195. Airgram From the Embassy in Ethiopia to the Department of State0
A–74. Subject: Egypt. For: The President, the Secretary and AID Administrator Fowler Hamilton. From: Chester Bowles.
My five days in and around Cairo were more encouraging than I had anticipated. Two talks with Nasser, totalling more than five hours, gave me an opportunity to outline the global policies of the new Administration in some depth, to exchange views on the Middle East, and to discuss the complexities of Egypt-US relations.
These talks were extremely cordial with no show of emotion at any time. Nasser was restrained, and his views were frankly and clearly presented. My discussions with Vice President Muhiyadin, Vice President Baghdadi, and Minister of the Presidency Ali Sabri, followed the same pattern.
It is clear that the UAR Government has made a decision to improve its relations with the US, and they considered my visit as the President’s Representative an opportunity to establish the basis for a more understanding relationship.[Page 482]
Ambassador Badeau reported in detail on our first visit with President Nasser before I left Cairo. A cabled summary of the Ambassador’s second report, which I have just seen, will also have reached the Department before this message. I have cabled from Khartoum a summary of my recommendations.1
A. Basic Considerations:
Because of its central position in the cultural life of the Arab World, its importance in Islamic affairs, its large population, its agricultural wealth and the capacity and fervor of its leaders, Egypt will almost certainly continue to play a pivotal role in Middle Eastern affairs.
In the face of a hostile Egypt no significant progress can be made toward solution of the Palestine problem nor can we achieve US objectives throughout the region.
- Short-term political accommodations will provide no more than a breathing space. Unless realistic answers can be found for Egypt’s multiplying population, the rising expectations of her people, and the severely limited economic base, the situation within this key nation will become increasingly explosive with widespread repercussions throughout the Middle East.
- On the other hand, if Nasser can gradually be led to forsake the microphone for the bulldozer, he may assume a key role in bringing the Middle East peacefully into our modern world.
B. Following Are My Brief Impressions of Nasser and the UAR Government:
- The government in Egypt is headed by some extremely competent men, most of them young, vigorous, and with a powerful dedication to their objectives.
- Whatever their defects I am persuaded that Nasser and his associates are sincerely dedicated to the improvement of conditions of the Egyptian people. They are conscious of the economic injustices which have plagued Egypt for generations and determined to eliminate them.
The leaders of the UAR are pragmatists searching for techniques that will enable them to expand their economy rapidly and to maintain their political grip.
Egyptian industry has been traditionally oriented towards extremely high, short-term profit margins and restrictive practices with little interest in basic long-range investment. Although the government made some effort to encourage foreign investment the results were disappointing.[Page 483]
When Nasser and his colleagues lost confidence in their ability to achieve their economic objectives through the Egyptian version of free enterprise, they began to move toward more centralized control.
The recent step up of economic centralization reflected the government’s frustration and anger following the Syrian break and the fear of a domestic coup in Egypt.
After moving far in the direction of public ownership the UAR Government now appears to be having some second thoughts. Several real or potential opponents of the regime have been released from jail. Some property has recently been returned to its owners.
In my talks with Nasser I stressed the political danger of any government taking responsibility for too many economic decisions. He appeared moderately responsive.
Nasser is acutely aware of the need for a better urban-rural balance. Several of his associates with whom I talked were born in the villages and expressed strong views on the traditional exploitation of the peasants and the need for what amounts to the creation of new rural societies based on small farms and cooperative credit and distribution systems.
The view of Nasser and his associates on the Soviet Union and Communist China appears to me to be equally pragmatic. They will use the Soviets as a source of arms or investment whenever it suits their purpose (precisely as they will use us). However, they are skeptical of Soviet economic and political concepts and even more skeptical of the Chinese.
If they have a model I believe it is Yugoslavia, which is developing its economy along equally pragmatic lines. Nasser indicated a surprising, practical knowledge of our own economy, particularly of our federal tax system and the division of our national income.
While Nasser and his colleagues are willing to take economic and military aid from the Sino-Soviet Bloc and to work closely with Tito, they are firmly intent on keeping Communism out of the Middle East. Nasser was scathing in his comments on theoretical Marxism; Vice-President Zakariya Muhiyadin and Presidential Intelligence Director Sami Sharaf were also outspoken on this point.
I believe it is fair to say that whatever frustrations we may have in Egypt in the next few years are likely to be more than equalled by those of the Kremlin.
The UAR takes the same view of Israel that the US takes of the USSR. We will make no headway by scorning this evaluation.
The Egyptians are aware of our initial and continuing support for Israel, and convinced that our government cannot stand against internal Zionist pressure. They believe that the US reaction to the Suez attack was the exception rather than the rule.[Page 484]
Nasser and his associates recognize and fear Israeli superiority on the ground and in the air, its economic power, its skilled and educated population and its potential nuclear and rocket capacity.
Because they know we are aware of these points, they did not belabor them. Yet they clearly formed the underlying basis of our discussion of Israeli-Egyptian relations, present and future.
In the same way, the Egyptians are convinced that the British and the French have not given up their determination to destroy Nasser which led to the Suez attack in 1956. Their intelligence service is firmly convinced that the British are now actively involved with the Israelis in some activity in the Sinai-Negev area.
