By the end of World War II, it was clear that the era of direct colonial rule in the region was over. The process of a negotiated British withdrawal from Egypt had actually started in the mid-1930s, with treaties such as the 1936 Anglo-Egyptian Treaty, which provided for the withdrawal of British troops from the country. How the process was affected by the humiliating defeat of the Egyptian army in 1948 (assisted by the armies of Lebanon, Jordan, and Syria) in the first of several wars against the newly created neighbor state of Israel, is unclear. But, within 3 years of its retreat from the Negev Desert, a group of officers known as the Free Officers Movement, led by Gamal Abdel Nasser, were to overthrow the British-protected government of King Farouk and assume control of the country.
Nasser's group of officers, nominally headed by General Mohamed Naguib, who they initially installed as president on July 26, 1952, arrived under the banner of reform. Though numerous histories have since claimed that the coup was a reaction to the incompetence and corruption of the royal government propped up by British arms, this merely begs the question of why revolutions haven't taken place far more frequently in Egypt. Apart from a general desire to rule Egypt, and to do so unfettered by colonial interference from the British, Nasser and his followers did not arrive in office with a specific program for the country. Most of their initial moves were aimed at consolidating control, and over the next 4 years political parties were banned, foreign companies were nationalized, the Muslim Brotherhood was made illegal, and a new constitution was promulgated that gave President Nasser (who took the post from Naguib, whom he had placed under house arrest, in 1954) broad powers over government.
One of Nasser's first moves on the international stage marked a significant turning point in Egypt's relations with the West. When the World Bank backed out of a tentative agreement to fund the building of the Aswan High Dam, Nasser announced that he would nationalize the Suez Canal and use the revenues to pay for the dam. The canal was still jointly owned by the British (who had purchased Egypt's share of the waterway 80 years before) and the French, who had acquired the original concession to build it. At the same time, Egypt closed the straits of Tiran (now a prime diving spot off the coastal resort area of Sharm el Sheikh) to Israeli shipping, choking off a key supply route.
The announcement and the closure of a vital shipping lane prompted a joint British, French, and Israeli operation to attack Egyptian forces in the canal zone in the fall of 1956. They were quickly forced to withdraw by the United States, which had initially acquiesced to the plan, but not before the Egyptian military had blocked the waterway by sinking a number of ships in it. Once the forces had withdrawn, Egypt seized not only the canal but other British- and French-held businesses in the rest of the country. Nevertheless, the United Nations went in to clear the ships that had been scuttled in the canal, and the USSR subsequently funded the construction of the dam.
Nasser's apparent victory over the former colonial powers made him enormously popular in Egypt and throughout the Middle East, and made him a major force in regional politics and a leader of the pan-Arab movement. It was a reputation that took a heavy blow in 1967, however, with a second resounding Egyptian military defeat at the hands of Israel during the Six-Day War. In the wake of the loss of the entire Sinai Peninsula, Nasser tendered his resignation but stayed on after massive demonstrations of support. He died in 1970 of a heart attack.
Nasser was succeeded by his vice president, Anwar Sadat. Sadat, though expected initially to be a transitional figure, maintained his control and consolidated his position against his rivals and became a power in his own right. He reversed a number of Nasser's positions, reopening Egypt to the West and ultimately even making peace with Israel. The high point of his presidency, in the eyes of many Egyptians, came in October 1973, when Egyptian forces launched an imaginative and boldly executed attack on the well-fortified Israeli defensives on the east bank of the Suez Canal. The attack, which coincided with a massed Syrian attack on the Golan Heights, opened what came to be known as the Yom Kippur War, or the October War.
It is said that the plan for the war was the brainchild of then-president of Syria, Hafez al Assad (an extraordinarily competent politician who had been given refuge early in his career in Egypt by Nasser) and Sadat. The idea apparently was to press home a surprise attack from two sides, with Syria entering Israel from the Golan and Egyptian Forces crossing the Sinai Peninsula to retake the Negev Desert, from which they had been so ignominiously driven in 1949. What happened next is open to questions -- just not the kind of questions you want to bring up with Syrians and Egyptians in the same room. To Syrian dismay, the Egyptian Army halted its advance once it had crossed the canal, unwilling to move beyond the cover of its surface-to-air missiles. The pause allowed the Israelis to stabilize new defensive lines on the peninsula and concentrate their reserves on the Syrian front, where they were hugely outnumbered. Once the Syrian advances had been reversed (the Israeli army, the IDF, got within artillery range of Damascus), their Sinai forces were able to counterattack, and by October 23 forces under Ariel Sharon had crossed the canal, encircled the Egyptian Army, and effectively had Cairo at their mercy before the UN could make a ceasefire stick.
The end-state of the 1976 war gave the Americans, as the state with the most leverage on Israel, the power to broker a peace on their terms. The result was the Camp David Accords, under which the Sinai Peninsula was largely demilitarized and the Egyptian government was handed an annual aid package second in size only to Israel's.
Sadat's presidency was abruptly cut short in 1981. He was assassinated by members of an Islamic organization that opposed his peace with Israel while reviewing troops at the annual 6th of October military parade. Lead assassin Khalid Islambouli is said to have cried "Death to the Pharaoh!" as the attack was launched from the back of a truck as Mirage jets swooped overhead. Air Force General and Vice President Hosni Mubarak then became president.
Mubarak's subsequent tenure as president has been marked mainly by holding patterns with regard to regional politics and a drift away from the socialism of the past and toward a more open economy. The state of emergency that was declared in 1981 has never been lifted, effectively freezing the interplay between legislative and judicial bodies into rigid patterns enforced by executive diktat. The result has been a general political stagnation in Egypt for 26 years, with security forces playing a steadily increasing political role as the regime has come to rely on them to stifle dissenting voices that have been denied parliamentary expression. Recent constitutional amendments appear to be aimed at further consolidating the status quo by giving legal cover to the enforcement mechanisms that support it.
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