The man the London conference was all about stayed home in Cairo last week, getting in provisions for a long fight. Gamal Abdel Nasser affected to be confident, but he could not bring off an appearance of indifference. TIME Correspondent John Mecklin, in a private interview, found him tense and unusually subdued, in his bare little office in the building beside the Nile that ex-King Farouk built as his yacht house. Dictator Nasser seemed more concerned about the threat of economic sanctions than of armed invasion. His right knee jiggled constantly as he talked.
The London conference? "I don't know what to expect. We had a reply today from Monsieur Pineau in his speech. He said he would agree to our ownership of the canal if we would agree to internationalize it." Nasser leaned back laughing, and lit up an L & M cigarette.
"Really," he said, "there's a lot of confusion about this. We are ready to discuss freedom of navigation−but the canal is part of our land."
What would he like the U.S. to do now? "Be fair, just fair. The Russians are fair, you are not. In your proposals of yesterday you are supporting collective colonialism, while the Russians in their proposals today are supporting our sovereignty and dignity."
Is a neutral policy still possible for Egypt? "What's a neutral policy? Neutrality is a term to use only in war. We adopt an independent policy, a policy of active coexistence. One-third of our trade is with the Western bloc, one-third with the Eastern bloc, and one-third with the rest of the world. If our trade had all been with the West, we would be in a very critical position today. Thank God we had this policy." He lit another cigarette, fingered his Dunhill lighter nervously.
What if Egypt should be attacked? "We would fight."
What if the West should apply economic sanctions? "We would try by all our means to escape. You know we are a patient country. What would the effect be upon world conscience? This would be an action against the sovereignty and independence of all countries. The West would lose ground all over the world."
Would Egypt try to increase its trade with Russia? "Of course, we would use any means when it's a choice of starving or cooperating with anyone. In this connection we are preparing to receive a Chinese delegation at the end of this month. They are ready to supply anything we can't get from the outside." Arms? "We have enough arms. We think about food if there are going to be sanctions."
"Somewhere in Jordan." The dictator's remarks were made with an assurance that his demeanor did not fully match. This was a heady game he was playing: one man against 22 of the world's most powerful nations−though he counted on having some on his side to begin with, and others if he played his cards right.