When Gamal Abdel Nasser Screamed: We will Never Surrender!
Faced with the danger and gravity of the situation, Gamal Abdel Nasser did not collapse and stood steadfast. He did not lose faith in his people and in the justice of his cause.
The circumstances were very difficult and the situation could hardly be graver. Gamal Abdel Nasser headed to Al-Azhar Mosque in Cairo, the historic base of Islam in Egypt, ascended its pulpit and addressed his people passionately from his heart and said “We will fight to the last drop of blood! We will never surrender”.
That was the way in which the young leader, 38 years old, responded to the developments of the crisis that escalated to the point of brutal military invasion which Egypt was facing. Eighty thousand was the number of British and French troops attacking Egypt, in addition to the army of “Israel”. All that was a result of Nasser’s decision to nationalize the Suez Canal a few months earlier.
The Invaders Have Arrived
At the time when Nasser was delivering his speech in Al-Azhar, the huge British Royal Navy fleet consisting of aircraft carriers, battleships, destroyers and speedboats, together with the French Navy ally, were already at the shores of northern Egypt attacking and targeting the cities of Port Said and Port Fouad and their surroundings. The forces of aggression paved the way for their attack on the Suez Canal area with concentrated air raids on Cairo and Alexandria that targeted many places, including the Egyptian radio station.
The situation was frightening. It was no less than a comprehensive attack on Egypt, whose army has not yet recovered from the effects of defeat in the 1948 Palestine War. On the other hand “Great Britain”, the lead attacker, had emerged victorious a few years ago from World War II.
Faced with the danger and gravity of the situation, Gamal Abdel Nasser did not collapse and stood steadfast. He did not lose faith in his people and in the justice of his cause. He decided that the best response to the challenge was to revert back to his people for whose sake he led the revolution in 1952. Nasser addressed the Egyptians urging them to be strong, united with no despair, and assuring them of the inevitability of victory over the forces of aggression.
In light of the disparity in military power, Nasser called on his people to engage in paramilitary resistance and guerrilla war to confront the British-French enemy forces that began landing in Port Said. The President decided to open the Egyptian army's storehouses for the people to obtain weapons that would enable them to confront the invaders, and began organizing the activity of the resistance brigades.
Nasser's belief in his people and his resort to them was not surprising. All the actions that he had taken since the success of the July Revolution (1952) were directed towards his quest to advance Egypt and promote its proper place in the world away from colonialism and subordination. That includes his decision in June 1956 to nationalize the Suez Canal and transfer its ownership and management to the Egyptian people after it had been owned by Britain for 70 years since Ismail, Egypt’s ruler from the Mohammad Ali dynasty, “sold” it to the British at cheap when he went through some financial hardship and needed cash!
Nasser’s Decision: A Risk Worth Taking
Gamal Abdel Nasser knew he was taking a great risk because he’s depriving “Great Britain” of controlling the sea route to its colonies and interests in the east, and in this case, the British wouldn’t let Nasser’s decision pass. Nasser acted intelligently and thoughtfully when nationalizing the canal, declaring Egypt's willingness to pay for Britain's share in the Suez Canal Company, using at the same time Egypt's sovereign right to nationalize a water canal that is part of its territory, thus depriving Britain of the legal justification for launching aggression or even rejecting the decision.
In fact, the nationalization of Suez Canal was Gamal Abdel Nasser's last arrow in his encounter with Britain and Western powers. Since the first day of the success of the July Revolution (1952) and the overthrow of King Farouk, the British position was hostile towards Nasser’s Free Officers regime and the renaissance measures they took in Egypt, their determination to achieve independence and get rid of British hegemony, and their insistence on the withdrawal of all British forces from Egypt (which finally took place in 1956).
When Britain along with the rising power, the US, failed to “contain” the Free Officers movement led by Nasser, and to take Egypt back to their camp, they showed their true colonial face and began working to thwart all of Nasser’s ambitious development projects; the most important of which were two: modernization and arming of the Egyptian army, and building the “Aswan High Dam” in Southern Egypt to generate electricity for the country and control the flooding of the Nile.
Despite lengthy negotiations and requests, Britain and the US did not agree to supply Egypt with modern weapons that would enable it to defend its borders against Israeli attacks and threats. They wanted Egypt to remain weak with outdated and obsolete weapons, but Nasser succeeded in making an important breakthrough and a major achievement when he managed, for the first time in the Arab region, to obtain Russian weapons through Czechoslovakia. Britain and the US felt the seriousness of what happened and that the Soviet communist opponent had gained a foothold in their area of influence! They looked at Nasser as an enemy who must be punished and brought down.
As for the vital project for Egypt, the Aswan High Dam, on which all of Nasser's development plans were based (it became a matter of life or death to him), it reached a deadlock when the US Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, informed the Egyptian ambassador to the US of Washington's final decision: We will not finance the High Dam and we will not support you to build it because the project is “bigger than Egypt’s capabilities!” All the efforts made by Egypt to obtain funding from Western countries to build the dam were suddenly gone with the wind! Even worse; the US and Britain used their influence in the World Bank to obstruct Egypt’s funding request!
