For the fourth time since 1959 the Western public is being inundated with stories alleging that Moscow and Cairo have reached a point of irreversible rupture. Twice Nasser and Khrushchev were said to have broken for good; and, for the second time now, the same thing is being said of Sadat and Brezhnev. Few seem to notice that each new instance demonstrates the previous quarrel to have been rather less than final.
The “rift” between Sadat and Brezhnev, according to the most widely accepted version, began to develop some years ago with Moscow’s attempt, after the death of President Nasser, to interfere in Egyptian domestic affairs and place constraints upon Cairo’s military plans. Quarrels then erupted over the non-delivery of certain, unspecified. “offensive” Soviet weapons, culminating eventually in President Sadat’s “expulsion” of Soviet experts in 1972. Following this exacerbation of relations with the Kremlin, Sadat, in the wake of the October 1973 war, charged the Soviet Union with failure to “compensate” him for weapons lost in battle, and began to “open the door” to Washington as a prospective new friend and arms supplier. The years 1974-76 allegedly saw further limitations on Soviet arms shipments to Egypt, amounting in the end to an almost total embargo. Cairo supposedly is now attempting to “replace” the USSR altogether as Egypt’s main weapons donor, and the gulf between the two countries is described as well-nigh unbridgeable.
Thus far the conventional wisdom. What this version of events suggests, let it be noted, is nothing so mundane as the usual fluctuation between mutual accommodation and animosity that characterizes all relations between strong and weak countries, nor even that special variant of the carrot-and-stick method of diplomacy with which the Soviet Union is prone to manipulate its client states. Instead, we are told that a unique opportunity has been created for the United States to supplant the USSR as the primary patron and arms donor of Egypt, essentially “expelling” Soviet influence from that part of the world and opening the way for the creation of a pax Americana in the Middle East. However, to the extent that this “opportunity” depends on a final Soviet-Egyptian break, it is unlikely to be realized. For the evidence indicates that the full story of Soviet-Egyptian relations is much more ambiguous than the conventional wisdom would have it, and much less of a triumph for the United States.
Despite its new civilian garb, the regime of President Sadat continues to rest upon the shoulders of the officer corps. Sadat, after all, was a member and is the heir of the “Free Officers” who seized power in 1952. The military and security elite constitutes the domestic power base of the Egyptian leadership, as well as the foundation of its foreign-policy plans and aspirations.1 For domestic as well as foreign considerations, therefore, Cairo could not conceivably dispense with the army as a major instrument of policy. Nor could it act in any manner likely to alienate the officer corps, such as by weakening or destroying the military supply link through which that army is equipped and maintained as a modern fighting force. Thus a final rupture with the Soviet Union would pose serious dangers for the regime, unless a fully satisfactory substitute were available.
It has been argued, however, that the USSR could be replaced as Egypt’s source of weapons by a consortium of Western arms suppliers, including the U.S., Britain, and France, as well as China (which produces some spare parts for Soviet-manufactured hardware). This contention ignores such fundamental factors as quantity and military doctrine. During 1971-75, for example, the USSR supplied (and resupplied) four Arab countries—Egypt, Syria, Iraq, and Algeria—with nearly 5,000 tanks (after first taking care of the needs of the Red Army itself, of its allies in the Warsaw Pact, and of other Communist states, such as Cuba, North Korea, and North Vietnam). By contrast, total U.S. tank production for last year amounted to a scant 600, and British and French production was correspondingly smaller. In other words, the Soviet Union in a fairly brief period has been able to supply some secondary clients overseas with almost ten times the total U.S. annual production of armor.
Sadat himself has drawn the moral of these statistics. Asked recently whether other suppliers could “compensate Egypt for Soviet arms,” he replied:
If I wanted to replace the quantities of Soviet arms I have, I would need at least twenty years, because the war factories in Europe are owned by companies which cannot produce the same quantities as those produced by the Soviet Union, because the Soviet Union allocates an enormous part of its industries to war production. Therefore, it can give quantities which are difficult for others. . . .2
While the estimate of “at least twenty years” seems exaggerated, there is little question that any attempt to re-equip the Egyptian forces entirely from non-Soviet sources would take a very long time—even granting, for a moment, that it were feasible at all. The fact remains that for two decades Egypt has been habituated to the use of Soviet weapons in the large quantities cited. This follows Soviet military thinking, inculcated at the Moscow Frunze Academy into most ranking Egyptian officers, during prolonged indoctrination emphasizing sheer numbers and firepower of arms that are relatively simple to operate. For a populous but technologically lagging country like Egypt, this approach is most suitable. Thus an irreversible break with the USSR would have devastating consequences. In addition to having to retrain Egyptian forces to operate new and quite different weapons systems, frequently more complicated than Soviet arms, the Egyptian General Staff itself would require a fundamental re-education in an entirely new system of planning, logistics, and operations. As Sadat said on another occasion last year: “I am not mad enough to think I can change my arms in a few years. It is not feasible.”3
This does not mean that Cairo is averse to developing a certain degree of diversification in arms acquisition. Egypt, indeed, has taken steps to diversify in recent years, and probably will continue to do so. However, these moves have been confined to essentially marginal categories that can be isolated from the mainstream of Egyptian logistics, and they are a far cry from attempting to replace the Soviet Union by some other state, or consortium of states, as a main weapons supplier. Apart from the problem of quantities cited above, which in itself makes such a move unfeasible, any drastic changeover or radical diversification program would create a logistical nightmare that would paralyze the Egyptian forces for years to come. Countries much more sophisticated technologically than Egypt—like the members of NATO—have made major efforts recently to move in the opposite direction, toward uniformity, with this very consideration in mind. To the degree, therefore, that diversification is practicable under Egyptian conditions, it would not suffice to phase out dependence upon the USSR as a main source of military hardware.
What the Egyptian President apparently has in mind, then, is not the replacement of the Soviet Union as his main weapons donor by one or several other countries, but rather the addition of Western technology to an ongoing base of Soviet-manufactured hardware. Cairo’s gain from such a move is twofold: by becoming a market for Western weapons it can exert influence in countries where public sympathy has tended so far to favor Israel; and the acquisition of such arms will enable the Egyptian forces to become acquainted with the very same technology that constitutes the mainstay of the Israeli army (just as, on the Israeli side, Soviet-manufactured equipment captured from Egypt and Syria has proved useful in developing appropriate counter-measures).
These considerations alone render highly suspect the constantly reiterated assertion that Egypt is willing or able to “break” with the Soviet Union, or that Moscow, in anticipation or as a result of such a shift of allegience, has “penalized” Egypt by placing an embargo upon the military items required by Cairo. Precisely the same view, it may be remembered, was presented to the Western public during the period from the summer of 1972 to the early fall of 1973, following the “expulsion” of Soviet experts from Egypt in July 1972. Yet evidence now revealed about the real course of events then should cause everyone to think twice about today’s “rupture.”
On the first anniversary of the October 1973 war, the Cairo weekly Rose al-Yusuf, the organ of Egypt’s single party, the Arab Socialist Union, published excerpts from a book by its military correspondent, ‘Abd al-Satar al-Tawila, called The Six-Hour War According to a Military Correspondent’s Diary. According to al-Tawila (who, the paper explained, was instructed by the President personally in revising the book and given access to secret documents), Sadat engaged in a “brilliant plan of political camouflage prior to the October war.” The central element in this “Egyptian deception plan” was the exploitation of the spurious issue of Soviet arms supply to Egypt and a deliberate falsification of the true state of Soviet-Egyptian relations. Al-Tawila’s account is worth quoting at length:
The various government agencies spread rumors and stories that were exaggerated, to say the least, about deficiencies, both quantitative and qualitative, regarding the weapons required to begin the battle against Israel, at the very time when the two parties—Egypt and the USSR—had reached agreement concerning the supply of quantities of arms during the second half of 1973—weapons which, in fact, were beginning to arrive. And there came a time when we saw how the majority of habitués of Egyptian and Arab coffee houses, particularly in Beirut, turned into arms experts and babbled about shortages in this or that type of hardware. And speaking in the jargon of the scientist and the expert, they would say that the Soviets were refusing to supply Egypt with missiles of a certain type and were even cutting off the supply of spare parts in such a manner that our planes, for example, had turned into useless scrap and were unable to fly, not to speak of combating the Phantom and the Mirage. These self-styled arms experts went deeply into the question of offensive and defensive weapons, inventing arbitrary differences between them while . . . defensive anti-aircraft missiles actually played an offensive role during the war of October 6. Moreover, the Egyptian press frequently gave prominence to an inclination [in Cairo] to seek arms in the West. And while it is correct that it is possible to buy some categories of hardware in the West, to equip a whole army with weapons from the West would mean, simply, that the date of the expected battle remains far off, i.e., until such time as the Egyptian army could be trained in the use of such new hardware. . . . All this talk about armaments and their shortage was intended to create the impression in the ranks of the enemy that one of the reasons why Egypt was incapable of starting war was the absence of high-quality weapons. . . . And the whole world was taken by surprise when zero hour arrived. A Pentagon spokesman expressed this surprise when he said: “They”—i.e., the Israelis—“did not suspect the presence of such quantities and such categories of Soviet weapons in Egyptian and Syrian hands, in view of the incessantly repeated Arab complaint that the Soviets were refusing to supply these two countries with advanced offensive weapons in sufficient quantities.”
Al-Tawila then proceeds to explain how, in addition to thus spreading what intelligence services call disinformation concerning Soviet arms supplies to Egypt, “the Egyptian camouflage to deceive the enemy was expanded to include Egyptian-Soviet relations”:
This was done to such an extent that many among the Arabs themselves cast doubt upon Egyptian-Soviet friendship and its sincerity, and allegations were spread concerning Soviet non-support for the Arabs in their struggle. The episode of July 1972, when Egypt decided to make do without Soviet experts, was exploited and many intentionally or unintentionally failed to hear the words of President Sadat and his repeated emphasis that this episode was no more than “an interlude with our friend,” as always happens among friends. Now we already know that one of the reasons for the willingness to make do without the Soviet experts was so that preparations could be made for the beginning of a battle that would bear the character of a 100 per-cent Egyptian decision, using 100 per-cent Egyptian forces. However, these experts had fulfilled an important task in connection with the network of missiles and other delicate weapons. The Egyptian deception campaign, moreover, was able to reap considerable benefit from this episode—the willingness to make do without the Soviet experts—because it raised questions about the genuineness of the regime’s threats to resort to war; after all, how would the Egyptian army be able to fight without the presence of thousands of Russian experts, distributed among all the most important weapons sectors of the army so as to train [the army] in their use and even to operate some of this hardware themselves?
In addition, the [deception] campaign benefited also from the allegations and suspicions that were spread in the Arab world, as if this [willingness to do without Soviet experts] had been the result of a secret agreement with the U.S. and its friends in the region, whereby a peace arrangement would be prepared in return for the removal of the Soviet military presence. If that was the case, why, then, no war was to be expected, nor anything like a war—yet all the time preparations were continuing feverishly to open the battle; and when the war started in fact, there was the additional surprise that unlimited Soviet support was extended both in the international arena and in the area of military equipment. The same Pentagon spokesman, on the morrow of the battle, expressed his opinion about this surprise: “We never imagined that the Soviet Union would do what it has done, after the tough verbal campaigns waged against it in the Arab world, and after the cooling of relations with Cairo following the exodus of the Soviets.”4
Indeed, there is now good reason to believe that the “expulsion” of Soviet experts during the summer of 1972 was not a unilateral Egyptian move against Moscow, but a triangular arrangement among Moscow, Cairo, and Damascus. According to President Sadat’s close friend Ihsan ‘Abd al-Quddus: “Actually, the very Soviet experts who had served in Egypt were transferred to Syria. Egypt approved this Syrian stand, in fact supported it, because the national interests required the continued existence of Soviet experts in the region. . . .”5
The relevance of these disclosures—universally ignored in the West—is all the greater today when an uncannily similar scenario is being presented of an Egyptian-Soviet “rift” accompanied by a halt, or at least a major slowdown, of the flow of Soviet weapons to Cairo.
