Bringing it all together
When Nasser negotiated an end to the British occupation of Egypt 50 years ago last week, he also consolidated his own rule against a raft of internal opponents. Michael Thornhill writes
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Nutting, sitting next to Nasser, signs the evacuation plan ending British Occupation of Egypt, 19 October 1954 ; Ahmed El-Sharnoubi fought in the Arabi's army against the British invasion. In Ismailia he translates to two Brits news of the evacuation; a last walk on the canal; the British evacuate the canal zone for good
KICKED OUT OF EGYPT: Little more than two years earlier, Nasser and a cabal of middle- ranking military officers had staged a nearly bloodless coup with the goal of "purifying Egypt's political system". This could only be done, it was felt, if the hated British occupation was brought to an end. After months of intermittent bilateral negotiations, punctuated by guerrilla attacks secretly regulated by the new Egyptian leadership, Britain had finally decided to relinquish its Suez bastion.
And what a mighty wrench it was. The network of installations in the Canal Zone amounted to the largest military base in the world -- a base at the crossroads of three continents, protecting the "jugular vein of empire". In public, British politicians spun the line that the advent of the hydrogen bomb made the Canal Zone vulnerable in a future world war. Churchill, a die- hard imperialist, unhappily toed the line, but for him the crucial point about the Suez base was not its usefulness, or otherwise, but rather the enormous prestige that its possession bestowed on Britain. Being a world power meant hanging on to such possessions come what may.
However, Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden had persuaded the Conservative government that Britain could no longer maintain the garrison when it was surrounded by a hostile population. Between October 1951, when Egypt's government had abrogated the 1936 Defence Treaty, and October 1954, British personnel in the base had been routinely sniped at, ambushed and bombed by Egyptian irregular fighters. Britain's officials were introduced to an Arabic term which is now so commonplace that it is included in the Oxford English Dictionary: fedayeen.
Although estimates vary, at least 200 British soldiers were killed and many more injured during the Egyptian Insurgency, not that this term was used at the time. In fact, it took 50 years for a British government to acknowledge the active service conditions in Egypt between 1951 and 1954. In June 2003, Tony Blair's government, fresh from its own Middle East campaign, announced that veterans of the earlier struggle would receive the General Service Medal with a Canal Zone clasp. Implicit as it may be, here at last was a kind of official admission that Britain had been kicked out of Egypt.
Back in October 1954, however, British politicians insisted that the agreement about to be signed, detailing a phased withdrawal of the British garrison by June 1956, was a strategic redeployment to a network of smaller bases in the Middle East. Nasser went on to be a champion of anti-imperialism throughout the Third World, but on 19 October his mind was firmly fixed on his own domestic context. He was about to do what many Egyptian leaders had been trying to do since the start of the British occupation of Egypt in 1882 -- namely, end it. He knew that this was crucial to the consolidation of his military government, not to mention his own position as its head.
In imperial matters, disengagement is never straightforward. There are, after all, different methods of preserving influence. British officials hoped that Egypt, having rid itself of the stigma of foreign occupation, would go on to play an important role as an ally in the Cold War. The final terms of the agreement included re-entry rights in the event of a future conflict. An attack on any Arab League state or Turkey (a member of NATO) would permit British forces to move back into the Canal Zone. But Nasser was nothing if not a master tactician. The crucial point was to get the British out: the circumstances of when they might possibly return was a relatively minor issue, except in as much as it would influence domestic reaction to the treaty.
The signing ceremony went without hitch. At 10.26pm the agreement regarding the Suez Canal Base was initialed. The battle of the Canal Zone was over. Egypt was to be free of foreign domination for the first time since the Pharaohs. And despite the violent struggle of the preceding three years, there was not a hint of prickliness between Nasser and the British minister. That said, Nutting failed in his wider mission of trying to get on friendly terms with Nasser and draw him out on the possibilities of future Anglo-Egyptian cooperation. The latter was not interested.
19 October 1954 was Nasser's day. When there is a foreign army in a country which is more powerful than the indigenous military, that force is sovereign despite any pretence to the contrary. Nasser, the soldier-politician, was acutely aware of this. With upwards of 80,000 troops in the Canal Zone, Britain had held an effective "veto" over political developments in Egypt, his own revolution included. The last Egyptian officer to stage a mutiny against the reigning monarch had been Colonel Ahmed Arabi in 1882: a British military invasion and 70-year-plus occupation had been the result.
