Egypt: Cradle of Arab Resistance
The mass rioting triggered by the British Army’s attack on the Ismailiyyah Police station [January 25th 1952] , was a clarion call to the small group of Army officers who had formed the Free Officers Movement[FOM] . The people simmered, while the established parties dithered devoid of any idea how to take the situation forward. The young Officers felt their time had come.
At the centre of the group was Gamal Abdul-Nasser . If Zaghlul had oratory and Al Banna charisma, Nasser had both qualities with an intensity that gave him a mass appeal. As one American commentator said “whatever it is that leadership required, he certainly had it”. It would be wrong to see Nasser’s relationship with the “Arab street” as that of a demagogue; he had an uncanny feeling for what the street thought and was invariably guided by its aspirations. This feeling for the street plus his undisputed personal integrity, won him admiration bordering on adoration. An admiration many of his enemies confused with an orchestrated sycophancy, which often surrounds dictators.
Nasser’s personality and programme are still controversial 37 years after his premature death. For many Islamists he was a latter-day Pharaoh persecuting the pious; to others on the left he was a nationalist leader like Sukharno or Bhutto, who spoke about “socialism” but did not deliver any fundamental change. For the masses in Egypt, the Arab world, and beyond, he was a hero resisting oppressors at home and abroad. A postmaster’s son with his roots in the Egyptian peasantry, Nasser had a deep seated loathing for the King, the aristocratic Pasha’s and the British occupiers who propped them up. As time went on he also developed an antipathy for the Muslim Brotherhood, despite a personal devotion to Islam and a modest lifestyle.
Many of these traits were nurtured during his early days in rural Egypt. The young Nasser pleased the sheikh of his village Quran school, not only as a model pupil, but also as an observant Muslim. He was an introspective boy who preferred chess to physical sports, was shy yet felt compelled to respond when he saw injustice. As a student he received a beating from the police, while protesting against the British occupation. Nasser could also be pragmatic when necessary; seeking the sponsorship of a Pasha as the only way to get a place at the military academy.
Nasser was never an armchair revolutionary, demonstrating great courage and leadership as a young officer, during the Egyptian Army’s brief ill fated intervention in Palestine against Zionist forces. He realised a corrupt colonised Egypt could not defeat the modern Zionist state, which the imperial powers had planted in the heart of the Muslim world.
“…We were fighting in Palestine, and our dreams were in Egypt. Our bullets were targeting the enemy but our hearts were with our nation who was left for the wolves ” Nasser wrote at the time.
Throughout the 1940’s Nasser organised discussion groups amongst his fellow officers, gathering around him those who supported his populist agenda. The founding committee of the Free Officers Movement [FOM] consisted of fourteen men, including members and supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood, others from the fascistic Young Egypt, while one from an aristocratic background was a communist! This organisation inside the Egyptian Army was developing into a formidable anti-imperialist force.
Sympathetic newspapers started publishing the FOM demands. A leaflet widely circulated at the time spelt out the Free Officers basic aims as follows:-
1. The liquidation of the colonisation and Egyptian traitors who supported it.
2. The liquidation of feudalism.
3. Ending the domination of power by wealth.
4. The establishment of social equality.
5. Building a powerful Army.
6. The establishment a healthy democratic atmosphere.
The group also lobbied for General Muhammad Naguib, ensuring the Presidency of the Officers Club went to a patriotic Officer rather than one of the King stooges. The Free Officers also participated in the training of the liberation squads who attacked the British forces entrenched in the Canal Zone. Thus Nasser and his comrades had firsthand experience of the two vital struggles confronting the Arab people, against the British and against the Zionists.
With the popular General Neguib as their figurehead the Free Officers struck on July 22nd 1952, in a near bloodless coup which saw the Army overthrow the King. Nasser ensured that the British, US, Muslim Brotherhood and the most influential Communist group were informed of the coup, before they completed their take over on July 23rd. No one seems to have strongly opposed it. Indeed crowds appeared on the streets brandishing Neguib’s picture.
The Free Officers next move, to surround the King’s summer palace and demand his abdication, also stimulated favourable street demonstrations. The King and the more conservative elements amongst the military and political elite reluctantly accepted the move towards a republic. The fact that the US was in favour of the coup reassured the conservatives, and spelt out the King’s political demise. Nasser naively believed the Americans were intrinsically “democratic” and anti-imperialist  ! Nasser’s favourite Hollywood film was “It’s a Wonderful Life ”; he saw the charming US diplomats and CIA men he met in the early days, as “George Baileys” rather than “Henry Potters”.