They genuinely believe the British and the Jordanians were deeply involved in Lebanon (and offered to provide proof of this). They are persuaded that the French mission members, now on trial in Cairo, were plotting the murder of Nasser.
We may dismiss all this as emotional and irrational, as a demonstration of paranoia or whatever. Yet it forms the basis of what is in effect an Egyptian “National Intelligence Estimate” and in dealing with Egypt we must take it into account.
Nasser and his associates are products of a colonial past, scarred by deep-seated suspicions, frustrations, and plagued by a sense of weakness and inferiority.
Coming into power themselves through conspiracy and having cut their teeth on British intelligence fact and fancy, they are in effect human seismographs reacting violently to every adverse wave.
All this leads me to believe that the current US view of Nasser and his colleagues is oversimplified and defective. We have underestimated the basically revolutionary character of the regime.
While reacting with understandable irritation to Egyptian plotting and diatribe, we have tended to overlook the profound strategic importance of Egypt and Nasser to the future of the Middle East.
From the standpoint of US objectives the outlook in the UAR is in no sense hopeless. By wise policies there is a reasonable chance that we can modify Egyptian hostility and gradually turn the country into a more constructive force.
In any event our past policies have been resounding failures and we have little to lose in attempting to formulate a more affirmative relationship.
C. The Points I Made to Nasser:
During my own talks with Nasser I emphasized several points:
In the event of a Soviet attack the US is confident of its continuing ability to inflict unacceptable damage to the Soviet Union. Furthermore, [Page 485]we have the will to face up to the Soviet threats. (I do not think the Egyptians harbor any doubts on this score.)
At the same time, we have no conflict with the Russian people. We genuinely seek an arms control system with suitable safeguards, and we are prepared to negotiate sincerely towards this end.
We are also determined to use our great economic power and that of our Atlantic Community allies to enable and encourage non-Communist Asian, African and Latin American nations to build viable economies. I believe that Nasser realizes this and hopes to profit from it.
In this context we have no wish to impose our system upon other nations. Our assistance programs in Yugoslavia and Ghana bear witness to this principle.
I was frank in saying that in many ways the policies which the new Administration inherited in January 1961 were the result of the special pressures of the post-war period. Of particular importance was our concern that the Soviet Union, which had launched the North Korean armies across the 38th parallel, might embark on similar aggressions elsewhere.
Although the principles on which these policies are based may no longer be relevant in all instances, we shall faithfully live up to the commitments already made.
In dealing with many countries, however, we will gradually move towards a different emphasis which will be more in line with the realities with which both we and they must contend in the coming years.
I laid particular stress on US objectives in the Middle East, emphasizing again and again that we had no desire to control the area (even if we could), that we are no longer narrowly dependent on Middle Eastern oil, and that our primary objective is to foster the development of independent countries capable of making their own free choices within the framework of their own cultures.
In particular, we had no desire to bring pressure to bear on Egypt. We accept Egypt’s policy of non-alignment and as long as the Cairo Government remains truly non-aligned we have no desire to change the situation.
We understand the overriding emotional pressures generated in both Cairo and Tel Aviv by the Israeli-Arab conflict and we harbor no illusions that the present impasse can easily be liquidated.
Above all we were earnestly hopeful, first for a closer understanding between the United States and the nations of the Middle East, and second for more cooperative relations growing out of that understanding. We know that this cannot be achieved overnight and therefore expect no miracles.
We believe that the success or failure of the revolutionary efforts of the UAR in improving the lives of the Egyptian people and building a modern state will go far to determine the future not only of the Nasser government but the entire Middle East.
From the UAR’s point of view the outcome will depend not on the invective of propaganda speeches over the Voice of the Arabs but rather on the ability of the government to deal effectively and on a down-to-earth basis with the practical problems of the Egyptian people.
Nasser’s place in history will be determined by his capacity to meet this challenge.
D. Nasser’s Main Points:
Nasser did not make any new or unexpected comments or proposals. What was new was his mood and indication of receptivity to which I have referred. To emphasize his major concerns, however, I shall list Nasser’s key points:
- We should not aim our policies at individuals who will change over the years but rather to the evolution and development of Middle Eastern societies.
- Israel is a real and present danger to the UAR. The UAR will never attack first, but Israel has demonstrated its willingness to do so.
- In regard to Israel-UAR relations, the US should follow its national interests and not allow the special interests of a US minority to shape its policies.
- The traditional feudal society of Egypt is dead and the UAR Government, acting with the full support of the people, is determined to do away with its vestige.
- While the US and UAR have some differing or even conflicting objectives, we share several significant objectives. We should identify these objectives and work along parallel courses to achieve them.
- Communism as a political or economic system is unworkable in Africa or the Middle East.
E. Policy Conclusions and Recommendations:
I believe the time has come for a change of emphasis in our dealings with the UAR in general and with Nasser in particular. If Nasser were now riding high he might view any effort by us to establish a new relationship as an act of weakness.