Consequently, from the earliest hours of the coup onwards, Nasser had been extremely anxious to prevent Britain from intervening in the internal affairs of Egypt ever again. His strategy was to cultivate close relations with American officials. The aim was to make Washington's influence a "trump card" over the British "veto", as well as to help hasten a British military withdrawal. This entailed flattering certain US diplomats and spies (the CIA was well represented in Cairo) by introducing them into the innermost sanctums of the military government. The approach was a brilliant success.
THE CAFFERY CARD: With his Irish- American background, Jefferson Caffery, the US ambassador in Cairo, was anything but Anglophile. He did not intend to play second fiddle to British policy in Egypt. His most trusted adviser was William Lakeland, a relatively junior official in his early 30s who was on close terms with Nasser. While Caffery conducted business with General Mohamed Naguib (the figurehead of the regime), Nasser and Lakeland visited each other's homes for late night chats about strategy.
The measure of Nasser's success in using American influence to keep the British at bay may be gauged by the attitude of Britain's policy-makers to their US counterparts in Cairo. Caffery and Lakeland were truly loathed. "Caffery could not be worse," fumed Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden in September 1952. The ambassador's habit of referring to the military government as "our boys" was not only irritating to the British, but also tactless as regards his own interests. Meanwhile, Lakeland was the "Quiet American" par excellence, a figure who might easily have stepped out of a Graham Greene novel. A senior British official thought him "notable for his youthful enthusiasm and idealistic, even sentimental approach to the Egyptians untempered by realism and uncoloured by any feeling of solidarity with us". Another added that he was "more Egyptian than the Egyptians".
Given the current international situation, it is worth stressing that in the early 1950s the overarching thrust of US foreign policy was to view the Middle East as a British Cold War responsibility. Onerous American military commitments in Western Europe and the Far East accounted for this stance. Such prioritisation should have prompted American missions in the region to support and perhaps guide the British but certainly not try and succeed them. However, in the wake of the July 1952 coup, Caffery and his embassy grabbed at opportunities which ran against Washington's global priorities. A British assessment in 1953 was that he deliberately encouraged the coup leaders "in order to build up his own position, and incidentally that of the US, at our expense". Ultimately his aim was to present himself in Washington as the power behind the throne in Egypt.
Nasser's tactic of playing the Americans off against the British was an approach that needed to be kept hidden in the twilight world of backstairs diplomacy. Caffery and company could not be seen to be getting too close to the military regime. The prospect of Uncle Sam replacing John Bull had to be guarded against. A cartoon in a leading Cairo daily in March 1953 thus had the whiff of official inspiration. It showed Caffery leaning over the ropes during a boxing match between Naguib and Churchill, and whispering to the Egyptian leader, "Do you want my help?", "No thank you," comes the reply, "I can deal with him myself." Tellingly, Nasser's close contacts with the Americans withered away once the evacuation of British forces had been secured.
The history books still argue about Nasser's early relationship with the Americans. Prior to the opening of the British and US archives under the 30 years' rule, there had been a tendency to inflate the influence of the CIA with the military government. Self-serving memoirs by the likes of Miles Copeland, a CIA operative, were instrumental in this. For instance, it was often said that some of the Free Officers had received training in the United States. Careful inspection of the publicly-released records tells another story.
The archives reveal that the US Embassy in Cairo was taken completely by surprise by the military coup on 22-23 July 1952. Moreover, hitherto top secret papers show that Caffery still held Naguib to be the leader of the military government (rather than a last minute addition as a figurehead) many months after the coup.
And despite the claims of the spy memoirs, it was Lakeland who was the most important link with the new regime and this connection was utilised at Nasser's whim, not the other way round. Some 21 months after the Free Officers' seizure of power, a senior State Department official visited Cairo to assess America's contacts. His verdict pours cold water on the later claims that the CIA pulled the strings. Lakeland, wrote Parker Hart, was "a very thin line" to the "small gang" around Nasser.
While Nasser should be given great credit for his adept manipulation of a superpower in his efforts to end the British occupation, it also needs to be recognised that he used the exigencies of the situation to move Egypt decisively towards authoritarianism.
THE HOME FRONT: The first casualty, King Farouk, was missed by very few. His fate had effectively been sealed by his poor leadership during the Palestine war of 1948. Prancing around the nightclubs of Cairo in field marshal's uniform did not suggest statesmanship. A prolonged scandal concerning the purchase of defective arms alienated him from his own army. Meanwhile, his divorce from the popular Queen Farida squandered any remaining personal sympathy he still enjoyed with the Egyptian public.
