Nationalism is more than ever the dominant theme in Egyptian political life this spring. The consciously expressed concern not to be engulfed in any alien system either of imperialism or of international Communism is insistent and genuine. Soviet military experts are in Egypt only “for specific tasks and for specific periods,” writes editor Mohammed Hassanein Heikal in Al Ahram. They will not be allowed to dominate the state, but, he explains, Egypt is in great need of specific aspects of military training, which Soviet technicians are now providing.
In fact, a Russian version of a Military Assistance Group such as the United States has long deployed in Asia now exists in Egypt. It involves an estimated 4000 officers and engineers. They have come along with the simpler, mostly defensive Russian weapons which have restocked Egyptian arsenals since last summer. When it became apparent that a peasant army could not master the intricacies of sophisticated weapons, and that their officers showed a fatal lack of understanding and initiative in desert warfare, Egypt appealed for basic training as well as arms.
Russia in warm water
The Russian presence is pervasive but not conspicuous. Egypt’s defeat provided the opening for the Soviets to move into the planning of defense; for the easy negotiation of landing rights for Russian planes at Cairo West, Alexandria, Luxor, and Aswan, and for port facilities for the Soviet fleet at Alexandria and Port Said. Russia has reached the warm water at last. It is in the Mediterranean to stay.
Economic bonds between Moscow and Cairo are also strong. Trade between them has reached an annual figure of $243 million. Among the items coming into Egypt are 300,000 tons of wheat and much industrial equipment. From Czechoslovakia and East Germany, Egypt has ordered a total of thirty complete flour mills. From the Egyptian side, cotton, rice, textiles, and agricultural products will be exported to the Soviet Union.
Russians have been the all-important partners in the Aswan High Dam, from which cheap power now reaches as far as Tahrir Province, north of Cairo. The High Dam is nearing completion, holding back some 40 million cubic meters of water and altering the society and economy of the Nile region completely. The High Dam Ministry estimates that the dam has already saved $150 million by preventing flood damage. Much planning has accompanied the dam’s building. Development of a new diversified industrial complex at Aswan awaits funds. This is being done under the auspices of the Regional Planning of Aswan office, under the governorate of Aswan. It has had as consultants experts on small industry from the Ford Foundation and is now receiving further help from the UN Development Program.
Meanwhile, newly irrigated land reclaimed from the desert already produces two cotton crops or three cereal crops where only one crop was possible after normal Nile floods. Altogether the dam will increase Egypt’s arable land by one sixth and its agricultural output by one quarter.
In spite of the enormous Soviet financial investment in Egypt over the last ten years, political relations between the two nations are undefined. There is no mutual defense treaty, although in the shock of defeat last summer President Nasser wanted one. Without Moscow’s material and political support the effects of the defeat would have been catastrophic for Egypt. Given these, Cairo can maintain a tough line in relation to Israel and reassert some of its influence in the Arab world. That influence survives. In recognition of it the Israelis publicly say that no peace treaty without Nasser’s agreement would be worth having.
Soviet diplomats find it impossible, however, to influence Cairo’s decisions directly on the Palestine question. They failed to win acceptance of a moderate solution last summer at the UN. They remain unable to alter the government’s position on the Suez Canal, or on its hope of re-establishing diplomatic relations with Washington. Rather cautiously they have been comparing Nasser’s “bourgeois” regime with that of the more radical Boumedienne in Algeria. Pravda’s Igor Belyayev in a long article in February wrote: “Even in nationalist Egyptian circles there are fairly open proponents of an all-around rapprochment with the United States. These people try to convince themselves that only the Americans are in the position to solve the Middle East crisis. . . . A very perfidious design is hidden in such claims. It is a question of the most genuine capitulation before imperialism. Carry out the design of the American Lobbyists in Cairo, and the U.S. would be able to rely on those changes which would favor its monopoly capitalism and reduce to naught the gains of the Egyptian revolution.”
The Pravda article reflects a general concern among the Egyptian hierarchy that their posture of nonalignment will be impossible to maintain unless better relations with the West are cultivated. It was for this reason that they were so eager to restore relations with Great Britain last fall. They tried energetically, and have succeeded in retaining their oil contracts with two U.S. companies — Pan American in the Red Sea region, and Phillips Petroleum in the western desert. Within a year of the formation of a joint company with Pan American the Morgan field has reached a production of 100,000 barrels a day, thus offsetting the loss of the Sinai fields captured by Israel. This oil is now being processed at British Petroleum’s refinery at Aden, pending the complete restoration of the Suez refineries damaged in October. This spring Egypt’s third productive field at El Alamein will add 30,000 barrels a day.
