CAN THE WEST KEEP ITS TOEHOLD IN EGYPT?

BLAIR FRASER September 15 1953

CAN THE WEST KEEP ITS TOEHOLD IN EGYPT?

BLAIR FRASER September 15 1953

CAN THE WEST KEEP ITS TOEHOLD IN EGYPT?

The fate of the great military base along the Suez Canal lies in the balance as strongman Naguib and his Council of the Revolution try with a torrent of decrees to make a new Egypt out of the shambles left behind by Farouk

BLAIR FRASER

CAIRO GENERAL MOHAMMED NAGUIB IS a middle-aged Egyptian of amiable but unimposing appearance who two years ago was an obscure professional soldier, relatively unknown even in his own country. Today, as president of the new Egyptian Republic, he is a major question mark in the foreign policy of the Western world.

Naguib’s realm is the keystone of the Middle Eastern arch, one of the richest and one of the most vulnerable of all the areas of conflict between the West and the Soviet bloc. In a hot war we couldn’t defend it without the great British military base at Suez. In a cold war we can hardly hold it for long without the good will of forty-five million Arabicspeaking people, half of them Egyptians who seem unanimously resolved that the British should get out of the Suez unconditionally. Of these Egyptians Naguib is today the undisputed popular leader. Even the most severe foreign critics of his regime

admit that it is probably better than any alternative in sight.

These are the two horns of the Western dilemma in Egypt. Whether it will be resolved depends on whether we can do business with Naguib and his Council of the Revolution, that curious little group of thirty-five-year-old colonels who chased King Farouk off his throne and turned the astonished Naguib into the world’s most unusual military dictator.

I heard the Egyptian side of the Suez argument from President Naguib and several of his ministers during a seven-day visit, along with eighty other reporters from all over the world, as a guest of the Egyptian Government. A dozen of us heard the British side during a trip to the Suez Canal Zone as guests of the British Embassy. We were briefed by General Sir Cameron Nicholson, Commander-inChief Middle East, and by General Sir Francis

Fesñng, who commands the Suez base itself. We also talked in Cairo to General Sir Brian Robertson, who is trying to negotiate a new agreement on the Suez, and to various Britons, Americans and Egyptians in and out of government service. You can hardly imagine a problem on which it is easier to see both sides, and harder to see a mutually agreeable compromise.

Britain is in the Suez Canal zone under a twentyyear treaty signed in 1936. Two years ago King Farouk tore up the treaty and declared that henceforth the British had no right to be in the Suez, with their eighty thousand troops and their billion dollars’ worth of military stores and equipment. Bri:ain maintains, of course, that the treaty cannot be abrogated by one party only and that she has a legal right to be there—until 1956. But 1956 is near enough now that this argument becomes somewhat academic. The real question is, what then?

British and American generals are agreed that the Suez base is indispensable to the defense of the Middle East. They are not, as some layman may think, still fighting the war before last and defending the canal as a “life line to India.” The canal is of no military value at all; it just happens to be there. The essential thing is a great complex of docks, airports, repair stations (which are really great factories capable of making a tank piece by piece), warehouses, munition dumps, and barracks. In addition to the three hundred million pounds’ worth of stores which could, if necessary, be removed, there are permanent facilities which cost two hundred million pounds and took years to build.

From a military point of view the base is perfectly located. No matter which direction the Red Army might choose for an assault on £he Middle East, Suez is far enough behind the front to be reasonably secure and close enough to be useful. It has contact by sea with both east and west, contact by air and cable and wireless with everywhere. Without it, Western armies would be powerless to stop the Russians from turning the right flank of NATO (around Turkey) and crumpling up our whole defense structure in Europe. Indeed there is only one thing wrong with the location of the Suez base: it’s on Egyptian territory.

Egyptians point this out. They say, “We are a sovereign nation and we cannot begin to negotiate with you unless you accept that fact. If you accept It you must get out of our country. Then we shall be equals, and then we can discuss what we should do together as sovereign partners for our common defense.”

To the argument that Egyptian security is involved as much as anyone else’s they answer,

“Yes, we see the danger, and we might be very glad of your help in time of trouble. But it is for us, not for you, to decide when the danger threatens. And anyway, we can’t make any pact or agreement while we are still an occupied country.”

But the British feel, and the Americans agree, that Suez is too vital to be left in any jeopardy, that they simply don’t dare leave until they are sure of being able to come back when they need to. At the same time they admit there is a good deal to General Naguib’s argument that “Suez is of no value at all without Egyptian co-operation. A million soldiers couldn’t hold it against a hostile people.” That may be an exaggeration, but everyone admits that with twenty thousand Egyptian civilians on the British payroll as irreplaceable labor, and a large Egyptian town (Ismailia) in the middle of the zone itself, a hostile populace is a major handicap.

That is the present impasse over Suez. Obstinate as it looks the British are resolutely cheerful and really believe, they say, that they can get a satisfactory agreement. But there are still,other obstacles, political obstacles, to impede it in both countries.

Britain can hardly afford a loss of prestige either at home or abroad. At home, the Conservative Government has a narrow majority which might, conceivably, be wiped out by a Suez agreement that seemed too outright a victory for the “Wogs” and therefore too unpalatable to the Tory colonels cfn the back benches. Abroad it might have even more serious effects. British investments in the Middle East are protected mainly by British prestige, and British prestige is protected—or rather symbolized —by the Suez Canal base. Retreat or even the appearance of retreat there might topple pro-British governments in other Middle Eastern countries.

But if Britain cannot afford a loss of face, the Naguib Government in Egypt can afford one even less.

In Cairo’s Liberation Square on the anniversary of the revolution, there must have l>een well over a million people watching the parade and listening to President Naguib’s 8|>eech. From time to time they’d break out in a chant which an Egyptian reporter translated for me. It wasn’t “Long live Naguib” or “Three cheers for the revolution.” It was “Down with foreign imperialism” and “The canal is ours today.”

Egyptian colleagues reminded us that these cries were not necessarily spontaneous. They could have been and probably were organized by Naguib’s political enemies - enemies temporarily defeated but. still powerful. They include not only the Communists, ready here as everywhere to take advantage of any internal trouble, but also the big landowners who are to be dispossessed by Naguib’s land-reform law; the old political groups displaced by the revolution; the fanatical mullahs of the Moslem Brotherhood, discontented with the policy of friendliness towards foreigners and unbelievers.

But, spontaneous or not, the yells were a reminder that the surest way to please a crowd in Egypt is to shout “Down with foreign imperialism.” The surest way for Naguib’s enemies to get him out and themselves back in is to work up suspicion that he has “sold out to the British”.

That raises the other hom of the Western dilemma. Why, after all, should we care whether Naguib remains in power or not?

In many ways he is a strange figure for Western democracies to be supporting. He heads a revolutionary government that seized power by force of arms. He and his Revolutionary Council of young officers are running the Republic of Egypt as a military dictatorship. Parliament and all political parties have been abolished and the constitution suspended for three “transitional” years during which Naguib and his Continued on page 92

Can The West Keep Its Toehold In Egypt?

CONTINUED FROM PAGE 13

council will rule by decree. They intend to govern according to “constitutional principles,” they say, but all this really means is that they will follow the constitution when they want to and not when they don’t.

Among the embittered ex-landowners and ex-politicians, theoretically ruined by land reform but still enjoying their usual comfort at the Gezira Sporting Club, it is fashionable to compare Naguib to Hitler. They gleefully quote the German Embassy’s jokes about “Adolf Naguib” and “Heinrich (Himmler) Nasser”—Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser, Deputy Premier and Minister of Internal Security. But, in spite of superficial resemblances, there are some important and undenied differences between Naguib’s dictatorship and that of Hitler and Mussolini.

The most important is a complete absence of bloodshed.

Hitler and Mussolini both came to power with a background of thuggery and murder. In the military revolt which raised Naguib to power, just one man lost his life—a corporal shot down by King Farouk’s men in the pre-dawn hours of Liberation Day.

There have been no murders, judicial or otherwise. One counter-revolutionary plot, led by a Colonel Rashad Mehanna who had been one of the revolutionary leaders at the outset, has been detected and frustrated; Mehanna and several others are in jail but nobody has been executed.

