The Rise of Nasserism (Part 1) - The Rise of Nasserism (Part 3)

Suez War

Nasser's surprise announcement at Alexandria was the beginning of the Suez crisis: a crisis which was to run a course and have consequences which few involved foresaw at the outset - certainly not Nasser. However, Nasser's move in seizing the canal was not wilful or ill-considered; on the contrary he had not only harboured the idea for some time but worked out both what he expected others to do and the line to be adopted by Egypt. With regard to the former he clearly expected Britain and France to huff and puff. Britain he thought might act and he sought intelligence on British preparedness in the region, especially Cyprus, as well as withdrawing Egyptian troops from Sinai; but he also felt the chances of a strike by Britain would diminish as time passed. On Nasser's part his main concern was to keep the canal open, since much was being made by Britain and France of Egypt's alleged inadequacy to operate it itself (backed up by the effort of the company to encourage pilots to withdraw and generally ensure the fulfilment of the Anglo-French prophecy). In this endeavour Nasser was successful, largely due to the prodigious efforts of the minority of pilots of Egyptian origin, and indeed after that there was never a serious question of Egypt's technical ability to run the canal.

As the British and French governments realised that the canal could still function, and that their own shipping lines were not amenable to pressure to boycott it, the thrust of the reaction was against exclusive Egyptian control of an international waterway. This included identifying Nasser as the sinister personality behind the move, and pointing to the danger of an individual dictator having a finger on one of the most vital arteries of international trade. The two prime ministers, Eden and Mollet, together with Dulles from the United States, met early in August 1956, after which they announced the convening of a meeting of twenty-four leading canal-using countries in London to establish some kind of international system of control. After it concluded Robert Menzies, Prime Minister of Australia, and regarded as a Commonwealth elder statesman, led a deputation to Cairo to argue for the agreed internationalisation of the canal. But Nasser saw the development of an Anglo- French manoeuvre and that Menzies had little intention of negotiating, and the mission duly failed. Worried by the increasingly belligerent view of his major European allies, Dulles now took up the running urging the formation of a Suez Canal Users' Association (SCUA), but Nasser was by then becoming increasingly angered at the attempts of others to arrange the future of the canal without negotiating with Egypt, and he swiftly aborted the proposal.

However, while Britain and France on the one hand and Egypt on the other had been making increasingly uncompromising and belligerent noises, behind the scenes there was a growing realisation that at some time the crisis would have to be resolved by negotiation. Financially Egypt was beginning to feel the pinch of some of the counter-measures being taken by Britain and France. At the same time there was growing pressure in the Arab world, and amongst Egypt's new-found friends in the non-aligned movement, to avoid a possible conflict which neither they, nor Nasser, thought Egypt had any chance of winning. In Britain too the Foreign Office and the military Chiefs of Staff were urging caution, and it seemed that until mid- October Eden was inclined to recognise that in the long run Britain too would have to negotiate. It was not that Eden's view of Nasser was changing. If anything the reverse was shown in his personalized attacks on the man he increasingly identified as a potential fascist of the Middle East to rival those of Europe whose appeasement he, Eden, had opposed in 1938: the problem was that with the canal functioning and Nasser endangering no one Eden lacked a casus belli.

Israel and the Suez Crisis

This frustration was seen and targeted by those in Israel, led by Ben Gurion, the legendary founder of the young nation, who in 1955 returned as Prime Minister and Minister of Defence for the second time. These Israeli hawks had been looking for an opportunity to strike at what they identified as a growing potential threat from revolutionary Egypt, as well as a chance to take Sharm el-Sheikh on the Red Sea, from where Egypt blockaded the Gulf of Akaba preventing free movement of shipping to the Israeli port of Eilat. But plans emanating from Israel directly were unlikely to cut much ice with Britain which was concerned particularly by a perceived Israeli threat to Britain's ally, Jordan. The important intermediary was France, which had been having discussions since September with Israel, long before involving Britain. For France the issue was not just the canal but Nasser's promotion of Arab nationalism, in particular the encouragement he was giving to the nationalist FEN in its growing struggle in Algeria, which both the French government and the colons were then determined to crush. A move against Egypt that aimed to bring down Nasser would, Guy Mollet believed, ensure the end of the FEN threat in Algeria. It was at these meetings that a plan was hatched that if Israel struck not just at Gaza and Sharm el-Sheikh, but towards the canal itself, then France and Britain could intervene to “save” the canal.

