367. Telegram From the Embassy in Egypt to the Department of State1

540. On occasion of visits to Washington this past winter and spring I had opportunity review with Department various ideas regarding situation here as developed with Embassy staff and other agency representatives. As result this consultation and regular Embassy reporting I believe Department has had fairly good idea of our thinking. However, recent events, including Nasser speeches on opening parliament and fifth anniversary of revolution and developments in Syria, have created stock-taking atmosphere and following is effort broad-brush situation as I now see it after staff consultation, and series [Page 714]talks with American correspondents, diplomatic colleagues, American community leaders and any others who might have ideas or knowledge or interest.

To begin with, it must be admitted that any effort to formulate definitive analysis of this situation is a frustrating business, not only to Embassy but to our diplomatic and press contacts. This arises partly from complexion of forces at play in area as whole but it is made particularly difficult here because so much centers in enigmatic character of Nasser himself. He is both frank and secretive, straightforward and conspiratorial, bold and irresolute, generous and petty, liberal and dictatorial, wise and foolish, dedicated and egotistical—a veritable Doctor Jekyll and Mister Hyde. Consequently any evaluation of him, his motives and his intentions must of necessity be qualified. In situation of this kind there is always natural feeling that, if last and inner door could be found and opened, a final clarification would be revealed but I have feeling in this case that, if inner sanctum of Nasser’s thinking could be located and illuminated, it would be found to contain more half-formed ideas than well laid plans. However, we have to deal with man as he is and following is effort analyze situation as I see it.

Basic fact in analyzing role of Nasser is that it has dichotomous quality. On one hand he is self-appointed leader of Egypt. On other hand, partly as result his own efforts but more largely as consequence of mass psychological phenomenon, he has become symbol of radical Arab nationalism and also, to lesser extent, of revolt against so-called imperialism in areas outside Arab orbit.

At present time both Nasser the leader and Nasser the symbol have suffered reverses and are at bay. Nasser, leader of Egypt, is encountering increasing economic and financial problems and, although he still retains considerable popular support, the recent elections proved disappointment.2 To be sure parliament was elected which should be generally subservient to regime but this had to be accomplished by high-handed methods. As recounted in his “Philosophy of the Revolution”, Nasser had hoped that, once old regime was over-thrown, Egyptian people would surge forward to take their places and assume responsibilities in new order. They failed do so and new regime has to impose its will by fiat. Five years elapsed and he tried again. Once again people failed respond and as consequence new parliamentary regime bids fair to be continuation of imposed, as contrasted with popularly supported, rule. Significance as far as Nasser is concerned is much more than ideological. He may not be wisest of men but he does have political flair which has convinced him of lack [Page 715]of long term dependability of largely military based regime. Consequently he has sought broader base and more solid support in masses. But masses have failed come forward and his basic domestic strategy has failed, not perhaps completely, but nevertheless sufficiently to give pause.

The other emblematic Nasser has also suffered reverses. Partly, perhaps even largely, this has been result of clumsy, heavy-handed and inept methods which aroused resentment among governing classes, if not among people, of Arab countries. Partly, it has been result of action of USG, especially through American Doctrine, which has cracked apparent, but never too solid, monolith of Arab unity under Egyptian leadership and domination.

Opinion regarding course which Nasser may be expected to follow in these circumstances varies but falls into two general categories. First and more reassuring is that he has learned lesson and will henceforth pull in his horns in foreign affairs and concentrate on domestic matters. Second is that, while taking cognizance of his reverses, he merely regards difficulties he has encountered as several lost battles in war which he still hopes and intends to win, and that he is currently engaged in re-forming his forces and re-tooling his organization preparatory to resuming attack while in meantime giving semblance of emphasizing domestic matters and also indulging in orgy of bluster in order satisfy radical elements both within and outside country.

My own thinking runs along second line, but, as between domestic and foreign problems, my guess is that he may actually be somewhat more perplexed by former, which are sufficiently varied and complex to give headache to most experienced administrator; which Nasser is not. In the foreign field on other hand—or perhaps one should say in general area of the Mid-east which constitutes only area of Nasser interest and knowledge—he is maneuvering on more familiar ground of rampant nationalism and intrigue. Not only that but it seems extremely likely that he means what he says when he maintains that, regardless of temporary reverses caused by other Arab leaders kicking over Egyptian traces, Arab people remain strongly nationalist and will follow him rather than those who have now turned against him. How far this may be true or false, I am unable to evaluate from here but no doubt that Nasser believes it and will presumably act accordingly. In fact there are those in his entourage who profess even to see advantage in present turn of events since they foresee that liquidation of “feudalism” in Arab countries will actually be hastened hereby. As one of them rather crudely put it, “You (the Americans) have merely stretched necks of reactionary rulers so that their heads may be more easily lopped off”.

