SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Socialism Today 104 - October 2006

The Suez fiasco 1956

Fifty years ago, British imperialism, in alliance with France and in secret collusion with Israel, invaded Egypt. The adventure was the Tory government’s response to the nationalisation of the Suez canal by the Nasser regime. There were mass protests in Britain. Military action rebounded on Britain and France, forcing an ignominious retreat. The secrecy and duplicity of the Eden government have striking parallels with the deception and lies of Blair in relation to Iraq. LYNN WALSH writes.

THE NATIONALISATION OF the Suez canal on 26 July 1956 was a devastating blow to the British ruling class, which was struggling to come to terms with the decline and break-up of its colonial empire. British imperialism had lost the Indian subcontinent – the jewel in the crown – in 1948. Movements for independence swept through the remaining colonies. In Cyprus, Aden (South Yemen), and Malaysia they took the form of armed insurgencies.

The action by Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser, leader of Egypt’s nationalist regime, was taken in response to a decision by the US and Britain (and the World Bank) to withhold financial aid for the construction of the Aswan High Dam, a major hydro-electric and irrigation scheme. The British ruling class and the Tory government saw this as a dire threat to what remained of their colonial empire.

The canal provided vital access to the ‘Far East’ and was crucial to Britain’s trade (a third of the 14,666 ships that passed through the canal in 1955 were British-owned). Moreover, the canal was of great symbolic importance to an influential imperialist faction within the Tory Party – and to the section of British capitalism that they reflected.

Nasser’s seizure of the canal posed a political threat to British interests throughout the Middle East, and (in Tory eyes) threatened the security of oil supplies, increasingly important to western industrial economies. Harold Macmillan, the chancellor of the exchequer in the Conservative government of prime minister Anthony Eden, and a leading hawk on Suez, wrote in his diary (18 August): "If Nasser ‘gets away with it’, we are done for. The whole Arab world will despise us… Nuri [es-Said, British-backed prime minister of Iraq] and our friends will fall. It may well be the end of British influence and strength forever. So, in the last resort, we must use force and defy opinion, here and overseas".

Throughout the Suez crisis, Eden and his inner war cabinet operated with extreme secrecy, just as Blair has operated on Iraq. Macmillan’s diaries, however, now provide a revealing source of information. Still unpublished in full, they are extensively quoted in Alistair Horne’s biography: Macmillan, volume I, 1894-1956 (published in 1988).

Macmillan immediately saw that nationalisation could set a precedent. Other nationalist leaders could follow suit by taking valuable national oil resources into state control. "The determination to seize other property", Macmillan told US audiences, "will be too great; and before we know where we are it may well be that the control of vital oil supplies, on which western Europe at any rate must live, will be in the hands of powers which in effect have become satellites of Russia…" (Horne, p419) Macmillan saw the war over Suez as a war for oil: "We must, by one means or another, win this struggle. Nasser may well try to preach holy war in the Middle East and… the mob and the demagogue may create a ruinous position for us. Without oil, and without the profits from oil, neither UK nor western Europe can survive". (Macmillan Diary/Horne, p429)

To preserve their control of the canal, to bolster their strategic power in the region, and to control the region’s oil supplies, the Eden government was determined to go to war. But they made a series of strategic miscalculations. While overestimating their own strength, the leaders of British imperialism underestimated the power of rising nationalist forces in Egypt and the Middle East. They were deluded, moreover, that they could act (in collusion with France and Israel) independently of US imperialism, now the western superpower. President Eisenhower’s personal representative, Robert Murphy, summed it up: "The prime minister [Eden] had not adjusted his thoughts to the altered world status of Great Britain, and he never did".

Fabricating a pretext

PUBLICLY, THE AIM of Tory policy was to guarantee the ‘international’ status of the Suez canal. Privately, Eden and Macmillan were determined to bring about ‘regime change’ (in today’s jargon) – to bring down Nasser through military intervention. Recognising that public opinion in Britain and most governments internationally would oppose such a course, Eden’s inner cabinet were determined to find – or fabricate – a pretext for invading Egypt.

