The Middle East


January 1957

on the World today

THERE was tragic twentieth-century symbolism in the struggle between Egypt, on one side, and Britain and France, on the other, over control of Suez, the one vital channel between Asia and the West. The violence of the Anglo-French “police action” was all the more tragic because there had already appeared to be a basis of fruitful negotiations worked out in diplomatic talks between Secretary General Dag Hammarskjold and Egypt’s UN representative Omar Loutfi in October.

An exchange of notes between these two officials, dated just four days before the attack, indicated clearly that. Egypt had accepted reaffirmation of the 1888 Convention and a widening of obligations to include agreements on toll rates, maintenance and development, and reporting on operations to the United Nations. The principle of organized cooperation between an Egyptian Canal Authority and an expanded users’ agency was agreed on. Also covered were the questions of fact-finding in disputes, and guarantees for execution on adjudicated disputes, which, it was suggested, might be taken to the International Court of Justice.

The acceptance by Egypt’s Foreign Minister of this outline of agreement made only one reservation. This related to a proposal that in case of noncompliance by either party with an award accorded either side by the Court or arbitration body, either side would have final right to certain limited “police action” for self-protection. On this point. Egypt’s reservation indicated its great sensitivity on any possible threat to its sovereignty. Nevertheless, Foreign Minister Mahmud Fawzi wrote: “We share with you the view that the framework you have outlined ... is sufficiently wide to make a further exploration . . . worth trying.”

It is doubtful, however, whether even immediate public knowledge of these hopeful exchanges would have deterred the French and British cabinets from their determined assault on the Nasser regime. Nasser’s provocative actions, his unbridled propaganda threats to the entire Western position in Africa and the Persian Gulf, and his adoption of a technique of negotiation by irritation had already made him a primary target in London and Paris.

Nasser had finally lost the confidence too of the United States — first by the Czech arms deal, and later by recognition of Red China. However reasonable these actions seemed in Cairo, as means of building military and economic strength, they were interpreted in Washington as a direct rebull. The chorus of skeptical critics of the Nasser government, already strengthened by cotton interests and Zionist protagonists, was now joined by the faithful congressional supporters of Nationalist China. As a result, last June approval of appropriations for foreign aid was accompanied by specific senatorial injunctions to Secretary of State Dulles to reduce aid to Egypt.

Nasser’s Arab rivals

Nasser meanwhile was acquiring enemies nearer home. His assumption of the role of spokesman for the entire Arab bloc alarmed more conservative Arab leaders. King Sand was beginning to sense that Arabia could be relegated to satellite status if he continued to foot the bills for Nassers propaganda. He set out to withdraw financial support of Egypt’s cause in Syria and Jordan. He made it plain that he did not intend to recognize Red China. He buried the hatchet with King Feisal of Iraq and entertained him at Riyadh for the first time last summer. Anti-Egyptian propaganda was permitted in Arabia, where an army of Egyptian teachers and technicians seemed a little too advanced for Riyadh. Particularly, the appearance of Egyptian labor officials bent on organizing a federation of Arab oil workers in the Persian Gulf caused an anxious flurry there.

In Lebanon the Christian majority was disturbed by the increasing tendency of the Nasser government to discriminate against the Coptic minority in Egypt. A xenophobic attitude, new to cosmopolitan Egypt, was beginning to raise doubts both within and outside of Egypt. Egyptians working for foreign companies were suddenly required to have government permits. Copts and Jews became unemployable by the government. For the first time since 1952 the reactionary influence of the Moslem Brotherhood seemed to be making headway within the government hierarchy.

Up to 1956, in its clashes with the Brotherhood, the revolutionary leadership had prevailed. It had felt strong enough to secularize the Egyptian legal code, for example. But on the whole the moderate reformers and civilians close to the ruling command had not succeeded in keeping the revolution on course. Nasser still proclaimed the urgent need of social justice and industrialization. But he appeared more interested in planning an expanded Arab empire from the Atlantic to the Persian Gulf. This preoccupation, rather than the critical economic exigencies of independence, seemed to take up more and more of his confident energies.

The most serious setback to the Egyptian dream of empire came two years ago with Iraq’s decision to join the Western-sponsored Baghdad Pact. This move undercut the much talked-of plan for an allArab defense force sufficiently integrated to form an independent bloc and fill the vacuum left by the withdrawal of British forces from the Middle East. The romantic appeal of an Arab defense force was not sufficient to overcome Iraq’s genuine fear that the Persian Gulf was still the center of Soviet aspirations. At the same time, the Iraqis were making economic progress. In this field Iraq had no need to look to Cairo. It threatened, in fact, to outdistance its overpopulated and impoverished rival.

Nethru’s thoughts

Further east in India, where Nasser had had a royal welcome in 1955 and had been personally escorted to Bandung by Prime Minister Nehru, it was reported that Nehru was having second thoughts about his new convert to neutralism. There can be little question that Nehru was the principal influence in persuading Nasser to shift from tactical to doctrinaire neutralism. Up to the time of the Bandung Conference Egyptian nonalignment had been clearly designed to provide diplomatic bargaining power in Washington and London. After Bandung Egypt moved into the neutralist constellation led by Nehru in Asia and Tito in Yugoslavia.