The majority of the Revolutionary Command Council [RCC], which the leaders of the Free Officers Movement became, were not as sympathetic to the toiling masses as Nasser. When Communist inspired strikes broke out, the proposal to hang the leaders was passed despite Nasser’s opposition. Nasser and the rest of the RCC were also coming under pressure from the Muslim Brotherhood, when the establishment politicians in the caretaker cabinet resigned rather than support land reform. This issue was a litmus test for Nasser and the RCC, if they did not change land tenure in Egypt, their revolution would be just a coup after all. Nasser endeavouring to maintain as broad a front as possible invited the Brotherhood to nominate ministers for the new cabinet. When the organisation refused to endorse the reforming government, Nasser invited individual Brotherhood members to become ministers. Brigadier Muhana the Brotherhood man on the Regency council condemned the “un-Islamic” land reform, but was forced to resign. Neguib was made Prime minister, with Nasser as his deputy, as the RCC tightened their grip on power.
Nasser’s next step was to create a single party the Liberation Rally, while dissolving all other parties. This won the support of the majority of the RCC despite Neguib’s opposition. The Brotherhood was not included in the dissolution, being defined by the RCC as a religious organisation. The Brotherhood responded to this clever attempt at marginalisation by organising unrest. Despite their massive organisation they were unable to shake the RCC. Nasser was also cultivating a useful propaganda apparatus chiefly centred on the radio station Voice of the Arabs [founded in July 1953], which was intended to carry Nasser’s message of Arab independence beyond Egypt.
Muhammad Neguib was resisting Nasser’s policies more and more. He wanted to maintain the Regency Council and the legal fiction of an Egyptian monarchy, although he accepted the Presidency when offered it. More significantly he opposed land reform, and had meetings with Wafd officials. Neguib formed an informal alliance with the Muslim Brotherhood, while its supporters fought street battles with the Nasserite Liberation Rally. Neguib also won the support of Mohieddine an important member of the RCC. Neguib chose to fight with Nasser over the treaty he had negotiated with the British, because it granted independence to Sudan. The Egyptian people mostly supported Nasser’s the treaty with Britain, because it meant the British Army would leave Egypt, and did not object to Sudan’s independence.
The Brotherhood were losing their long term perspective of an independent Islamic Egypt, in the pursuit of the short term goal of ousting Nasser.
Disastrously they made contact with the British while still maintaining that the imperial power should leave Egypt. They misrepresented Nasser as a Communist, while accepting funds from the Saudi regime. The Brotherhood’s behaviour confirmed Nasser’s worse suspicions that they were in reality pro-feudal and pro-imperialist, cloaking their real agenda in Islam. The tragic rift between radical Nationalists and Islamists deepened during this time and still splits the Arab and Islamic world, frustrating attempts at genuine unity in the face of imperialist domination.
With the British apparently going quietly, Nasser could now turn to the other enemy Israel. The Israeli Prime Minister Sharett was keen to come to terms with Arab neighbours and concentrate on developing Israel. This fitted in with Nasser’s determination to concentrate on developing Egypt, and raising the living standards of the Egyptian people. Sharett and Nasser’s secret negotiations were undermined by the Foreign Minister Ben Gurion. Unknown to Sharett, Ben Gurion had a terror cell working in Egypt under the Defence Minister Lavon. Ben Gurion and Lavon were determined to sink Sharrett’s tentative peace policy and destabilise Egypt, by activating a bombing campaign. The bungled attempted bombing of a cinema by one member of the cell on July 24th 1954, led to his arrest and that of his co-conspirators, and their eventual execution. The Zionists aim was to bomb targets connected with the US and western culture, sowing further discord between the Nasser Government and the Muslim Brotherhood. The plot highlighted the role of some Egyptian Jews as supporters of Zionism, undermining the work of the anti-Zionist Chief Rabbi of Cairo Chaim Nahum Effendi, and causing more of Egypt’s ancient Jewish community to leave the country. It was now clear that Egypt must be prepared to defend itself from Israel. The search for a source of armaments was to prove trying, and in the long term defined Egypt’s position in the inter-imperial rivalry that developed between the capitalist west and the communist east.
