One reads this book almost with nostalgia. The 1950’s, and the dramatic events that occurred during that decade in the Middle East, are the subject of these historically important recollections by Mohamed Heikal, confidant of Gamal Abdel Nasser and distinguished editor of the Cairo newspaper Akhbar el-Yom. Heikal reminds us that during the 1950’s relations between the Arab world and the West differed markedly from today, and that Nasser and other leaders eschewed the gnostic redemptionism that now so disfigures Arab, Israeli, and Islamic politics.

In this his sixth book, Heikal completes the story begun in his articles entitled “Political Inquiry,” published in the Egyptian press in 1958 and 1967 and continued in his 1973 book. The Cairo Documents: Nasser’s International Relations. Cutting the Lion’s Tail is the English adaptation of Milafatt es-Suways (“The Suez Files”) published in Cairo in 1986. The book is based on Heikal’s notes of his almost daily conversations with Nasser, as well as on a rich lode of Egyptian archival material. It constitutes the authoritative Egyptian version of the nationalization of the Suez Canal in 1956, and the subsequent invasion of Egypt by England, France, and Israel.

Heikal also discusses many of the other principal international issues of the time: the Baghdad Pact, Egyptian-Israeli relations, and financing of the Aswan High Dam. While predictably sympathetic to Nasser and many Egyptian goals, Heikal does succeed in maintaining a reasonable degree of objectivity while recounting his fascinating story.

No issue served more to poison relations between Egypt and the West than the Baghdad Pact. During 1954 and 1955, Britain, Turkey, Iraq, Pakistan, and Iran signed agreements pledging political and military collaboration to resist Soviet expansionism. The Baghdad Pact was midwifed by the United States, which did not, however, become a member. Pressure was exerted on Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan to join the pact. In Nasser’s view, Israel, rather than the USSR, presented the greatest threat to Arab independence and unity. According to Heikal, Nasser feared that if Iraq persisted in its alliance with non-Arab powers, and especially if other Arab states joined that alliance, the Arab world would be cut in two and Egypt would find itself “isolated, deprived of any prospect of getting arms, and left to face the threat of Israel alone.” Where Israel had divided the Arab world geographically, the Baghdad Pact, in Nasser’s view, threatened to do so politically. In the event, no other Arab states joined the pact, and Iraq repudiated its membership following the Iraqi revolution in 1958.

Despite his formal opposition to Israel as a barrier dividing the Arab world, Nasser’s real policy toward Israel was pragmatic. Heikal notes that in 1953 Nasser let David Ben-Gurion know that Egypt did not want a war because it wished to concentrate on economic development (Ben-Gurion’s response was that this was the “worst news [he] had ever heard,” because a developed Egypt might confront Israel with a serious challenge). In 1955, Nasser indicated his acceptance of the 1947 UN Palestine partition resolution. Heikal describes the sporadic Palestinian raids into Israel from the Egyptian Sinai and the massive Israeli military responses that ended any hope for peace, and helped to set the stage for the Suez invasion of 1956.

Today there is little argument that American cancellation of its-offer, to finance construction of the Aswan Dam was one of the greatest blunders in American diplomatic history. How the USSR benefited from this American misjudgment is well-known. Heikal emphasizes what Egyptians believed to be the deliberately offensive language in John Foster Dulles’ final aide-memoire on the subject, and that statement’s devastating impact on the credibility of Ahmad Hussein, then- Egyptian Ambassador to the United States and a staunch supporter of close US-Egyptian relations. Within only a week Nasser struck back, announcing the nationalization of the Suez Canal on July 26, 1956.

During the three months between nationalization and the outbreak of war, Egypt proved that it could and would operate the Canal responsibly. Heikal notes that there was no interruption of traffic: during the first thirty days of the Canal’s operation under Egyptian control traffic actually increased by 15 percent, and Egypt made no move to raise tolls to finance construction of the Aswan Dam, as some had feared. Nevertheless, England, France, and Israel perceived only that Nasser had apparently overreached himself, and finally had provided them a plausible excuse to remove him by force.

What is most interesting about Heikal’s book, and will probably prove most controversial, is his analysis of the 1956 war. According to Heikal, Israel opened that campaign by invading Sinai on October 28, 1956, hoping to entice Egyptian troops eastward out of the Canal Zone, thereby opening the Canal to a lightning occupation by Britain and France. In Heikal’s opinion, this strategy was worked out in advance by the three invading powers. At the critical moment, Nasser detected the ruse and withdrew many of the troops he had in Sinai to concentrate them along the Canal. Heikal describes how dumbfounded Nasser was when the tripartite collusion became clear. Not surprisingly, Nasser had expected Britain to have some consideration for its friends in Iraq, and both England and France to be sensitive to Western interests throughout the Arab world. The European powers, Heikal observes, had “committed the one unforgivable sin—combining with Israel to attack an Arab country. [Nasser] found the whole situation made no sense at all—it was, in fact, quite mad.”

Militarily, Nasser determined to fight to the end in the Canal Zone, and to mount a guerrilla resistance were the Western powers to occupy Cairo. According to Heikal, a potential command center was reconnoitered in the Nile Delta, and a mobile transmitter dispatched there. Given a four-day delay by Britain and France in launching their assault, these contingency plans never had to be activated. Indeed, American diplomacy, along with tough Egyptian resistance, halted the European forces before they completed occupation of the Canal. What was perceived by Arabs as Nasser’s partial triumph made resentment against the West less than it might have been, and America’s repudiation of the action of its allies helped to preserve US interests in the Middle East. Heikal argues that only two victors emerged from the 1956 war: Egypt, but more especially the United States.

Heikal attacks as “legend” the belief in the brilliance of the Israeli army’s performance in the 1956 war. According to Heikal, the Egyptian army made no concerted attempt to prevent the Israeli advance across Sinai, concerned as it was to defend the Canal Zone against Britain and France. What Egyptian troops remained in Sinai had no air cover, Heikal notes, and the Israeli force was augmented by French pilots. In this regard, future scholarship will have to determine whether Heikal’s account of events, or that offered by Moshe Dayan in his 1966 book, Diary of the Sinai Campaign, is the more credible.

Of Nasser himself, perhaps the last, best word was said long ago by Dwight D. Eisenhower: “Whatever you think of him, at least he [was] a leader.”


[Cutting the Lion’s Tail: Suez Through Egyptian Eyes, by Mohamed H. Heikal (New York: Arbor House) $18.95]