Even before the nationalisation of the canal, Eden, alarmed at Nasser’s growing influence in the region, had told the cabinet in March 1956: "I want Nasser destroyed, not removed, destroyed". Later, Macmillan wrote in his diary (1 August): "we must have (a) international control of the canal; (b) humiliation or collapse of Nasser".

Criticising military plans as too limited in their objective, Macmillan wrote: "the object of the exercise, if we have to embark upon it, is surely to bring about the fall of Nasser and create a government in Egypt which will work satisfactorily with ourselves and the other powers…" The aim should be "to seize Alexandria… and march on Cairo, to destroy Nasser". (Diaries/Horne, p404, 405)

The French government, led by the pro-Israeli ‘Socialist’, Guy Mollet, was also impatient to launch a military attack on Nasser. Mollet and company accused Nasser of supporting their prime enemy, the National Liberation Front fighting to free Algeria from French rule. But Eden’s government faced more diplomatic problems than Mollet. The US administration was not in favour of military action, though Eden and Macmillan convinced themselves that, when it came to the crunch, the US would fall in with any British action.

Britain was also forced, under international pressure, to accept a conference of the major canal users (which convened in London in August). The majority favoured negotiations with Nasser and were not ready to support an invasion. There was also pressure for the Suez dispute to be referred to the United Nations (UN). Moreover, there were more and more indications from Washington that the administration would not support military invasion of Egypt. Apart from anything else, Eisenhower was facing re-election in November 1956 and did not want to tarnish his image as the ‘peace president’. At the same time, there was growing opposition at home, and even a rebellion within the ranks of Tory MPs. Faced with this opposition, the Eden leadership was determined to find a pretext for military action.

"The problem remains", wrote Macmillan in his diary, "on what ‘principle’ can we have a ‘casus belli’ [an event justifying war]? How do we get from the conference leg to the use of force?... It remains a tricky operation". In the war cabinet Walter Monckton, the minister of defence, raised doubts about whether public opinion in Britain would support the government’s use of force. "Of course", wrote Macmillan, "if an ‘incident’ took place, that would be the way out". (Diaries/Horne, p410)

Macmillan recognised that it was not feasible to go to war without going first to the UN, however reluctant they were to do so. The government agreed to go but meanwhile continued military preparations for an invasion. The parallel with Bush and Blair’s sham reference to the UN before their premeditated invasion of Iraq is striking.

One of the government’s leading hawks, Lord Salisbury, raised difficulties about going to the UN. He told Macmillan that he had read the UN charter and had "found very little in it that would seem to justify the use of forceful methods by a member state until all the means enumerated in the machinery of the UN have first been tried". He found this "rather depressing". "It must, I feel, now be for the Foreign Office to produce one [ie some provocation] which is likely to exasperate Nasser to such an extent that he does something that gives us an excuse for marching in, either for the protection of the canal and its employees or of British lives and property". (Horne, p427) What could be more cynical?

The problem for Eden, Macmillan and the Tory hawks was that Nasser did not provide them with a casus belli. Claims that his action was illegal were dubious: the Suez canal was on Egyptian territory and Nasser proposed to pay compensation to the Suez canal company’s shareholders. He guaranteed international access to the canal (except for Israeli ships), and the new Egyptian pilots proved quite capable of safely navigating ships through the canal. The head of the CIA in London, Chester Cooper, commented that the British and French "had already lost the game in late July; whether or not Eden or Mollet could bring themselves to face it, the world had already accepted the nationalisation of the Suez canal as a fait accompli". (Horne, p408)

Eden and Macmillan were dismayed when, on 5 September, Eisenhower publicly announced at a press conference that he unconditionally rejected the use of force. "We are committed to a peaceful settlement of this dispute, nothing else". It was in September and early October (prior to the UN security council debate) that the Tory hawks, in collusion with the French government, set about manufacturing a casus belli, ‘an incident’ that would justify war.

The stratagem was that Israel would attack Egypt across Sinai, justifying it by the need to destroy Palestinian fedayeen (guerrilla) camps from which attacks on Israel were being carried out. The Ben-Gurion government was only too willing to oblige. Britain and France would then call on ‘both sides’ to withdraw from the ‘threatened canal’. Israel would, of course, agree; but Nasser would almost certainly refuse. A British and French invasion force would then intervene, taking up a position between the two sides – to secure a ceasefire and protect the canal!