Moreover, not only is there evidence to cast serious doubt on the belief in an irreversible rupture between Moscow and Cairo; there is also documentation that equally challenges the claim that the United States has outmaneuvered the Russians in the contest for influence over Egypt. In fact, there are grounds for thinking that Sadat’s cooperation with Secretary Kissinger has occurred not merely with the compliance but even at the behest of the Soviet Union. Sadat himself stated a short time ago, in an interview again ignored in the West:
In Moscow they know facts as much as I do. They told Nasser more than once, when he met them in Moscow following the 1967 defeat: “Go and talk to the Americans.” During the four times that I went to Moscow as President, they used to tell me: “Go and contact, open a dialogue, and talk to the Americans.” Gromyko also told Isma’il Fahmi: “The United States owns the essential cards in this game.” This is a clear fact to all. . . .6
Sadat’s remarks were anticipated by the Soviet “analyst” Y. Primakov, writing a few years earlier in the Soviet magazine, USA: Economics, Politics, Ideology, and by his colleague, I. Beliaiev. The gist of their argument was that the huge investments of American oil interests in the Middle East would in the long run work in the Arabs’ favor, since the U.S. policy of containing the Soviet Union, and hence the Soviet Union’s clients, might prove incompatible with the goal of insuring the security of the oil-transit lines controlled by the Arab states. Primakov and Beliaiev predicted that the United States would be pressured by these domestic oil interests into doing for the Arabs what they had been unable to do for themselves and what the Soviet Union could not do for them: namely, coerce Israel into a unilateral withdrawal. The Kremlin, for its own naval reasons, wanted Israel to be pushed away from the Suez Canal and that waterway to be reopened.
This, of course, is more or less what has happened in the last few years, with the oil embargo that accompanied the October 1973 war acting as a dramatic stimulant to the process. However, the main point here is that, as Primakov and Beliaiev make clear, influential Soviet circles for some time have been advocating precisely the policy—reliance on the United States—which Sadat has followed, and which, as he states, Soviet leaders themselves urged upon him.7
It is only in the light of these considerations that one can understand, really, why the Soviet Union has reacted with such restraint and imperturbability to the repeated denunciations and “expulsions” it has suffered at the hands of the Egyptians, including most recently the announcement curtailing Soviet naval facilities in Egyptian ports. (While Soviet vessels apparently are ceasing to use the Alexandria docks, the situation at the Mersa Matruh base seems to have been left deliberately unclear.8) It is only in the light of the same considerations, moreover, that one can understand such otherwise bizarre occurrences as the backing given to the interim Sinai Agreement—a supposed “victory” for American diplomacy and a mortifying defeat for the Soviet Union—by Israel’s New Communist List, a party known for its slavish obedience to the Moscow line; or, an even stranger occurrence, the Soviet vote in the UN Security Council (on October 23, 1975), in favor of the prolongation of the UNEF mandate in the Sinai, when, by casting a negative vote, the Russians could have vetoed the agreement.
The truth is that the Soviet Union has little to lose and much to gain by allowing the U.S. to get for Egypt through negotiation what the Arabs and the Russians have been unable to achieve through military confrontation. Moscow can, first of all, disembarrass itself of the constant Arab pressure concerning Russia’s supposed “fraternal duty” to help recover the Sinai and the Golan. Second, there are more tangible immediate benefits, such as the opening of the Suez Canal, whose present dimensions are sufficient to accommodate the two helicopter carriers of the Soviet Mediterranean squadron but not the assault carriers of the U.S. Sixth Fleet.