India’s alarmed reaction to Nasser’s abrupt nationalization of the Suez Canal revealed some of the uneasiness that Nehru had come to feel over Nasser’s interpretations of neutralism. For one thing, Indian neutralism does not ignore basic economic realities. This was made plain at the height of the furor over the fighting in Egypt in November. Krishna Menon pointed out to the General Assembly: “If the economic life of the United Kingdom depends very largely upon the free and open navigation of the Suez Canal . . . the economic life and even the existence in any kind of reasonable way of my country depends even more on free passage through the Canal.” The success of India’s second Five-Year Plan was seriously imperiled by the disaster at Suez.

Positive neutralism

Indian respect for economic realities has not been shared by Nasser. Whatever economic advice he has been receiving from some of the competent ministers around him, he obviously has not been taking it seriously. Instead of leading cautiously from Egyptian weakness, he has led more and more recklessly in the last year, to the desperate disappointment of many of the revolution’s defenders both inside and outside Egypt. Beyond this he has adopted the familiar Asian double standard of measurement: any Russian move in international affairs is given the benefit of the doubt; any move by the Western powers, particularly by Britain, is suspect.

Given this legacy of distrust from Britain’s long and unhappy occupations of Egypt, it has been understandable that new alliances with the NATO system would have small appeal in Egypt. Instead Egyptian resistance has hardened and gained the clamorous support of other xenophobic nationalists, notably in Syria. The merely negative resistance of the past has now developed into the new popular policy of “positive neutralism.”

In retrospect, it seems clear that the Western powers, in deprecating the neutralist line, have appeared in Asian eyes to be resisting peaceful change. Moscow, with a more flexible facility for detecting weather changes, hastened to champion the Bandung spirit. Nothing could serve Russian purposes better than the neutralist isolation of the Arabs from their traditional ties with the West. For this reason the exacerbation of Arab fears and resentments since November threatens to improve Russia’s prospects and damage almost fatally those of the NATO powers.

From the historical point of view Gamal Abdel Nasser must be regarded as a symptom rather than a cause of nationalist extremism. His self-confident conviction that he could accept Russian arms without becoming a satellite figure, but that he could not accept Western ties without losing “sovereignty and dignity,” must stand as one of the saddest reflections of Western failure in the Middle East. For the West had ten years, from 1945 to 1955, to prove its case and come to terms with Arab nationalism. In that period there had been no overt Russian penetration in the Arab countries and little successful infiltration.

The West’s assumptions

In any reassessment of recent Middle East history three basic issues between the Arabs and the West stand out. One has been the West’s preoccupation with cold-war strategy, in which the Middle East position is crucial but in which its needs and attitudes have been accorded second place. A second assumption by the European members of NATO has been that access to raw materials in Asia and Africa could only be secured by direct political control centered in the consuming countries. The third assumption has been that the introduction of a Western-oriented new state, Israel, could be effected peaceably in the Arab world.

These assumptions by the West have run counter to opposing assumptions in the Arab-Asian world. Most of that world is militarily helpless. It sees its best chance of resisting Communism by economic development and military neutrality. Since the alternative would be resumption of a secondary role in a Western defense system, most nationalist Asians resist this, expecting in some cases to be protected anyway by the West if war should come.

In the matter of raw materials, the new nationalist states of Asia and Africa are behaving like sovereign states — to the dismay and chagrin of their Western friends. For example, there has been a concerted drive by the Arab-Asian bloc at the United Nations to establish the right of self-determination in economic as well as political matters. Under the Covenant of Human Rights, the tenth General Assembly approved a year ago an article which declared: —

“ The people may, for their own ends, freely dispose of their natural wealth and resources without prejudice to any obligation arising out of international economic cooperation based upon the principle of mutual benefit, and international law.”

Since the Arab-Asian bloc, which secured the passage of this resolution in the face of united Western opposition, now numbers twenty-six members, it can be expected that similar moves involving control of resources will be made in the future. The whole question of reconciling the relationship of the consuming countries with Arab-Asian nationalist rights and expectations seems to call for more than the piecemeal approach so far accorded it.

Hopeful signs

There are signs of a fresh approach in this field. There have been suggestions that the Suez Canal, for example, might be purchased and made an international utility. Another idea was that an international strip of territory from the Gulf of Aquaba to Gaza be established.

Such a proposal offers a combined partial solution to both the Suez and the Israeli disputes. It would separate Israel permanently from Egypt. It would provide an overland alternative to the Suez Canal. The so-called bridge between Asia and Europe would in fact finally come into existence, and Asian communications with Europe would be effectively neutralized. A secondary, but by no means incidental, result would be the possibility of a new and useful existence for many of Gaza’s 200,000 Arab refugees, now increased by some 10,000 Egyptian refugees from the Canal zone.

Whether the thin line of blue-helmeted UN policemen now manning the Palestine armistice area are to be the first of a new permanent corps of guardians of a vital controversial strip, or only a temporary phenomenon, their rapid appearance has been a hopeful sign. For Israel, surrounded by more bitter neighbors than ever, the UNEF provides the best chance of survival and of a recasting of accounts. The policy of retaliation must be agonizingly reappraised and Israel’s real isolation faced. Most serious for Israel is the expansion and increased consolidation of the Arab-Asian bloc at the United Nations, now sufficiently powerful, with Soviet aid, to control UN decisions on IsraeliArab questions.