A small cabal around Eden (including Macmillan and Lord Salisbury) concealed the real character of the intervention from most of the Tory cabinet (who only found out about the Anglo-French collusion with Israel on 24 October, when the plan was presented to them as a fait accompli). Many of the key meetings took place without minutes being taken, and in some cases minutes were destroyed. Macmillan even destroyed sections of his private diaries. The Eden government made the ultimately fatal mistake of concealing the collusion with Israel from its US ally, brazenly denying it when challenged by US officials who had received intelligence reports of the Anglo-French and Israeli preparations.

Some in Whitehall, however, had deep misgivings. Sir Walter Monckton, the minister of defence, was unhappy about the weakness of Britain’s logistical preparations, and later resigned from the government. More principled opposition came from the First Sea Lord, Louis Mountbatten, the most influential of the chiefs of staff, who was against the whole operation on political and humanitarian grounds. He considered: "That an armed amphibious assault against opposition in a built up area… would cause the deaths of thousands of innocent women and children since we obviously had to bomb and bombard the coast’s defence gun positions". (Keith Kyle, Suez [1991], p202)

Mountbatten also raised a crucial question which no one else appeared to have considered: "what steps were being taken to ensure that, in the event of successful operations leading to the downfall of Nasser, a new government could be found in Egypt which would both support Britain’s policy for the operation of the canal and would also have the support of the Egyptian people. He said he feared that the Egyptian people were now so solidly behind Nasser that it might be impossible to find such a government". (Kyle, p202) Eden ordered him to keep his nose out of political matters.

Despite outright opposition to Anglo-French military intervention from most of the canal users, the UN security council and the US, Eden, Macmillan and company decided to go ahead. On 29 October, in accordance with the plan, Israel invaded Sinai. Britain and France issued their ultimatum to Egypt and Israel: Nasser, as expected rejected it. On 31 October, British forces opened the five-day softening up bombardment of Egyptian airfields and defence installations, while the British war fleet set sail from Malta.

Many smelt a rat. But in parliament, Selwyn Lloyd, the foreign minister, blatantly lied, denying there had been any prior agreement between Britain and Israel over the attack. Eden’s government narrowly survived a vote of confidence, by 218 votes to 207.

When Eisenhower heard about Israel’s invasion of Sinai, he exclaimed: "You tell ’em [the Israeli government] that, God damn it, we’re going to apply sanctions, we’re going to the United Nations, we’re going to do everything that there is so we can stop this thing". When he found out that the British government had actively deceived him about the Anglo-French collusion with Israel, he was incensed. The US threatened sanctions against Britain and France, and quickly implemented economic measures which forced Britain to call off its military action.

Enforced retreat of Anglo-French imperialism

ANGLO-FRENCH FORCES invaded Egypt on 5 November, backed up by heavy naval bombardment. They rapidly pushed back the Egyptian army, quickly taking Port Said. Israeli forces had already halted their advance across Sinai, coming to within a few miles of the canal. Militarily, Britain and France won an easy victory, with disproportionate casualties on the Egyptian side. At least 3,000 Egyptian troops were killed, and over 7,000 taken prisoner. Anglo-French forces lost around 33 dead, while Israel lost 180. But the two European powers won only a pyrrhic victory on the battlefield. They had suffered a devastating political defeat, with a massive loss of prestige, even before they landed on Egyptian soil.

The Eden government faced mass opposition at home, with splits within the government and the Tory Party. Even some of his friends thought that Eden had gone mad – the charitable view was that he was ill and temporarily unbalanced.

Internationally, Britain came under intense pressure from every direction. The Soviet leadership made thinly veiled threats that it would take military action against Britain and France. The Suez invasion was a propaganda gift for Khrushchev, distracting attention from the brutal Soviet oppression of the Hungarian uprising which exactly coincided with the Suez action. Khrushchev was able to pose as the defender of small colonial states against imperialist oppression. In the UN, the overwhelming majority of the Security Council was strongly opposed to the Anglo-French action. What was decisive for Britain, however, was the Eisenhower administration’s resort to devastating economic measures against the British economy, which forced Eden and company to abandon their military adventure.

