The Suez Crisis 1956: Britain and France's Imperial Folly

Part One: The Imperial History of Egypt and Britain

The Suez Canal
Getty Images Credit: De Agostini / Biblioteca Ambrosiana

In 1956, Britain, France and Israel embarked on a piece of international skulduggery: to invade Egypt, seize the land they required, and determine how trade would occur through the region. For Israel, this was to stop a naval blockade. For the Europeans, this was to keep their almost imperial control over the Suez Canal. Unfortunately for Britain and France, they had fatally misjudged both the international mood (the US and others were opposed) and their own ability to fight a war (without the US). For some commentators, Suez 1956 was the death of Britain’s long fading imperial pretensions. For others, it remains a warning from history about Middle Eastern interference. This multi-part article goes deep into the context of claims over Suez, and the many rounds of arguments as the curious allies slowly moved to war.

The Tail End of the British Empire

Britain had not stood ‘alone’ in the Second World War, not for one moment. It had commanded a vast empire which, while creaking, still stretched over the world. But as the British Empire fought Germany and Japan, so the world changed, and by 1946 many regions wanted to be independent, and if they were independent, wanted the vestiges of British control gone. This was how the Middle East stood. Britain had used imperial troops to fight across some of it, and by the 1950s, retained a great deal of power and influence which it used to supply cheap oil and more.

Tension was inevitable. A declining empire, countries growing independent. In 1951 Persia decided to have a say in its oil production and nationalized what was still a British majority owned oil company, informing staff they were no longer required. The British Labour government of the time knew what nationalization was, they were in favor of it in their home, and faced calls to send British troops to reinforce a British company taking Persian oil from Persia. The Prime Minister, Clement Attlee, was told if the UK allowed this affront, Egypt might follow suit by taking control of their country and nationalizing the Suez Canal, a vital connection for the British Empire. Atlee declined, pointing out the US was opposed to war, the UN was opposed, and they might not win anyway. In 1956, another UK Prime Minister, Eden, would make the opposite decision when faced with the same opposition. The Suez Crisis could have happened in Persia a few years earlier.

The next UK General Election saw Labour being accused of betraying Britain for the above and they lost. The Conservatives took power with a slim majority, determined not to lose more of the Middle East. The Foreign Secretary was now Antony Eden, who is one of the central figures in both this article and in the Suez Crisis. He had been Foreign Secretary before, becoming an MP after surviving the trenches of World War One, and in World War Two had been identified by Churchill as a successor. He had opposed appeasement and he was the Tory rising star, a PM in waiting. He concluded after the Second World War that Hitler should have been opposed in 1936 when he marched into the Rhineland: dictators should be stopped early. In Suez, he thought he was applying the evidence of history.

The Creation of the Suez Canal and the 99 Year Lease

By 1858 Ferdinand de Lesseps had gained permission from the Viceroy of Egypt to dig a canal. What was special about this, and what had taken so much of Ferdinand’s diplomatic skill and cunning, was running the canal from the Red Sea to the Mediterranean through the narrow Isthmus of Suez, one hundred miles through deserts and lakes. It would join Asia to Europe and the Middle East and shorten the time and costs of trade and industry.

The Universal Company of the Suez Maritime Canal was created to do this. It was French owned and built under their aegis using Egyptian labor. France and Britain did not to see eye to eye at this point and Britain opposed the canal to damage France, organizing a boycott. Egypt had to buy extra shares to push things forward and paid a lot of money to support the project (something Nasser would later point out). Ninety-nine years was given as the time the company could operate. However, the Viceroy was not swimming in money, and in 1875 was so desperate for funds Egypt sold 44% of the canal to a now keen Britain. It would be a fateful decision.

The British Empire and Egypt

The British thought they’d just turned the map of the world into a lake, and owned half the canal. They hadn’t. The company didn’t own the canal, it owned the right to run it until 1963, when the owners of the physical canal, Egypt, got it back. The distinction was lost in the British mind. Egypt was soon British anyway, after tensions – often financial, as the British and French empires hovered – turned nationalistic and the course of an uprising ended with a British military occupation of Egypt, promising to leave when stability was secure. France missed their chance to join in by not fighting, but retained what they believed was rights to the canal. For the average Egyptian, the canal had allowed the British to sail in, and the British did not leave for a very long time.

The resulting imperial rivalries produced conventions and agreements about the use of the canal. They were very much framed to benefit the imperials. In World War One, Britain dropped the pretense and made Egypt a protectorate when the Ottoman Empire joined Germany. The canal was seen as a British possession. It had not become so beyond them taking it. In the aftermath of World War One, Egypt became a sovereign state in the sense that it was still at the mercy of Britain, whose declaration of its independence kept the right to have an army there to defend its empire. There was an Egyptian king; there was a prime minister (usually the same man yo-yo-ing in and out). In 1936, one Antony Eden, UK Foreign Secretary, agreed to the withdrawal of all UK forces from Egypt...except a small army to hold the canal, and the right of the UK to use the country as a launch pad in war. World War II duly followed, and the British army moved right back in. Egyptians were not well disposed to this, when they were meant to be a neutral nation, especially when the British changed the government at gunpoint.

The British thought the locals ungrateful. After the war, the British notionally left the country, but left a humiliated king, a humiliated government, and kept their zone of control on the canal.

Israel’s Effect on the Middle East

The British and their history in Egypt had a profound effect on the year 1956. But the greatest upheaval was the complete destabilization of the Middle East when international rivalry, reluctance, terrorism and some buck-passing allowed a new stated to be created, Israel, with no decent thought to short or long-term effects. That one new state should simply spring up in the middle of a region trying to get over an imperial nightmare should cause trouble is no surprise, nor that war should result. Now a migrant crisis occurred: Arabs driven out of the new state, immigrants coming into it. Egypt, fed up with one foreign master in Britain, and scared by the new foreign arrival in Israel, helped lead the Arab response that led to the First Arab Israeli War. Or rather, the king of Egypt did, because he needed to restore his name.

Unfortunately for the king, the Egyptian army was poorly equipped and doomed. Israel captured land well beyond what even the UN had recommended; the king’s reputation was buried. Britain, happy to use Egypt as a base for decades, refused to help her here and embargoed arms so as not to argue with the US. A broken Egypt was left with the problem of Gaza, a small area left a giant refugee camp which Israel decided it didn’t want. After the war, the British resumed Arab arms sales and tried to sneak back into Egypt, as the world was being remapped by the Cold War contest between the west and the east (but, in truth, not between democratic and communist), and both wanted the Middle Eastern nations as proxies. The US, the UK and France, the standard bearers of the west in the Cold War, agreed to the Tripartite Declaration, where they would be careful to balance arms sales and intervene against Middle Eastern aggression.

With regards Suez, the war between Israel and Egypt had not really ended. There was an armistice agreement, which Israel was happy to have hanging around, so refugees and other questions weren’t concluded against her. So, could Egypt still act like a sovereign state engaged in a paused war? It wanted to, it had a right to, and it blockaded Israel where it could, and that meant oil in the Suez Canal. Britain, losing money, led a UN order to tell Egypt to let the oil through, effectively making them pass oil to someone they were in a paused war with. Britain had troops around the canal so were to enforce it, and the Prime Minister, Churchill, wanted to, but Eden opposed. In the end, it was paused and, for a moment, Egypt’s right to self-defense won.

The British and Egypt in the 1950s

Back in Britain, Eden had helped a series of great international decisions and argued that Britain should make its own policy rather than do what the US told it. He, as British Foreign Secretary, had appeared dovish to the US Secretary of State, Dulles. For a man with a reputation of anti-appeasement, Eden was gaining a lot of criticism at home for appeasing.

In Egypt, the British army on the canal was the subject of great dislike. Armed Egyptians had begun a  guerrilla war against this foreign army, while the canal workforce tried strikes only to find imported people taking their jobs. Tensions turned into outright violence and death on both sides. But a change was coming, and on July 22-23 1952 the humiliated king was replaced by an Egyptian army who wanted a proud and independent state. Colonel Sadat proclaimed the revolution and General Naguib was the official leader, but power was with younger men behind the scenes. The British army stayed in place and watched. Egypt and Britain had issues to work out, and the canal was one of them. Eden had come under fire for giving away too much in the Sudan settlement, and Eden’s enemies felt Britain could only remain a world power by keeping the canal. All eyes were on Eden to make a deal.

However, even Churchill agreed with Eden that having 80,000 troops on the canal was a costly drain. They thought maybe Egypt could be bought into a military deal to please the British. But the British didn’t have the power to do this and the plan was to use US support; this meant the newly elected President Eisenhower, hero of World War II, and Secretary of State John Foster Dulles. They weren’t keen, and Egypt wanted Britain out. Churchill was ready for war.

In Egypt, the leader of the young officers behind the coup, and the hope for a free Egypt, was Gamal Abdel Nasser. Eden now fell ill, Churchill acted as foreign secretary and inflamed things, and Dulles became aware that the future of US relations with the Middle East probably shouldn’t be propping up the British and French empires. The US desire wasn’t for a decision on the canal, it was to turn the Middle East into a bulwark against the Soviets. Negotiations still managed to agree to most of the army leaving, with four thousand technicians staying and the British right to return if Egypt was attacked by anyone but Israel. Israel was free to attack. The treaty was designed to last seven years, but then talks stalled.

In 1954 General Naguib lost his battle to be anything other than a figurehead, and Nasser became a Prime Minister with the real power. He was angry, charismatic, and had been supported by the CIA. The US had helped him take power as the best candidate for a US-friendly Egyptian leader. They had not considered how Britain friendly he would be. However, a deal was finally struck: the British military would be out by 1956, and the base would be staffed by civilian contractors. The treaty would end in 1961, and even Britain - struggling to meet the financial demands of being a global leader - planned to quit the canal instead of renewing the deal. In Egypt Nasser was accused of giving to much away (there were clauses for Britain to move back into Egypt if certain places were attacked), but he was transforming himself, slapping down the Muslim brotherhood and casting Egypt as a natural leader of the Middle East.