Suez Disaster Half 1 of two

published on July 2, 2020

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

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