When Nasser took control of the canal, the Labour leaders denounced his action. Both Hugh Gaitskell, the Labour Party leader, and Aneurin Bevan, on the left of the Labour leadership, referred to Nasser in the same breath as Mussolini and Hitler. Their position was hardly distinguishable from that of the Eden government: they opposed nationalisation and supported ‘internationalisation’ of the canal under the control of the major users or the UN. (Though they did not call for the internationalisation of the Panama canal.) Bevan justified this position, which let the Tories off the hook, with the spurious argument that socialists should favour internationalism rather than nationalism. Some Labour leaders, however, like Emmanuel Shinwell, a former defence minister, completely supported the Eden government, including military action against Egypt.

Gaitskell and Bevan did not expect that the Eden government would launch an invasion against the Nasser regime. They strongly opposed military action, and called for a UN force to secure a ceasefire and secure international control of the Suez canal. Their opposition to the Eden government undoubtedly strengthened under pressure of the explosion of popular anger provoked by the military adventure. Suez produced some of the sharpest and most bitter parliamentary clashes in living memory. Bevan, like many others, strongly suspected collusion between Britain, France and the Israeli government, and taunted the Tories to admit the truth.

Opinion polls showed that 37% thought the British action was right, while 44% opposed military action. Among active, political layers of the workers, there was an explosion of anger against the Tory government. Military action was seen as an imperialist intervention against a small, ex-colonial country rightly laying claim to its main national asset. There was an "outburst of spontaneous popular protest that swept the country", remembers one veteran. (Neville Hunnings, Letter, The Guardian, 14 July 2006) "I can remember in London passing innumerable street orators all over the place, not just in the obvious places like Hyde Park, but in side streets off Charing Cross Road or wherever they could gather a crowd".

Moved by this tide of protest, the National Council of Labour (representing the Labour Party, the TUC and the Cooperative movement) called an emergency meeting on 1 November to launch a campaign against the government’s action under the slogan, ‘Law – not war’. A resolution was passed calling for an immediate ceasefire, the withdrawal of Israeli forces from Egypt, and a UN peace conference to settle the dispute.

But the Labour leaders were clearly fearful that protest action would spill over beyond the bounds of parliamentary pressure. The resolution called on the British people "to bring effective pressure to bear on the government in support of these policies through normal constitutional parliamentary methods, and to refrain from taking industrial action as a means of influencing national policy in the present crisis". On 4 November there was a massive national demonstration in Trafalgar Square, with an estimated 30,000 or more participating. This was undoubtedly the biggest national demonstration since the pre-war period.

If Eden, Macmillan and Co thought they could ride out the political opposition at home, they were soon forced to face the fact that they could not survive a massive run on the pound, which threatened to bankrupt the weak British economy. Although he was Chancellor of the Exchequer, Macmillan seemed to forget his financial responsibilities during the Suez episode, in which he played a more prominent role than even Selwyn Lloyd, the foreign secretary. Yet he was well aware that military action could cause a devastating run on the pound. "We shall be ruined either way; but we shall be more inevitably and finally ruined if we are humiliated [by not standing up to Nasser]". (Diaries/Horne, p415)

Despite clear warnings from senior Treasury and Foreign Office officials, Macmillan was deluded that, when it came to the crunch, the US would support Britain. Unlike the French government, which secured an IMF loan before the military action started, Macmillan took no precautionary measures to defend the pound. Sure enough, when British forces started bombing Egypt on 30 October, Macmillan had to warn the cabinet that "our reserves of gold and dollars were still falling at a dangerously rapid rate". (Diaries/Horne, p437) Things went from bad to worse. After his successful re-election on 6 November – and having discovered the full extent of the British government’s duplicity – Eisenhower ordered economic sanctions against Britain. The US Federal Reserve orchestrated a run on the pound, and Britain’s gold reserves fell by a further £100 million in only a week (or by an eighth of their remaining total). Moreover, the US treasury made it clear it would block an IMF loan for Britain to stabilise the pound.