This collusion was first put to Eden on 14 October 1956, and in spite of warnings from officials he was persuaded that such a secret agreement could be implemented. Once Israel attacked and Britain and France intervened to seize the canal, the alleged belligerents, Israel and Egypt, would be issued with an ultimatum to cease fire and withdraw from either side of the canal. While Israel would accept, and have control of the two areas she sought, Egypt would be bound to reject the ultimatum, thereby giving a pretext to the two European powers to attack Egypt, take control of the canal and destroy Nasser. Under cover of an apparent move to take the dispute to the United Nations, which served effectively to distract the international community at large, including Egypt, the collusion plans of Britain and France with Israel went ahead with a secrecy that Nasser himself would have admired, and which in retrospect was to serve him far better than its perpetrators.

Israel Attacks

It was only just over two weeks after Eden was first brought in that Israel launched its attack on 29 October, and the following day Britain and France were delivering their prearranged ultimatum. The attack came as a total surprise to Nasser, who could not initially believe what was happening, thinking at first that it was no more than another Israeli border raid. Even when its extent was recognised, the realisation of collusion did not dawn until the British and French ultimatum, which, as anticipated, Nasser speedily rejected. One or two of his RCC colleagues he consulted wanted acceptance, fearing that war would destroy them all, but for Nasser there was no question that Egypt should fight, though the odds against his forces looked overwhelming. For Egypt to surrender would be to bow once more to foreign domination and lose the achievements of the revolution. Nasser was determined to die rather than capitulate.

Realising early on that there would be no military assistance for Egypt - other Arab states were too weak and the Soviet Union immediately made it clear it would not risk a third world war - Nasser decided to play for time while the British and French prepared; and he hoped that world opinion would be outraged at the self-evident complicity and aggression. Meanwhile, with its airforce swiftly destroyed by Britain (to protect Israeli cities from the danger of Egyptian bombing), Nasser looked to his army to resist as strongly as it could when the invaders attacked Port Said, while making preparations to prolong the struggle through guerrilla fighting when Egyptian forces were overwhelmed. As Nasser anticipated, the sight of Egypt's forces resisting against two such powers as Britain and France, did much to swing international opinion to his side. Though Nasser had not been directly in charge of the army, leaving it to his close friend, Abdel Hakim Amer, he did provide very direct, cool and effective military leadership during the short campaign, his experiences in Palestine only eight years earlier standing him in good stead.

In fact the most significant military decision taken by Egypt was to sink block ships in the Suez Canal. The whole action of Britain and Egypt was allegedly to keep the canal open, and Egypt had proved she could do so on her own. Now, with what was rapidly being seen internationally as an unprovoked assault the two major powers had achieved precisely the opposite - a move which rapidly blocked oil supplies from the Middle East, thus damaging Europe in particular. The irony was not lost on the international community, and particularly the United States, where most of the major international oil companies were based. Of more immediate importance was the hostility of President Eisenhower in Washington. In the months preceding Suez, Eisenhower had been unwell and policy was in the hands of Dulles, a Cold War warrior whose apparent hostility to Egypt over the arms deal and High Dam had encouraged Eden. But the alarmed Eisenhower had intervened personally to establish that he would not support any use of force to settle the canal question. Consequently, at the United Nations America joined with the large majority of member states in condemning the British, French and Israeli action, and called for a ceasefire. It was ironic that the two superpowers whose rivalry in the Middle East had contributed to the background to the Suez crisis should finish up voting together in opposition to the invasion. At the same time Britain was left in no doubt by Eisenhower that America disapproved of the action when a run on sterling was triggered by the cutting of oil to Europe. British and French troops were thus ordered to halt shortly after taking Port Said and well short of the objective of forcing the downfall of Nasser. Though a United Nations force was eventually deployed it was little more than a face-saving device for the international humiliation of the two major European countries which had so recently been the leading powers in the Middle East as well.

