Today in Middle Eastern history: the Suez Crisis begins (1956)

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Before we dig into the 1956 dust up that bears its name, the first thing I guess we should talk about is why the Suez Canal was so important. Though to be honest, that almost goes without saying. I mean, in a world where sailing direct from Europe to the Indian Ocean had previously required either going around Africa or, I don’t know, hauling your ships overland through Egypt, a canal that cuts through part of Egypt and connects the Mediterranean and Red Seas was obviously a very big deal. Such a big deal, in fact, that the European engineers who finally conceived and carried out the project in the 1860s were nowhere near the first people to make the attempt. Ancient Egyptians had a canal that ran from the Nile River east to the Red Sea and either the Romans or the Arabs built something similar that we know was in operation by the 8th century. Geographical and engineering challenges eventually shut these canals down, but the dream never died.

The idea for what eventually became the Suez Canal, an artificial waterway connecting the Mediterranean to the Red Sea directly, was initially proposed by Napoleon during his aborted conquest of Egypt in the late 18th century. The project was frozen at that time due to the belief that the Red Sea was at a slightly higher altitude than the Mediterranean, meaning it would require locks to function. Later surveys showed that it was not, in fact, at a higher altitude, so the idea of digging a workable canal suddenly became much more feasible by the mid-19th century.

The Suez Canal changed global trade patterns almost as soon as it opened in 1869. It was of particular interest to Britain, naturally, since Britain had its most important colonial interests in India and the canal could either greatly reduce the travel time across the British Empire or, if seized by a European rival, cut the empire in half. But initially the canal was owned by French investors and the Egyptian monarchy. Luckily for London, the Egyptian khedive, Ismail Pasha, borrowed heavily to pay for infrastructure improvements (including, ironically, the canal itself) and a costly war with Ethiopia, and when it came time to pay his bills he wound up selling his share of the canal to Britain in 1875. The Anglo-Egyptian War in 1882 then made Egypt a full-fledged British protectorate. The tension between Britain’s physical control over the canal and its majority French ownership was the subject of the 1888 Convention of Constantinople, which guaranteed international access to the canal. But the problem wasn’t really resolved until Britain and France reached their Entente Cordiale in 1904. From then on the canal was under Britain’s control, but with French access assured.

The canal proved its value in World War I and again in World War II. After the war, when the British Empire was coming apart, London found a new reason not to let it go: oil. Three-fifths to two-thirds of Europe’s oil passed through Suez, making it arguably more important than ever. Britain’s military presence in Suez, ostensibly to protect the canal, was also its main military deployment in the Middle East, which only added to the canal’s importance. But quite a few Egyptians wanted Egypt to control the canal—which, after all, was actually in Egypt and had been built with a lot of forced Egyptian labor—and more importantly they wanted Britain the hell out of their country. The Anglo-Egyptian Treaty of 1936, which was supposed to end Britain’s protectorate, nevertheless formalized British control over the canal—and therefore Britain’s domineering presence in Egypt—for at least 20 more years. It would, then, be very fair to say that Gamal Abdel Nasser’s 1952 Egyptian Revolution had a great deal to do with Suez and its relationship with the wider world of Egyptian politics.

The revolution marks Egypt’s transition from British colonial project to independent state enmeshed in all the wonderful geopolitical situations that marked the Cold War Middle East: the Cold War itself, for one, but also the Arab-Israeli conflict and the lingering effort to put the colonial period fully in the past. The rise of Nasser and his pan-Arab, republican, socialist worldview (Nasserism) kicked off another exciting trend, the “Arab Cold War,” which featured monarchists on one side (Saudi Arabia, for example) and republicans on the other, both groups competing internally and against one another for leadership of the Arab world. These factors would all play into the Suez Crisis in one way or another.

At first, Nasser played things pretty cool with Britain and actually got London to agree to withdraw its forces from Suez in 1954, though control of the canal wouldn’t pass to Egypt until 1968. But he looked very askance at the formation of the Baghdad Pact, or the Central Treaty Organization (CENTO), in 1955. This was a major Cold War project of the United States and Britain to organize a sort of Islamic world NATO. Its initial members were Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, Turkey, and Britain. The Eisenhower administration formally stayed out of the pact due in part to political pressure from the pro-Israel lobby in Washington, but nevertheless encouraged its creation. CENTO served an obvious Cold War purpose for the US and helped former colonial power Britain feel like it hadn’t totally lost its global power. To Nasser, this looked very much like a British effort to recolonize the Middle East by diplomatic means, and to diminish Egypt’s influence in the region by enhancing Iraq’s (Nasser and Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Said didn’t like one another very much). So he refused to join the Pact and fought hard against its expansion, for example by sponsoring anti-British riots in Jordan to pressure the Hashemites to stay out of the alliance.

When the US tried to cultivate its own relationship with Egypt and draw Nasser into an anti-Soviet alliance, the Egyptian leader rejected it. He didn’t have a problem with the US as such (at least not yet), but he saw a resurgence of British colonialism as a far greater threat to the region than the Soviets, and he wasn’t about to put Egypt on Britain’s side in the Cold War. Neither, however, was Nasser keen to become a Soviet client (in fact, he would go on to become one of the founders of the Non-Aligned Movement). He decided instead to let the superpowers come to him, as the leader of the largest and arguably most important Arab state, and hopefully reap the benefits of their respective courtships. When he couldn’t buy weapons from the United States (since he wouldn’t promise not to use them against Israel), he bought from the Soviets instead, via Czechoslovakia, in a 1955 deal that raised more than a few eyebrows in the West about Nasser’s intentions. Around this same time he began supporting both the FLN uprising against France in Algeria and Palestinian guerrilla attacks against Israel.

