July 22, 2020

Suez Canal 1954 [Royal Air Force]

A chronology of U.S. policy in the Middle East would be incomplete without the Suez Crisis, the 1956 invasion of Egypt by Britain, France and Israel after Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal. 

King Farouk (1950) [Life]

In 1952, Nasser and other nationalistic Egyptian Army junior officers, the previously clandestine Free Officers Movement, forced the abdication of King Farouk, widely despised for his self-indulgent lifestyle – the CIA dubbed him the “fat fucker” – and his corrupt relationship with the British, who still controlled and operated the Suez Canal that runs through the heart of Egypt.

Naguib & Nasser (1952) [Getty Images]

Nasser, a naturally charismatic leader, was the driving force behind Farouk’s overthrow, but as a junior officer deferred to General Muhammed Naguib, who became the first President of Egypt, with Nasser as Deputy Prime Minister in the new government.

Hassan al-Banna with supporters [Wiki]

Some in the Free Officers Movement were members of the Muslim Brotherhood, founded in 1929 by Hassan al Banna, an Islamic scholar and imam, who grew up in the Nile Delta and as a boy observed British colonial rule first hand. He envisioned the Brotherhood as both a charitable organization, e.g., building schools and hospitals, and a vehicle for political activism, all based on Islamic principles. Indeed, the Brotherhood’s stated ultimate goal is a transnational state governed by sharia law, “The Qur’an is our Constitution” and “Jihad is our way.” Secular democracies be forewarned.

The Brotherhood viewed Nasser as insufficiently devout, much too secular, and in 1954 tried to assassinate him. Nasser and fellow officers responded with an uncompromising crackdown, throwing thousands in prison and putting President Naguib, who had ties to the Brotherhood, under house arrest. Two years later in 1956, Nasser became Egypt’s second President following a public referendum on a new constitution and his candidacy.

Michael Aflaq

Nasser’s world view was influenced by Ba’athism, Arabic for “renaissance, rebirth.” At its core is the concept of “Arab Socialism,” coined by Michael Aflaq, co-founder of the Ba’ath political party, to distinguish it from the international socialist movement, i.e., Soviet-style communism.

To Aflaq and other Ba’athist thinkers, it was, more than anything else, about Arab nationalism, not just social justice, but freedom from imperialist control, i.e., British and French, of Arab lands, resources and politics. Unlike the Muslim Brotherhood, it is a secular, not an Islamic, ideology.

Nasser did have some “socialist” tendencies. Case in point: his first initiative as Deputy Prime Minister was comprehensive land reform in Egypt, where up to that point 70% of the land had been owned by 1% of the population – yes, Egypt had its own One-Percenters long before we did.  

[France Gamma / Getty Images]

But first and foremost, Nasser was an anti-colonial Arab nationalist, and that started with the British, who controlled the Suez Canal, operated by the private Anglo-French Suez Canal Company and patrolled by the British Army. At their base in Suez at the canal’s southern terminus, the British had an 80,000-man garrison, and Nasser wanted them gone. 

At the same time, Nasser supported national independence movements in Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria. Like Tito in Yugoslavia and Nehru in India, he was also a strong advocate of “non-alignment,” of not taking sides in the Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. He refused to join the Middle East Defense Organization, aka the Bagdad Pact, the “northern tier” alliance of Britain, Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Pakistan that the U.S. put together in 1955 as a counterweight to Soviet expansionism in the Middle East.

When U.S. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles tried to convince Nasser that his big problem was the Russians, not the British, Nasser replied, in so many words, “How can I convince my people to worry about someone 5,000 miles away holding a knife when only 60 miles from here at the Suez Canal there is a killer with a pistol?” 

For Dulles and U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower, the holy grail of U.S. Middle East policy was protecting the flow of Middle East oil to Europe. Eisenhower, after all, had been elected President primarily because he was a “war hero,” Supreme Allied Commander in Europe during World War II, and for him Europe was the front line of the cold, potentially hot, war with the Soviets. 

