From Nixon to Putin: Constants and variables in Egyptian politics

Forty years have passed since former American President Richard Nixon’s visit to Egypt in 1974 — in the wake of the 1973 October war — and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s recent visit to Cairo.


The similarities between the two visits should not be blurred by memory lapses, nor the differences misunderstood.


The most striking similarities are in the media coverage of the two visits and the overall mood of optimism.


Commentators and writers at the time of Nixon’s visit were saying: We have had enough of the uncompromising Soviet stance regarding the provision of weapons. The Soviets have also let us down with Israel. It was their conspiracies that got us entangled in the 1967 war, which enabled them to exercise even more control over us. Now, let us live like people in the West, blessed with democracy and social welfare.


Everywhere Nixon went in Cairo, popular ceremonial receptions were organized to welcome him. All along the train route from the first Capital to the second Capital of Alexandria, people cheered. The governorate of Damanhour prepared a special reception, with a band playing at the station as Nixon passed through. Even Nixon himself was surprised by how many people attended the events.


This was not just about the media or the welcome billboards. Egyptians had suffered through years of attrition wars and austerity measures that were meant to prepare them for the October war. They believed Nixon and Sadat would bring peace and welfare. President Anwar al-Sadat genuinely believed, as simplistic as this belief may be, that Egypt’s problems during the Nasser-era stemmed from Nasser’s animosity to the United States, and from his “constant scuffles” with them, as Sadat put it. Sadat hoped that by renewing Egypt’s relationship with the US and ending the relationship with the Soviets, everything would be better.


Hosni Mubarak’s regime left the Egyptian state incapable of organizing reception ceremonies appropriate for a guest such as the Russian President. However, the hospitality, optimism and media coverage surrounding Putin’s recent visit is reminiscent of that surrounding Nixon’s visit forty years ago. The constant in both cases is a “sparkle” that is intended to blind people from the “shadows” in the background.


This expression, “the sparkle and the shadows,” was the title of one of Heikal’s articles in Al-Ahram, in which he criticized both official and popular expectations of Nixon’s visit. The article was one of the main reasons Sadat decided to exclude Heikal from his position as Editor-in-Chief of Al-Ahram, and from the Egyptian Press as a whole.


Concerning the differences or variables between the two visits, we need to move from recollection to understanding, and ask a few questions: Why is this excessive welcoming of new allies characteristic of Egyptians?


We place all our hopes in them and sometimes even permit them access to our livelihoods. Yet, at some point we turn our backs, seek access to their rivals and consider this to be a great victory and a promising start. Didn’t we consider the break from the ammunition monopoly in 1955 as a successful rerouting from the West to the East? — As a national victory? However, the possibility of disagreements with the Soviets also existed. So, why did Sadat say that 99 percent of the cards were in the hands of the US when he reoriented from the East to the West? And, was it necessary or in Egypt’s interests to embrace animosity towards the Soviets?


To understand this, or to at least try, we have to admit that the regional and international atmosphere surrounding Putin’s visit to Cairo differs from that of forty years ago when Nixon conducted his visit. The scale and extent of existing tensions between Russia and the West in general, and the US specifically, do not compare with those of the Cold war years. The atmosphere, which permeated the world after the Second World War up until the early 1990s in the last century, is also different. As a result, relationships between nations have changed and the power dynamics have shifted.


In the case of Egypt, Putin’s visit does not signal the formation of an anti-US coalition, or a strategic friendship that will rupture relations or lead to a frosty relationship between the United States and Egypt in the way that the Egyptian relationship with the US in the seventies led to a complete rupture with the Soviets.


And, because Russia no longer has a political and economic ideology that is at odds with the Capitalist West, as the case once was with the USSR, its foreign policy is basically governed by national interests, i.e. national security and economic benefits and its international and regional status. As a result, Russia has been careful to establish a fine balance between resistance to NATO expansion on its borders with the Ukraine, Georgia and the Baltic Republics, and its interests in Europe and with the United States. For this reason, Russia’s strategy at home and in neighboring regions is one of defense or opposition, rather than of attack or expansion. This applies to its support for Iran and Syria, and to its closeness to China, Turkey and Egypt.


