Why Suez still matters
The Suez crisis of 1956 was rooted, as with so much in the Middle East, in long-past events. It started in the mid-19th century when France and Egypt decided to build a canal through the shortest route from the Mediterranean to the Red Sea. Britain, sceptical at first, eventually recognised the value of the canal to its empire in India and to the newly discovered oilfields in the Gulf.
By the start of the 20th century, protecting the Suez Canal was an essential component of Britain’s foreign policy and in both world wars, the country expended considerable resources to defend it. The end of the Second World War found the United Kingdom in a very different world. The war had devastated Europe, leaving the United States financially as the strongest western country, but not yet politically. It would take the Suez crisis of 1956 to transform America from the West’s richest country to its most politically indispensable one.
The post-war era was marked by demands for independence by countries under colonial rule. Britain and France faced strong resistance, particularly in India and Algeria, respectively. There was a feeling that the colonial era was closing – but British and French politicians were determined to hold on it.
When the Egyptian military overthrew the monarchy in 1952 and Gamal Abdel Nasser became leader in 1954, this resistance to foreign rule in the Middle East acquired a charismatic face. Nasser wanted to build a dam at Aswan to grow the economy and sought to improve Egypt’s military by purchasing Soviet weapons. Western countries tried to limit the latter by stopping the former: first the US, then the UK, then the World Bank refused to loan Nasser the money for the dam. In response, Nasser nationalised the Suez Canal. Britain and France were furious.
The Israelis, concerned at Nasser’s support for the Palestinians, secretly proposed a plan to the French: they would attack Egypt and occupy the canal. The British and French could then “intervene” to keep the sides apart, thereby reoccupying Suez. Britan’s prime minister agreed, even though it meant lying to his own parliament and his American allies.
When Israel attacked on October 29, 1956, and a few days later France and Britain joined in, the flimsy lies fell apart. World opinion was incensed and the US president Dwight Eisenhower felt betrayed. In response, he forced the International Monetary Fund to halt loans to the UK. Faced with this, Britain withdrew from the invasion, followed by the French, followed by the Israelis. To Egyptians, and Arabs and Africans, Nasser had faced down two of the world’s great powers and won.
Neither Britain nor France ever recovered their status. The war had proved that there was only one western power remaining and, as the Cold War with the Soviet Union escalated, it was the US who led efforts to confront communism.