Saturday, October 28, 2006

50th Anniversary of the Suez Canal Crisis

Pride recalled

After 50 years, only limited attention has been given to one of the nation's most memorable events. Dina Ezzat reports

In the heart of Al-Mansheya Square, where Gamal Abdel-Nasser declared the historic nationalisation of the Suez Canal 50 years ago, many Egyptians walk by with very little knowledge of the significance of the site or the story.

On the eve of the 50th anniversary of the day when President Nasser said, to the cheers of millions around the country, "in the name of the nation, I issue the presidential decree announcing the nationalisation of the Suez Canal Company as a stock holding company", not many people in Al-Mansheya Square had vivid recollections of 26 July 1956.

"Why is this square supposed to be of any significance? It's a marketplace with some old building that foreigners are interested in taking pictures of," said 26-year-old Tamer, a street vendor.

Tamer added, "it's a crowded place, that's for sure. And this park is not good enough. There should be a bigger park."

The park that Tamer wants to see enlarged is the venue of the Bourse building where Nasser declared the nationalisation of the Suez Canal.

In a two-day seminar hosted by the Bibliotheca Alexandrina and co-sponsored by the bibliotheca with the Suez Canal Authority to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Suez Canal's nationalisation, Mohamed Awad, a dedicated Alexandrian architect who chairs the Mediterranean Studies Centre based in Alexandria, indicated an interest in rebuilding the venue to revive the city's history.

Awad's endeavour, if fulfilled, might help refresh the memories of those who have forgotten what is often described as the glorious day of national pride celebrated by Egypt upon the canal's nationalisation.

Of over 10 people of different age groups and socio- economic backgrounds interviewed by Al-Ahram Weekly on the nationalisation's 50th anniversary, only one remembered that Al-Mansheya was the venue which witnessed the moment. Many, especially the younger generation, were not especially aware of the episode. They tended to confusingly link the canal's nationalisation to the movie, Nasser 56, without much awareness of the details.

The declining awareness of this part of Egyptian history was touched upon during the seminar. Historian Yunan Labib Rizk argued the need to bring back awareness to the nation of the history of nationalisation, expressing particular concern about the younger generation. This generation, Rizk warned, does not seem to be aware of the details of history and they are subjected to brainwashing campaigns that aim to reduce the significance of moments of pride. "When three young journalists ask me in one week whether or not it was wise of Gamal Abdel-Nasser to nationalise the Suez Canal rather than to have waited for 12 years after which the canal was supposed to be Egypt's by law, I have to wonder what is going on."

"In an environment so inhospitable to the rationale and heroism of the act of nationalisation, it was necessary for the Suez Canal Authority and the Bibliotheca Alexandrina to remember the fifth anniversary and to exert an effort to celebrate it," said Qassem Eilawa, a writer from Port-Said.

Like Rizk and Eilawa, other participants complained about the declining interest in the recent history. Ample evidence was offered by participant historians, political scientists and professors of law who argued that Egypt could not have expected the canal to be peacefully and effectively transferred in 1968 in accordance with the text of the relevant agreements.

For many participants, the big question was who was behind this growing sense of scepticism about the value of the nationalisation. Some attributed the decline to prevailing anti-Nasser sentiments in certain quarters by the authors of history school curricula and editors who select the relevant documentaries and TV material for viewers. Others attributed it to sheer insensitivity to the importance of maintaining a high-level of awareness of national sacrifices.

There was sufficient agreement among participants that much more needed to be done to educate the public, especially the young, not just about nationalisation but about Egypt's long history in fighting colonisation.

Speakers at the seminar included the chair of the Suez Canal Authority, Ahmed Fadel, who expressed determination to keep the "Suez legend" alive through continued hard work. They also included the director of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina Ismail Serageddin who expressed commitment of his bibliotheca to document the history of the Suez Canal.

Participating likewise was a host of engineers and writers who had a shared history of the canal. Engineers insisted that the canal was not being threatened by an Israeli-proposed canal to link the Red Sea with the Dead Sea. They said it would not be economically feasible to do so because the proposed canal would be much longer than the Suez Canal.

For their part, participating writers insisted that much more literary infusion needed to be offered about that moment that was somehow eclipsed by the subsequent Tripartite Aggression on Egypt in October 1956.

Political Science professor Hoda Abdel-Nasser, daughter of President Nasser, was present with her account on the political significance behind the nationalisation.

But by far the most interesting speaker during the two-day seminar was Adel Ezzat who took part in the nationalisation.

"Only three of us were in the know. President Nasser had chosen us to carry out the nationalisation," he said.

A 30-year-old engineer working with Nasser's advisor Mohamed Younis at the time, Ezzat insisted that nationalisation was not just about retrieving Egypt's long overdue rights but also about standing in the face of colonisation across the Arab region. He insisted that nationalisation was not just about providing resources for the construction of the High Dam or other developmental projects as such but about the right of Egypt to be totally liberated and independent.

"On 23 July 1956, I met Nasser for the first time during celebrations marking the fourth anniversary of the revolution. The president whispered something in Younis's ear. The next day Younis was clearly agitated and preoccupied," Ezzat recalls.

The next day, Ezzat was summoned with a colleague of his, Abdel-Hamid Bakr, to be given the assignment. "The president has tasked me with the nationalisation of the Suez Canal."

In 48 hours, as Nasser was making his annual speech on the anniversary of the revolution and as he uttered the words "De Lesseps", in reference to Ferdinand de Lesseps who in 1869 persuaded Said, Egypt's ruler, to build the canal, Younis, Ezzat and Bakr, unarmed, and working parallel with two other groups, acted promptly in Port Said, Suez and Ismailia to return the canal back to Egypt.

After the mission was accomplished, Ezzat remembered with much pride, Nasser declared nationalisation.

