Reem Abou-El-Fadl, Foreign Policy as Nation Making: Turkey and Egypt in the Cold War, Part of ‘Global Middle East’ series (Cambridge University Press, 2019).

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Reem Abou-El-Fadl (RF): I had been interested in the politics of Arab national liberation for many years, and particularly in the role played by Gamal Abdel Nasser’s Egypt in the mid-twentieth century. At the same time, I had studied Turkish history, and was fascinated by the parallels between Arab and Ottoman-Turkish engagements with Western European empire. These different experiences seemed to have informed the shaping of each political system during independence, and continued to color foreign policy discourse in each case. I wanted to investigate this further, and settled on the 1950s as a decade of transformation for both Nasser in Egypt and the Democrat Party in Turkey, during which each leadership sought significant influence in regional politics.

Reading more Middle East literature, however, I found that Turkey and Egypt were rarely directly compared, and were instead analyzed according to the domestic/international binary: there were many valuable studies of nation-building, political economy, and foreign policy, but few that explored the connections between them. This reflected a lack of engagement between theoretical scholarship on nationalism and international relations. I was also struck by the amount of writing on foreign policy that relied predominantly on British and US state archives. This tended to center the role of great powers and downplay the agency of regional states. For example, the conventional wisdom explained Turkey’s accession to NATO as a reaction to Soviet expansionism and described Egypt as instrumentalizing pan-Arabism in pursuit of regional hegemony, and in a vain attempt to balance superpower pressures.

I wanted to use Turkish and Egyptian primary documents to tell the stories of their post-independence leaderships using their own words and highlighting their own perspectives. I wished to understand how the national and the international intersected in their worldviews, and how they both grappled with the challenges of colonial modernity. As my fieldwork progressed, I developed an argument about foreign policy as an arena for nation-making. By presenting it through two Middle East cases, I hoped to make a modest contribution to the literature on nationalism after empire.

J:  What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

RF: The book begins with a puzzle presented by the Turkish and Egyptian leaders’ opposing positions in the 1950s. By 1955, Turkey’s Democrat Party government had secured NATO membership, and its leaders were encouraging their Arab neighbors to join a Western-backed security pact. Egypt’s Free Officers were promoting a pan-Arab mutual defense alliance instead, within a neutralist, Afro-Asian bloc. Why did Turkey and Egypt’s foreign policy stances diverge so much in the 1950s, given their shared historical experience of European encroachment, and its impact on their state formation? The Turkish republic was established after the much-celebrated War of Independence, and the perennial fear of being swallowed by imperial powers was known as “the Sèvres Syndrome” years after the 1920 treaty was overturned. So why the rush to the Western fold?

I argue that we need to rethink foreign policy as an arena for nation-making, in order to explain these decisions. Leaders form their nationalist commitments in a context shaped by international connections, and they can only pursue these commitments in a dynamic with international interlocutors. The latter may enable—or obstruct—recognition of the nation’s sovereignty, its narratives of national belonging, and its leaders’ pledges on national progress. So, nation-making is far from bound within a “domestic” sphere, and leaders will seek to intervene in, and instrumentalize, the international in the realisation of their nationalist commitments. Understanding the contours of the national project, then, can illuminate a particular administration’s foreign affairs. This approach brings critical theories of international relations and nationalism into conversation, while preserving an emphasis on the agency of political leaders.

In the case of Turkey, I show that the pursuit of NATO reflected the Democrats’ westernizing nation-making project and not simply a flight from Soviet overtures. The Democrats explicitly aimed to transform Turkey into a “little America,” in keeping with the defensive modernization tradition begun by the Ottoman Empire vis-à-vis its European rivals. Meanwhile, Egyptian neutralism was not merely a response to the Cold War framework of bipolarity. It originated in an effort to secure the end of British colonial influence, to promote a pan-Arab framework for Egyptian national belonging, and to launch national development projects. In addition, political leaders negotiated dilemmas between their nation-making objectives and their limited resources: this drove the evolution of their foreign policy over time. These contrasts between the two nation-making projects are key to understanding the divergences between Turkey and Egypt’s foreign policies.

