The Suez Crisis of 1956
Professor Nazeer Ahmed
The Suez crisis of 1956 refers to the invasion of Egypt by the combined armies of Britain, France and Israel with the declared intent of seizing the Canal Zone. In the deadly game of real politic where power is the arbitrator of justice, the Egyptian defenses were found wanting against the combined onslaught of the invading armies. But Egypt won the political battle when the Eisenhower Administration of the United States forced the invaders to withdraw. The political triumph heralded the heyday for Arab nationalism and propelled Nasser as a hero of the Arab world. The euphoria was short lived and lasted only until the devastating defeat of the Arab armies by Israel in the war of June 1967.
From a historical perspective, the Suez crisis of 1956 was the last hurrah for the British Empire. It confirmed that the age of the European Empires had passed and a new world order dominated by the United States and the Soviet Union had emerged
Arguably, the British Empire was a partnership between British Civil Service and the Indian army. India was not just the crown jewel in the British crown; it was the lynchpin of the empire. With India, the British lion had teeth. Without India, the British lion roared but it was toothless. In 1947, India and Pakistan gained their independence. The two million strong Indian army that had provided the muscle for the empire in places as far away as Malaysia and Palestine was no longer under the command of British officers. Without this military power, the British Empire was like a façade without props. Within fifteen years of India’s independence, Britain had withdrawn from Palestine, Singapore, Malaysia, Kenya, Nigeria and Cyprus. While it was once boasted that the sun never set on the British empire, it had now indeed set and Britain had become an island nation, cast into a supporting role to the English speaking megalith across the Atlantic, the United States of America.
What caused this global shift in power was Hitler’s war (1939-45). While local folklore lionizes native sons in the struggle for national independence, it was the Second World War and its debilitating stress on the Europeans that sapped their power and their ability to keep Asia and Africa under their heels. It was during this war that the armies of the empire which had fought under colonial flags saw that the Europeans were not invincible and could indeed be defeated by an Asian power like Japan. For instance, in India and Pakistan, Gandhi and Jinnah are lionized. While history will acknowledge the contributions of these political giants, it was the rebellion of the Indian navy in February 1946 as much as anything that Gandhi and Jinnah did that convinced the British to quit India, a fact acknowledged by Attlee, the then prime minister of the United Kingdom.
The story of the Suez Canal is a text book example of the interplay between imperial design and local ineptitude played out against a backdrop of the global reach of international bankers.
Egypt is where the Eurasian landmass meets up with Africa. In times of peace it is the artery for trade and commerce between the Mediterranean and the Indian Oceans. In time of war it commands the vital logistics between Asia and Europe. Control of Egypt has dictated the destinies of Eurasian empires from times immemorial and has had an impact far beyond the Middle Eastern region. For instance, in the tenth and the eleventh centuries, Egypt was controlled by the Fatimids, who were locked in a bitter struggle with the Abbasids of Baghdad for dominance over the Islamic world. As trade between Europe and Asia flowed through Fatimid lands, the Abbasids were impoverished. To compensate for this loss of revenue, the Ghaznavids who backed the Abbasids, raided India in search of gold. It is only in this global context that one can understand the devastating and fateful raids of Mahmud of Ghazna into Punjab and Gujarat in India, circa 1000 CE.
It has been a dream of the rulers of Egypt since the days of the Pharaohs to connect the Mediterranean with the Red Sea and integrate the maritime trade routes of Asia and Europe. In the nineteenth century, as the European powers consolidated their colonial empires, the movement of men and material between Europe and Asia accelerated. Transportation through Egypt would reduce thousands of miles from the long shipping routes around the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa. Rivalry was intense between the colonial powers. The British were the first to make their move securing the rights to build a railroad between Alexandria and Suez so that goods could be unloaded in Alexandria, transported by rail overland to Suez City on the Red City, reloaded onto ships and transported to their burgeoning colonies in India and the Far East.
