czech arms deal

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What was Nasser's motivation in signing the Czech arms deal?
The Czech arms deal marked a turning point in Egypt's foreign relations with the world. The
introduction of Soviet arms in Egypt broke the Western monopoly on military resources
which had previously existed throughout the Middle East. In looking at Nasser's motivation
for signing the Czech arms deal it will be necessary to look at both the reasons why Nasser
wanted arms and also the incentive for choosing Soviet arms. Although there is a
historiographical strand which argues that Nasser wanted to disassociate himself with the
West and was sympathetic to the ideals of the Soviet Union; it was predominantly the
formation of the Baghdad Pact that forced Nasser to turn away from the West to suffice his
burgeoning military needs. The disobliging and tentative diplomacy that the West conducted
towards Egypt throughout this period coupled with inadequate proposals of military
equipment and unfavourable purchasing options left Nasser with little option than to look to
the East for arms. The belligerent approach of the ever expanding Israeli military gave Nasser
a pretext to bolster his military, which he knew would put Egypt in a commanding position in
the Middle East and fuel his drive to become leader of the Arab world.
A key reason why Nasser sought an arms deal was because of the increasing antagonistic
relationship Egypt had with its geographical neighbour Israel. Primakov is correct in arguing
that the question of arms had largely arisen because of the ongoing conflict with Israel, and
the specific instance of the Gaza raid on the 28 February 1955 gave Nasser further proof for
the necessity of an arms deal.1 Egypt had technically been at war with Israel since the 1948
Arab-Israeli War and hostilities had sporadically continued through the early 1950s; however
the scale of the Gaza raid (in which 39 people died) marked the highest death toll since the
Qibya raid in October 1953 and was massively out of proportion with skirmishes that had
been occurring up until that point. The raid had intended to set a precedent for Ben-Gurion's

1 Y. Primakov, Russia and the Arabs (New York, 2009) p.33

return to the Israeli premiership and exposed the inadequacy and inferiority of the Egyptian
army in comparison with Israeli forces.2 It had always been integral for Egypt to keep Israel
in check and the raid prioritised Nasser's need to challenge the Israeli military superiority
over Egypt.3 This point is substantiated by Heikal who argues that Nasser had no option but
to react to the Gaza raid due to the number of Egyptians killed and to counter the policy of
`massive punitive raids' that would seemingly continue under Ben-Gurion .4
The validity of Heikal's analysis should be taken with caution due to his frequent pro-
Nasserite, unsubstantiated claims which has led one critic to call him `Egypt's most eminent
propagandist and the anointed prophet of Nasserism'.5 However he is correct to assert that
Nasser had to react to the Gaza raid due to his position in regards to Egypt and the Arab
world, (which were both vehemently anti-Zionist) but his decision to gain arms had been
made months before. The Gaza raid merely acted as the justifiable incident Nasser was
waiting for to arm his country. The Israelis and the French had secretly broken the 1950
Tripartite Agreement which attempted to limit the flow of arms into the Middle East, and
Nasser's suspicions were confirmed when he found evidence that the Israelis were receiving
considerably more arms than the Egyptians in a stolen British military intelligence review.6
Glassman states that a secret arms deal had been concluded between Israel and France on 31
July 1954, and heavy arms including jet fighters were received in clandestine deliveries.7
Glubb confirms that Egypt was convinced that the West was `secretly arming Israel'.8
Therefore by proving that Nasser thought Israel was acquiring a disproportionate amount of
arms to that of Egypt prior to the Gaza raid, it is likely the decision to strengthen the Egyptian

2 K. Kyle, Suez: Britain's End of Empire in the Middle East (London, 2003) p.62
3 R. McNamara, Nasser and the Balance of Power in the Middle East 1952-1957 (London, 2003) p.43
4 M. Heikal, The Cairo Documents (New York, 1973) p.27, 43
5 Introduction by E. Sheehan in M. Heikal, The Cairo Documents (New York, 1973) p.xii
6 H. Trevelayn, The Middle East in Revolution (London, 1970) p.31
7 J. Glassman, Arms for the Arabs (London, 1975) p.9
8 J. Glubb, A Soldier with the Arabs (London, 1957) p. 380

military to match the Israelis would have been taken earlier. Contesting Israeli military
superiority was a vital aspect in Nasser's decision to acquire arms but this was not driven by
an isolated event such as the Gaza raid as he claimed.9 It was a policy that had been
embedded into Egyptian politics since the formation of Israel and the Gaza raid merely
provided another case in point that `military hardware had to be obtained'.10 Whilst Nasser
appealed to the West after the Gaza raid stating `how essential it was for Egypt to get guns
and tanks and jets' for protection, in reality this was a rouse to disguise other ulterior
A pivotal event in Nasser's decision to obtain arms from the Soviets and crucial to
understanding Nasser's need for arms, was the signing of the precursor to the Baghdad Pact
in the form of the Turco-Iraqi Pact on 24 February 1955. Nasser allegedly told Eden that `he
thought the idea of the Baghdad Pact was leading to the division of the Arab world and the
isolation of Egypt'.12 This is confirmed by Byroade who confirmed that Nasser saw the
Turco-Iraqi Pact as an attempt by the West to isolate Egypt.13 British Foreign Office
documents state that by achieving `treaty arrangements' with Iraq it `made it necessary for us
to distort our Middle East defence policy in such a way as to leave Egypt out'.14 It is clear
that Nasser perceived the Pact as a threat to his standing in the Middle East, especially due to
the inclusion of Iraq which he saw as a rival to his leadership of the Arab world.15 Nasser was
committed to the idea of Arab unity and the Baghdad Pact `was splitting the Arab camp and
jeopardizing his plans'.16 Furthermore Nasser thought Egypt should be the leaders of a

9 H. Trevelayn, `The Middle East in Revolution' p.31
10 K. Dawisha, Soviet Foreign Policy Towards Egypt (London, 1979) p.10
11 M. Heikal, `The Cairo Documents' p. 47
12 M. Heikal, `The Cairo Documents' p. 75
13 Byroade to State Department, Foreign Relations of the United States, 1955-1957, Arab-Israeli Dispute, 1955,
Volume XIV, Document 342, October 18 1955 p.609
14 Meeting between G. Arthur, J. Brewis, L. Fry and T. Bromley, 23-25 April 1955, in J. Kent (ed.) Egypt and the
Defence of the Middle East,
Part III 1953-1956 (London, 1998) p.413
15 Y. Primakov, `Russia and the Arabs' p. 32
16 W. Laqueur, The Struggle for the Middle East (London, 1969) p.10

Middle Eastern Defence Pact completely free of Western influence.17 The Pact was seen by
Arab nationalists as `further proof of the old colonial powers determination to keep the local
states under their tutelage'.18 From Nasser's standpoint the Baghdad Pact encroached on his
broader aspirations in the Arab world by isolating Egypt and causing Arab disunity, therefore
it was necessary to gain arms to reassert his (and Egypt's) position in the Middle East.
The signing of a Northern Tier Defence Pact had further implications for the West. For the
first time, Nasser began to seriously consider purchasing arms from a non-Western country. It
was because of the disobliging and rigid diplomacy of Britain and America that this decision
was taken, Nasser's requests had been consistent. The British were unwilling to cooperate
with Nasser because they did not want to upset the delicate balance of power that existed in
the Middle East and they would not compromise over the Baghdad Pact. Macmillan asserted
that an arms deal with Egypt `would seriously alter the balance of power in the Middle East'
which had hitherto been maintained by the Tripartite agreement of 1950.19It was due to the
shift in British policy in the Middle East, from the Alpha Plan to the formation of the
Baghdad Pact, that Nasser realised Egypt was never going to get the quantity or quality of
arms it desired from the British.20 British policy is typified by a memorandum from Eden to
Makins which states that `it would be most unwise to try to help Nasser at the cost of
weakening our support for the Turco-Iraqi Pact'.21 Heikal states that the British agreed to
supply Nasser with a small number of tanks on the proviso that `Egypt stopped attacking the
Baghdad Pact'.22 This supports the view that the British were only willing to limitedly arm
Nasser if he cooperated with their interests in the region and complied with the Baghdad Pact.

17 R. Ginat, The Soviet Union and Egypt 1845-1955 (London, 1993) p.182
18 A. Dawisha, `The Soviet Union in the Arab World: The Limits to Superpower Influence' in A. Dawisha and K.
Dawisha (eds.) The Soviet Union in the Middle East (London, 1982) p.9
19 H. Macmillan, Tides of Fortune 1945-1955 (London, 1969) p.635
20 H. Trevelyan, `The Middle East in Revolution' p.27
21 Eden to Makins, 31 March 1955, `Egypt and the Defence of the Middle East, Part III' p. 412
22 M. Heikal, `The Cairo Documents' p.9

