April 2013

Encounters

Shane Maloney and Chris Grosz

Bob Menzies and Gamal Nasser

Words: Shane Maloney | Illustration: Chris Grosz

Prime Minister Menzies did not think very highly of Egyptians. “These Gyppos are a dangerous lot of backward adolescents, full of self importance and ignorance,” he recorded in his diary. He was just the man, in short, to head a diplomatic mission to Cairo to negotiate with the Egyptian president, Gamal Nasser.

In 1956, Nasser, whose modernising regime had overthrown the playboy King Farouk, nationalised the Suez Canal. This infuriated the British government. Anthony Eden, Britain’s benzedrine-addled, old-Etonian Tory prime minister, wanted the upstart killed. Failing that, the Egyptians must be taught a painful lesson in the correct behaviour towards their former colonial masters.

Nasser’s decision to “seize” part of his own country was met with enthusiasm at home and broad international acquiescence. The Americans, not yet fatally hooked on Middle Eastern oil, and unwilling to give an opening to the Russians, advocated a peaceful resolution. But Australia was only too willing to champion the tattered remnants of colonialism. While a military strike was being secretly plotted by Britain, France and Israel, Bob Menzies was dispatched to Cairo to waggle the imperial finger in Nasser’s face.

The suave 38-year-old Nasser, hoping that negotiations would lower the temperature, wondered why the British had sent “an Australian mule”. Menzies, an old Empire hand, knew how to deal with these querulous wogs. First, he tried charm. At the official dinner, he waxed lyrical about the surrounding gardens and did Churchill impressions, whispering in Nasser’s ear throughout the dinner. But at the official talks, when Nasser described plans to place the canal under international control as “collective colonialism” that would compromise Egyptian sovereignty, Menzies leant forward, eyebrows bristling, and told him he was asking for trouble.

That was the end for the Menzies mission. Soon after, Israel invaded Egypt. This provided a pretext for the French and British to bomb airfields and land troops. Menzies, by then homeward bound, was informed of the attack by telegram. It was sent to the wrong address.

More than a thousand Egyptian civilians were killed. The Americans, focused on the Soviet invasion of Hungary, threatened to devalue the pound. Within a week, Britain and France were forced to withdraw. Israel stayed. Eden lost his job.

Nasser’s prestige was hugely enhanced by the failure of the Anglo-French attempt to topple him. Menzies went on to serve another ten years as Australian prime minister. In his memoirs, he conceded that Nasser, despite his “irritating mannerisms” and “immaturity”, was an impressive and courageous patriot.

Shane Maloney and Chris Grosz

Shane Maloney is a writer and the author of the award-winning Murray Whelan series of crime novels. His 'Encounters', illustrated by Chris Grosz, have been published in a collection, Australian Encounters.

Chris Grosz is a book illustrator, painter and political cartoonist. He has illustrated newspapers and magazines such as the Age, the Bulletin and Time.

Cover: April 2013
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