to deal with, and to enable Israel to roll back the initial military victories of the Egyptians. They succeeded, unfortunately, and the main beneficiary has been Israel. Forty-seven years after the October War, Egypt and Syria have still not been able to coordinate and cooperate on Middle Eastern issues, the result of which is apparent today. Syria is in the throes of a fierce international and regional struggle that has almost brought it down. And Egypt is facing a terrorist threat in northern Sinai and elsewhere in the country.
In 1974, the Americans under the Nixon administration and then secretary of state Henry Kissinger negotiated two disengagement agreements between Israel, on the one hand, and Egypt and Syria on the other. One year and a half later, Egypt and Israel signed a second disengagement accord. From that date onwards, the gulf between Egypt and Syria grew larger and larger to reach a complete break in relations when Egypt and Israel signed a peace treaty on 26 March 1979. This time around it was a White House under a Democratic president, Jimmy Carter. American presidents come and go and the Middle Eastern strategy of the United States has remained the same; namely, how to integrate Israel into the regional system without Israel carrying out its international obligations according to United Nations resolutions pertaining to the Arab-Israeli conflict and, in particular, the Palestinian question. In contrast, the Israeli government has found an ally in the present Trump administration in flouting these same resolutions that have been the cornerstone of American diplomacy in advancing peace prospects between Israel, its Arab neighbours and the Palestinians.
All the while, the peace between Egypt and Israel remains; however, it had had an unprecedented cost in the assassination of former President Sadat. His vice-president, Hosni Mubarak, took over and ruled the country for the next 30 years till the 2011 popular uprising brought an end to his rule. The country is still dealing with the fallout of his sudden and violent departure from power.
In the last 50 years, Egypt has changed radically. Domestically, economic problems and challenges seem to be persistent despite enormous efforts by successive governments to tackle them. The constitution was amended in 2007 (37 articles) to delete those articles related to central economic planning or the role of the state in economic planning. Emphasis was on the role of the private sector. Parallel to these amendments, Egyptian governments have followed a policy of downsizing the public sector as part of various economic “reform” programmes. This policy has had negative social and economic ramifications that were partly responsible for the popular uprising of January 2011.
In 1969 no one would have imagined that in the following years an Egyptian president would be a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. It happened, regrettably, in 2012. Luckily, the tenure of Mohamed Morsi did not last long. One year after he was sworn in, another popular uprising toppled him and chased the Muslim Brotherhood from power. During his short-lived dysfunctional rule, he tried to bring Egypt into the Syrian fray by actively supporting the renegade Syrian militias called the “Free Syrian Army.” He even asked the Egyptian military to train them. His unusual request was turned down for the good of Egypt and the future of Syria and the Middle East.
Yesterday, Tuesday 23 July, Egypt celebrated the 67th anniversary of the July Revolution. One way of looking at the political, economic and social developments of the last 50 years is to gauge them in relation to the initial objectives and underlying principles of this revolution. The farther the policies have been from these objectives and principles, the greater have been the political, economic and social consequences. In January 1977, in October 1981 and in 2011, Egypt learned the hard way the enormous cost of veering from those objectives and principles enshrined in the national consciousness of Egyptians.
Let us make the next five decades a half century of prosperity, stability and security for all Egyptians by ensuring good governance and sound and socially-equitable economic policies.
It would be nothing short of our landing on the moon, like Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin did 50 years ago.
*The writer is former assistant foreign minister.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 25 July, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Fifty years of war and peace