Middle East History: It Happened in July; Nasser Comes to Power in Egypt, Frightening Britain, France and Israel

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MIDDLE EAST HISTORY: IT HAPPENED IN JULY; Nasser Comes to Power in Egypt, Frightening Britain, France and Israel

By Donald Neff

It was 44 years ago, on July 23, 1952, that corrupt King Farouk of Egypt, an Albanian on his paternal side, was overthrown by a group of young military men calling themselves the Free Officers. The next day, one of the officers, Anwar Sadat, informed the nation by radio that for the first time in two thousand years Egypt was under the rule of Egyptians. Sadat spoke in the name of General Mohammed Neguib, the revolution's titular head. In fact, the real leader was gamal Abdel Nasser. He was 34 at the time and would rule Egypt for the next 18 turbulent years. Because of his youth, Nasser hid his power behind the older Neguib for the first two years of the new regime. It was not until 1954 that he officially became prime minister and not until June 23, 1956, that he assumed the presidency. 1

The coming to power in Egypt of the energetic young warrior sent shockwaves through Britain, France and Israel. Leaders in all three countries feared him as a galvanizing ruler who had the potential to unify the shattered Arab world at the expense of the West and Israel. As Israel's David Ben-Gurion put it: "I always feared that a personality might rise such as arose among the Arab rulers in the seventh century or like [Kemal Ataturk] who rose in Turkey after its defeat in the First World War. He raised their spirits, changed their character, and turned them into a fighting nation. There was and still is a danger that Nasser is this man." 2

Britain and France held similar concerns. The rise of a strong Arab leader could not have come at a worse time for both nations. Drained by World War II, they were both in the process of losing their vast colonial empires. Both countries had already lost their mandates in the Middle East and both were desperately trying to maintain their influence in North Africa.

Nasser, above all else, wanted Egypt rid of British troops stationed along the Suez Canal, London's passage to India. In 1954, Britain finally gave in to Nasser's demand and agreed to withdraw its 80,000 British troops since, indeed, there no longer existed any reason for their presence. India was now independent and the canal had lost its strategic importance to Britain. 3 The troops had been there since 1882 and their departure, the last foreign troops on Egyptian soil, was an enormous boost to Nasser's prestige. The historic agreement meant, in British diplomat Anthony Nutting's words: "For the first time in two and a half thousand years the Egyptian people would know what it was to be independent and not to be ruled or occupied or told what to do by some foreign power." 4

Israel, however, was greatly distressed by the agreement. The presence of British troops along the canal acted as a buffer against any rash action by Egypt, Israel's strongest Arab neighbor. Israel was so disturbed by the withdrawal that it had acted directly to ruin the talks by sending a sabotage team to Egypt to attack British and U.S. facilities. However, the covert effort backfired when Egyptian counterintelligence agents captured the spy ring and the embarrassing mission known as the Lavon Affair became public. 5

The Anglo-Egyptian Suez agreement was reached Oct. 19, 1954 and was widely regarded as a strategic defeat for Britain. Two weeks later, on Nov. 1, Algerian Arabs, their morale boosted by Nasser's success, began their revolt against French colonial rule, which dated back to 1830. One of the many results of the insurrection was to convince France and Britain that Egypt, and specifically Nasser, was aiding the Algerians and therefore a dangerous common enemy of the West. 6 France had long seen Israel as a natural ally against the Arabs, and indeed was Israel's major friend at the time. The close friendship included France secretly sending weapons to the Jewish state in violation of the arms embargo agreed to by Western nations, including the United States. …