[Page 716]

Question therefore arises as to policy which we should follow in this situation, but before approaching that unenviable task there are several subjects bearing on the situation about which few words might be said, i.e., posture of Egypt re the USSR and communism, “neutrality” and present Egyptian attitude toward United States.

As regards USSR and communism, Nasser repeatedly told me following my arrival in Egypt that, although force of circumstance (especially cotton and arms) had led to closer contacts with USSR than before, he was fully aware of danger of becoming enmeshed too closely with any great power, including USSR and US, and felt certain he was not getting on dangerous ground. He especially maintained that his arms commitments were not of nature to constitute serious loss of freedom of economic action. Gradually and especially more recently, however, such professions have tended die away and to be replaced by expressions of appreciation for Soviet favors not only in respect of arms and cotton but in political matters of interest to Egypt, although, to give the devil his due, it should be mentioned that both of Nasser’s recent speeches were notable for their somewhat perfunctory references to the USSR.

As regards communism, picture is somewhat blurred as Egyptian communists and Nasser seem to be in sparring stage with neither quite decided whether, or how, to make fight of it. Nasser once told me that thing he most feared in setting up parliamentary regime was that communists would adopt policy of supporting him and then use this as grounds for playing role in united front and bore from within to establish communist power. This in fact now seems to be general communist line although there is said to remain smaller group of hardbitten communists who strongly opposed Nasser in beginning and are said to be still of same mind. As regards Nasser himself, he gives impression of continuing to be suspicious of local communists but of being undecided exactly what to do about it and his task is not made easier by presence of a number of communists, crypto-communists and leftists on periphery of regime, if not actually in it.

Concerning “positive neutralism”, I would suggest reading of article entitled “The Strategy of Egyptian Defense” in publication The Armed Forces which appeared last fall and copies of which were transmitted to Defense by ARMA as enclosure to R–1692–56 dated December 12, 1956.3 We are, of course, familiar with standard Egyptian arguments for “positive neutrality” but this article puts case in particularly cogent form and gives substance to conclusion that, much as we may disagree with them and shortsighted as we may feel them to be, Egyptians have not adopted this policy merely from whimsy or only in order exploit its nuisance value but have real convictions which we [Page 717]should take into account in presenting controverting argument. However, what is particularly disturbing is that, whereas arguments of certain plausibility may have been adduced to support positive neutralism at an earlier stage, there is now alarming tendency for it to be sublimated, either unintentionally or intentionally, into form of non-neutral leftism, such as is already case in Syria.

Regarding Egyptian-American relations, one might conclude from excessive and vulgar fulminations of press that last strand of understanding had been severed. Situation is admittedly serious and depressing but I do not believe that it has gone as far as appearances might indicate. It is, of course, true that Nasser is in frustrated and vindictive mood as he sees our policies standing in way of some of his most cherished ambitions and also as he concludes, as he apparently has, that we are not only out to oppose him but in the end to do him in. It is also true that many Egyptians, including no small number of our Western oriented friends, are convinced that we are trying to stifle Egypt, not just regime but people themselves. But despite all this, and it should not be minimized, there is still great deal of residual goodwill for Americans personally and for our institutions and principles as distinct from governmental policy, and I have no doubt that if political developments could take happier turn there would be a strong upsurge of this feeling. In saying this, however, it should be noted that the present regime has spawned class of radicals and malcontents which will probably put its ugly imprint on Egyptian society for long time to come. If only for that reason, it is difficult to foresee return to “good old days” but that there still remains wherewithal for reestablishment of some reasonably constructive relationship, I have no doubt.

Finally, where do we go from here? Assuming, as I regretfully do (although many of my diplomatic colleagues and non-official Americans, including American correspondents, do not agree) that we have exhausted our persuasive powers to bring Nasser around to our point of view, or at least near enough to it to make minimum necessary collaboration possible, there are several courses of action which could be considered, such as:

It might be argued that our status as one of two colossi in the East-West conflict and our identification with Palestine issue has resulted in our having two strikes against us in dealing with Egypt but that others not so placed might be able to be effective where we have failed. The Indians are known to be aspirants to play this role and there have been indications from time to time that some of Mediterranean governments might not be averse to trying their hand. Spain, Italy, Yugoslavia, Greece and Turkey come to mind in this connection. Excluding India, this idea has at least a certain superficial attractiveness because of fact it would bring Nasser into contact with mentalities and attitudes different from complex-ridden Arabs and Asiatics for [Page 718]whom Bandung is symbol. It would also fit into recent Egyptian moves to develop traditional but recently neglected Mediterranean associations. However, this would seem rather thin reed on which to put much weight in itself. It might, however, have supplemental use fulness.
Another idea to be mentioned but presumably only to be dismissed as unrealistic would be some agreement with the Soviet Union re area. This would have advantage of raising level of action above present plane where we forced to maneuver on treacherous terrain of dissention, dissimulation and frustration re inter-Arab and Arab-Israeli conflict. However, I am aware of Department’s reaction to such suggestions in past and merely include it here for completion of check-list of alternatives.
Consideration could also be given to reviving Anglo-American cooperation in Mid-east but it is difficult see how policy which failed when British were stronger could have much promise in their present weakened state, particularly with Suez affair in background and Oman in foreground. However, policy of maximum consultation and collaboration of course desirable.
The United Nations has possibilities, has actually proved worth in certain instances and should be used to maximum. However, it has its limitations and it would be unrealistic to look to it alone for resolution of either area problems generally or Egyptian difficulties in particular.

On basis foregoing, conclusion would seem inevitable that, although we should develop collateral support as much as possible and perhaps to greater degree than we have done so far, we shall have to continue rely largely on our devices.…

. . . . . . .

… Another problem is to be able maintain sufficient degree of pressure on Nasser without forcing him to point where he will see no line of escape except to Soviets and will in fact go over to them and seek to take Egypt with him. (How this would fit in with Soviet policy is of course another question.) This would be one way of bringing situation to a head but it would be extreme and ominous expedient since it could, and probably would, involve American armed intervention of unpredictable magnitude.

This suggests that, in policy of curbing Nasser which we are in fact now following and which it is now proposed that we continue and supplement, we should provide some alternative way out which, even though Nasser did not accept it, would make our posture more unassailable to both people of Egypt and others who, although critical of Nasser in varying degrees, see him in role of victim as well as villain. For appearances sake if for no other, sinner should be given opportunity for redemption. Not only is this important from Soviet angle but it would also make it easier to enlist varying degrees of support from others, possibly even Indians, who are perturbed at development [Page 719]events here but could hardly be expected go along with overt oust-Nasser policy. In other words, it is suggested that what is needed is a well-labelled escape hatch which Nasser could use in unexpected event he decided to mend his ways but which would in any case serve to put USG in better position with countries which might lend hand, and also lessen latitude for Soviet exploitation.

As regards form of such an escape hatch, following would seem to be essential characteristics:

It should be consistent with American policy but nevertheless should not give impression that we are being more rigid in dealing with Nasser than we are with others, such as Titos and Nehrus who are only willing meet us part way.
It should be a formula which could, and probably should, be made public, although not necessarily in a formal statement.
It should not give idea that we are going soft on Nasser or that we are in any way letting down friendly governments of area.
It should be formulated in obviously reasonable terms which would contrast with wild screeching of Egyptian propaganda.
It should be used as peg to re-state our traditional sympathy with constructive nationalism.
It should be accompanied by quiet but comprehensive campaign to re-explain our position in matters where Nasser claims he has been wronged (arms, wheat, Aswan, frozen assets, expert export controls) and where unfortunately he is more generally believed than may sometimes be realized.

Although this criteria might seem somewhat formidable, I believe that necessary ingredients were contained in Deptel 40924 instructing me regarding replies on neutralism and nationalism which I might make to Nasser following my return from Washington in June. At least, it would seem to be good starting point.

What should be made clear not only to Nasser but to others is that US will match Egypt stride for stride in any march toward constructive nationalism and also that it is not necessary to see eye to eye on neutralism in order to maintain reasonably friendly relations. We would have no necessary quarrel with Nasser as a really patriotic Arab or honest neutralist. Where our ways part, and part sharply, is at point where nationalism is perverted by derogation of the rights of the individual into a mass radical movement which will eventually fall into the hands of outsiders far more experienced and adept in using such movements for their own ends, and also at point where other Arab States are not allowed that liberty of action which Nasser asserts so strongly for Egypt. What should be made clear is that any pressure exerted on Egypt is not for the purpose of crippling it but directing it along road of its real self-interest and of area peace and stability. As regards Nasser’s alleged opposition to Communism in Egypt, that is [Page 720]all to the good if sincerely pursued but we cannot back him solely on that count in situation where, as result other ill-conceived area policies, he is giving Soviet gilt-edged introduction to ME.