Finally, even in the long run the process of step-by-step diplomacy in the Middle East is unlikely, in the Soviet view, to result in a lasting major gain for the United States at the expense of the USSR. The essence of Kissinger’s approach has been to woo the clients of the Soviet Union by offering them what they were unable to obtain by war, namely portions of territory currently under the control of a state friendly to the West. It is thus America’s credibility that is being put to the test constantly, while the Soviet Union can sit on the sidelines and wait patiently, since the Kremlin has promised only to put pressure on the U.S. to deliver, rather than undertaking to do so itself. The whole process costs the Soviet Union nothing, while the United States is in a position of having to pressure a friend and ally to take measures which the latter perceives as inimical to its vital national interests. Moreover, the process is necessarily open-ended, with each “victory” for the United States—i.e., another territorial concession by Israel—leading inexorably to a demand for more. Sadat’s confidant, Ihsan ‘Abd al-Quddus, has put it this way (Al-Ahram, November 14, 1975):
Israel is experiencing a feeling of waning or “withering.” This withering will not stop even if Israel withdraws to the 1967 borders, even if it recognizes the rights of the Palestinian people in the West Bank and Gaza, and even if it recognizes the PLO. . . . The Arab side . . . has been able to combine Washington and Moscow in one stand. . . . This waning may make Israel face the Security Council Resolution of 1948 which calls for returning the Arab lands to their owners or compensating for them. . . . The Arabs, of course, refuse any compensation and insist on recovering the land, that is, they are compelling Israel to return to the Partition Resolution [of 1947].
Yet the USSR has been doing more—far more—than sitting on the sidelines and watching these processes unfold. Impressions propagated in the Western press to the contrary notwithstanding, from the October 1973 war to the present, the flow of weapons from the Soviet Union to the Egyptian armed forces has been considerable.
On October 6, 1975, the Egyptian Minister of War and Deputy Premier, General Muhammad ‘Abd al-Ghani al-Jamasi, declared: “I cannot reveal the arms we have, but I reassure you that what we have greatly exceeds what we had before October 6, 1973” [emphasis added]. Since the Soviet air- and sea-lift to Egypt during the October 1973 war, extensive though it was, could not have come close to replacing all the equipment lost in the war, it follows that, if the Egyptian Minister of War now speaks of an armaments level “greatly” exceeding the matériel available prior to the war, there must have been major Soviet shipments of equipment dispatched during 1974-76, the very period when the Egyptian-Soviet “rift” allegedly reached its peak.
And, in fact, a close examination of Soviet weapons deliveries to Egypt during the two periods of alleged rift, 1972-73 and 1974-76, shows considerable Soviet military reinforcement of Egypt, both quantitative and qualitative.9
In the first period of “rift,” 1972-73, prior to the Egyptian attack on Yom Kippur, the Soviet Union modernized and enlarged Egypt’s armored units by supplying almost 600 additional tanks, many of these consisting of an improved model of the T-62, the Warsaw Pact’s main battle tank, equipped with night-vision instrumentation, and the remainder including more T-54/55’s, as well as further units of the amphibious PT-76. These shipments enabled Egypt to continue phasing out the aging T-34 and provided Cairo with an armored force much more up-to-date and nearly 50 percent larger than that of Hungary (an ally of the USSR and a typical member of the Warsaw Pact). During the same time span, Egypt received over 250 new Soviet armored personnel carriers, many of them amphibious, and half-tracks, particularly of improved categories.
Similarly with artillery, aircraft, and naval units. The USSR equipped Egypt in this period with some 300 additional field guns, medium guns, and heavy mortars, as well as approximately 100 more Soviet aircraft (including 72 Soviet-operated MiG-21’s that were handed over to the Egyptian air force after the departure in July 1972 of Soviet combat personnel). The additional planes included all-weather and night-flying versions of the MiG-21 (MF), and more helicopters. About 20 new naval units were also dispatched to Egypt, including MTB’s, landing craft, a minesweeper, and a Komar.