This approach to foreign policy analysis reveals new dimensions of each leadership’s nation-making project in turn. In Turkey, I find new evidence for the significant role of the Ottoman state tradition of Orientalism, which proved to be constitutive of Democrat stances vis-à-vis the Arab world. I contribute this perspective to the critical literature on Turkish nationalism, which has focused on anti-Kurdish/Armenian/Greek discourses in Turkish nationalist narratives so far. Meanwhile, I show that pan-Arabism was an early feature of the Egyptian nation-making project, adopted before British withdrawal, and perpetuated later by Israeli attacks. In this way, the book contributes new perspectives on postcolonial and anticolonial nationalisms in the Global South, where existing literature has often focused on South Asia.

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?

RF: This book came out of the research for my master’s thesis, which was a rethinking of the comparison of Kemal Atatürk and Gamal Abdel Nasser as nation builders. The two leaders were frequently considered together in scholarship on the politics of independence in the Middle East, and either overt or latent comparisons would class the former as a success and the latter as a resounding failure. Examining this pattern, I showed how these value judgments reflected a particular set of Eurocentric categories associated with modernization theory.

As I was writing, however, I felt that the issue was exacerbated by a particular omission in all these comparisons, including my own—namely inadequate attention to the impact of world politics on nation-making. I felt that an analysis of these nation builders’ programmes that did not account for their regional and international contexts, and for the legacies of empire, was incomplete. This led me to a research interest in nationalism and the channels for its expression in the international, as well as the decision to explore a single period, the 1950s, to enable direct comparison. 

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

RF: I hope the book will reach students and scholars with an interest in anticolonial and postcolonial movements and states in the Middle East, and in Asia and Africa more broadly. At the same time, I hope it will appeal to critical foreign policy scholars with an interest in the Global South, as I have made an effort to write across disciplinary boundaries, and to offer new primary sources.

I would like the book to encourage students of Arab politics and history to think comparatively with Turkey, and vice versa, and to undertake the language learning that would facilitate this. I also hope that the book might one day reach readers from the Middle East in their own languages. I have cited many important works written by scholars from Turkey and Egypt, and would be delighted if my book could become part of the conversations that they have inspired.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

RF: I am currently pursuing two research projects. The first examines the politics of transnational solidarity and resistance in Egypt during the 1970s, by exploring popular engagement with the Arab-Israeli conflict and the Palestinian cause in the run-up to the Camp David Accords. I began it by interviewing members of the 1972-3 Egyptian student movement, who protested Anwar Sadat’s move to a separate peace with Israel.

My second project investigates the African and Afro-Asian engagements of the Egyptian state and popular actors during the Nasser era. I am fortunate to be a member of the Afro-Asian Networks Collective research team, with whom my most recent collaboration was an article on the 1957 Afro-Asian Peoples’ Solidarity Conference.

I also have a keen interest in translation. I recently edited the memoir of Egyptian Africanist and leftist Helmi Sharawy, Sira Misriyya Ifriqiyya (“An Egyptian African Story”). I am currently translating the memoir into English.

J: How does your book help us understand politics in Turkey and Egypt today?

RF: Turkey and Egypt’s political influence has clearly endured in recent decades, one as a prominent member of the Atlantic Pact, the other as a leader among Arab states. My book explores the decade in which both of these trajectories began. It also maps out the evolution of alliances and rivalries that continue to be critical today, such as those between Egypt and Syria, Saudi Arabia, and Israel, between Europe, the United States and Israel, and between Russia and the United States.

Furthermore, as I discuss in my concluding chapter, the pursuit of nationalist commitments continues to animate foreign policy debate and practice in both Turkey and Egypt, and the legacy of the 1950s is often invoked in contemporary political claims-making. In Turkey, the Democrats’ foreign policy choices have proved enduring, and helped establish a center-right tradition which Recep Tayyip Erdoğan appropriated in his rise to power. Meanwhile, the 1950s experience in Egypt gave rise to the political tradition of Nasserism, which has been invoked and repurposed by Arab opposition movements from Tunisia to Iraq. My book helps to uncover the origins of these formative discourses and stances in Turkish and Egyptian politics today.


