Report from the Mediterranean tinderbox

After five weeks in the rebellion-torn Middle East a distinguished Maclean’s editor examines the men and the motives at war there

BLAIR FRASER August 16 1958

Report from the Mediterranean tinderbox

After five weeks in the rebellion-torn Middle East a distinguished Maclean’s editor examines the men and the motives at war there

BLAIR FRASER August 16 1958

Report from the Mediterranean tinderbox



After five weeks in the rebellion-torn Middle East a distinguished Maclean’s editor examines the men and the motives at war there


I write this without knowing when, how, or even whether I can get to Baghdad in the reasonably near future. Normally several planes a day fly there from Beirut in a couple of hours, but it's unlikely that things in Baghdad will be normal for some time to come.

From this or any distance it’s all too obvious that the coup in Iraq is a disaster for the West, even worse, if that is possible, than the tragedy of Suez twenty-one months ago. In the rather wobbly arch of Western defenses in the Middle East, Nuri Said's Iraq was the keystone—the lone Arab member of the Baghdad Pact ; the stronger partner in the pro-Western Arab Union that rivaled Nasser's United Arab Republic; the big brother who kept feeble little Jordan from being hopelessly surrounded, outnumbered and overborne.

But in addition to being a calamity in itself, the revolt in Iraq also adds a new dimension to the other crises of the Middle East and North Africa. Some are closely and directly related to it, as in the Lebanon ; others are remote and seemingly unrelated, as in Cyprus.

But all are affected, and for the worse.

Now, in the middle week of July, events here are moving so violently and unpredictably that newspaper headlines seldom keep up with the news between press and street. U.S. Marines are digging in at Beirut as I write.

A "liberation army" is reported forming in Jordan to march on Baghdad.

What happens here in the next few months will be of critical importance to the entire world. These developments may be more understandable in the light of what I've learned in the last forty days.

In the days just before Baghdad— and there is deadly irony in reporting it—an observer on the spot couldn't avoid the impression that the crisis was easing. It would have been too strong to say the outlook was cheerful,

Continued on page 47

Report from the Mediterranean tinderbox

continued from page 13

“Lebanon’s army could have put down the rebels in a day — if it wanted to. Why didn’t it?”

but in each trouble spot you could tind reason to hope that the most critical phase was over.

All the squabbles in the Mediterranean—and in the last tive weeks I've touched at all the troubled ground between Algeria and Lebanon — have two things m common:

1. No conceivable solution to any of them will content both sides, and no likely one will fully satisfy either.

2. All could be settled on terms that look fair to an outsider.

But for the first time—at least until the Baghdad uprising—the NATO alliance as a whole had found itself able to act as a friendly outsider in these quarrels. It had already done so in more than one case, to suggest though not to impose reasonable terms.

NATO had some share in the Western decision to stay* out of the political rat's nest in the Lebanon in the two months of desultory fighting that preceded Baghdad. But then the U. S.. witty Britain's backing, answered a plea from Lebanon while the question was still before the security council.

The core of dispute in the Lebanon is the man who invited the Marines— President Camille Chamoun. an able, personable, strikingly handsome man of fifty-eight who looks a little like John Bracken, the former Progressive Conservative leader. Chamoun and his foreign minister Charles Malik, both Christians of Arab descent, arc the most outspoken friends the West has in the Arab world—since the fall of old Nuri Said of Iraq, they are the only really consistent and reliable friends.

Chamoun wanted the world to think that this was the only reason why rebellion broke out in the Lebanon. He pictured it as less a revolt than an invasion from Nasser's Syria, backing those panArab nationalists in the Lebanon whose loyalty is to Nasser and his United Arab Republic. Maybe Chamoun himself believed this to be true. Maybe it would have become true if the American Sixth bleet hadn't quietly moved eastward, and if the British hadn't quietly stepped up their reinforcements to Cyprus, as silent warnings that invasion would not be tolerated. But in fact the invasion did not take place. It still hadn't taken place, m fact, when the U. S. Marines landed.