On October 26th 1954 a Muslim Brother tried to assassinate Nasser at a meeting in Alexandria. Nasser the master of ad lib took control of the microphone “Nasser is of you and from you and he is willing to sacrifice his life for the nation”. While the assassins bullets missed Nasser, his rivals Neguib and the Brotherhood both received a direct hit. Neguib was forced to resign and many of the Brotherhood were imprisoned by revolutionary tribunals including the leading Brotherhood ideologue Sayyid Qutb.
While Britain appeared to be relinquishing its role as an imperial power in Egypt and beyond, powerful forces within the British ruling class were loathed to “give away” the empire so quickly. Foremost among these was Winston Churchill who having retired from office as Prime Minister was encouraging the imperialist “Suez Group” within the Conservative Party. The secretary of the group Julian Amery MP, the son of arch imperialist Leo Amery, was renowned for his connections with the British espionage service MI6. It was the MI6 assessment of Nasser’s steadfastness as a temporary phenomenon, which fitted in with British ruling class prejudices of the colonised peoples as being weak and dependent. Dorril in his brilliant history of MI6 , quotes an official as saying the phrase “wog bashing” was forever on the lips of the Suez Group and their allies. Soon enough these insults turned to dust in their mouths.
As soon as the Revolutionary Command Council seized power, MI6 were plotting their downfall. Amery had cultivated contacts with Muslim leaders such as Nahas Pasha of the Egyptian Wafd Party, and Al Mahdi of the Sudanese Ummah Party. MI6 were in contact with anti-Nasserites from the old elite such as Prince Abdu Monheim, former minister Ahmed Mortada Al-Maraghi, and former Prime Minister Ali Maher. The British were also trying to build the anti-Soviet Baghdad Pact, to prevent Communist penetration of the region. Nasser regarded this pact as irrelevant to the people of the Middle East, and those who signed up for it, such as Iraq’s leader Noori Said and the Persian Shah, as imperialist stooges.
Constant conflict between Israeli forces and Arab fedayeen irregulars, made armaments a top priority for Nasser, who rightly saw Israel as a real and tangible threat to Egypt unlike Communism, which he believed would always flounder against the deep rooted Islam amongst the Arabs. Nasser starting acquiring arms from Communist states such as Czechoslovakia, when the western powers would not sell weapons to him. Similarly it was becoming clear that Nasser would go to the Soviet Union for funding, if the western powers refused to finance his pet project the High Dam at Aswan.
British intelligence reports from a supposed authoritative source called “Lucky Break” started to arrive on British Prime Minister Eden’s desk from November 1955. These reports depicted Nasser as pro-Soviet Union. Eden developed an obsessive hatred for Nasser which these inaccurate reports seemed to justify. By February 1956 MI6, and in particular their senior man in the Middle East G. K. Young , were considering assassinating Nasser. This was supported by Eden, who was now comparing Nasser with Hitler. While the British wanted the US to help them, as they had in the recent coup against Iranian nationalist Prime Minister Mossadeq, they eventually settled on a pact with France and Israel. France was concerned about Nasser’s support for the Algerian resistance. Israel’s role as the container of Arab nationalism was it overriding purpose, certainly for its imperial sponsors. Both France and Israel had been meeting since June 1955, to discuss how to deal with Nasser. Meanwhile MI6 plotted to foil Nasser’s plans to build Arab unity, and also started to engineer a coup in Syria. The ever industrious Julian Amery was meeting with Israeli and French ministers. Amery also made contact with Muslim Brothers in Geneva .G. K. Young although a racist and an anti-Semite, believed Jews to “first and foremost Europeans”. He approved the contacts MI6 was developing with Mossad. He saw Israel as taking over Britain’s role as the armed watcher ready to strike.
The US refusal to finance the Aswan Dam was announced publically on July 19th 1956, before Nasser was informed. Nasser described the move as insulting; rather than accept this rebuff he upped the stakes. He started to implement a daring plan to nationalise the Suez Canal. The revenue currently denied the Egyptian State by the rapacious Suez Canal Company, could be used to develop Egypt including building the Aswan Dam. This exciting story is deftly described in the documentary film “The other side of Suez”.
