The Suez Crisis 1956 Part 2: Egypt Nationalises the Suez Canal

Playing Games with Egypt

Now Eden and Dulles wanted Nasser to lead an agreement over peace in Palestine. They thought if they could make Nasser a natural leader of the whole Arab world they could use him to get it to agree something with Israel. At the same time Eden was trying to build a defence alliance in the Middle East around the northern states, especially Iraq. When Iraq and Turkey signed deals Nassersaw that Egypt, still following the Arab league stance of no alliances to avoid imperial domination, was about to become a follower and not a leader.

Britain’s confused fingers were all over negotiations that were opposed to each other. Then Egypt, Britain and Israel collided.

The nature of Israel’s arrival meant its borders were always going to be problematic and the new neighbours clashed. Israel and the surrounding world fought on a low level and Israel escalated the situation by creating a reprisal unit. Under Ariel Sharon this committed atrocities, and when they killed in Gaza they bloodied the nose of Egypt. The latter’s army was still too weak to fight Israel, but Nasser went from focusing on the UK, and not wanting Gaza to be an area of conflict, to needing to challenge the interloping Israel. The angry people of the Gaza refugee camp agreed, and Nasser decided to rearm Egypt and arm the Palestinians as best he could.

Back in the UK, in April 1951 Eden became Prime Minister and he then won an election to establish himself. He proved very popular, but he was on considerable medication.

He now fell out with Nasser and Egypt, trying to use his economic threats to control them, over oil and over Israel. Nasser needed arms to meet the Israeli challenge, but Britain and France were controlling the supply in order to control Egypt. The US stood apart, unsure. In the 1950s, if you were fed up of imperials there was an alternative source of weapons - if you wanted to step into the great Cold War game.

The soviets offered a superb arms deal and a huge dam, and Nasser felt he could prevent this from becoming more imperialism. The put upon, controlled servant now allied with the enemy.

The west was horrified. For them, Egypt had gone too far. For Arabs, Nasser grew in stature: he would take the hard decision to challenge Britain and the West. Israel reacted by planning an immediate war to cripple Egypt, stop the blockade and take land. However, they weren’t seeing eye to eye with Britain, France and the US either. As Britain and the US tied to counter the Soviet offer they decided either they bribe Nasser back to the west, by paying for the huge hydro-electric dam, or they engineer his downfall and replace him. The dam was offered.

Jordan shared many of the pressures Egypt had been under: feeling out a new nationalism, drawn into Cold War games, covered in Britain’s fingerprints. There was now a crisis as the king and a pro British government leader fell out. The British were side-lined, and Jordan seemed to align with Egypt. Nasser was seen by the UK as the enemy behind this. Political discussion on Egypt, Israel and their war continued, pushed by the US. Nasser seems to have been genuine in trying to arrange a peace he could get the Arab world to accept, which was a different peace from the one Israel demanded and was not a short process.

Many in the west did not realise the difficulty Nasser was willing to work through for success. In the end nothing could be broker between Egypt and a recalcitrant Israel who wouldn’t concede anything notable or captured ground. The UK now plotted to overthrow Nasser, as well as the Syrian and Saudi governments. US plans moved from how to deal with an Israeli act of aggression to how to use an Egyptian one to defeat it.


So far we have focused on the UK and Egypt. The UK was also suspicious of France, and so was the US when it came to the declining influence of France in the Middle East and North Africa. There was a sense among the English speakers that the French were getting involved with everyone who didn’t like the English, However, the anti-French rebellion in Algiers in 1954 had received great support from Nasser, and this imperial part of France exploded to the extent that the French wanted Nasser gone.

At the same time France began arming Israel far more than the UK had agreed to. In 1956, the head of the socialist party, Guy Mollet, became leader of a new government. When Mollet met Eden, he compared Nasser to Hitler and claimed the latter wanted to create an Islamic empire. There were those in France who believed in Nasser, but France’s politics became one of destroying him. France had many secret meetings with Israel and now agreed to send arms to match Egypt. Mollet asked Eden for a common approach to Nasser.

The Dam Lure Fails and the Canal is Nationalised

The Suez Canal ignored much of Egypt’s labour and economic law in favour of its own imperial rule. The people involved knew they were nearing 1968, when the canal would be handed to Egypt. The ex- imperials were dreaming up plans to avoid this; Egypt was trying to make sure they still got it back. When Egypt asked for membership of the canal’s ruling cabinet, to learn the ropes, they were told no. Nasser, and many in Egypt, were sceptical the UK and France would really go, especially as the latter was looking for US money to use in a plan to stay. A possibility emerged for Egypt: nationalise the canal. Take it to make sure the local country go it. For Western Europe this was a worry, because they simply didn’t trust an Egypt who seemed suspiciously communist leaning to keep open their life line. The UK was built around oil and other supplies going through the canal, and did not want Egypt in charge of it. They favoured an international alliance which they would control.

