By Sponato 06-27-20
The Ethiopian writer, Sebhat Gebregziabher, once wrote a profile on Gamal Abdel Nasser. This is how the author introduced the Egyptian statesman to his readers: "Some people realize their childhood dreams and aspirations when they grow up. The Egyptian Gamal Abdel Nasser (1918-1970) was that kind of man".
Nasser had two big childhood dreams: first, to liberate his country completely from British rule; second, to end his people's extreme poverty at the heart of which was shortage of water.
The first goal, he accomplished through the "Free Officers" movement that he led. The pressure from these military officers and other Egyptian nationalists eventually forced Britain to withdraw from its last military bases in Egypt by 18 June 1956.
For his second goal, he saw the need to build a huge dam on the Nile River. This would enable Egypt to irrigate one million acres of new farmland and generate electricity. He reasoned this feat would be impossible without taking the helm of power. Thus he assumed control of the Presidency from General Naguib who was himself popular and brought to power by the "Free Officers" two years back.
He needed money to complete the dam which would cost 1.3 billion Dollars over 12-15 years. Britain and the US, together with the World Bank, had proposed to finance the project which the latter dubbed as "good and sound". But, not only did they go back on their word but also started to connive against it for the following reasons: Nasser's inclination towards Russia for arms supply due to growing tensions between Egypt and Israel. The West wouldn't supply him as this would be used against their ally. The other reason is Nasser's refusal to join the Baghdad Pact, a military agreement between Britain, Turkey and Iran that the US encouraged (Pakistan and Iraq joined later). It was a deterrence against Russia. But knowing too well what the West were up to regarding the project closest to his bosom, Nasser was more worried about the West than he was about Russia. Thus he denounced the pact as an instrument of the West's imperialist, expansionist ambitions. But, most importantly, the West feared the dam's potential in changing the balance of power in the Middle East (much as Egypt now fears would happen with the completion of Ethiopia's GERD).
So, he had to remove the obstacle. But how? That is where Nasser's skillful manoeuver was required. He used what, among conflict and political analysts, is known as strategic surprise. Egypt had one more preference vector unbeknownst to the opposite players, Britain, America and Russia - confiscating the Suez Canal. The Suez Canal is lifeline for a bulk of the British and other Western countries' marine trade, including Middle East oil. He didn't want to wait till 1968 when the Canal, according to the concession agreement, would be left to the ownership of the Egyptian government. He also had an excuse for his extraordinary action - Britain had earlier denied Egypt of its share of profits from the Canal.
Thus, he cut off the strategic and lucrative route that the British heavily relied on for their trade and took control of it without bloodshed. Nasser might even have preempted a secret British-French plan to forcefully occupy the Canal and if possible depose Nasser. But, the latter played the hypergame well that the British, French and the Americans were taken by complete surprise and shock. Nasser's popularity among his people and the rest of the Arab world soared.
Nasser's action served as a catalyst for joint Israel-British-French invasion of Egypt. But, it was not a walk on the cake for the invaders. It nearly drew the two Cold War superpowers to confrontation. Israel, Britain and France came under intense international pressure and eventually withdrew their forces at the end of 1956 and early 1967.
Britain and France were left bruised from the crisis as it stripped them of most of their influence in the Middle East. No force could stop Nasser from carrying on his lifelong dream of building the Aswan Dam nor the Russians from sending their engineers. Nasser had predicted that the tolls to be collected from ships passing through the Canal would cover the construction cost of the dam. Egypt emerged victorious and Nasser was hailed a hero for the cause of Egyptian and Arab nationalism. He had ambitions to unify the Arab world and he used the Arab nationalist fervor to move in that direction - he unified Egypt and Syria and became President of the union. That was his strategic depth, using his newly found leverage to spur regional integration. Nasser's smart move during the Suez Canal Crisis even helped him survive the 1967 humiliating Arab defeat in the hands of Israel. Does Ethiopia have a strategic depth in relation to GERD? What strategic surprise, if at all can we provide?
It is interesting to note that Sebhat at the closing of his article on Addis Zemen wrote a nota bene referring to the fact that Colonel Nasser, even after becoming President stayed in the same house as when he was an army officer: "What use is a palace for? Rather, let's build a dam", Sebhat quotes him as saying. Many Egyptians now prefer to call the Aswan High Dam "Nasser Dam", a fitting tribute to a great statesman.
The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, 12 May 2020.
Sebhat Gebregziabher. "Gamal Abdel Nasser". Addis Zemen, 24 July 1996.
Michael C. Shupe, Nationalization of the Suez Canal: A Hyperame Analysis, JSTOR, 1980.
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