Naguib Learned in Night School

Another distinction is the curious absence of personal hatred among Naguib’s political enemies. They speak very harshly indeed of the young officers who put him into power, and contemptuously of his agrarian and other reforms which they regard as Utopian and naïve, but they don’t as a rule attack Naguib himself. More commonly, they profess a grudging and patronizing respect for him.

Meeting the man you can understand why. I know that dictators often appear to be simple ingratiating souls, and that even so astute an observer as Mackenzie King thought Hitler was a “simple peasant” as late as 1937. Allowing for all that, I still report that Mohammed Naguib gives the impression of a good-humored, decent, unpretentious human being.

He is a singularly homely man of fifty-two who looks rather like a genial monkey. The wrinkles in his leathery face are so deep you could hide a dime in them, and they look as if they were dug by laughter rather than by scowls. Nothing in his personal record before 1952 shows any of the symptoms of neurotic personal ambition which are standard equipment for most embryonic Caesars. Naguib was a perfectly ordinary soldier who took thirty years to be promoted from second lieutenant to full colonel. Until 1948, the only thing in his biography to distinguish him from any other colonel was the fact that he went to night classes at Cairo University, thirty-odd years ago, and earned a degree in law.

Oddest fact of all is that Naguib was not even a member of the military group which planned the revolution until a few months before the day of action.

I heard about the revolt from one of the men who did plan it—Wing Commander Gamal Salem, member of the Revolutionary Council and principal

father of the new land reform which is designed to smash the ancient feudal system of Egypt. We sat and talked from midnight to four a.m., one hot night in Cairo, and he told me the young officers’ own version of their movement and their coup.

Egypt is probably the only country in the world which ever had a revolution conducted by a little college club. The original nine members of the Revolutionary Council (they’ve added two since the coup, besides Naguib) were members of the classes of 1938 and 1939 at the Egyptian Military College.

They used to meet at college and ever since, to talk politics and brood about the plight of Egypt; their ideas seem to have been those conventional among young radicals in all countries. Not until after the Palestinian War, 1948-50, did they begin to think seriously of trying to overthrow the government. The graft, corruption, military incompetence and national paralysis which that war revealed were enough, Gamal Salem said, to turn a group of vaguely radical young politicians into a revolutionary plot.

“We realized we’d have to get ourselves a leader, someone the people would know and trust,” he said. “So in the spring of 1952 we asked General Naguib if he would join us.”

How did they come to pick Naguib, an obscure figure up to that time, instead of some other general?

“That was easy,” Gamal Salem said bitterly. “He was the only general who did any fighting in the Palestine War.”

Apparently this was literally true. The typical general, according to reports, did his fighting from Cairo. Naguib actually led his men in the field and was wounded three times; the third wound was very nearly mortal. This war record was enough to make Naguib a hero, then and still, to the young men who were planning the revolution.

But, although they speak of him with deference and affection, the young colonels don’t necessarily do as Naguib says. Power in Egypt resides not in the president but in the Revolutionary Council of twelve. Naguib as President and Prime Minister has a casting vote in the event of a six-to-six tie, but otherwise his powers are the same as those of every other member. Decisions are taken by majority vote.

Therefore the typical remark of political opponents is that “old Naguib” is not the real power at all, just a front man. And certainly there have been one or two cases, embarrassing to Naguib and annoying to the foreign community in Egypt, when his personal decisions have been overruled by the young extremists of the council.

One of these is Major Salah Salem, who as Minister of National Guidance has charge of propaganda. Salah Salem was quoted, shortly before our arrival, as saying “it is every Egyptian’s duty to hate the British.” While we were there he promised, in an Arabic broadcast to the people of the canal zone, to distribute all the surplus arms in the Egyptian Army’s depots to Egyptian civilians that they might ambush the hated foreigner. He gave us a two-hour press conference at which he said nothing as extreme as that, but did talk a lamentable lot of nonsense.

Salah Salem is responsible for several features of the Naguib regime which are most repugnant to Western visitors. One of them is the censorship. Naguib has abolished the censorship of incoming and outgoing foreign news which King Farouk used to enforce, but a censor still sits in every Egyptian newspaper and magazine office with authority to kill any story he doesn’t like.

