76 Egypt

Egypt’s First Revolution

The Egyptian revolution of 1919 was a countrywide revolution against the British occupation of Egypt and Sudan carried out in the wake of the British-ordered exile of revolutionary leader Saad Zaghlul and other members of the Wafd Party in 1919.

Learning Objectives

Describe the events of Egypt’s First Revolution

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Although the Ottoman Empire retained nominal sovereignty over Egypt, the political connection between the two countries was largely severed by the seizure of power by Muhammad Ali in 1805 and re-enforced by the British occupation of Egypt in 1882.
  • On December 14, 1914, the Khedivate of Egypt was elevated to a separate sultanate and declared a British protectorate, thus terminating definitively the legal fiction of Ottoman sovereignty over Egypt.
  • Over the course of the war, dissatisfaction with the British occupation spread among all social classes, and by war’s end the Egyptian people demanded their independence.
  • After World War I, Saad Zaghlul and the Wafd Party led the Egyptian nationalist movement to a majority at the local Legislative Assembly.
  • When the British exiled Zaghlul and his associates to Malta on March 8, 1919, Egyptians and Sudanese from all walks of life rose up against the British, leading the British government to conclude that the protectorate status of Egypt was not satisfactory and should be abandoned.
  • The revolution led to Britain’s recognition of Egyptian independence in 1922 and the implementation of a new constitution in 1923.

Key Terms

  • Saad Zaghlul: An Egyptian revolutionary and statesman who led Egypt’s nationalist Wafd Party. In 1919 he led an official Egyptian delegation to the Paris Peace Conference demanding that the United Kingdom formally recognize the independence and unity of Egypt and Sudan, and was exiled by the British government in response. He served as Egypt’s first Prime Minister from January 26, 1924, to November 24, 1924, after independence from Britain.
  • Khedivate of Egypt: An autonomous tributary state of the Ottoman Empire, established and ruled by the Muhammad Ali Dynasty following the defeat and expulsion of Napoleon Bonaparte’s forces, which brought an end to the short-lived French occupation of Lower Egypt.

Background: British Protectorate

Although the Ottoman Empire retained nominal sovereignty over Egypt, the political connection between the two countries was largely severed by the seizure of power by Muhammad Ali in 1805 and re-enforced by the British occupation of Egypt in 1882. From 1883 to 1914, though the Khedive of Egypt and Sudan remained the official ruler of the country, ultimate power was exercised by the British Consul-General.

When the Caucasus Campaign of World War I broke out between the Russian Empire and the Ottoman Empire, Britain declared martial law in Egypt and announced that it would shoulder the entire burden of the war. On December 14, 1914, the Khedivate of Egypt was elevated to a separate sultanate and declared a British protectorate, thus terminating definitively the legal fiction of Ottoman sovereignty over Egypt. The terms of the protectorate led Egyptian nationalists to believe it was a temporary arrangement that would be changed after the war through bilateral agreement with Britain.

Prior to the war, nationalist agitation was limited to the educated elite. Over the course of the war, however, dissatisfaction with the British occupation spread among all social classes. This was the result of Egypt’s increasing involvement in the war, despite Britain’s promise to shoulder the entire burden of the war. The British poured masses of foreign troops into Egypt, conscripted over one and a half million Egyptians into the Labour Corps, and requisitioned buildings, crops, and animals for the use of the army. In addition, because of allied promises during the war (such as President Wilson’s Fourteen Points), Egyptian political classes prepared for self-government. By war’s end the Egyptian people demanded their independence.

Events of the 1919 Revolution

Shortly after the First World War armistice of November 11 concluded in Europe, a delegation of Egyptian nationalist activists led by Saad Zaghlul made a request to High Commissioner Reginald Wingate to end the British Protectorate in Egypt and Sudan and gain Egyptian representation at the next peace conference in Paris.

Meanwhile, a mass movement for the full independence of Egypt and Sudan was being organized at a grassroots level using the tactics of civil disobedience. By then, Zaghlul and the Wafd Party enjoyed massive support among the Egyptian people. Wafdist emissaries went into towns and villages to collect signatures authorizing the movement’s leaders to petition for the complete independence of the country.

Seeing the popular support that the Wafd leaders enjoyed and fearing social unrest, the British proceeded to arrest Zaghlul and two other movement leaders on March 8, 1919 and exiled them to Malta. In the course of widespread disturbances between March 15 and 31, at least 800 Egyptians were killed, numerous villages were burnt down, large-landed properties plundered, and railways destroyed.

