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Sunday, January 23, 2022

East of Suez

As the 1956 Suez crisis was being born,Nehru and Nasser were meeting Tito on an Adriatic island.

Written by Inder Malhotra |
January 24, 2011 1:56:00 am

Hardly anyone remembers it today,but in the middle of July 1956 a meeting at Brijuni between the three towering votaries of nonalignment — Jawaharlal Nehru of India,President Josip Broz Tito of Yugoslavia who was the host,and President Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt — had created worldwide sensation. The birth of the Non-aligned Movement or NAM was still seven years away but the idea of staying aloof from the two power blocs was catching on.

It was during the trilateral meeting that Nasser got a shattering message that infuriated him: the United States had abruptly withdrawn the ample financial aid it had promised for the construction of the Aswan Dam on the Nile,and Britain and France had followed suit. At Brijuni,Nasser kept his counsel but showed the message to Nehru in the plane while the two were flying together to Cairo. All through,Nasser stated that he would abandon the Aswan Dam and devote his country’s limited resources to a number of smaller projects that would yield quicker results. The Aswan Dam,he ruminated,would take 10 years to be built. Nehru complimented him on his “wise decision”.

Thus it was that Nehru was taken by utter surprise when,on the evening of July 26,Nasser took retaliatory action. His manner of announcing it could not have been more dramatic. Addressing a mass rally at Alexandria,he talked of several issues,but intrigued his admiring audience by mentioning the name of Ferdinand Marie de Lesseps,the founder of the Suez Canal,no fewer than 13 times. He then came to the point. Describing the Anglo-French Suez Canal Company as “an exploiter” and a “state within the state” (because of its extra-territorial rights),he declared that he had nationalised it. The cheers that he received rented the sky.

Nehru may have only been surprised,if somewhat unpleasantly,because Nasser hadn’t given him the slightest indication in advance of what he planned to do. But in London and Paris all hell broke loose. The fury of the British Prime Minister,Anthony Eden,and his French opposite number,Guy Mollet,knew no bounds. Nasser’s action may have provoked the two European countries but their reaction to the nationalisation of the Suez was no less provocative. In addition,it was insulting to the Egyptian president personally. The British Commonwealth Secretary,Lord Home,spoke of the “impossibility of allowing a gangster to remain in complete control (of the canal).” The French foreign minister,Christian Pineau,told the Egyptian ambassador: “The Egyptian dictator has committed an act of plunder,and France would never accept Egypt’s unilateral action.” French Prime Minister Guy Mollet,said Nasser was an “imitator of Adolf Hitler.”

Nehru fully supported Eygpt’s sovereign right to nationalise the Suez Canal,especially in the light of Nasser’s repeated assurances of freedom of navigation through the international waterway even though he did not approve of the manner in which Nasser had acted. His bigger worry,however,was that the Suez dispute should not lead to armed conflict. He,therefore,bent all his energies to ensuring that the issue was settled peacefully and by negotiations. Both Britain and France had taken “precautionary measures of military nature” but they were prepared to discuss the matter at a conference in London of the Suez Canal’s users. The sticking point,however,was the insistence of Anthony Eden,who had succeeded Winston Churchill only a year earlier,that the canal must remain under international control and Nasser’s refusal to countenance any restriction of Egyptian sovereignty.

From early August until well into

October,ceaseless but sterile negotiations went on in London,other world capitals and at the UN where Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjold did his best to bring about a settlement. Yet towards the third week of October there was hope that events were slowly taking a positive turn. When Britain sought an adjournment of the “exploratory talks with Egypt” scheduled to begin on October 29 in Geneva everyone thought that the proposed lull was intended to find a meeting ground informally. What happened,however,was precisely the opposite and outrageous.

On that day — under a secret trilateral agreement,as became known almost immediately — Israel attacked Egypt. Britain and France gave it an ultimatum to withdraw or face action. On this pretext these two European (and still colonial) powers mounted an invasion — not of Israel but of Egypt. They bombed Egyptian cities and tried to establish their presence along the Suez Canal. There could have been no clearer example of naked and wanton aggression. Nehru said so,talked of the “collapse of the world conscience”,denounced Eden as the main motive force behind the aggression and roused world opinion to end it and get the Anglo-French-Israeli aggressors to withdraw.

In this he had invaluable help from the United States that had disapproved of the invasion of Egypt for two reasons: First,for all their claim of a “special relationship” with America,the British had not informed Washington of what they intended to do. Secondly,as the usually hawkish Secretary of State John Foster Dulles surprisingly put it,Britain had set a “bad example” that would encourage others,especially the “Communist Bloc”,to move in where they could.

When Eden remained reluctant to accept the US advice,the Americans did what they have since done often. They used the weaponry of the International Monetary Fund. A quiet word was sent to London that its request for an IMF loan would be rejected. At an emergency meeting of the British cabinet,the Chancellor of the Exchequer,Harold Macmillan,told his Prime Minister to end the Suez misadventure or the “pound will crash within 24 hours.”

Armistice immediately followed and talks began for the Anglo-French-Israeli withdrawals and a Suez settlement. It was a moment Nehru could legitimately be proud of. His efforts had contributed to the welcome denouement. But before there could be ceasefire in West Asia,something terrible had happened in Central Europe. The Soviet troops had moved into Hungary ruthlessly to crush a popular revolt. Nehru’s reluctance to equate Hungary with the Suez exposed him to severe criticism abroad and at home for following “double standards”. More on this complex and painful subject next time.

The writer is a Delhi-based political commentator

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