excerpted from the book
How our covert wars have
across the Middle East and brought terror to America.
by Mark Zepezauer
Common Courage Press, 2003,
In 1952, CIA officers in Cairo held a series of meetings with
coup plotters in the Egyptian army, including Col. Gamal Abdel
Nasser. The officers hoped to overthrow King Farouk, the corrupt
and buffoonish puppet monarch backed by the British, while the
U.S. hoped to replace Britain as the dominant foreign power in
the region. These overlapping interests insured that the coup
took place in July of that year. Nasser, only 34, remained behind
the scenes initially, with a General Neguib as the titular head
of the new government. The younger man became prime minister in
1954 and assumed the presidency of Egypt in 1956 following a referendum.
Nasser's first priority, which dovetailed
nicely with Washington's interests, was to get British troops
removed from the Suez Canal, where they had been stationed since
1882. As the canal no longer held much strategic value to Britain
(after the loss of India), an agreement was reached in October
1954. For the first time in two and a half thousand years, Egypt
was no longer under foreign occupation of any kind. This was a
great catalyst for Nasser's growing reputation as a hero to Arab
nationalists, fanned by his marathon radio broadcasts in colloquial
Israel, however, viewed the presence of
80,000 British troops on the canal as a welcome buffer with Egypt.
The Israeli secret service, the Mossad, sent agents to sabotage
British installations and plant bombs in public buildings, hoping
to scuttle the negotiations by blaming the terrorism on Egyptian
nationalists. This scheme was derailed when the agents were caught
and exposed. France was also upset when, shortly after the British
departure from Egypt, Algerian nationalists launched a revolt
against French colonial rule; Paris was convinced (with help from
the Mossad) that Nasser had encouraged them. To counter Egyptian
influence, France then began selling arms to Israel in defiance
of a regional arms embargo. In February 1955 Israel, citing cross-border
harassment by Palestinian refugees, attacked an Egyptian army
outpost in Gaza, killing 40 soldiers and a number of civilians.
Yet an Israeli historian has cited documentary evidence that Egypt
was making a serious effort to keep the Gaza border calm.
In fact, Israel had been planning an invasion
of the Sinai Peninsula since at least 1953, according to the diaries
of Prime Minister Moshe Sharett. The Gaza attack precluded any
hope of a peace agreement. At that point, as General Moshe Dayan
put it, "one of these days a situation will be created which
makes military action possible."
Egypt's relations with Washington had
begun to sour as Nasser refused to be bribed. U.S. antagonism
was further aroused when he balked at buying arms with strings
attached, and so turned to East Bloc sources. This in turn led
Nasser to rely further on Soviet financing, and so the fear of
a pro-Russian tilt became a self-fulfilling prophecy-the 1950s
version of "If you ain't with us you're against us."
In July 1956, Secretary of State Dulles
reneged on a previous commitment to help Egypt build the Aswan
Dam, and blocked international funding as well. In response, Nasser
exercised his right to re-establish Egyptian sovereignty over
the British-built Suez Canal-which was then closed to Israeli
shipping. And in response to that, the British and the French
made a secret deal with Israel to invade Egypt and seize back
the canal. But this deal was made behind the backs of the Americans,
and Israeli agents lied to their CIA counterparts about the impending
On October 29, 1956, the Israelis used
their French-supplied arsenal to launch a surprise attack on Egypt,
seizing the Sinai. The plan was to falsely announce that Egypt
had attacked Israel, after which Israeli troops would occupy the
Sinai Peninsula all the way to the east bank of the Suez Canal.
Then British and French troops would intervene to prevent a wider
war, and hopefully, the whole thing would be so humiliating to
Nasser that his people would rise up against him. Britain and
France bombed Egyptian territory, and then sent troops to back
up the Israelis.
The Eisenhower Administration was outraged,
not only by Israeli duplicity, but also by the Europeans' attempt
to reestablish their influence in a region where the U.S. now
wished to call the shots. In order to counter that influence,
the U.S. was even willing to cooperate briefly with the Soviets
in condemning the Suez attacks in the UN. Stymied by a U.S. threat
to withdraw aid, the Israelis reluctantly withdrew from the Sinai
and Gaza, with UN monitors placed on the Egyptian border. Egypt
regained control of the canal, subject to international guarantees
of Israeli shipping in the Gulf of Aqaba.
Nasser emerged an even bigger hero than
before, and began to talk of uniting the Arab world into one big
federation. This set off alarm bells in Washington. Nasser's pan-Arabian
dreams were short-lived, and amounted only to a brief federation
with Syria, (which lasted until the next coup in that country
undid the deal). The U.S. countered this alarming spurt of Arab
unity by encouraging Jordan and Iraq to band together against
the new United Arab Republic, rather than joining it. And no less
than eight separate assassination plots were soon launched against
Nasser, involving, at various times, America, Israel, Turkey,
Saudi Arabia and Iraq. These involved at least one CIA assassination
plot in 1957. According to the memoirs of former CIA officer Wilbur
Crane Eveland, the story goes that Eisenhower had mused that he
wished the "Nasser problem" could be "eliminated"-
which the CIA chief, Allen Dulles, took as an order to kill. The
plot never came to fruition, as Dulles ostensibly realized he
had misinterpreted his boss. However, this account bears a marked
similarity to other cover stories explaining away known CIA death
plots, so it should perhaps not be taken at face value. Britain's
secret service MI6 also plotted with the Mossad to kill Nasser
on several occasions.
