Nasser in Africa

GAMAL ABDEL NASSER’S actual objectives in Africa become clearer as the pattern of events there unfolds. He wants to enlist the new African governments as members of the neutralist bloc. He wants to acquire influence through common bonds of religion and of aversion to “imperialism.” He wants to be the leading Arab spokesman in Africa.

The disastrous polarization resulting from the struggle in the Congo has forced on Nasser a choice in favor of Lumumba’s heirs and against the moderates still under Western influence. At the outset of the struggle, Nasser had implicit faith in UN efforts to neutralize the situation until a central government could be established. He backed Secretary Dag Hammarskjold, urged Patrice Lumumba to trust him, and is also on record as urging Lumumba not to accept Soviet aid. In this period, the neutralists still hoped to keep the Cold War out of Africa. Nasser, among them, counted on the United Nations to achieve this. His own experience with the United Nations during the aftermath of the Suez crisis in 1956 had convinced him of its value as a court of appeal and a conciliating agency. This basic confidence has been badly shaken in recent months in the Congo.

What shook Nasser and other neutralists was the apparent support for Katanga leader General Mobutu from Western powers, including certain U.S. government agencies, and the belief that such support was at least tolerated at UN headquarters in New York. Having urged moderation and cooperation on the Lumumba forces up to the time of the imprisoned leader’s fateful transfer to Katanga, Nasser decided that he had been betrayed as a participant in the UN forces. This sense of betrayal had been freely expressed by official spokesmen in Cairo long before Nasser attacked the American role late in February.

Spokesman for the Arabs

These developments explain many recent diplomatic initiatives designed to reassert the neutralists’ role in African affairs independently of the United Nations. One such effort was at Casablanca in January. At that session, the previous decision of the participants to withdraw their troops from the UN forces was dramatized. Even on this issue, extremists like Sekou Toure of Guinea could not agree with Nkrumah of Ghana on the withdrawals or on Nasser’s proposal to transfer their forces to the Lumumba side.

The only agreements possible were on a nebulous plan for a joint African high command, which would include the chiefs of staff of independent African states, and on a NATO-style African defense organization. Nasser’s one real triumph was to push through a resolution condemning Israel as a tool of imperialism in Africa and France for its nuclear tests in the Sahara.

At Casablanca, as at Bandung, Nasser was reasserting his role as spokesman for the Arabs to a new and important audience. Israeli penetration of Africa, in every field from trade to the distribution of bogus Korans, has become a fresh challenge to the Arab world. The argument is simple: Israel is a country living on Western gifts and loans. Its ventures in new areas, such as Africa, with capital and technical aid must therefore suit its creditors, particularly the United States and France, with which its ties are closest. This proves the “imperialist” motive sufficiently for any Egyptian, Syrian, or Iraqi. When Nasser attacks on this ground, he speaks for all of them. Thus, in his new role in African affairs, he salvages prestige which he has been losing within the Arab states.

Israel’s new imperialism

The efficiency of Israel’s technical aid missions in such countries as Ghana, Nigeria, and Guinea is characteristic of its centrally planned efforts to win abroad the friends it has failed to make nearby. It has come as a shock to Arab leaders to discover that this Israeli success is a direct result of Israel’s one great gain from the Suez venture. That gain was the opening of the passage through the Gulf of Aqaba, giving Israel access to the East. As a result, Israel’s port of Elath at the head of the gulf assumed more than symbolic importance and made commerce with Africa and the East possible.

The Egyptians are confronted with a threat to their plans for the preeminent role which they assume is their destiny as the guardians of the northeast approach to the continent. They find Israelis in the Congo and in Ethiopia as important government advisers. Somewhere Israel finds a million pounds to lend to Nigeria. An Afro-Asian Institute, established in Israel by the Israel General Confederation of Labor and American trade unions, trains technicians for any African state. Congolese officials go to Israel to study administration and agricultural development at Israel’s expense.

To Egyptians, none of this looks possible for a client country without support and encouragement of official or unofficial sources abroad. The alarm which Nasser managed to sound at Casablanca about a new Israeli imperialism on behalf of such clients did not, therefore, appear farfetched. To reinforce the argument, the matter of Israel’s atomic developments, with French assistance, helped to strengthen suspicions already aroused by the continuing French tests in the Sahara, a subject on which there is bitter feeling all the way from Baghdad to Casablanca.

The appeal of Islam

The Arab answer to the Israeli challenge in Africa has been to step up plans long on the shelf for closer cultural and business ties with the mass of Muslim populations throughout Africa. Egyptian teachers are already teaching Arabic and Koranic studies in West Africa. More are being mobilized to reach other areas. Nasser sees a chance here to put into effect his belief that being a Muslim involves more than a pilgrimage to Mecca. He has been cautiously on the side of giving Islam a political content and a relationship to modern Arab society, which the reform leaders in the Islamic hierarchy have long advocated.