In theory the censor’s entire function and purpose are to prevent the deliberate distortion of news and the publication of deliberate falsehoods, by the wealthy Old Guard who own the Press and everything else in Egypt. That’s the theory. In practice, here is what happened when a friend of mine called on the editors of an Arabic daily in Cairo:

They had just settled down for morning coffee when a message arrived for the managing editor. He dashed back to his own office and didn’t reappear for half an hour. When he finally came back be explained what had kept him.

“This morning the censor ordered us to put our biggest headline on a story about the Suez Canal,” he said. (He didn’t say what the story was.) “My whole front page was built around it. Then just now, the censor suddenly told us that not a word of that story must be printed on any account. I had to tear the front page to pieces just as we were going to press.”

Rut despite these restrictions on the freedom Canadians are used to, and despite the fact that Naguib’s regime has abolished elections and is ruling by decree, he and his colleagues still earnestly affirm that “we have brought to people liberty.” Perhaps they have. The word means different things in different places.

Three years ago when I paid a brief visit to Cairo, a Canadian who lived there said, “You don’t realize what goes on in this country. A pasha like that fellow” he pointed to a fat man who had just come out of the hotel and was looking around with an expression of indescribable arrogance—“if a poor man gets in his way he will kick the man off the sidewalk. I mean literally kick him, with his boots.”

On this trip the Minister of Agri-

culture, Dr. Abdel Razzak Sidky, used almost the same words to describe the former political situation:

“You don’t understand how the big landowners used to dominate our elections. A peasant didn’t need to do anything, it was enough if the landowner thought he had done something the landowner didn’t like. A gang of armed men would be sent to tear the man’s house down, sometimes while he and his family were still in it. You can imagine how many peasants dared to vote against the landlord’s wishes.” Simply by abolishing such titles as prince and pasha and bey, and giving everyone a nominal equality before the law, Naguib seems to have swept this away for the time being. Whether he can make the change permanent remains to be seen. On Liberation Day I saw one small incident which seemed to illustrate both the change that has taken place, and the ease with which the old conditions could be resumed.

The crowd was unruly in Liberation Square, kept pressing against the police lines with enough violence to make the individual policemen look angry and scared. One cop lost his temper and began to slap a teen-age boy who’d been especially persistent. A police officer ran over; he rebuked the constable, talked to the boy and finally allowed him to do what he wanted to do, which was to go up to the dais, shake hands with President Naguib and kiss him on both cheeks. Rut the incident reminded any onlooker how natural it seemed to a policeman to beat up a citizen, and to a mob to defy the police. If the same mob had been moved by anger instead of enthusiasm, the scene would have been quite different.

For the moment, though, juridical equality seems to have been established and the people have a new pride and dignity and cheerfulness that even the newest newcomer can see. Other changes, equally pressing, will be more difficult.

Naguib and his young men have attempted to solve dozens of these problems at once, on paper. They have tried to control prices, regulate currency, stimulate investment, reclaim

desert land, prospect for minerals and filter the sewage out of the drinking water in Egyptian villages, all by fiat. In their first eight months of power they passed eight hundred laws and six hundred regulatory decrees, or an average of nearly six statutes a day. How many of them have had any practical effect is an open question.

Most observers, pro and con, seem to agree that the test of the new regime is its land-reform law by which it hopes to abolish the Egyptian feudal system. Over the next five years the big estates, which maintained a handful of land barons in fabulous wealth, are to be broken up and sold to the peasants who actually farm them. No one is to be allowed to own more than two hundred acres of farm land; the surplus is to be distributed in five-acre lots to the landless. Pending expropriation at a fixed price, the big landowner may now charge only a fixed rent which is, in most cases, about half of what he had been extracting from the peasants.

1 saw the first distribution of these land titles, handed out by President Naguib himself on Liberation Day, and it was a moving sight to see the faces of these poor farmers who at last were to own farms of their own. However, any rich man in Egypt can produce figures to prove that when land reform is completed (and that won’t be for five years) it will still affect only about ten percent of the agricultural population.

Official figures also prove that the landless farm worker, ill-paid and illfed and ill-housed as he is, does rather better than the city worker who labors even more hours each week for even less money.

