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Consequences in Alternate History: How an Egyptian Policeman’s Bullet Created a British Icon

By Tom Anderson

In my previous ‘Consequences’ article, I described how the near miss of a gunman led to the writing of The Wind in the Willows. This was not simply because a direct hit would have killed the author, Kenneth Grahame, but because the psychological after-effects of the incident were likely a factor in his early retirement to the riverside. Much the same is true of many failed assassination attempts which form Alternate History Points of Divergence. The fact that Teddy Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan were both hit by would-be assassins’ bullets, but survived, contributed to their historical legends. This is quite different to a case where those gunmen never tried to shoot them at all. So PODs about historical figures being shot (or not) do not only relate to whether those figures are killed (or not). If John F. Kennedy had survived Lee Harvey Oswald’s assassination attempt in 1963, that would itself result in a rather different history to one where Oswald was never able to get into the Texas Book Depository in the first place. Though both would have spared us generations of the conspiracy theories that inspired “Double Play” by Richard Comerford.

So, to the subject of today’s article. Gamal Abdel Nasser was born in Egypt in 1918, a portentous year for the Arab peoples as a whole. At the time, the Near East front of the First World War was considered something of a sideshow compared to the main attraction in Europe, yet decisions made there cast even longer shadows on the world to come. The German revanchism driven by Versailles, and Soviet Communism in Russia following the revolution, have now both vanished from the world. But the forces unleashed by the toppling of the Ottoman Empire, and the independence of its Arab former vassals, continue to be the axis about which the Middle East—and therefore, thanks to oil, the world—revolve around.

One of the seized warships: the Reşadiye became the HMS Erin

As I mentioned in my article on the naval history of WW1, the Ottoman Empire sided with Germany in the war largely because of a decision by the British to seize two warships, under construction in British shipyards, that had been destined for the Ottoman Navy. On reading everything that came from this decision, one is struck by the sense that ‘were two warships really worth it?’ The Anglophile faction in Constantinople was discredited and the Ottomans joined the power that already had considerable economic interests within their empire (Germany had built railways there, for example). In response to this, Britain attacked Ottoman territories from India, the jewel in the crown of the British Empire, and Egypt, over which Ottoman suzerainty had been a legal fiction for a century since the rise of Khedive Muhammad Ali (Not the boxer). The British casually toppled the sitting Khedive when he attempted to side with Constantinople, and replaced him with his uncle—whose brother would become King of an independent Kingdom of Egypt after the war.

But this, too, was largely a legal fiction. Having helped incite the Arab Revolt (most famously through the actions of Lawrence of Arabia), Britain (and France) then betrayed the Arabs at the post-war peace treaties, carving up the former Ottoman Arab lands into arbitrary new kingdoms as British and French spheres of influence. This was exemplified by the half-legendary claim that the peculiarly jagged border between Jordan (then Transjordan) and Saudi Arabia was the result of a drunken Winston Churchill hiccuping or sneezing while drawing it. T. E. Lawrence himself was angered by the betrayal, and there remained many Arabophiles at the British Foreign Office for decades afterwards, which influenced British decisions later on.

Even before the war, the idea of a shared Arab national consciousness had been growing. The Arab peoples were thoroughly unimpressed, for the most part, with the monarchies they had been saddled with—which were largely corrupt, ineffective, and supine before foreign interests. The only Arab monarchy established in the 1920s to survive today is Jordan, whose Hashemite founder Abdullah I tellingly became King by his own hand rather than being installed by the British or French. There were repeated attempts by Arab peoples to overthrow these regimes from the 1920s to the 1950s. Foreign ideologies such as Communism and fascism were sometimes regarded as inspirational and were alloyed to Arab nationalism. For example, in 1941 Rashid Ali al-Gaylani launched the ‘Golden Square’ coup in Iraq to overthrow the kingdom’s Regent, seize power and side with Nazi Germany and Italy. The attempt was quickly defeated by the British, who did not want to lose access to Iraqi oil. (This, incidentally, means that British forces launched or participated in invasions of Iraq four times in the space of a century – 1914, 1941, 1991, and 2003).