For several weeks, demonstrations and strikes across Egypt by students, elite, civil servants, merchants, peasants, workers, and religious leaders became such a daily occurrence that normal life was brought to a halt. This mass movement was characterized by the participation of both men and women and by spanning the religious divide between Muslim and Christian Egyptians. The uprising in the Egyptian countryside was more violent, involving attacks on British military installations, civilian facilities, and personnel. By July 25, 1919, 800 Egyptians were dead and 1,600 others were wounded.

The British government sent a commission of inquiry, known as the “Milner Mission,” to Egypt in December 1919 to determine the causes of the disorder and make a recommendation about the political future of the country. Lord Milner’s report, published in February 1921, recommended that the protectorate status of Egypt was unsatisfactory and should be abandoned. The revolts forced London to issue a unilateral declaration of Egyptian independence on February 22, 1922.

Image of Egyptian women wearing black dresses, black head covers, and white veils over their faces, carrying an Egyptian glad, demonstrating against British occupation during the revolution of 1919.
Egyptian Revolution of 1919: Egyptian women demonstrating during the revolution of 1919. 


Although the British government offered to recognize Egypt as an independent sovereign state, this was only upon certain conditions. The following matters were reserved to the discretion of the British government: the security of the communications of the British Empire in Egypt, the defense of Egypt against foreign aggression, and the protection of foreign interests in Egypt and the Sudan.

The Wafd Party drafted a new constitution in 1923 based on a parliamentary representative system. Egyptian independence at this stage was nominal as British forces continued to be physically present on Egyptian soil. Moreover, Britain’s recognition of Egyptian independence directly excluded Sudan, which continued to be administered as an Anglo-Egyptian condominium. Saad Zaghlul became the first popularly elected Prime Minister of Egypt in 1924.

British Involvement in Egypt Post-Independence

The Kingdom of Egypt was established in 1922 following the Unilateral Declaration of Egyptian Independence, but the Kingdom was only nominally independent since the British continued to have varying degrees of political control and military presence until 1952.

Learning Objectives

Explain the ties between Britain and Egypt after the establishment of an independent Egyptian state

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The formal British protectorate over Egypt was ended by the Unilateral Declaration of Egyptian Independence (UDI) on February 28, 1922.
  • Shortly afterwards, Sultan Fuad I declared himself King of Egypt, but the British occupation continued in accordance with several reserve clauses in the declaration of independence.
  • The situation was renegotiated in the Anglo-Egyptian treaty of 1936, which granted Britain the right to station troops in Egypt for the defense of the Suez Canal and its link with the Indian Empire and to control the training of the Egyptian Army.
  • After the Egyptian Revolution of 1952, the British agreed to withdraw their troops and did so by June 1956.
  • Britain went to war against Egypt over the Suez Canal in late 1956, but with insufficient international support was forced to back down.

Key Terms

  • Suez Canal: An artificial sea-level waterway in Egypt connecting the Mediterranean Sea to the Red Sea through the Isthmus of Suez. It offers watercraft a shorter journey between the North Atlantic and northern Indian Oceans via the Mediterranean and Red seas by avoiding the South Atlantic and southern Indian Oceans, reducing the journey by approximately 4,300 miles.
  • Anglo-Egyptian treaty of 1936: A treaty signed between the United Kingdom and the Kingdom of Egypt. Under the terms of the treaty, the United Kingdom was required to withdraw all its troops from Egypt except those necessary to protect the Suez Canal and its surroundings, numbering 10,000 troops plus auxiliary personnel. Additionally, the United Kingdom would supply and train Egypt’s army and assist in its defense in case of war.

The Kingdom of Egypt was the independent Egyptian state established under the Muhammad Ali Dynasty in 1922 following the Unilateral Declaration of Egyptian Independence by the United Kingdom. Until the Anglo-Egyptian treaty of 1936, the Kingdom was only nominally independent, since the British retained control of foreign relations, communications, the military, and the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan. Between 1936-52, the British continued to maintain military presence and political advisors at a reduced level. The kingdom was plagued by corruption, and its citizens saw it as a puppet of the British.