Disease a Political Problem

A typical family income in Egypt is about two hundred dollars a year, and prices are about as high as they are here—the basic food is wheat, and this year Egypt is buying a lot of Canadian wheat at Canadian prices. It’s true, of course, that the Egyptian can live on less; he needs no fuel to heat his mud hut, which he built himself, and he can and does get on with one garment, often a flannelette nightshirt. His diet averages twenty-three hundred calories a day, which is just about subsistence level.

Moreover his general health level is wretched. Three quarters of all Egyptians engaged in agriculture have bilharzia, a debilitating parasiticdisease which they contract by wading in their irrigation ditches. No really feasible method of controlling bilharzia has been devised. In addition the Egyptian suffers from the usual diseases endemic in a country where the drinking water is dipped out of the same irrigation canal which is the community’s only sewer.

Even accepting the Naguib regime as completely sincere and all its professions of concern with the people’s welfare as genuine, it is still a grave question whether they can relieve this frightful burden of misery and poverty and disease. Many people, even sympathetic people, think they will fail. The Revolutionary Council itself admits that the first effect of land reform will probably be a slight drop in the aggregate of production. The Egyptian landlord was a pretty useless character but he did at least provide the credit whereby the peasant got seed and fertilizer. This economic function has now been taken over by co-operatives which are still being organized.

Some observers gloomily predict that when the hopes of the poor go unfulfilled, and they remain hungry and ragged and ill as they have been for centuries, they will turn against Naguib

and let his enemies overthrow the republic. Others think the enthusiasm generated by the very gestures of the new regime, the abolition of titles and the attempt at land reform, will give it an amount of popular motive power that will carry it through.

But in either case, the British and Americans in Cairo seem agreed that the best policy for the West is to deal with General Naguib’s Government because, they all admit, the only possible alternatives seem a great deal worse. Naguib is at least attempting to clean up the mess of corruption, bribery, graft and incompetence that made the last years of King Farouk’s reign a nightmare.

Aside from the human fact that Naguib is attempting to do things for the Egyptian people which obviously ought to be done, there is the political fact of Suez. Agreement on that vital question may be difficult with Naguib, but it can hardly be less difficult with any probable successor.

The British point out, for example, that they have at least achieved agreement on the most fundamental question of all, namely that there should be a military base at Suez. This was by no means a foregone conclusion. There are plenty of isolationists in Egypt who argue that the base ought to be abolished entirely, and its two hundred million pounds’ worth of military installations destroyed. Suez is the only target, they argue, which would ever induce the Soviet Union to attack Egypt; remove Suez and Egypt could be safely neutral. This isolationist faction has been ignored by Naguib and his council, so far.

Egypt has also agreed to a second fundamental point, that the base should be maintained in full working order. In practice this means British technicians, several thousand of them, because Egypt has not yet enough skilled men to keep such a huge project going. Presumably these technicians would be under nominal Egyptian command but they would also, necessarily, have some responsibility to the government and parliament of Britain. There is no agreement yet on how many of these technicians should be retained, but the British anticipate no great difficulty in settling the matter.

The real difficulty, the core and kernel of the whole argument, is the right of full re-entry for British and American forces in time of emergency. The British say, and American military men emphatically agree, that the Suez base cannot be given up or even rendered doubtful if we expect to be able to meet a Russian attack on the Middle East. Troops wouldn’t have to be there all the time (they might, for example, be stationed in Libya under the terms of a new mutual-aid treaty just negotiated) but they would have to be sure of access to the base when they need it.

That’s where the negotiations seem to be stuck.

“The real trouble,” said a wellinformed American in Cairo, “is that we on our side have nothing to offer them that’s better than what they’ve got. The British talk about the ‘concessions’ they’re willing to make, and it’s true they’ll come a long way back from the terms of the present treaty. But that treaty has only three more years to run. After 1956 the British will have no title there at all. The Egyptians needn’t do anything but wait, and they can get all that they’re yelling for now in the Suez.”

Maybe that is the real nub of the problem,to find something to offer which is better than what they’ve got. With a country so desperately poor, and facing so many desperate human problems, that shouldn’t be impossible, if