Suez brought home the real extent of British capitalism’s economic decline. Within a few days, the Eden government was forced to accept a ceasefire in Egypt. Macmillan had been transformed from a super-hawk to a super-dove. One Tory MP, Brendan Bracken, commented: "Until a week ago, Macmillan, whose bellicosity was beyond description, wanted to tear Nasser’s scalp off with his own fingernails… Today he might be described as the leader of the bolters. His treasury officials have put before him the economic consequences of the Suez fiasco and his feet are frost-bitten". Ironically, when Eden was pushed out of the Tory leadership in January 1957, Macmillan deftly distanced himself from the Suez adventure and emerged as the new prime minister.

From Eden to Blair

THE SUEZ CRISIS was a turning point in the decline of British imperialism. It shattered the arrogant pretensions of Tory leaders like Eden and Macmillan, who still thought they could dictate to colonial and semi-colonial states and send punitive military expeditions if their writ was challenged. The Suez fiasco forced Britain’s imperial ruling elite to begin to face up to the organic weakness of British capitalism following the second world war. The awakening of nationalist consciousness – and the counterweight to imperialism provided by the Stalinist bloc – meant that Britain (and France) could no longer cling on to a spread of colonial possessions. Britain was forced to accelerate the political independence of its remaining colonies, though it fought rearguard actions against insurgencies in countries like Malaysia, Kenya and Cyprus, attempting to hand over to compliant national governments. The multinational corporations, accepting the inevitability of political independence, were developing new methods of economic domination, a policy of neo-colonialism. The lingering imperialist mentality of the British ruling class, however, continued to retard the development of British capitalism.

Suez also demonstrated that Britain was no longer capable of acting independently as an imperialist power. US imperialism had emerged from the second world war as a military, economic and political superpower – the only rival to the Soviet bureaucracy. The US followed an ‘anti-colonial’ policy. US imperialism, which was not based on colonisation, sought the break-up of the old European empires to allow free access of US business to their former territories. No US administration would now tolerate freelance activity by diminished British imperialism dependent on US economic support. After Eden, British governments, Tory and Labour, accepted a subordinate, supporting role strategically and economically to US imperialism.

French capitalism followed a different course. Humiliated in Egypt and subsequently forced out of Algeria, the French ruling class under de Gaulle, turned to building the European Economic Community (now EU), founded in 1957, as a counterweight to the US. Regarding Britain as an American Trojan Horse, de Gaulle kept Britain out until 1973.

Today it is not a Tory government, but the New Labour government of Blair that is pursuing a policy of military intervention. In 1956 Gaitskell, Bevan, and most of the Labour leaders, for all their limitations, opposed military intervention. At that time, the Labour leaders were forced to reflect the anger of an angry rank and file. In contrast Blair, under the guise of promoting a new ‘humanitarian interventionism’, extols liberal imperialism and the need "to revert to the rougher methods of an earlier era – force, pre-emptive attack, deception, whatever is necessary to deal with those who still live in the 19th century" (Robert Cooper, ‘The new liberal imperialism’, The Observer, 7 April 2002). Like Eden, Macmillan and company, Blair has shown himself ready to use deception and lies, over and over again. Unlike the Eden government, however, Blair has not attempted to act independently of US imperialism. On the contrary, Blair is Bush’s poodle. Britain’s limited military forces act as an appendage to the colossal military machine of US imperialism, as much to provide political cover for Bush as for their firepower. Nevertheless, Afghanistan and Iraq are reckless military adventures on the part of US imperialism, and Blair has allowed British forces to be sucked in to the morass. As Suez rebounded on Eden, Afghanistan and Iraq are now rebounding on Blair.

Nasser and the rise of Arab nationalism

THE LEADERS OF British imperialism completely failed to understand the rise of Egyptian and Arab nationalism. Eden, Macmillan and their Tory cohorts saw Nasser as an ‘Asiatic Mussolini’ or a ‘new Hitler’. They drew parallels with pre-war appeasement of Hitler (alluding to the Chamberlain government’s Munich capitulation) and argued that Nasser’s aggression had to be nipped in the bud. Nasser, according to Macmillan, harboured "dangerous dreams of Arab nationalism".