It was the French who achieved a commercial coupe in 1851 when the French engineer Ferdinand de Lessop secured the concurrence of Mohammed Said, the Pasha (Ottoman governor) of Egypt, for the construction of a canal linking the Mediterranean with the Red Sea. Financing for the project was a major issue. French private investors bought a majority of the shares in the newly formed Compagnie universelle du canal maritime de Suez with the Pasha of Egypt holding 44 percent of the shares.
Detailed plans were prepared and the work on the monumental project began in earnest in 1859. Thousands of Egyptian fellahin were conscripted as laborers. But no amount of sweat can compensate for flawed planning. Soon, there were cost overruns and the Pasha was forced to borrow money from international bankers, who demanded collateral for their loans.
It was at this juncture that the interplay of global events dictated the fate of the Suez Canal project and of Egypt itself. The American civil war started in 1861. America, along with Egypt, was a major supplier of cotton to the international market. Due to dislocations of the civil war, American cotton disappeared from international markets. Demand from the cotton mills of England was strong and the price of Egyptian cotton shot up.
Meanwhile, in 1863, Mohammed Said, the Pasha of Egypt died and was succeeded by his son Ismail Pasha. Ambitious, lavish and profligate, Ismail surrounded himself with Egyptian sycophants and European swindlers and sank Egypt into an ever deepening morass of debt. He mortgaged the future crops of Egyptian cotton, assuming that the high price which had resulted from a temporary disruption of world markets would continue. When the civil war ended in 1865, American cotton was back on the market and the price of Egyptian cotton plummeted. Ismail was bankrupt, unable to pay the interest on the funds he had borrowed from the international bankers.
The British, outmaneuvered by the French in the initial gambit, had stayed out of participation in the financing of the Suez Canal Company. In 1857, the British empire was jolted by the Indian Sepoy Mutiny. Reinforcements for the beleaguered garrisons in India had to be sent from places as far away as Aden. Additional supplies from England took months to arrive from Liverpool and London. The Indian Sepoy Mutiny reinforced for the British the importance of the Canal and they looked for an opportunity to get back into the imperial game for control of the sea lanes leading to their British Indian empire.
The opportunity presented itself when Ismail Pasha, unable to meet his financial obligations, borrowed additional funds at higher interest rates to make payments on older loans. Lavish expenditures on his frequent trips to Paris and London, a futile war on Ethiopia, and the construction of several palaces added to his financial woes.
The Suez Canal opened with much fanfare in 1867 but by then, the host Ismail Pasha, was a pauper. Ismail transferred his personal debts to the state. By 1873, the Egyptian debt had climbed to over 100 million pounds and Egypt was on its knees. The beleaguered Pasha sold his shares in the Suez Canal Company to the British for a sum of 4 million pounds. Thus was born the Anglo-French consortium for control of the Canal. Even this sale was insufficient to pay for the interest on the Pasha’s loans. Through a series of political and financial maneuvers, the European powers cornered Egypt into first surrendering its finances, and when the Egyptians protested, the British navy bombarded Alexandria and occupied Cairo in 1978. Using Egypt as a base, the British armies advanced further south and subdued the Sudan in the 1880s.
During the Italian invasion of Libya in 1911 and the Balkan wars of 1911-12, the British used their garrisons in Egypt to block the movement of Ottoman troops between Anatolia and North Africa thus helping Italy, Greece, Bulgaria and Serbia to seize and occupy vast areas of the Ottoman Empire in Eastern Europe and Libya.
When the First World War erupted in 1914, Britain declared Egypt to be a ‘protectorate’, reinforced its garrisons in the Suez Canal area with Indian troops and used Egypt as a base to launch an invasion of Palestine and Syria. It was an Anglo Indian army under Allenby that occupied Jerusalem in 1917. Throughout the Great War, the Canal proved to be crucial in the movement of troops and supplies for the allies in the Middle Eastern sector and in the ultimate defeat of the Ottomans.
In 1936 Egypt received its nominal independence from Britain. Under a Treaty concluded with the Pasha of Egypt, British troops continued to occupy the Canal zone with vague promises of withdrawal at a future date.