Nasser’s “Victory in Defeat”

Egypt's army had lost the battle, but there was no doubt that Nasser personally had scored a great victory. He had successfully nationalized the Suez Canal, and insisted that it could not be reopened until the invading forces left. He had not only survived an attack intended to overthrow him personally, but had greatly strengthened his own position in Egypt by his cool command throughout, first politically and then militarily. He had also won acclaim in the Arab world for having successfully seen off the two powers that had until so recently dominated the region.

Meanwhile Britain and France were shaken. Britain's prime minister, Eden, resigned within weeks from “ill- health”. One consequence of Suez was that it marked the start of the acceptance in mainstream Conservative Party circles that the end of the empire was at hand: from then on British overseas defence commitments were steadily reduced and nationalists in many parts of the empire received a fillip to their efforts. As for France, the Suez fiasco gave a great boost to the FLN in Algeria, which in turn contributed to the collapse of the fourth republic in 1958, and subsequently to de Gaulle's decision formally to leave Algeria and most of the rest of French Africa.

Internationally Suez was to prove a major point in post- war history. Britain, hitherto the leading power in the Middle East, had suffered a setback that was to weaken her permanently within the region. In her place a relatively unknown, young Egyptian soldier-politician had risen as the champion of pan-Arabism against the attempted reassertion of past Western domination. The Arab world had long been prepared to acclaim an outstanding and successful personality - and Nasser had proved himself on both counts. Meanwhile, elsewhere in the developing world Nasser's new-found stature as the major figure in the Middle East swiftly elevated him to become one of the leading personalities of the emerging non-aligned movement. But his political victory over Britain and France had been attained partly as a result of the attitudes of the two superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union. Though both had opposed the British, French and Israeli intervention to seize the Suez Canal, they were still intense rivals in the Cold War, which, with Britain and France weakened, they were now more free to pursue in the Middle East, as elsewhere on the globe.

The consequences were thus far greater for both Egypt's new president and his adversaries than any of those involved in the Suez crisis thought likely when Nasser first took the move that seemed to him to be a vital step in his and Nasser clearly favoured the former, regarding the latter as naturally exploitative. Thus though Egypt was evolving a mixed economy in which both public and private sectors received a boost from the outcome of Suez, the relationship was not happy, with each side showing suspicion of the other.

Arab Nationalism

While economic policy was of prime concern domestically after the Suez war, internationally the major development lay in the world of Arab politics. Having emerged as clearly the dominant figure in Egyptian politics, Nasser had also, by virtue of the Suez war, been projected as the Arab nationalist leader par excellence. Much has been made of Nasser's relatively late conversion to the Arab cause, Egyptian nationalism having been an end in itself for most young men of his generation, and it has been suggested that Nasser took up the Arab cause as a result of his experience in Palestine, though he himself referred to his student consciousness. Yet Egyptian and Arab nationalism were compatible. An Egyptian to his fingertips, it would have been unimaginable for Nasser not to have been an Egyptian nationalist, but, as an avid reader of popular history, the Arab empire was a part of his culture. Perhaps his comments in the Philosophy of the Revolution sum it up: “There is no doubt that the Arab Circle is the most important of those three circles and the circle most closely connected with us. Its history merges with ours... neighbourliness has welded us all into a homogeneous whole, strengthened by all those spiritual, historical and national factors.” That does not mean though that he believed in immediately creating an Arab state, rather that there should be cohesion of the Arab countries in the opposition to foreign domination: a process in which Egypt, led by Nasser, had a central part to play. Speaking shortly after the formation of the union with Syria in 1958 he was to say “this does not necessarily mean that Arab Unity means that all Arab countries should be combined in one country. What I care for is the creation of Arab solidarity as well as a unified Arab struggle because the Arab destiny and future are similar. The most important thing is that solidarity should prevail among Arab countries under any circumstances.”

It was inevitable that Nasser should become embroiled in the complex politics of Arab nationalism after 1956 for reasons that were at one and the same time ambitious but also prudential. On the side of ambition, whatever Nasser may have felt initially, the very adulation accorded to him across the Arab world as a result of what was perceived as his victory over the aggressors, gave him a role such as no other had in modern times - a kind of Saladin of his day. As he put it himself, “I always imagine that in this region there is a role wandering aimlessly about in search of an actor to play it.”


The Rise of Nasserism (Part 1) - The Rise of Nasserism (Part 3)

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