"Of course we can get to Cairo, but what I don't know is what the bloody hell we're supposed to do when we get there."
The Suez Crisis was a defining moment in post-World War Two British politics. It was the final nail in Britain's dream of remaining a world power of the first rank. It brought down the government of the day. It showed the world that Britain was subservient to the United States, and it temporarily convinced the government of France that Britain could not be trusted to join the European Union. The Suez Crisis is often forgotten nowadays. On a military level, it was not particularly dramatic. On a political level, no-one in the West came out of it well. It did the power of good for Egyptian president Gamel Abdel Nasser, but he lost in the end and passed away into history.
"We are not at war with Egypt. We are in a state of armed conflict."
Anthony Eden, British Prime Minister
For almost a century before 1953, Egypt had been part of the British Empire's wider area of influence. Although it was not actually subject to direct rule, King Farouk was willing to allow British and French firms to own large parts of the country, as well as the important Suez Canal. The creation of Israel, and successive military defeats at its hands, did not go down too well in Egypt, and in 1953 a military coup deposed Farouk. Gamel Abdel Nasser rose to become the first President of Egypt. He was a charismatic and instantly recognisable man who had a vision for Egypt and the Middle East. Nasser set about modernising and developing his country, initially with funds from the United Nations and the US. For a time it seemed like business as usual, with Nasser as yet another colonial puppet.
But Nasser was on nobody's side but his own. He had a Pan-Arab dream of uniting the Middle East, and it became apparent that had no great love for the West. He made ties with the Soviet Union, and signed a big arms deal with Czechoslovakia, which led to the US and Britain suspending aid to Egypt in 1956 - particularly to the Aswan Dam, a hydroelectric dam that would become Nasser's equivalent of the Pyramids. Although he was regarded by British Prime Minister Anthony Eden as a crackpot socialist military dictator, a prototype of Fidel Castro or Saddam Hussein, Nasser was a hero in Egypt and respected throughout the Middle East, because he was sticking it in the eye of former and potential foreign masters. The US, meanwhile, was ambivalent; they were not sure that Nasser was as bad as Britain made out, although they were upset at Nasser's ties with the Soviet Union. Nasser took the step of nationalising the Suez Canal in July of 1956, reasoning that the toll revenues from ships passing through would pay for his dam by the end of the decade.
The Suez Canal was an immensely important waterway at the time, and remains so today. It allows ships to travel from the Mediterranean to India and Japan, without having to go all the way around the Cape of Good Hope. Up until 1956 it was owned by a joint French/British consortium of stockholders, and was part of the Western sphere of influence. It had been Britain's gateway to India, and by 1956 it marked the eastern edge of the British Empire. Neither Britain nor France were best pleased at Nasser's nationalisation of the canal. For the French it came close on the heels of defeat at Dien Bien Phu, and in the midst of growing trouble in Algeria. The French empire was dying a more lingering death than that of the British empire. History came to realise that Nasser had no more love for the Soviet Union than for the West, but at the time it was thought that he might destabilise the whole region, prompting widespread socialist revolutions and inevitable Soviet military support. Israel had its own problems with Egypt, and, after a protracted period of threats directed at Nasser, the three countries formulated a plan to take back the canal by force of arms. They did not want to openly invade the canal area, for fear of appearing to be warmongering bullies. Although Nasser had risen to power on the back of a coup, he did not seem evil enough to attack directly. Instead, a clever plan was worked out.
The plan called for Israel to attack the Sinai on a pretence of pre-empting an Egyptian attack on Israel. France and Britain would then demand that both sides disengage, and threaten to impose a cease-fire by force, which would of course involve putting troops on the ground at Suez. I am not sure what was supposed to happen after the canal had been taken. Perhaps Britain, France, and Israel expected Nasser to be deposed, or perhaps they expected to simply stay there forevermore. Neither of the colonial powers had the equipment or manpower for a sustained occupation of the area, and it was out of the question for Israel to station troops on the canal; Nasser could have whipped up a whirlwind.
The final part of the plan was never fully fleshed out. The illustrative quote at the beginning of the article is from British General Gerald Templar who, as governor of Malaya a few years earlier, had successfully dealt with a communist insurgency in that country, using a mixture of military force and by successfully winning the hearts and minds of the local population. Templar was one of a number of generals in favour of a military operation purely to capture the canal and impose some kind of lasting neutral zone, although the final plan was developed by Captain Liddell-Hart and British Prime Minister Anthony Eden. There might have been some chance of deposing Nasser if the Egyptian population had been against him, but they were not. The only way to get rid of him would be with a full-scale invasion of Egypt from Britain, France and Israel, and there was no way the US or the USSR were likely to stand idly by whilst that happened. Despite the special relationship between the US and Great Britain, the former was no fan of imperialism. And ultimately Nasser had kept the canal running. He did not seem a petty destructive tyrant.
On October 29, 1956, the plan was set in motion. Israel attacked with great success. On October 30 France and Britain issued their ceasefire proclamation, and declared that, no matter what, they would send troops to the region to enforce the peace. They did so the very next day, turning their firepower on Egypt. Militarily the Suez Crisis was a one-sided affair. Britain and France were not the powers they had once been, but they were old hands at war. The US and the rest of the world smelled something fishy. President Eisenhower sent ships to evacuate US citizens from Israel and Egypt, and made diplomatic moves to the UN in order to distance the US from the affair. President Nasser meanwhile blocked the canal with sunken ships. Britain's economy took a tumble at the threat of an oil embargo, and of a costly draining ongoing occupation, so soon after the expense of the Second World War, and of Korea. Britain's food supplies were still rationed by the government until 1954. The economy was being overshadowed by that of a resurgent Germany, and it was dwarfed by the Yankee dollar. The Soviets threatened to intervene directly in Suez, and for a while it look as if the whole thing was going to be a disaster for all concerned.
Although the USSR had just invaded Hungary, it was relatively blameless in the Middle East, and looked positively benign compared to Britain and France, who were clearly in the wrong. Eisenhower knew this, and he was a week away from re-election. Neither of the Cold War superpowers were in the mood to entertain the Imperial dreams of Britain and France. The people of Britain and France were not impressed either, with ongoing protests in both countries. Anthony Eden had counted on Eisenhower's support, although he had not actually told Eisenhower what he planned to do. Eisenhower was livid at the deception and invasion, at the propaganda victory it handed to the USSR, and that was that for Eden and the Suez affair. Although the brief military campaign had essentially been won by Britain and France, Eisenhower could not longer support the former Imperial powers at the United Nations.
On November 7th Britain realised that the game was up. Continued military action would be ruinously expensive and would lead nowhere. Eden prevailed on France's General De Gaulle to join him in giving up, which confirmed De Gaulle's suspicions that Britain was a pawn of the United States, not to be trusted. Israel became even more villainous in Arab eyes, whilst the open alliance with Britain and France against Egypt bashed any influence either country had over the region. The disruption to shipping and oil caused by Nasser's temporary closure of the canal caused a Sterling crisis, and caused Anthony Eden to resign in January 1957. British and French armed forces finally pulled out in March 1957. The canal remained a bone of contention between Egypt and Israel. Eventually Egypt closed the canal to Israeli shipping, which prompted the Six-Day War of 1966. Nasser's dam was finally completed in July 1970. Nasser died two months later. He did not live to see the next war between Egypt and Israel, or the peace that was signed between the two nations in 1979.
Over the next decade Britain pulled out of its colonial possessions relatively peacefully, and nobody in Britain, certainly not Harold Macmillan and Alexander Douglas-Home, Eden's successors, could have any further illusions that Britain called the shots any more. The Cold War was bigger than any former Imperial power. France continued to lurch into trouble with Algeria, which almost led to a civil war as the 1960s wore on. The United States, meanwhile, was having trouble of its own, in Vietnam.