The next casualty still has reverberations today. Within six months of the Free Officers seizing power, the system of party politics in Egypt was brought to an end, despite the coup leaders' initial declared policy of acting as guardians of the constitution. Nasser's main target was always the Wafd, Egypt's largest party during the "liberal" era. Clearly, if the military was to retain power, it had to see off its strongest rival. Within the Wafd, Fouad Serageddin was identified as the key threat. "A brilliant and dangerous politician", admitted Nasser to Lakeland.
Ironically, Britain, the US and the military regime were all marching in step on this issue, the Wafd being held responsible for the "Black Saturday" riots in January 1952 when the heart of downtown Cairo had been set ablaze. In Egypt, moreover, there was also a strong undercurrent of opinion which blamed the divisiveness of party politics for prolonging the British occupation. The national question needed a national, not sectarian, solution. This was the central platform of the military government.
After the banning of political parties in January 1953, Nasser pressed hard to reach an evacuation agreement with Britain. However, Churchill's government was not yet ready for withdrawal. This presented a vicious circle for Nasser, the regime's real leader. The longer- term stability of the "Revolutionary Command Council" required the evacuation of British forces, but the concessions needed by Nasser to secure an agreement would play into the hands of his opponents.
By early 1954, the most powerful of these adversaries were no longer the remnants of the political partie -- but rivals within the junta. Naguib, as president and prime minister, was increasingly frustrated at not having his (apparent) high office translated into commensurate powers. Similarly, the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's second largest mass organisation during the later constitutional era, felt that it was not getting its due rewards, despite shouldering much of the responsibility for the guerrilla campaign in the Canal Zone.
In early 1954, Nasser moved against his internal rivals. The Muslim Brotherhood was banned in January and a few weeks later the long- simmering power struggle with Naguib boiled over. It began when Naguib resigned his posts on 22 February. Tellingly, his timing was determined by the delicate state of the Anglo- Egyptian defence talks. Despite the popularity of the avuncular general with the Egyptian people, Nasser accepted the resignation. In so doing, he seriously misjudged the mood of the army and the country. While a military countercoup was dealt with swiftly, mass demonstrations in favour of Naguib, organised by the Muslim Brotherhood, pushed Nasser into accepting Naguib back as president of the "Parliamentary Republic of Egypt". It was a humiliating u-turn.
The next month is known in Egyptian history as the "March Crisis". With Naguib's re- appointment came enormous pressure for a return to party politics. Nasser responded by mounting a psychological campaign in the media that made widespread disorder appear inevitable. He also tightened his control over the lower ranks of the army and brought the Muslim Brotherhood back on his side by promising to restore the movement's legal status. On 21 March, Lakeland met Nasser at his home. During a two-hour meeting, Nasser explained his tactics of letting the situation deteriorate "in order to demonstrate to the people what would be in store for the country if party elections were carried out now".
Four days later, the junta announced that political parties were again legal and elections would soon be held. The revolution was to be declared over on 24 July. Hundreds of Muslim Brothers were also released from prison. That same day, Friday 25 March, Nasser initiated the activist element to his strategy. Transport workers in all the major cities took part in "spontaneous" strikes. They demanded that there should be no legalisation of political parties or electoral campaigning until the evacuation of British forces. At 7pm the next day, Nasser used these demonstrations to justify a reassertion of military control. With the crisis over, Caffery reported to Washington that Nasser was the "only man in Egypt with strength enough and guts enough to put over an agreement with Britain".
The final act in Nasser's consolidation of power centred around an attempt on his life. A week after signing the evacuation agreement, Nasser was shot at while addressing a mass meeting in Alexandria. Four members of the Muslim Brotherhood were immediately arrested. Exhorting the crowd to stay in place, Nasser completed his speech by making political capital out of the incident: "Remember that if anything should happen to me, the revolution will go on, for each of you is a Gamal Abdel- Nasser." It was repeatedly broadcast to excellent effect.
Because the assassination attempt was such a boon to Nasser, rumours spread that it had been staged. Caffery rejected this theory but added that at last the Egyptian revolution had its "hero". Nasser used his new-found popularity to crack down on the Muslim Brotherhood. He also removed Naguib as president, a post that went unfilled until Nasser himself assumed it on 26 June 1956. This was 10 days after the last British troops left Egyptian soil as per the agreement of October 1954.
The writer's book Battle of the Canal Zone: The Egyptian Emergency, 1951-54 will be published in 2006