top of page

EGYPT 1950 and 1956

Two years was the normal stint for a tour in Moscow, and we found it long enough. At the end of that time we were badly in need of a change, both from the effects of the climate and the psychological impact of continuous isolation from the Russians. But everything is relative, and to the American diplomat doing his six months tour of Vladivostok, Moscow must have shone out like the bright lights of Paris would have done for us. The poor fellow had literally nowhere to go and nothing to see for the whole of that period. His consulate was floodlit day and night, the harbour was boarded up as much to prevent him seeing anything as to check theft, and the highlight of his week was Friday afternoon tea at the local restaurant with his Chinese Nationalist counterpart. They just sat opposite each other, and as neither spoke the other’s language, simply got up and bowed ceremoniously to each other from time to time.


On the face of it, the Personnel Department were treating us proud with a posting to the kinder climate and more luxurious lifestyle of Alexandria. Not, to be sure, the Northern coast of the Mediterranean basin which I had always in my post preference form declared as my first choice, but not to be sniffed at, as our genial Head of Chancery persuasively put it. He must have sensed that I was not amused, now considering myself, with the callow inexperience of youth, henceforth a political officer, and Consular matters beneath my dignity. How wrong can one be? Experience in diplomacy as in everything else only comes by plunging into the hurly-burly of everyday problems and by helping other people along as much as possible, while building up a large fund of experience and case history in doing so. This vital lesson was dramatically brought home to me on my very first morning in the Consulate, when the Consul-General, a very experienced Middle East expert of the old Levant Service, took me round. He stopped at the public counter serviced by five locally-recruited clerks, and said, “This is the heart of the Consulate-General, Oliver. And I don’t want any member of the public to be kept waiting more than five minutes”. The voice of long experience indeed, and how often since have I wished, and when sorely provoked frankly said so, that this should be the motto of everyone dealing with the public, junior clerks, perhaps, too engrossed with their papers or their gossip to notice anyone there, or high-ranking personages in any hierarchy wanting to impress the waiting visitor with their lofty station in life.


Our joy at being released into the full liberty of the Western world knew no bounds, and we flung ourselves enthusiastically into every activity which Alexandria had to offer, a seductive mixture of life in the open air, the sybaritic pleasures of the cosmopolitan community, and the irresistible draw of the Arabs and their language and culture. It had rare beauties to offer – the dry warmth and invigorating tang of the pure desert air, the street vendors’ cries and the muezzin’s calls to prayer, made distant through the shimmering heat, turtle doves cooing on the roof tops, the faithful kneeling in prayer at sunset, the bazaars heavy with the scent of spices, incense and coffee, stalls laden with valuable carpets, ivory, perfumes and other Oriental merchandise, orange groves, date and mango plantations, and pervading all, the overpowering scent of jasmine.


We had everything we wanted for a healthy outdoor life, with the desert and its white untrodden beaches a few kilometres away, and at our doorstep popular bathing spots like Sidi Bishr, whose scorching and dirty dry sand is never, alas, washed by the tide-less Mediterranean. For quieter bathing we made East to the blue waters of Aboukir Bay’s rocky inlets, or West to the long deserted stretches beyond Agame. The desert would beckon if we had a day to spare for a picnic or its remoter white beaches, shared only with the scurrying crabs, or on its jutting headlands, frequented only by lizards and desert rats. It is never still, for even without the animal life, the sand is constantly rustling as the breeze blows the tiny grains over its surface, and one is never alone for long, even in the remotest parts. Its horizons must induce a highly-developed kind of long-sight in the Bedouin, for they would spot us at a tremendous distance and make their way towards us, to stand or sit around at a respectful distance and exchange greetings, or politely accept whatever we had to offer.  The Bedouin, and the peasants in the Delta, endeared themselves to us for their simplicity, long-suffering, and great dignity. They live their hard, poverty-stricken lives scratching a bare existence from the land or from their herds, uplifted by the uncomplicated tenets of the Koran and its moral teaching, and untouched by the sophisticated ways which seem to take hold, the moment an Arab has donned a dark suit. They still live very much as I imagine Muhammed did on his long camel journeys trading in the Levant, content with the spartan frugality of their lot, so long as they have their own tent, their family and few belongings, the open space around them, and the bright stars and open vault of Heaven to inspire them with a belief in one God and the simple teaching of their faith.


We would occasionally visit Burg el Arab, about thirty miles out, where one or two retired British struggled against the encroaching sand to cultivate their garden, and against even greater odds to teach the Bedouin how to sink a simple artesian well. Only in the early spring could they dispense with the well water, for it is only in February/March that enough participation rolls in from the Mediterranean to water the sand, and within days produce carpets of anemones and jonquil stretching as far as the horizon, the existence of which would not have been suspected days before. Once a year in October we would with the British Community make the pilgrimage to El Alamein, a sad occasion leaving an indelible impression of futility and waste as one gazes over the rolling hillocks covered, as far as the eye can see, not with the reds and blues of the desert flowers, but with the unending rows of simple white crosses marking the graves of the British and their allies, the Germans and the Italians who fell there.


