In 1956 the Suez Canal was nationalised by Gamal Abdel Nasser. The Suez Canal Crisis of 1956 effectively ended the political career of Sir Anthony Eden but it served to greatly advance the already very high standing Nasser had in the Arab world. However, what were the causes of the 1956 Suez Canal Crisis?
Britain had ruled Egypt for all of the Twentieth Century. This gave Britain joint control over the Suez Canal – along with the French – which had been described as the “jugular vein of the Empire”. The Suez Canal cut a vast number of miles off a sea journey from Europe to Asian markets and vice-versa and made a journey around the volatile Cape of Good Hope unnecessary. However, the British presence in Egypt was not welcome by many Egyptians as they were made to feel second class citizens in their own country.
The Middle East was a key area within the Cold War context and within the Middle East the Suez Canal was seen as vital. By 1951 the British had 80,000 troops stationed along the Suez Canal making it the largest military base in the world. To many in Britain the Suez Canal was a sign of Britain’s overseas power – to many Egyptians it was an emblem of an empire that harkened back to former times that many believed should have gone when World War Two ended. Egyptians needed permission from the British to even go near to the canal and resistance to the British occupation of Egypt quickly grew.
Colonel Nasser wanted to take advantage of this situation. First he was aware that many Egyptians were deeply unhappy with the British being in Egypt. Second, he was also aware that corruption was rife in senior positions within Egypt and this was most epitomised by the life style of King Farouk. Nasser founded the ‘Free Officers’. Members of it wanted the overthrow of ‘old’ Egypt to be followed by the removal of all British influence in Egypt.
By 1952, attacks on British troops in Egypt got worse. Between 1951 and 1952, thirty had been killed and over sixty had been wounded. The Egyptian police, who were meant to be supporting troops in maintaining law and order, were feeding information to the resistance movement of British troop whereabouts etc. This made life extremely difficult for the British Army in Egypt and in 1952 ‘Operation Eagle’ was introduced. This was a full crackdown on the Egyptian police. However, it only took one incident to spark off a full-scale rebellion and this happened at Ismailia.
The Third Infantry Brigade surrounded the police headquarters at Ismailia and called on the men inside it to surrender. After brief talks, the police within the building refused to do so and made it plain that they were prepared to fight. The British brought in Centurion tanks and other armoured vehicles and attacked. The police headquarters was taken over. There were some British casualties but fifty Egyptian police were killed and many more were wounded. Over 800 men were arrested and taken into custody. A local man photographed what he saw and the photos, when published, only served to inflame an already very tense situation.
What happened at Ismailia angered many throughout the whole of Egypt. The men in the police headquarters were armed with World War Two Lee Enfield rifles while the British used tanks to smash their way into the building. The next day after the British attack, ‘Black Saturday’, there were riots throughout Egypt. The Union Flag was burned and foreign shops were destroyed. In Cairo expatriate accommodation was attacked as was the iconic Shepherd’s Hotel – a base for British expatriates. At the exclusive Turf Club in Cairo, expatriate members were beaten to death and the club was destroyed. In all over 700 buildings were destroyed and 9 British and 26 other Westerners were killed. It is generally accepted that this outbreak of violence was not planned but was a spontaneous outpouring of anger by people who had been treated as second class citizens within their own country. Few Egyptians could afford luxuries that existed at places like the Shepherd’s Hotel or the Turf Club. Those who could were invariably associated with the corrupt government of King Farouk.
Anthony Eden wanted 40,000 troops moved into Egypt within 24 hours to restore order and to protect the British there. The army made it plain to Eden that this was simply not possible from a logistical point of view. While it was a clear sign that Eden had little understanding of issues such as logistics, the issue was left with army chiefs being told that they were leaving British citizens unprotected.
What happened at Ismailia and what followed, gave Nasser and the ‘Free Officers’ exactly the right opportunity to over throw Farouk. The king was peacefully removed from his palace, taken to Alexandria where he boarded his yacht and left Egypt – to a 21-gun salute. Nasser immediately set up the Revolutionary Command Council. Though Nasser did not head the Council, it was obvious that the most potent force in it was Nasser.