Eisenhower & Nasser 1955 [AP]

Eisenhower and Dulles also realized that the British – Egyptian conflict over the Canal was poisoning U.S. relations with the Arab world. This came to a head when Nasser asked the U.S. to be his arms dealer, i.e., tanks, jet fighters, etc., to modernize Egypt’s military.

Eisenhower and Dulles were in a pickle. If they authorized arms sales to Egypt, they would alienate both the British, a key NATO ally, and Israel, fresh from its 1948 war with Egypt and with on-going cross-border skirmishes with Egyptian forces in Gaza. 

Ike, unlike Truman, did not need the “Jewish vote” to get elected, but he did not want to needlessly alienate Israel’s powerful friends in Congress, and he was worried that Israel would launch a preemptive attack on Egypt, prompting Nasser to ask the Soviets to bail him out. On the other hand, if the U.S. refused to sell military hardware to Egypt, the Soviets would gladly oblige. In either scenario, Dulles and Eisenhower’s worst fears of a much greater Soviet presence in the Middle East could come to pass.

And, in fact, Nasser was not above playing both sides against the middle. In 1955, when Congress refused to approve any arms sales to Egypt, Nasser turned to the Eastern Bloc, cutting a $320 Million deal with the Czechs, proxies for the Russians, who had already supplied Egypt with more than 200 tanks, 150 MiG-15 jet fighters and 50 Ilyushin II-28 bombers.

For Dulles, vexed by Nasser’s “erratic” personality and, worse, his neutralist stance – Dulles often opined, “neutrality is immoral” – the Czech arms deal was the last straw. On July 19, 1956, hot under the collar and ignoring his own State Department advisors, Dulles summarily revoked the U.S. commitment to give Egypt $270 Million and guarantee other loans for construction of the Aswan High Dam for power generation and flood control on the Nile.

Bad move. He should have counted to 10. His brother, CIA Director Allen Dulles, a knee-jerk anti-Communist himself, had concluded that Nasser, having achieved a respected leadership role in the Arab world and non-aligned countries, would, provided he could maintain Egypt’s independence and neutrality, be much more inclined to a good working relationship with the U.S. than closer ties with the Soviets.

But the damage was done. Nasser felt utterly hung out to dry by Dulles, and just one week later, on July 26, he upped the ante. In a speech to a huge crowd in Alexandria, Nasser stunned even his own supporters by announcing his intent to nationalize the Suez Canal because he now needed the shipping fees generated by the Canal to pay for Aswan. Nasser added that the assets of the Suez Canal Company would be frozen and, to be fair, Egypt would pay the shareholders the price of their shares at the closing bell on the Paris Bourse.

Nasser after Alexandria speech (July 26, 1956) [AP / Corbis]

Then, in a long digression about the history of the Canal, he mentioned more than a dozen times the name of Ferdinand De Lesseps, the Frenchman who built it. “De Lesseps” was, it turns out, Nasser’s codeword directing the Egyptian Army to seize control of the Canal while he was still finishing his speech. At the same time, Egypt closed the Canal to Israeli shipping and cut off its access to the Red Sea via the Gulf of Aqaba and Straits of Tiran.  

Anthony Eden (1956) [BBC]

The British were apoplectic – the Daily Mail headline was “Grabber Nasser” – about losing control of their oil lifeline and shortcut to India. British Prime Minister Anthony Eden, who  \had once called Anthony Nutting in the British Foreign Office and shouted, “Don’t you understand, I want (Nasser) murdered,” now declared while standing in the House of Commons, “We cannot allow Nasser to have his hand on our windpipe.”

As co-owners and operators of the Canal, the French saw red too, perhaps more so because Nasser was supporting Algeria in its War for Independence (1954 – 1962), a very nasty conflict marked by terrorist attacks and torture on both sides. and France immediately began making plans to invade Egypt and reoccupy the Canal Zone.

