Crisis in the Middle East: An Introduction to Suez 1956

Crisis in the Middle East: An Introduction to Suez 1956

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Language: English

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Geopolitical crises or wars for that matter are like the moment an old house collapses. It's a dramatic moment, but the result of decades, even centuries of neglect and abuse. Forces that continue to build up overtime eventually overpower the structure, and then everything goes to hell. Today, we're going to talk about one of those collapses, but not in a metaphorical sense. We're going to talk about the Suez crisis, a dramatic geopolitical event in which many stressors and forces came to a head in a little over a week. I’m your host David and this is...The Cold War. So, let's begin with the actual canal this conflict was on paper about. For all of human history, if you wanted to ship something from South or East Asia on a boat to ports in Europe, you literally had to sail around the entirety of the continent of Africa, which is needless to say, massive. Some ancient societies in
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Egypt tried to make this trip a lot shorter by building a passageway HERE to connect the Red Sea and the Mediterranean. The French Suez Canal company began work to connect these two waterways and make one of the most significant canals on earth. This in itself is a fascinating subject but of course well outside the purvue of this channel! In 1869, the canal opened under French control, and everyone was thrilled. Well, except for maybe the Egyptians who saw none of the revenue from what would become a bustling canal. In 1882, the Anglo-Egyptian war put the canal into British hands, and an international treaty in 1888 determined the British would control it. In a further treaty in 1936 and with decolonization started to become a bit of a thing, the Egyptians signed ownership of the canal to the British. So, a canal of major significance to global trade was in Egypt, but not controlled by
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the Egyptians. After World War Two, the canal would become even more important as it became a significant trade route for that all-governing commodity going into Europe: oil. By the 1950s, oil accounted for about half the traffic going through the canal, representing two out of every three barrels of oil used in Europe. Have I spelt out how hugely, massively, stupendously important this canal is yet? Now, after World War Two, the British determined that Egypt, as well as Iraq and its oil, were of supreme importance. They doubled down on their military presence there, even in the light of increasing decolonization and a lousy economy. The Egyptians asked the British to leave in 1951, but they flat out refused to do so. The next year, a military coup overthrew Egypt's King Farouk and turned it into a republic. One of its goals was to expel the British occupying their country and end all forms
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of monarchy and aristocracy in Egypt. This movement focused on ending imperialism and was centered on a form of Arab nationalism. A crucial part of this maintenance of independence was to make sure Egypt stayed free of the influence of both the US and USSR. This is the beginning of what historians call the non-aligned movement. It would become a strange middle ground navigated by several countries during the Cold War from India, to Yugoslavia, to Sweden. The ideology of the movement in Egypt focused on development, which would use land reforms, even planned economies, but retain a distinct secular Arab identity. And who developed this ideology? Well, after a short post-revolution power struggle, it came into being under Egypt's President Gamal Abdel Nasser. This type of governing ideology pops up in places like Gaddafi's Libya, or Assad's Syria. As you can imagine, though,
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an anti-imperialist like Nasser, with goals to push the British out of Egypt would come into direct conflict with… well… the British. Though we should note that early on there was an attempt to calm this down. Britain even agreed to a gradual plan to withdraw troops from the canal. However, Britain still held control by the terms of the earlier treaty and refused to hand it back to the Egyptians until the agreed upon date in 1968. Part of this agreement meant that Egypt gave up its control over Sudan. Yes, there was a point where Egypt was a colony with its own colony. So, this combined with the gradual removal of troops in Suez, started to damage the Nasser government. There were protests and even an assassination attempt on the President. This unrest convinced Nasser that Egypt needed to establish itself against the British and as a central leader in the middle-east. So, no matter what deals were made, the geopolitical aims of Cairo and London were at odds. The
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other major British powerbase, Iraq, was increasing tensions with Egypt. Under its Arab nationalism plan, Nasser wanted to have the entire middle-east as part of Egypt's sphere of influence, and that included the British friendly government in Baghdad. Now, NOW we can get to the context in which we talk about the Cold War. I'm a little impressed. This might be a record for the longest it took to get to the conflict after which the channel's named. So, let's talk about the Cold War in the Middle-East. The primary geopolitical goal of the US in the middle-east was to establish a collection of allies as a bulwark against the growth of Soviet influence. The idea was to make an organization very much like NATO. The problem is that the US had an already tapped out military, and so couldn't make substantial commitments themselves. So, they actually thought they might see a friendly, influential regional leader like Nasser as a boon. If they could
