Israel and Egypt’s other revolution

 
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By Khaled Diab

The creation of Israel sparked a revolution in Egypt, and Nasser, the legendary champion of the Arab cause, once sought peace with the Jewish state.

Tuesday 24 July 2012

While Gamal Abdel-Nasser was still officially prime minister, and Muhammad Neguib was the Free Officers’ figurehead president, Nasser engaged in secret, indirect peace negotiations with Israeli premier Moshe Sharett.

Monday marked the anniversary of the Egyptian revolution. Not the “Tahrir Square” revolution that began last year – that is on 25 January – but the 23 July revolution of 1952. At a recent event I attended in Ramallah to mark the occasion, an Egyptian diplomat said that 2011 was a continuation of 1952.

Though somewhat bizarrely he exalted the “noble” role of the military in both revolutions – the same junta which seized power six decades ago and has clung on to it selfishly ever since – I do agree with him that the two are linked, but in the same paradoxical way that Hosni Mubarak can be described as the “father” of Egypt’s emerging democracy.

Nevertheless, it would be a mistake simply to dismiss 1952 as a “coup d’etat”, a purely military plot that lacked popular support or involvement, even if it was indeed spearheaded by the army. A secret cell known as the Association of Free Officers, led by the charismatic Gamal Abdel-Nasser, was responding to popular disaffection with the palace, the landed gentry, the British occupation and influence, and stark socio-economic inequalities.

This manifested itself in mass demonstrations throughout the late 1940s, which culminated in the rioting and looting during the mysterious ‘Cairo Fire’ of January 1952, which showed all the signs of being orchestrated but, to this day, nobody knows who was behind it.

In fact, though Egyptians had a reputation, prior to last year and even among themselves, for being apathetic and docile, the past century has seen three revolutions (1919, 1952 and 2011) and a constant stream of smaller scale political dissent and labour action.

Ironically, despite the fact that the Free Officers seemed genuinely committed to democracy and egalitarianism and enjoyed popular support at first, the allure of power, paranoia and their determination to put Egypt on the fast track to development led them to ignore the transitional period they had set themselves, clamp down on freedom and create a new ruling class, first made up of army top brass, and later of nouveau riche entrepreneurs.

Since last year’s protests in Egypt began, panic bells have been sounding in Israel, where pundits have been searching high and low for signs that the Tahrir Square revolution’s claims of being about “bread, freedom and social justice” is just a cunning smokescreen for its true target: the Jewish state. Despite a number of isolated incidents, such as the trashing of the Israeli embassy, and some hardening of rhetoric, Israel has hardly featured, and Egyptian-Israeli relations look likely to continue along the same path: a cold and frosty peace.

But the picture was different in 1952. Though that revolution too was about bread and freedom, Israel played a significant indirect role in shaping its timing and direction. At a time when the Arab world had recently emerged from centuries of Ottoman imperial domination and was looking forward to shaking off European rule, the 1947 UN partition of Palestine was seen as a colonial slap in the face to Arab aspirations of freedom and self-determination, which might explain why the Arabs unwisely rushed into a war for which they were ill-prepared.

The military blamed the crushing defeat of 1948 on the corruption, nepotism and ‘mediocracy’ of King Farouq’s court and the ruling pasha class.

Nasser himself had fought in Palestine in 1948, and his unit was one of the few that had performed well, managing to hold out for four months under siege in Faluja, near Gaza. Nasser saw in Israel’s victory an unflattering reflection of his own country’s weakness and underdevelopment, leading him to the conclusion that the real battle lay at home. “We were fighting in Palestine, but our dreams were in Egypt,” Nasser later recalled, in his book, The Philosophy of the Revolution (1955).

Soon after his return to Egypt, Nasser and his comrades began to act concretely towards his vision for regime change. Following the bloodless coup, Nasser’s attempts to steer a more independent course for Egypt quickly elevated him to the status of bogeyman in Britain, France, as well as Israel. Though his negative image has undergone major revision in Europe, in Israel, Nasser was and is still widely regarded as a kind of “Hitler on the Nile”.

But there is no evidence to suggest that Nasser was driven by antisemitism or wished to wipe out the Jews. What motivated him was sympathy for the plight of the Palestinians and anti-imperialism. Despite Zionism’s self-image as an anti-colonial movement, Arabs saw it as a manifestation of Western hegemony designed to undermine their independence.

Moreover, contrary to what many Israelis and pro-Nasserist Arabs believe, there is evidence that Nasser was a pragmatist who quickly came to the personal realisation – despite his later fiery rhetoric designed to appeal to the ‘Arab street’ – that Israel was here to stay and that the Arabs would have to reach an accommodation with it eventually.

As early as 1953, Nasser engaged in secret, indirect negotiations with then Israeli premier Moshe Sharett. Even the ‘Lavon Affair’ in 1954 – in which Israeli agents carried out  “false flag” sabotage attacks on US and British interests – did not weaken his resolve. Nasser decided not to blame Sharett – who was in fact not aware of the clandestine operation – and between October 1954 and January 1955, the two men worked on a blueprint for Israeli-Egyptian relations, border issues, solutions to the Palestinian refugee crisis, Israeli shipping rights and avenues for economic co-operation.

That same month, Nasser wrote in an article for Foreign Affairs: “We do not want to start any conflict. War has no place in the reconstructive policy which we have designed to improve the lot of our people.”

Alarmed at Sharett’s dovish overtures, David Ben-Gurion came out of retirement and replaced him as prime minister in 1955. Almost at once, Israel’s founding father launched a major raid on Gaza, leading to a dangerous escalation of border skirmishes. The following year, Ben-Gurion signed his young country up to the tripartite attack – alongside France and Britain – to punish Nasser for his entirely legal nationalization of the Suez Canal.

Following this, Nasser lost confidence in Israel as a potential peace partner, and the stage was set for the downward spiral to disaster.

In 1967, tensions between Israel, Egypt and Syria reached fever pitch. Nasser, knowing his army was a shambles and under pressure from Arab rivals, hoped to deploy his most potent weapon – a barrage of eloquent, precision bombast – and defeat Israel in the diplomatic battlefield without firing a single shot.

Israel had other ideas and launched what it called a pre-emptive attack on its Arab neighbours. In just six days, Israel not only captured large tracts of Arab territory, but destroyed the pan-Arab secular dream represented by Nasserism.

Despite the famous “Three No’s” of the Arab summit in Khartoum, Nasser counselled caution and diplomacy to the radical Arab camp. He had also come full circle back to his position of the early 1950s, that a negotiated settlement was the only solution.

Shortly before his death in 1970, Nasser agreed to the American-brokered Rogers Plan. Nasser did not appear to hold out much hope, perhaps based on his previous experience, that Israel would accept the plan – which he described as the “last chance” before military action became inevitable.

Who knows what would have happened had Israel accepted the Rogers Plan or the Egyptian overtures of the 1950s, or if an Arab leader of Nasser’s stature and popularity had actually been honest about his convictions and publicly advocated for peace with Israel? Perhaps the 1967 and 1973 wars would not have happened, and may be Israel and Palestine would be living in peace among friendly neighbours.

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This is an extended version of an article that appeared in Haaretz on 23 July 2012.

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