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In 1956, a dispute over the Suez Canal in Egypt led to international crisis... and war. Two fading colonial powers, Britain and France, expected an easy victory over Egypt... but were forced into a humiliating withdrawal, as the world's new superpowers flexed their muscles. It was a stark sign that the age of European imperialism was over, and that a new international order had taken its place. Little remembered today, the events of 1956 had huge consequences for Britain and France, the Arab world, Israel, and the United States of America. This is the story of the Suez crisis, whose fallout shaped world affairs for decades to
come. In 1869, world navigation was transformed by the opening of the Suez Canal. This 100 mile, man-made waterway through the Egyptian desert cut 5,000 miles off the voyage from Europe to Asia, as ships no longer had to sail around Africa. Its construction, overseen by French diplomat Ferdinand de Lesseps, had taken 10 years, and cost the lives of many thousands of Egyptian labourers. The Suez Canal Company, which owned and ran the canal, was a private company owned by its shareholders, including French, Austrian and Russian investors, as well as the ruler
(or Khedive) of Egypt, Ismail Pasha. In 1875, to pay off his mountainous debts, the Khedive sold his 44% share in the Canal Company to the British government. As the world's greatest imperial and naval power, Britain had initially opposed the canal, seeing it as a potential threat, but soon proved to be its greatest beneficiary: 80% of the ships that used the canal were British, and it became a vital link to the British Empire's eastern colonies, and 'the jewel in the crown'... India. And so control of the canal, and the security of Egypt, became a vital British strategic concern. In 1882, when Egyptian anger at European interference in their country exploded into a nationalist
revolt, led by Colonel Ahmad Ourabi, the British sent a military force to intervene. The Egyptian army was swept aside, and Egypt effectively became a British protectorate for the next 60 years. British control of the Suez Canal was a major strategic advantage in both world wars. But in the wake of victory in World War Two, the British Empire was in retreat. India, Pakistan and Burma gained their independence. There were revolts against British rule in Malaya, Kenya and Cyprus. Egypt had received formal independence in 1922. But Britain continued to station troops there, and govern much of the country's affairs.
Only in 1947 did British troops withdraw to the so-called 'Canal Zone', under an earlier deal with Egypt's King Farouk, that the British could keep bases there until 1956. But Egyptians were turning against Farouk. They blamed him for failing to prevent the creation of the Jewish state of Israel, and for Egypt's defeat in the Arab-Israeli War that had followed. They also blamed King Farouk for allowing British troops to remain in Egypt. In the Canal Zone, British soldiers and civilians came under attack from the increasingly hostile local population... with riots, arson and gun battles – leading the British to impose martial law. By 1952, a group of nationalist Egyptian army officers, known as the Free Officers Movement,
had had enough. They seized power in a military coup. King Farouk was forced to abdicate, and went to live out a luxurious exile in Italy. The following year, Egypt was declared a republic. Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser emerged as the new leader and president of Egypt – a committed and charismatic Arab nationalist, determined to free Egypt from foreign influence. In the 1950s, America and the West were engaged in a stand-off with the Soviet Union known as the Cold War. A so-called 'Iron Curtain' divided Europe, between communist east, and capitalist west..
Around the world, each side tried to win friends and limit the other's influence. Egypt, the largest and most powerful Arab state, would be a valuable prize for either side. But which way would President Nasser turn? US President Dwight D. Eisenhower wanted to win over Nasser – but couldn't grant his request for a major arms deal – they'd most likely be used against Israel, which had many supporters in the US. The US and Britain instead offered to fund construction of the Aswan Dam – the centrepiece of Nasser's plan to modernise the Egyptian economy. Britain also agreed to remove its troops from the Suez Canal Zone by June 1956. But then, border tension between Israel and her neighbours boiled over, as the Israeli
army attacked Egyptian-controlled Gaza, killing 38 Egyptian soldiers. The Gaza Raid made Nasser determined to rapidly strengthen and modernise Egypt's army. Since the US wouldn't help, Nasser turned to the Soviet bloc, and signed a major deal to purchase modern tanks and aircraft from communist Czechoslovakia. The deal was seen as a huge triumph across the Arab world. Nasser further antagonised America by establishing diplomatic relations with Communist China. For Eisenhower, chasing an alliance with Nasser was proving a major headache, and the US and British offer to fund the Aswan Dam was withdrawn. It was a move that would prove to have serious, global repercussions... that neither Britain
nor America ever saw coming. On 26th July 1956, Nasser stunned the world by announcing that, with immediate effect, Egypt would nationalise the Suez Canal Company. 'We dug the Canal with our lives, our skulls, our bones, our blood' he declared. 'The money is ours and the Suez Canal belongs to us. We shall build the [Aswan] Dam our own way.' If Britain and America would not fund the dam, Nasser intended to fund it himself with profits from the Suez Canal Company. His speech received an ecstatic response from the people of Egypt.
Nasser's move was entirely legal – the Company's shareholders would be bought out at fair prices – yet his decision would trigger an international crisis... war... and a new era in the balance of world power. In Britain, Prime Minister Sir Anthony Eden responded with fury to what he saw as a major attack on British national interests. 15,000 ships a year came through the Suez Canal. And from the Middle East, they brought a vital resource that the British economy couldn't survive without... “...through it travels today about half the oil without which the industry of this country, Western Europe, Scandinavia and many other countries too, couldn't keep going.
This is a matter of life and death to us all.” Nasser, as Eden put it, had 'his thumb on our windpipe.' As Britain's Foreign Secretary in the 1930s and World War Two, Eden had made his reputation by opposing 'appeasement' - the policy of trying to maintain peace by giving in to the demands of dictators. But now, with poor health and frayed nerves clouding his judgement, he convinced himself that Nasser was another Hitler or Mussolini – an Arab dictator that Britain had to face down. The Egyptian president, he decided, would have to go. French Prime Minister Guy Mollet agreed with Eden's assessment. He had an additional reason to want Nasser gone – France was fighting a bitter war
in its African colony of Algeria against nationalist rebels... trained and supplied by Nasser. Britain and France now secretly began planning a military operation to seize control of the Suez Canal, remove Nasser from power, and reaffirm their status as major global powers. That summer, under pressure from the Americans, Eden agreed to host an international conference, in a last effort to find a peaceful solution to the crisis. “Lancaster House, London naturally attracted quite a crowd on the opening day of the Suez Conference. 22 nations were represented. Only two countries, Egypt and Greece, had declined the invitation to the fateful meeting...” 18 of the 22 nations supported Britain and France's position, that the Suez Canal be
returned to international ownership - a proposal turned down flat by President Nasser. US Secretary of State John Foster Dulles told the British that – nevertheless - America would not support an attack on Egypt... Dulles strongly believed that military action against Nasser would push the entire Arab world into the arms of the Soviets. Besides, President Eisenhower was running for re-election, and would not welcome the distraction. It was a warning that Eden fatefully ignored. Britain and France had already chosen the path to war... Join the ranks of our brilliant Patreon supporters like these... and get perks including early
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