However, Nasser is deeply conscious of the serious problems which now face him and his regime. Barring an assassination there is little likeliHood of his being replaced by an upheaval from within.
Under these circumstances I believe that a skillful, sophisticated, sensitive effort to establish a more affirmative relationship is called for. [Page 487]Furthermore, I believe that Nasser is likely to meet us more than half way.
We must not, however, expect too much. Although he is ready to be influenced, and perhaps influenced in a significant way, in no sense will he be subject to our control nor will his reactions ever be wholly predictable.
Ed Mason’s visit to the UAR comes at an opportune time. In my talks with both Nasser and his associates I stressed the need for the frankest kind of economic discussion between our two governments. I said that one of the reasons why our aid to Yugoslavia and India was so effective was the willingness of these governments to take us fully into their confidence.
Nasser and senior UAR officials promised me that they would give Mr. Mason their complete cooperation and stressed that they are eagerly awaiting his arrival.
If these economic talks are encouraging, I believe we should consider an expansion of our aid efforts, carefully qualified, of course, by the degree of UAR cooperation and performance.
Although I do not want to emphasize my personal ideas on Egypt’s economic development on the eve of the Mason mission, I would like to suggest that US aid to the rural areas of Egypt is likely to pay particularly big dividends.
The Aswan Dam will gradually increase Egypt’s cultivated lands by roughly one-third. This will require the creation of new communities to farm these lands, with new schools, roads, clinics, and a modern rural extension service. Plans for this comprehensive effort are in the earliest planning stages.
This development will profoundly affect the lives of the millions of Egyptians who will occupy these lands. If we were to take the leadership on a down-to-earth basis in organizing this vast new source of productivity, we may obtain greater practical political dividends from the Aswan High Dam than the Russians themselves.
Our PL-480 funds are already playing an important role in Egypt. I think that I was able to persuade Nasser of their vast importance in helping build his country. This program could well be expanded and extended.
In addition, the Egyptians will undoubtedly try to persuade Ed Mason of their need for a loan of roughly $125 million to purchase machinery in the US for industrial development. Our response to this proposal, it seems to me, should be tied to the feasibility of each project as well as to the political temperature in the next sixty to ninety days.
Although he gave no hint, it is clear that Nasser would be pleased by an invitation to visit the United States. He spoke in the warmest terms [Page 488]of the recent letters from President Kennedy. The fact that he and his senior officials returned to the subject several times persuaded me that their respect for the President is genuine.
An invitation may help to moderate his attitudes and pronouncements and to keep him in better balance.
It would be naive, however, for us to assume that such a visit would assure us a docile UAR. For instance, it would not be surprising following his visit to the US if Nasser should attempt to redress the balance by a visit to the Soviet Union.
Although there are strong arguments on both sides of the case, on balance I am persuaded that we have much more to gain than to lose by inviting Nasser to the US. In my view the time has come to take the plunge.
If we agree that it will be wise to issue the invitation, the next question involves the timing. If he comes soon the pressure of Congressional matters and the forthcoming elections point to a visit the latter half of April. Otherwise, I believe it should be postponed to sometime in November following the elections.
The arguments in favor of the later date are in some ways persuasive. It may be argued that by inviting Nasser now to visit us in November we will receive some immediate benefits, while providing a lever which may serve to moderate his activities and utterances during the next eight months.
In addition, it may be said that it is safer to invite him after the elections since an incident might occur during his visit which would be embarrassing from a political point of view.
On balance, however, I favor the April date. Our relations with the UAR are now more susceptible to improvement than at any point since 1956 and Nasser’s expectancy that these relations can be furthered is very real.
Moreover, I am convinced that key Jewish leaders in the US may be persuaded to see the advantages for Israel should a visit result in genuine relaxation of tensions in the area.
If the meeting is postponed until November there is an excellent chance that the present fragile expectancy may be destroyed by some sudden development in the Middle East or elsewhere, and the opportunity lost.
Moreover, once the invitation has been offered it will surely become public. If the visit is eight months away trouble makers in both the United States and in the Middle East will have ample time to deprive us of what I believe may be an opportunity to improve our relations with this difficult, unpredictable, but key country.
On balance, therefore, I suggest that the President write Nasser as soon as possible along the following lines:
The President has seen the report of my visit with President Nasser and his colleagues and is extremely pleased to hear of the breadth of our discussions and the cordial basis on which they were conducted. This encourages him to feel that a more precise identification of our areas of common interest would be beneficial.
To this end, he would like to suggest that President Nasser come to the United States for a visit as the President’s guest. This would give him an opportunity to see something of our country and also to discuss at greater length some of the common problems which we face in all parts of the world.
The latter part of April would be a particularly convenient time for President Kennedy and he urgently hopes that President Nasser can accept.
In closing let me underscore my conviction that we must not lose sight of our strategic interests in any part of the world as a result of frustrations with individual personalities, however exasperating they may be.
It would be foolhardy for us to expect Nasser or any likely successor to stop acting like the revolutionary leader that he clearly is, no matter what gestures toward him we may make.
Progress towards a more constructive relationship, however, is possible. If the present opportunity is missed it may not soon reoccur.