Excerpt from the book:

From chapter five: ‘Neutralism and Pan-Arabism in Egypt, 1952-54: Securing Sovereignty’

Beyond Egypt

This nation making endeavour was pursued in the Arab world in earnest from 1953 onwards, through three main channels. The first was diplomacy and public statements, coordinated by the CCR and Foreign Ministry. The second was information gathering, Arab political networking, and supporting Arab liberation movements. This was conducted by the Arab Affairs Bureau of the new intelligence apparatus, which Nasser had commissioned in early 1953. The third channel was the media, most notably Sawt al-‘Arab (‘The Voice of the Arabs’), a radio station founded by the Arab Bureau in 1953. Over that year, the latter two channels served to prepare the ground for the official launching of pan-Arabist policy in 1954.

In early 1953, senior Free Officer and Chief of General Intelligence Zakariyya Muhyi al-Din had chosen Fathi al-Deeb to found the new Arab Affairs Bureau, and to draw up a plan that would achieve ‘the tying of the Arab homeland… with Cairo, in preparation for the exercise of our positive role in the liberation of its occupied parts.’ As Muhyi al-Din saw it, ‘the liberation of Egypt is not an achievement of the July Revolution’s goals… if the occupied areas of the Arab homeland are not liberated.’ According to al-Deeb, in March 1953, Nasser personally offered the following guidelines – ‘Egypt is a part of the Arab world, and any Arab effort on our part is a completion of our work inside Egypt.’ The plan provided for a first exploratory stage of a year, after which a second plan could be devised for public diplomacy in the Arab arena. Private papers from April 1953 show Nasser’s plans to ‘forge strong connections with Arab leaders’, and to ‘draw benefit from the international’. He goes on to name figures to be contacted including Syrians of all political stripes: communist Akram al-Hawrani, Ba‘th co-founders Salah Bitar and Michel Aflaq, and oppositional People’s Party co-founder Ma’ruf al-Dawalibi.

By July 1953, al-Deeb had founded the extraordinarily influential Sawt al-‘Arab radio station, a major arm of Egyptian nation making through foreign policy thereafter. Nasser told its manager, Ahmad Said: ‘I want this radio to be one of the revolution’s weapons for the realisation of Egyptian and Arab independence. The radio will be one of the most important weapons of the future.’ Said travelled across the Arab world reporting on its liberation movements, and would soon become ‘Nasser’s Other Voice’. US dispatches at the time, often cited in the secondary literature, claimed that ‘by 1957, Nasser was taking a personal interest’ in its broadcasts – this was in fact true from the start. Both Said and al-Deeb cite Nasser’s approval of the plan for the station on 31 March 1953, his request to see commentaries before broadcast, as well as their many meetings with him. Indeed Nasser’s private papers include jotted down notes for themes of radio programmes, including ‘an Arab Palestine radio station,’ and ‘the broadcast of all that has been printed against the Turkish [Pakistani] Pact on Sawt al-‘Arab and in “What the Press Said”.’ It also refers to ‘drama series about Zionism and focusing hatred on Zionism and Israel’. The programmes of Sawt al-Arab were already reflecting a varied geographical range, with contributions from Palestinian refugees, Tunisian political activists, and coverage of the French attacks on Cairo Radio for its support for Algeria. Plays written for the radio often provided comment on current news, from the progress of Anglo-Egyptian talks to the Anglo-Saudi dispute over the Buraimi Oasis.

Al-Deeb and assistant Izzat Suleiman also began gathering information on Arab political activity: in Cairo, they met with members of the Arab League’s General Secretariat, as well as Arab political exiles. In December, al-Deeb began preliminary field visits to Syria and Lebanon. Over 1954, he and three colleagues conducted exploratory visits to Iraq, Jordan and Libya. There they made contact with oppositional movements, many of which requested Egyptian support. The Bureau also cultivated ties with Arab students in Cairo, who numbered over 35,000 in 1954, seeking particularly those involved in political activism. In late May 1954, a particularly high profile event was organised in which members of the CCR met with a group of Arab students studying in Egypt at an iftar dinner organised by the Ministry of National Guidance. Students invited were from Morocco, Syria, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Algeria, Yemen, and their speeches as well as those of Nasser and Salah Salim were broadcast on Sawt al-‘Arab and the Cairo’s home service respectively.