This all happened against a background when the British government was having major financial troubles at home. The cost of the military commitment to Egypt was huge – and one that the Treasury could have done without. Eden took the decision to start negotiations with the Revolutionary Command Council to withdraw British troops from the Suez Canal. The so-called ‘Suez Group’ in the Conservative Party was furious when his plan was announced. Led by Julian Amery, the ‘Suez Group’ argued that a withdrawal would be the end of the Empire and that it would reward violence against British troops. Regardless of their objections, Eden went ahead with the negotiations.
However, the speed of the negotiations was not quick enough for Egyptian nationalists. Attacks on British troops continued but a new dynamic was added with attacks on the families of troops occurring. With 27,000 British citizens in Egypt, this was a new and worrying development. The resistance leaders used the talks to their advantage. When the British seemed to be stalling the attacks got worse; when the British appeared to be more conciliatory, they slackened off. In 1954 an agreement was reached that stated that British troops would leave Egypt within twenty months of the signing of the agreement. The signing of this agreement ended the attacks on British troops.
Nasser and Eden met for the first and last time in February 1955. Eden arrived in Cairo with two objectives. The first was for Egypt to stop its anti-British radio broadcasts and the second was to get Egypt to join the recently formed Baghdad Pact – an anti-communist pro-western alliance of Middle East states that Egypt had not joined. He failed on both counts. Even the dinner put on for Nasser at the British Embassy was a failure as Nasser arrived in military uniform to be greeted by Eden in full evening dress – Nasser was unaware that the dinner was to be formal and he concluded that it had been done to show him up in public. There is no evidence that this was the case – it just seems to have been a genuine misunderstanding. But within the context of what was going on then, to those Egyptians who had access to the information via the radio channel ‘Voice of Egypt’, it was a deliberate attempt to humiliate Nasser.
One week after the meeting between Eden and Nasser, Israel raided Egyptian territory in Gaza killing over thirty people. This raid exposed Egypt’s military weakness and Nasser attempted to buy weapons abroad. His attempt to buy weapons from Britain failed and the Americans were also unwilling to accommodate him. Therefore, Egypt turned to the Soviet Bloc. To the Russians, this expansion of influence in the Mediterranean and Middle East was a major coup.
To modernise Egypt, Nasser wanted to build a dam at Aswan to harness the awesome power of the River Nile. Clearly Egypt did not have the money to fund this. $200 million came from the World Bank while, in an effort to re-establish some influence in the area, both Britain and America agreed to financially support the project.
However, Eden did not trust Nasser. In a public broadcast he had stated that Nasser “is not a man to be trusted to keep an agreement.” MI6 provided Eden, now Prime Minister, with reports that Nasser was becoming more pro-Moscow. There was little evidence for this despite the Soviet Union providing Egypt with weapons – both seemed to be using the other for its own purposes. However the MI6 reports only served to anger Eden who did not want to gain an Atlee reputation for appeasement.
When British troops finally left Egypt, it ended seventy four years of occupation. Nasser became president of Egypt and his status in the Arab world could not have been higher. However, without any reference to Britain, America suddenly announced that it was no longer going to financially support the Aswan Dam project. Britain followed the Americans example. Nasser announced that such treatment of Egypt was an “insult” and a “humiliation”. To Nasser the dam would be a symbol of Arab pride and he was determined to go ahead with its building. The Russians provided the necessary engineering knowledge, while the Suez Canal would provide the necessary finance.
In 1956, Nasser announced to his inner council that he was going to nationalise the Suez Canal on behalf of the Egyptian people. In ‘Operation Dignity and Glory’ the offices of the Suez Canal Company were taken over. It was a bloodless affair that was joyously received in Egypt when news of what had occurred was announced. Ironically, government lawyers for the Conservative government 1951-1953 had foreseen this and had assessed whether it was a legal move. They decided that under international law it was legal to nationalise the Suez Canal as long as they suitably compensated share holders and allowed ships of all nationalities through the canal. When Eden was shown the report at his first meeting after ‘Dignity and Glory’, staff there claimed he shouted “This is no f***ing good” and threw the report across the room.