[Folks, “Hott Spotts” will continue to be posted every other week
through September 5th.]
It’s time to take a look at an episode in the history of the Middle
East, which could contain a lesson or two for today.
Back in 1942, a young Egyptian military officer by the name of
Gamal Abdel Nasser founded the Society of Free Officers, which
then campaigned against British imperialism.
[Egypt had been a British protectorate since 1882, was conceded
independence in 1922, but then remained still largely under
British administrative control afterwards. King Farouk was
The British, along with the French, retained control over the
Suez Canal, which by the 1950s was critical to Europe’s economic
vitality. In 1951, for instance, Western Europe was dependent on
the Middle East for 80% of its oil and, of that, 2/3s passed
through the Canal.
On January 25, 1952, the British killed 50 Egyptians at a police
barracks in Ismailiya, and the following day riots broke out in
Cairo. Within six months Egypt disintegrated, giving Nasser and
his Free Officers movement its opportunity to grab power, so on
July 22 Nasser took over in a bloodless coup. King Farouk was
dispatched into exile and then Nasser set about expelling the
By 1954, Nasser named himself prime minister, with the plan of
pitting the Arab world against newly independent Israel. His
nationalist feelings needed a scapegoat, which turned out to be
the British garrison operating on the Canal. For their part, the
British were fearful of Soviet influence in the region, but the
virulent anti-Western sentiment was creating a big problem.
It was the height of the Cold War, and while Britain had its
hands full with the new Egyptian leader, France, co-operator of
the Suez Canal, was in the midst of a huge conflict of its own
with Algeria. Nasser was blamed for helping to spread Arab
nationalism (for which he was only too happy to take credit for).
As for the U.S., however, the Eisenhower Administration viewed
Nasser favorably, at least initially, because he was anti-Soviet.
Attitudes began to change, though, as tensions rose over raids
from Palestinian refugee camps in Gaza against Israel. Nasser
then compounded things by cutting an arms deal with
Czechoslovakia and recognizing China. Now there were second
thoughts, aside from those of Britain, France and Israel.
Going back to 1950, the U.S., Britain and France had agreed to
supply the Arab world with just enough weapons to balance
Israel. Now, with Nasser’s Czech arms deal, both Britain and the
U.S. said they would withdraw funding for the Aswan High Dam
project. [Later completed between 1960 and 1970 with Soviet
Britain saw Nasser as a new dictator, and France had similar
feelings. What happened next, however, has undoubtedly played
a role in shaping attitudes that exist to this day.
On July 26, 1956, Nasser (now president) announced he was
nationalizing the Suez Canal, having been rebuffed on Aswan
about a week earlier.
On September 15, the Canal was reopened under Egyptian
control. Nasser sought to do things the right way, though, as he
compensated shareholders of the company that controlled the
Canal and said all the right things as to preserving freedom of
But on October 21 and 22, Israel and France met secretly in Paris
to hatch a plan against Egypt, with the goal of overthrowing
Nasser. Anthony Eden, the new British prime minister who had
succeeded Churchill, joined the talks the next day. The three
nations would act to “protect” the Canal. They needed some
deception, however, since the world community would not
accept a brazen invasion.
So it was decided that on October 29, 1956, Israel would invade
the Sinai, under the guise (a legitimate one) of dismantling the
terrorist and Egyptian Army camps that had been established
there, from which attacks against Israel had been launched.
With this action, Britain and France now had their excuse to
intervene militarily, themselves, in order to protect the Canal.
The two nations then bombed Egypt on October 31, Nasser
having rejected a call for a cessation in the fighting, and
then landed paratroopers on opposite sides of the Canal a few
days later. Both European countries denied any deals with
Israel, which was laughable.
But you have to understand that while all this was going on, there
was something taking place in Hungary like a revolution.
Protests had started on October 22 in Hungary and while the
Suez Crisis was unwinding, the Soviet Union was days away
from bringing in the tanks to crush the revolt, which they
accomplished on November 4.
President Eisenhower was furious at both Britain and France, not
just at the maneuver, but at the timing, both because of the
situation in Hungary, as well as the fact the American public was
going to the polls on November 6 in his reelection bid.
With events spinning out of control, Eisenhower was particularly
concerned that the Soviets would throw themselves into the fray
and pick up the pieces themselves. Said Ike, “I’ve just never
seen great powers make such a complete mess and botch of
Eisenhower threatened both Britain and France with financial
retaliation if they didn’t agree to an immediate ceasefire, so here
you had a situation where the U.S. and the Soviets actually
agreed in the UN to condemn the action. [When it came to
debate, however, the Soviets were largely absent due to the fact
they were being beaten up over Hungary.]
The ceasefire was agreed to on the 6th, leaving some 500 dead
and Britain and France fleeing in disgrace. It was an unmitigated
disaster for both. By January 1957 a new UN supervised force
had moved in and all British and French forces were withdrawn.
As for Nasser, while it clearly wasn’t a military victory, he still
emerged as the Arab world’s leader and it merely confirmed in
the eyes of many Arabs their hatred for Israel and the West. Not
much has changed since then, has it?
“One World Divisible” David Reynolds
“History of the 20th Century” Martin Gilbert
“Twentieth Century” J.M. Roberts
“The Presidents” edited by Henry Graff
Hott Spotts will return on August 8.