At same time we are making these basic principles clear, it could be helpful and also in keeping with such principles to indicate our disposition to reciprocate in specific matter where GOE is prepared demonstrate good intent by forthcoming acts. Blocked accounts, especially [come] to mind in this connection and forthcoming visit of Kaissouny to Washington could furnish appropriate occasion make clear solution possible if GOE prepared face up squarely to reasonable settlement with old Suez Company. Complications, with [both?] practical and subjective, of this problem realized but it is also fact this is case which gives Nasser more grist for his persecution mill than any other and outline of our policy would emerge much more clearly if this obfuscating issue could be satisfactorily liquidated.

In this connection and also by way of general observation it should be noted that, in maintaining and supplementing our present policy in respect of Egypt, distinction must constantly be made between “pressures” which can be applied within scope of a policy of chilly and non-cooperative correctness, and “sanctions” which are characteristic of policy of active hostility. Mixture of two policies would be natural in transition from first or second but, in absence such decision, such mixture tends toward confusion and lessened effectiveness.

Finally, I would suggest that, in adopting this general type of approach, we will still maintain liberty of action to follow a harder line if circumstances should require. I believe, however, that on the basis of the situation as seen from here as of present, our best tactic is to combine carefully applied pressure coupled with indication of a reasonable one of retreat for Nasser. Frankly, I do not expect he will take it but, by so doing, we would not only retain maneuverability but also prompt a better understanding of our policy both inside and outside Egypt.

Foregoing has been in process formulation for past month and conclusions reached and suggestions made do not take into consideration current Syrian developments. Question here is degree to which Nasser may have been privy to Syrian events, or, if they took place without his full knowledge, may endorse or deplore them. Information available on this subject fragmentary but usually reliable sources close to Nasser indicate to us that Nasser feels Syrian situation has gone too far (Embassy telegrams 534 and 537)5 and is perturbed not only because [Page 721]of itself but possible effect on Egypt. If so, it would not be first time Syria has failed coordinate with Egypt without however causing serious difficulty but just possible that present situation could be horse of another color and might be possible exploit. If so, manner of approach would be important.

One way would be for us to approach Nasser direct. Argument for so doing is that Nasser has at times complained of failure consult him in person regarding important matters and indicated problems could be simplified if direct approach used. Argument against is that could appear we were approaching him in recognition his indispensability and thus further inflate his ego and raise ante for his possible cooperation.

Another approach could be through other Arab leaders, especially King Saud, who, although currently at loggerheads with Nasser, might be able establish common ground of interest and action in Arab context.

Judging by Nasser’s response to similar overtures, I am not sanguine he will show greater statesmanship in this instance but there is no gainsaying fact that opportunity exists and it would seem desirable explore even though prospects of success not bright.

I regret length this self-imposed de-briefing but, as mentioned at outset, this seems to be period for stock-taking and perhaps for decisions of gravity and therefore seemed desirable round out picture somewhat beyond scope routine report.

Addressee note this telegram Noforn.6

  1. Source: Department of State, Central Files, 123–Hare, Raymond A. Secret; Noforn. Received at 12:35 p.m. Repeated to Amman, Baghdad, Beirut, Damascus, Jidda, London, Moscow, Paris, and Rome. On August 26, Howe transmitted a copy of telegram 540 to Goodpaster at the White House under cover of a note indicating that Secretary Dulles had asked that the telegram be sent to President Eisenhower. (Ibid., 611.74/8–2557)
  2. On July 3, the first Parliamentary elections were held in Egypt since the Revolution of 1952.
  3. Not printed.
  4. Document 340.
  5. Telegrams 534 and 537, August 23, reported Haikal’s view that Nasser viewed Syrian leaders as leftists rather than Communists and feared that U.S. pressure might drive them further toward the left. (Both in Department of State, Central Files, 783.00/8–2357)
  6. In response to telegram 540, Dulles instructed Hare to seek an appointment with Nasser in order to discuss the Syrian situation. Hare met with Nasser on August 31 and discussed both the Syrian situation and U.S.-Egyptian relations in general. During the conversation, Hare stressed U.S. concern over the spread of Communism in the Middle East. Nasser, in turn, stressed his personal opposition to Communism, but noted that American efforts to pressure and isolate Egypt were of greater concern to him. A report of the conversation was transmitted to the Department of State in telegram 608 from Cairo, September 1. (Ibid., 783.00/9–157)