Defence Diplomacy in the Cold War: The Experiences of British Military Attachés in Egypt, 1968-1973

Geraint Hughes

The terms ‘defence diplomacy’ and ‘defence engagement’ are used to describe some of the aspects of military activity that fall outside the direct use of force. These can include multinational exercises, the diplomatic liaison work of military attachés posted at embassies, port visits by naval vessels, the provision of training teams and loan service personnel, and defence sales exhibitions. For Britain in the late 1960s-early 1970s, these activities became a means of support strategic interests in the Middle East, as after the ‘East of Suez’ withdrawals (1968-1971) the UK lacked the traditional tools of power projection conveyed by an overt military presence. My own research interests have led me to examine the use of defence diplomacy/defence engagement in Anglo-Egyptian relations during the final years of Jamal Abdel Nasser’s Presidency and his succession by Anwar Sadat, the findings of which will be published soon in a book edited by my colleague Greg Kennedy.

While there is no shortage of scholarly literature on the collapse of bilateral relations between Britain and Egypt in the early to mid-1950s, Anglo-Egyptian ties experienced a renaissance subsequently in the early years of Sadat’s Presidency. One of the main causes of this rapprochement was Sadat’s frustration with Egypt’s alliance with the USSR, and his desire to break ties with Moscow and seek closer relations with the USA and other Western powers. Egypt’s President had concluded that the best means of recovering the Sinai territory lost in the Six Day War (5th-11th June 1967) – and indeed of signing a peace deal with Israel – was to switch sides as far as Cold War hostilities was concerned. Sadat’s eviction of Soviet advisors and military units stationed on Egyptian soil in July 1972 provided a clear indication of his intention to change allegiances from East to West, and the British in particular were keen to exploit this opportunity to encourage Egypt’s defection from the Soviet orbit.

At the forefront of this effort were the military attachés at Her Majesty’s Embassy in Cairo. Consisting of a British Army Colonel as the defence attaché, a Royal Navy Commander and (after 1970) an RAF Wing Commander, their initial role during the period under discussion involved intelligence-gathering, with particular reference to the weaponry and equipment that the Soviet military contingent had brought with them. There were scant opportunities for defence sales – given the scale of the USSR’s aid to Egypt – and contacts with host nation military personnel were closely restricted. Britain’s attachés (as well as those of other non-Soviet bloc countries) were also kept under intrusive surveillance by the Egyptian mukhabarat, who kept much of the country out of bounds to foreigners. Nonetheless, even in these conditions the attaché team in Cairo was able to deliver valuable reporting to both the Ministry of Defence (MOD) and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Furthermore, they noticed that relations between the Egyptian military and its superpower ally were less than amicable. In a report from the autumn of 1968 the naval attaché, Commander R. A. S. Irving, noted a remark by one of his Egyptian counterparts that ‘[we] are having to shake hands with the devil, and Cairo is full of them’. It was clear from his comments what nationality these ‘devils’ were.

The first signs of a thaw came on 14th July 1971, when Irving’s successor – Commander John Marriott – met with the Chief of Staff of the Egyptian Armed Forces, Major-General Sa’ad Shazli. This meeting led not only to a visit to the Royal Navy’s Equipment exhibition that October by a delegation headed by Egypt’s Chief of Naval Operations, Rear-Admiral Ashraf Mohammed Rifaat, but a follow-on series of visits by senior Egyptian officers to the UK, and also a reciprocal visit by the Commander of British Forces in the Near East, Air Marshal Sir Derek Hodgkinson, in February 1972. Sadat’s expulsion of the Soviets the following July appeared to the Conservative government of Edward Heath to offer the UK the opportunity to sell arms to Egypt for the first time in nearly two decades, with not only the commercial benefits involved but the strategic reward of mending fences with the Arab world’s most populous nation. Marriott and his Army and RAF counterparts – Colonel Tony Lewis and Wing Commander David Barnicoat – enthusiastically supported the development of this new relationship. However, from Whitehall’s perspective there were clear snags, explored in more detail in a forthcoming article of mine in The International History Review.

Firstly, the arms that the Egyptians wanted included weaponry – such as the Jaguar ground attack aircraft – which would upset the military balance with Israel. During the period between the Six Day and Yom Kippur Wars (1967-1973) Britain dreaded the likely resumption of major combat operations between the Israelis and their Arab foes, with potential effects ranging from a superpower confrontation to an economically-catastrophic oil embargo on the West. Secondly, the MOD and Joint Intelligence Committee concluded that even after the Soviets’ expulsion both the KGB and the GRU (Soviet military intelligence) could rely on an agent network recruited within Egypt, and its armed forces in particular. Thirdly, the sale of advanced weaponry was likely to have a damaging effect on Anglo-American relations, given the USA’s close ties with Israel. Progress on defence sales to Egypt was therefore limited up until the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War on 6th October 1973, after which the Heath government imposed an embargo on arms transfers to both Israel and its Arab enemies.