We lacked for nothing. The succession of homes we lived in were comfortable, if modest compared with some of the mansions around us, our devoted servants would have protected us to the death against the rabble, and when times were normal, we would have an embarrassing choice of outdoor pursuits: - the vast harbour of sailing trips, the beaches, and all the sports one needed at the Sporting and Smouha clubs, above all golf which attracted many devotees because of the cool, lush fairways, kept in immaculate condition by the many groundsmen. There was a thriving musical life, encouraged by a small band of enthusiasts and by soirées sponsored by the wealthier members of the Community. But the atmosphere was cosmopolitan rather than Arab, and for the real flavour of Arab history and culture we would visit Cairo, which never ceased to fascinate us with the constant bustle of its teeming streets and bazaars, the interminable hooting of car horns fortunately made distant by the heat, the everlasting mystery of the Pyramids, a parching camel trip around which would be followed by refreshing drinks on the shady balcony of the Rest House at Giza, that welcome oasis of green waiting to greet the hot and weary traveller coming in from Alexandria on the desert road. When we wanted more quiet, we would pay a visit to the astonishing treasures of the Museum, or to the Citadel and its magnificent mosque towering high above Cairo’s busy streets, and a favourite haunt for the kites, with views of the Nile surrounding countryside stretching to the distant hazy blue horizons of the Delta. We were always drawn to the cool half-light of the Muski, that famous covered-in bazaar displaying all the skilful handicrafts of the East. The craftsmen would be sitting in their open shops working their bronze, silver, ivory or ebony into a variety of chess sets, ivory elephants, goblets, and trays and table tops with Koranic inscriptions decoratively engraved on them. Assiduous traders would press us to take on the backs of our hands a sample of this or that exquisite Oriental perfume, until our heads reeled and we were no longer capable of distinguishing one perfume from another. Other more opulent merchants would even more insistently beg us to enter their cool store-room to inspect their range of priceless carpets, until we could no longer resist. They did not seem to mind that they did not make a sale, knowing full well that they were dealing with an Englishman, and an impecunious one at that. They would roll out for our close scrutiny one beautiful Turkish or Persian carpet after another, in the most varied colours and ingenious patterns, with a thick silk pile one hesitated to tread on, in spite of the merchants’ pressing encouragement to do so. A long session drinking sickly-sweet Turkish coffee was then obligatory in spite of having made no sale. Perhaps in their wisdom born of long experience the merchants knew that with such a cordial reception their reputation would spread the more easily to more wealthy clients.


The Azhar University, renowned as the centre of Koranic learning throughout the Moslem world, was before Nasser open for the infidel to visit. It was not far from the Muski, and we would be impelled to go there, take off our shoes, and wander through the spacious halls, colonnades and porticoes, where schools of students from all over the world were learning and reciting aloud their Koran. They came from as far afield as Pakistan and Indonesia in the East, Morocco and Mauretania in the West, and Nigeria and the Cameroons in the South, yet seemed to be on good terms with each other, united no doubt through the common bond of Islam. Every professor at the Azhar aspired to be imparting to his pupils as dispassionate a view as possible of Mohammed’s religious doctrine and moral code, at least before Nasser’s advent to power. He destroyed this scholarship by making Islam a political weapon to rally support for his regime. The teaching became indoctrination, which was all too easy, given the crusading element in Islam, the imams turned their sermons into sycophantic political speeches, and Fridays in Cairo were made hideous by the blaring out of their sermons from loudspeakers sited on the minarets of the city’s mosques. No wonder that Indonesian friends who visited us in Cairo in 1956 were appalled at this blatant exploitation of their religion, for to them Islam is their own personal religion, and worship intended to be confined to the mosque and their own homes.


