However improbable it might sound today, a few decades ago, the British, French, and Israeli governments conspired and invaded a Middle Eastern country without the knowledge, let alone the approval, of the United States.
The year was 1956, and the country Egypt.
Each participant of that unlikely tripartite coalition had their own unique motive for the invasion, which became known as the Suez Crisis.
Britain wished to guarantee her, “great imperial lifeline,” as the British Prime Minister, Anthony Eden, famously called the canal and to reassert her position of colonial dominance.
France wished to topple Colonel Gamel Abdul Nasser, the Egyptian ruler who was actively supporting the nationalist rebellion in neighboring French Algeria — an insurgency that by 1956 wasn’t going well for the French and that required more than 400,000 troops to deal with.
And Israel wanted to avenge the perpetual Egyptian incursions into Gaza and to fight a war it knew was coming. So, a pre-emptive strike under the most favorable conditions, and before Egypt, with her alarming flow of new Soviet arms, became too powerful gained favor in Tel Aviv.
The invasion and its aftermath would trigger momentous geopolitical events that can still be seen today not only in the region but also in the U.S.’s relationship with Europe. For the Suez crisis solidified the new world order that had emerged after WWII. Until 1956, Britain and France still believed that their pre-war international clout had survived the war. The Suez Crisis and America’s response cleared some clouds in London and Paris.
Now, you may be wondering how it all came to this.
Well, to better understand the reasons behind the Suez Crisis, we must first understand the vital significance of the canal. And to do so, we must travel back to the middle of the 19th century.
In 1869, after 10 years of construction, the Suez Canal opened. It had been commissioned by the Khedive, the Ottoman Viceroy of Egypt, and was administered by the Universal Company of the Suez Maritime Canal. Most of the company’s shares were owned by French and British private investors and the Egyptian government. A few years later, in 1875, the Egyptian government was forced to sell its shares of the company to Britain, largely because of financial troubles.
It wasn’t long before the canal’s strategic importance became apparent. Before this feat of engineering, ships coming from or going to the east had to circumvent Africa. Journeys were excruciatingly slow and lasted for months. Not anymore. Now, Britain and France were able to govern and reinforce their vast empires with considerably greater efficiency.
But what about Egypt? Why did she even allow foreigners such great privileges in her territory?
Well, Egypt was a British colony in everything but name. Imperial troops had been stationed in the country since the late 19th century, the result of a brief colonial skirmish that saw Britain victorious.
And although Egypt was proclaimed an independent sovereign country in 1936, with the signing of the Anglo-Egyptian Treaty, a considerable British garrison remained to protect the canal; the commitment was due to be re-examined in 1956.
As the tumultuous 20th century progressed, the increased dependence of countries on oil accentuated the importance of the canal. During both World Wars, the waterway had been crucial to the war-making capabilities of Britain. And by the time of the crisis in the mid-1950s, two-thirds of Europe’s oil sailed through the Canal.
And then came Israel.
In part two we will explore how the birth of the Jewish nation upended everything in the Middle East and how Colonel Nasser decided to gamble with his and Egypt’s future.
Reading suggestions for “Suez Canal Crisis”
Blood and Sand: Suez, Hungary, and Eisenhower’s Campaign for Peace
Suez Crisis 1956: End of Empire and the Reshaping of the Middle East (Cold War, 1945–1991)
Eisenhower 1956: The President’s Year of Crisis–Suez and the Brink of War
Suez: Britain’s End of Empire in the Middle East
This article was originally published in July 2020. It has been edited for republication.
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