The legal status of Egypt was highly convoluted due to its de facto breakaway from the Ottoman Empire in 1805, its occupation by Britain in 1882, and its transformation into a sultanate and British protectorate in 1914. In line with the change in status from sultanate to kingdom, the Sultan of Egypt, Fuad I, saw his title changed to king.

The kingdom’s sovereignty was subject to severe limitations imposed by the British, who retained enormous control over Egyptian affairs and whose military continued to occupy the country. Throughout the kingdom’s existence, Sudan was formally united with Egypt. However, actual Egyptian authority in Sudan was largely nominal due to Britain’s role as the dominant power in Anglo-Egyptian Sudan.

During the reign of King Fuad, the monarchy struggled with the Wafd Party, a broadly based nationalist political organization strongly opposed to British domination, and with the British themselves, who were determined to maintain control over the Suez Canal. The importance of the canal as a strategic intersection was made apparent during the First World War when Britain and France closed the canal to non-Allied shipping. The attempt by German and Ottoman forces to storm the canal in February 1915 led the British to commit 100,000 troops to the defense of Egypt for the rest of the war. Other political forces emerging in this period included the Communist Party (1925) and the Muslim Brotherhood (1928), which eventually became a potent political and religious force.

King Fuad died in 1936 and Farouk inherited the throne at age 16. Alarmed by Italy’s recent invasion of Abyssinia, he signed the Anglo-Egyptian Treaty, requiring Britain to withdraw all troops from Egypt except those necessary to protect the Suez Canal and its surroundings, numbering 10,000 troops plus auxiliary personnel. Additionally, the United Kingdom would supply and train Egypt’s army and assist in its defense in case of war. The 1936 treaty did not resolve the question of Sudan, which under the terms of the existing Anglo-Egyptian Condominium Agreement of 1899 was meant to be jointly governed by Egypt and Britain with real power remaining in British hands. With rising tension in Europe, the treaty expressively favored maintaining the status quo. The treaty was not welcomed by Egyptian nationalists like the Arab Socialist Party, who wanted full independence. It ignited a wave of demonstrations against the British and the Wafd Party, which supported the treaty.

On September 23, 1945, after the end of World War II, the Egyptian government demanded the modification of the treaty to terminate the British military presence and to allow the annexation of the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan. Following the Wafd Party’s victory in the boycotted 1950 election of Egypt, the new Wafd government unilaterally abrogated the treaty in October 1951. Three years later with new government leadership under Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser, the UK agreed to withdraw its troops in the Anglo–Egyptian Agreement of 1954; the British withdrawal was completed in June 1956. This is the date when Egypt gained full independence, although Nasser had already established an independent foreign policy that caused tension with several Western powers.

Image of armed British soldiers lined up against a wall of sandbags in the Alamein, Egypt.
British Infantry near El Alamein, 17 July 1942: During World War II, British troops used Egypt as a base for Allied operations throughout the region. The British maintained a significant presence in Egypt, even after the latter’s formal independence in 1922.

The Egyptian Revolution of 1952

From July 22-26, 1952, a group of disaffected army officers led by Muhammad Naguib and Gamal Abdel Nasser overthrew King Farouk, whom the military blamed for Egypt’s poor performance in the 1948 war with Israel.

Learning Objectives

Analyze the reasons for the Revolution of 1952

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The Egyptian monarchy was seen as both corrupt and pro-British, and the military blamed King Farouk for Egypt’s poor performance in the 1948 war with Israel.
  • The Egyptian revolution of 1952 was led by the Free Officers Movement, a group of army officers led by Muhammad Naguib and Gamal Abdel Nasser.
  • Along with overthrowing King Faruq, the movement had more ambitious political aims, such as abolishing the constitutional monarchy and ending the British occupation of the country.
  • In November 1954, President Naguib, who became the first Egyptian president during the revolution, was ousted and replaced by Nasser.
  • Just four years after the revolution, the Suez Crisis of 1956 became a political victory for Egypt, as it left the Suez Canal in uncontested Egyptian control for the first time since 1875, eliminating the vestiges of British occupation.
  • Wholesale agrarian reform and huge industrialization programs were initiated in the first fifteen years of the revolution, leading to an unprecedented period of infrastructure building and urbanization.