This was completely unthinkable for Nasser who knew that such a move would massively
undermine his support in the Arab world whilst only partially fulfilling his military requests.
Furthermore Nasser harboured a certain amount of resentment towards imperialism which he
saw as `playing a one-card game in order to threaten only' and it would have taken a
substantial offer, with no imperialist strings attached, to persuade Nasser to purchase arms.23
Neither Nasser nor the British were willing to compromise.
Likewise the Baghdad Pact proved to be the turning point in the negotiations for an arms deal
with the United States. The Americans were viewed in a more optimistic light by Egyptians
as they did not historically share the same imperialistic ties as the British. Nasser knew there
was potential for a large arms deal to be made, due to their ever-increasing global power.
Nasser had been asking for military support for months before the pact was formed and a
potential deal for 27 million pounds of arms had been offered in an attempt to appease Egypt
in 1954.24 However the deal was to be made in dollars and this equalled Nasser's reserves in
the currency, therefore he was unwilling to make this commitment. He repeatedly asked the
State Department to reconsider the payment method but got no definite answer. Heikal
blames a `breakdown in communication' between the ageing US ambassador Caffrey and
Nasser who `found it difficult to deal with young Arab officers'.25 However State Department
documents from after the Czech arms deal, suggest that it was broader American policy that
caused the difficulties. Caffrey was replaced by Byroade in January 1955 and the
procrastination of the Americans over a potential arms deal continued. The United States
were unwilling to commit to an arms deal because they were not in a position to grant
military assistance to Egypt without `causing trouble with Israel' and their policy was `to

23 G. Nasser, The Philosophy of the Revolution (United States, 1959) p.30
24 H. Trevelyan, `The Middle East in Revolution' p.27
25 M. Heiklal, `The Cairo Documents' p.42

serve as a friend of both sides'.26 They viewed the spread of communism as the primary
danger in the region whilst this was not an Egyptian concern who perceived Israel as the most
immediate threat.27 By backing the Baghdad Pact the Americans isolated Egypt though their
primary motive was to deter communism. Copeland states `we wanted in Egypt a leader
whose views were more or less consistent with ours'.28 This view that Nasser should fall in
line with American policy fatally underestimated the fact that he could look elsewhere for
arms and completely overestimated the way the Americans thought they could predict
Nasser's behaviour and implement policy in the region. For Nasser `growing tensions with
the United States later turned into outright enmity'.29
The Baghdad Pact convinced Nasser that under the present conditions an arms deal with the
West was unattainable. Therefore in April 1955 as a direct response to Western attempts to
isolate Egypt, Nasser publically announced a policy of Non-Alignment by attending the
Bandung conference. Whilst Dallin argues that personal contacts with Nasser and the
socialist camp were established at the conference- which led to Soviet-Egyptian
corroboration; it was likely that relations had existed months before, as Golani asserts.30
However it is impossible to validate Ginat's claim that a deal had been brokered earlier in
February 1955 which is based on a speculative report by Byroade to the State Department.31
It is probable that a Soviet offer of arms was made to the Egyptians before the Bandung
conference and the public announcement of Non-Alignment put Nasser in a powerful
bargaining position as he showed he was not afraid to turn away from the West.32 It became

26 FRUS, Volume XIV Document 310, US and UK correspondence, September 26 1955 pp. 517-519
27 G. Golan, Soviet Policies in the Middle East (Cambridge, 1990) p. 45
28 M. Copeland, The Game Player (London, 1989) p.198
29 Y. Primakov, `Russia and the Arabs' p. 36
30 D. Dallin, Soviet Foreign Policy after Stalin (London, 1962) pp.392-3 and M. Golani, Israel in Search of a War
(Brighton, 1998) p.12
31 R. Ginat, `The Soviet Union and Egypt' p.211
32 K. Dawisha, `Soviet Foreign Policy towards Egypt' p. 13 and M. Heikal, `The Cairo Documents' p.48