World War II (1939-45) intervened and Egypt once again became the prize that was sought after by the axis powers and the allies alike. In 1942, the German Afrika Corps under Rommel advanced across North Africa. Their target was the Canal zone. The goal was to cut off the allied forces in the Far East from European supply lines. At the historic battle of El Alamein, a large allied army of British, Indian, Australian and New Zealand troops led by Montgomery stopped Rommel and compelled him to withdraw. This was a decisive turning point in the War.
Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in December 1941 and the United States was dragged into the War. The Japanese quickly overran the European colonies in Hong Kong, Indo-China, Singapore, Malaya, Indonesia and Burma. The aura of European invincibility was punctured and many in the Asian colonies saw in the Japanese victories a glimmer of hope for their own independence.
Germany surrendered in May 1945. Japan was bombed into submission by the atom bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945. The long and grueling War left the British, French and other colonial powers exhausted. The naval uprising of the Indian navy in February 1946 convinced the British that the Indian army was no longer a reliable partner in its global colonial venture. India was granted independence in August 1947. The Dutch were driven out of Indonesia by the nationalist forces under Sukarno in 1948. The French tried to hang onto Indo-China but suffered a humiliating defeat at the battle of Dien Bien Phu (1954) and withdrew in ignominy, opening the door to direct American intervention.
The Second World War redefined equations of global power and let loose forces of far reaching historical import. The persecution of the Jews by Hitler generated support for political Zionism in the United States. Palestine was partitioned and the state of Israel came into being in 1948. Warfare erupted between the Arab states and Israel (1948-49) in which Israel was victorious while the Arabs felt betrayed and humiliated. This, in turn, fostered resentment of the West in Arab lands. Millions of Palestinians were dispersed throughout the Arab world as refugees, creating a perpetual source of tension and instability in the Middle East.
The Second World War and the triumph of the state of Israel unleashed powerful forces of nationalism in the Arab world which challenged at once the hegemony of the West and the established political order based on monarchies. In 1951, the Egyptian parliament revoked the Anglo-Egyptian Treaty of 1936. The British responded by attacking Ismailia and occupying the Canal zone. Riots broke out in Alexandria and European properties were damaged. In retaliation, the British threatened to occupy Cairo. To placate the European powers, an alarmed King Farouk of Egypt dismissed Nahas Pasha, the leader of the ruling nationalist party and dissolved the parliament. More riots followed, and in July 1952 an officer’s revolt eliminated the monarchy and drove King Farouk into exile. General Naguib became the Prime Minister of Egypt. Under Naguib the Anglo Egyptian Treaty of 1936 was renegotiated for seven years with the provision that British troops would leave Egypt by 1956. The Canal was to be open to all international shipping.
In 1954, Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser forced out Naguib and became the de facto ruler. Nasser was a firebrand nationalist, a fervent promoter of pan-Arabism and undoubtedly one of the prime movers of Middle Eastern history in the post war years. His ambitious agenda included forcing the British out of the Canal Zone, modernizing Egypt and the unification of the Arab states into a single federation. This agenda was at odds with the agenda of the British who sought to maintain a permanent presence in Egypt and that of Israel, which perceived a unified Arab state as an existential threat to its survival. To prevent this, Israel sought continuing political-military dominance over the Arabs. As for France, it was busy suppressing a bloody war of independence in Algeria, which it claimed as an integral part of France, and saw in Arab nationalism a threat to its long term national interests in Africa.
Nasser sought British arms to modernize his armed forces. Fearing a backlash from Israel, the British refused. The cold war between the United States and the Soviet Union was at its height. So Nasser turned to the Soviets for political and military support. The Soviets saw an opportunity to penetrate the strategic Middle East and gladly obliged. The arms deal upset the western powers and they armed Israel to more than offset the flow of Soviet arms to Gamal Abdel Nasser and maintain a qualitative military balance of power in favor of Israel.