Key Terms

  • Arab nationalism: A nationalist ideology celebrating the glories of Arab civilization and the language and literature of the Arabs, calling for rejuvenation and political union in the Arab world. Its central premise is that the peoples of the Arab world, from the Atlantic Ocean to the Indian Ocean, constitute one nation bound together by common linguistic, cultural, religious, and historical heritage. One of its primary goals is the end of Western influence in the Arab world, seen as a “nemesis” of Arab strength, and the removal of Arab governments considered dependent upon Western power.
  • Free Officers Movement: A group of nationalist officers in the armed forces of Egypt and Sudan that instigated the Egyptian Revolution of 1952. Originally established in 1945 as a cell within the Muslim Brotherhood under Abdel Moneim Abdel Raouf, it operated as a clandestine movement of junior officers during the 1948 Arab–Israeli War. Muhammad Naguib joined in 1949, after the war, and became their official leader during the turmoil leading up the revolution because of the hero status he had earned during the war and his influence in the army.
  • Suez Crisis: An invasion of Egypt in late 1956 by Israel, followed by the United Kingdom and France. The aims were to regain Western control of the Suez Canal and remove Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser from power. After the fighting started, political pressure from the United States, the Soviet Union, and the United Nations led to a withdrawal by the three invaders. The episode humiliated Great Britain and France and strengthened Nasser.


The Egyptian revolution of 1952, also known as the 23 July Revolution, began on July 23, 1952, by the Free Officers Movement, a group of army officers led by Muhammad Naguib and Gamal Abdel Nasser. The revolution’s initial goal was to overthrow King Faruq. The movement also had more ambitious political aims and soon moved to abolish the constitutional monarchy and aristocracy of Egypt and Sudan, establish a republic, end the British occupation of the country, and secure the independence of Sudan. The revolutionary government adopted a staunchly nationalist, anti-imperialist agenda, expressed chiefly through Arab nationalism and international non-alignment.

The revolution was faced with immediate threats from Western imperial powers, particularly the United Kingdom, which had occupied Egypt since 1882, and France. Both were wary of rising nationalist sentiment in territories under their control throughout the Middle East and Africa. The ongoing state of war with Israel also posed a serious challenge, as the Free Officers increased Egypt’s already strong support of the Palestinians. These issues conflated four years after the revolution when Egypt was invaded by Britain, France, and Israel in the Suez Crisis of 1956. Despite enormous military losses, the war was seen as a political victory for Egypt, especially as it left the Suez Canal in uncontested Egyptian control for the first time since 1875, erasing what was considered a mark of national humiliation. This strengthened the appeal of the revolution in other Arab and African countries.

Wholesale agrarian reform and huge industrialization programs were initiated in the first 15 years of the revolution, leading to an unprecedented period of infrastructure building and urbanization. By the 1960s, Arab socialism became a dominant theme, transforming Egypt into a centrally planned economy. Fear of a Western-sponsored counter-revolution, domestic religious extremism, potential communist infiltration, and the ongoing conflict with Israel were all cited as reasons for severe and longstanding restrictions on political opposition and the prohibition of a multi-party system. These restrictions would remain in place until the presidency of Anwar Sadat from 1970 on, during which many of the policies of the revolution were scaled back or reversed.

The early successes of the revolution encouraged numerous other nationalist movements in other Arab and African countries, such as Algeria and Kenya, where there were anti-colonial rebellions against European empires. It also inspired the toppling of existing pro-Western monarchies and governments in the region and continent.

Photo of Prime Minister Gamal Abdel Nasser (right) and President Muhammad Naguib (right) in an open-top automobile during celebrations marking the second anniversary of the Egyptian Revolution of 1952.
The Egyptian Revolution of 1952: Prime Minister Gamal Abdel Nasser (right) and President Muhammad Naguib (right) in an open-top automobile during celebrations marking the second anniversary of the Egyptian Revolution of 1952.