Even before the landing, the Lebanese army had tanks, aircraft, artillery, armored cars, all kinds of medium to heavy weapons, and the rebels did not. It was apparent that the Lebanese army could put down the rebellion, or at least drive it underground, in about twentyfour hours—if it wanted to. The question is. why didn't the army want to?

It's a political, not a military problem." a Lebanese MP explained. "This is really a religious dispute. Moslem against Christian, and the army is divided like the country, half and half. If Moslem soldiers took the Moslem side we'd have a real communal war here. Do you think the U. S. would send a mixture of white and Negro troops into a communal battle in the South? "

But if it is a religious dispute, why is the patriarch of the Maronite Catholics. the largest Christian sect in the Leba. on. hiding out with the rebels? His Beatitude the Most Rev. Paul Meouchi is a figure of considerable authority among Lebanese Christians. The patri-

arch told a reporter a few weeks ago: "Chamoun has half the Christians against him. and ninety-five percent of the Moslems."

Among the Lebanon's million and a half people are nearly a dozen religious

communities who have lived together, normally at peace but never w ithout some friction, for more than a thousand years. 1 his motley crowd has worked out. in the Lebanese constitution and tradition. a precarious equilibrium that no-

body wants to upset. The president must always be a Maronite Catholic, the prime minister a Sunni Moslem, cabinet and parliament a rigid assortment of other major faiths. All parties in the Lebanon. rebels as well as government support -

ers, deny any wish to change this system.

But the government did give indications, as long ago as early 1957, of a plan that would change it indirectly, in fact if not in name. By amending the constitution (which can be done by a two-thirds vote in parliament) Chamoun could stand for a second six-year term as president. He got his two-thirds majority a year ago after an election distinguished by intimidation, bribery and every kind of political skulduggery. The opposition at once inferred that he was trying to perpetuate his own rule. Even

people who are backing Chamoun against the rebels don’t like the idea of his standing for a second term.

But until the last minute, within a fortnight of the date when parliament was required by law to meet for election of a new president, Chamoun himself had not stated flatly and publicly that he had no intention of trying for a second term. Even then, some people wondered whether he meant the statement, when it came, to be public—he made it in a conversation with one reporter alone, after having evaded the

same question at an open press conference a few days before.

Privately, Chamoun had been making this denial all along, to official visitors. Even more privately, some of the official visitors had preferred not to believe him. They thought that if he really meant his denial he’d have made it in public, and thus removed a principal cause of the rebellion—the sole cause, rebels still say. But in the press of the Lebanon, every reference to a successor in the presidency is still carefully censored out.

The most extreme among rebel lead ers protest that they want nothing bu an “independent" Lebanon. They wan to depose Chamoun, abandon his polie of all-out support of the West, reston the Lebanon to "its traditional neutral ity." It’s not hard to see whom they’t be neutral against, but they no longe admit any bias — Nasser is a "distin guished Arab leader,” but that is all Incidentally the rebel leaders all disdain any intention of standing for the presi dency themselves. They are all Mos lems, and they all applaud the "nationa tradition" that the president must be ; Maronite Christian.

Few' listeners believe this pious talk but it does make several things clear One, the rebels no longer think thaï pan-Arab nationalism is good politics ir the Lebanon. They thought they woulc sweep the country in last year’s election no matter what Chamoun might do tc rig it. 7’hey failed, and they know it I herefore, if the end of the Lebanese revolt is a political settlement, any early move toward a pan-Arab, Nasserite empire is highly unlikely.

One fairly obvious settlement would be to make a president out of General Fuad Shehab, the Lebanese Army commander. The rebels say they want him —indeed, he’s the only man they ever mention as a proper successor to Chamoun. The government backers have not said they don’t want him, though they shy off any discussion of the presidency as much as they can. Shehab is a Maronite Christian, he isn’t a committed supporter of either Nasser or Khrushchev or John Foster Dulles. In months of fantastic political crisis, he has managed not to make any implacable enemies. Whatever his other qualities, these alone are not unimpressive.

