From the perspective of British policy makers, was the dispute between the British and Egyptian governments over the peacetime presence of British military forces one over military necessity or over prestige? (Part 1, by Michael Grimshaw)

From the perspective of British policy makers, was the dispute between the British and Egyptian governments over the peacetime presence of British military forces one over military necessity or over prestige? (Part 1, by Michael Grimshaw)

The dispute between the British and Egyptian governments over the peacetime presence of British military forces dates as far back as autumn 1945 when Chief of the Imperial General Staff, Alan Brooke, visited Egypt and entered into discussions with King Farouk about renewing the 1936 Treaty, which allowed British troops to occupy the Suez Canal Base and its surroundings until 1956. However, despite Clement Atlee’s governments’ best efforts to reach an agreement, negotiations reached a standstill by 1947. This was because the Egyptian government, pressured by the rise of popularity of Arab nationalism, demanded of the British government the complete withdrawal of troops from its territory, and also that it relinquish Sudan so that it could be unified under the Egyptian crown. The latter demand, which was based on King Farouk’s claim that he was ‘King of Sudan’, was the reason why negotiations over the Suez Canal Base broke down in 1947. The Canal Base Agreement, signed in October 1954, formalised complete withdrawal of British troops from the Suez. This ended British military occupation of Egypt, which had been in place since 1882, and can also be seen as marking the end of the dispute between the British and Egyptian governments. Therefore this question addresses events up until 1954; the British response to the Egyptian government after the Canal Base agreement, including the lead up to and during the Suez crisis, can be seen as irrelevant to the chronology of this question.

The question of why the dispute between the British and Egyptian governments was prolonged until 1954 can be examined from the perspective of the British policy makers. British political figures such as Winston Churchill insisted that it was a military necessary to have a base at the Suez. It was claimed that the base was a ‘vital cornerstone of British strategy both as a guardian overlooking Britain’s Middle Eastern responsibilities… [and] as a potential airbase for launching atomic attacks against the Soviet Union’. However, on examination of official papers from the British Documents at the End of Empire Project (BDEEP), we can see a protracted internal battle between British policy makers over how to settle the dispute with the Egyptians. This can particularly be seen between Churchill, when he was Prime Minister in 1951, and Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden who favoured the removal of military forces. Influential players such as Churchill accused those who wished to withdraw troops from Egypt as supporting a policy of ‘scuttle’ from Britain’s territories. Looking more critically through the rhetoric of these official documents, it is evident that it was the pursuit of maintaining Britain’s prestige as a world power that was the true motive for those British policy makers who disputed the withdrawal of British troops in Egypt. Under the false illusion of ‘military necessity’, they were responsible for prolonging the dispute until 1954.

At a first glance of the documents between British policy makers, it could be argued that the British government refused to withdraw troops from Egypt because of military necessity. This can be seen in Churchill’s reasoning to Eden on the 19th August 1952 where he stated in a minute that he ‘never agreed’ on the evacuation of British troops from the Canal Zone as it was essential for the ‘defence of the famous international waterway’. He goes on further by emphasising how the base is ‘worth £500 millions’ and to move the base would mean making ‘another costly establishment’ elsewhere. This is further supported in ‘A review of our Middle East strategy in the light of present assumptions’ produced by the British Defence Co-ordination Committee for the Chiefs of Staff. This document emphasises the importance of the Canal Zone as it could be the base for a ‘long term counter offensive’ should Soviet attack in the Middle East region arise. This document was produced by the British military and many other documents were produced by them emphasising the threat of losing control of the Middle East to Communist Russia. Kent supports this by stating that such ideas were enforced by the ‘Intermezzo’ study in 1948. This was a Middle Eastern defence strategy which concluded that ‘it would be possible to prevent a Soviet advance’ if a peacetime military presence in the Canal Zone was retained. British policy makers, like Churchill, used this reasoning when justifying the remaining of the troops in Egypt.

However, looking at these documents more critically and with more consideration of the wider historical issues when they were produced, it can be seen that military necessity was not the true motive for those important players in policy who were against British withdrawal of troops in Egypt. It is important to note that the previously mentioned review of Middle Eastern strategy document was produced by the British military. You would have to question the reliability of the information produced in this document, concerning the need to maintain troops in the Canal Base, as military institutions tend be reluctant to relinquish their assets and responsibilities. This document is produced in a very methodical way with clear subtitles such as ‘Allied strategy in the Middle East’ and ‘Aims’. Also, the document capitalises key places, such as ‘SUEZ CANAL’ and ‘PERSIAN GULF’. This may be because this document is a report from one set of military officials to a more senior group and is trying to ease reading time by highlighting the main points. It therefore does not prove that military necessity was the final given opinion to government by the military concerning the withdrawal of troops from Egypt. If the British military did insist that it was strategically necessary to keep troops in the Suez, the credibility of this stance from the evidence in this document also needs to be questioned.