Official interpretation of the value of these finds emphasizes their political aspect. As the government spokesman, Dr. Mohammed H. ElZayyat, put it, more Egyptian oil will help Egypt to resist pressure from any side, to remain independent. In terms of money, oil income helps to rescue Egypt from the near bankruptcy brought on by Suez Canal closure and loss of tourism.
These economic developments add a new dimension to Egypt’s future.
It ceases to be a have-not country and can anticipate means of carrying out its ambitious industrial plans. Planning is now in the hands of Dr. Abdel Moneim Kaissouny, one of the country’s ablest financial figures. His re-emergence in the cabinet is a sign of the regime’s desire to re-establish itself in the international financial marketplace. One of the most promising projects under discussion between Egyptian planners and a British engineering firm is for a large oil pipeline to bypass the Suez Canal. The pipeline would have an initial capacity of 50 million tons a year and would link the Gulf of Suez with Port Said or Alexandria. It is asserted that use of the line would be less expensive than enlarging the Suez Canal to take giant modern tankers.
Aside from the technical advantages of a new pipeline, its construction would diminish the symbolic importance of the canal. Nationalization of the canal made President Nasser a hero in the Arab world in 1956. It has always carried a heavy freight of political traffic. It was for this reason that Israel fought to use it. The amount of Israeli flagshipping which could use it is small, but the sensitivity of both countries on this issue is acute.
Thus when Egypt started under United Nations auspices to survey the canal in January in order to free fifteen ships blocked there since last June, Israel insisted on being consulted at every step. When it became obvious that Egypt could physically clear the canal at its northern end without Israeli interference, because Israel does not occupy the eastern bank on the last five miles at the northern end, Israel protested. This put it in the position of denying clearance of the blocked ships for its own political reasons. No amount of reasoning or reassurance by United Nations officials and observers that this was to be a onetime operation, not a reopening of the canal to traffic, could budge Israel. Egypt then stopped all attempts to free the ships. It could simply wait until the nine countries involved as owners of the ships exerted more pressure for clearance.
In this case Egypt was in the position to claim that a technical service was in the general interest and therefore above politics. This has been a familiar argument in Israel for many years — when swamps in demilitarized zones in the north adjoining Syria were drained, for example, to make them productive. But on the canal, where Israel now patrols the eastern bank for all but the northern five-mile stretch, the Israelis remain transfixed by the prospect of joining in its traffic at last.
On the Egyptian side, it has taken considerable persuasion by international interests to convince Egyptian planners that it is in their best interest to establish an alternative to the canal. They have accepted the idea and begun to shift their interest to it, encouraged by international petroleum companies in the Arabian Gulf. But before any new large projects can be carried out in Egypt, it will be necessary to reestablish Egyptian credit standing. The government has been trying to reschedule its large debts to foreign commercial banks. Most important is regularization of its standing with the International Monetary Fund, with which it is in default in the amount of some $50 million. European commercial banks have been more responsive to Egyptian requests for short-term loans than have American banks. Ever since the Yemeni war and its threat to the stability of the Arabian peninsula, American institutions have been increasingly cool to Egyptian appeals for funds.
The men from Moscow
At this stage Egyptian planners must therefore reckon without American help in any field except education. The American presence on the Egyptian scene has never been so slight. Today the small contingent of diplomats who staff the American Interests Section of the Spanish Embassy stick to their technical tasks. They observe the novel activities of a whole new breed of Soviet diplomats who ornament the Cairo social scene. The Russian ambassador, Serge Vinogradov, has become the most soughtafter and honored guest at state functions. He is backstopped by about a thousand Russians speaking good English and Egyptian Arabic. The women of the contingent have dropped the uncaring styles of the past for the latest European modes. On the surface they have replaced the banished Europeans of another age.
Mr. Vinogradov has easy access to President Nasser, and likes to appear as the President’s mentor. Still, government decisions so far have not followed an all-out antiWestern line. And within the Egyptian official family there is known to be much anxiety at the preponderant role assumed by the men from Moscow.
The generation of technocrats which keeps Egypt from civil chaos grew up under British and French tutelage. Their leaders studied at London School of Economics and the Sorbonne or at Harvard. They are at home in the Western world, arc nostalgic for contact with it, and angry that much of it refuses to see the justice of their position on Arab unity under Egypt, and on Israel. They are also weary of responsibility in a hectic period of revolution; and some of them have found a way out by joining international services via the United Nations. Today it is possible for more of these elite to leave if they choose. Late in the fall of 1967 the government decided that Egyptian families could emigrate legally, taking with them their household possessions and some cash. There has been an exodus of both Christians and Muslims in the last six months. Many go to Canada, some to the United States. They represent a new kind of loss for Egypt, of educated and skilled professionals, discouraged with their position and anxious for the future. If the tide of such emigration increases, it will be a sign that the regime can no longer offer real hope to the educated class.