What compromise, if it is not now too late for compromise, will end the Lebanese squabble is not yet apparent, though it may appear any day. The chances are it will contain some things the West wotdd rather not have — neutralism at best for the Lebanon, even if not an outright swing to Nasser and the Soviet camp.

There is better hope for a workable compromise in the new British plan for Cyprus. NAIO had a part in this, though not an originating part — the idea of governing Cyprus on a two-community basis was wholly British, in concept and in detail. NATO’s role was just moral support, the pressure of friendly outsiders on two disputants to settle their quarrel. Whether this effort will be effective, it’s too soon to say.

Cyprus is now, as it has been for four years, a sad place to visit—all the more sad for being so beautiful. The little island looks like the very symbol of peace and rural contentment—blue skies, olivegreen hills, quaint little Greek and Turkish villages and almost equally quaint little British-colonial towms.

In fact it takes nearly forty thousand British troops to keep the peace in that peaceful-looking island, and even they can’t quite do it. They are not green troops: they include battalions of guards and paratroopers. They seem to be everywhere all the time, fully armed, laden with radio gear and mine detectors, patrolling village and field as well as city street without pause. On a drive from Nicosia to the lovely seaside village of Kyrenia, a matter of fifteen miles or so,

I passed half a dozen British patrols.

And yet, strangely, all this surveillance and military force gives a milder impression, smacks less of the police state, than a much lower pitch of it did in 1956. In those days the British themselves

were divided, and the NATO alliance even more so, about their right to be in Cyprus at all. they had an uneasy conscience, and you could feel it. Some said they had to be there for their own security, and ours. Others said that Cyprus as a military base was obsolete, and that in any case a great power had no right using territory against the will of the people who live there.

Now that argument has died down. Suez proved that the critics were at least partly right — Cyprus turned out to be not much help, even for such a minor operation as Suez. Also, the Greek government for one (and the Turks give no sign of dissent on this point) now says it will let Britain keep her present naval bases in Cyprus on a long-term lease, anywhere up to a century. In short. Britain no longer has any selfish interest in remaining in Cyprus, and this gives the place a different air.

The British now are there to keep order and nothing else, to hold the Greeks and Turks from each other's throats until they work out some kind of settlement between themselves. The British think their own idea of two-community government — tw;o parliaments, two electorates, tw'o administrations for schools and churches and all such purely community affairs—comes closer to a fair deal than anything yet suggested, but they would take anything on which Greeks and Turks could agree. All the Cypriots have to do is—agree.

This is a position in which not only Britain but all the w-cstcrn partners of NATO can join with whole hearts, and they do. When the British delayed announcement of their plan at NATO’s request it was to give the other allies time to do all they could to persuade Greece and Turkey to accept it. The effort failed at the time and show's no sign yet of succeeding. but it has not been abandoned and it won't be.

The fourth crisis in the Mediterranean is different—far graver. This is the crisis of Algeria which is the crisis of France. Here, all agree, the best thing for NATO to do is stay away and keep quiet. Hard things have to be done in Algeria. It may be impossible to do them at all. and it will certainly be impossible if anyone suspects, or can even pretend, that they are being forced upon France from abroad.

In spite of all the proclamations and all the new faces, the surface of life in Algiers hasn’t altered much since the •revolution” of May I?. The same men continue to run things in much the same way. Newspapers legally published in Paris continue to be seized here, two or three times a week, by the men who most vehemently insist that Algeria is "an integral part of France." Many new things

have been predicted and some have been announced, but very few so far have taken place. What has changed is the mood, the atmosphere.

I wasn’t in Algiers for De Gaulle’s first visit in June, but all accounts say that the welcome was hysterical — triumphant thousands, cheering the new leader and the new day. 1 did see his second arrival, and whatever else you’d call it. it certainly wasn't hysterical. It wasn't hostile either—the people turned out to see him. and they did cheer—but the mood was one of reserve. And among the upper

echelons in Algeria, they had reason to be cool.