Eden and the ruling elite were blind to the forces that gave Nasser his strength. From the second world war, there had been an upsurge of national consciousness among broad layers of Egyptian society. As in other Arab states, this was strengthened by the creation of the state of Israel, the dispossession of the Palestinian people, and continued western intervention in the region. One example was the successful coup d’état organised by the US and Britain against Mohammed Mosaddeq, the bourgeois nationalist leader who came to power in Iran in 1951 and nationalised the British-owned ‘Anglo-Persian’ oil company. Resentment seethed against the old colonial powers, Britain and France, and against US imperialism, now seeking to establish its own regional hegemony.

In Egypt there was growing anger among workers, poor peasants and big sections of the middle class against king Farouk, a western puppet linked to the old Egyptian ruling class, the big landlords and cotton merchants. The masses wanted an end to western domination, and they wanted changes that would raise the majority of people out of poverty and degradation.

Nasser was leader of a group of junior army officers, the so-called Free Officers, who seized power through a coup d’état in 1952, initially, with General Neguib as figurehead. The Revolutionary Command Council had a vague programme of national reform, economic development and social justice. The new regime immediately carried out land reforms (limiting rents and the size of land holdings), with the promise of more radical reforms to come. A minimum wage was introduced and trade unions legalised, though subject to tight, top-down control by the regime. In 1953, the monarchy was abolished and the old political parties disbanded. Nasser took over as official leader from Neguib in 1954.

Nasser’s regime took the form of a military-police dictatorship, a bonapartist state of the type that became familiar in the third world from the 1950s to the 1970s. Despite its authoritarian character, Nasser’s regime was immensely popular during its first period. Reforms improved the conditions of big sections of the population. Above all, Nasser was seen as the long-awaited Arab leader capable of delivering forceful blows against the hated British colonialism, and establishing genuine Egyptian independence. Nasser was a popular hero, not only in Egypt but throughout the Arab world, and indeed throughout the neo-colonial ‘third world’.

Egypt had been a semi-colony of Britain and France for well over 100 years. Since 1882, the state, though not officially a colony, had been effectively controlled financially and politically by British imperialism. Independent national sovereignty, recognised by Britain in 1922, was a sham, as Britain continued to control Egypt through the monarchy and the fake nationalist, feudal Wafd party. Britain and France jointly owned and ran the Suez canal company under a 1888 international convention that was due to expire in 1968. In 1936, British troops were re-stationed in the canal zone, an occupation inevitably seen as a humiliating symbol of colonial occupation.

In 1954, Nasser successfully negotiated a treaty with Britain providing for the evacuation of all British forces by June 1956. The British government had come to the conclusion that it could no longer maintain the military presence. Public opinion in Egypt was overwhelmingly hostile, while Nasser was undoubtedly covertly backing fedayeen guerrilla attacks on British troops in the zone. In Egypt, British withdrawal was seen as a big blow against British colonialism. In London, Paris and Washington the move set off alarm bells about future control of the canal.

Tensions deepened between the Nasser regime and the western powers. Nasser strongly supported the Palestinian cause against Israel. He requested arms supplies from the west to balance the growing military strength of the state of Israel, seen throughout the region as a beachhead for western manoeuvres or interventions against Arab states. France especially was supplying Israel with modern weapons (including nuclear weapons technology). French imperialism was ferociously hostile to Nasser, accusing him of arming the National Liberation Front fighting to expel France from Algeria. When his request for arms from the west was refused, Nasser turned to the Soviet bloc, purchasing a large consignment of weapons from Czechoslovakia.

The cold war context

NASSER ALSO OFFENDED the western powers in 1955 by his participation in the Bandung conference of third world countries. This was a gathering of representatives from small states, mostly former colonies, which sought a neutral ‘third way’ between imperialism and communism but which, in practice, mostly tended to rely on support from the Stalinist bloc to mitigate new forms of domination by the west. Above all, however, it was Nasser’s refusal to join the Baghdad pact, a US-sponsored military alliance (Turkey, Pakistan, Iraq and Iran) against the Soviet Union, which tipped the balance. To teach Nasser a lesson, the US and Britain bluntly refused financial support for the construction of the Aswan high dam, a major project considered essential for Egypt’s national economic development.