Then the dam deal fell apart. The US, mainly Dulles, believed it would be better to allow the soviets to damage themselves by funding it. On 23rd June 1956 Nasser became president of Egypt, the first truly native ruler since before the Roman Empire. It timed with the departure of the last UK troops. He now asked the US and UK for clarity on if they would do the dam. They said no. But Nasser was being careful not to be a soviet puppet, and he needed a way to get a bargaining chip to allow new negotiations with the west, or with the soviets. One was very much to hand: the Suez Canal of the British who had snubbed him and toyed for decades with his country. The answer: nationalise the canal. Take its income back, use that to build the dam. He deduced the UK and France would attack, but believed they could be beaten. Of more concern was being able to prove to the world the canal was being run at full speed.

On July 26th, Nasser gave a long and passionate speech about the games of the west. As he said the words Ferdinand de Lesseps, Egyptian units moved and took over the canal. He told his country they would pay for their own dam. The old shareholders were promised compensation at the stock market rate, the staff told not to stay or be arrested.

The UK and France React: They Want War

The heads of the British government called a council of war. They weren’t happy their supply line east depended on a nation unleashing a pent up dislike of them. Eden considered Nasser a dictator to be stopped early, as he believed Hitler should have been, and wanted an instant counter, but no realistic plan was possible, things were too far away.

Even this cabinet had to admit that Nasser taking an Egyptian canal and paying the shareholders wasn’t actually illegal. They concluded Nasser would have to be castigated in public for other acts, and they should work to replace the 1968 handover with an international group of governors for the canal. It all looked a bit imperial. The British government also decided not to appeal to the UN, but to use force if needed, and to act to gain allies, ready itself, all the while making sure its staff in the canal stayed in position to keep the oil supply going to it could even be in a position to fight the war. Nasser thought the smooth operation of the canal was needed to show the world, and did nothing to slow UK and French ships as they built up the enemy.

In France, the government united in wanting Nasser even more defeated than before. Mollet also wanted to have another chance at 1936, and agreed to put troops under UK command; they also decided to attack in alliance with Israel if the UK demurred. For them, the whole oil supply to Western Europe was doomed if Nasser stayed. The British came to a decision too: they must not only regain the canal, but overthrow Nasser too. At this point the US refused to agree with a war, Eisenhower and Dulles fearing it would inflame ex-imperial subjects the world over. The UK thought that the US was retreating from a situation they, with the dam, had caused. The commonwealth wasn’t overly in support; Nasser seemed to have the legal right to nationalise.

War Plans

Britain wanted to use an international conference to put an ‘accept it or war’ ultimatum to Nasser, and Eisenhower spelt out his approach: no US violence unless all diplomatic and political options exhausted. This did not match the British timetable, which was ticking down to swifter action. However, Eden misinterpreted Eisenhower and thought the US was okay with force and would use it. In the end, the conference was called, twenty four nations inviting, most agreeing to attend. The British agreed to the USSR being there, as her involvement as Russia in the pre-war deals over the canal gave her a say.

As this was being arranged, the British and their new timetable needed a plan for the attack, and this was called Musketeer. Commandoes coming at Port Said from the sea, parachute troops (British and French) at the canal from the air, and infantry and tanks to follow. Bombers would help. Problems with this included a lack of landing craft, the fact Cyprus although looked like a perfect base the port and airfield but was actually poorly developed and little help, and Malta, a good base, being over nine hundred miles away. Malta had to be the main base. This developed into a stages: issue ultimatum, a blockade, bombing of Egypt’s air force, landing at Port Said, a small landing becoming a toehold for putting the army ashore, then extending control along the canal and across Egypt.

The British military had, as ever, problems with equipment, training and readiness. It would not be a perfect force, but it never is. Opposition in the British military argued Said was too small for using, too much of a bottleneck, and Alexandria should be taken. Said alone would not topple Nasser. A new plan was created to focus on Alexandria, Cairo, and a march across Egypt to the canal. The French sent commanders to help work on the plan, and the British took a while to explain it to them because of security concerns. The new plan was: land commandoes in Alexandria’s harbour, France to land via beaches. Paratroops would take key areas. The build up of infantry would be followed by a breakout to Cairo, destroying Nasser and the Egyptian army in the process. Then the canal would just fall free. Churchill wrote to the government asking them to include Israel in the plan, but the UK didn’t want to do so (yet) so the Arab world would accept the invasion. However, the French were even less popular than the Israelis thanks to Algeria.

Back to Part One.

On to Part Three.