The headlines of Egypt’s dailies on Sunday morning covering the previous night’s US, British and French air strikes on Syria clearly intended to establish an equivalence.
“A tripartite Western aggression on Syrian military sites,” read Al-Ahram’s headline. Al-Masry Al-Youm, Egypt’s biggest private paper, upped the ante with “Tripartite aggression on Syria” in bold red while Al-Shorouk, another private newspaper, went for “Details of the 70-minute aggression on Syria”.
TV stations followed the same line. In her influential evening talk show on Sunday TV anchor Lamis Al-Hadidi repeatedly referred to the air strikes as a tripartite aggression.
The wording, of course, touches a raw nerve in this part of the world. It was a deliberate attempt to evoke the Israeli-British-French aggression against Egypt in November 1956 which followed nationalisation of the Suez Canal.
The Suez war, known throughout the Arab world as the Tripartite Aggression, sent shockwaves across the region. French-British air strikes on Egyptian targets on 2 and 3 November cut Egyptian radio broadcasts and prevented Nasser from delivering his Friday speech.
As the Egyptian Radio Service — at the time the most important broadcaster in the region — fell silent Radio Damascus famously declared its solidarity announcing: “This is Cairo from Damascus, this is Egypt from Syria.”
Nasser’s popularity had surged in the Arab world on the back of his vision of national struggle against imperialism. The 1950’s and 60’s were marked by liberation movements and the enemy was not hard to define. Western imperialism had to end, and Israel posed a strategic threat to Egypt.
Whatever the intention, recalling that era in an attempt to create an equivalence with overnight, and limited, air strikes against the Syrian regime’s alleged chemical weapons bases served only to highlight Arab divisions over Syria.
For the massive death toll of the Syrian war, now in its seventh year and described by the UN’s human rights chief as the worst man-made disaster since World War II, is a tragedy caused not by Western powers but the unbridled violence unleashed by local actors and their regional allies.
Efforts by Hizbullah, Iran and the Syrian regime to present their role in the war as an “axis of resistance” continue to appeal to their supporters. But it is no secret that others in the Arab world view the three parties as enemies of the Syrian people.
The war of words continues, and there is no unproblematic stand observers and activists can take in response to developments.
The day after the air strikes Mohamed Osman, a leading member of the Strong Egypt Party who was active in the anti- Iraq war movement, declared on his Facebook page: “I’m with any action that ends the existence of Bashar Al-Assad.”
The post received more “likes” than comments questioning his statement.
“If you think the invasion of Iraq in 2003 ended Saddam Hussein’s legacy then by all means stick to this position,” one journalist responded.
“Bashar killed 600,000. Any solution that kills 600,000 or less and ends Bashar is not a crisis,” Osman replied.
Leading human rights activist Aida Seif Al-Dawla joined the discussion: “No crisis in killing of 600,000? We are no different than Bashar then.”
“Of course this is a crisis,” was Osman’s response. “But Bashar can kill 600,000 more and remain in power. This region’s catastrophe is largely due to the fact that Bashar is still alive despite everything.”
The debate about how to react to the air strikes has been taking place mainly on social media because it is the only platform where political debate remains possible.
But in the absence of independent political polls it is difficult to gauge how the wider Arab public feels about the air strikes. What is clear is that the attack revived interest in the Syrian war, if only briefly.
Thousands circulated the black-and-white photo of Syrian radio broadcaster Abdel-Hadi Bakkar who made the “this is Cairo from Damascus” announcement 62 years ago, accompanied by a brief summary of his story. “May God save Syria,” the post concluded.
The deliberate analogy with the 1956 Suez crisis, and the reactions it provoked, may have revealed more than sympathy with Syria, argues Ahmed Abd Rabou, an Egyptian political scientist currently teaching at the University of Denver.
References to the Tripartite Aggression, he contends, reflect a jarring inability to understand the nature of international and regional relations and the reality of the Syrian crisis.
“Those who talk about a tripartite aggression are insulting the historic and regional moment when Egypt was subject to a real aggression that violated its sovereignty,” he wrote on his Facebook page, adding there can never be change as long as the general consciousness of Arab intellectuals is trapped in the Nasserist and Baathist era.
* This story was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly