The Rise of Nasserism (Part 2) - The Rise of Nasserism (Part 3)

Building Up Egypt

Much has been written of Nasser's concept of three overlapping circles - the Arab, Muslim and African worlds – to which he believed Egypt was central, and around which its foreign policy should be shaped. It was certainly the case that Nasser was to make Egypt an active rather than a passive player in all three worlds and in the wider international effort towards positive neutralism in the emerging Third World. But in his early years Nasser was to be less concerned with defining Egypt's new approach to the various circles than in making its mark with regard to the old world of the West, and in particular Europe's declining dominance in the Middle East.

A more stable period had been during the days of the Ottoman Empire, especially while Britain propped up the Sultanate as cover for her penetration of the Middle East, including of course Egypt, before the Ottomans threw in their lot with Germany and crumbled after the First World War. Then Britain had to come more publicly to the fore with her “moment” in the Middle East, which centred on Egypt and the arrangements for her “independence” in 1922, as well as establishing the Hashemite monarchies in Iraq and Jordan, taking the mandate directly in Palestine, and exercising great influence throughout the Arabian peninsula. Behind Britain had come France with their position in the Maghreb, as well as the home of Arab nationalism, Syria. For Britain, the Middle East had been largely a staging post for the East, to which the French- built, but mainly British-owned, Suez Canal was central. In the inter-war period, however, the growth of oil production around the Gulf was making the region vital not only for imperial communications but for the powering of the international economy as well.

Anglo-Egyption Relations

After the Second World War it was clear that the position of the West was unravelling. Britain's empire in the East had been sorely dented, and India's independence in 1947 formally underlined that fact, as well as serving as an inspiration for nationalists elsewhere. In the Middle East itself, Anglo-Egyptian relations were deteriorating rapidly, contributing to the decay of the monarchy and the whole Egyptian political system; British equivocation had contributed to the emergence of Israel out of the Arab debacle of the Palestine war; the collapse of France in the war had led to the precarious independence of Syria and Lebanon; while the Arabian peninsula looked scarcely more stable. Britain, however, appeared reluctant to accept this decline, especially the Conservative government elected in 1951, led by Churchill and later Eden. There were repeated attempts at settlement with Egypt, but without the mutual fear engendered by Germany and Italy in 1936 no agreement had proved possible. Instead the United States and Britain sought to concentrate upon the “northern tier”, from Turkey to Pakistan, hence the lengthy and apparently successful negotiation of the Baghdad Pact of 1955. The pact had started as a part of the scheme of America's Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, to contain the Soviet Union with anti-communist alliances on all flanks. Originally involving the non-Arab states of Turkey and Pakistan in 1954, it was Britain that sought in 1955 to bring Iraq into the centre of the pact, which was also signed by Iran.

Britain's decline in the post-war years was not confined to the Middle East or matters imperial, but was the beginning of the end of her position as a world power, however reluctant some quarters, notably the Conservative Party, were to recognise it. In place of the domination of European imperialism there were now the superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union, whose sheer scale had been converted into the power to win the Second World War and divide Europe; but who had also become bitter post-war enemies in other areas including the Middle East. Though geographically more remote it was the United States, the more cosmopolitan of the two superpowers, for all the proclaimed internationalism of MarxismLeninism, which took up the running. It also had great interests, notably its oil business in Saudi Arabia, and there was as well growing domestic support for Israel.

There was an ambivalence in American policy towards the Middle East, and in Arab reactions thereto. Ideologically, the United States was as hostile to imperialism as the Soviet Union, while also believing that the European powers were overstretched. Thus at one level there was some recognition of Arab nationalism, if it could take a reforming and moderate line. Yet the above-mentioned interests contributed to deep flaws so far as Arab nationalists were concerned. Foremost amongst these was of course American support for Israel, though under Eisenhower after 1952 it was to prove rather less of a reflex action in Washington than it had been under Truman. At the same time American oil interests were tied up with some of the most conservative and anachronistic rulers in the Middle East, in the eyes of Arab nationalists at least, and hence America appeared linked to reaction rather than progress.

It was understandable that from Egypt's viewpoint all this was not simply a matter of “foreign policy” but central to the character of political and economic development. Politically it had been ruled by invaders for centuries, and even the “independence” settlement of 1922 had been dictated by the last occupying power, Britain, and the latter's position had continued, though deteriorating, right down to the revolution of 1952. Egypt's final independence, it was clear, would depend not only on developments within the country, but in the Middle East as a whole. At the same time, Egypt's economy had been significantly influenced by the industrialisation of the West, especially the growth of the British textile trade. Large landowners, many of non- Egyptian background, had developed their cotton crops which had become the country's leading export. Any major economic change would involve both the landholdings of major producers and the diversification of economic activity.