General De Gaulle does not confide in reporters: we saw him only at a respectful distance, only on public occasions. and we were warned to ask no questions. What follows, though, comes from a good source:

De Gaulle's first act on his second arrival in Algeria was to put the political colonels on the defensive in the most effective way possible—by sharp criticism of their work as soldiers. Why were so many of their four hundred thousand

troops so far behind the lines? Why were so few actually fighting the rebels and so many acting as guards, policemen, shopkeepers, bureaucrats and schoolmasters?

Officially, the division between combat and ancillary troops in Algeria is supposed to be fifty-fifty: half fighters and half administrators and housekeeping personnel. In fact the proportion is more like one to ten. according to shrewd observers who live in the country. They say that for every French soldier fighting, nine are occupied with some sort of duty

“If De Gaulle tells Massu to shoot Salan (who has been ruler of Algeria) Massu will do it”

behind the lines. The men carrying the main burden of combat are the paratroops, two divisions of superb fighting quality, perhaps the best front-line soldiers in the world today. They would hardly be offended to hear embarrassing questions put to their chairborne colleagues. Moreover, their commander. General Jacques Massu, is said to be completely loyal and devoted to General Charles de Gaulle.

“Massu is a cowboy," said one sardonic acquaintance. "He is not very bright. But one thing about him, he is honest and he is very brave, and he will do anything at all that De Gaulle tells him. if De Gaulle tells him to shoot General Salan (who has been running Algeria since the insurrection of May 13) Massu will do it.”

At the end of De Gaulle's second visit, therefore, even rather skeptical observers were encouraged to think he had made a start on the first urgent task in Algeria: the restoration of civil authority over an army that has been openly rebellious for two months and tacitly rebellious for nearly two years.

I he same observers were even further encouraged when De Gaulle snubbed the committees of public safety, Algeria's self-appointed rulers since May 13. De Gaulle refused to see them at all. Too busy, he said.

There are yet other reasons for being encouraged. De Gaulle has announced and set in motion some overdue reforms —equal voting rights for Moslems, including women: expansion of the housing and slum-clearance program which is already vastly more impressive in Algeria than in any other Arab country; more and better schools; and so on.

These things are forbiddingly expensive. France is already spending more than a hundred and fifty million dollars a year on such civilian projects in Algiers, and De Gaulle announced that this will rise immediately to nearly two hundred millions. His plans for the farther future will of course cost even more. But even now, France is spending almost a billion dollars a year on her North African "province” when military outlays are reckoned in the total. The official estimate of what the French could save in their defense budget if the war in Algeria were ended is seven hundred and fifty million dollars a year. Obviously, then, they can spend a lot of money on a peaceful Algeria and still save money in the end.

But can De Gaulle bring peace to Algeria? All his moves so far have been mere preliminaries to that central and formidable task. In Cairo and in Tunis I talked with the official spokesmen of the rebel FLN—Front de Libération Nationale. (In Algiers, of course, no contact with the rebels is possible.)

These men assured me in the strongest language that no compromise of negotiation is possible. They insist the arrival of De Gaulle makes no difference whatever: that they arc fighting on for nothing less than total independence.

However, I was less interested in what these professional talkers had to say than in what they looked like. They do not look like what they claim to be—the favored darlings of Egypt and Tunisia. In Cairo they occupy a suite of dim and dingy offices above a stamp-dealer's shop; in Tunis a rather similar layout in a block of fiats. In both, large numbers of sh-irtsleeved young men sit around sorting

papers, drinking coffee and talking to each other. In neither does the visitor feel that he is in the presence of a well-financed, well-organized international movement.

Lately the FLN had been talking of proclaiming an Algerian "government in exile,” but while I was in Cairo they produced something much less pretentious^—a list of rebel leaders who would be "responsible” for certain fields of activity, defense or foreign affairs as the case might be, but who made up no more than a kind of leadership committee. The reason for not calling them a government was an open secret: they knew they would not be recognized as such, even in Tunisia and perhaps not even in Egypt.

De Gaulle is the reason. He was able, in his first few weeks in office, to do something the palsied Fourth Republic was never able to do—make an agreement with President Habib Bourguiba on the withdrawal of French troops from Tunisia. De Gaulle could do this for the same reason Eisenhower could make peace in Korea where Truman couldn't: because his prestige and the trust he enjoyed permitted him to accept terms his predecessors would not have dared accept.