The Nasser problem continued, however,
and in June 1967, 11 years after the Suez crisis, Israel tried
the same trick again, this time successfully. The Israelis also
had territorial designs on the West Bank and the Syrian territory
of the Golan Heights, in order to secure control over the headwaters
of the River Jordan and the aquifers of its basin. General Moshe
Dayan later recounted how Israel had deliberately provoked firefights
with Syrian forces. Israeli troops probed the Syrian frontier
with tractors, then claimed that the inevitable Syrian reprisals
constituted attacks on "peaceful farmers." This cat-and-mouse
game intensified in the year leading up to the Six Day War.
As tensions increased, the Soviets informed
the Syrians that Israel was "massing troops" on its
border, though only a single tank division had been sent several
months before, following an earlier skirmish. But for its part,
the Israeli government had threatened to invade Damascus if the
Syrians did not suppress Palestinian raids. Nasser also called
on the Syrians to do so, aware that neither he nor they had the
power to prosecute a war with Israel. But as the putative leader
of Arab nationalists, he was being goaded by the Syrians, Jordanians
and Palestinians to do something about Israeli provocations, and
to stop "hiding behind" UN troops.
Eventually Nasser requested that UN forces
depart from Gaza; instead the UN withdrew all its troops from
the Sinai region. Egypt then moved two token divisions into the
Sinai, far from adequate for any offensive action. In solidarity
with Syria, Nasser then announced a blockade of ships bringing
weapons to Israel through the Gulf of Aqaba. This was the pretext
the Israelis required. Though only 5% of their imports came through
Aqaba, Israelis told the world that Egypt's "economic stranglehold"
threatened their very existence.
Israel also announced at the time that
the Arabs had struck first, though that claim too was later abandoned
for the more credible formulation that the Israeli Defense Force
(IDF) had launched a "pre-emptive strike", with the
ostensible motivation being a massing of Egyptian troops. But
as Israeli Chief of Staff Yitzhak Rabin admitted a year later,
"I don't believe Nasser wanted war. The two divisions he
sent into Sinai May 14 would not have been enough to unleash an
offensive against Israel and we knew it." Or as one Israeli
cabinet member put it, the "pre-emptive strike" story
was "invented of whole cloth and exaggerated after the fact
to justify the annexation of new Arab territories."
Most of the Egyptian air force was destroyed
on the ground and Israel seized the Sinai and Gaza, as well as
the West Bank from Jordan and the Golan Heights from Syria. The
latter three territories are occupied to this day. Many in the
Israeli government had interpreted certain U.S. statements as
giving a "green light" to their invasion plans; at the
very least, they found "an absence of any exhortation to
us to stay our hand." But U.S. support for the Israeli invasions
went further than that; U.S. warplanes, painted with Israeli markings,
helped with reconnaissance photography of Arab targets. President
Johnson also moved the Sixth Fleet into the eastern Mediterranean,
and secretly authorized shipments of spare parts to the Israeli
military, while publicly calling for a regional arms embargo.
After the war, the U.S. also vetoed a UN resolution calling for
Israel to return to its previous borders.
The Johnson Administration was so happy
to see Israel strike a decisive blow at perceived "Soviet
proxies" in the region that it was even willing to overlook
an Israeli attack on the USS Liberty in the middle of the Six
Day War. For years the attack on the U.S. ship, which killed 34
sailors, has been a mystery, the details covered up by both the
U.S. and Israel. A recent book by author James Bamford posits
that the American spy vessel had evidence that Israel had massacred
Egyptian prisoners of war, and that the IDF destroyed the ship
in order to cover up evidence of this war crime.
The Six Day War ended in a cease-fire,
which Nasser abrogated the following year, beginning intermittent
skirmishes with Israel over the Sinai. The war significantly escalated
tensions in the Middle East, leading to an accelerated arms race.
As Nasser put it, "The problem now is that while the United
States' objective is to pressure us to minimize our dealings with
the Soviet Union, it will drive us in the opposite direction altogether.
The U.S. Ieaves us no choice." And indeed, though Israel
had decisively defeated the Arabs, U.S. military assistance to
Tel Aviv increased dramatically, as did East Bloc arms sales to
Egypt. Nasser did show some interest in a land-for-peace swap-indeed,
he had explored peace negotiations with Israel in the 1950s before
the provocative attack in Gaza-but he died suddenly of a heart
attack in September 1970.
He was succeeded by Anwar el-Sadat, who
had been on ? the CIA payroll since 1960. Despite this, the Nixon
J Administration was slow to work with Sadat, viewing Egypt through
a Cold War prism. Sadat made a formal peace offer to Israel in
February 1971, but Israel responded by expanding settlements in
the occupied Sinai. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger preferred
to keep Egyptian-Israeli relations in a stalemate, hoping that
the Russians would pressure Sadat into further compromise. Even
after Sadat purged pro-Soviet elements from the Egyptian government,
Kissinger couldn't be bothered. Sadat's intention, later realized,
was to convert Egypt to a U.S. client state. He sent Soviet advisors
home and intervened to prevent a communist takeover of Sudan.
But frustrated by Washington's indifference to his lost sovereignty
over the Sinai, Sadat launched a new war on Israel in 1973 with
Both Jordan's King Hussein and Saudi King
Fahd warned the Israelis in advance of the coming attack, but
Tel Aviv refused to believe the Arab states were strong enough
to pull it off. This easily preventable war led to serious losses
on the Israeli side, as Egypt regained control of the Suez Canal.
At this point the U.S. suddenly became amenable to a negotiated
settlement of the Israeli-Egyptian conflict, though Kissinger's
ineffectual shuttle diplomacy produced few results for the remainder
of his tenure. This eventually led to Sadat's famous trip to Jerusalem
and the Camp David Accords, sponsored by the Carter Administration.
Egyptian peace with Israel was bought
with billions of dollars of U.S. taxpayer funds. Egypt became
the second largest recipient of U.S. aid (after Israel), now totaling
some $4 billion annually. Sadat bought peace by agreeing to vague
promises that the Israelis would later negotiate peace with the
Palestinians. In fact, the Israeli Knesset voted on "policy
guidelines" stating that Israel had no intention of honoring
these promises. The resolution stated that after a "transition
period" agreed to at Camp David, Israel would "act to
fulfill its rights to sovereignty over Judea, Samaria [their names
for the West Bank] and the Gaza district." These "rights"
were indeed fulfilled with increased repression and settlements
in the West Bank. Israel also broke Camp David pledges regarding
water rights, all of which engendered only weak protests from
For its part, Israel bought peace by returning
(almost) all of the Sinai and removing Jewish settlements from
those lands. Prime Minister Begin then exploited peace with Egypt
(and later with Jordan) by using his freed-up forces to launch
new strikes against Palestinian positions in Lebanon. And for
its part, the U.S. used the Camp David talks to derail the international
consensus in favor of a multilateral peace conference including
Europe, the East Bloc and the Arab states. In this way, Washington
alone remained in charge of any "peace process."
The Camp David Accords were deeply unpopular
both in Egypt and throughout the Arab world. Sadat also alienated
his citizens through his economic policies, privatizing many state
holdings and cutting food subsidies and other services in accord
with World Bank and IMF advice. A hero in the West, he was widely
despised at home. There was little public mourning when he was
assassinated in 1982, in contrast to the millions who thronged
the streets for Nasser's funeral. Sadat was killed by Islamic
militants within his own elite guard units while he reviewed a
military parade. According to author Douglas Valentine, the guards
had been trained by CIA agent William Buckley. Buckley himself
sat in the stands during the assassination; also sitting nearby
was Sadat's successor, Hosni Mubarak, who had the presence of
mind to duck.
Mubarak has ruled with the proverbial
iron fist ever since. Egypt had been a police state under Nasser
and Sadat, but human rights abuses reached new heights during
the Mubarak regime. Mindful of Sadat's fate, he has cracked down
on Islamists, moderates as well as radicals. This, of course,
has had the effect of making the Islamic movement in Egypt ever
more militant, in marked contrast to states like Yemen and Jordan
where they are allowed to compete for parliamentary seats. Many
of Egypt's most radical Muslim fighters were trained by Western
intelligence services for use in the anti-Soviet war in Afghanistan.
The Egyptian arm of the Islamic Jihad has forged ties with Osama
bin Laden's al Qaida network, staging terror attacks against foreign
tourists, as well as operating in the U.S.
Egypt under Mubarak uses its billions
in U.S. military aid to detain, beat and torture dissenters, opposition
politicians and journalists; many have died in custody. Thousands
of political prisoners and pro-democracy activists are held in
overcrowded, disease-ridden prisons, without charges or trials.
Press restrictions, including newspaper shutdowns, are widespread.
Arab nationalists view Egypt as a well-bribed client state of
the U.S. and an obstacle to self-determination for its own people
as well as its Palestinian neighbors. Nevertheless, the "Lion
of Egypt" was re-elected to a fourth term in 1999 with just
under 94 percent of the vote; his party holds 97 percent of the
legislative seats. He has never named a vice president.
But however much the people of Egypt chafe
under Mubarak's regime, their plight pales beside the 54-year
occupation suffered by the residents of Palestine.