However, the largest and most significant influx took place in the area of modern missiles: in the period leading up to the Yom Kippur war, Egypt received several hundred anti-tank missile systems, predominantly of the AT-3 Sagger type, but also including further AT-2 Swatters and AT-1 Snappers. With regard to tactical surface-to-surface missiles, the already extant FROG-3 and FROG-7 units were supplemented with an additional number of Samlets, and the first dozen Scud (B) launchers also arrived at this time. Moreover, the Soviet Union supplemented the quite substantial numbers of SA-2 and SA-3 launchers already emplaced in Egypt (particularly the latter), and supplied a significant number of the subsequently famous SA-6 mobile triple-launchers, one of the newest and most effective weapons in the Soviet anti-aircraft arsenal. In addition, several hundred SA-7 (Strela) infantry-borne anti-aircraft missile systems arrived, supplemented by further quantities of the rapid-firing ZSU-23-24 anti-aircraft gun, and other anti-aircraft artillery, as well as the corresponding missile- and gun-radars.
What makes this massive injection of Soviet hardware even more impressive is that delivery was concentrated into a period of a scant five months or so, leading up to the war—which thus can be seen to have been prepared with the full connivance and collusion of the Soviet Union. One is at a loss to explain how this feverish arming of a country well outside the limits of the Warsaw Pact (and at a pace far exceeding that enjoyed by Communist allies of the USSR) can be squared with the portrayal by Western observers of a deep conflict between Moscow and Cairo.
As for the second, and supposedly “irreparable,” Soviet-Egyptian rift of 1974-76, the supply of Russian hardware to Cairo within this period has been scarcely less remarkable than in 1972-73. During the October 1973 war itself, the USSR sea-and air-lifted hundreds of tanks to Egypt, nearly one-half being modern T-62’s, to replace Egyptian battle losses. More significantly, since then, Egypt has received in the neighborhood of 1,000 tanks of Soviet manufacture, almost one-half of them T-62’s (with some of the armor coming indirectly, via Algeria and Yugoslavia).
Nearly 200 Soviet amphibious APC’s were sea-and air-lifted during the October 1973 war, and a similar number have arrived in Egypt during 1974-76, a few of them from Algeria. Many full-track armored vehicles now in Egypt came off the Soviet assembly lines as recently as last year.
Well over 100 artillery pieces were sea- and air-lifted to Egypt by the USSR during the 1973 war, and at least as many have arrived from the Soviet Union since then.
With regard to surface-to-air missile systems, Egypt’s anti-aircraft network, despite considerable losses during the 1973 war, has been expanded now to some 150 batteries of SA-2’s, SA-3’s, and (improved) mobile SA-6’s, a total significantly in excess of the amount in Egypt’s possession on October 6, 1973. Well over 60 per cent of the additional batteries have arrived during 1973-76. A large number of the infantry-borne SA-7’s and of the anti-tank Saggers also arrived both during the war and in the subsequent period, in addition to anti-aircraft artillery and the relevant radar equipment.
Egypt’s surface-to-surface missile capacity has also been expanded vastly, to a total of several hundred FROGs and Scuds (several dozen of the latter with the range and capacity to inflict heavy casualties upon Israel’s population centers). These deliveries have continued from 1973 onward.
