Mauritius Times: 60 Years Ago
Some call it a fight for freedom of the seas while others think that they must unite to check the second wave of Western imperialism
Since a few weeks, all attention is centered round the Suez. Many even believe that it will bring about a Third World War. The average newspaper reader who is prone to be excited one way or the other does not really know all the aspects of the problem. As it is the burning topic today it is necessary to look at the issue rather objectively with a view to enlightening public opinion.
Like Eiffel, Ferdinand de Lesseps was an enterprising Frenchman who conceived the idea of linking the Red Sea with the Mediterranean by cutting a Canal at the narrowest point at Suez. The canal is at present owned by a French company, La Compagnie Universelle du Canal Maritime de Suez with the British Government controlling 295,000 out of the 652,000 shares. The Board of Directors consists generally of English and French but the Italians also claimed seats on it. The Canal Company claims fees from all ships passing through the Canal. The Canal is in Egyptian territory and the charter provides that after its expiry in 1967 the Egyptian Government will take it over. The canal is the most important waterway in the world as it links up America and Europe to East Africa, Asia and Australia. It has become more important in the oil politics as most of the oil passes through it. As such it is a double lifeline as the oil runs many of the large concerns in all parts of the world.
Formerly, Egypt was under the suzerainty of Britain. One of the first struggles of independence in the coloured countries began in Egypt under the leadership of Zaglul Pasha. The struggle went on for a very long time. Later the British gradually left Egypt but kept their forces to guard the Canal zone. They also established an Anglo-Egyptian condominium in Sudan. During the last war, most of our pioneers were stationed in this area and in fact it was from here that the armies went out to fight the mighty power of Rommel. Then the English withdrew both from the Suez Canal zone and from Sudan. Egypt and Sudan have become independent. Egypt thought of building a high dam on the Rive Nile at Aswan with the hope of increasing the national revenues and production. It is to be the largest dam in the world and naturally the expenses are going to be astronomical. U.S.A. and England had promised to make loans for this great enterprise and Mr Eugene Black, the manager of the World Bank had discussed the problem on the spot and had agreed in principle. Anglo-Egyptian relations deteriorated when it was reported that the government of Col. Nasser was furiously buying arms from countries behind the Iron Curtain. But matters really came to a head when, on the occasion of the anniversary of British evacuation of the Suez Canal, Mr Dmitri Shepilov, Foreign Minister of Russia was lavishly feted. The American Government gave certain reasons and withdrew the offer of loans for the Aswan dam and this was followed by a similar declaration from England. Nasser had naturally built high hopes on the high dam. He made a declaration the nationalise the Canal and to given compensation now valued by Nasser at £71 million. He expects that the revenues of the Canal, valued annually at £10 million would help the construction of the Aswan dam as also many other enterprises. It means that the Egyptian government is seizing the Canal eleven years too soon.
Is Egypt justified in nationalising the Canal? There seems to be a consensus of opinion that she is. It is part of her territory and this was implicit in the Canal charter which makes Egypt take it over in 1967. Nor has anyone seriously raised any judicial objection to Egypt taking it over eleven years sooner than the accepted conventions. The more so when Nasser has expressly referred to compensation to the shareholders. Some people have seriously discussed the possibility of cutting a rival canal joining the gulf of Aqaba to the Mediterranean. It will mean a parallel canal on the east of Suez in the territory of Israel. But in the final analysis it will mean antagonising the whole of the Arab world which looks daggers on Israel. It is not so much the problem of a mere canal as it is of the supremacy of the Middle East and its much coveted oil wells.
The Problem at issue
The main problem at issue appears to be the guaranteeing of the freedom of navigation. Everyone seems to agree that this important waterway should, as in the past, afford easy access to all ships, in times of peace as in times of war. Col. Nasser concedes that it should be so. He further says that this was, in the past, done by the British army stationed in the Canal zone and that after the withdrawal of the British, this work was undertaken by the Egyptian Government. The Egyptian President has also visualised an early Conference of the signatories of the Suez agreement of 1888 to settle outstanding issues. England, France and the U.S.A. have convened a conference in London and have invited a large number of countries. Egypt and Greece are the only two invited powers that have refused to attend. The conference was opened yesterday. The problem boils down to the freedom of navigation. The countries convening the London Conference want to have an international authority to be responsible for this. The Afro-Asian countries do not generally seem to favour this idea. They are of the view that it will greatly impair the territorial sovereignty of Egypt. The countries that are against any encroachments of the sovereignty of Egypt are the communist countries, the Arab States and the other Asian powers.
A few matters have come to complicate things. Sec. 53 of the Charter of the United Nations Organization makes it incumbent on the members to seek solution through peaceful means when something threatens to challenge world peace. It is not easy to understand why that great body has not been invoked at all on this important question. No less inscrutable is the feverish war preparations. While every country is desirous of settling the problem peacefully, we hear every day of some form of war fever. Many of the Arab countries have said clearly that they back Egypt and would be prepared to fight on the side of Egypt if she is attacked. There is a marked cleavage of opinion. Many have already taken sides. Some call it a fight for freedom of the seas while others think that they must unite to check the second wave of Western imperialism in Asia and Africa. In fact, in the face of statements on both sides, the issue is not so alarming as to raise war fever to such a pitch. It is simply one of sitting together to devise some formula to ensure liberty of navigation through the Canal. But if there is such superlative pother, it is simply because there is more than meets the eye. If a war comes, it will annihilate this heritage of ours and will hasten the day of doom. That is why we must pray to God to give poise and discernment to the men meeting in London so that they can help avert another Armageddon.
* Published in print edition on 28 September 2018