Lessons from the Suez Crisis for dealing with modern Egypt

Britain's disastrous colonial attitude to Nasser should warn of the dangers of a lack of engagement.

The nationalization of the Suez Canal on 26 July 1956 represents the epitome of failure in Western diplomacy, the consequences of which still resonate in the Middle East. As the 56th anniversary of the crisis looms and new turbulence afflicts the region, it is worth revisiting the event to draw some of its more important lessons.

Western powers failed to understand Nasser after his Free Officers took power in 1952. Nasser was never averse to Western partnership, but his position was clear; according to his Charter of National Action, he wanted to remove the British military presence in Egypt, strengthen her military capability and rejuvenate the weak economy. This genuine need was not recognized by the Western powers who expected her to be a bulwark against the Soviet Union without considering Egypt’s strategic needs. Britain treated Nasser as a former colonial master, while the US cared only about its tussle with the Soviet Union. Nasser could not take any overtures made by the West seriously because any reduction of British troop numbers only came about due to Egyptian harassment. With the US 6th fleet still anchored at Naples, it was clearly ready to support Israel should another war should break out between the two. It did not make sense for Nasser to view the Soviets as the enemy. The West failed to engage, build trust and above all provide a convincing argument for Nasser to side with them.

The Western powers failed to appreciate Egypt’s security and economic needs. Nasser needed to replenish his defenses due to the humiliating defeat suffered against Israel in 1948-49. Nasser had approached the US to sell him arms. The US missed the opportunity of buying the good will of Nasser and refused. Consequently, Egypt turned to the Soviet Union; in 1956 Egypt concluded the Czech arms deal worth $90m. Similarly, Nasser wanted Western loans to build the Aswan dam as a solution to Egypt’s economic woes; it would increase arable land by 33 per cent and generate 600 million kilowatts of electricity annually. The joint Anglo-American venture withdrew its loans. Consequently, on 26 July 1956, to the astonishment of the Western powers and the applause of the Arab world, Nasser nationalized the Canal.

Western powers also squandered any goodwill or trust that could have been fostered by making Nasser into a mythical archenemy. Before the Suez Crisis, Whitehall was already treating Nasser like a fascist dictator. Western intelligence agencies made several attempts to assassinate him. There were British diplomatic efforts at isolating him in the region through the Baghdad pact. In short, Nasser had become the 1950s version of an Ahmedinejad, the arch villain. Thus when Nasser nationalized the Canal, the response was also like the way one deals with an arch villain; unforgiving and disproportionate. Eden overloaded the water way with oil tankers to demonstrate Egyptian dependency on British expertise. Nasser kept it open. With pie on his face, Eden, resorted to darker methods; whilst UN mediation continued in New York, British, French and Israeli ministers colluded to invade the Sinai Peninsula. Following an Israeli invasion, Anglo-French forces bombed and landed troops in Egypt on the pretext of stopping the two belligerents. This unilateral action was disastrous.

President Eisenhower, livid at not being consulted and US shipping being stuck because Nasser had blocked the canal, withheld vital financial aid to the British economy. Khrushchev, the Russian premier, threatened nuclear war whilst the Arab world turned off the tap on oil supplies. The rest of the international community condemned the action as brazen imperialism. Nasser however, emerged victorious gaining the admiration of Ché Guevara and many non-aligned countries. He gave birth to many emulators in the region like Colonel Gaddafi and solidified the militarization of Egyptian society.

The Suez Crisis should serve as a stark reminder of the failures of engagement. With the Muslim Brotherhood in power, the West must not deal with them the way they dealt with Nasser. Nathan J Brown, professor of political science and international affairs and an expert on the Brotherhood, is surely correct when he advised congress on 13 April 2011 that the Brotherhood must be treated as normal political actors. Whilst not all of their aims are in line with those of the West, as we have learnt from the Suez Crisis, misunderstanding and underestimating them could have serious consequences for Western interests as well as stoking up further instability in these turbulent times.

 

The way Britain dealt with Nasser should be a cautionary tale for the West's relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood. Photograph: Getty Images

Tam Hussein is an award winning writer and journalist specialising in the Middle East. He spent several years in the Middle East and North Africa working as a translator and consultant. Tam also writes for the Huffington Post.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder