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THE MIDDLE EAST: Another Twist of the Tail

4 minute read

Retreating unhappily from Iran, Great Britain last week faced the possibility of even more serious trouble from a Middle East nation whose friendship she needs even more: Egypt.

The Egyptian government had read a shrewd lesson from the doings in Iran: defy the once mighty lion, and Britain will send, not battleships, but emissaries with offers. Last week old (74), ailing Mustafa El Nahas Pasha, a spent revolutionary and perennial Premier, began to apply the lesson: he demanded that Britain get out of Egypt and the Sudan.

Before a mass meeting in Alexandria, El Nahas Pasha cried, “The colonizers [Great Britain] must know that Egypt’s patience is exhausted, and that she will attain her rights, whatever the obstacles.” He chose the week of the i sth anniversary of the Anglo-Egyptian treaty of 1936 (which still has five years to run) to denounce it. It “must be canceled and will be, in a very short time,” he said, and the crowd cheered wildly. Al Midoa, weekly newspaper of Nahas Pasha’s Wafdist Party, roared: “We do not believe that the Egyptian nation is less valorous or less courageous than the Persian nation which spat in the face of imperialism.”

Hub of the Wheel. British troops in Egypt are the key to British power in the Middle East. The Suez Canal zone which they protect is still the lifeline of an empire and one of the Western world’s prime strategic links with Asia. On it ultimately depends the defense of Greece, Turkey,

Iran and Iraq. The British “desert rats” fought Rommel for two years to defend it. Into this area the British have now packed 35,000 to 40,000 troops and airmen, immense supply depots, airfields, excellent antiaircraft defenses. From British Middle East headquarters in the zone, empire lifelines go out to bases like Malta in the Mediterranean, Nairobi in East Africa, Habbaniya in Iraq.

The 1936 treaty which permits British troops to be stationed there, and to rule the million square miles of the Sudan jointly with Egypt, was signed by El Nahas Pasha himself, and hailed by him as a step toward Egyptian independence. It gave Britain the right to keep naval facilities at Alexandria and Port Said, and to station troops around the Suez Canal; it also repeated Britain’s frequent promise to get out eventually. The treaty ended half a century of British rule, which began with Queen Victoria’s forces moving in to protect British citizens and British investments. In the 18603 and 18703, Egyptian Khedive Ismail, a gusty, grandiose ruler who had a harem of 3,000 women, had dreamed vast dreams which he executed with the help of usurious European bankers. They supplied the cash at interest rates ranging up to 40%. He built 9,000 miles of canals, 4,500 schools, and completed the Suez Canal; he also indulged his harem on Paris gowns. Sixteen years after Ismail began his gilded reign, his treasury was empty and his palace besieged by foreign creditors. Ismail abdicated and retired into exile (where he died, characteristically, of trying to gulp down two bottles of champagne at one draught). His Moslem subjects began killing Europeans. The British bombarded Alexandria in 1882, and then took over. They balanced the budget, and set up a sound potential administration, but failed to do much to better the lot of the downtrodden fellahin.

Private Dread. Now that Premier Nahas’ once popular Wafdist government is troubled by financial scandal, and his people by economic distress, he turns—as Egyptian politicians always have—to twisting the lion’s tail. Privately, Nahas Pasha, like King Farouk and the rest of Egypt’s upper crust, probably dreads nothing so much as the withdrawal of Britain’s defensive screen. Without it, Egypt would be in poorer shape to resist the Russians, its own restless mob, and the Israelis, whom many Egyptians still fear. The British are convinced, as they were in Iran, that the Egyptians cannot get along without them. But the peril is that, as in Iran, a government unable to deliver on its domestic promises will have to live up to its defiant speeches. In Cairo, mobs this week rioted outside the U.S. and British embassies, until police fired, wounding eight. Fury thus turned on would not be so easily turned off.

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