Egypt’s Foreign Policy: the Era of Gamal Abdel Nasser

There were momentous times where Egypt has taken decisions that shaped the future of its international weight. “For centuries, Egypt has been an important player and mediator between cultural and political synthesis, Christianity and Islam, the Middle East and the rest, and the civilization of the desert and that of the Mediterranean. The foreign policy, however, requires a sum of various components from historical, economic to geopolitical.”

The ‘modern’ Egyptian foreign policy had undergone many stages, shifting its skin from a color to another, trying to adopt with the international demands along with national pressures. Egypt of Gamal Abdel Nasser, is not Egypt of Anwar Sadat, nor of Hosni Mubarak. They all have influenced and shaped the format of the Egyptian foreign policy. While some politicians believe that the nature of the three Egyptian presidential eras represent a solid ground for the continuity of the same approach of the foreign policy, historical events prove to not be so.

Since the 1952 revolution, Egypt was considered to be an important neutral and nonaligned power in the Middle East. Gamal Abdel Nasser, the first Egyptian president, emerged as a charismatic leader not only in Egypt, but the whole Arab world. Prior to 1952, Egyptian foreign policy simply did not exist due to the external control of much of its politics. Thus, foreign policy of Egypt developed only after the revolution and seemed to be reactive and responding to the events as they developed.

Generally speaking, the last three decades of the Egyptian policy focused on two main challenges: how to deal with Israel, and how to solve the Palestinian problem, which represent the core of the Middle Eastern political crisis. The dilemma Egypt was put into or created for itself, is how to diplomatically negotiate with Israel without losing the popular support of its people, nor to lose its position in the Arab world, as it did after signing Camp David treaty.

Approaches of International Relations of Egyptian Foreign Policy

  1. Realism

From a realist perspective, Egypt between 1955- 1961, was an alarm to the international relations. Nasser’s policy at first declared its nonalignment to neither East, nor West. However, by mid-1950’s his nonalignment brought him into direct conflict with the West. Egypt of Nasser was power seeking and visibly sought to become the major power in the Middle East. Point in fact, in 1955 in the conference of nonaligned nations in Indonesia, Egypt agreed to purchase weapons from Czechoslovakia.

.Egypt, along with other Arab states, viewed this as rebill against the traditional Western domination. Thus, Nasser’s foreign policy demonstrated a hostility toward the West, by favoring the Soviet Union. The crisis between Gamal Abdel Nasser and U.S. secretary of state John Foster Dulles, illustrates Egypt’s will to oppose any action taken by the Western countries, even if Egypt itself was in line with their ideological approaches. Dulles perceived Nasser’s policy as a step toward communism; where in fact Nasser proved to be against communism by banning the Egyptian Communist Party. Additionally, Nasser refused Dulles attempt to build an anticommunist alliance in the Middle East which lead the United States to withdraw its financial aid to the Aswan High Dam. The political game between Egypt and U.S. did not stop at that stage, which proved the realist approach of the Egyptian foreign policy.

The intense control over the waterway, which represented the lifeline of Europe’s petroleum was a dilemma posed by France, Britain, U.S. and Israel. After the Israeli attack on the Sinai Peninsula and its forced withdrawal, U.S.-Egyptian relations improved by image. The ‘reality’ by Nasser that “Western nations could not take Arab states for granted” empowers the path of power seeking Egypt took that time.

Anarchy and the Struggle for Power by John Mearsheimer explains the different acts states can take to achieve their goals. However, from an outlook, states in the international system will always be in anarchy because their interests change permanently. In this context, Egypt was not only restricted by its behavior, but also its capacity to realize what it sat as goals. Therefore, Egyptian regional hegemony was anticipated that it will come into an end, and cooperation with those who were enemies in the past will have to occur.

  1. Social Constructivism

Shading the light on the constructivist point of view, Egypt during the Nasser era considered norms, identities, and cultures, as a core for its foreign policy. In a way or another, Egypt saw power as a tool to socialize Arab societies through common norms and beliefs. Thus, the power Egypt sought since its revolution, was subject to norm socialization, and based its decisions that regulated policy on those norms. Egypt under King Farouq was not clear if it was ideologically a pure Arab state or not. Al Nahass Pasha stated several times that Egypt was not, and will never be an Arab country. The identities composing Egypt vary without referring to the word ‘Arab’.