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keep Nasser out of the hands of the Soviets, then their interests in the middle-east were of benefit to their geopolitical goals to counter the Soviets from influencing this oil-rich region. The only problem was that many of those Arab nationalists were mad at America's allies, Britain and France. As well, violence was flaring up over the new state of Israel. So, the US had to keep their influence at arm's length, using the CIA to influence nationalist leaders covertly as not to offend the British and French. Nasser himself was close with several CIA agents. However, they were unable to convince him that the Soviet Union represented a threat. Egypt had enemies, British enemies, right here, while the Soviets were all the way in Moscow, and had no history of colonizing the Egyptian people. The US tried to get the British and Egyptians to work together, but Nasser wouldn't have it. He wanted the British out. Out of Egypt, out of the entire middle-east. They even tried
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to bribe him into joining this alliance they attempted to make, of which Nasser pulled an extremely alpha move by taking the money, and then refusing to participate. The US tried a new tactic, to publicly enter into middle-eastern geopolitics, but in a way which would get Egypt more on their side. They tried to be sympathetic to Arab states in their conflicts with Israel. They even took Egypt's side in the debate over the British and the occupation of the Suez canal. As well, thinking the Arabs might be too mad to work with, they made more overtures to non-Arab countries bordering the region like Turkey, Pakistan, and Iran. The British got in on this, adding themselves and Iraq to the mix. Around the same time in February of 1955, Israel invaded the Gaza strip and won a significant victory against the Egyptians. The founding of this alliance and the Israeli invasion of Gaza led Nasser to think the US had turned on them and looked for different powers to help them in their decolonization mission. And he knew exactly who might be
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interested. Nasser tried to see if he could tease some aid out of the USSR, and maybe play the threat of Soviet influence, to pressure the US to supply Egypt with weapons. The Soviet leader Nikita Kruschev was very interested and was willing to break with the Soviet norm of not making friends with non-communists. Nasser met with some communist leaders, and they reported that the Egyptian leader was a strong man who might be convinced to become a communist. These overtures didn't move the US much, and so Nasser began negotiating a purchase of weapons from Communist Czechoslovakia. A deal which went through in 1955, making the west panic. Soviet influence was showing up in the middle east! Now, there's one more player we need to bring into this storm of geopolitical intrigue, France. Part of Nasser's pan-Arab work meant supporting anti-imperialist groups in Arabic speaking countries wherever they were. Well,
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one instance of anti-imperialist revolt they supported both publically and clandestinely was the movement against the French occupation of Algeria. France now also had an interest in seeing the end of Nasser and this pan-Arab nationalism. Oh yeah, and did we mention that the French were also an Israeli ally? The complicated web of international relations! Then, the final moments leading to the collapse were finally underway. Jordan, after British attempts to add them into their alliance, kicked the British out of their country. Anti-Nasser rage began to swell in Britain. The US grew frustrated with Egypt's attempts to play them and the USSR off each other and withdrew development aid. And lastly, an effort in 1956 to stop this tension from blowing up was rebuffed by Nasser. But what really set it off, and why this is after all called the Suez Crisis, was the nationalization of the canal. In July of 1956, Nasser announced the nationalization of the
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Suez Canal, and on his command, the Egyptian military seized it. The company would be nationalized, and its shares reimbursed to western stockholders. The news came suddenly and shocked the world. The conservative British government demand they denationalize the canal, stirring a political battle between the Labour and Conservative parties in Britain. The US tried again to stop the road to war but were rebuffed. And three months later, representatives from France, Britain, and Israel met to draft a plan to invade Egypt and take the canal back by force. The house was now collapsing, what would follow is a bloody week of conflict known as the Suez Crisis. To find out what happened and what impacts it had on the cold war and the world. You'll have to tune in next week to find out. My thanks to Tristan from StepBack History for Part One of this two part series!.To make sure you don’t miss the conclusion, please make sure you are subscribed to our channel and have pressed the bell button. We can be reached via email at thecoldwarchannel@gmail.com.
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