Tuesday, July 24, 2012

40 Years Since the Expulsion of Soviet Advisers from Egypt: The Riddle of the Sphinx

The election of the new president of Egypt, Mohamed Morsi, has again focused attention on the future of Egypt and its relations with Israel. In the past, Mr. Morsi's party attacked the peace treaty Egypt signed with Israel in 1979, but upon his election, Morsi declared that Egypt would honor all international agreements.

The uncertainty about Egypt's future course recalls the checkered history of its relations with Israel. Forty years ago, President Anwar el-Sadat made a sudden and dramatic move when he expelled 20,000 Soviet advisers from Egypt on July 18, 1972. In hindsight, this step can be seen as the beginning of Egypt's move away from the Soviet orbit and towards rapprochement with the United States of America. At the time, Israel believed that the move would weaken Egypt militarily, and this belief strengthened the view that war with Egypt was unlikely in the near future. Only a minority wondered if the step would make war more likely by untying Sadat's hands.

The Prime Minister of Israel at the time, Golda Meir, took the opportunity to call on Sadat, in a speech in the Knesset, Israel's Parliament, to adopt a new policy of peace. "I appeal to the President of Egypt as the leader of a great people, a people with an ancient heritage, whose future is ahead of it, with all the feeling of responsibility which must beat in the heart of a responsible leader. Is it not meet [sic] that we decide to halt today and to strike out on a new path, never to return to the course which has led to death, destruction and frustration, without bringing peace?"

In this speech, Meir also refers to the contacts between Egypt and Israel through the United States on a limited agreement to open the Suez Canal and other steps towards peace, contacts which so far had failed to yield broader results. In a letter to the Chancellor of West Germany, Willy Brandt--published here for the first time--Meir analyzes the situation in Egypt after the expulsion of the advisers.

She describes Israel's willingness to make concessions and asks Brandt, an anti-Nazi and fellow Socialist who had close ties with Israeli Labor party leaders, to help Israel and to prevent other European leaders from interfering in the negotiations. Finally, Meir expresses the hope that Sadat would decide on direct negotiations with Israel. This hope was to be realized only in 1977, after another round of fighting between the two nations.


  1. I don't think "meet" should be followed by [sic] there. As an adjective, meet means proper or appropriate, which works in this phrasing.

  2. Thank you, you are quite right. I copied the quote from the Knesset website and didn't notice the "sic".

  3. There never were anywhere near 20,000 Soviet "advisers" in Egypt -- that is, officers attached to Egyptian military units -- and the few thousand who actually were there were not "expelled." The similar number of Soviet servicemen who did leave Egypt in the summer and autumn of 1972 were the personnel of the integral Soviet formations (mainly an air defense brigade and several fighter squadrons) which had been stationed there since the War of Attrition in 1969-1970 and had completed their mission. This was not a unilateral or "sudden" expulsion; it was an agreed withdrawal -- agreed not only between the Egyptians and Soviets, but also in lengthy discussions with the United States, in the figure of National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger. The genuine advisers mostly remained and continued to prepare Egyptian forces for the cross-canal offensive in October 1973, as witness the fact that the evacuation of their dependents shortly before the war was one of the indications that Israel detected, but failed to act upon. In July 1972, the Egyptians and Soviets successfully created the impression of a rift between them due to supposed Soviet denial of support and weapons.for Sadat's war plans. This indeed contributed to Israel's notorious "Concept" whereby Egypt was.incapable of launching an attack. See our paper "The Tyranny of Vested-Interest Sources: Shaping the Record of Soviet Intervention in the Egyptian-Israeli Conflict, 1967–1973," Journal of the Middle East and Africa 1:1 (2010), http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/21520841003688995 .
    Isabella Ginor and Gideon Remez, Research Fellows, Truman Institute, Hebrew University