Backstage

Backstage

Our Suez plan: anything but force

BLAIR FRASER November 10 1956
Backstage

Backstage

Our Suez plan: anything but force

BLAIR FRASER November 10 1956

Backstage

Our Suez plan: anything but force

BLAIR FRASER

Canadian popularity in London and Paris has been sharply depleted by the argument over the Suez Canal. In both capitals and at home, Canadians have been startled by the bitterness and ferocity among normally reasonable people.

A Frenchman, who in the past has been almost a pacifist, told a visiting Canadian: "We should

have landed troops the very day this scoundrel Nasser seized the canal company.” Similar and even stronger fire-breathing can be heard in London. Canada, for refusing to applaud a “firm” policy and for applauding instead the appeal to the United Nations Security Council, is thought to have let down the West in general and the Commonwealth in particular.

At lunch one day in Ottawa a very intelligent Englishman asked whether Canada would be willing to send troops if Britain should decide, as he thought she might even yet, to use force in the Suez Canal zone. If not, he added, Canada’s refusal would mean "the end of the Commonwealth as we have known it.”

History is against him on this latter point. As long ago as 1885, when Britain was helping the khédive of Egypt put down an insurrection in the Sudan, the Gladstone government asked if Canada would send some troops to help. The request met a rude snub from that patriotic “British subject,” Sir John A. Macdonald.

"We think the time has not arrived, nor the occasion, for our volunteering military aid to the Mother Country,” John A. wrote to the Canadian high commissioner in London, Sir Charles Tupper. “The Suez Canal is nothing to us . . . Why should we waste money and men in this wretched business? England is not at war . . . Our men and money would be sacrificed to get Gladstone and Co. out of the hole they have plunged themselves into by their own imbecility.”

Nowadays the Government of Canada would be more polite, or mealy-mouthed, but Sir John A. Macdonald’s words arc still a fair summary of the Canadian position.

To Canadian spokesmen the idea of responding with military force to Colonel Nasser’s seizure of the canal company sounded like sheer hysteria. They were sure it would smash, not save, the Commonwealth—drive out Pakistan and India anyway, even if the older members stayed in. They were equally sure it would get no support anywhere in the world, and that it would be impossible to justify.

Nasser's act may well have been illegal, as the British argue, but if so it was the breach of a rather fine point of law. The international convention of 1888, which Nasser is accused of violating, is mainly a guarantee that the canal shall be kept open at all times. Nasser has not closed the canal. At the time of writing, contrary to the predictions of the British and French pilots who were called off their jobs by the company, the canal is still operating normally.

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Backstage at Ottawa continued from page 10

"In the Suez crisis the Canadian government is certain what it is against - not what it is for"

What Nasser did violate was a concession. or franchise, given by the pasha of Egypt in 1856 to the Suez Canal Company, which does not expire until 1968. No other countries signed this document, and neither party has carried out all of its complicated stipulations to the letter. In one sentence of the preamble to the international convention of 1888, it mentions "completing the arrangements” for the concession of 1856. Ihis bit of fine print is the principal basis for the charge that Nasser’s act was "illegal” — hardly the kind of crime that nations go to war about.

Of course there are older and better reasons for going to war than a breach of the letter of the law, and the oldest and best is self-defense. Britain argues that the Suez Canal is absolutely vital to her national security.

But Canadian spokesmen point out that physically the Suez Canal situation has not changed at all. Even before the canal company was nationalized, Egypt had the physical power to refuse transit to any ships she wanted to keep out of the canal. She has been using that physical power ever since 1948—in defiance of Britain, the canal company and the UN Security Council, and in open violation of the 1888 convention —to keep out ships bound to or from Israel.

What do we do now?

Britain protested, the Security Council protested, but nobody did anything to force Egypt to heed. Egypt has always had no less power to close the canal to any other ships; Britain and the United Nations have no less power today than they had before to compel her to keep it open.