A young Gamal Abdel Nasser, c. 1931

Back in the late 1920s, the young Gamal Abdel Nasser joined the Young Egypt Society and its paramilitary wing, the Green Shirts. Egypt had adopted a new constitution in 1923 which recognised its independence, but this was suspended by Prime Minister Ismail Sidky. Sidky was also a nationalist, who would go on to negotiate the Anglo-Egyptian Treaty of 1936, which resulted in the withdrawal of all British troops from Egypt except those protecting the Suez Canal. Then and later, Nasser regarded this as not going far enough, which influenced his later politics. In November 1935, Nasser led a student demonstration against British rule, after British Foreign Minister Samuel Hoare had rejected the idea of restoring the 1923 constitution. Two of the protestors were killed and Nasser suffered a graze to the head from one policeman’s bullet. This immediately catapulted him to fame. Al Gihad, a nationalist newspaper (NB J becomes G in Egyptian Arabic) made him a celebrity overnight for his stand. A month later, the new King Farouk restored the 1923 constitution.

The death knell for most of the Arab monarchies was sounded when their forces failed to prevent the establishment of the State of Israel. This had been foreshadowed by Britain’s Balfour Declaration in 1917, regarded as part of the betrayal of the Arab Revolt by the Arabs themselves. All the armies of the Arab states combined could not defeat the newly-established Jewish state in the desperate war of 1948. This ended with Israel controlling almost all the former British Mandate of Palestine (and not only the parts which the United Nations had wanted to make a Jewish state). Egypt occupied the Gaza Strip and Jordan the West Bank, two names which would reoccur with leaden inevitability in global news for the next seven decades and more.

Nasser, who had eventually managed to join the Egyptian Army as an officer (despite his past activities) and fought in the 1948 war, led a group of his colleagues known as the Free Officers’ Movement. They were soon joined by supporters from across Egyptian society. This group sought to overthrow the failed monarchy and expel British influence from Egypt. Its ideological underpinning later became known as Nasserism: marked by militaristic republicanism, secularism, opposition to ‘imperialism’ in all its forms, and emphasising international solidarity and non-alignment. (The latter would prove to inevitably be difficult in the Cold War world). The republican aspect was also less than a democratic one, but we must be careful to judge the early Nasserists by the standards of the time. At the time when Nasser and the Free Officers launched their coup in 1952, one-quarter of the United States also routinely held massively rigged elections where the winner got 99%. Notably, Nasser did reach out to the Muslim Brotherhood at one point, but found their religious aspects incompatible with his own views.

The 1952 Egyptian coup is a good example of the dichotomy between the ‘Great Man’ theory of history and the more anonymous Marxian historical forces viewpoint. It’s certainly true to say that the tide of Egyptian public anger would have existed without Nasser, and someone else might have taken advantage of it. On the other hand, it seems Nasser had the unique insight to reach out to the American CIA to persuade them to back, or at least stand aside for, his coup. At the time, the United States was struggling to implement the Truman Doctrine of international containment against Soviet Communism. It was a tall order for a historically isolationist nation to suddenly start building international solidarity. Records abound with stories of the CIA being surprised that the Arabs saw Zionism as a more existential threat than Communism, for example. We should remember at this time that the seemingly inevitable American backing of Israel was still up in the air; the early Israel had a large portion of Russian-speaking Jews who had emigrated from the USSR, and had a successful Communist Party. It still seemed possible that the United States could build alliances with the Arab states, as well as helping dismantle the remains of the empires of Britain and France (with whom American partnership would only ever extend so far).

The Free Officers after the coup. Nasser is seated between two standing officers, facing the camera towards the left.

Having successfully seized power in Egypt and banned all other political parties, Nasser survived an assassination attempt by the Muslim Brotherhood in 1954—another example of a failed assassination boosting someone’s fortunes! Nasser gave a brief, triumphalist speech after all eight of the gunman’s shots missed, and immediately won the crowd to his side. Nasser was wise enough to know that Egypt was not ready for a confrontation with Israel, and did not respond when the Israelis attacked the Gaza Strip in 1955. At the same time, Britain formed the Baghdad Pact (or CENTO) with Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Pakistan. This was aimed at opposing the spread of Communism, but Nasser saw it as a threat to his fledgeling new Egypt as well.