Nasser also rejected a 1956 US effort to broker peace talks between Egypt and Israel. And his decision that same year to recognize the new People’s Republic of China brought things to a head. Nasser had been trying to secure international financing for his Aswan High Dam project on the Upper Nile, but that financing had to be backed by the US and his recognition of the PRC—along with a general weariness of Nasser’s “enemy of my enemy” flirtation with the Soviets—caused the Eisenhower administration to drop its support for the project on July 19, 1956. A week later Nasser announced that he was nationalizing the Suez Canal and using its revenues to pay for the dam. Egyptian forces swiftly moved in and secured control over the canal.

Britain and France, now convinced that Nasser was not only dangerous for their lingering colonial hopes in the Islamic world, but that he might actually be the Arab Hitler (Western governments have been absurdly comparing their Enemy of the Day to Hitler pretty much since the day after Hitler blew his brains out), resolved to Do Something About Him. They began planning an invasion that would retake the canal and remove Nasser from power. At France’s insistence, Israel was brought into the operation as well. The United States, on the other hand, worked toward an international resolution to the situation, proposing that an association of the nations that used the canal take joint control over its operations. That idea seems to have interested almost nobody.

Israeli paratroopers digging in near the canal zone (Wikimedia Commons)

The joint operation kicked off on October 29, 1956. Israeli forces quickly swarmed through Gaza and the Sinai and achieved their objectives by November 5. Britain and France launched a bombing campaign on October 31. In response, Nasser sank some 40 ships in the canal to render it impassable. The air campaign first targeted Egyptian defenses but expanded to target civilians in an effort to terrorize them into overthrowing Nasser. The strikes against civilians only increased the international outcry against the operation, but had no effect on Nasser’s position in Egypt. British and French soldiers began parachuting into the canal zone on November 5 and secured its airfield, at which point more troops could be flown in, followed by seaborne insertions.

In short, Britain, France, and Israel were militarily ascendent. It was in the diplomatic realm where they wound up losing the conflict.

Specifically, Britain and France had been counting on the United States, which had repeatedly tried to encourage a peaceful settlement to the crisis, to eventually support them once the operation was under way. But the Eisenhower administration was interested in winning support in the Arab world and saw the invasion as entirely counter to that goal. Moreover, the US was busy criticizing the Soviet Union over its invasion of Hungary to put down that country’s revolution, and the administration believed strongly that it could not condemn the Soviet invasion of Hungary while supporting or even condoning the British and French invasion of Egypt. I know this level of consistency in US foreign policy seems weird, even disconcerting, to the contemporary reader, but it was a different time.

Then the Soviets started threatening to intervene in Egypt and/or even attack Britain and France if they didn’t back off. Both of these threats were likely bluffs, but Eisenhower seems to have genuinely feared that the crisis could spiral into World War III. So his administration more or less ordered Britain and France to stand down, and threatened to take steps that would’ve collapsed the British pound if they persisted. Britain blinked first, then France followed suit, which left Israel with no choice but to do likewise—though as we’ll see, it extracted a couple of concessions before it quit the fight. The conflict ended with a ceasefire on November 6.

Egypt and Nasser were obviously the big winners of the affair. The world now had to recognize both Egyptian sovereignty and its control over the canal, and at home Nasser was credited with facing down Britain and France and winning Egypt’s “last colonial struggle.” That latter bit seems to have inflated Nasser’s already very substantial ego to unhealthy levels, leading him to commit the epic blunder that was the 1967 Six Day War. The Soviets won support in the region due to their defense of Egypt against Western aggression. This, plus Washington’s promulgation of the “Eisenhower Doctrine” in early 1957, led to closer Egypt-USSR relations, until Anwar Sadat decided to risk it all for an alliance with the US in the 1970s.

On the flip side, Britain was unquestionably the crisis’s biggest loser. Whatever pretense it still had to Great Power status had been shown to be laughably out of touch with reality. All the United States, a true superpower, had to do was look sternly in London’s direction and British leaders were forced to back down. Prime Minister Anthony Eden resigned, and Britain’s international outlook almost overnight switched from “former power trying desperately to reassert itself” to “loyal American sidekick.” Both Britain and France seem to have sped up the process of decolonization after the crisis ended, though this is a “correlation doesn’t necessarily mean causation” sort of thing for historians. Instead of being humbled, like Britain, the French government came out of the crisis angry at both the US, for forcing Britain to capitulate, and Britain, for capitulating. Its feelings about the US also soured over Indochina, and the combination of the two helped lead to France’s decision to withdraw from NATO’s joint military command in 1966 (it rejoined in 2009). It also apparently led the French government to start sharing nuclear technology with the Israelis. How kind of them.

Ah yes, the Israelis. Unlike Britain and France, Israel demanded goodies in return for its withdrawal from the canal zone, and so it came out of the crisis in pretty decent shape considering its side had lost. A UN peacekeeping force was put in Sinai to, among other things, ensure that the Suez Canal remained open to international traffic, and Nasser agreed to reopen the Straits of Tiran to Israeli ships (he’d closed it off to Israeli vessels when he nationalized the canal). So Israeli shipping was mostly back to normal. The Israeli military had acquitted itself very well in the actual fighting while learning quite a bit about what worked and didn’t work in open desert warfare such as one would encounter in Sinai. The Israelis weren’t humiliated by the US bigfooting everybody the way that Britain and France had been. In fact, Israel’s display of military power and diplomatic hardball signaled to the US that from then on it would have to take Israeli interests into account in the region, like it or not.