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  • Egypt and American Foreign Assistance 1952–1956: Hopes Dashed
  • Robert Vitalis
Jon B. Alterman , Egypt and American Foreign Assistance 1952–1956: Hopes Dashed. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002. 200 pp. $55.00.

The U.S. government's ambivalent embrace of the military junta that seized power in Egypt in July 1952 led to the establishment of a modest development assistance program for the "revolution" and a secret subvention from the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in place of the arms that the colonels desperately wanted. The ambivalence stemmed from a division in the ranks. U.S. embassy officials and covert operatives who were closest to Gamal Abd al-Nasser were also his tireless champions as he and the other Free Officers dismantled parliament, banned political parties, hanged workers, and set up a formidable intelligence apparatus designed by Nazi émigrés. But when it turned out that Nasser was unwilling to act as a proper client, clashes ensued between Cairo and Washington over funding for the showcase Aswan Dam and the [End Page 148] nationalization of the Suez Canal company. By 1956, the CIA was even devising plans for Nasser's overthrow. A few stray officials had also begun to worry about the Egyptian turn from liberal economic models that U.S. funds and expertise had promoted. No one, however, worried much about the end of Egyptian democracy.

Jon Alterman's book tells the story of the American economic aid program better than anyone has to date. The cards are stacked in his favor. He is a careful researcher and good writer. He wrote the dissertation on which the book is based under the supervision of the leading historian of the modern Egyptian political economy. Alterman tells the history—most of it anyway—from "on the ground" as Egyptian and American officials planned and implemented various projects for land reclamation, small-scale agricultural industries, and other projects under the then-popular rubric of "community development." This vantage point might also tell us much about the interpretation he offers.

Most other histories of U.S. aid to Egypt tell only part of the story, focusing on the high-stakes diplomacy between Washington and Cairo over the High Dam. Because Alterman takes a much different tack, the archives that he mined for his research have not been used much by others. Although authoritarianism is still going strong in Egypt, Alterman was granted access to some declassified Egyptian Foreign Ministry archives for the first time, a privilege denied to others. The fact of access is significant, the gains accruing from it much less so.

The basic argument is a familiar one for those who have read histories of other places and moments. Alterman claims that most historians who tackle the U.S.- Egyptian relationship in the early 1950s get the story wrong. They have overemphasized military and geopolitical (Cold War) factors, and their accounts are too deterministic about the conflicting interests and priorities of Nasser and the Eisenhower administration, implying that any chance of a productive alliance was more or less doomed. Alterman opts for a different way of framing histories of bilateral relations between the United States and a Third World country. The deterioration of relations, in his view, is really a case of good intentions being undermined by mistakes, misapprehensions, and misperceptions. This is a routine way to tell the story of policy failure—for example, with Iran and Vietnam—and he may overstate the distinctiveness of this interpretative turn even in the Egyptian case.

There are three reasons to be cautious about accepting this particular account. One is that the book is unreflective about its own conventions. For twenty years or more, scholars have sought to persuade us that the opposing interpretation is correct. We therefore need more from Alterman than simply a naïve acceptance that the documents in this case speak for themselves. The second reason to be cautious is that Alterman never looks outside the case and its historiography for help, nor does he think about how his choices stand up when confronted with other kinds of scholarship. There is, in short, an external validity problem that he does not address and might not understand...