Histomat: Adventures in Historical Materialism

'Historical materialism is the theory of the proletarian revolution.' Georg Lukács

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Remembering 1956 #3: The invasion of Egypt

Fifty years ago today, on 29 October 1956, Israeli forces - backed by Britain and France - crossed into Sinai desert as the first part of a plan for the West to 'topple' Egyptian nationalist leader Colonel Nasser. In July Nasser had nationalised the Suez Canal, which, after all, was in Egypt and had been built by Egyptians. As Egyptian troops rushed to engage the invaders, Britain and France made their demands for a ceasefire. The first British bombs were falling on Cairo by nightfall on 31 October. Six days later British and French paratroopers landed at Port Said at the mouth of the Canal. These events marks the start of what is euphemistically in the West remembered as the 'Suez Crisis', but really should be remembered as a colonial war, the Western invasion of an African state. Yet it was certainly to throw the British Empire into crisis - as historian Anne Alexander notes:

'With the regular [Egyptian] army in disarray as it retreated before the Israeli advance, the city [Port Said] was poorly defended. Here the strategy of popular resistance would be put to the test. According to Fathallah Mahrus:

There was no army to fight in Port Said, just some individuals and a few soldiers and small units. So the popular resistance against the invasion was led by the people of Port Said—women and children as well—armed with cooking pans, kitchen knives, walking sticks and anything they could find...

The ferocity of the resistance in Port Said was a grave setback for British and French plans. British officials had convinced themselves that Nasser was a hated dictator, and that the Egyptian people would welcome his defeat and overthrow. But as Fathallah Mahrus explains:

It wasn’t about Nasser, it was about our homeland. The imperialists wanted to reoccupy our country, and the invasion was over the nationalisation of the Suez Canal Company which was an imperialist company. And we forgot about what Nasser did to us, and we forgot our differences with him and the prisons and the camps and the torture because there was a common danger and a single enemy: imperialism which wanted to occupy Egypt.' The resistance won.

The lessons of Suez are then hopefully clear enough:

Fifty years ago Britain, France and Israel launched an invasion of Egypt. Their aim was to seize the recently nationalised Suez Canal. All three feared and hated the forces of Arab nationalism symbolised by Egypt’s President Nasser. As with Iraq the decision to invade split the British ruling class down the middle. There was widespread opposition to the attack. With the US refusing to support the invasion and the pound facing collapse, [Conservative] British prime minister Anthony Eden agreed to withdraw.

Even if the invasion plan had succeeded it is difficult to see how an occupation would have lasted. Britain had been forced out of the canal zone by a guerrilla campaign two years earlier. As with Iraq today, initial military success would have collapsed into ultimate defeat.

There is one huge difference in the parallel between Iraq and Suez. Fifty years ago, after some initial hesitation, Labour organised a massive rally against the war in Trafalgar Square. Eden resigned 18 days after the final British troops evacuated Suez. Tony Blair may have lasted longer than Eden - but he will be identified with catastrophe in Iraq as much as Eden is remembered for leading the British Empire to its final death throes.

Yes, that is right - the Labour Party organised a huge anti-war protest in Trafalgar Square under the banner 'Law not War'. As Stan Newens, then a young revolutionary socialist, remembered:

'With the prospect of armed intervention imminent, the Suez Emergency Committee booked Trafalgar Square for an anti-war rally on Sunday 4 November. I was in touch with Peggy Rushton, the MCF [Movement for Colonial Freedom] general secretary, by phone with the object of helping to mobilise support. On Thursday 1 November, when I phoned, she informed me that the Labour Party had been on the line to take over the booking actually, on behalf of the National Council of Labour, representing the TUC and the co-operative movement as well. I was delighted that she had already agreed and carried on with my plans to rally protesters. In addition, using the Epping CLP duplicator, I copied 6,000 leaflets drafted by myself and my Socialist Review colleagues, calling on workers to strike against the Suez intervention.