Perhaps most important of all are combat aircraft, including helicopters and military transports. Egypt has received in excess of 100 Soviet-made planes in the last years, some during the war but the great majority since then, with some coming via Algeria and various East European countries but most arriving directly from the Soviet Union. Although that number is somewhat short of Egypt’s losses in October 1973, the quality of the planes is considerably superior, including reportedly not only some Su-20’s (Fitter C), a swing-wing plane appearing for the first time outside the Warsaw Pact area, but, most significantly, the MiG-23, of which some 50 are on order from the Soviet Union and at least 30 already are in Egypt (arriving during the last year). Remarkably enough, the MiG-23’s ordered by Egypt constitute at least 20 per cent of the gross increase in the Soviet MiG-23 inventory last year, with a considerable proportion of the remainder going to Syria and other Arab countries, while, so far as is known, no MiG-23’s have been deployed to date in such key countries of the Warsaw Pact as Poland, Czechoslovakia, or East Germany.
The value of Soviet-made weapons received by Egypt during the most recent period alone is believed to exceed $1 billion.
While it may be possible to quibble over precise numbers in this accounting, the total picture speaks for itself. Allegations of a Soviet embargo, or near-embargo, or of an irreversible “breach” between Cairo and Moscow, simply do not jibe with this picture. On the contrary, far from Egypt’s being an object of Soviet anger, it would appear that in some areas, Egypt is receiving preferred treatment from the Soviet Union, at the expense of the latter’s East European allies.
There is, then, convincing evidence, largely ignored by Western observers, that the notion of a “final” or irreversible shift by Cairo away from the USSR and into the arms of the U.S. is, to say the least, highly premature, and that within a reasonable span of time (and irrespective of Western actions), Egypt and the Soviet Union may once again be vibrating in harmony. None of this is meant to suggest that there are no differences of opinion within the Soviet leadership as to the desirability and wisdom of continued Soviet support of Egypt. Nor does it deny that relations between the two countries have often been less than ideal. Since the Soviet Union has the upper hand with regard to weapons deliveries, it would be surprising if, in periods of stress, it did not invoke such tactics as “technical delays” in delivery schedules, shortfalls in spare parts and ammunition, or delays in the licensing of indigenous Egyptian production of Russian hardware. However, there is a world of difference between such short-term tactics, built into the donor-recipient relation, and a de facto Soviet embargo. The latter has not been imposed during the periods surveyed.
It should be noted, moreover, that during recent weeks, when the Western public’s gaze was riveted firmly on a smiling President Sadat making overtures to Europe and America, and on an amiable Vice President Husni Mubarak feasting in China, some highly significant developments of a very different character remained practically unreported. For instance, a high-level Egyptian delegation concluded negotiations in Moscow with the signature of a trade agreement to the tune of about two-thirds of a billion dollars! It should be stressed that payment for Soviet weapons is invariably arranged through barter agreements of this type, and that the successful culmination of these negotiations strongly suggests that the issue of Egyptian debts resulting from earlier Soviet arms transfers—a question over which much ink has been spilled—has been settled. Even more interesting is the fact that at about the same time, following the death of the Soviet defense minister, Marshal Grechko, Egypt sent to the funeral no less a personality than Deputy Premier and Minister of War, General Muhammad ‘Abd al-Ghani al-Jamasi—surely an odd way of protesting a Soviet “arms embargo.” (Together with the barter agreement, this move is more likely to signify the start of new arms negotiations.)
What remains to be explained is the reason for the curious discrepancy between the public portrayal of Egyptian-Soviet relations and the far less reassuring reality revealed by the evidence. One explanation has been offered by Lutfi al-Khuli in Al-Ahram, February 11, 1976:
U.S.-Israeli coordination is no longer “total.” . . . In view of this, Egypt has decided that the political response to the new reality requires that Egyptian-Soviet coordination should also stop being “total” and be confined only to the general outlines. Otherwise, the Israeli-U.S. contradictions would not continue and there would be again an Arab-Soviet front facing an Israeli-U.S. front. Egypt seems to welcome a certain degree of coordination with the Soviets provided that the Soviet reaction does not exceed the limits of Egypt’s visualization of the effect on mutual coordination between Tel Aviv and Washington [emphasis added].
Al-Khuli is saying, simply, that Egypt wishes the Soviet leadership to collude in playing down the actual degree of intimacy between the two regimes, since any public awareness of the actual state of affairs might reverse the trend of estrangement between the United States and Israel which President Sadat had fostered so successfully. (How far the Kremlin is prepared to continue accepting such a role, only time will tell.)