The Egyptian monarchy was seen as both corrupt and pro-British, with its lavish lifestyle that seemed provocative to the free officers who lived in poverty. Its policies completed the image of the Egyptian government as a puppet in the hands of the British government. The end of the monarchy would signal an end of British intervention. The military also blamed King Farouk for Egypt’s poor performance in the 1948 war with Israel and lack of progress in fighting poverty, disease, and illiteracy in Egypt. In the warning that General Naguib conveyed to King Farouk on July 26 upon the king’s abdication, he provided a summary of the reasons for the revolution:

In view of what the country has suffered in the recent past, the complete vacuity prevailing in all corners as a result of your bad behavior, your toying with the constitution, and your disdain for the wants of the people, no one rests assured of life, livelihood, and honor. Egypt’s reputation among the peoples of the world has been debased as a result of your excesses in these areas to the extent that traitors and bribe-takers find protection beneath your shadow in addition to security, excessive wealth, and many extravagances at the expense of the hungry and impoverished people. You manifested this during and after the Palestine War in the corrupt arms scandals and your open interference in the courts to try to falsify the facts of the case, thus shaking faith in justice. Therefore, the army, representing the power of the people, has empowered me to demand that Your Majesty abdicate the throne to His Highness Crown Prince Ahmed Fuad, provided that this is accomplished at the fixed time of 12 o’clock noon today (Saturday, 26 July 1952, the 4th of Zul Qa’ada, 1371), and that you depart the country before 6 o’clock in the evening of the same day. The army places upon Your Majesty the burden of everything that may result from your failure to abdicate according to the wishes of the people.

After the Revolution

In the following two years, the Free Officers consolidated power, and following a brief experiment with civilian rule, abrogated the 1953 constitution and declared Egypt a republic on June 18, 1953, with Muhammad Naguib as Egypt’s first president.

Within six months all civilian political parties were banned and replaced by the “Liberation Rally” government party, the elites seeing a need for a “transitional authoritarianism” in light of Egypt’s poverty, illiteracy, and lack of a large middle class. In October and November 1954 the large Islamist Muslim Brotherhood organization was suppressed and President Naguib was ousted and arrested. He was replaced by Nasser, who remained president until his death in 1970.

President Nasser announced a new constitution on January 16 at a popular rally, setting up a system of government in which the president had the power to appoint and dismiss ministers. A law was passed on March 3 granting women the right to vote for the first time in Egyptian history. Nasser was elected as the second president of the Republic on June 23. In 1957, Nasser announced the formation of the National Union (Al-Ittihad Al-Qawmi), paving the way to July elections for the National Assembly, the first parliament since 1952.

The United Arab Republic

In 1958, Egypt joined with the Republic of Syria to form a state called the United Arab Republic.

Learning Objectives

Assess the reasoning for the formation of the United Arab Republic

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Several Arab nations envisioned a united Arab nation called the pan-Arab state, and in the late 1950s, just a few years after the Egyptian Revolution of 1952, Egypt and Syria began talks to unite into a single sovereign nation.
  • One of the major motivations for the merger was to protect both nations from a communist takeover.
  • Nasser’s terms for unification were seen as unfair to the Syrians, but they felt they had no choice and decided in 1958 to merge with Egypt to become the United Arab Republic.
  • Instead of federation of two Arab peoples, as many Syrians had imagined, the UAR turned into a state completely dominated by Egyptians.
  • Nasser quickly reduced Syrian political representation in the government, cracked down on communists, and consolidated his power over the Republic.
  • Soon, Syrian business and army circles became disaffected with Nasser, which resulted in the Syrian coup of September 28, 1961, and the end of the UAR.

Key Terms

  • Afif al-Bizri: A Syrian career military officer who served as the chief of staff of the Syrian Army between 1957–1959. He was known for his communist sympathies and for spearheading the union movement between Syria and Egypt in 1958.
  • Pan-Arabism: An ideology espousing the unification of the countries of North Africa and West Asia from the Atlantic Ocean to the Arabian Sea, referred to as the Arab world. It is closely connected to Arab nationalism, which asserts that the Arabs constitute a single nation. Its popularity was at its height during the 1950s and 1960s. Advocates of pan-Arabism have often espoused socialist principles and strongly opposed Western political involvement in the Arab world. It also sought to empower Arab states from outside forces by forming alliances and to a lesser extent, economic cooperation.
  • Syrian Crisis of 1957: A period of severe diplomatic confrontations during the Cold War that involved Syria and the Soviet Union on one hand and the United States and its allies, including Turkey and the Baghdad Pact, on the other. The tensions began on August 18 when the Syrian government presided by Shukri al-Quwatli made a series of provocative institutional changes, such as the appointment of Col. Afif al-Bizri as chief-of-staff of the Syrian Army, alleged by Western governments to be a Soviet sympathizer.