One problem. Eisenhower, a self-described “peace President,” had a re-election just around the corner, and he did not want his NATO allies going to war with an Arab country led by a popular leader of the non-aligned movement. So Ike and Dulles sidetracked the British and French into endless rounds of “peace talks” and U.N. resolutions. 

Meanwhile, Israeli leaders were increasingly alarmed about the quantity and quality of arms Egypt was getting from the Soviets, and IDF Chief of Staff Moshe Dayan advised Prime Minister David Ben Gurion that Israel had only a narrow window to attack Egypt before the balance of power flipped. 

Ben Gurion with Moshe Dayan (1956) [Boris Carmi]

Nasser’s blockade of the Tiran Straits gave Ben Gurion provocation on a silver platter. But worried about how the U.S. would react, he did not want to go it alone, so he came up with a plan as elegant in its simplicity as it was devious in aim.

Israel, in response to Egypt blocking the Tiran Straits, would launch an attack across the Sinai toward the Canal, and French and British forces would then enter the fray to “separate the two sides and ensure safe passage through the Canal for ships of all nations.” 

In a clandestine three-day meeting, October 22 – 24, at Sèvres on the outskirts of Paris, Ben Gurion put his plan on the table. French Prime Minister Guy Mollet was an easy sell. Israel and France had a cozy relationship, they were sharing nuclear research and the French were selling the Israelis all the weapons they wanted to buy. But Eden was not, fretting that any joint action with Israel would alienate Britain’s Arab allies, the Hashemite kingdoms of Iraq and Jordan.

But very ill and perhaps delusional from painkillers, Eden went along with Ben Gurion’s scheme because he thought it gave him plausible deniability. Looking for any excuse to decimate Egypt’s rapidly modernizing military, Ben Gurion now had the British and French to help do the job, Britain and France would get the Canal back, and with luck oust Nasser in the bargain. In short, a win-win-win. 

[Royal Air Force]

Game on. October 29, 1956, Israeli paratroops led by Ariel Sharon, yes, that Ariel Sharon, jumped en masse into the Sinai, and in two days advanced to within 10 miles of the Canal. Feigning surprise, the British and French issued ultimatums to both sides to cease fire within 24 hours. When they did not, the RAF bombed Egyptian air bases and British and French troops launched amphibious assaults in the Canal Zone, interposing their forces between the Egyptians and Israelis. Egypt’s air force was destroyed on the ground and its ground forces routed.

A military success, yes, but very quickly a political disaster. No one bought the British – French story. Anti-British riots broke out in capitals throughout the Middle East. Syria blew up the Kirkuk – Baniyas pipeline to cut off oil from Iraq, and King Saud of Saudi Arabia imposed an oil embargo on Britain and France.

[Monty Fresco / Getty Images]

Back in June, immediately after Nasser’s Alexandria speech, Eden had wide-spread support at home for military action against Egypt, but now he was pilloried in the House of Commons, even by backbenchers in his own Tory party, for his lies and dissembling. And Nikita Khrushchev threatened Soviet intervention, including using nuclear weapons against Britain, France and Israel if push came to shove.,

Eisenhower was the gorilla in the room, and he was very unhappy. Although U.S. spy planes had photographed the military build-up, Ike felt personally betrayed by Eden, and he did not want World War III to start over ownership of the Suez Canal.

In fact, in the three months following nationalization, British claims that the Egyptians could not run the Canal effectively and even-handedly had proved wrong, shipping traffic did not skip a beat until Nasser sunk almost 70 ships in the Canal to thwart Britain and France if they managed to take control again.

Also, Eisenhower had warned the Russians not to use force to suppress the anti-Soviet revolution in Hungary that had started just days earlier, 23 October, and did not want to forfeit his credibility by doing nothing as his NATO allies invaded a neutral country.

To sidestep British and French vetoes in the U.N. Security Council, the U.S. pushed through an emergency resolution in the General Assembly calling for an immediate cease fire, with Russia voting yes. And Eisenhower squeezed Eden in the pocketbook, cutting off emergency International Monetary Fund loans that Britain’s fragile post-war economy sorely needed to deal with the Arab oil embargo.