While this was the general context, there was nothing initially to suggest that the Free Officers, let alone Nasser, had a clear idea of the policy to be pursued, provided that it continued the throwing off of foreign domination and restoration of Egypt's dignity. There was no reason to regard Nasser as intrinsically anti-Western, indeed he had admired through his reading a pantheon of Western heroes, but in addition to his natural caution and suspicion, as well as a certain pride and prickliness, he needed to be treated with care as he found his feel in international politics. The Americans initially seemed quick to appreciate this, with CIA figures Miles Copeland and Kermit Roosevelt developing personal relations with Nasser that contributed to early Egyptian criticism of him. But the real duel was to be with Britain, whose position in the Middle East seemed so uncertain, following the Free Officers' coup.


On the face of it, the central question should have been British troops in Egypt, but as seen, other issues emerged to produce bigger problems in Anglo-Egyptian relations, especially their developing rivalry in the south and north. The rivalry over Sudan has attracted less attention than that surrounding the Baghdad Pact, but in fact it was regarded as crucial by Egypt. Egypt had long claimed Sudan, arguing that there was no meaningful border between the two countries and that Sudan had legally been Egypt's since the conquest at the start of the nineteenth century. Nasser as a saidi from upper Egypt was hardly likely to regard a line drawn across Nubia as anything other than a highly artificial division. Egypt's interest was not only historical, for through Sudan flowed the Nile on which Egypt was dependent, and she was potentially a rival for the water which had been divided to Egypt's advantage by Britain in 1929 and was to be renegotiated. In addition to water there had long been suggestions that land-hungry Egypt, with her fast- growing population might utilise the underpopulated Sudan, both to relieve pressure at home and produce more food.

In the repeated negotiations over Sudan, which had continued intermittently since 1924 (with only a brief success in 1936), Egypt had insisted on linking a defence agreement with Britain to progress on Egypt's claim to sovereignty over Sudan, and this had always proved the reason for failure. However, the RCC took a new and radical line by appearing to separate the two questions from the outset. By doing so, and thanks to the success of the half-Sudanese Neguib in winning over all major Sudanese parties to Egypt's proposal of a free choice on the country's future, the Egyptians were able to force Britain onto the defensive. Much to the chagrin of British officials in Sudan, the Anglo-Egyptian agreement of 1953 on the future of Sudan was largely a surrender of Britain's position coupled with a promise of self-determination for the Sudanese.

With the confidence gained from that perceived success Egypt then prepared to negotiate on the British bases. By then Britain had come to realise how exposed a position it was in. Its huge base (the largest she had in the world) and personnel had been subject to guerrilla attacks, which successive Egyptian governments had done little to halt, and to which it could offer little response. At the same time her capacity to intervene in Egyptian politics had long since disappeared, as events of “Black Saturday” and the 23 July coup had demonstrated. Nasser for his part persuaded his reluctant RCC colleagues of the need for the agreement to include a clause by which the bases could be reactivated in time of war, while the whole deal was helped by the sweetener from America of aid if agreement was reached. Negotiations proceeded smoothly and by October 1954 the treaty was signed. All British troops were to be withdrawn, and British civilian contractors and Egyptians were to work together in the bases which would be maintained for reactivation in the event of attack by an outside power (a provision which specifically excluded Israel).

Thus far Nasser had been engaged in successfully negotiating an end to the old problems of Anglo-Egyptian relations, defence and Sudan. (If on Sudan he appeared to have the better of the deal, there were those who felt that on defence he had been too moderate, especially on the reactivation clauses.) But in the months that followed the defence treaty, he began to suspect that, far from withdrawing, Britain was, so to speak, really only rearranging the furniture in the Middle East, and once more to the detriment of Egypt. That detriment was most directly shown up in Sudan, when Britain had decided that in being forced into what she regarded as a precipitate withdrawal she would encourage Sudanese politicians of all parties to seek full independence rather than union with Egypt. Indeed events in Egypt, and between Egypt and Sudan, conspired to aid Britain in what was undoubtedly her objective. The fall of the half-Sudanese Neguib went down badly in Sudan, as did the execution of Muslim Brothers in Egypt. At the same time Egyptian-Sudanese negotiations on the Nile waters faired badly since Sudan wanted a less unequal division than that of 1929, and was angered by Egyptian intransigence. By mid-1955 it was clear that the earlier interest of the Sudanese in union with Egypt was much diminished, and Britain underlined this by encouraging Sudan's unilateral declaration of independence that eventually took place in January 1956, without formal prior acceptance by Britain and Egypt as legal co-domini.

Baghdad Pact

The other area where Nasser's suspicions were being aroused was in the development of the Baghdad Pact of 1955. To Britain the pursuit of the Baghdad Pact was the evolution of the “northern tier” of Middle East defence, linking countries immediately adjacent to the Soviet Union in a pact that would contain the latter and protect Western interests. To Nasser, however, it spelt the revival of an idea already made to Egypt and rejected in 1951. A way out of the failure of Anglo-Egyptian talks then preferred by Britain, with American encouragement, was a joint defence treaty based on Egypt, but including other Middle Eastern states. Egypt had rejected what was then seen as camouflage for continued British involvement; but it now appeared that the same idea was being proposed, based this time on Iraq rather than Egypt, including also Turkey and Pakistan, and possibly seeking to embrace Syria, Lebanon and Jordan as well. To Nasser the Baghdad Pact was another attempt by large states to dominate smaller ones and use them in struggles not of their making. Agreements such as he himself had just signed with Britain were quite sufficient and there was no need for further pacts. Moreover, by bringing in non-Arab states and linking them with the northern Arab states the Baghdad Pact was seeking to divide the Arab world. While within the Middle East the pact would promote the importance of oil- rich Iraq to pose a challenge to Egypt's growing leadership in the region.

Arab Nationalism

By this time too another aspect of Nasser's thinking was emerging, that of Arab nationalism. An indigenous Egyptian, his sense of being an Arab is believed to have been considerably enhanced by his experiences in the Palestine war. Egypt also was the home of the Arab League, founded with British encouragement at the end of the Second World War, in the hope that it would contribute to what British Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin thought optimistically would be a freer and more equal period of cooperation between Britain and the peoples of the Arab world.

While the Arab League had hitherto been notably unsuccessful, Nasser saw it as a means of giving Egyptian leadership to the Arabs, centred as it was in Cairo. And the initial task in achieving this was to oppose the division within the Arab world threatened by the Baghdad Pact. To underline Arab unity, Cairo radio stations began to broadcast Sawt al-Arab (Voice of the Arabs), the first international programmes by a Middle Eastern country. They became highly popular and carried the concept of Nasser's revolution to the Arab masses with notable success. But as well as becoming popular it also both opened up and altered the character of Arab political dialogue. Broadcasts were abusive of Nasser's opponents and highly vituperative, arousing emotions behind Nasser's message of Arab unity and freedom from imperialism and those rulers depicted as its local lackeys. The masses were being invited to join in the game of politics, but their role was less than clear.

The proposed Baghdad Pact would damage Nasser's emerging dream of the fulfilment of the commitment to the Arab circle. In consequence Nasser used all his influence to try to abort the pact, while pouring forth a tirade of propaganda against the rulers who appeared ready to bend to Britain's wish. Bitter though the struggle was between Nasser and Iraq's pro-British premier, Nuri Said, Nasser did appear ready to compromise, considering at one time accepting the pact if limited to Iraq, Turkey and Pakistan. Britain, however, still hoped for more, particularly from Jordan. And when the Baghdad Pact was eventually agreed, in January 1955, it was an important step in furthering the mutual suspicions of Egypt and Britain; and even personally of Nasser and Britain's new prime minister, Sir Anthony Eden, who had succeeded the ailing Sir Winston Churchill and regarded himself as both an Orientalist and a leading figure in international politics, with experience of confronting the European dictators before the Second World War.

Part of Nasser's opposition to the Baghdad Pact lay in the delivery of British arms to Iraq at a time when Egypt's own armoury was in dire need of modernization. The agreement with Britain on the bases, and especially the apparent American offer of support once it was completed, appeared to hold out what Nasser sought. But in the months that followed it was increasingly clear that neither country was keen to rearm Egypt, except on stringent terms concerning the use of any weapons supplied - in effect an attempt to link Egypt's foreign policy to that of the West (and to protect Israel) which was precisely what Egypt sought to avoid. For Egypt the situation was worsening, not just due to the Western arm twisting, but because of a more aggressive policy by Israel, concerned to flex their muscles in the face of the new regime in Egypt, allegedly to contain fedayeen guerilla raids against Israel. On 28 February 1955 there was a major raid against Egyptian troops in Gaza by Israeli forces, which to the suspicious Nasser smelled of collusion with the West to pressure Egypt. It redoubled his determination to acquire new arms, and also led him for the first time to encourage fedayeen attacks on Israel.


Shortly after this, in April 1955, Nasser went to the first non-aligned conference in Bandung, Indonesia, hosted by Sukarno. Nasser was the youngest leader present, and the meeting was to have an important impact on him. In itself the growth of the non-aligned movement was a response to a combination of the ending of formal imperialism and its apparent replacement by the Cold War, in which the United States and the Soviet Union appeared as rivals in wishing to extend their influence to the newly independent states. Among these emerging countries a few leaders were achieving a significance that transcended national boundaries, and at the same time seeking to come together to create a new movement, helping each other towards a more neutral international perspective, and a freer, fairer world. These were sentiments towards which Nasser instinctively felt drawn, even before he attended the famous non-aligned meeting at Bandung. There he met and was impressed, perhaps even a little awed, by India's Pandit Nehru, as well as China's Chou En-Uai, who suggested and then arranged for the subsequent arms deal with the Soviet Union. He also met another figure whose support was to be useful in subsequent years, Yugoslavia's Marshal Tito. Tito was to show him that links with the Soviet Union could be developed without the latter becoming the dominant partner in the relationship, as indeed it was never to do in Egypt in spite of its long and vital support to Nasser from 1956 until his death. Such men recognised Nasser's importance in the Middle East and treated him as an equal. He in turn felt the growing confidence to patronise the emerging figures, such as Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, who in a number of ways aspired to be the Nasser of Africa, and whose name was often to evoke a similar response, whether positive or negative.

The most important immediate outcome of Bandung was the Soviet arms deal which, in a scarcely veiled effort to soften the hostility of the West, was nominally with Czechoslovakia. The Soviet Union showed an initial caution, for her penetration of the Middle East was in reality far less than that depicted by Western scaremongers, while the RCC had taken a tough line with Egyptian communists. But Soviet foreign policy was as much opportunistic as ideological: Egypt seemed too good an opportunity to miss, and a deal was offered on easy terms. Even so Nasser tried to use it as a bargaining card with his preferred suppliers in the West, and waited two months for them to change their policy. But the West now accused Nasser of blackmailing them with threats, just as he had criticized their original terms for supplying him with arms, and they held up their hands in horror when in September 1955 the “Czech” arms deal finally went through. After it Nasser remarked, “We would have preferred to deal with the West, but for us it was a matter of life and death.”

”Czech” Deal

The impact of the arms deal in the West, which saw itself as centrally involved in the Cold War, was enormous. Britain felt that her own agreement with Egypt to leave the Suez bases was rejected, for the reactivation clauses had in effect been in case of Soviet hostility in the Middle East, and now the USSR was supplying Egypt. It undermined the Western monopoly of arms to the Middle East which seemed the major lever with which to try to establish the position there, possibly even leading to negotiation between the Arabs and Israel. With the deal the way was open to escalate an arms race in the region with uncontrollable political results. The concept of the “northern tier” on which the Baghdad Pact was based of containing the Soviet Union was also aborted at a stroke, for now the Soviet Union had gained a foothold south of that line. For Nasser of course, all this was irrelevant. Rather than trying to control the Middle East by defence pacts, the legitimate claims of Arab states should have been recognised, including the need to rearm Egypt. And while friends warned him of the dangers of over-involvement with the Soviet Union, he had no intention of negotiating Britain's withdrawal only to replace it with Soviet control. He did not share the vision of international politics as dominated by superpower rivalry. On the contrary his visit to Bandung had opened his eyes to the possibilities of non-alignment and closer relations with other developing countries, as well as both East and West.