The USA had become disenchanted with Nasser due to his Cold War neutralism and arms deals with the Eastern Bloc. France was alarmed at his support for Algerian independence. The US and UK both withdrew financing for the Aswan Dam in 1956. Nasser responded by nationalising the Suez Canal. This led to the Suez Crisis, in which British, French and Israeli forces defied the United Nations to occupy the canal which joined the Mediterranean to (ultimately) the Pacific. At this time, Britain was led by a Conservative Prime Minister whom one might assume would be uniquely suited to this crisis. Anthony Eden had served as Winston Churchill’s Foreign Minister for years before finally gaining Number 10 Downing Street himself, spoke Arabic and had met Nasser. But he was also suffering side-effects from pain-killers he was taking, and seriously underestimated the Eisenhower Administration’s opposition to the Anglo-French-Israeli action. In the end, without American backing, Britain and France were forced to back down.

If the Suez Crisis was an important moment for Egypt and for Arab nationalism—many movements took inspiration from Nasser’s success in defying imperialism—it was also a crucial one for Britain and France. It was the moment where it became clear that both nations had ceased to be the superpowers they once were, and it took decades for both to come to terms with it. Both looked for new avenues to explore; an Anglo-French political union was even proposed in the wake of America’s betrayal. The French Fourth Republic was on borrowed time, and it would be toppled in the Algerian crisis of 1958. One might assume these events would also have doomed the Conservative Party in Britain, but Eden’s successor Harold Macmillan actually managed to increase the Conservative majority at the next election in 1959, a remarkable achievement.

But it is not these grand political consequences we are interested in here. One corollary to Nasser’s move was that petrol (gasoline) prices in the UK went through the roof, and petrol was rationed again for the first time since the Second World War. Britons turned to smaller, lighter, more fuel-efficient cars, with West German-made ‘bubble cars’ being particularly popular. Leonard Lord, head of the British Motor Corporation (BMC) hated these vehicles and proposed a British-made ‘proper miniature car’. Lord set out some scale requirements which would create a very small, light, fuel-efficient car. Alec Issigonis, designer of the successful Morris Minor, teamed up with Jack Daniels, Chris Kingham and just six others to design the car to Lord’s requirements. A prototype, known as the XC9003 or ‘Orange Box’, was completed by 1957, and it was approved for production as Project ADO15, going on sale to the public from 1959.

Issigonis’ design was widely praised as masterful, and won the Dewar Trophy in 1959. Within Lord’s restrictive requirements, he maximised passenger space in the tiny car by a number of innovations. The engine was mounted transversely, sliding windows were used which allowed only single-skin doors, with the welding seams on the outside of the monocoque shell. Advanced new rubber cone based suspension, partly inspired by the successful hydroelastic system of the Citroen 2CV, was used to even the ride quality of such a small vehicle. Most importantly, the car (with the caveat of there being a range of engine sizes) typically managed fuel economy of over 40 miles per Imperial gallon (over 6 litres per kilometre, over 35 miles per US gallon) while maintaining a top speed of 75 mph. The car combined such performance and small size with being a genuine four-seater, and having a boot (US: trunk) lid capable of being safely open while driving to increase luggage space. Storage bins were also mounted in the doors, with Issigonis claiming he had sized them to carry the correct proportions of a dry martini: 27 bottles of Gordon’s Gin and one of Vermouth!

The new car was, of course, the Mini. In the context of British automotive engineering often being a punchline in the late twentieth century, the Mini was an unabashed success story. Not only did it fulfil its stated aim of responding to fuel shortages (and there would be many more oil shocks in the future) but it became a British design icon, synonymous with the Swinging Sixties. From The Italian Job to Mr Bean to the 2012 Olympics closing ceremony, the Mini has left a huge impact on history. The name was resurrected in 2000 by BMW (who had bought the rights as part of their acquisitions) and new cars under the marque have been built ever since. Those new Minis are much more a reflection of the fashion statement aspect of the Mini rather than its practical purpose; they keep the iconic shape, but are much larger and rather inefficient in use of space and fuel. Jeremy Clarkson described the first new Mini as ‘a BMW one-and-a-half series’ (this being before the 1 series debuted) with a different body. Recently, however, the BMW-made Mini has returned to its roots with the release of an all-electric model—just like the days of sixty years ago, responding to a need to move away from mass petrol consumption.

And if an Egyptian policeman’s bullet had been nearer the mark in November 1935, it might never have been

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Tom Anderson is the author of SLP books including the Look To The West series (Diverge and Conquer, Uncharted Territory, Equal and Opposite Reactions), The Twilight's Last Gleaming, Not An English Word, The Curse of Maggie, The Unreformed Kingdom, and The Surly Bonds of Earth