Egypt, Relations with

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EGYPT, RELATIONS WITH. When John Led-yard (17511789) traveled to Egypt in the late eighteenth century, he had little enthusiasm for Egypt, stating that Alexandria was merely "a small town built on the ruins of antiquity." This first contact between Egypt and the United States illustrates the incidental, and somewhat disappointing, encounters that the new empire would experience until the twentieth century, when the United States adopted a pivotal role in the Middle East.

In general, the nineteenth century presented a wide spectrum of U.S. encounters with Egypt that were not motivated by diplomatic or economic concerns. Americans traveled to Egypt to tour the Holy Land and to study Egyptology and archaeology. Missionaries, such as the Presbyterians, considered the country a worthwhile field for Christian evangelism and mission work. The philanthropic effort of these missionaries to build over one hundred nonsectarian, Arabic schools for both men and women was welcomed more than any other U.S. policy in the nineteenth century.

The first U.S.-born consul to Egypt assumed his post in 1848, only to write several complaints that the United States had little political influence compared to the more established European consulates. One of the U.S. consul's central concerns was to encourage commercial activity in the Mediterranean, although this would not be actively explored until the outbreak of the Civil War, when the United States realized that demands for cotton could be met by Egyptian imports. The success of this Civil War trade was short-lived. When the cotton markets stabilized in the United States, trade with the Egyptian market was no longer necessary.

Despite the few Union and Confederate soldiers who found work in Egypt as advisors after the Civil War, early U.S.Egyptian relations were minimal and lacked any clear objectives. Any U.S. presence or influence was quickly overshadowed by the British occupation of the region in 1882. The inclusion of Egypt under Britain's domain effectively eliminated Egypt from U.S. foreign policy until the twentieth century, when World War II, the Cold War, and the search for peace in the Middle East challenged Western interests.

The United States's first sustained diplomatic involvement with Egypt came after World War II, although the nature of the interactions was mixed due to U.S. support for Israel and Egypt's desire to end the shadow of British imperialism. Although the United States wanted to participate in the affairs of the Middle East, it was more concerned with the Cold War and specifically with methods for preventing Soviet expansion into the Middle East. In order to protect the Suez from the Soviets, the United States sought to alleviate tensions between Britain and Egypt while simultaneously maintaining positive relations with both parties.

With the success of the Free Officers's coup in 1952, Egypt established its true independence as a republic in 1953, and Jamal 'Abd al-Nasir (19181970) began a campaign to revitalize Egypt's economy through increased agriculture. Nasir looked to Western nations, especially the United States, for funds to build the Aswan High Dam, but the United States hesitated to offer the type of assistance Nasir wanted. Frustrated with the delayed response for arms and economic aid, Nasir created his own funds by nationalizing the privately owned Suez Canal Company. Such a bold action was applauded by Arab states, but it also propelled Egypt into direct military conflict with Britain and France, the two nations most involved with the Suez Company, as well as Israel, which felt the need to protect itself against Egyptian aggression. The Suez Crisis of 1956 brought an end to British imperialism in Egypt and also was a turning point for U.S.Egyptian relations in which the United States finally committed itself to an active presence in the Middle East. U.S. policies, however, were not always considered positive and were often in conflict with the goals of Arab nationalism.

The presidency of Anwar al-Sadat (19701981) marked a significant transition in U.S.Egyptian relations as Egypt shifted from instigating confrontations with Israel to seeking diplomatic alternatives for coexistence. In 1979, the Carter administration's commitment to find solutions to the Arab-Israeli conflict was finally realized when Sadat and Israel's Prime Minister Menachem Begin signed a peace agreement. The success of the Camp David Accords provided Egypt with much needed economic aid, but the financial benefits did not outweigh the political costs for Sadat and his relationship with other Arab states. Egypt was banned from the Arab League between 1979 and 1989, and Sadat's cooperation with the United States fueled animosity toward his presidency that ultimately led to his assassination in 1981.

President Hosni Mubarak (1981) extended the policies of Sadat by further cultivating positive U.S.Egyptian relations and ensuring continued economic aid from the United States. With Mubarak's efforts, the United States received international support for the Gulf War (19901991), and Egypt provided military troops for both the Gulf War and UN peacekeeping missions. The United States also relied on Mubarak to sponsor summits for negotiations between the Palestinians and Israelis when U.S. talks have faltered. After the hijackings of 11 September 2001, Egypt offered diplomatic support for the U.S.'s War on Terrorism against Osama bin Laden, Al Qaeda, and the Taliban. With renewed fighting between the Palestinians and Israelis, however, it could not be determined if Egypt could continue to maintain U.S. interests in the region and how U.S.Egyptian relations would be ultimately affected by the tragic events of 11 September.


el-Calamawy, Sahair. "The American Influence on Education in Egypt." In For Better or Worse. Edited by Allen F. Davis. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1981. 137144.

Field, James A. America and the Mediterranean World 17761882. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1969.

Finnie, David H. Pioneers East: The Early American Experience in the Middle East. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1967.

Hahn, Peter L. The United States, Great Britain, and Egypt 1945 1956. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991.

Owen, Roger, and S¸evket Pamuk. A History of Middle East Economies in the Twentieth Century. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1998.

Thomas, Nancy, ed. The American Discovery of Ancient Egypt. Los Angeles: Los Angeles County Art Museum, 1995.

Darlene L. Brooks Hedstrom

See also Arab Nations, Relations with .