The United Arab Republic (UAR) was a short-lived political union between Egypt and Syria. The union began in 1958 and existed until 1961, when Syria seceded from the union after its 1961 coup d’état. Egypt was known officially as the “United Arab Republic” until 1971. The president was Gamal Abdel Nasser. It was a member of the United Arab States, a loose confederation with North Yemen which in 1961 dissolved along with the Republic.

Establishment of the UAR

Established on February 1, 1958, as a first step towards a larger pan-Arab state, the UAR was created when a group of political and military leaders in Syria proposed a merger of the two states to Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser.

Pan-Arabism was very strong in Syria, and Nasser was a popular hero-figure throughout the Arab world following the Suez War of 1956. There was thus considerable popular support in Syria for union with Nasser’s Egypt. The Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party was the leading advocate of such a union.

In mid-1957 western powers began to worry that Syria was close to a communist takeover; it had a highly organized communist party and the newly appointed army’s chief of staff, Afif al-Bizri, was a communist sympathizer. This caused the Syrian Crisis of 1957 after which Syrians intensified their efforts to unite with Egypt. Nasser told a Syrian delegation, including President Shukri al-Quwatli and Prime Minister Khaled al-Azem, that they needed to rid their government of communists, but the delegation countered and warned him that only total union with Egypt would end the “communist threat.” According to Abdel Latif Boghdadi, Nasser initially resisted a total union with Syria, favoring instead a federal union. However, Nasser was “more afraid of a Communist takeover” and agreed on a total merger.

Nasser’s final terms for the union were decisive and non-negotiable: “a plebiscite, the dissolution of parties, and the withdrawal of the army from politics.” While the plebiscite seemed reasonable to most Syrian elites, the latter two conditions were extremely worrisome. They believed it would destroy political life in Syria. Despite these concerns, the Syrian officials knew it was too late to turn back. They believed that Nasser’s terms were unfair, but given the intense pressure that their government was under, they believed they had no other choice.

Egyptian and Syrian leaders signed the protocols, although Azem did so reluctantly. Nasser became the republic’s president and soon carried out a crackdown against the Syrian Communists and opponents of the union, which included dismissing Bizri and Azem from their posts.

Photo of Nasser shaking hands with al-Bizri surrounded by a Syrian delegation.
Nasser with Syrian Delegation: Nasser shaking hands with al-Bizri. Afif al-Bizri, the Syrian army’s chief of staff, spearheaded the union with Egypt.

Nasser Consolidates Power

Advocates of the union believed Nasser would use the Ba’ath Party to rule Syria. Unfortunately for the Ba’athists, it was never Nasser’s intention to share an equal measure of power. Instead, heestablished a new provisional constitution proclaiming a 600-member National Assembly with 400 members from Egypt and 200 from Syria, as well as the disbanding of all political parties including the Ba’ath. Nasser gave each of the provinces two vice presidents, assigning Boghdadi and Abdel Hakim Amer to Egypt and Sabri al-Assali and Akram El-Hourani—a leader of the Ba’ath—to Syria. The new constitution of 1958 was adopted.

Though Nasser allowed former Ba’ath Party members to hold prominent political positions, they never reached positions as high ias did the Egyptian officials. During the winter and the spring of 1959–60, Nasser slowly squeezed prominent Syrians out of positions of influence.

In Syria, opposition to union with Egypt mounted. Syrian Army officers resented being subordinate to Egyptian officers, and Syrian Bedouin tribes received money from Saudi Arabia to prevent them from becoming loyal to Nasser. Also, Egyptian-style land reform was resented for damaging Syrian agriculture, the communists began to gain influence, and the intellectuals of the Ba’ath Party who supported the union rejected the one-party system.

Instead of federation of two Arab peoples, as many Syrians had imagined, the UAR turned into a state completely dominated by Egyptians. Syrian political life was also diminished as Nasser demanded for all political parties in Syria to be dismantled. In the process, the strongly centralized Egyptian state imposed Nasser’s socialistic political and economical system on weaker Syria, creating backlash from the Syrian business and army circles. This resulted in the Syrian coup of September 28, 1961, and the subsequent end of the UAR.

Sadat and Cold War Influences

The presidency of Anwar Sadat saw many changes in Egyptian politics and policy: breaking with Soviet Union to make Egypt an ally of the United States, initiating the peace process with Israel, reinstituting the multi-party system, and abandoning socialism by launching the Infitah economic policy.