The ideological shift that took place internationally since the Cold War explains why Putin’s visit to Egypt — a strategic friend to the US, and before it, Turkey, a member of NATO — was not met with sharp reactions in Western capitals, even though it was motivated by a desire to cause tension between Cairo and Washington.


The Czech arms deal (organized by the Soviets) with Egypt in 1955 led to an international and regional shift. It resulted in the withdrawal of the American offer to fund the building of Egypt’s High Dam, and provoked the nationalization of the Suez Canal and the tripartite aggression against Egypt, which eventually caused Egypt to turn towards the USSR economically and militarily. How is this at all similar to the calm international reactions to Putin’s visit to Cairo?


Nixon’s visit to Cairo in 1974, and the accompanying political and media campaign against the USSR, led to the angry cancellation of a scheduled visit by the Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev to Cairo, and later on to the cessation of the Soviet supply of arms to Egypt. A complete rupture in the relationship between the two countries occurred, resulting in further confrontations with Somalia, Angola, Afghanistan and other countries.


This would not happen now. Despite some loud and irrelevant voices speculating about the relationship with Washington, the Egyptian state realizes the importance of its close relationship with the United States and vice versa.


Egypt remains, with all its problems and weaknesses, a state that is pivotal in the region for US interests. As Admiral Stansfied Turner, the CIA director in 1976, argued, “We lost Egypt twenty years ago and we won’t allow it to be lost to us again.”


Washington aims to maintain a strategically peaceful relationship between Egypt and Israel, hoping for Arab and Israeli peace in the face of extremism, terrorism, assumed Iranian regional ambitions and other concerns of instability. Egypt has always been capable of leading in this regard culturally, politically and militarily in support of US and European interests.


Nabil Fahmy, Egypt’s former foreign minister, described the relationship with the US as a Catholic marriage and not a one-night stand.


But we must understand the difference in perspectives between Egypt and the US. Egypt is interested in ensuring stability and fighting terrorism, while the US is also preoccupied with incorporating Islamist movements in the political scene, as in Tunisia.


Regardless of everything, the US remains globally powerful in terms of economic, financial and political interests, and its intelligence services. It is the security blanket of the Gulf and the guarantor of several regimes in the region, critically the relationship between Cairo and Tel Aviv. All of this occurs within the fragile context of Egypt’s relationships with Libya, Sudan, Yemen, the Gulf, Syria and Lebanon.


This comes at a difficult time, when Egypt is undergoing deep divisions and attacks against its military and state.


Does this mean that the US is the only one able to solve these problems?


Of course not, but its cooperation is essential, regardless of whether or not we accept it. Initiating animosity against the US through claims of conspiracy to light the flame of the January 25 revolution is not helpful. This assumes Egypt previously enjoyed a high degree of welfare, justice, democracy and progress during the rule of Hosni Mubarak, without corruption or weakness.


We also overlook the fact that the regime was about to pass on the presidency to the former president’s son and we disregard that we already knew that the US and its allies could conspire against us when the relationship was rekindled during Nixon’s visit.


Egypt similarly accused the USSR of conspiring to get us involved in the 1967 war, as if Nasser did not make his own miscalculations, and as if Abdel Hakim Amer had sufficiently prepared the military and could not be held accountable for his actions.


Conspiracies exist even among friends in international relations, and even between allies in domestic politics. But why do we persist in blaming others for our failures?


Putin’s visit is important, but Obama is not losing sleep over it. It will not solve all of Egypt’s problems and it is not a vengeful response to an American conspiracy. It is, however, a step towards achieving a desired degree of balance in Egypt’s international relations.

Abdel-Azeem Hammad 

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