Canada and Egypt: From Antagonism to Partnership

By Delvoie, Louis A. | International Journal, Fall 1997 | Go to article overview

Canada and Egypt: From Antagonism to Partnership


Delvoie, Louis A., International Journal


Canada and Egypt have had diplomatic relations for over 40 years. During the first two decades the relationship had little bilateral content and was largely a byproduct of the Arab-Israeli conflict, of the cold war, and of United Nations efforts to promote international peace and security. In all three contexts, Canada and Egypt were more often than not on opposite sides of the fence, as became particularly evident during the three Arab-Israeli wars between 1956 and 1973. In the 1970s, however, major modifications in the foreign policies of Egypt and Canada, as well as in the international security and economic environments, resulted in a slow but fundamental change in the nature of the Canada-Egypt relationship which transformed it from one often characterized by antagonism into one whose hallmark today is bilateral and multilateral partnership. For Canada, this partnership with one of the largest and most influential countries in the Middle East is an invaluable asset in the pursuit of Canadian economic and security interests in the region as a whole.

THE BEGINNINGS

Official contacts between Canada and Egypt were anything but numerous before the second half of the twentieth century. The first semi-official contact occurred in 1884 when a contingent of 386 Canadian raftsmen and militia officers landed in Egypt to assist in transporting a British expeditionary force up the Nile to rescue the legendary General Gordon, then besieged in Khartoum.(f.1) The Canadian government, however, did not establish a resident presence in Egypt until 1945 when it opened a trade commissioner's office in Cairo, which was also responsible for trade promotion in the Sudan, Palestine, Cyprus, Iraq, Syria, Iran, and Turkey.(f.2)

It was not until 1954 that the Canadian government decided to open embassies in Egypt, Israel, and Lebanon. The reasons given at the time for the decision are interesting: 'the need for Canadian representation in the region has been recognized for some time, particularly because of the frequency with which Middle Eastern affairs are discussed in the United Nations and because of the importance to the free world of maintaining peace in this strategic area.'(f.3) According to the official history of the Department of External Affairs, 'the reasons were the growing importance of the region in world affairs and the consequent need for the department to enhance its understanding of developments taking place there.'(f.4) When these statements are taken together, it seems evident that the embassies were not established primarily with a view to developing bilateral relations, but rather as observation posts from which Canadian diplomats could report back to Ottawa on regional developments of interest to Canada in either a United Nations or a cold war context.

In the case of Egypt, it may have been just as well that Canada did not have any ambition towards closer bilateral relations. The policies pursued by the two countries in the Middle East were diametrically opposed in many respects and did not hold out much prospect for a meeting of minds or interests. Egyptian policy at the time was characterized by opposition to colonialism and imperialism, to Israel, and to conservative Arab regimes and by the promotion of pan-Arabism and Arab unity.(f.5) Insofar as Canada had a Middle Eastern policy specific to the region, it was centred on support for the creation and continued secure existence of the state of Israel, and it clearly reflected the sentiments of a majority of Canadians who had been moved by the Holocaust; it also reflected the existence in Canada of a well-organized and politically influential Jewish community.(f.6) Furthermore, the 'colonialist-imperialist' powers to which Egypt was most opposed were precisely those that were Canada's closest and most important allies -- the United States, Britain, and France.

Divergences in the policies of Canada and Egypt became even more pronounced in 1955. …

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