Ultima Thule

In ancient times the northernmost region of the habitable world - hence, any distant, unknown or mysterious land.

Saturday, July 29, 2006

The Suez crisis -- An affair to remember

By Aussiegirl

July 26, 1956 -- 50 years and 3 days ago -- Gamal Abdul Nasser, president of Egypt, nationalized the Suez Canal and set in motion events that, as this fascinating and in-depth history of the Suez crisis makes clear, "marked the end of an era and the start of another for Europe, America and the Middle East".

The Suez crisis | An affair to remember | Economist.com

The Suez crisis of 50 years ago marked the end of an era, and the start of another, for Europe, America and the Middle East

ON JULY 26th 1956 Gamal Abdul Nasser, president of Egypt, addressed a huge crowd in the city of Alexandria. Broad-shouldered, handsome and passionate, Nasser stunned even this gathering of enthusiastic supporters with the vehemence of his diatribe against British imperialism. Britain had ruled Egypt, one way or another, from 1882 to 1922, when the protectorate gained nominal independence, and continued to influence Egyptian affairs thereafter, maintaining troops there and propping up the decadent monarchy overthrown by Nasser in 1952.

In that speech in Alexandria, though, Nasser chose to delve back even further into history, in a long digression on the building of the Suez canal a century earlier. That gave him the chance to mention the name of the Frenchman who had built the canal, Ferdinand de Lesseps. This he did at least 13 times. “De Lesseps”, it turned out, was the codeword for the Egyptian army to start the seizure, and nationalisation, of the canal. It also launched the start of a new era in the politics of Europe, the Middle East and America.

The Suez crisis, as the events of the following months came to be called, marked the humiliating end of imperial influence for two European countries, Britain and France. It cost the British prime minister, Anthony Eden, his job and, by showing up the shortcomings of the Fourth Republic in France, hastened the arrival of the Fifth Republic under Charles de Gaulle. It made unambiguous, even to the most nostalgic blimps, America's supremacy over its Western allies. It thereby strengthened the resolve of many Europeans to create what is now the European Union. It promoted pan-Arab nationalism and completed the transformation of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute into an Israeli-Arab one. And it provided a distraction that encouraged the Soviet Union to put down an uprising in Hungary in the same year.

It also divided families and friends, at least in Britain and France, with a degree of bitterness that would not be seen in a foreign-policy dispute until the invasion of Iraq in 2003. If that is difficult to understand, remember that the world was a different place then. Many European politicians still believed their countries had a right to run the affairs of others. Many were also scarred by memories of appeasement in the 1930s. Faced with a provocation, even an entirely legal one involving the nationalisation of a foreign-owned asset like the Suez canal, the instinct of such Europeans was to go to war. They and their Israeli partners-in-invasion were restrained, eventually, by the United States, led by a Republican president and war hero, Dwight Eisenhower. The venture involved intrigue, lies, nemesis—and no end of a lesson. How did it come about? [....]

The chief victor of Suez, in the short term, was Nasser. Before the crisis he had faced lingering opposition in Egypt, not only from the former ruling class but also from communists and the radical Islamists of the Muslim Brotherhood. “Pulling the Lion's tail”, and getting away with it, proved wildly popular. As dissidents fled, fell silent or filled its jails, Nasser's Egypt projected itself as the vanguard of Arab nationalism and a beacon to liberation movements across the third world.

Puffed up by his own success, Nasser launched misguided adventures such as a short-lived political union with Syria and disastrous nationalisations of Egyptian industry. And the Nasserist dream inspired a wave of pan-Arab nationalism that helped install lookalike leaderships, with similar flags, propaganda and secret police, across much of the Arab world. Saddam Hussein was one who drew inspiration. Nasser himself was largely discredited by Israel's crushing victory in the 1967 war, but the institutions of Nasserism still lived on, in Egypt and elsewhere, as effective systems of political control. [....]

A wider lesson lies in the interpretation of history. Eden, who had honourably resigned as foreign secretary in 1938 in disapproval of the appeasement of Hitler and, especially, Mussolini, was nonetheless haunted by Neville Chamberlain's readiness to yield to tyrants. His impulses at Suez were surely complex. Eden was far from anti-American or indifferent to American concerns. He had resigned in 1938 partly because he thought his prime minister, Chamberlain, had treated Roosevelt shabbily. Yet he saw Nasser as a “Mussolini” and was plainly determined to avoid any charge of appeasement, even though the essential features of Munich and Suez were wholly different. Instead of saying that those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it, George Santayana might have better said that those who misinterpret the past are condemned to bungle the present.


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