Nasser announced the nationalisation of the canal during an epic speech in Alexandria on July 26th 1956, as his handpicked team of armed engineers took over the canal. After this Eden’s hatred for Nasser became so intense, the very mention of the Egyptian leader’s name sent him into a frenzy. While the Conservative Eden government became increasingly bellicose, the Labour opposition apart from mild objections to the use of force also condemned the nationalisation. Even Labour’s left –wing fire brand Aneurin Bevan compared it to theft, ironic as Bevan had been part of a Labour Government which had nationalised great swathes of British industry. Sadly there was an imperial mind set at the heart of the British Labour Movement.
MI6 were now meeting with the Muslim Brotherhood as well as Wafd representatives. Amery forwarded names of various Egyptian friends to the Foreign Secretary Selwyn Lloyd, presumably as people who would collaborate with Britain to form a post-Nasser government. Amery seemed to prefer Prince Abdul Monheim as the new head of state. British agents were also trying to hasten Nasser’s demise, with an attempt to bribe his doctor to poison him, feed him poisoned chocolates, pump poison gas into his office, and sabotage a packet of his favourite cigarettes with poisoned darts. Similar improbable schemes were mooted by French and Israeli agents.
MI6 was also busy planning a coup against the nationalist government in Syria, using their favourite stooge the Iraqi Premier Noori Said and various treacherous elements inside Syria, the plot was called operation Straggle. The proposed object was an Iraqi-Syria Union to keep the wayward Syrians away from Nasser and the Soviet Union.
A war of words broke out with the Voice of the Arabs defiantly articulating centuries of Arab frustration. The British organised their riposte from the Cyprus based NEABS with help from a prominent Muslim Brother Said Ramadan. Ramadan seems to have forgotten Hassan Al Banna’s heartfelt supplication against the British and their collaborators, in his haste to depose Nasser.
While attempts to get US support continued to flounder, both France and Israel developed plans to attack Egypt with or without the UK. Eden made a great show of sending his Foreign Secretary Selwyn Lloyd to the UN, however as soon as a negotiated settlement regarding the running of the canal looked possible, Eden instructed Selwyn Lloyd to withdraw. The French delegation was similarly truculent. Paris and London along with Tel Aviv were confident they could get more by force.
The alliance of the three powers was cemented at the Protocol of Sèvres, on 24th October 1956, where they met secretly and plotted Nasser’s downfall by military intervention. Israel would attack Sinai and then the UK and France would invade to separate the protagonists. The Israelis attacked Egypt on October 29th 1956. Initially the plan work well, the Israelis benefiting from their new French armaments, drove the Egyptian Army out of Sinai back to the Canal. Britain and France started bombing on October 31st as the Egyptians refused to retreat 10 miles west of the Canal. Nasser ordered Egypt’s embryonic air force to be saved from the attentions of the enemy, and then mobilised civilian militias to supplement regular forces. Nasser also ensured ships were sunk to block the Canal, personally joining the forces defending the Canal. He called on the RCC to prepare for a guerrilla campaign.
British and French forces numbering 100,000 landed at Port Said on November 5th and met spirited resistance from the heavily out gunned Egyptians. Having killed a thousand Egyptians and wounded a similar number, many of who were clearly civilians, opposition to the invasion started to grow. Egyptians were obviously prepared to defend their country, and more significantly the Nasser government to the death. The US were concerned that a bloody war in Egypt would strengthen Soviet influence, and were not prepared to help the British, who were experiencing a run on the pound and an oil shortage due to the invasion, unless they ceased fire. An anti-war movement started to develop at the grass roots of the British Labour Movement, culminating in a mass demonstration in London on November 4th . Bevan feeling the pressure of the grass roots and knowing the US was against the invasion, turned on Eden ridiculing him from the platform. If this marked the beginning of the end for Eden, Nasser was in the ascendancy amongst the Arabs, Muslims and the oppressed in general. Within a few days there was a ceasefire, subsequently followed by British, French and Israeli withdrawals.
While the British and French blamed the US and their own leaders for the debacle; the real culprits were the Egyptian masses. As Aburish comments, as many terrified Egyptians fled the war zone, other young militia men were hurrying towards the sound of gun fire. Both the refugees and the mujahideen had one thing in common, they carried pictures of Nasser. The imperialist’s delusion, that the Egyptian people disliked Nasser as much as they did, was shattered. US, UN and grassroots opposition around the world would not have burgeoned if the masses had given Nasser up to his enemies.