The adoption of Arab nationalism started by Nasser. Arabic, then, was used as the state’s official language, and Islam as the official religion. Such approach demonstrates Egypt’s will to construct a single identity that would strengthen the unity of Egypt, as well as other Arab states on a later stage. Moreover, the call for unity was supported by the fear from the emerging Israeli power. Egypt’s nation-building seems to take inspiration from the unstable situation in the Middle East. The rise of a Jewish state in Palestine, and the sentiment of hate coming from the West toward the existence of Arabs, promoted Nasser’s pan-Arabism.

Egypt’s conflict with the West, from a constructivist context, can be nothing but an ideological struggle that concentrates on identity, values, and beliefs. From a theoretical framework, Huntington’s essay The Clash of Civilizations fits exactly in this context. Egypt and the Western bloc are two entities that seem to oppose each other’s perception of the world. This is eventually reflected in the nroms and values for which they mutually critisize each perspective. Thus, the West fears an upheaval of Nationalism of the region accompanied later by Islamization, and Egypt opposition to Occidentalization.

At the early stages of Arab-Israeli conflict, Egypt is found to be the most dominant Arab player. As an Arab state, Egypt opposed the establishment of a Jewish state on what is considered to be an Arab land. The path the Egyptian foreign policy underwent is direct engagement in war with Israel. Whether Egypt and other Arab countries were ready to enter the war, this was not the question. Perhaps the most important idea was to support the rise of Egypt, as a part of the Arab countries, and to spread Arab Nationalism and get popular support.

  1. Radicalism

Radicalism considers the social classes, multinational corporations, and transnational elites, as the key actors in the state’s economy. Radicalism also implies that the state is the “agent of the structure of international capitalism and the executing agent of the bourgeoisie”

. Nasser’s economic policy represented a break with the past, by shifting it from a privatized economy toward a state-controlled one. The idea of Egyptianisation and diversification of the economy were real aspirations since 1920s.

In fact, the nationalization of the Suez Canal by expropriating foreign companies which were mainly British and French, led to the creation of a new public sector. The economic organization of Nasser’s policies were directed toward an aggressive, and radical national economy. Perhaps one of the most important policies of Nasser is that of the land reforms which resulted in the redistribution of agricultural land.  “The immediate concern of Nasser therefore was the control, not necessarily the ownership and distribution, of wealth”. The afterward result of his policies was the demise of private enterprise.

From a closer radical perspective, the mistrust of the bourgeoisie resulted in the elimination of their direct impact on the economic policy-making. The multinational corporations were allowed to participate in the economy through investment that had to be state-approved first. Government budgets represented for about 60% of Egypt’s GNP.

The decrease in inequality of wealth and income illustrate the radical approach. This decrease was accomplished through a process of agrarian reforms, extension of social services, nationalization most of the sectors, and higher taxation. The urge for economic development led Egypt to consider the industrialization of its economy. Despite the fact that agriculture represented a crucial component of the economic structure, if not, the cultural structure, industry had accounted 20% of the GNP, with a continuous increase in its proportion.

In a global view, the purchase of Egypt’s needs after the 1967 Arab-Israeli war were affected because of the closed economy policy. As a result of the war, Egypt has lost great deal of oil fields and Suez Canal revenues, as well as the dramatic drop of tourist numbers.

  1. Liberalism

Despite Nasser’s aggressive and oppressive policy, liberals would claim that Nassers’ Egypt was willing to cooperate, and help in the perpatual peace process. The root of  the negative image on Egypt’s foreign policy, from a liberal eye, originates from misconceive of state’s formal comportment. The liberal approach can be explained in two dimensions. First of all, the Egyptian state as a not autonomous actors, and that of which has many interests, had to sieve other countries to friends and foes, based on its interests. Therefore, in the international world, Egypt was in a complete anarchy, where one day was friend with a country, and tomorrow it became its enemy.

