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Remembering the Suez Crisis and the tripartite invasion of Egypt

Port Said seen from the air during the Suez Crisis [snl.no]
Port Said seen from the air during the Suez Crisis [snl.no]

What: The invasion of Egypt and the occupation of the area around the Suez Canal by a tripartite alliance of British, French and Israeli forces.

Where: Suez Canal, Egypt

When: 29 October, 1956 – March, 1957

What happened?

Following World War Two and the resetting of the roles of the colonial powers, the 1950s were a decade of major anti-colonial struggles in Europe's remaining colonies around the world. The tainted legacy of the colonial era was still very much in evidence.

Egypt was one of those former colonies, having only gained independence 34 years earlier, and President Gamal Abdel Nasser was its champion in the anti-colonial cause. One of his first acts as president, was to nationalise the Suez Canal on 26 July, 1956. The waterway was essential for cargo and oil shipments to Western Europe from the Gulf and beyond.

Nasser's move effectively ended the canal's ownership by the Suez Canal Company, with its British and French shareholders, and ignited fears that the Egyptian leader could cut off the oil shipments to gain political leverage.

The nationalisation of the canal was a response to the decision by the United States and Britain not to finance Egypt's construction of the Aswan High Dam as promised. Nasser and his government calculated that the tolls collected from the ships using the canal would be enough to pay for the dam's construction costs within five years.

Western nations were by then growing increasingly concerned about Egypt's shift towards the Soviet Union and the arms it received from communist Czechoslovakia. Breaking the promise to fund the dam, it was believed, would provoke Cairo to rely upon Moscow even more.

After diplomatic attempts failed to resolve the issue, Britain joined France and Israel – which had grievances with Egypt due to border clashes and its lack of shipping rights through the Straits of Tiran – to plan a military operation to regain control of the Suez Canal. Under their plan, Israel was to invade Egypt's Sinai Peninsula in an attempt to distract Nasser, allowing British and French forces to call for a ceasefire before occupying the canal zone in the guise of peacemakers.

READ: Israel is taking advantage of the Suez Canal accident to push its alternatives

The operation swung into effect on 29 October, when Israeli forces invaded Egypt and advanced across Sinai towards the Suez Canal, routing Egyptian forces on the way. The UN Security Council, Britain and France called for a ceasefire and the demilitarisation of the canal zone. Predictably, Nasser refused to listen.

During the first week of November 1956, British troops landed at Port Said, as planned, after the Royal Navy had bombarded the city. Meanwhile, French forces launched an amphibious attack on Port Fuad. The two armies overcame the Egyptian defences and duly occupied the canal zone.

What happened next?

As Egyptian soldiers, guerrilla fighters and intelligence agents continued to coordinate active resistance against the occupying forces, Britain faced growing opposition to the invasion at home in the form of protests and parliamentary divisions.

At the same time, the UN and the US condemned the "tripartite aggression". US President Dwight Eisenhower issued stern warnings to the French, British and Israelis to end their campaign and withdraw from Egypt. Washington's opposition was so serious that it threatened all three nations with sanctions if they refused to back down.

Eisenhower targeted Britain in particular with his condemnation because Westminster had neglected to inform his administration of the plan in advance. This prompted the US to threaten to sell its sterling bonds and thus devalue the British currency.

As a result of such pressure, British and French troops were evacuated with the assistance of the UN on 22 December. The withdrawal of Israeli forces followed in March 1957.

The entire operation failed to achieve the objectives of the tripartite alliance: Egypt kept control of the Suez Canal with the support of the UN and US; Britain's access to fuel and oil became limited and resulted in shortages; and Israel did not get to use the canal, although it did obtain shipping rights in the Straits of Tiran, which were controlled by Egypt.

The crisis made Nasser a hero in Egypt and the wider Arab world, and his government developed even closer ties with the Soviet Union. Ultimately, the Suez Crisis was a boost for the Arab nationalist cause. Most importantly, it also signified the major decline in British and French influence in the Middle East, where they were replaced by the US, which was recognised thereafter as the predominant Western force in succession to the old colonial European powers. US rivalry with the Soviet Union was cast as the new power dynamic within the region, which played a prominent part in the Cold War.

READ: Moving its Embassy to Jerusalem could kill Britain's remaining global influence

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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