The Trafalgar Square rally turned out to be a seminal event in British Labour history. My 6,000 leaflets, which a crowd of dockers helped us to distribute, disappeared in a flash. All afternoon people were pouring into the square until it was impossible to move. At the height of the proceedings, a great chant went up in the north western corner of the square as a massive column of student demonstrators began to come in and went on endlessly.

"One, two, three, four! We won’t fight in Eden’s war", they chanted. The whole square and its environs were engulfed in a vast array of protesters who were jammed in tight. The sense of mass solidarity in a just cause held us spellbound and instilled in us all a common will to carry our protest forward.

At the end of the protest speeches, part of the crowd made for Whitehall, perhaps hoping to besiege Downing Street, and bitter clashes with the police followed in which 27 people were arrested. It was clear that the rally had awakened many thousands from their apathy and fired them as well as the pre-committed with an unbending determination to oppose British intervention in Suez.'

The same day of the protest - Sunday 4th November - saw the news come through of the Stalinist suppression of the Hungarian Revolution. Newens remembers that 'in Trafalgar Square Mike Kidron, a fellow Socialist Review supporter, told me (as he had left home much later) that the Russians were apparently going in to crush the uprising in Hungary...' Michael Rosen also remembers this vividly, as he noted earlier this month:

'I was with my CP [Communist Party] parents in Trafalgar Square to call for Britain out of Suez, when one of their Party comrades appeared and announced 'They've gone in. The tanks have gone in.' I was ten years old and thought that he meant that the tanks had gone into Port Said or Cairo or somewhere. Then he said, 'They're in Budapest' and I had no idea what they were talking about. I could see that it was utterly traumatic for the cluster of CP-ers I was looking up to (hoho) all around me'.

For more on the Communist Party Historians and 1956, see here

From the Suez Crisis to the crisis in Sudan

Yet the main lesson of Suez [invasion + occupation = war crimes + racism + poverty] still seems to miss too many people by today. Even after news that Blair's most trusted military commander thinks that NATO's attempted conquest of Afghanistan is 'cuckoo', and Iraq looks like it may be a worse defeat for the US Empire than even Vietnam was, there is still this notion that armed force by the West or 'international community' can bring liberation. These ideas are usually tied up with the whole notion of reformism - the idea that the capitalist state or capitalist states can be part of the solution, somehow. Hilary Benn enters the race for deputy leader of the Labour Party with a declaration that he wants to 'fight for social justice and peace in the world'. This sounds good, but given Hilary Benn's support for war on Afghanistan and Iraq, such a statement is slightly ominous. Even on the anti-war Labour Left, last month John McDonnell argued for armed UN intervention in Sudan, despite acknowledging that 'the role of the US and Britain in the Middle East has largely destroyed the credibililty of Bush and Blair internationally in being capable of leading a peace initiative'.

There are parallels here - of a sort - with the Labour Left over Suez, which was somewhat weakened by its leader, Shadow Foreign Secretary Nye Bevan, whose line over the whole disastrous war was very soft. As he put it in 1956, Nasser’s nationalisation of the Suez canal was not about social justice but theft: 'If the sending of one’s police and soldiers into the darkness of night to seize somebody else’s property is nationalisation, then Ali Baba used the wrong terminology'.

One group of people who should really hold their tongues during the anniversary of the Suez war are the self-styled 'decent Left' who support Bush and Blair's bloody 'war on terror'. Yet, today, Nick Cohen is still calling for a new war to be waged against 'genocidal states'. By genocidal states does he mean the US, the UK, or perhaps Israel? No, their genocidal past and present is not what concerns Cohen. He calls for a new war of the West against the people of Sudan, which as Richard Seymour has noted, would only make a tragic situation even worse. Those wanting to learn the real lessons of Suez should be demanding American and British troops do not get sent to occupy even more countries - but come home immediately. Otherwise, they will all eventually be coming home anyway - only in bodybags.

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