Suez: Arab victory or Arab tragedy?

Hazem Saghieh
19 October 2006

Fifty years ago this month, October 1956, saw the outbreak of what in English is known as the Suez crisis, and which in Egypt and throughout the Arab world is referred to as the "tripartite aggression."

Egypt was attacked by two superpowers of the day, Britain and France, and a newly-emerging regional power, Israel. The most immediate reason for the assault was the nationalisation of the Suez canal by Egypt's president, Gamal Abdel Nasser. But there were other motives, including Egyptian support for the Algerian revolt against French rule and infiltration of Palestinian guerrillas from Gaza to carry out operations against the Israelis.

The history books say that Nasser lost the battle and won the war. He was defeated in military terms by the three allies who succeeded in occupying Egyptian territory, but he emerged politically victorious when the occupiers withdrew and a United Nations Emergency Force was brought in to separate the Egyptians and Israelis. This transition from military defeat to political victory was brought about by the position of the United States and the economic and political threats Washington made against all three allies, and especially London.

The Soviets used very harsh language to condemn the invasion of Egypt, but they were too distracted by their contemporaneous suppression of the Hungarian uprising to play an active role in the crisis. In the event, the "anti-imperialist" power was not needed: the outcome of the Suez conflict was seen as a gain for the world's former colonies and for justice, after the long years of colonialist oppression. The nationalisation of the Suez canal and the defeat of the Anglo-French-Israeli alliance was a turning-point in the history of decolonisation. And in strategic and geopolitical terms, it marked the passing of the leadership of the western world from Britain and France to the United States.

Hazem Saghieh is senior commentator for the London-based Arabic paper Al-Hayat

Also by Hazem Saghieh on openDemocracy:

"Al-Jazeera: the world through Arab eyes" (June 2004)

"Rafiq Hariri's murder: why do Lebanese blame Syria?"
(February 2005)

"How to make Israel secure" (August 2005)

(with Saleh Bechir) "The 'Muslim community': a European invention" (October 2005)

"Syria and Lebanon: keeping it in the family" (December 2005)

"The cartoon jihad" (March 2006)

"Iran's politics: constants and variables" (May 2006)

"How the European left supports Lebanon" (August 2006)

Three lessons

Yet things are not all that they seem, at least not as far as the Egyptians, and the Arabs in general, are concerned. Egypt's national gain, for all the honour that it conferred, cannot be seen as necessarily a progressive one. Indeed, if the true significance of the crisis is examined with the benefit of fifty years' hindsight, three major consequences are clear.

First, the war created a profound ambiguity in Arab political thought between victory and defeat. Nasser was able to secure a political success despite Egypt's military failure because the United States and the Soviet Union were at that time succeeding Britain and France as the world's dominant powers. This made it much easier for the Egyptian military regime, which lacked any democratic accountability, to manipulate the hearts and minds of the elites and the masses all at once.

Later events confirm this conclusion: when the Arabs were again defeated by Israel in the six-day war of 1967, there was a view that it was in fact the Zionist aggressors who had lost because they had failed to bring about the downfall of the "progressive regimes" in Ba'athist Syria and Nasser's Egypt. Again, the outcome of the Yom Kippur / Ramadan war of 1973 was presented as an overwhelming Arab victory; much the same reaction in Lebanon has been evident following the conflict between Israel and Hizbollah in summer 2006.

True, this way of interpreting events goes back much further than the Suez crisis of 1956, but the war recast it in a new mould. Perhaps the worst aspect of this was a kind of disregard for the value of human life, the economy and material possessions in favour of a vague strategic view which maintains that one is victorious if one merely prevents one's enemy (who always holds the initiative) from achieving his aims. As the millions of everyday Arabs were assumed neither to be good at making strategic calculations nor able to ask questions regarding life and death, the official version of events became the only one, endlessly regurgitated - until it was eventually taken for granted.

The second consequence of the crisis was the way in which national-liberation movements blurred the distinction between nations and regimes. That countries should achieve independence and recover control of their resources was one thing; for that independence and those resources to become the means by which autocratic states consolidated their power was another.

This was true of the Egyptian regime and other Arab states like it in the period of Suez and after. The point is highlighted by, to take but one example, agricultural reform: here, there is an important and often-overlooked difference between the principle of increasing productivity and the need to create a rural middle class as the basis of modernisation and democratisation, and the use in practice of reform to extend the dictatorship's tentacles over the countryside and create for itself a popular base.

Nasser's victory in 1956, only four years after he had come to power in a military coup, was a crucial stage in the consolidation of his populist dictatorship, which proceeded to dissolve other political parties and persecute their members. In 1958, the government nationalised the press, completing the process which had already seen parties dissolved and trade unions absorbed into the bureaucracy, in the shape of an organisation known as the "National Union". The legacy of this approach is apparent in the Egyptian regimes led by Nasser's successors, Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak.

The third consequence of the Suez conflict has to do with the ability to rationalise diplomacy and external alliances against the background of dictatorship. It is worth reflecting on a significant distinction between Egyptian and Israeli policy in this respect. In 1956, Dwight Eisenhower's administration in Washington supported Nasser, in an apparent revision of its previous policy (when it had refused to finance the construction of the Aswan high dam). Nasser, idolised by the public and blinded by his own egomania, went on to challenge the west and its allies elsewhere in the region.

This led him into needless confrontation with the coarse and hawkish United States secretary of state John Foster Dulles, and soon the brief honeymoon between Egypt and the United States ended in bitter hostility. This was to culminate in Egypt's dramatic defeat in the 1967 war, and in the fundamentalists' exploitation of widespread Arab feelings of frustration and disappointment.

The behaviour of David Ben-Gurion was a notable contrast. In 1956 Israel was deterred by Washington, which was at that time more preoccupied with making allies among the Arab and Islamic countries against the Soviet Union than it was with the fortunes of the Jewish state. However, the Israeli prime minister realised that the United States's star was in the ascendant and that of Britain and France in decline. He therefore began cosying up to America, ignoring the snubs he received in the process, and eventually the Israelis won the friendship of Washington. In the process, and as the cold war developed in the 1960s, Nasser was transformed in American eyes from friend to foe, and Ben-Gurion from foe to friend.

These are three key lessons of 1956, one of the most important years in the history of modern Arab political thought and one whose repercussions have continued into the present. Nationalism won and progress and reason lost, and so the way was paved for the ascendancy of the fundamentalists, whose bitter fruit the region and the world are tasting today.

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