World History 2 249 - 14.3.4 Egypt and the Middle East

Before World War II, the United States had demonstrated relatively little concern for the Middle East, which fell largely under British control. Following the war, however, problems in the region, some of which stemmed from British policies and actions, threatened to move Arab and Iranian leaders closer to the Soviet Union. This possibility alarmed the United States and led to attempts to forge relationships with Middle Eastern governments. The nations that proved of greatest interest were Iran, Egypt, and the newly formed state of Israel.

Iran first became a place of concern to the United States immediately following World War II, when the Soviet Union proved reluctant to end its occupation of the country. Following the war, the United Kingdom had resumed its activities in the region, which largely consisted of drilling for oil. In 1951, Mohammad Mossadegh, an Iranian nationalist, became the country’s prime minister and moved to nationalize the oil fields belonging to British companies. This action led to protests by the United Kingdom and by pro-Western Iranian elites who supported British interests. In 1952, Iran’s monarch, the pro-Western shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, removed Mossadegh from power. He was forced to reinstate him, however, following massive popular protests.

Mossadegh’s actions convinced both the United Kingdom and the United States that he favored communism and might ally Iran with the Soviet Union, with which it shared a border. Although it is unlikely he intended to make Iran a satellite state of the Soviet Union, British arguments that this was the case convinced the United States to take action. In August 1953, a coup plotted by the CIA and Iran’s military, which supported the Shah, removed Mossadegh from power again. He was arrested and imprisoned.

British actions laid the groundwork for another conflict in the Middle East following World War II. In 1917, Britain’s foreign secretary Arthur James Balfour had declared that Britain would support the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine. Throughout the 1930s, Jewish people from Europe had streamed to the region, and as their numbers increased, so did violence between them and Arabs, who demanded an end to Jewish immigration and the creation of an independent Arab state. Following the end of World War II, as Jewish survivors of the Holocaust sought refuge in Palestine, the British government requested that the United Nations resolve the issue. In 1947, the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine visited the region and recommended that it be divided into a Jewish state and an Arab state (Figure 14.13). The city of Jerusalem, sacred to both groups, was to be placed under an “international trusteeship.” In November 1947, the UN General Assembly adopted the committee’s suggestion with the passage of Resolution 181.

A map of a Palestine is shown. It is labeled ‘Palestine U.N. Partition Plan (1947)’. The legend shows that yellow indicates the Arab State and orange indicates the Jewish state. Egypt is shown on the bottom left of the map, and Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan are labeled north and east of Palestine. A top east portion, a long, thin western portion along the water, and a large portion in the south of Palestine is highlighted orange as Jewish State. A small portion in the north, an oval portion in the center and an angled portion in the west, along the Egyptian border are highlighted yellow as Arab State. The cities of Tel Aviv and Jaffa are labeled along the water on the west; Jerusalem (U.N. admin.) is in the middle of the country on a very small white circular portion. The city of Beersheba is in the center of Palestine, along an Arab State-Jewish State border.
Figure 14.13 The UN’s 1947 plan to partition Palestine divided it into Jewish and Arab sectors. Jewish people would control most of the coast and the southern part of the country. The Arab sectors were divided from one another by large areas of Jewish settlement. (credit: “UN 1947 partition plan for Palestine” by U.S. Central Intelligence Agency/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

The UN resolution led to civil war in Palestine. The British withdrew from the region in May, leaving Jewish people and Palestinian Arabs, assisted by Arabs from elsewhere in the Middle East who had organized themselves as the Arab Liberation Army, to battle it out. About 250,000 Palestinian Arabs fled Jewish-controlled areas. On May 14, 1948, as the last British forces left the region, David Ben-Gurion, the leader of the Jewish settlement in Palestine, announced the founding of the nation of Israel (Figure 14.14).

