Thursday, November 02, 2006
SUEZ: When Nasser stood up against imperialism!
by Andy Brooks
ON 29th October 1956, Israeli troops stormed into the Egyptian-controlled Gaza Strip and Sinai Peninsula and advanced towards the Suez Canal. The Israelis claimed it was aimed at curbing Egyptian support for Palestinian guerrillas based in Gaza.
In fact it was part of a secret deal hatched in London and Paris to topple Egypt’s Free Officer Revolution led by Gamal Abdel Nasser and return the recently nationalised Suez Canal to Franco-British imperialism.
The next day, Britain and France offered to temporarily occupy the Canal Zone to protect the international waterway, demanding a 10 mile buffer-zone on either side and entirely on Egyptian territory, to separate the warring forces. When this unacceptable ultimatum was rejected by Nasser the RAF began bombing Egyptian air-fields and Anglo-French paratroopers descended on the Canal. The second Arab-Israeli war had begun.
The old colonialists dreamt of restoring their power in the Middle East. The Egyptians dreamed of building a new modern Arab republic in the heart of the Arab world. While the Arab dream remains unfulfilled to this day the colonial pretensions of British and French imperialism were shattered in October 1956.
The 1952 Egyptian Revolution, led by progressive army officers, ended a corrupt and venal monarchy that had long been in the pocket of imperialism. The Free Officers immediately introduced land reforms, public education and a rudimentary welfare state.
But above all they were determined to fulfill the centuries-old dream of all the people of Egypt – the construction of a dam that would conserve the waters of the Nile for agriculture and use its power to generate electricity for the people of the great river.
British engineers had already built one dam across the Nile at Aswan in 1899 but it had become woefully inadequate and almost overflowed in 1946. Plans for a new High Dam at Aswan began in 1952 and the Nasser government had been led to expect funding to come from loans from the United States and Britain. But in 1956 Britain and the United States both cancelled their offer.
British imperialism, like the French, was angered at the Egyptian government’s embrace of Arab nationalism which had inspired democratic movements that challenged the Arab kings and princes under British protection in Jordan, Iraq and the Persian Gulf. Cairo was the base for the Algerian national liberation movement fighting to kick the French out while the Americans had been stung by Egypt’s decision to import arms from socialist Czechoslovakia and establish diplomatic relations with People’s China.
This left Nasser with only two choices. Give in to imperialism or find the money elsewhere. He did – by nationalising the Anglo-French Suez Canal Company.
No one had asked the Egyptian people whether they wanted the canal in the first place though 120,000 Egyptian workers, mainly forced labourers, had perished during its construction. Egypt’s feudal rulers originally held shares in the French company but Ismail Pasha was forced to sell all of Egypt’s stakeholding to Britain in 1875 to meet external debts. The canal then came under total Anglo-French control.
Opened in 1869, the charges levied on shipping made a handsome profit for its owners but the Egyptians got little back in return. The Suez Canal Company had effectively robbed the Egyptian people of £35 million a year, Nasser said in his fateful address on 26th July 1956 in Alexandria. This money, just like the canal, belonged to the people.
Anglo-French imperialism immediately tried to bring the Canal to a standstill. All British and French pilots were ordered out but the Egyptian and Greek pilots stayed at their posts. Then Britain and France tried to build up an international lobby to challenge the nationalisation while secretly plotting with Israel and moving troops to the region in preparation for the invasion.
On 31st October Anglo-French warplanes began to bomb Egypt. Nasser ordered the sinking of all 40 ships present in the Canal to block it to all Powers.
Significantly the Eisenhower administration in Washington had not been consulted nor had it given its blessing to the Anglo-French invasion. American imperialism had no interest in maintaining the old European colonial empires and indeed they were actively working to dismantle them to open the Third World to US competition.
Their major Arab ally was the feudal king of Saudi Arabia who was threatening an oil embargo on Britain and France if the war continued and the United States still hoped to win Nasser over to their plan to extend Nato into the Middle East.
At the United Nations on 2nd November the American delegation voted in favour of a General Assembly resolution, moved there to sidestep a British or French veto, calling for an immediate ceasefire and the withdrawal of the invading troops In Britain Labour opposition leader Hugh Gaitskell had initially backed the efforts of Tory premier, Sir Anthony Eden, to regain control of the Canal. But a growing peace campaign and pressure from union leaders and the rank-and-file soon changed his mind. On Sunday 4th November Trafalgar Square was packed with demonstrators chanting:‘One, two, three, four! We won’t fight in Eden’s war’ and Gaitskell forcefully attacked Eden’s aggression.
Britain and France ignored the UN ceasefire vote and on 5th November Anglo-French paras were dropped along the Canal. Egyptian forces, already fighting the Israelis, were deployed to defend the waterway. The French and British commandos faced fierce resistance in the streets of the Canal ports. The Egyptian masses rallied to defend their revolution and drive the invaders out. Pro-Nasser demonstrations swept the streets of the Arab world, still largely controlled by Anglo-French imperialism.
Oil pipelines were sabotaged and French and British property attacked by angry crowds. In Cyprus, the key British base for the invasion, General Grivas’ EOKA guerrillas – also fighting British colonialism – attacked the RAF bases and throughout the non-aligned world the tripartite aggression was denounced.
The Soviet Union moved quickly the day the paras landed. Failing to receive a positive response from President Eisenhower to a proposal for joint action to repulse the aggressors, the Soviet Union then demanded an immediate halt to all military operations. The Soviet government stated that the USSR was “determined to use force to shatter the aggression and to restore peace in the Middle East”. It obliquely threatened to launch missile attacks on Paris and London while Krushchov warned that he would send Soviet volunteers to join the fighting Egyptians.
The next day, 6th November, the British Cabinet met in crisis session. Seven ministers in Eden’s government threatened to resign. Eden visibly shaken, told a news conference he was going on hunger strike. When Jawaharlal Nehru, the Indian Prime Minister, received the news, he interrupted a meeting in the Indian parliament to read it out, and said that an empty stomach was better than an empty head.
On 7th November Britain, France and Israel agreed to a ceasefire. By the end of the year all British and French troops had left and Israel evacuated Sinai and the Gaza Strip the following year with the end of the Egyptian blockade of the Israeli Red Sea port of Eilat and the establishment of UN buffer troops in the Gaza Strip and along the Egyptian-Israeli frontier. Eden retired soon after, a broken man, while Nasser became a hero to all the Arabs. And the Aswan High Dam was built with Soviet assistance in the 1960s.
In a speech in 1960 President Nasser said: “The true significance of Suez for the liberation movement in Asia and Africa was that it signified an end to the era when the imperialists could mobilise their armies and navies to deal lethal blows to liberation movements. The Suez war proved that the victim of aggression had its own armies and that freedom had supporters all over the world”.