In fact, we can see evidence of both the British military’s insistence on the need to keep troops in the Suez and of the British military claiming that this was not necessary. Firstly, from 1945 to 1948 the British military claimed to the government that they required 20,000 troops in Egypt during peacetime ‘to defend the base… given that so little of the rest of the Middle East was to be defended’. The credibility of this stance is questioned by Kent who claims that the British military wanted facilities in Egypt to carry out tasks that they could not perform. Therefore, he states that ‘the military requirements were irrelevant, yet they were influencing the approach taken to negotiations with Egypt’. Here, Kent concludes that the British military’s insistence of the peacetime presence of troops in the Suez Canal zone was more about the ‘maintenance of Britain’s status and prestige in the Middle East and to Britain’s role as a world power’ and that this was what ‘the Egyptian problem was all about.’ Here we can see how in the early years of the dispute, the British military and politicians, such as Churchill used the argument of military necessity as a mask to hide their true motives for the justification to keep troops in Egypt. Their true motive was to maintain Britain’s prestige as a world power.

Secondly, it is evident that, over time, the British military changed their opinion. This can be seen in discussions with the Foreign Office in October 1952, where senior military figures, such as Sir John Slessor, Chief of the Air Staff between 1950-2, confessed to the government that ‘many changes had taken place since the Chiefs of Staff had last expressed the view that the base in Egypt was essential’. This discussion between Mr Roger Allen, representing the Foreign Office, and the Chiefs of Staff Committee highlights how the military informed the government that ‘a base in Egypt was not absolutely indispensable’. This is also evidenced by the fact that by December, 1952, the Chiefs of Staff Committee was prepared to be flexible towards defence negotiations with Egypt. The Committee agreed on four possible scenarios set out in order of merit ‘starting with the ideal in Case A … going down Cases B and C to Case D’ where ‘British stores and personnel would be evacuated from the Canal Zone’.

Darwin goes on further to say that during the 1950s, senior military advisers were actually ‘eager for a treaty’ with Egypt as the acquisition of the hydrogen bomb as a strategic weapon made the ‘Suez base less vital anyway in the deterrence of Russia’. Therefore, we can see that during the time when Churchill was Prime Minister, the senior military’s advice to British policymakers had changed. It could be argued that this was because of the changing international situation. The Egyptian revolution in 1952 overthrew the monarchy and the new regime, under the rule of popular army general Muhammed Neguib, and later Gamel Abdel Nasser, no longer demanded to have sovereignty of Sudan. This event, combined with the growth of extremist violence in Egypt against the British – demonstrated in events such as ‘Black Saturday’ in Cairo January, 1952, where numerous British residents were killed – had led the British military to conclude that it would be strategically better to accept withdrawal of troops from the Canal base, as an amicable agreement with Egypt would not force them to turn to the Soviet Union for aid.

So, as early as 1952, senior military advisors insisted that it would be more logical to accept Egypt’s demands for the withdrawal of troops from the Suez. However, agreement with the Egyptians was not reached until 1954, suggesting that the British government was responsible for delaying the negotiations. However, not all politicians contributed to the delay. We can see evidence of Allen, who was Eden’s key advisor on the Middle East and Assistant Under Secretary of State in 1953-4, agreeing with the military. Just two days after attending the Chiefs of Staff Committee on the 21st October 1952 Allen states that ‘it would be ridiculous to embark on negotiations designed to secure a fully operative base in Egypt…[ when it turns] out that such a base was no longer militarily essential’. Eden supports Allen and the British military’s views by stating in a memorandum on the 27th October,1952 that ‘it may emerge that the base in Egypt… is no longer absolutely essential’. These documents are significant because they were produced a few months after Egyptian revolt in July 1952 and show how the new regime was seen as an opportunity by some British policy makers to start fresh negotiations regarding the Canal Base.

Therefore it cannot be claimed that the likes of Eden and the senior British military were responsible for the delayed resolution of the dispute over the maintenance of troops in the Suez from when the new Egyptian military regime came into power in 1952. Furthermore, Hyam claims that by late 1952 Eden was worried about the lack of progress towards agreement with the Egyptians as he saw ‘foreign troop occupation as counter-productive’. In fact, we can see an internal battle between British politicians who were influential on the direction of policy on this dispute. This was encapsulated in debate between Churchill and Eden when they were both in office. We can see that from returning to office in October 1951 until 1953 Churchill’s views had essentially remained unchanged since 1946. This can be seen in 1952 where he states that:

I do not think that we should in any case give up the Treaty rights which we possess and which we have the power to enforce… we should stay where we are in the Canal Zone.

This proves that Churchill’s claim that military necessity justified troops remaining in the Suez was only political rhetoric. He used the excuse of military necessity to disguise his true motives for delaying agreement with the Egyptian government; to maintain Britain’s world prestige.

End of Part 1


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