A photograph shows several men sitting behind a long table. A man in the middle stands, holds a piece of paper, and speaks into a microphone. In front of the table, groups of men sit in chairs. On the wall behind the table are long drapes, banners with a six pointed star, and a large portrait of a man in a suit, bow tie, and beard.
Figure 14.14 In the city of Tel-Aviv, David Ben-Gurion proclaims the foundation of the state of Israel in 1948. (credit: “Declaration of State of Israel 1948” by Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

Both the United States and the Soviet Union officially recognized the new state. Israel’s Arab neighbors did not, and they proclaimed that Arabs within Israel had a right to self-determination. On the evening of May 14, an air attack on the Israeli city of Tel-Aviv began, and the next day forces from Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, and Transjordan (now called Jordan) invaded the country. The First Arab-Israeli War lasted ten months, with Israel emerging victorious in March 1949. Not only had it defended its existence, but it had also gained control of much of the territory the 1947 UN committee had recommended reserving for Arab settlement. Hundreds of thousands of Arabs left Palestine—now part of Israel—for neighboring countries.

The better-armed Arab nations’ loss to Israel came as a shock to many in the Arab world. In Egypt, the Free Officers Movement, a group of mostly junior officers from middle-class backgrounds, criticized their government for its failure. One officer, Gamal Abdel Nasser, blamed the defeat on government corruption and quickly rose to prominence. Like others in the movement, Nasser was a nationalist who wished to end the United Kingdom’s influence over its former protectorate of Egypt. On July 23, 1952, he led a group of army officers in a coup that deposed Egypt’s luxury-loving King Farouk and assumed control of the nation (Figure 14.15).

A photograph shows a crowd, mostly of men. In the middle of the crowd, seven men are riding in a car looking at the crowd. They wear suits and hats. People from the crowd are reaching out to touch them. Men in military gear and caps walk alongside the car looking down and at the crowd.
Figure 14.15 Gamal Abdel Nasser, second from the right in the car, rides through the streets of Cairo with other members of the Free Officers Movement following their overthrow of Egypt’s king in 1952. (credit: “1953 Egypt revolution celebrations” by Bibliotheca Alexandrina/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

Among Farouk’s flaws had been his reliance on an informal cabinet composed largely of non-Egyptians, one of whom had sold defective rifles to the Egyptian military during the war with Israel. Although they were not the reason for Egypt’s loss, they became a symbol of the weak, corrupt nature of Farouk’s government. The rebellious officers instituted a constitution that made Egypt a secular state and embarked on a program of land reform. Egypt’s new leaders also acted to end British influence in their nation; in separate agreements, the United Kingdom agreed to give up its rule in Sudan and evacuate its forces from the Suez Canal zone by 1956, years before required by an existing treaty.

As well as weakening British power in the Middle East, Nasser, who became prime minister of Egypt in 1954, wished to make his country the leader of the Arab world, a position also sought by Iraq. In 1955, the United Kingdom signed the Baghdad Pact, which created the Central Treaty Organization (CENTO) and joined Iraq, Iran, Turkey, and Pakistan in a military alliance that seemed to thwart both of Nasser’s goals. Nasser perceived this as a signal that the West wished to promote Iraq instead of Egypt as the leader of the Arab nations.

Seeking to erode both Israeli and Western interests, Nasser sponsored cross-border attacks on Israel by Palestinian Arab guerrilla fighters, refugees from Israel living in Egypt, and gave support to Algerian rebels attempting to throw off French rule. The United States had sought friendly relations with Nasser, partly to prevent him from turning to the Soviet Union and partly to gain supremacy over the United Kingdom in the region. However, when he refused to promise that U.S. weapons would not be used to attack Israel, the United States refused to arm Egypt and, in July 1956, withdrew its promise of aid to build the Aswan Dam across the Nile. Accordingly, Nasser turned to the Eastern Bloc. Czechoslovakia supplied the arms, and the Soviet Union later funded the construction of the dam.

On July 26, 1956, Nasser, who had been elected president of Egypt the month before, nationalized the Suez Canal and immediately closed it to Israeli shipping. On October 29, Israel invaded Egypt, and on November 5, Britain and France did as well, touching off the Suez Crisis. The United Nations passed a resolution calling for a cease-fire, and both the United States and the Soviet Union demanded an immediate end to the invasion. The Soviet Union threatened to send troops to Egypt and to attack London. U.S. president Dwight Eisenhower, anxious not to give the Soviets an excuse to intervene, threatened to impose economic sanctions on France, Israel, and the United Kingdom if they did not comply. All three withdrew, but Israel did so with the guarantee that it would be allowed to use the Straits of Tiran to send shipping through the canal. A UN peacekeeping force was left in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula to guard the border with Israel.