Alexandria owed a great deal of its prosperity to British investment and enterprise, and we were particularly strong in shipping, cotton growing, and spinning and weaving. A few had become wealthy in the process, and enjoyed a correspondingly lavish life-style. It was here for the first time that we came across that most excruciating form of social torture, the cocktail prolongé. Our first brush with it was at the palatial home of a very kindly and socially conscious lady, who took a pride in expending herself on giving. We went along to her cocktail prolongé expecting, as the name suggests, to be there no more than an hour or so longer than the usual cocktail time. But we encountered, not only a salon and bar easily absorbing some 250 guests, but also some 15-20 bridge tables set out in adjoining reception rooms and buzzing with the animated conversation and recrimination of compulsive bridge players. For many members of the British community were mad about the game, to the extent even of neglecting other more important occupations and devoting all their leisure hours, and more, incarcerated in the men’s section of the Union Club playing bridge. Guests at the cocktail were moving at will from the tables to the bar and back again, emerging out of the haze of the tobacco smoke to a more solid drink, then vanishing again to their own or another table, glass charged to the brim for the next bridge round. It was here that we were cured for good of any bridge ambitions. Henrietta was invited by our hostess to make up a table, and had the misfortune to partner one of Alexandria’s experts. She had in her hand a Yarborough with only the two in the suit in which he worked himself up to a grand slam. She made no bid throughout, but when she laid down the hand, he complained that she should have shown him the two diamonds! This was way beyond any convention she was aware of, and in great dudgeon she left the table and sent me to continue the game. We have not played since, avoiding it really for the same reason as the cocktail prolongé, for by 10 p.m. the evening was just beginning. The Nubian servants entered in their flowing silk gallabiyas bearing on high silver platters charged with every kind of fish, meat and sweets imaginable, and the game was broken off for the length of time needed to regale oneself.


We were lucky on that occasion to escape by 2 a.m., but after four years, or rather four winter seasons, the burden had become so oppressive that we begged for a posting, a thing one should never do in an organisation as big as the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, which always has one or two difficult posts it finds hard to fill. The trouble with Alexandria’s social life was that with a community of expatriates so large (2500 English alone), one faced the dilemma of whether to accept all the hospitality offered, or none at all. One could not pick and choose, and to avoid an invidious situation, we chose the former course, which worked really well when I was in a relatively junior capacity, but became greatly aggravated as I was promoted, and eventually acted as Consul-General for the best part of a year. At each hierarchical stage we mixed with our opposite numbers, junior executives as Vice-Consul, directors at the Consular stage, and finally as acting Consul-General the chairmen and board of directors and even the estate owners. Accepting and returning the hospitality of all these levels meant coping in the end with three or four cocktails and a dinner a night. All this in the 15 mile tongue of land, sandwiched between the sea and Lake Mariut. It became imperative to leave before the fifth season came upon us.


It was all very cosy, a Community living for itself and its pleasures, with its own Union Club defending its exclusiveness to the last, its monopoly of the sporting clubs, and entertainment within its own charmed circle, as if it would go on for ever and there would be no ominous groundswell from the clamour for full independence, the Moslem Brotherhood and Arab nationalism fired to white heat by the war with Israel. These pressures were, to be fair, masked by the cosmopolitan nature of Alexandria and the close relationships which had existed for many years between the British and leading Arabs and Copts. But the evidence of the impending crisis was already there, in the savage mob attacks on isolated soldiers during the withdrawal from the Delta, the daily agitation for the evacuation of the Canal, the shadowy activities of the Moslem Brotherhood, and the Government’s toleration and indeed encouragement of demonstrations by the rabble against the British.


Mob violence was never far below the surface. It never erupted spontaneously, but once the agitators had whipped up the crowd, it became hard to control the situation or to predict where it would end. The demonstrations in Alexandria were incited by the Government as a gesture of defiance against the continued British occupation of the Canal zone, and generally to shore up its waning popularity. Five piastres a day was the backshish rate paid to anyone joining in, so that by 9 a.m. on demonstration days a motley collection of port riff-raff, loafers and little boys would have been assembled in the port area ready to march on the commercial and residential quarters. I had an early warning system in operation, selected observers in offices along the demonstrators’ route, who would ring in as the rabble reached them. As the church was nearest the port, the Archdeacon was always the first to sound the alarm with his laconic “They’re at it again, Oliver”; thereafter the warning calls came in until the mob had reached the busy shopping centre and Barclays Bank, when it was time to remind the Governor of his responsibility to protect British life and property. We were lucky at that crucial time to have a fine, upstanding Governor in Mortada Moraghi, a deeply religious Muslim, who like all devout Muslims put his duty to his fellow-men first, and was determined to defend British life and property without fear or favour. He would have the police trailing the procession in an apparently haphazard way, until at a chosen point more police would block the way, drive the demonstrators into cul-de-sacs, and lay about them until they scattered, for that day at least. Demonstrations would be made during the night against obvious British targets, the Boys’ School or English Girls’ College, for instance, and I would be called to ensure they had the necessary protection. I still have a vivid picture in my memory of our faithful old Armenian retainer kneeling in the cockroach-infested garage and begging me not to go out to be killed. But I had to, and reckoned that in any case if they had wanted to kill me, they would have done so at my home; they threatened us often enough, usually with threats to kidnap the baby. Fortunately the demonstrations would come to nothing. The Governor would be there on the scene and order the crowds’ dispersal, and we could return to bed in the small hours. The problem of the safety of the 12,000 odd British subjects in their homes also greatly exercised me. Not so much the Maltese or Cypriots, for they were largely absorbed and integrated into the communities where they lived, but the English scattered in the residential areas along the whole length of Alexandria. Their very dispersal seemed to provide their best defence, and the security plan was based on that. They were advised in times of danger to stay at home or at most link up with their immediate neighbours. Some senior members of the Community resented this apparent inaction and would have had the British making their way through hostile streets to rendezvous at known British institutions, which they would have hoped to have defended to the last. The events of January 1952 proved the soundness of dispersal and in that month’s violent uprising the British Community in Alexandria escaped unscathed. Credit for this is also due in large part to the steadfastness and devoutness of the Governor Mortada. 