The clapping of the audience to Ezzat's words was a genuine expression of a remaining sense of pride, at least on the part of some people, of the nationalisation of the Suez Canal.

Copyright Al-Ahram Weekly. All rights reserved

50 Years After Suez, U.S. Hegemony Ebbing Fast

Analysis by Jim Lobe

WASHINGTON, Oct 26 (IPS) - As the Middle East prepares to mark the 50th anniversary on Oct. 29 of the Suez Crisis that effectively ended European colonialism, a half century of U.S. hegemony in the region also appears to be coming to an end, according to a growing number of analysts here.

The observation is based primarily on the serious damage done to Washington's position in the Middle East by its 2003 invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq, where more than 140,000 of its troops remain bogged down in what seems likely an increasingly futile effort both to crush a Sunni insurgency that it failed to anticipate and prevent a larger sectarian civil war.

In addition, however, the passivity -- or obstinacy -- of the administration of President George W. Bush in failing to revive any kind of Arab-Israeli peace process, particularly in the wake of last summer's war between Israel and Hezbollah or the ongoing deterioration of the Palestinian Authority, appears to have brought both Washington's image and influence in the region to an all-time low.

"American foreign policy in the Middle East is approaching a very serious crisis," noted Zbigniew Brzezinski, national security adviser under former President Jimmy Carter, at a dinner this week in which he noted the imminence of the 1956 crisis that he said marked "the beginning of (Washington's) domination of the region".

"We are facing the possibility of literally being pushed out of the Middle East," he warned, suggesting that only a major change in U.S. policy, particularly regarding the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, can reverse the current trend.

While other analysts insist that Washington's status as the world's military hyperpower and its continued heavy reliance on Middle Eastern oil -- let alone its continued presence in Iraq -- ensure its continued relevance to the region, the consensus among regional specialists here is that its ability to affect events there has indeed been substantially diminished.

"The age of U.S. dominance in the Middle East has ended and a new era in the modern history of the region has begun," wrote Richard Haass, president of the influential Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) and a top Middle East adviser to the George H.W. Bush administration, in a remarkably downbeat article in the latest edition of Foreign Affairs journal.

"The U.S. will continue to enjoy more influence than any outside power, but its influence will be reduced from what it once was," according to Haass, who sees the new era as being one "in which outside actors have a relatively modest impact and local forces enjoy the upper hand -- and in which the local actors gaining power are radicals committed to changing the status quo."

That this "New Middle East", as Haass titled his article, should be dawning 50 years after the Suez Crisis is particularly poignant, according to long-time observers of the region who note that, more than any other event, it was Washington's role in the crisis that boosted its image as a force for liberation and positioned it as an honest broker between Arabs and Israel.

On Oct. 29, 1956, Israel invaded Gaza and the Sinai Peninsula and within a few days occupied the Suez Canal zone that had been recently nationalised by the government of Egyptian President Gamal Nasser. Pursuant to a plan worked out in advance with the two European governments, Israel then invited Britain and France to send their forces to the area as a buffer. When Nasser rejected their offer to do so, they invaded anyway.

U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower, who had not been informed of the three countries' plans in advance, responded by threatening to "pull the plug" on the British pound and even to remove the U.S. nuclear umbrella from all three countries if they did not cease fire and commit themselves to a speedy withdrawal, one that was completed by early 1957.

To most historians, the crisis -- and the humiliation inflicted on the invading powers -- spelled the effective end of western European colonialism in the region and the advent of U.S. pre-eminence, a pre-eminence that was successively enhanced by the aftermath of the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, the 1978 Camp David accords, and the end of the Cold War a decade later.

"Certainly, in terms of the prestige and image of the U.S. in the region, it goes without saying that Suez was the high point," according to Chris Toensing, editor of the Washington-based Middle East Report (MER). "The U.S. was seen not only as country that had itself not only thrown off the yoke of colonialism, but was willing to stick its neck out to help other countries do so as well."

If that helped establish Washington's "soft power" in the region, it also demonstrated to Arabs that the U.S. not only had influence over Israel, but was prepared to use it, even over the objections of both Tel Aviv and the increasingly influential "Israel Lobby" in Washington.

"It is the fact that we made Israel withdraw from Sinai that established us an honest broker [between Israel and the Arabs]," according to Richard Parker, a retired foreign service officer who served as U.S. ambassador to Algeria, Morocco and Lebanon during the 1970's. "Since Sinai, that has always been our trump card in the region."

Fifty years later, however, both U.S. soft power and its status as an honest broker -- the two greatest achievements of the Suez crisis -- are at their lowest ebb and, in Toensing's words, "sinking ever lower".

As of 2002, when the U.S. acquiesced in Israel's military campaign against the Palestinian intifada, disapproval of the United States skyrocketed across the Arab world, according to public opinion polls which showed an even greater deterioration after the 2003 Iraq invasion and the Abu Ghraib prison scandal the following year.

"The U.S. has come to be seen as the quintessential colonial power, and, if anything, worse than the old (European) ones, because they were viewed as having an economic agenda -- resource extraction -- while the U.S. is seen as having both a resource-extraction and an ideological agenda," according to Toensing.

In addition, the Bush administration's failure to exercise any demonstrable pressure on Israel to seriously engage the Palestinians in a peace process, its transparent support for Israel's military offensive and bombing campaign in Lebanon last summer's war with Hezbollah, and its rejection to date of renewed Arab efforts to promote the 2002 Saudi peace plan in the wake of the Lebanon conflict have effectively destroyed the image of Washington as an honest broker.

"Our strongpoint was always that we were the only power that could do anything with the Israelis," according to Parker. "We still have that influence, but the key is whether we're prepared to use it. If not, it's going to waste away."

No comments: