In Port Tawfiq, a suburb of the city of Suez, I watch the ships go by. Small children are playing on the grass in the square beside the mosque. Decorous courting couples, groups of young men and girls are chatting and taking pictures of the huge tankers and container ships from Germany, Russia, Sweden, which ply their way along the Suez Canal, just some fifty metres behind them. I walk along the corniche and take pictures. The usual ” Hello, well-come”, “Where are you from?”, “What is your name?”. A group of teenagers take their picture with me. But here there is little hassle as Suez and Port Tawfiq have the canal, jobs and money and do not depend on tourists.
The Suez Crisis. 1956. The year of my birth. One of the watersheds of the 20th century. The Suez Crisis, not my birth. The building of the canal, which would secure a passage to the Indian Ocean and the Far East, was part of the modernization plan of Mohammed Ali, ruler of Egypt from 1805 to 1848, and the canal, built by under French supervision, was opened in 1869. His spendthrift son, Khedive Ismail, was forced to sell his controlling share in the canal to the British government, and then British pressure forced him to abdicate. The British presence annoyed many Egyptian army officers, and in 1882 the British army invaded Alexandria under the pretence of restoring order. The heirs of Mohammed Ali were allowed to remain on the throne as puppets, while the real power was with the British agent. Thus Egypt became a protectorate of Britain despite it being nominally part of the Ottoman Empire. Indeed, this position was made official in the First World War, as the Ottoman Empire fought on the side of Germany. In the Second World War Egypt was a strategic base for the Allied forces, and Egyptian nationalists even saw Germany as a possible liberator.
On 26 January 1952, after years of demonstrations against British rule in Egypt, Cairo was set on fire as foreign shops and businesses were torched by mobs, and symbols of British rule were destroyed. King Farouk, supported by the British, assumed that the army would support the monarchy, but he was wrong. A faction within the officers, the Free Officers, led by Colonel Gamal Abel Nasser, moved on key posts, and by the next day the monarchy had fallen.
In elections held in 1956 Nasser became President. Landowners were dispossessed, and many of their assets were nationalised. The large foreign community felt uncomfortable, and most of the Jews, Greeks, French and British left. In the same year, when Britain and the US refused to help Nasser to finance his project to build the Aswan Dam, he nationalised the symbol of western dominance, the Suez Canal, in which France and Britain were the major shareholders, with British troops patrolling its banks.
When Nasser seized control of the Suez Canal, the British Prime Minister, Sir Anthony Eden was appalled as he regarded Nasser as a dictator whose claim to represent all Arabs was a direct threat to British interests in the Middle East and was determined to make Nasser reverse his decision by force if necessary. Britain plotted with France and Israel to gain back control of the canal. Israel would invade Egypt, allowing Britain and France to issue an ultimatum to each side to stop fighting or they would intervene to “save” the canal.
The invasion took place as planned. But Eden had not informed the Americans, and when they found out, they were concerned about wider relations with the Arab world and refused to back the operation. Desperately short of funds as Britain was still paying off debts from the Second World War, and without the financial support from the Americans, the British were forced to pull out of Suez by December 1956. Eden resigned, and Nasser became a hero of the Arab world, at least until 1967, when Israel defeated Egypt in the six-day war.
It was also the end of Britain as a major power on the world stage, and from now on Britain would follow more closely the words of Winston Churchill: “We must never get out of step with the Americans – never.” By contrast, France began to distance itself from Britain and the US.
The policies of Nasser, and his successor, Anwar Sadat, were greatly influenced by the Soviet Union, and the Egyptian economy has been stagnant for a number of years. Many foreign businesses left in the 1950s, and many more highly-educated young Egyptians have left since then. Of all the groups of Egyptians in the US, the Egyptians are the most highly-qualified. In recent years many have also left to work in the newly rich Gulf States. For a while all university graduates were guaranteed a state job, resulting in an over-heavy state sector of poorly-paid office workers, who often have to depend on other forms of income.
I get an idea of this on a visit to the Central Post Office in Cairo to post some books. I am ushered behind the counter. I ask the price to send five kilos of books to the UK. A supervisor tells me about £E25 (5.5 Egyptian pounds = US$1). Another supervisor checks the books to make sure they don’t contain hashish. The packer makes up a nice parcel. I then fill in a lot of forms, and they weigh in at just under three kilos. They then go to the counter attendant, who gives me the price of express post by air, £E 251. Too expensive, I say, what about the slow mail boat. She calculates £E150, £E 15 for each kilo, and a £E95 ” expedition fee”. But I have a card in my hands, and I tell them that the other supervisor, whom they had all heard, and who has now disappeared, said £E25. The task is transferred to a younger counter assistant, who makes a fresh calculation and who arrives at £E51. This doesn’t seem too bad, so I settle on this. I grease the palms of the the packer for his splendid parcelwork with £E5 bashkeesh and say my goodbyes. The parcels arrive safely in Birmingham just a few days later.