The 50th anniversary of the death of Egyptian revolutionary Gamal Abdel Nasser is a good time to revisit his legacy, and the solidarity that existed between Egypt and Sri Lanka in the face of imperialism.
Last week marked 50 years since the death of beloved Egyptian revolutionary Gamal Abdel Nasser. His funeral was said to be one of the largest ever held in the world, and was attended by numerous tricontinental leaders including Sirimavo Bandaranaike.
Nasser’s memory still evokes hope and pain in the Arab world. His ideals of socialism, pan-Arabism, and anti-Zionism, continue to be a clarion call to a region destabilised by imperialist-backed coups, colour revolutions and proxy wars.
In Sri Lanka, however, Nasser’s death anniversary was just another day. But it’s well worth revisiting Nasser’s legacy, and the forgotten solidarity between two decolonising nations in the face of imperialist aggression.
Nasser came to power two years after the Egyptian Revolution of 1952, shortly before Sri Lanka’s 1956 Revolution. Both governments set off on an agenda of nationalisation, land reform and industrialization, though Egypt’s was arguably far more radical.
Months after the S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike and Philip Gunawardena-led Mahajana Eksath Peramuna (MEP) came to power in 1956, Nasser nationalised the Suez Canal, and Egypt was invaded by Israel, England and France.
At the time, English bases in Trincomalee and Katunayake were used to project naval and air power into West Asia, and 75 percent of Ceylon’s trade passed through the Suez. But the MEP, which came to power pledging to expel English bases, stood firmly with Egypt.
During one of his first speeches at the UN, Bandaranaike frankly stated:
“The President of Egypt nationalised the Suez Canal Company. I do not find in any quarter a disposition seriously to question his right to do so.”
Bandaranaike went on to point out Israel’s opportunism in invading Egypt alongside Anglo-French forces, and warned that a complete withdrawal of foreign troops from Egyptian territory was needed to avoid a third world war.
Consequently, Ceylon voted in favour of Egypt in all eleven UN Resolutions relating to the nationalisation of the Suez Canal. Ceylon’s solidarity with Egypt was so valued that it was given a seat on the Suez Advisory Board.
In the same month that Anglo-French forces withdrew from Egypt, Bandaranaike travelled to London to negotiate the expulsion of English troops from Ceylon. This was accomplished by 1957, striking a win for national liberation in both Ceylon and, indirectly, Egypt.
Nasser would repay Ceylon’s solidarity in 1961, by delivering emergency fuel shipments at below-market rates when Ceylon was being blockaded for nationalising English, Dutch and U.S. oil companies.
The world has changed since then. Ceylon’s experiment with nationalist industrial policies was prematurely aborted. Egypt signed a secretly drafted peace treaty with Israel. The neoliberal era has not been kind to both countries, which continue to be exploited by imperialism.
50 years after his death, Nasser’s words when announcing the nationalization of the Suez Canal echo through history:
“We will move forward to destroy all traces of occupation and exploitation… We must all work and produce, despite all the plots hatched against us… I have not found, on the part of these [imperialist] States, any desire for technical cooperation to industrialize the country… Thus let us realize some of our aspirations and begin to build a healthy and strong country. No sovereignty will exist in Egypt except that of the people of Egypt, one people who advance in the way of construction and industrialization, in one block against any aggressor and against the plots of imperialists… Today we are free and independent!”