Norman’s Conversation With Nasser

Telegram 218
Secret, Canadian Eyes Only,
Most Immediate

Reference: My Telegram 217 March 14

Cairo, March 15, 1957

Conversation with [Egyptian President Gamel Adbel] Nasser I saw Nasser last night as briefly reported in my Telegram 216 of March 14; I made it clear that I was not visiting him on your instructions but that I had very much on my mind recently the increasingly hostile tone of Egyptian press and what appeared to me serious misunderstanding even on government level of important statements made by the Prime Minister and yourself. I hear I went on a grater length than I had intended in setting forth Canadian policy and traditional outlook on foreign affairs especially towards countries who had recently gained their independence. I reviewed our UN role in the Mideast, pointing out how fantastic were press charges which attributed “imperialist” motives to Canada, and finally stressed the damage that can be done by unscrupulous press attacks on the Canadian contingent in United Nations Emergency Force (UNEF). I only touched marginally on question of Canadian reinforcements as I did not wish to directly introduce the subject myself.

2. After listening intently to me and asking for clarification on one or two points, he frankly admitted that he had been adopting an increasingly critical attitude to Canada. He had great hopes from our position last November and succeeding weeks, but said he had noticed an increasingly pro-Israel tone in your most recent interventions in UN. He had been deeply disturbed by remarks in the House by the PM on March 6 referring to the use of “force” in connection with [Suez] Canal clearance and the presence of UN in Gaza and Aqaba. Egypt, he said, had lived in an atmosphere of threats for the last few months and people here were becoming more and more sensitive to threats. They were still living under threats from England, France and Israel (whom he linked with these two powers); Australia had openly showed its hostile intentions, the United States was showing a cold attitude and its press was generally pro-Israel, and now Canada, he said, had appeared to join the chorus against Egypt. Naturally this would have repercussions in their view of the Canadian contingent in UNEF. Then working late a night in his office on the 10th he had heard that Canadian troops had fired on demonstrators in Gaza that afternoon. He asked for a thorough investigation from competent quarters, but he had no convincing account of events until Dr Ralph Bunche [United Nations Under-secretary General] informed him (March 12) that it was Danish troops who had been involved. All these events, however incorrect some of them might prove now, had contributed to his growing fear of Canadian intentions; that Canada in some vague and ill-defined but alarming fashion had now joined forces with those powers which were most hostile to Egypt.

3. […] I told the President that I did not wish to take up his time again on this subject unless he had specific points to raise. I summarized our position in trying to find a fair compromise between two embattled and embittered parties and, as is so often the role of the peacemaker, being criticized unfairly by both. I concentrated especially on his distorted interpretation of the PM’s remarks of March 6. (We had sent copies to competent officers in the Foreign Ministry of the expanded form of the remarks to give their full context which would include their clarification. Apparently these had not filtered through to the President. I had also spoken to a few leading Egyptian journalists on the matter but without any effect as far as press comment was concerned.) I had with me text of exchanges in the House between the Prime Minister and members of Opposition on March 6 and 7 relating to Egypt, which I left with him, first reading out to him PM’s relevant remarks on “use of force”, clearance of Suez, etc. placing them in their proper perspective an showing how entirely distorted had been their interpretations. He admitted that there had been misunderstanding on his part, but then more in sorrow than in anger complained of hostile tone of press abroad including Canada. Everything he did was reported as “provocative”, “abrupt”, etc. When he sent an administrative governor back to Gaza… the Western press accused him of “aggressive” designs. The same papers had not used such epithets in referring to Israel’s attack of October 29. [Israeli Prime Minister David] Ben-Gurion had recently made an open threat of force [in] relation to Gaza. Yet, to his knowledge, no important Western paper had rebuked him for it. What would their comments have been if he had threatened force against Israel on the occasion of their making some arrangement behind their own borders? Could any fair-minded person be asked to believe that the press of the West was impartial in viewing the Israeli-Arab problem?

4. I interposed a question on his intentions in Gaza, expressing the hope that fedayeen [guerilla] raids would not be renewed as it hardly seemed in the long run to serve Egyptian defence interests. He went over some familiar ground insisting that authorized raids were purely retaliatory and only commenced in early 1955 when a new Ben-Gurion allegedly aggressive policy became apparent. He said he had no intention of organizing future fedayeen raids but the occasional marauder that broke through both lines would be always used by Israel as an excuse for attacks upon Arab neighbours. (It appears to be true that for at least three months before the attack of October 29 there had been no fedayeen raids from Egypt. The only incident was one in which an Israeli truck was blown up by a land mine in a demilitarized zone, therefore an area unauthorized to the Israeli military.)

5. He then brought up the question of reinforcements for Canadian troops and fully admitted that he had doubts even fears of Canadian intentions following PM’s references to “use of force”. I gather that Egyptian Embassy in Ottawa does not keep him too well informed by telegram of important debates. Replying to my query he said that all important reference in our debates he had studied through the various news agencies reports.

6. A propos of his complaints concerning the foreign press I spoke with some sympathy saying that we had likewise been the target of very malicious press campaign. I showed him copy I had with me of Egyptian press summary prepared in the office, giving recent (March 12) press comments on Canada and Canadian contingent. I pointed out the editorial in Al Gomhouriya, which made wild attacks on alleged Canadian “imperialist” designs, constructed on the hypothesis that our troops had taken over Gaza presumably as a first step towards “internationalizing” it, and had been responsible for the shooting. I said that while I was aware that he could not be held responsible for everything that appeared in the press, nevertheless he must agree that such wild and irresponsible remarks, which it was my duty to report to Ottawa, could not be expected to help in a sympathetic attitude on the part of Canadians towards Egypt. I said what was even more important, our troops here must be increasingly annoyed by this campaign and hence it could have an unfavourable effect on their morale. He agreed whole-heartedly with these last remarks.

7. I then thought it proper to ask whether he would not agree some time to giving a statement which would help to correct some of these impressions and whether he would confirm publicly the excellent performance of our troops here. I mentioned [Jack] Brayley, the Canadian Press representative here, who has been vainly trying through the press office to get an interview with him, saying that such an interview might help in clearing away some of the obstacles in recent misunderstandings in Egyptian-Canadian relations. He agreed to such an interview within the next few days. He added that he had some knowledge of the Canadian record in foreign affairs and he had believed that our policy was devoted to peace and friendly relations with all who wished to reciprocate. He was glad that some false impressions had been removed and hoped that friendly relations would exist between us as between two free and equal states with no designs on each other.

8. He mentioned again the reinforcements from Canada saying that he assured Dr. Bunche that the matter would be cleared up and told me to pass this on to you.

9. Before leaving he expressed the wish that I might perhaps see him more often if I so wished, particularly if it would help in clearing up possible [mis]understanding.

10. Finally I congratulated him on [his government’s] recent announcement that there would be general elections (date and details to be announced later). While we would not interfere in the internal affairs of any country it could not but be a source of satisfaction since we were a democratic people, to see Egypt taking a step in this direction since it would certainly help in closer understanding between us both.


Source: E. Herbert Norman, Norman's Conversation with Nasser, Herbert Norman: A Documentary Perspective Greg Donaghy (Ottawa: Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, 1999), 12-16

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