The cooperation of 1956, between Egypt, Soviet Union, and U.S., to free Egypt from the foreign military existence, illustrated the Egyptian good will to solve its problems through the help of other countries. In fact, Nasser secured aid for the Aswan High Dam and arms from Soviet Union and its allies when the U.S. decided not to provide the necessary assistance.

Moreover, Egypt’s political restrictions did not block its diplomatic activities. Since 1945, Egypt was a member of the United Nations and its agencies. Egypt was also a leading country in the Nonaligned movement, and it tried to call up people all over the Middle East to envisage themselves as citizens beyond their own states. Egypt cooperative spirit opened the floor to some nongovernmental organizations that were restricted by some policies. It also played an important role in the Arab League until the crisis of 1978 where 22 Arab countries decided to abolish its membership.

Second, Egypt cooperation was directed intensively toward other Arab countries as a way to promote Arab socialism and Arab Nationalism. The establishment of the United Arab Republic that combined Egypt and Syria, in an attempt to confront the external danger. The idea behind the countries’ union is that creating a union will reduce the political, economic, military, and strategic differences by supplying and training an army that would be much more powerful than if Syrian and Egyptian armies were separated.


The detailed approaches explain some aspects of Nasser’s foreign policy but they do not depict the mega snapshot. Egypt’s foreign policy was affected by security issues, the rise of nationalism, cultural constraints, religious features, economic bankrupts, and power seeking. Egypt’s desire to become the most important player in the region was clear in its policy of anti-imperialism and political expansion in the Arab region. Historical events  demonstrate how eager Egypt was to achieve its goal: becoming a regional power.

Undoubtedly, liberalism failed to sketch Egypt’s foreign policy. Nasser’s policies were certainly not willing to cooperate not only with the U.S. and its allies, but with any country that goes against Nasser’s interests. Egypt was cooperating with the Soviet Union because it supplied much of its arms and helped in the reconstruction of the country through aid. However, Nasser never tolerated the idea of communism in Egypt, and in fact, the banning of the communist party in Egypt resulted in a period of tensions between Egypt and the Soviet Union.

Egypt’s foreign policy was based on popular support and Arab encouragement. While   ratiocinative methodology was rarely used to justify economic and political decisions, emotional discourses that promoted for cultural and religious defenses were very popular, and used to keep the ‘Arab’ issue always vital in nations’ life. Egypt, nonetheless, succeeded in avoiding a complete isolation from the international community due to the existing problems between Soviet Union, U.S., France, and Britain.

Notwithstanding, realism and social constructivism annotates much of the mechanisms through which Egypt’s foreign policy operated. Egypt’s sponsoring for Arab Socialism and Arab Nationalism was used to legitimize its political actions in the region. “The goal of nationalist action, therefore, was to end European political and economic domination of the region, erase the illegitimate borders, and confront Zionism”

The triangle Egypt draw for itself and for much of the regional countries seemed to be a homogenous receipt. Pan-Arab nationalism, anti-imperialism, anti-Zionism, and Arab unity, seemed to be sundried to the Egyptian foreign policy agenda; whereupon, they were in a magnetic tension. A closer examination to the interests of Egypt and that of pan-Arabism, evolve the ambiguous relationship between the two than it appears at the first glance.

This ambiguity in the relationship between anti-Zionism and Egypt’s interests is demonstrated in the strategy followed to confront Israel in 1948 and 1956. According to Egypt, that was done to weaken Britain and its allies, whereas actually the Egyptian-Israeli border grew right after the collapse of the British security operandi. Furthermore, Egypt had reinforced its energies to keep its authority over Syria between 1958 and 1961; this was expected to raise Syrian- Egyptian tension over the issue of Israeli conflict. The question asked back then: to what extent Nasser would be able to defend Syria from an Israeli attack? Consequently, in order to idealize Arab unity under the form of United Arab Republic, Egypt used the principle of anti-Zionism as its trump card.

