The continuity of Egyptian diplomacy

Walid M. Abdelnasser
Tuesday 22 Mar 2022

Egypt’s foreign policy has been characterised by strong elements of continuity since the foundation of the country’s Foreign Ministry a century ago, writes Walid Mahmoud Abdelnasser

Egypt and its diplomats are celebrating the centenary of the establishment of the Egyptian Foreign Ministry in the aftermath of the 28 February 1922 Declaration issued by the United Kingdom, which was occupying Egypt as part of the British protectorate over Egypt at the time.

Under the terms of the declaration, the UK ended its protectorate over Egypt and recognised its independence and national sovereignty. However, this was conditioned by four reservations. 

The first was the right of the UK to secure transport routes for its empire through Egypt. The second was the right to defend Egypt against foreign intervention or aggression. The third was the right to defend foreign interests and minorities in Egypt. The fourth was the right to maintain the situation in Sudan as it then was, meaning the continual separation of Sudan from the Egyptian crown through the joint British/Egyptian administration of Sudan, in accordance with the Bilateral Agreement of 1899 between the UK and Egypt.

In the histories of all national diplomacies throughout the world, there are elements of continuity and others that are more short-lived. There are third elements that fluctuate from one period to another and fourth elements that prosper at some times and disappear at others. 

This rule applies to the history of Egyptian diplomacy, though this article presents one example of continuity. This can be seen by analysing one orientation of Egyptian diplomacy over an extended period of time, despite changes in the nature, structure, and alignments of the political system and changes in the political leadership of the country.

The example chosen relates to a consistent strand in Egyptian diplomacy that was opposed to the creation of the pacts and alliances that constituted an integral part of the Cold War. Proposals for creating such pacts, as far as the Middle East is concerned, started to appear in the aftermath of World War II and the division of the developed world between a Western group of countries that were members of NATO and led by the US and an Eastern camp of countries that were members of the Warsaw Pact and led by the former Soviet Union. 

The principled and constant positions of Egyptian diplomacy continued throughout the Cold War and applied to all spheres of action of Egyptian foreign policy, including the Middle East, Africa, the Muslim world, and the Mediterranean region, until the end of the Cold War in the last decade of the 20th century.

They started with the nationalist and independentist orientations adopted by the Wafd Party government that came to power after the Wafd Party won the 1950 parliamentary elections, among the most transparent held in Egypt under the rule of the former Mohamed Ali Dynasty. 

Mohamed Salaheddin Pasha, foreign minister of the new Wafd government, declared its explicit policy of refusing to join any of the newly proposed pacts in the region and also its active opposition to the establishment of such pacts. His statement came in response to Anglo-American calls to establish a set of pro-Western pacts involving the major Western powers and the newly independent countries of the Arab region that would make it a buffer zone impeding the extension of Soviet influence in the Middle East. 

These pacts implied that the Arab countries would accept foreign military bases on their territory, but not in the name of a single European occupying power, but rather in the name of the pacts themselves, which had different and varying titles. Decision-making in the pacts was still expected to be in the hands of the Western powers, making them their leaders and seeing the pacts themselves as primarily designed to serve the strategic and security objectives of the wWstern powers, as well as their economic and cultural interests.

Despite intense British and US pressure on the Wafd government in Egypt, it managed to resist such pressures and to maintain its stand until its dissolution by king Farouk in the aftermath of the Cairo Fire on 26 January 1952. 

Following the 23 July 1952 Revolution and in the early period of the new regime, it was clear that the political orientations of the new political leadership towards the question of proposed pacts in the region did not differ much from the orientations of the Wafd government towards the same question. 

At the diplomatic level, they were translated into concrete plans under the leadership of the late Mahmoud Fawzi, for most of the Nasserist period responsible for leading Egyptian diplomacy. Although it is true that both the international and the regional scenes became much more complicated, including on the question of regional pacts, in the post-1952 years, opposition towards attempts to establish regional pacts and to pressure Egypt to join them remained almost consistent between the period of the rule of the popular Wafd government in the early 1950s and the rule of the four presidents of the Republic that succeeded it from 1952 until the end of the Cold War, namely presidents Naguib, Nasser, Al-Sadat, and Mubarak.

Such continuity took place despite the fact that the foreign policies adopted by the four presidents saw changes both between and within them. All of them were keen to keep Egypt out of joining pacts in the region that were part of the Cold War. This continuity took place even though relations with the regional and international powers varied among the four presidents. 

Even when Egypt grew close to the former Soviet Union during some periods of the Nasserist era, the political leadership did not follow other countries in Latin America, Asia, and, later, Africa, in requesting to join the Warsaw Pact. Moreover, when Egypt moved closer to the US and the other Western powers after the 1973 October War, it never joined any Western alliances established in the context of the Cold War. 

Egypt was a co-founder and then a co-leader of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) after its establishment in 1961, with this organisation representing the conscience of the developing countries of the South. On many occasions, Egypt was instrumental in ensuring that the NAM did not turn into a tool either of the Western alliance or the Soviet alliance. For these reasons, Egypt and its diplomacy acquired credibility and the ability to act and influence others at the global and regional levels. 

All Egypt’s leaders have maintained the same general orientation, even if with minor variations in the details, since the end of World War II, being opposed to the country’s joining pacts established in the context of the Cold War and the conflict of interests and influence between the Western and Soviet camps. They were all opposed to the concept of establishing such pacts in principle, and they expressed that stand in relevant international and regional fora and mobilised support for it.

The above-mentioned case is one example of the elements of continuity in Egyptian foreign policy despite the changes and the succession of political systems and leaders in the historical period under study.

* The writer is a commentator.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 24 March, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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