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.

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Why Angela Merkel's comments about the UK and US shouldn't be given too much weight

The Chancellor's comments are aimed at a domestic and European audience, and she won't be abandoning Anglo-German relationships just yet.

Angela Merkel’s latest remarks do not seem well-judged but should not be given undue significance. Speaking as part of a rally in Munich for her sister party, the CSU, the German Chancellor claimed “we Europeans must really take our own fate into our hands”.

The comments should be read in the context of September's German elections and Merkel’s determination to restrain the fortune of her main political rival, Martin Schulz – obviously a strong Europhile and a committed Trump critic. Sigmar Gabriel - previously seen as a candidate to lead the left-wing SPD - has for some time been pressing for Germany and Europe to have “enough self-confidence” to stand up to Trump. He called for a “self-confident position, not just on behalf of us Germans but all Europeans”. Merkel is in part responding to this pressure.

Her words were well received by her audience. The beer hall crowd erupted into sustained applause. But taking an implicit pop at Donald Trump is hardly likely to be a divisive tactic at such a gathering. Criticising the UK post-Brexit and the US under Trump is the sort of virtue signalling guaranteed to ensure a good clap.

It’s not clear that the comments represent that much of a new departure, as she herself has since claimed. She said something similar earlier this year. In January, after the publication of Donald Trump’s interview with The Times and Bild, she said that “we Europeans have our fate in our own hands”.

At one level what Merkel said is something of a truism: in two year’s time Britain will no longer be directly deciding the fate of the EU. In future no British Prime Minister will attend the European Council, and British MEPs will leave the Parliament at the next round of European elections in 2019. Yet Merkel’s words “we Europeans”, conflate Europe and the EU, something she has previously rejected. Back in July last year, at a joint press conference with Theresa May, she said: “the UK after all remains part of Europe, if not of the Union”.

At the same press conference, Merkel also confirmed that the EU and the UK would need to continue to work together. At that time she even used the first person plural to include Britain, saying “we have certain missions also to fulfil with the rest of the world” – there the ‘we’ meant Britain and the EU, now the 'we' excludes Britain.

Her comments surely also mark a frustration born of difficulties at the G7 summit over climate change, but Britain and Germany agreed at the meeting in Sicily on the Paris Accord. More broadly, the next few months will be crucial for determining the future relationship between Britain and the EU. There will be many difficult negotiations ahead.

Merkel is widely expected to remain the German Chancellor after this autumn’s election. As the single most powerful individual in the EU27, she is the most crucial person in determining future relations between the UK and the EU. Indeed, to some extent, it was her intransigence during Cameron’s ‘renegotiation’ which precipitated Brexit itself. She also needs to watch with care growing irritation across the EU at the (perceived) extent of German influence and control over the institutions and direction of the European project. Recent reports in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung which suggested a Merkel plan for Jens Weidmann of the Bundesbank to succeed Mario Draghi at the ECB have not gone down well across southern Europe. For those critics, the hands controlling the fate of Europe are Merkel’s.

Brexit remains a crucial challenge for the EU. How the issue is handled will shape the future of the Union. Many across Europe’s capitals are worried that Brussels risks driving Britain further away than Brexit will require; they are worried lest the Channel becomes metaphorically wider and Britain turns its back on the continent. On the UK side, Theresa May has accepted the EU, and particularly Merkel’s, insistence, that there can be no cherry picking, and therefore she has committed to leaving the single market as well as the EU. May has offered a “deep and special” partnership and a comprehensive free trading arrangement. Merkel should welcome Britain’s clarity. She must work with new French President Emmanuel Macron and others to lead the EU towards a new relationship with Britain – a close partnership which protects free trade, security and the other forms of cooperation which benefit all Europeans.

Henry Newman is the director of Open Europe. He tweets @henrynewman.

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