On October 29, 1956, the Israeli army invaded Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula and the Gaza Strip. Soon after, the forces of Great Britain and France launched air attacks against Egypt. A large part of the area around the Suez Canal was occupied between 29th October 1956 and March 1957.
A brief history behind the invasion:
Following World War Two and the realignment of the roles of the colonial powers, the 1950s were a decade of major anti-colonial resistance in Europe’s remaining colonies around the globe. The tainted legacy of the colonial era was still very much in evidence.
Egypt was one of those former colonies, having only gained independence 34 years earlier, and President Gamal Abdel Nasser was a great crusader of the anti-colonial movement. One of his first acts as President of Egypt was the nationalization of the Suez Canal on 26 July 1956. The waterway was essential for cargo and oil shipments to Western Europe from the Gulf and beyond. Nasser’s move successfully ended the canal’s ownership which was held by Suez Canal Company, with major shareholders from Britain and France. This move of the Egyptian President irked the colonial masters and also created fears that Nasser could cut off the oil shipments to gain political leverage.
The nationalization of the canal was a response to the decision by the United States and Britain not to finance Egypt’s construction of the Aswan High Dam as promised. Nasser and his government calculated that the tolls collected from the ships using the canal would be enough to pay for the dam’s construction costs within five years.
Western nations were by then getting increasingly perturbed by Egypt’s inclination towards the Soviet Union and the arms it received from communist Czechoslovakia. Breaking the promise to fund the dam, it was believed, would provoke Cairo to rely upon Moscow even more.
Once the diplomatic endeavours failed to resolve the issue, Britain joined France and Israel (which had a lot of grievances with Egypt due to border clashes and its lack of shipping rights through the Straits of Tiran) to plan a military operation for regaining control over the Suez Canal. Under their plan, Israel was to invade Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula in an attempt to distract Nasser, allowing British and French forces to call for a ceasefire before occupying the Canal Zone in the guise of peacemakers.
The operation was carried out on 29th October, when Israeli forces invaded Egypt and advanced across Sinai towards the Suez Canal, overthrowing Egyptian forces on the way. As pre-planned by the UN Security Council, Britain and France called for a ceasefire and the demilitarization of the Suez Canal zone. As expected, Nasser refused to listen.
During the first week of November 1956, British troops landed at Port Said, as planned, after the Royal Navy had bombarded the city. Meanwhile, French forces launched an air and sea attack on Port Fuad. The two armies outclassed the Egyptian defences and covertly occupied the ‘Suez Canal’ zone.
What happened next?
As Egyptian soldiers, guerrilla fighters and intelligence agents continued to provide active resistance against the occupying forces, Britain faced growing resistance at home for their stealthy operation, in the form of protests and parliamentary divisions.
UN and the US condemned the “tripartite aggression”
Besides, the UN and the US condemned the “tripartite aggression”. US President Dwight Eisenhower issued stern warnings to the French, British and Israel for ending their sinister campaign and withdrawing from Egypt immediately – threatened with dire consequences with severe economic sanctions if they refused to agree.
Eisenhower targeted Britain in particular with his condemnation because British Prime Minister, Westminster had deliberately avoided informing his administration of the plan in advance. He also threatened Britain to auction their sterling bonds and thus devalue the British currency.
As a result of such pressure, British and French troops were evacuated with the assistance of the UN on 22 December. The withdrawal of Israeli forces followed in March 1957.
The entire operation failed to achieve the objectives of the tripartite alliance: Egypt kept control of the Suez Canal with the support of the UN and US; Britain’s access to fuel and oil became limited and resulted in shortages; and Israel did not get hold of the canal, although it did obtain shipping rights in the Straits of Tiran, which were controlled by Egypt.
Nasser became HERO in the Arab world – Colonial power crumbled
The way Nasser overcame the crises made him a hero in Egypt along with the rest of the Arab world, and in the bargain he developed closer ties with the Soviet Union. Ultimately, the Suez Crisis was a boost for the Arab nationalist cause. Most importantly, it also signified the major decline in British and French influence in the Middle East, where they were subsequently replaced by the US.