During the course of my research on this topic the following points struck me as being particularly noteworthy. Firstly, there was a legacy of historical animosity in Anglo-Egyptian relations that was a recent memory for both sides. For the Egyptians, there was the prolonged British military occupation from 1882 to 1954, the record of Britain’s meddling in Egypt’s politics, and the Suez War of October-November 1956. For the British, Nasser had not only been an adversary second only to the USSR, but had also encouraged subversion against pro-Western rulers in the Arabian Gulf, and backed the nationalist insurgents fighting British rule in Aden and South Arabia from 1962 to 1967. Yet in their reports Lewis, Marriott and Barnicoat observed a willingness on the Egyptian side to restore amicable relations with the UK. Despite jeremiads which treat the record of British imperialism in the Arab world as an original sin that cannot be expunged, Sadat himself had been imprisoned by the British during World War Two, and yet was clearly prepared to let bygones be bygones. The attachés’ Egyptian contacts also expressed fond memories of training courses in Britain that they had experienced prior to the cessation of defence ties in the mid-1950s, while Barnicoat noted that Egypt’s Air Academy still had clear RAF influences in its curriculum. From these reports, Egyptian military officers were ready to develop a new relationship with an old enemy, as during its brief presence in Egypt the Soviet military contingent had supplanted the British as the arrogant outsiders who had aroused the nationalist backlash hitherto felt by the old imperial power.

Secondly, there is the question of how far defence sales can be utilised in practice for strategic effect. This case study demonstrates that there were considerable obstacles to Britain’s use arms transfers to bolster its burgeoning relationship with Egypt, which could not have been overcome for as long as the Israeli Defence Force had a front-line with its Egyptian enemies along the Suez Canal. The main impediment to an Anglo-Egyptian defence relationship was only removed in 1979 with the peace treaty with Israel, at which point it was the USA which became Egypt’s main defence partner. Cold War politics, the importance of the ‘special relationship’ and the potential consequences of a further Arab-Israeli war restricted the UK’s intention to employ arms sales for strategic effect.

Thirdly, there are the points that arise from declassified British archival sources about the manner in which two adversaries started to re-establish defence contacts with each other. After the Shazli-Marriott meeting one of the first exchanges of visits involved Royal Army Medical Corps personnel and RAF doctors and their Egyptian counterparts. While there are of course exceptions to the contrary (as demonstrated by the blood-stained record of Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad) medics across the globe form a common community, bound by the Hippocratic Oath and the ethos that emphasises the preservation and protection of life. If the armed forces of two former foes are seeking to establish initial contacts with each other, doctors potentially form a valuable means of establishing a dialogue between personnel who are both servants of their respective countries, but also have some common professional ground between them.

Fourthly, the attachés in Cairo were frustrated with their own superiors over the lack of progress on re-establishing bilateral ties, not least with the MOD’s institutional concerns over the security of British military equipment. Senior Egyptian officers such as General Ahmed Sadeq (the War Minister until October 1972) and Major-General Mustafa Kamel (the Egyptian armed forces’ chief of technical intelligence) sought to assure the British that their military technology would be protected from Soviet bloc spies, and that the same mukhabarat who had hitherto curtailed foreign attachés would prevent the KGB, GRU or any other Warsaw Pact service from stealing British military secrets by proxy. Not only the attachés but the ambassador and his senior staff treated these assurances as genuine.

There are of course caveats about my findings which need to be noted, not least that they focus very much on the British side of the story rather than Egypt’s. But for me this episode in Britain’s post-imperial history has been fascinating to study. Historians of the UK’s post-1945 interaction with the Near and Middle East are intimately familiar with the cases where relations with a former ally have collapsed into acrimony and hostility; whether with Egypt in 1952, Iraq in 1958 or Iran in 1979. But examples of rapprochement with an erstwhile enemy are also important subjects for academic enquiry, as indeed are the processes by which they are achieved, and the roles that both civilian and military diplomats can play in facilitating them.

Featured Image – The flags of Egypt as part of the United Arab Republic (1958-1971), and subsequently the Federation of Arab Republics (1972-1984).

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