A third strand of the intelligence officials’ work was to foster ties with liberation movements. After France’s exile of King Muhammad V in August 1953, Sawt al-‘Arab had covered the Moroccan uprisings extensively, and the CCR had brought the Maghreb to the top of its agenda. The Bureau began talks with representatives from political parties in Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria in March 1954. In April, Cairo convened a conference of these representatives under the auspices of the Arab League, expressly aimed at evaluating their capacities, to coordinate them for armed struggle. Out of this conference emerged a special relationship between the Egyptians and Ahmed Ben Bella of Algeria’s National Liberation Front (FLN). The CCR soon committed military support to the FLN and began coordinated planning for the start of armed struggle in 1954. This led to the launching of the Algerian revolution on 1 November, declared publicly on Sawt al-‘Arab. The Arab Bureau had also asked Ben Bella to make contact on its behalf with fellow groups in Morocco and Tunisia, to whom Egypt would offer similar support later on. In these early policies, the CCR was asserting a pan-Arabist view of its duties: this, together with the activism of Sawt al-‘Arab, became a principal cause for French hostility to the revolution.

The further implication of this nationalist policy in the international realm was the fostering of a pan-Arab alliance. In parallel with the covert, exploratory aspects of this phase, there were several indications in public diplomacy of Egypt’s proposed pan-Arab alternative to the Western bloc over 1953. In May, the CCR convened a meeting of the Arab League states, which agreed to a coordinated policy against colonial threats, and pledged support to Egypt in its struggle with Britain. In August, Nasser called together the Arab chiefs of staff, whom he entreated to cooperate in order ‘to turn the words of the Arab Collective Security Pact into action’, reminding them of the bitter lessons learned in Palestine. Addressing a first ‘Arab-Islamic Conference’ at the Liberation Rally headquarters, Nasser emphasised:

Colonialism is dealing its blows everywhere, and the Arab and Islamic worlds stand today at a crossroads: it is either the path of humiliation and subjugation, or the path of dignity and freedom, and we alone must decide which of these paths we take. Either supplication, surrender and division, which allows our enemy to dominate us, or dignity, self-worth and unity that rids us of that enemy. The Arabs and Muslims everywhere… must believe that that they are battling one enemy, colonialism, and they must reunite under the banner of unity and struggle…

In public statements, Nasser elaborated his view of the potential of coordinated Arab foreign policy: ‘We have an inner strength that cannot be defeated by military power – we have oil, which fuels the European army…’ This new direction was made official with the reformulations of foreign policy declared in January 1954: the first called for the establishment of an Arab bloc, free from imperialist influence, to protect the interests of the Islamic, Asian and African peoples. The second called for a treaty among these peoples to this end, and the third similarly endorsed an African bloc, to include those still ‘under the imperialist yoke’.

The innovation of Nasser’s pan-Arabist national project was its extension beyond the traditional confines of the nation-state, to become regionally directed, and actively concerned with orienting Arab citizens towards a shared conception of community. To reach – and mobilise – Arab audiences, Nasser made effective use of state radio and media. Contrary to citations of contemporary British reports in the literature, the impact of Sawt al-‘Arab in the Arab countries was far from negligible in 1953-4. The station soon achieved wide acclaim across the Arab Gulf, Maghreb, Levant states and Iraq. Egyptian officials noted this in particular during their exploratory visits over 1954, after the radio’s airtime was quadrupled in April. In June, National Guidance Minister Salah Salim held a series of meetings on the ‘political direction of the Egyptian Broadcasting Service’, and tasked Foreign Ministry Secretary for Arab Affairs Mahmud Riyad with forming a committee to supervise Sawt al-‘Arab broadcasts.

The Free Officers’ speeches to Arab audiences also substantiated and popularised a narrative of Arab community, consistently juxtaposing it with the threat of colonialism. An early example is Nasser’s July 1954 speech on the first anniversary of Sawt al-‘Arab:

Egypt launched ‘The Voice of the Arabs’ from your heart, Cairo, in war against the imperialists… to declare your identity and power. […] We are happy to see that our voice, ‘The Voice of the Arabs’, has realised Arab unity, as it has gathered all the Arabs around it, their minds pondering together the problems of the one Arab nation, and their struggle taking shape through its struggle for eternal Arab freedom.