In Nasser's view he had been driven into the “Czech” arms deal because of Western reluctance to provide him with the weapons he sought, and he was to feel similarly betrayed in another area he regarded as vital to the attainment of full independence for Egypt - the building of the High Dam at Aswan. The High Dam has been seen as symbolic, as Egypt's new pharaoh building his pyramid, and just about as impractical since it has been criticized for both its position and its effect: it would have controlled the Nile more effectively if sited further south, while some damaging side effects such as silting were being overlooked. Yet there was also a strong case for a new high dam at Aswan. Throughout the twentieth century there had been repeated plans, barrages and dams designed to improve the hydrology of the Nile, ranging from the Owen Falls dam at Jinja in Uganda, where the Nile leaves Lake Victoria, to the barrages north of Cairo controlling the flow into the delta. Mighty though the Nile is in length, it does not carry a vast flow of water compared with other great rivers of the world, such as the Amazon or Ganges. Moreover, the population of Egypt (approaching 24 million by the time of the revolution) is wholly dependent on the river. More water was therefore needed to irrigate new land and ensure the food security of the fast-growing society. And though hydrologically there was a case for building a new dam further south in Sudan, like the Egyptian dam on the White Nile at Jebel Aulia, just south of Khartoum, where Nasser had been stationed, politically the uncertainty over future relations between the two countries ensured that first priority should be for a high dam on Egyptian territory. From Aswan it would be possible to guarantee water supplies for the foreseeable future, provide for the expansion of the area under irrigation and produce hydroelectricity which would power the growth of industry in Egypt. The combination of a stronger economy and a re-equipped army would finally ensure that Egypt had attained the full independence that had been so much a part of the ambitions of Nasser and his fellow Free Officers.

The background of the “Czech” arms deal had ensured that from early on in the pursuit of the necessary foreign investment and technical assistance for the High Dam, Nasser knew that he had the option of help from the Soviet Union. Nevertheless, as with the arms, his early expectations lay with the West. British hydrologists had been deeply involved in earlier developments, the United States was the world's richest country, and the World Bank, the most appropriate institution to coordinate such a project, was based in Washington. Initially there was Western support, partly because the US Secretary of State, Dulles, still had hopes of influence in Egypt, and partly because of Eden's wish to keep the Soviet Union out of further involvement there. The first tricky hurdle involved negotiations between Nasser and the World Bank, for the former was no economist and believed that some of the conditions for the massive project amounted to handing over Egypt's management of economic policy to foreigners again - a spectre which only eighty years earlier under Ismail had led first to creditor-management of the country and then to Britain's invasion in 1882. Eventually, however, there was agreement, but by then America in particular was beginning to have doubts. Dulles was turning against the scheme for a num- ber of reasons associated with his attitude to Nasser, including the pressure of the Zionist lobby in Congress. In addition Dulles was worried by Egypt's recognition of communist China, which Nasser saw as an alternative potential source of weapons when talks between Eden and Khrushchev in London briefly threatened a new arms embargo to the Middle East. Then in the summer of 1955 Dulles announced that the United States had finally decided that the whole project was too big for the Egyptian economy to sustain, and it was pulling out of the funding scheme (He also thought that it was too big a project for the Soviet Union to take over). With Dulles's decision, the World Bank and Britain had little alternative other than to follow suit.

Suez Canal - The Beginning

Nasser was a man of political imagination, as well as audacity, as the coup had shown, and even before the announcement from America it was clear that he had been contemplating financing the High Dam by seizing the Suez Canal. The canal was owned by an international company dominated by British and French shareholders. Many of its officials, including most of the pilots, were also Europeans, and it was regarded as one of the most vital waterways for Western Europe, indeed in view of the importance of Middle Eastern oil, for the world economy as a whole. The canal agreement with Egypt, renegotiated in 1949, gave Egypt a mere 7 per cent of gross profits and only a minor presence on the board of directors. The Suez Canal Company's concession was due to expire in 1968, but the Company had made it clear that it would only renegotiate the existing terms if that concession period was extended. There is little doubt that for Nasser taking over the canal was not just a matter of money, for in itself the income would be insufficient to build a dam which clearly needed help from a major international power, and it was once more partly symbolic. If the West was withdrawing from financing the dam, why should it continue without interference to be the primary beneficiary of one of the world's major waterways traversing Egyptian territory?

Nasser's plan had the agreement of the RCC, but very few others were in the know when he went to make a speech in Alexandria in July 1956. Always the careful plotter, he had arranged that when he mentioned the canal's builder, Ferdinand de Lesseps Egyptian officials and police would move in and seize the Company's offices on the canal. The nationalized canal would then be run for the benefit of Egypt, in particular the building of the High Dam, and Egypt would thereby be taking two major steps to asserting her full independence. Such a master stroke, delivered with such style and timing in Alexandria on 26 July, and simultaneously on the canal itself, was widely hailed as the greatest step thus far by the revolution, and made Nasser a leader not just of Egypt but Arab nationalism throughout the Middle East.

The Rise of Nasserism (Part 2) - The Rise of Nasserism (Part 3)