Why Did Sadat Throw the Soviets Out of Egypt?

Roundup: Talking About History

Craig A. Daigle, in the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA)(March 2004):

The decision by Egyptian President Anwar al-Sadat to remove the Soviet military presence from his country during the summer of 1972 has often been viewed as the first step on the road to the October War the following year. By removing the Soviet presence, it has been argued, Sadat was also removing the major obstacle preventing him from engaging in another war with Israel.(1) Though Sadat insisted at the time that the expulsion of the Soviets was simply a result of the growing differences between Moscow and Cairo,(2) and while others have argued that their removal was a direct result of the Soviet-American detente,(3) it seemed clear that since Moscow was opposed to risking its new relationship with the United States by supporting Egypt in another war with Israel, Sadat had no choice but to ask for their departure.

In Washington, American officials were reportedly "shocked" to learn of Sadat's announcement. Henry Kissinger later recalled that Sadat's decision came as a "complete surprise to Washington," and he quickly met with the Soviet ambassador to dispel any notion that the United States had colluded with the Egyptians in reaching this end.(4) President Nixon, similarly, hurried a letter to Leonid Brezhnev, claiming the United States had "no advanced knowledge of the recent events in Egypt," and assured the Soviet Premier that the United States would "take no unilateral actions in the Middle East" as a result of the recent developments.(5)

Early scholarly treatment of Sadat's decision to remove the Soviet military presence has generally fallen in line with this official account. William B. Quandt, for example, argued that the expulsion of the Soviet advisors came at "curious" time in Washington since Nixon was preoccupied with an election campaign and would not risk his lead in the polls "by embarking on a controversial policy in the Middle East."(6) In his study of the Soviet-Egyptian relationship, Alvin Z. Rubinstein also concluded that "as far as can be determined Sadat consulted no one; his decision was his own."(7)

More recently, scholars have placed the expulsion in the context of Soviet-American relations rather than in the deteriorating relationship between Egypt and Russia. In Raymond L. Garthoff's view, it was the agreements reached between the United States and the Soviet Union during the 1972 Moscow Summit, which effectively put the Arab-Israeli conflict on the backburner, that became the "last straw" for Sadat.(8) Henry Kissinger reached similar conclusions in his 1994 study Diplomacy, in which he argued that "the first sign that [detente] was having an impact came in 1972 [when] Egyptian President Anwar Sadat dismissed all his Soviet military advisors and asked Soviet technicians to leave the country."(9)

Without archival evidence, however, several questions surrounding Sadat's decision to expel the Soviet military presence from Egypt still remain: To what extent did the United States have prior knowledge of Sadat's intentions? Did the United States work with Sadat in seeking the removal of the Soviets? And was the expulsion of the Soviet military presence from Egypt really the first step to the October War, as some have argued, or was it simply the easiest way for Sadat to tell the United States that he was prepared to take Egypt in a new direction?

New material emerging from American archives and summarized in this article suggests that Sadat's decision to remove the Soviet advisors was hardly the surprise that American officials later claimed it to be. Documents now declassified from State Department and National Security Council files, as well as numerous hours of recorded conversations between President Nixon and his senior foreign policy advisors, show that as early as May 1971, over a year before the expulsion of the Soviet advisors, American officials were well aware of Sadat's intentions and worked aggressively to ensure the removal of the Soviet presence from Egypt. Throughout the summer of 1971, these sources show, the Nixon administration took numerous steps to help Sadat remove the Soviet military presence from his country. We now know, in fact, that Nixon's decision to suspend the supply of aircrafts to Israel at the end of June, and his decision to aggressively press for the reopening of the Suez Canal as part of an interim agreement between Egypt and Israel had just as much to do with getting the Soviets out of Egypt as it did with finding a long-term peace agreement between Egypt and Israel.

Just as important, though, these new sources demonstrate that the expulsion of the Soviet military presence had very little to do with preparing Egypt for another war with Israel. For Sadat, the decision to remove the Soviets was clearly a decision he had made from the earliest days of his presidency to not only become much closer to the West, but to avoid another war with Israel, which he knew Egypt would undoubtedly lose.

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