Comparative Analysis of International Approaches of Egypt’s Foreign Policy under Sadat and Mubarak

  1. Realism

Egypt of Sadat, from a realist perspective, had a set of national goals and interests that ranged from regaining control over Egyptian territories taken over by Israel,  to improving living conditions. Sadat’s foreign policy represented a gradual shift in alliance which first started by expelling Soviet military advisers and civilian technicians. This, however, did not break the diplomatic relations with Moscow, but meant a demand to U.S.-Egypt relations’ reconciliation. Furthermore, the war of 1973 had a tremendous effect on Sadat’s national image whereupon he became a national hero. It is essential to point out to the embargo implemented by Arab oil-producing countries on Western nations who supported Israel politically or militarily.

Mubarak had stated, since he came out power, that his politics will give priorities to preserve Egypt’s security and stabilize its position in the region

. With this in mind, the Egyptian foreign policy did not try to regain power in the region quickly. Mubarak’s approach was first to create a secure political environment where Egypt paid heavy prices. Egypt’s interests were realized through diplomatic negotiations with Israel that granted to both sides a cold peace, and support from the U.S. through economic reforms acceleration and military assistance. Mubarak gradually sought to bring back importance to Egypt through playing a step-by-step role in regional politics.

  1. Social Constructivism

Neo-Arabism was a product of many initiatives after Nasser’s death. New set of concepts emerged to replace pan-Arabism. The emergence of Islamized political ideologies that were injected into cultural and social constructions, had marked Neo-Arabism. The importance of identity and culture belonging continued to be the nucleus of Arabs’ political and intellectual discourses. However, the emphasis on identity, especially religious identity, has been invigorated . Egypt, among other Arab nations, witnessed the birth of political Islam which was very popular among specific social classes.

Being an ‘Arab’ country that belongs to the Arab League, Egypt in many ways is constrained by the dialectical discourse of its different social components that are not necessarily Arab. Whether Egypt believes that it should remain Arab or not, this is irrelevant, because its title ‘Arab’ provides it with a great political weight. Due to its geographical location, Egypt is heavily associated with the cultural dilemmas of the region. The rise of Wahabism in Saudi Arabia, and terrorist groups, graze the sense of Islamic community belonging.

  1. Radicalism

Radical economy after Nasser’s era was erased from any possibility to be an economic policy. Sadat replaced radical economy of that of ‘open-door‘ in 1971. At first, open-door policy was said to be an enlargment of Nasser’s socialism. The government subsidies of food were decreased under budget-cutting pressures from foreign creditors. Socioeconomic classes were involved in the political discourse, as well as the economic participation. As Sadat loosened some of the tighter restrictions on political groups, four ideological groups have appeared into the Egyptian political scene.

Under pressures from the U.S. and the International Monetary Fund to reform Egypt’s economy, Mubarak continued to convert the Egyptian economy from one of state-controlled to an open market to foreign investment and private companies. The problem Mubarak had to face was to keep a balance between “conflicting demands of foreign creditors and the masses of Egyptians living at or below the poverty line”. After the September 11 attack, Egypt suffered from a decline in the tourism sector, foreign investment which dropped dramatically, and shortages in cash flows. As a result, the economy has been completely privatized, leading a tremendous increase in the rates of state’s corruption, and the re-creation of an elite that owns much of the Egyptian economy.

  1. Liberalism

Liberal approach started to emerge clearly during Sadat’s era. The readiness of Egypt to cooperate with the West was demonstrated in the acceptance of trilateral negotiations in Camp David in 1978, which brought a provisional peace treaty with Israel where Egypt regained its control over Sinai. However, Egypt had to pay a price of its so-called betrayal by getting expelled from the Arab League, Organization of the Islamic Conference, and  the Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries.