In this movement toward modernization, Cairo has been the leader. Already, young Muslim teachers are spreading the gospel of holy war against European imperialism and Western influence, all the way from Dakar to the Malagasy Republic. At the same time, the number of Africans on scholarships at Islamic universities has been rapidly increasing.

The appeal of Islam in Africa is strong. In the last thirty years, its followers there have more than doubled in number. It asks few formal acts and does not demand abandonment of traditional mores, such as polygamy. There is none of the color bar which subtly undermines Christian influence in Africa.

A new Voice of Islam is to be established in Cairo this year, to spread the gospel as a natural faith for a free Africa. Religious officers are to be added to U.A.R. embassy staffs in Africa and some parts of Asia. They will rank with other attachés and serve as liaison officers with Islamic universities, particularly Al Azhar. To pave the way, the rector of Al Azhar, Sheik Mahmoud Shaltout, made his first good-will tour across Southeast Asia early this year. Following this tour, it was announced that 1400 scholarships at Al Azhar are available to students from Africa, Asia, Europe, and America.

In this effort, Egypt has a natural advantage as the center for Islamic studies, which are no longer regarded as solely of academic value but are being designed to develop the idea of a universal brotherhood of Islam. But in technical fields it will not be so easy for a country short of skilled labor to export technical aid. Yet Egypt intends to try to become at least a training center for administration and management techniques for Africans. With Cairo already a center for African propaganda and a refuge for minority political figures, it seems likely that offers of technical education will attract a new element from African countries.

Reinforcements for the Arab drive toward Africa are easily available in the field of trade. Delegations of Lebanese and Iraqis have joined the stampede for contacts and new outlets. A new airline between Beirut and Accra has already been established. Arab chambers of commerce are on the southwestward march, hoping to set up joint chambers with African businessmen. Lebanese editorials recall that there are 60,000 Lebanese emigrants in West Africa. It is inevitable that more will be on the way, answering the call to greener pastures. Iraqi business delegations appear to be not far behind.

It seems significant that, while business groups and individuals make up the vanguard of the Levantine march on Africa, none but government officials participate from the United Arab Republic. This one example shows the distance traveled in a very few years toward government control of every phase of Egyptian and Syrian life. Whether this will prove a limitation or a necessary phase of a bootstrap economic operation, it is apparent in Egypt today that you do not run a business, a newspaper, a bank, or an export business without government blessing. This alteration in Egyptian economic life has been in the making since Suez, and is now fully established.

Tito’s influence

To find a parallel effort at conformity and central direction, the plainest example applicable to Egypt is Yugoslavia. In fact, the Yugoslav influence within Egypt is far greater than is generally realized. Nasser’s visits to Tito have not all been concerned with international politics. Some have evidently convinced him that Tito has found the way not only to neutralism but to economic equalization — the apparent goal of Nasser’s “cooperative socialist” society.

In practice, the adoption of the Yugoslav pattern has eliminated from Egyptian economic life nearly all of those entrepreneurs who built up its markets and internal economy until five years ago. These were the business leaders whose connections in Europe and the United States fostered the cosmopolitan business community and culture which characterized Alexandria and Cairo up to the time of Suez. Following Suez and the taking over of French and British establishments by the government, there arose the problem of management. Here the Nasser government has evidently come to a decision of basic importance to Egyptian society. It casts a suspicious eye, and often a harshly restraining hand, on the largely Coptic professional and business class. More and more, this element finds itself displaced in favor of more reliable Muslims, dedicated to the revolution and untainted by international contacts.

In some tragically perverse way, the old Western line about the inability of anyone but a European or European protégé to master the operations of the Suez Canal has been turned around in Egypt today. Now almost no one but a pure Muslim Egyptian can do anything important in Egyptian life.

The result has been the gradual disenfranchisement of a whole class of educated and skillful people. Among the unemployed in Cairo today are loyal and brilliant journalists, bankers, diplomats, and businessmen. Some are Copts. Many are Muslims, but simply out of favor. They make up a growing body of talent and energy that is much needed within the country. But so long as the present phase of strict conformity to a blueprint devised on a doctrinaire model prevails, this distinguished idle company seems likely to grow.

It is not difficult to understand how Yugoslav influence has come to predominate in Egyptian affairs. Tito has been Nasser’s one friend on the continent of Europe, and his frequent host. He encourages Nasser’s enthusiasm for neutralism and for socialism as the way of salvation for poor countries.

What stands out most clearly in Egypt today is the fact that the machinery to run the country is still in the process of being built. There is a serious search for help in administrative techniques, for skilled engineers, and for agricultural experts. Al Ahram recently announced a shortage of 60,000 such technicians for immediate projects within the U.A.R. This need, plus the desire to create a center for technical education for Africans, may yet help to reverse the trend toward strict political conformity which today inhibits the exuberant energies that have characterized the best of Egyptian life.