apparent to the Americans and British that the Soviets had offered an arms deal to Nasser by
May 1955.33
On the contrary Glubb states that the policy of Nasser was orientated to communism at the
Bandung conference but that `the Western Powers seemed to be unaware that anything had
happened until the Czech arms deal in September 1955'.34 However it is fallacious to assume
that Nasser had politically disassociated himself with the West and allied with the Soviet
Union by the start of the Bandung conference. Nasser still preferred an arms deal with the
Western powers for practical reasons as there would be no language barrier between the
nations and the Egyptian army was not accustomed to Russian arms.35 Therefore he informed
the Western Powers he had conducted a deal with the Soviets and hoped that his
announcement of a policy of Non-Alignment would let Dulles know that he was serious
about taking up the offer.36 The Western reaction was one of obstinance, the British felt that
if they negotiated an arms deal with Egypt it would be giving in to `Egyptian blackmail'.37
The CIA informed the State Department that Nasser was serious about signing a deal with the
Soviets `but the State Department persisted in the notion that he was bluffing'.38 This
miscalculated diplomatic approach meant that Nasser had no option but to turn to the Soviets
to suffice his need for military hardware.
Because of the persistent non-cooperative approach of the West in supplying Nasser arms, it
was rational for Nasser to take up the Soviet offer. Due to Soviet political aspirations in the
Middle East, all of Nasser's demands were met without any of the provisos of Western offers.
Nasser did not see the Soviets as a threat stating `they have never attacked us and they have

33 M. Golani, `Israel in Search of a War' p. 12 and K. Kyle, `Suez: Britain's End of Empire' p. 72
34 J. Glubb, `A Soldier with the Arabs' p. 379
35 M. Heikal, `The Cairo Documents' p. 49 and H. Trevelyan, `The Middle East in Revolution' p.28
36 E. Podeh, `The Drift towards Neutrality: Egyptian Foreign Policy during the Early Nasserist Era, 1952-55'
Middle Eastern Studies 32/1 (1996) p. 173
37 Hadow and Caccia, 23 September 1955,`Egypt and the Defence of the Middle East, Part III' p. 438
38 M. Copeland, `The Game Player' p. 199

never occupied our territory'.39 He felt the threat from communism came internally which he
argued Egypt was strong enough to cope with `communism is banned in Egypt...they have no
able leadership. Many other communists are in prison'.40 The deal was a `purely commercial
transaction' and an isolated event.41 The Soviets offered MIG jet fighters, Ilyushin jet
bombers and tanks which crucially could be paid for in cotton-Egypt's main export crop of
which she had massive supplies in reserve.42 This payment method, which the Americans had
not been willing to accede to, allowed Egypt to obtain a `quantity and quality of weapons
whose value far exceeded Cairo's foreign-exchange holdings'.43 Furthermore the Soviets
started to take a pro-Egyptian stand on the Arab-Israeli issue and the arms supplied put Egypt
in a commanding position regarding an Arab-Israeli settlement.44 For Nasser the offer was
too good to refuse.
Shuckburgh wrote after the Czech arms deal had been announced that `it would have been
much better if we could have stopped the Egyptian arms deal at the Egyptian end'.45 This
was the attitude that epitomized Western relations with Egypt. Western powers were too rigid
in their stance on an arms deal with Nasser and were unwilling to make any concessions that
would affect their broader policy in the Middle East. Nasser was convinced he urgently
needed arms and the Soviets presented an option where Nasser could suffice his military
needs whilst avoiding the numerous stipulations the West required for an agreement. The
Baghdad Pact was the event that finally pushed Nasser to consider a non-Western arms deal

39 M. Heikal, `The Cairo Documents' p. 40
40 D. Dallin, `Soviet Foreign Policy' p.396
41 E. Podeh, `The Drift towards Neutrality' p. 173 and H. Macmillan, `Tides of Fortune' p. 639
42 K. Kyle, `Suez: Britain's End of Empire' p. 73
43 J. Glassman, `Arms for the Arabs'p.10
44 King Hussein of Jordan, Uneasy Lies the Head (London, 1962) p.88 and FRUS, Volume XIV Document 411,
National Intelligence Report , 15 November 1955 p.768
45 E. Shuckburgh, Descent to Suez (London, 1986) p. 283

seriously. Nasser made the decision `anyone of us would have made had we been in his

46 M. Copeland, `The Game Player' p. 199

Primary Sources
M. Copeland, The Game Player (London, 1989)

E. Crankshaw (ed.), Khrushchev Remembers (London, 1971)

J. Kent (ed.) Egypt and the Defence of the Middle East, Part III 1953-1956 (London, 1998)

Foreign Relations of the United States, 1955-1957, Arab-Israeli Dispute, 1955, Volume XIV

J. Glubb, A Soldier with the Arabs (London, 1957)

M. Heikal, The Cairo Documents (New York, 1973)

King Hussein of Jordan, Uneasy Lies the Head (London, 1962)

H. Macmillan, Tides of Fortune 1945-1955 (London, 1969)

G. Nasser, The Philosophy of the Revolution (United States, 1959)