Mubarak’s foreign policy acknowledged the needed partnership between Egypt and U.S. in terms of economic and military assistance. Mubarak’s foreign policy toward Arab nations implied reconciliation to what they have considered betrayal, by promoting the idea that the peace treaty meant the end of military hostilities and not the end of the Arab-Israeli conflict. A period of cold political exchange between Egypt, Israel, and Arab nations, have shaped much of the upcoming events. Egypt’s inability to enjoy a longer peaceful period with Israel, and at the same time, consider its unstable relations with its Arab sisters, lead to a blurry foreign policy. Clearly, Egypt was ready to cooperate with Israel and its allies, and Arab nations. Attacks on Golan Heights and, West Bank, and Lebanon, put Mubarak in a difficult situation. Still, Mubarak was able to maintain the bilateral negotiations with Israel. The position Egypt took during the Iraq invasion of Kuwait, was appreciated by U.S., and therefore added credits to Egyptian foreign policy.

  1. A Net Assessment of Egyptian Foreign Policy

To evaluate the Egyptian foreign policy, is to look at its weaknesses and strengths. Egypt’s major weakness is its lack of economic resource which restrain Egypt’s ability to follow or acquire policies that serve its national interests without any consideration of external forces. On the other hand, foreign policy decision determinents considered the centralization of authority in a patrimonial executive as its strength. Due to this merging weaknesses and strengths, Egypt has had to chase a foreign policy that will ensure it foreign financial and military assistance to maintain its internal stability and external security and to create economic growth.

The cold war had positively impacted Egypt. Egypt was able to play one superpower against another, faning flames from time to time, facilittating the mission of constructing its military forces, while tentions were quickly running in the Middle East. Its army was built up mainly with Soviet Union and American arms. After the Camp David peace treaty, Egypt exchanged, diplomatically, peace for economic assistance.

Thus, the Golden Age of Egypt’s foreign policy was when regional influences were strong;  they occured under Gamal Abdel Nasser. His successor, Sadat became a pariah for the peace making with Israel, and Mubarak later tried to bring Egypt back to the Arab fold. However, Mubarak had to center his efforts on domestic policies rather than foreign policies.


Egypt’s of Nasser was the Springfield of unstable foreign policy. While it is true that none of world’s foreign policies remain the same, Nasser’s policies were hard to frame. The main international theories explain some aspects of Egypt’s foreign policy. In final consideration, the general picture of this policy is that Nasser’s era was approached mainly through realist, radical, and constructivist concepts, with little sights of liberalism.

Nasser’s foreign policy has been radically affected by the creation of Israel and Western imperialism. Since then, Egypt was no longer willing to be a state subject to the influence and interests of the U.S. and its allies. Egypt’s desire was to rise as a regional power in the Middle East. And thus, Nasser’s foreign policy has been to overcome the dependency dilemma posed by Britain, France, and U.S. in the Middle East. It desired to reach an international weight that will permit it to act as an autonomous actor in the regional political sphere. First, Egypt has managed to differentiate its economy from the rest nations, however, its engagement in wars with Israel resulted in much of the damages. Besides, it used its promotion of Arab-Nationalism as a key to legitimize its actions and to suppress emerging opposing groups from the political scene.

To this end, Nasser’s foreign policy led his successors, Sadat and Mubarak, to change the road Egypt took form 1950 until 1970. In order to eliminate international isolation and economic pressures, Egypt had to lose some of its political prestige in the region by compromising with Israel. Acceptance of U.S. assistance has also benefited Egypt by accelerating economic reforms  and paying partial amounts of its debt. In the long-run, Egypt was able to regain its position in the international world, and the regional one, and it is still an important actor in the regional politics.

The 25th January revolution of 2011 might bring a radical change in Egypt’s foreign policy by creating a new friends’ block consisting of other countries and not only U.S. As it has been always the case, Egypt foreign policy will be shaped on the dilemma of economic reform. While Egypt is going under political struggle, the foreign policy cannot be  completely predicted. Features of realism, radicalism, and constructivism may remain but with an addition of a greater proportion of liberalism which will benefit Egypt from political and economic help. By all means, Egypt remains a middle power in the region, and perhaps one of its upcoming goals is to search for new means to curve its way in the international sphere and make the great powers respect its interests. Nasser’s pan-Arabism has died long ago, but it seems that its ghost were dormant, not dead, during Mubarak’s era of foreign policy.

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