Eden caved. On November 6, even with British army units already halfway from Alexandria to Suez, he ordered a cease fire. The French were furious, but as their joint forces were under British high command, they had no choice but to stop too. By mid-December, all British and French forces had been evacuated from the Canal Zone, replaced by a U.N. peacekeeping force of Danish and Colombian soldiers, the very first “blue helmets” who have become ubiquitous in conflicts around the world.

Israeli forces continued to advance for one more week until they held all of the Sinai and the Gaza strip, and ceased fire only when Eisenhower threatened to cut off American military and economic aid. This was the first and last time that an American president had the political cajones to stare down the Israelis. But Israel refused to permit any U.N. forces on Israeli-controlled territory, and did not withdraw from the Sinai until March 1957, after the U.S. brokered a deal with Egypt to guarantee Israel’s right of passage through the Gulf of Aqaba and the Tiran Straits.

The Suez Crisis fundamentally altered the geopolitical landscape in the Middle East and Europe. Anthony Eden, along with his foreign secretary, Selwyn Lloyd, who lied to the House of Commons about whether Eden’s government knew in advance that Israel was planning to attack Egypt, resigned with their reputations in tatters.  

Great Britain lost its aura of imperial invincibility and by the mid-70s almost all its colonies. Ever since, Britain has seemed content to play the “little brother” to its younger but much stronger American sibling. Britain has U.S. Trident missile systems on its nuclear submarines – all four of them – and can be counted on to walk lockstep with the U.S. on foreign policy, often with very bad outcomes, the 2003 invasion of Iraq being a prime example.

The upside? The French concluded that they could never again rely on the British, who clearly valued their “special relationship” with America above all else, and suspected that the U.S. had intervened in Suez with the goal of supplanting France as the dominant Western power in North Africa.

According to the Economist (July 2006), German Chancellor Conrad Adenauer, who had supported France throughout the Suez Crisis, told Guy Mollet, “France and England will never be powers comparable to the United States . . . not Germany either, . . . There remains only one way of playing a decisive role in the world, and that is to unite Europe.” 

One year later, in 1957, the Treaty of Rome was signed, creating the six country – now 25 – European common market, with its own “not American” value system. France withdrew from NATO’s integrated command structure, developed its own nuclear “force de frappe” and kept Britain out of the European Union until 1973. 

Nasser & Khrushchev opening Aswan High Dam (1964) [Tass / Getty]

Nasser was a big winner in the short run, a hero in the Arab world for “pulling the British lion’s tail” and getting away with it. Before Suez, Nasser had to deal with strong opposition from the Muslim Brotherhood, communists and the former ruling classes in Egypt, but after it had the prestige and political muscle to suppress all dissent, and his strong-man, one-party form of governance became a model for Saddam Hussein in Iraq and the Assads in Syria, both soon to give Ba’athism a very bad name.

As for Eisenhower, despite his best intentions, the Suez crisis ended badly. On November 4, just as the Suez cease fire was taking effect, the Russians, who had no qualms about hypocrisy, sent tanks into Hungary and brutally crushed the grass roots uprising. Two days later, November 6, Eisenhower was re-elected to his second term, only to watch the Soviets, touting themselves as the great anti-imperialists, gain greater influence in the Arab world and open up a new front in the Cold War.

Silver lining: Two months later, the Hungarians got a measure of revenge in the December 6, 1956, water polo semi-final at the Melbourne Olympics, thrashing the Soviet 4 – 0 in a match so vicious that the pool ran red with blood, and going on to beat Yugoslavia in the gold medal game. Half the Hungarian squad then defected to the West.


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We live in perilous times, democracy is under attack, rationality and compassion are in short supply, and our planet, our home for 200,000 years, is burning up. We must resist, we must work for a better world. MacLeod Post is my voice in that struggle.

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