Dr. Kaissouny has underscored the lack of educated manpower in a report on employment prospects up to 1975. He predicts a shortage of candidates for managerial and technical posts of some 30,000 by 1970. The supply of intermediate technical trainees will be short 160,000 candidates. The implications for development of the economy are obvious.
Egypt has not yet dealt with the great technological gap exposed by its military defeat last summer. But Russian advisers have not spared feelings in putting much of the military failure down to lack of training. Dr. Kaissouny is saying that there will be as fatal a gap in preparation for industrialization if technical education is not improved and increased.
Much United Nations technical help has been sought by the government in this field. UNESCO and the International Labor Organization have helped to set standards and teach teachers of vocational training. There has been help on training for civil aviation, for railway workers, and for industrial management. The UN Development Program is concentrating on aiding projects for draining irrigated land, a necessity as more acreage comes under perennial irrigation from the High Dam. It is also advising on mineral development of the Aswan region and on new industries which can be developed as the power grid begins to extend across the country.
Such help adds up in the overall development effort. But what strikes the Western observer is the shortage of education for industry in a country which envisions salvation through industrialization. This shortage, plus an artificial one caused by the removal of many talented managerial people for political reasons, threatens the country’s economic future. There is as yet no mobilization of talent, much of it still available in the country. The Israeli war does not seem to have had the Sputnik-like effect it might have had in directing energies to Egypt’s technical deficiencies.
High cards, paper votes
As time passes without a resolution of the political impasse with Israel, Egypt’s terms have not softened. Cairo has made what it considers its best offer. This is for demilitarization of both sides of the Sinai frontier after withdrawal of Israeli forces; submission of the Tiran strait question to the International Court, with open passage meanwhile; return of Palestinians to their land in the West Bank, at least, in exchange for Israeli passage through the canal; and negotiations through the Mixed Armistice Commission, which continues to exist in spite of Israel’s ten-year boycott of it. The Egyptians believe they have taken “a giant step” in admitting Israel’s right to exist. They say they have been talking directly with Israel through the MAC since 1949, that this is the best way for negotiations to be held, and that they cannot concede more. They do not claim Gaza but are concerned with its refugee population, of whom some 12,000 single males are being sheltered on a small dole in Egypt. There is no work for them, and only a few are qualified for university training.
Even if President Nasser were disposed, on practical grounds, to settle with Israel at peace talks, he could not forfeit his long-standing position as the champion of the Palestinian cause. There are doves in Egypt who would like to see an accommodation so that Egypt could concentrate on its own affairs. But they are cornered by the arguments that Israel really represents the United States, and that a settlement means accepting a new form of Western imperialism in the region. The Russians play skillfully on this theme, and Washington, preoccupied with the Far East, has so far failed to clarify any Middle East policy.
The inevitable return of the whole impasse to the Security Council promises little relief for either side. In the long run the Arabs have high cards. But in the short run, Israel, with its strong Western political support and brilliant advocacy, may have the votes. They are paper votes, however, and will not force the direct talks Israel says it wants.
Any conventional interpretation of last summer’s Arab defeat would have predicted Nasser’s downfall, Egypt’s economic collapse, and perhaps the West Bank and Jordan working arrangements with Israel. None of the seers would have guessed that the two oil monarchies under chronic attack from Cairo, Saudi Arabia and Libya, would be sending Egypt a cash subsidy to keep it going all year; or that all the NATO countries of the Mediterranean basin would stand behind the Arabs and keep open the door to the East which Moscow so eagerly rushed to close.
Looking at Egypt today it is possible to see either peace or war ahead. The new Russian weaponry may be largely defensive and may provide the backdrop of defensive power needed before any government can approach a settlement with Israel. The Russians clearly favor a settlement but do not have the power to influence it politically. Somewhat inconsistently, the Egyptians and all other Arabs greatly overestimate the influence of the United States on Israel. It is no exaggeration to say that we have never had less influence in Tel Aviv. This leaves any peace efforts right where they are now, in the hands of the patient and discreet Dr. Gunnar Jarring. If he fails to find an acceptable channel of communication for both sides, the storm signals will go up again all along the Mediterranean shores.