The Suez war, or popularly known as the Battle of Suez Canal, was a historical turning point in geopolitics.

The dispute over access to the Suez canal brought Britain, France, and Israel up against independent Egypt. They had fought before, but this time two new superpowers were involved.

The cards they had to play were different, and as we will outline, the outcome was unprecedented.

What was the Suez Crisis?

The Suez War, or Suez Canal crisis, began in 1956 and ended in 1957. In July 1956, Egyptian president, Gamal Abdel Nasser, nationalized the Suez Canal owned by the anglo-french Suez Canal Company. It was part of a more comprehensive nationalization program, but it was also a deliberate political move.

The British and the French were incensed by the Canal’s nationalization because it reduced their influence and left their shareholders out of pocket. The Egyptians had been gradually trying to reduce foreign influence over the Canal since 1936. That did not soften the blow and discussions on how to depose Nasser began.

Tensions escalated, and in October, Britain, and France launched an attack with Israel. This was called tripartite aggression. The intention was for Israel to invade and Britain and France to join the occupation later. They planned to style themselves as helping to make peace. However, the ruse was obvious. The United States and USSR stepped in to pressure the invaders into withdrawing.

What is the Suez Canal?

The Suez Canal is a man-made watercourse that runs through a narrow strip of land in Egypt. It connects the Mediterranean and the red sea and runs roughly 120 miles between Port Said and Suez. It is narrow and accommodates cargo ships only.

It was dredged out of the earth at a high cost. It was created because of the massive impact it has on shipping times between Europe and Asia. It reduces the length of the journey by approximately 5,500 miles. This also makes it very strategically important.

It is one of the most heavily used shipping routes in the world. Attempts to create a waterway date back to the second millennium BC. King Darius of Persia and Napoleon both considered a canal but were unsuccessful. The Canal is also a susceptible area for world politics because it links the middle east to Africa.

When was the Canal Built?

It took ten years to build the Suez Canal. Construction began in April 1859 and was completed in November 1869. 2.6 million tonnes of earth needed to be moved to make the Canal passable. Far more has been removed since then because many ships became stuck.

Ferdinand de Lesseps, a French diplomat, and engineer led the project. He had convinced the ruler, Said Pasha, that the project was valuable. The Universal Suez Ship Canal Company received a license to construct and operate the Canal for 99 years.

The Canal was built with a combination of mechanical dredging and manual labor. Some estimates suggest that over 1 million Egyptians worked on the Canal, but work slowed down because of a cholera outbreak and labor practices problems.

What was controversial about the Canal?

The Suez canal is controversial because it was constructed under foreign influence. Said Pasha agreed to the construction for reasons that had more to do with the Ottoman empire than Egyptians’ welfare. He allowed it because of the encouragement of french investors and diplomats. They were looking for profit, not improvement.

The way it was constructed is highly controversial. There is evidence that many of the laborers who built the Canal were forced to participate. Forced labor may have contributed to the project. Even where laborers were free, they were often treated poorly. Egyptian peasants lived in precarious conditions, and the work was difficult and dangerous.

The lasting controversy about the Canal came from its ownership. From 1859 onwards, the Canal was primarily controlled by European powers. French shareholders were initially dominant, but after 1875, British interests were also prominent. The shareholders were private but exercised their influence in favor of colonial powers. Egypt was not able to profit from the Canal as an asset.

When did controversy evolve into conflict?

The sore points in the history of the Suez Canal became more prominent in 1936. In 1936 the Anglo-Egyptian treaty was signed. It had provisions that would scale back the British military presence in Egypt. The troops that remained would be concentrated in the Suez Canal area for 20 years.

The British Empire had invaded Egypt in 1882. Independence and autonomy had increased, but the Suez Canal was an essential part of true freedom. Limiting the number of troops in the canal zone was part of the treaty. Private shareholders maintained their dominance over canal ownership, however.

Private ownership meant mostly foreign ownership. Egypt’s population got angrier with heavy British influence in the region. They had been used as a resource during both world wars. By the end of the second world war, the appetite to gain control over the Canal was widespread. Tensions rose, and Egypt was on the brink of change.

Who were the major players?

Egypt – Egypt was governed by a new military nationalist government. King Farouk had been encouraged to abdicate. British military influence had been successfully expelled from most of Egypt. A program of nationalizing important industries was underway.

Britain – An old colonial power. Britain had held Egypt as a protectorate in the recent past. Their military only withdrew from Egypt in the mid-20th- century. Britain was in poor economic shape after the second world war.

France – Occupied until recently, France was struggling to hold on to global influence. Their overseas territories were under threat. The influence of their shareholders in the Suez Canal was valuable to them.

Israel – Israel was new to being a formal state. The Israeli governments’ interest in expansion into Sinai aligned them with colonial powers. They were against Egypt’s nationalist government.

USSR – The USSR had been part of the coalition that won the war. Russian soldiers paid dearly for the victory, but Russian influence was on the rise. The Soviet regime was developing nuclear weapons and pursuing influence. After the war, Russia was flexing its muscles on the world stage.

