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: Martin Whitfield
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Labour MP for East Lothian Martin Whitfield: "I started an argument and ended up winning an election"

The former primary school teacher still misses home. 

Two months ago, Martin Whitfield was a primary school teacher in Prestonpans, a small town along the coast from Edinburgh. Then he got into an argument. It was a Saturday morning shortly after the snap election had been called, and he and other members of the local Labour party began discussing a rumour that the candidate would be an outsider.

“I started an argument that this was ridiculous, we couldn’t have a candidate helicoptered in,” he recalls. He pointed out that one of the main issues with the Scottish National Party incumbent, the economist and journalist George Kerevan, was that he was seen as an outsider.

“I kept arguing for an hour and a half and people started gently moving away,” he jokes. “About two days later I was still going on, and I thought enough’s enough.” 

He called Iain Gray, the Scottish Labour veteran, who interrupted him. “He said, 'Right Martin, are you going to put up or shut up?’ So I filled in the forms.

"Then I had to have a very interesting conversation with my wife.”

One successful election campaign later, he is sitting in the airy, glass-roofed atrium of Westminster’s Portcullis House. Whitfield has silver hair, glasses, and wears a Labour-red tie with his shirt. He looks every bit the approachable primary school teacher, and sometimes he forgets he isn’t anymore. 

I ask how the school reacted to his election bid, and he begins “I have”, and then corrects himself: “There is a primary four class I had the pleasure to teach.” The children wanted to know everything from where parliament was, to his views on education and independence. He took unpaid leave to campaign. 

“Actually not teaching the children was the hardest thing,” he recalls. “During the campaign I kept bumping into them when I was door-knocking.”

Whitfield was born in Newcastle, in 1965, to Labour-supporting parents. “My entire youth was spent with people who were socialists.”

His father was involved in the Theatre Workshop, founded by the left-wing director Joan Littlewood. “We were part of a community which supported each other and found value in that support in art and in theatre,” he says. “That is hugely important to me.” 

He trained as a lawyer, but grew disillusioned with the profession and retrained as a teacher instead. He and his wife eventually settled in Prestonpans, where they started a family and he “fought like mad” to work at the local school. She works as the marketing manager for the local theatre.

He believes he won his seat – one of the first to be touted as a possible Labour win – thanks to a combination of his local profile, the party’s position on independence and its manifesto, which “played brilliantly everywhere we discussed it”. 

It offered hope, he says: “As far as my doorstep discussion in East Lothian went, some people were for and against Jeremy Corbyn, some people were for and against Kezia Dugdale, but I didn’t find anyone who was against the manifesto.”

Whitfield’s new job will mean long commutes on the East Coast line, but he considers representing the constituency a “massive, massive honour”. When I ask him about East Lothian, he can’t stop talking.

“MPs do tend to say ‘my constituency’s a microcosm’, but it really is Scotland in miniature. We have a fishing industry, crabs and lobsters, the agricultural areas – the agricultural soil is second to none.” The area was also historically home to heavy industry. 

After his first week in Westminster, Whitfield caught the train back to Scotland. “That bit when I got back into East Lothian was lovely moment,” he says. “I was home.”

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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