The destiny of Egypt is defined by the River Nile. Indeed, it is said that Egypt is the Nile and the Nile is Egypt. The annual floods from the Nile inundated the lower delta, devastating the land and causing considerable loss of life and property. To tame the mighty river and regulate its flow, Nasser proposed building a high dam at Aswan. Financing was required and Nasser appealed for help from the World Bank. The Eisenhower administration was at first disposed to assist and offer a loan. But the Egyptian arms deal with the Soviets alarmed Washington, and the offer of aid for the Aswan high dam was withdrawn. The British followed suit and refused to finance the project. That was in January 1956.
Events now moved rapidly towards a showdown between Egypt and the western powers. To raise money for the Aswan High Dam, Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal in July 1956. Even as world capitals buzzed with high level diplomatic activity to avoid a crisis, Eden, the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, decided to use military force to topple Nasser and contain Arab nationalism. This plan was in consonance with the strategic interets of both France and Israel and they joined in. At a secret meeting held at Sevres, France in October 1956, the prime ministers of UK, France and Israel, Eden, Mollet and Ben Gurion, drew up a plan for combined military action. Under the plan, Israel would attack Egypt. France and the United Kingdom would then intervene, presumably to separate the warring parties and and occupy the Canal zone.
On October 29, 1956, the Israeli armed forces attacked on a broad front extending from Gaza to El Arish, the Mitla pass and Sharm el Shaik on the Gulf of Aqaba. Israeli tanks made rapid advances in the Sinai against the retreating Egyptian forces.
As planned, the British and the French intervened on October 30. The assault began with heavy aerial bombardment from bases in Cyprus and Malta as well as from aircraft carriers positioned off the coast of Egypt. A ground assault followed. Resistance from the Egyptian armed forces was stiff but it was silenced within a week by the overwhelming firepower of the invading forces.
The reaction from the world powers was quick and predictable. The Soviet Union, furious that a client state was subjected to armed aggression, threatened to intervene. The United States, concerned that the armed conflict could easily get out of hand and result in a broader conflict, called for immediate cessation of hostilities and a withdrawal of the invading forces. For Washington, Middle Eastern oil was more important than physical control of the Suez canal. It was one of those rare occasions when the United States stood opposed to Israeli actions and applied political pressure on Tel Aviv to withdraw from the Sinai. Faced with combined pressures from both super powers, Britain, France and Israel relented and withdrew their forces to the pre-war positions by March 1957. United Nations observers were posted in the Sinai, and the Straits of Tiran were opened to Israeli shipping.
There were clear winners and losers in the Suez crisis of 1956. Nasser dared the British and the French and succeeded in expelling them from the Canal zone. His firebrand rhetoric gained increasing acceptance in the Arab world and he was hailed as a champion of Arab nationalism. Nationalism was a quest for dignity and a search for Arab manhood in the face of humiliating defeats by Israel. But it failed to comprehend the strength and determination of forces arrayed against it.
Nasser overplayed his hand in the succeeding years by intervening in the civil war in Yemen (which degenerated into a proxy war between an American backed Saudi Arabia and a Soviet backed Egypt) and entering into an ill fated short lived federation with Syria. Finally, in 1967, he was cornered into a war with Israel, defeated and humiliated.
Israel gained valuable experience in the rapid movement of its armor, lessons which it used with devastating effectiveness in the war of 1967. It also gained access to the Red Sea through the Straits of Tiran and to shipping with Asia. However, its ambition to militarily dominate the Arab world received a temporary setback. It had to postpone that ambition for a decade until the 1967 war.
The principal losers were the United Kingdom and France. The Suez crisis demonstrated that the days of imperial England and France were over and that the world now danced to the beat of new super powers based in Washington and Moscow. Within a decade of Suez, Britain had granted independence to its remaining colonies in Asia and Africa. The old imperial powers were put on notice that they had to invent new financial and political mechanisms to dominate and control the world through a new world order. Neo-colonialism replaced colonialism. Local satraps replaced viceroys. The IMF and the World Bank became instruments for financial control of the newly independent cash starved third world. Britain and France marched towards these new horizons, looking for leadership from the United States, which had emerged from the Second World War as the richest and the most powerful country in the world.