We returned to Egypt in 1956, a few months before the Suez fiasco, to a complete change of mood and atmosphere. It was safer than in 1952, the Army saw to that, but all the happiness of life in Egypt had gone out of the situation, to be replaced by the hideous din of endless parades and rallies which Nasser staged to bolster his popular appeal. It was miserable having to sit there and listen to the tirades against the British, to the flattery of their leader, and to the everlasting chanting of “Long live Gamal, Gamal Abdel Nasser”. Contacts with the regime were severely limited, although one did get to see Nasser’s journalist friend Hassanein Heykal whenever Nasser had a message to get across. The secret police were not obvious (the long gallabiyah proved the perfect disguise), but they were everywhere, and one stumbled into them from time to time. In the later phases of the crisis I was sent to Alexandria to hold the fort in place of a sick colleague. The first thing I did was to call on all my old Egyptian friends. They were delighted to see me again, but some rang me up afterwards, anxiously begging me not to call again, to spare them a second disagreeable visit from the secret police. Others were defiant, putting their friendship above their fear of reprisals. In each case they had a close connection with Islam, a father who had been rector or professor at the Azhar University, perhaps, and clearly felt powerful enough through that link to defy the authorities. Their faith had instilled into them the overriding importance of the bonds of friendship.


The Third World leaders were at that time busily playing off the West against the Soviet Union in order to get the maximum aid from both sides, and Nasser was doing his share at this most critical time. By so doing he obtained from the Soviet side a great deal of military equipment for his Army and Air Force, but also the many advisers, both in the Armed Forces and civilian life, which are an inevitable concomitant of Soviet arms deals. But the most fateful step at this juncture was the Soviet financial and technical support for the construction of the Aswan Dam, which guaranteed the funds for his cherished dream the West had failed to provide, and thus set in motion the train of events leading to the Suez disaster.


It seems tragic at this distance in time, that the Americans and their allies were not willing through the World Bank to put up the finances for the Dam and allowed the Russians to outmanoeuvre them, and that they were not prepared to reach an accommodation even at the eleventh hour over the nationalisation of the Suez Canal. It was also a cardinal mistake to join with the Israelis in the invasion of the Canal, and above all to imagine that the operation need only be confined to the Port Said area in order to overthrow Nasser. A wave of patriotic fervour was running through the nation and the Army, and it would undoubtedly have been necessary to come to Cairo to unseat him, a prospect which no military commander would have relished and which would have led to the bloodshed we avoided in 1948 by withdrawing our forces from the Delta.


And so relations were broken off and the Embassy closed down, after a brief period in which the essential staff were incarcerated in the building (the wives and children of the staff and of the British Community had been evacuated during the autumn months). Nasser promised that the lives of the remaining British residents would be protected, and kept his word. To do so, however, he was obliged to evacuate the last British by train across the Libyan border, rather than allow them to drive the distance by car; but in the end everyone left safe and sound.


Could the course of event have been changed if the West had worked harder for an accommodation with Nasser? Some members of the British business community in Cairo strongly criticized the Government for failing to appease him, or deflect him from his objectives by any gesture which might have saved his face or flattered his ego. They were in my view profoundly wrong in their assessment of the situation. Nasser was not to be deflected, once he had made up his mind. He had strong support in the patriotism running through the nation, and was confident that he could obtain from the soviet bloc what the West was not prepared to give him. The French and British Governments were in no mood to give Nasser all he wanted in a negotiated settlement, and there was still enough gunboat diplomacy around for them to believe that Nasser wold be brought to heel by a show of force on the Canal. The price was also far too high for the Americans, who hand not yet woken up to the extent of financial aid required in order to forestall Soviet influence through aid in the developing world.


In the event, the situation righted itself surprisingly quickly, and Egypt largely severed her connections with the Soviets and returned to her natural affinity with the West. The Americans eventually realised the extent of the involvement required of them and took over massive aid and investment programmes, and the French and British came back to play their special role in fostering the traditionally close cultural and commercial links which have made significant contributions to Egypt’s prosperity and her Western orientation.

bottom of page