United States – The United States was riding high on its success in the second world war. With a booming economy and a recent crushing victory over Japan, it was a new superpower.

Why did conflict become a crisis?

The Suez canal conflict began to loom in 1945. The Egyptian government requested that the British troops in the canal area withdraw. They also wanted the British Empire to cede Sudan. Under Winston Churchill’s leadership, Britain did neither of these things. Churchill stated that it would be dangerous to withdraw from the canal zone.

In 1951, British troops still had not withdrawn from the Suez Canal zone. The British government argued they had the right to remain there until 1956. In theory, this was to ensure that trade was protected along the Canal. In reality, it was to protect British interests and influence on the Canal.

In October 1951, Egyptian authorities threatened to remove British troops from the canal zone. The British government retaliated and sent warships to Port Said, at the mouth of the Canal. Egypt did not eject the troops, but anti-British riots broke out. The British government threatened to use military force against Egypt if they did not retract their plans.

How did the crisis become an armed standoff?

After the monarchy fell in 1953, a new military government was installed, and the situation changed pace. In 1954, Britain made a new agreement with Egypt to cede the Canal within two years. Despite this, relations deteriorated over the next three years. Egypt drew closer to allies of the USSR, while Britain was aligned with the United States.

In April 1955, Egypt announced that it would begin selling cotton to the new People’s Republic of China. A subtle, anti-European gesture. A more dramatic decision to start buying weapons from Czechoslovakia, a USSR satellite state, followed. Egypt was signaling to previous colonial powers that it was not a puppet anymore.

Meanwhile, France was selling arms to the new Israeli state. Israel was still relatively new, but relations with Egypt were not friendly. Israel had also been expanding, which was not good news to Egypt as its neighbor.

How did it take shape?

In mid-July, the United States withdrew their offer of funding for the building of the Aswan Dam. The project was to build a major Dam on the Nile to improve water reserves and generate hydro-electric power. The official reason for the withdrawal was that Egypt had increased their ties with the USSR. One week later, President Nasser announced the plan to nationalize the Suez Canal.

In retaliation, the British government froze Egyptian assets. On July 30, British Prime minister Anthony Eden issued a statement. He stated that the Egyptian government would not take possession of the Suez canal. An arms embargo was placed on Egypt by Britain.

Western powers, including France, Britain, and the United States, met to discuss the evolving crisis. On August 2, 1956, Britain mobilized its armed forces. Later that month, Egypt offered to discuss ownership of the Canal, but only if British troops withdrew from the entire middle east. They did not withdraw from the middle east, and the crisis entered a multinational phase.

The Suez Canal Cold war chapter: The multinational phase of the Suez Crisis

In September 1956, British forces remained in the middle east. The crisis scaled up when the USSR promised to send troops if Egypt was invaded. A multinational forum assembled to discuss ownership, but talks collapsed in September 1956. General Nasser was not prepared to consider multinational ownership of the Canal.

Egypt was in full possession of the Canal. In September 1956, Britain, France, and the United States announced a plan to impose a Canal users association. It would impose on Egyptian sovereignty. The association would help support their influence. The USSR vetoed this during a UN session, but a 15-nation association was already formed.

Israeli forces struck in Sinai in October 1956. They were followed within days by British and French troops. They landed at Port Said and Port Fuad, effectively taking control of the Suez canal.

How did the crisis wind down?

The crisis ended because the invading forces were acting without support. The USSR wanted its ally, Egypt, to be free from invasion. The United States was displeased that Britain, France, and Israel had plotted the invasion. Global shipping was also disrupted.

President Eisenhower warned that he would impose economic sanctions unless the forces withdrew. Britain and France were reliant on the United States for financial aid. The threat worked, and by December 1956, their forces withdrew.

Israel hung on longer and did not withdraw until March 1957. By April 1957, British vessels were paying tolls on the Suez Canal. The far greater tax was the damage to British and French international reputations.

Who won and who lost?

The Suez crisis of 1956 was difficult for everyone involved. However, there were some clear winners and losers.

General Nasser’s standing improved as a result of his victory in the Suez canal conflict. The international standing of Britain and France was permanently damaged. It was clear that the world now revolved around the United States and the USSR, the new superpowers.

Summary

The Suez crisis of 1956 was a watershed moment in global politics. In a contest between a new Egyptian regime and British and French interests, Egypt had won. The new order of the world brought an unexpected outcome.

Here are the core points to remember about a complicated situation.

  • After decades of discontent, the nationalization of the Suez Canal kicked off the Suez crisis.
  • British and French forces colluded with Israel to invade parts of Egypt. It was an attempt to regain control.
  • The USSR backed their allies in Egypt.
  • The United States did not back the invaders and threatened sanctions.
  • Britain and France could not afford to resist the U.S. and had to withdraw.
  • Egypt gained control of the Canal and improved its position.
  • Britain and France were diminished.

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