As a result, there is sound reason to hope that Bourguiba may now be on De Gaulle’s side. Negotiation with Moslem Algeria may be possible. Negotiation with the fascist-minded “ultras" among the French in Algeria will probably not be possible, but it may not be necessary. The ultras are the noisiest, and have been able to appear the strongest, group among the French colons. But men like Jacques Chevallier, the brilliant and liberal mayor of Algiers who was forced to resign with most of his city council by the committee of public safety in June, are not as rare in Algeria as they have lately appeared to be. If Chevallier runs again for mayor his friends say he will be reelected easily—mostly by Moslem votes, they admit, but with French support too. They estimate that at least a fifth and perhaps a quarter of all Algerian Frenchmen hold the same moderate views as Chevallier. These are the men who believe that the only way to peace is cooperation. and that the only basis of co-operation is to give the Moslems some control over their own affairs.

This would mean not the integration by which nine million Moslems would be outnumbered by fifty million Frenchmen, but an autonomous Algeria in which the nine million Moslems would themselves outnumber the million French. In the long run, of course, it would mean independence. But the moderates believe that Algerian Moslems, no matter what the FLN may say in Cairo, do not want a complete break with France. For one thing, it would mean complete economic disaster — among the million French colons are perhaps a hundred thousand technicians and executives who are quite

literally irreplaceable in Algeria today.

Perhaps it is not yet too late, even though it seems to be, for a friendly association among a free Algeria, a free Tunisia, a free Morocco and a France which has in fact done many good things for all three countries.

The French ultras in Algeria would never agree to this or anything remotely like it. If the army is as firmly on their side as they think it is, they may continue to be able to veto any compromise and perpetuate the hideous waste of blood and effort that Algeria has been exacting for four years. But the army may not be on their side. The army has equitable complaints of its own against the politicians of the Fourth Republic— not only the "betrayal” in Indo-China; not only indecision and half-measures in Algeria; but also such homely grievances as political interference with army promotions. Names of officers, even quite junior officers, have been scratched off promotion lists by politicians whom the army men offended. Names have been added to the same lists, too. names of the nephews and friends and friends-offriends of French ministers and MPs.

This kind of thing De Gaulle will undoubtedly stop. So far there is no reason to doubt that the army trusts De Gaulle, not only to right its own wrongs but also to make no terms that are anything but honorable to France; make no terms that will waste the blood the army has shed in Algeria.

I)e Gaulle's surprise assets

But De Gaulle could fulfil that trust and still go much farther than the ultras of Algeria want him to go. He could go farther than any man living, in fact, if he should choose to do so—just because he has such a reputation for being stubbornly, unalterably, unreasonably French.

Thus it may be that the very things about De Gaulle that most worried the NATO allies in April and May will prove his greatest assets.

De Gaulle didn’t think much of NATO. He has said publicly that the NATO alliance makes France an American protectorate without giving her any protection. As late as March he was still speaking in private with contemptuous hostility of the whole North Atlantic Treaty Organization. But since he came to power he has been unexpectedly moderate; all his utterances have been reassuring.

Even so. one NATO official remarked, “He’s sure to make a nuisance of himself. In fact, he’s doing so already.”

But I can remember a conversation in Chicago after the Republican convention of 1952 when Eisenhower beat Senator Taft for the nomination; a group of us were talking of what a good thing it was that the isolationist Taft had been defeated and the great internationalist had won. There was only one dissenter among us, a British reporter. "What I would like to see.” he said, “is Robert Taft as president of the U. S. and Aneurin Bevan as prime minister of Great Britain.

"They would find they had to co-operate just as closely as Eisenhower and Churchill will—they’d have no choice. But then they would know, and everybody would know, that this is inescapable. They would know that we’re not in double harness because we like it but because there is no other way to get along. And that might be a good thing.”

Something like that is happening now in the NATO alliance, and in the Middle East. And. as the man said, it may be a good thing, it