Learning Objectives

Discuss the ways in which the Cold War affected Sadat’s time in power

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • In 1970 President Nasser died and was succeeded by Anwar Sadat, another officer in the “Free Officers” movement that instigated the 1952 Revolution.
  • Sadat switched Egypt’s Cold War allegiance from the Soviet Union to the United States, expelling Soviet advisors in 1972.
  • In 1973, Egypt and Syria launched the October War, a surprise attack against the Israeli forces occupying the Sinai Peninsula and the Golan Heights, in an attempt to regain part of the Sinai territory that Israel had captured six years earlier.
  • The conflict sparked an international crisis between the U.S. and the USSR, both of whom intervened, and while the war ended with a military stalemate, it presented Sadat with a political victory that later allowed him to regain the Sinai in return for peace with Israel.
  • Sadat made a historic visit to Israel in 1977, which led to the 1979 peace treaty in exchange for Israeli withdrawal from Sinai.
  • Sadat launched the Infitah economic reform policy, creating a “open door” for foreign investment while clamping down on religious and secular opposition.
  • On October 6, 1981, Sadat and six diplomats were assassinated while observing a military parade commemorating the eighth anniversary of the October 1973 War.

Key Terms

  • détente: The term is often used in reference to the general easing of the geopolitical tensions between the Soviet Union and the United States which began in 1969 as a foreign policy of U.S. presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford; a “thawing out” or “un-freezing” at a period roughly in the middle of the Cold War.
  • infitah: Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s economic policy of “opening the door” to private investment in Egypt in the years following the 1973 October War (Yom Kippur War) with Israel. It was accompanied by a break with longtime ally and aid-giver the USSR — replaced by the United States — and by a peace process with Israel symbolized by Sadat’s dramatic flight to Jerusalem in 1977.
  • Anwar Sadat: The third President of Egypt, serving from October 15, 1970 until his assassination by fundamentalist army officers on October 6, 1981. He was a senior member of the Free Officers who overthrew King Farouk in the Egyptian Revolution of 1952, and a close confidant of President Gamal Abdel Nasser, under whom he served as Vice President twice and whom he succeeded as President in 1970.


The Sadat era in Egypt refers to the presidency of Anwar Sadat, the 11-year period of Egyptian history spanning from the death of president Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1970 through Sadat’s assassination by fundamentalist army officers on October 6, 1981. Sadat’s presidency saw many changes in Egypt’s direction, reversing some of the economic and political principles of Nasserism by breaking with Soviet Union to make Egypt an ally of the United States, initiating the peace process with Israel, reinstituting the multi-party system, and abandoning socialism by launching the Infitah economic policy.

The October War of 1973 a began when the coalition launched a joint surprise attack on Israel on Yom Kippur, the holiest day in Judaism, which occurred that year during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. Egyptian and Syrian forces crossed ceasefire lines to enter the Israeli-held Sinai Peninsula and Golan Heights respectively. After Israel lost the defensive war, Egypt and Israel came together for negotiations with Israel, culminating in the Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty in which Israel traded the Sinai to Egypt for peace. This led to Egypt’s estrangement from most other Arab countries and Sadat’s assassination several years later.

Photo of Anwar Sadat, third President of Egypt
Muhammad Anwar al-Sadat: Muhammad Anwar el-Sadat was the third President of Egypt, serving from October 15, 1970, until his assassination by fundamentalist army officers on October 6, 1981.

Early Years

After Nasser’s death, another of the original revolutionary “free officers,” Vice President Anwar el-Sadat, was elected President of Egypt. Nasser’s supporters in government settled on Sadat as a transitional figure who they believed could be manipulated easily. However, Sadat had a long term in office and many changes in mind for Egypt, and by astute political moves was able to institute a “corrective revolution,” (announced on May 15, 1971) which purged the government, political, and security establishments of the most ardent Nasserists. Sadat encouraged the emergence of an Islamist movement which had been suppressed by Nasser. Believing Islamists to be socially conservative, he gave them “considerable cultural and ideological autonomy” in exchange for political support.

Following the disastrous Six-Day War of 1967, Egypt waged a War of Attrition in the Suez Canal zone. In 1971, Sadat endorsed in a letter the peace proposals of UN negotiator Gunnar Jarring, which seemed to lead to a full peace with Israel on the basis of Israel’s withdrawal to its prewar borders. This peace initiative failed as neither Israel nor the U.S. accepted the terms as discussed.