With little to lose, Nasser turned to the eastern bloc for military, economic and technical support – and declared the nationalisation of the Suez canal in order to finance the Aswan project from the navigation fees. However, the US president, Eisenhower, was not ready to go to war over the canal. His administration had not yet given up on Nasser as irrevocably lost to ‘communism’. Besides, ‘Ike’ faced an electoral battle for re-election in November. Another US calculation was that it would not be a bad thing at all if the Anglo-French monopoly of the canal were broken (just as Britain’s monopoly of Iranian oil had been broken after the coup against Mosaddeq) – so long as international control was ultimately established. The US therefore favoured a combination of negotiations and pressure aimed at securing international control of the canal. For Britain and France, however, war was the only recourse unless Nasser reversed his action. Strictly speaking, British and French imperialism inflicted a military defeat on Nasser. But their action rebounded on them, while Nasser emerged as the hero of the Egyptian nation, of the Arab peoples and the international anti-colonial movement.

The Anglo-French-Israeli intervention pushed Nasser’s regime in a more radical direction. Most foreign businesses were also nationalised and, in 1961-62, the regime carried out more extensive nationalisation measures and implemented popular reforms, such as state subsidies for food and other basic needs. Nasser’s project became known as ‘Arab socialism’. In reality, this meant a combination of measures against imperialism and Egypt’s traditional ruling class, extension of state intervention in the economy, and an element of social provision for some sections of the population.

Nasser’s regime became a model for the type of bonapartist regimes that appeared in that period. They were typically led by radicalised army officers, supported by strata of the petty bourgeoisie, especially teachers, journalists, lawyers and intellectuals. Under immense pressure from the masses for change, they cut back some of the privileges and power of the traditional ruling class, but (excepting Cuba and a few other cases) stopped short of the decisive elimination of landlordism and capitalism.

Such bonapartist regimes acted as a surrogate for an underdeveloped, politically feeble national bourgeoisie. They were a product, moreover, of ‘cold war’ rivalry between US-dominated imperialism and the Stalinist bloc, dominated by the ruling bureaucracy of the Soviet Union, which directed a planned economy. They relied on some degree of support from the Stalinist bloc to maintain their independence from imperialism. Under Khrushchev, the Soviet leadership was seeking to strengthen its influence in the Middle East, making alliances with Egypt and (later) Syria, Iraq and South Yemen.

Extended state ownership of industry and infrastructure, as in Egypt under Nasser, provided a framework for a limited development of a national capitalism. Workers, peasants, and the poorer middle layers of society received economic and social benefits. But change was strictly controlled from above, with severe repression of any opposition. In fact, in running the state machine, especially the security forces, Nasser’s regime adopted many of the totalitarian methods of Stalinism (repression of the Egyptian Communist Party never disturbed Cairo-Moscow relations). In the state industries, Nasser relied on financial and technical support from the eastern bloc, and imported many of the clumsy methods of Stalinism, even though there was never an overall plan of production.

During the 1960s, developments under Nasser inspired similar regimes in Iraq, Libya, Syria and elsewhere. For a short period (1958-61), Egypt and Syria were nominally unified in a single ‘United Arab Republic’. Nasser sponsored sections of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, and backed the insurgence against British rule in South Yemen (formerly Aden).

In the late 1960s, Egypt faced increasing economic problems, and Nasser’s prestige was seriously dented by defeat in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. After Nasser’s death in 1970, his successor and fellow Free Officer, Anwar Sadat, shifted sharply towards the right. He made concessions to the traditional ruling class (the landlords and merchants) and also tried to appease the Muslim Brotherhood, playing them off against discontented Nasserite radical forces. Sadat made an accommodation with US imperialism (which heavily subsidises the present Mubarak regime) and signed a peace treaty with Israel. In 1981, Sadat was assassinated by the right-wing Islamic forces he had tried to manipulate against his political rivals.

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