The Suez Crisis changed the U.S. role in the Middle East. After having had little involvement in the area, the United States now realized that Soviet involvement there was possible. Wishing to prevent this, in 1957 Eisenhower proclaimed the Eisenhower Doctrine, by which the United States would use its military strength to defend Middle Eastern governments in danger of being overthrown by the forces of “International Communism.” The United States also extended financial and military aid to the governments of friendly countries such as Lebanon.

The withdrawal of Israel and the Western powers from Egypt augmented Nasser’s status as self-proclaimed leader of the Arab world and brought him closer to forging the pan-Arab state he desired. In 1958, he took another step toward that reality when Egypt joined Syria to create the United Arab Republic. The previous year, Turkey, fearing that its neighbor Syria was about to experience a communist takeover, had gathered troops along the Syrian border. When the Soviet Union announced its support for Syria in the event of a Turkish invasion, the U.S. had pledged support for Turkey. Although crisis was averted when Turkey withdrew its troops, Syria proposed a union with Egypt to protect itself from interference by other countries and from the increasing power of the Syrian Communist Party. The two nations separated after a coup in Syria in 1961.

In 1958, the United States enforced the Eisenhower Doctrine by sending nearly fifteen thousand troops to Lebanon at the request of its Christian president, Camille Chamoun, to protect his government from political opponents, some of whom were pro-communist. Opposition was led by Lebanon’s Sunni Muslim majority, who had supported Lebanon’s joining the United Arab Republic when Chamoun had refused to do so. U.S. forces remained in Lebanon for three months while Chamoun finished his term. This diversion of U.S. attention convinced China that it could resume bombing Jinmen and Mazu without risking a response, precipitating the Second Taiwan Strait Crisis.

Although relative peace had returned to the region following the end of the Suez Crisis, also called the Second Arab-Israeli War, Palestinian guerrillas continued to strike at Israel from bases in Egypt and Syria. Often their targets were civilians, and tensions remained high. In April 1967, following air battles between Israeli and Syrian pilots, Egypt, under the false belief that Israel was preparing to invade Syria, removed the UN peacekeeping force from the Sinai Peninsula and amassed troops there. On May 22, Egypt closed the Straits of Tiran to Israeli shipping, which Israel considered an act of war.

On June 5, Israel began the Third Arab-Israeli War by launching a preemptive strike on Egypt, invading the country by land at the same time that it destroyed virtually the entire Egyptian air force. Attempted attacks by Jordan and Syria were fended off, and Israel seized territory from these nations as well as from Egypt. The fighting ended nearly as soon as it had begun, earning the conflict the title of the Six-Day War. Israel had gained control of the Sinai Peninsula and the Gaza Strip from Egypt, the West Bank (of the Jordan River) from Jordan, and the Golan Heights from Syria, greatly enhancing the size of its territory.

The Israeli victory in 1967 did not end the conflict, and air attacks, shelling, and guerrilla fighting between Egypt and Israel continued for several years. Following Nasser’s death in 1970, the new president, Anwar Sadat, wished to put a decisive end to the conflict while also reversing the territorial losses suffered by the Arab states in 1967. Although Nasser had moved Egypt more deeply into the Soviet camp over the years, in 1972 Sadat expelled the Soviet advisers. He also began talks with the United States, Israel’s chief ally, with the intent of resolving Arab-Israeli hostilities for good. However, Sadat did not want peace to be made until Egypt had regained control of the Sinai Peninsula and the Gaza Strip. On October 6, 1973, Egypt and Syria, which sought the return of the Golan Heights, launched a surprise attack on Israel on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish religious calendar, when many Israeli soldiers were off duty. Once again, Israel was victorious. A cease-fire imposed by the United Nations began on October 25. Israel had not lost any of the conquered territory, and in subsequent years Sadat was forced to engage in more peaceful efforts to seek the return of Egyptian lands.

Link to Learning

The Arab-Israeli conflict continues today, a complex problem with many different facets. Learn more about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at the Global Conflict Tracker website.

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The content of this course has been taken from the free World History, Volume 2: from 1400 textbook by Openstax