Whether or not this explanation constitutes the key to the discrepancies noted, the fact is that the “rift” between Egypt and the Soviet Union has become an accepted working hypothesis of policymakers (and the media) in the West, and especially in the United States. Insofar as it is based on dubious assumptions—and all the evidence suggests that it is—this hypothesis almost certainly will lead to dangerous conclusions and very harmful consequences.
1 The latter pertain not only to the Arab-Israeli conflict, but also to Egyptian ambitions in the upper reaches and sources of the Nile, in the North African littoral, particularly Libya, in Syria (with which Egypt has attempted several times to merge), and at the entrance to the Red Sea, including Eritrea, Somalia, and Yemen—Egypt’s “Vietnam,” where an Egyptian expeditionary force was bogged down for years trying to subdue ill-equipped tribes.
2 Al-Hawadith (Beirut), August 21, 1975, second part of an interview given by President Anwar al-Sadat to Salim al-Lawzi, chief editor of the magazine, as reported by Cairo M.E.N.A. in Arabic, August 21, 1975
3 Agence France Presse, December 9, 1975.
4 Rose al-Yusuf, October 7, 1974. President Sadat himself, in an interview broadcast by Cairo Radio in Arabic on October 24, 1975, has confirmed al-Tawila’s version, calling the 1972 “expulsion” of Soviet experts “a strategic cover . . . a splendid strategic distraction for our going to war.”
5 Al-Ahram, October 31, 1975. The authoritative Cairo journal, Al-Akhbar, subsequently revealed (March 5, 1976) that these Soviet experts actually participated, in one form or another, in the 1973 war on the Golan front.
6 Al-Hawadith (Beirut), August 15, 1975, pp. 20-25, first part of interview given by President Anwar al-Sadat to Salim al-Lawzi, chief editor of the magazine.
7 For details on Primakov’s and Beliaiev’s views, see my “Soviet Global Policy and the Middle East,” in Naval War College Review, Vol. XXIV, No. 1, September 1971, pp. 19-29. Significantly, both of these Soviet emissaries paid a “low-profile” visit to Egypt late last year.
8 Interestingly enough, while headlines now proclaim that Egypt is ousting Soviet vessels, for three-and-a-half years following the “expulsion” of Soviet experts, the American public never was informed of Russia’s continued use of these Egyptian naval facilities. Nor was it told of Sadat’s revelation that he had secretly “extended the period of the naval facilities granted to the Soviet navy in the Mediterranean to 1978. . . . However, equilibrium absolutely does not mean that I shall be granting similar concessions to the Americans.” See Le Monde, December 10, 1975.
9 Data for this analysis can be found in many open sources, although care has to be exercised, since there are incompatibilities and contradictions in some instances among the publications cited. Such open sources include: The Military Balance, London International Institute for Strategic Studies (1972-73 to 1975-76) and the IISS’s journal, Survival, and its Adelphi Papers; Aviation Week and Space Technology; The Arms Trade Registers: The Arms Trade with the Third World, Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, and the same Institute’s World Armaments and Disarmament: SIPRI Yearbook; The International Transfer of Conventional Arms, 1974, U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, and ACDA’s subsequent World Military Expenditures and Arms Trade 1963-1973 (and 1965-1974); Jane’s All the World’s Aircraft, Jane’s Fighting Ships, Jane’s Weapons Systems; Military Review, U.S. Army Command and General Staff College; Naval War College Review; Brassey’s Annual; the columns of Drew Middleton in the New York Times; the books on the Yom Kippur war by Chaim Herzog, Zev Schiff, Mohamed Heikal, and the Insight Team of the London Sunday Times; and the columns of the military correspondents of the Hebrew and Arabic press, as well as such French-language publications as Défense Nationale; and also recent numbers of the London Economist.