To provide Israel with more incentive to negotiate with Egypt and return the Sinai, and because the Soviets had refused Sadat’s requests for more military support, Sadat expelled the Soviet military advisers from Egypt and proceeded to bolster his army for a renewed confrontation with Israel.

1973 October War (Yom Kippur War)

In 1971, Sadat concluded a treaty of friendship with the Soviet Union, but a year later ordered Soviet advisers to leave. Soviets were engaged in détente with the United States and discouraged Egypt from attacking Israel. Despite this discouragement, rumors of imminent Soviet intervention on the Egyptians’ behalf during the 1973 Yom Kippur War brought about a massive American mobilization that threatened to wreck détente. Sadat favored another war with Israel in hopes of regaining the Sinai peninsula and reviving a country demoralized from the 1967 war. He hoped that at least a limited victory over the Israelis would alter the status quo. In the months before the war, Sadat engaged in a diplomatic offensive and by the fall of 1973 had support for a war of more than a hundred states, including most of the countries of the Arab League, Non-Aligned Movement, and Organization of African Unity. Syria agreed to join Egypt in attacking Israel.

Egypt’s armed forces achieved initial success in the crossing and advanced 15 km, reaching the depth of the range of safe coverage of its own air force. Having defeated the Israeli forces to this extent, Egyptian forces, rather than advancing under air cover, decided to immediately penetrate further into the Sinai desert. In spite of huge losses they kept advancing, creating the chance to open a gap between army forces. That gap was exploited by a tank division led by Ariel Sharon, and he managed to penetrate onto Egyptian soil, reaching Suez city. In the meantime, the United States initiated a strategic airlift to provide replacement weapons and supplies to Israel and appropriate $2.2 billion in emergency aid. OPEC oil ministers led by Saudi Arabia retaliated with an oil embargo against the U.S. A UN resolution supported by the United States and the Soviet Union called for an end to hostilities and for peace talks to begin. On March 5, 1974 Israel withdrew the last of its troops from the west side of the Suez Canal, and 12 days later Arab oil ministers announced the end of the embargo against the United States. For Sadat and many Egyptians the war was seen as a victory, as the initial Egyptian successes restored Egyptian pride and led to peace talks with the Israelis that eventually allowed Egypt to regain the entire Sinai peninsula in exchange for a peace agreement.

Relations with United States

In foreign relations Sadat instigated momentous change, shifting Egypt from a policy of confrontation with Israel to one of peaceful accommodation through negotiations. Following the Sinai Disengagement Agreements of 1974 and 1975, Sadat created a fresh opening for progress by his dramatic visit to Jerusalem in November 1977. This led to an invitation from President Jimmy Carter of the United States to President Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Begin to enter trilateral negotiations at Camp David.

The outcome was the historic Camp David accords, signed by Egypt and Israel and witnessed by the U.S. on September 17, 1978. The accords led to the March 26, 1979, signing of the Egypt–Israel Peace Treaty, by which Egypt regained control of the Sinai in May 1982. Throughout this period, U.S.–Egyptian relations steadily improved, and Egypt became one of America’s largest recipients of foreign aid. Sadat’s willingness to break ranks by making peace with Israel earned him the enmity of most other Arab states, however. In 1977, Egypt fought a short border war with Libya.

Reforms Under Sadat

Sadat used his immense popularity with the Egyptian people to try to push through vast economic reforms that ended the socialistic controls of Nasserism. Sadat introduced greater political freedom and a new economic policy, the most important aspect of which was the Infitah or “open door.” This relaxed government controls over the economy and encouraged private investment. While the reforms created a wealthy and successful upper class and a small middle class, they had little effect upon the average Egyptian who began to grow dissatisfied with Sadat’s rule. In 1977, Infitah policies led to massive spontaneous riots (‘Bread Riots’) involving hundreds of thousands of Egyptians when the state announced that it was retiring subsidies on basic foodstuffs.

Liberalization also included the reinstitution of due process and the legal banning of torture. Sadat dismantled much of the existing political machine and brought to trial a number of former government officials accused of criminal excesses during the Nasser era. Sadat tried to expand participation in the political process in the mid-1970s but later abandoned this effort. In the last years of his life, Egypt was wracked by violence arising from discontent with Sadat’s rule and sectarian tensions and experienced a renewed measure of repression including extra judicial arrests.


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