That’s how Britain and the US dealt with Egypt very arrogantly. They did not agree to sell advanced weapons to Egypt, and they did not want Egypt to obtain them from any other source! They did not agree to fund the High Dam, and did not allow the World Bank to do that! In conclusion, Egypt, in the eyes of Britain, France and the US, must remain a weak, dependent and backward country in order be satisfied! Of course, this situation cannot be accepted by a young and devoted national leader like Gamal Abdel Nasser, who decided to respond in a way that hurts them: the nationalization of Suez Canal.
The Israeli Element
And here appeared “Israel”! It decided to show its usefulness as an advanced base for the British Empire (Britain originally established it for this purpose). Although the Suez Canal problem has nothing to do with it, “Israel” quickly conveyed to London and Paris its full readiness to participate in any Anglo-French aggression against Egypt.
A secret meeting was held in Paris (France was very interested in bringing down Nasser because of his support for the Algerian revolution) that included British Prime Minister Anthony Eden, French President Guy Mollet, and Prime Minister of “Israel” Ben Gurion, during which the war scenario on Egypt was agreed upon; “Israel” will launch an invasion against Egypt through the Sinai under the pretext of stopping the attacks of the Palestinian guerrillas in Gaza supported by Egypt. On the next day, Britain and France have issued an ultimatum to the Egyptian and Israeli sides to stop the fighting for the purpose of protecting the Suez Canal and the international navigation. Then, if the fighting wouldn’t stop, the British-French military intervention will begin and the reoccupation of all the Suez Canal area will be justified and “legal”! The assessment of the three parties was that this military action would lead to the humiliation of Nasser and his downfall into hostile hands inside Egypt, and perhaps the return of the old monarchy.
The plan was actually executed according to the secret agreement. “Israel” attacked Egypt on October 29. On the following day, a joint British-French ultimatum was issued to the two sides demanding ceasefire and allowing British-French forces to control the canal from Port Said in the north to Suez in the south. As expected, Nasser rejected the ultimatum and request. They attacked on October 31, and the tripartite Israeli-British-French aggression against Egypt was in its full might.
Back to Nasser's “resistance speech” at Al-Azhar Mosque, the Egyptians responded to the call of their leader and declared their rejection of the return of colonialism. In Port Said, a national epic began to resist the occupation forces that faced relentless street wars and guerrillas from house to house.
The Conflicting Interests of World’s Super Powers
Despite the intensity of the bombing and the extent of destruction caused by the aggression forces in Port Said, the tripartite alliance faced great difficulty in controlling the city, in which fighting continued for several days, and that hindered the march of the invading forces to the south to reach the city of Suez (as planned), so they were only able to advance for a distance of only 17 kilometers south of Port Said. During those days, large-scale political movements took place in the world, the most important of which were two:
The first was the (rare) US-British rift. The United States, which had already ascended to the leadership of Western world as heir to Great Britain, did not like Britain's unilateralism in dealing with the Suez problem and its war- inclined approach, which could lead to the “loss of Egypt” and push indirectly Nasser to throw completely himself into the arms the Soviets. US President Eisenhower took a tough stance and asked Britain to stop its offensive and ordered “Israel” to withdraw from Sinai.
The second was the Soviet Union’s intrusion into the crisis and its strong support for Egypt, which amounted to the Soviet leader Khrushchev's threat to use nuclear weapons against Western countries!
The result of all this was the issuance of a United Nations resolution to stop the war and ordered the withdrawal of the attacking forces. Indeed, by the end of December 22, the last invading Anglo-French forces withdrew from Port Said. As for the Israeli forces, they stayed for another three months before withdrawing from Sinai and Gaza as well.
“Great Britain” Humiliated
What happened was a political earthquake in every sense of the word, from which Egypt emerged victorious with its head held high. It succeeded in consolidating the decision to nationalize the canal, which became an important source of income to help Egypt in its renaissance projects. Removing the huge statue of De Lesseps at the entrance to the Suez Canal was a symbolic blow to the old colonial powers.
The invaders' forces withdrew after they failed to achieve any goal. Gamal Abdel Nasser appeared as a rising national leader and turned into a symbol of the Arab and international liberation movement from Western colonialism. The biggest disappointment was for British Prime Minister Anthony Eden, who was forced to resign in the wake of the failure and humiliation suffered by Britain (which was no longer great!) at the hands of Nasser.
The old lion realized that he became old, and could do nothing of real value, so he contented himself with action-less roaring and babbling. Britain's media and major newspapers launched a terrible smear campaign against "Colonel Nasser" that amounted to comparing him to Hitler! And that was the most they could do after 1956.