Far more than these lawyers’ arguments, though, Canadians have relied on the point that no resort to force can be justified except by the needs of selfdefense or a decision of the United Nations. Unlike the United States, Canada argued from the very outset that the case should be laid before the Security Council. But now that this has been done, Canadians are just as baffled as the British or the French about what should be done next. The Canadian government was quite certain what it was against—it was against the use of force, it is not certain just what it is for.

What makes the Suez crisis so hard to assess is that, on both sides, emotional factors are just as important as material factors.

Anyone can understand the emotional factors on the Egyptian side. In 1888, when the much-debated convention was signed, Egypt had already been occupied for six years by British troops. They came ostensibly to help the Khedive put down an insurrection; they stayed to prop him on his throne. Altogether they stayed for more than seventy years—not until 1954 did Britain agree to withdraw troops from the Suez Canal zone.

On top of the chronic humiliation of being occupied by a foreign power, Egypt had several acute and specific humiliations as well. One came in 1942, when the British (for urgent reasons of military necessity) threw a cordon of tanks around King Farouk's palace and ordered that tubby monarch to dismiss his prime minister and call another one who would be more reliably pro-British and anti-Nazi. Another came in 1948. when Egypt was disgracefully beaten by her tiny neighbor Israel; Egyptian soldiers found they had ammunition that wouldn’t fit, guns that wouldn’t shoot, both having been supplied by grafting hangers-on of that same pliable proallied government.

Things like that leave hate behind them, and a longing for acts of bold defiance. When the United States announced on July 19 that Egypt’s economy no longer justified the loans and grants that would have built the high dam at Aswan, Egypt’s leader could hardly afford to let the insult go by. For political as well as personal reasons he had to retaliate. He had evidently been saving the nationalization of the Suez Canal for just such a moment.

Britain and France have emotional factors on their side too. Britain had just withdrawn from the Suez Canal zone over the bitter protests of die-hard imperialist Tories. The Tory government’s excuse was that this voluntary withdrawal would be the start of a new friendly comradeship with the new free Egypt. Nasser’s act was therefore more than an affront, it was a double cross in British eyes.

Already Britain had had a lot to swallow. Even the graceful withdrawal from India nine years ago seemed a cowardly retreat to some; the seizure of British oil in Iran, the expulsion of a British general from the British pensioner-state Jordan, the embarrassing and bloody stalemate in Cyprus where British security seemed to collide with British principles — all these contributed to a mood of resentment and exasperation. Britain's leaders too were more or less compelled to be bellicose.

As for the French, they had been smarting for years under their allies’ disapproval of their colonial rule in North Africa and Indo-China. Nasser’s coup seemed to them proof positive of the iniquity of Arabs in general and Egyptians in particular, an occasion that should unite all right-thinking civilized people against them and on the side of the French.

It united the French, anyway. For the first time in human memory all Frenchmen seemed to be of one mind. Temporarily it brought a unique strength to the Mollet government — but if this unity were to have no effect, no result, w-hat then? Obviously the blame for failure would be shared by Premier Mollet and his followers on the one hand, and the United States and NATO on the other.

For all these reasons and more, Canadians agreed that Nasser must not be allowed to “get away with it.’’ Somehow, by measures short of war. he must be made to repent his rash conduct—and others who might be moved to imitate him, or worse, must be warned off.

Somehow—but how?

So long as the Egyptians were able to operate the canal, the American idea of a “Users’ Association” was unlikely to have much practical effect. If the experienced British and French pilots proved to be as indispensable as they thought they were, then their withdrawal would have the effect of a boycott or a strike. But if. as Canada suspected from the outset, a competent skipper could learn the tricks of Suez in a matter of weeks or months, the Users’ Association would become a sourgrapes society.

Other economic pressures, including withdrawal of United States foreign aid. might have more effect. However, a tooblatant effort to starve Egypt into submission might have some of the drawbacks of military action—-make Nasser a national martyr as well as a national hero.

The ideal solution would be one that would compel Nasser to negotiate, and compel him to accept some international control of the canal, but still leave him some appearance of free will. Anyone who can think of any way of doing this will find an eager and grateful audience in Ottawa. ★