Part 2 of Year of the Nationalists can be read here.
Events in Bahrain were not happening in a vacuum. The Bahraini nationalists were part of a broader movement that was taking the entire Arab world by storm. 1954, the year in which the Committee first formed, also saw the start of the Algerian war of independence from France and the ascendency of Gamal Abdel Nasser as Egypt’s uncontested leader. It was in October of that year that the Muslim Brotherhood attempted to assassinate Nasser during a speech being broadcast over radio to millions of Egyptian and Arab listeners. The gunman fired eight shots at Nasser, but missed every time. “Let them kill me; it does not concern me so long as I have instilled pride, honor and freedom in you.” Nasser’s voice declared through the radio to his listeners, “If Gamal Abdel Nasser should die, each of you shall be Gamal Abdel Nasser.”
In 1956, Nasser’s internal policies hit a major hitch. Much of his government’s domestic policy revolved around the construction of the Aswan Dam, which was expected to create jobs, improve agriculture and generate energy for the country. But Egypt could not fund its construction, costing an estimated $1 billion, on its own. For financial aid, the Egyptian government negotiated a $200 million loan from the World Bank and a commitment from the United States and Great Britain to lend another $200 million.
The intention of the Western powers was to buy influence in internal Egyptian matters, something they sorely needed. This was the height of the Cold War, and there were strong fears that Egypt (part of the Non-Alignment Movement) would fall into Russia’s sphere of influence following a recent purchase of aircrafts and tanks from the Soviet Union. The US tried to make the loan contingent on an Egyptian commitment to stop buying arms from the Soviet Union, but Egypt refused. Nasser dearly wanted to keep his country outside of the Cold War and firmly independent; he would not bend to the whim of either the Americans or the Russians. Indeed, he had only purchased arms from the Soviet Union because they, unlike the Americans, were willing to sell Egypt weapons with no strings attached.
Perhaps the plan was to put Egypt in a panic that would force Nasser to come under America or else risk a revolution to overthrow that of his own. On 19 July 1956 and with no prior warning to the Egyptian government, President Eisenhower announced that all American financial aid was being withdrawn from the Aswan Dam project. Nasser had to act quick to save the project. Exactly a week later, on 26 July, he announced that the government was nationalising the Suez Canal.
The Canal, built with the backing of French investors in the 19th century, was a public company listed in France. Its largest shareholder was the British government. As Nasser pledged the Canal’s extensive revenues (£35 million per annum) for the the Aswan Dam project, the once-great powers furiously plotted vengeance. The day after nationalisation, the French minister of defence called his counterpart in Israel and invited him to participate in a tripartite attack on Egypt for a return of the Canal in French and British hands. Shimon Peres, then director-general of the Israeli Ministry of Defence, was not in a position to commit Israel to war, but gave an encouraging reply and took the matter to those higher up the chain of command. With the phone-call between the two ministers of defence concluded optimistically, the French approached the British with their plan. Continue reading