The Suez Crisis – Key Event in the Decolonization of Africa

Part 1 – Partial Decolonization Leads to Resentment

Ship on suez canal
Bonnemains Nathalie / EyeEm / Getty Images

The Road to Decolonization

In 1922 Britain granted Egypt limited independence, ending its protectorate status and creating a sovereign state with Sultan Ahmad Fuad as king. In actuality, however, Egypt only achieved the same rights as British dominion states like Australia, Canada, and South Africa. Egyptian foreign affairs, the defense of Egypt against foreign aggressors, the protection of foreign interests in Egypt, the protection of minorities (ie Europeans, who formed only 10% of the population, albeit the wealthiest part), and the security of communications between the rest of the British Empire and Britain itself through the Suez Canal, were still under direct control of Britain.

Although Egypt was ostensibly ruled by King Faud and his prime minister, the British high commissioner was a significant power. Britain intention was for Egypt to achieve independence through a carefully controlled, and potentially long term, timetable.

'Decolonized' Egypt suffered the same problems that later African states encountered. It's economic strength lay in it's cotton crop, effectively a cash crop for the cotton mills of northern England. It was important to Britain that they maintained control over the production of raw cotton, and they stopped Egyptian nationalists from pushing the creation of a local textile industry, and gaining economic independence.

World War II Interrupts Nationalistic Developments

World War II postponed further confrontation between British post-colonialists and Egyptian nationalists. Egypt represented a strategic interest for the Allies – it controlled the route through north Africa to the oil rich regions of the middle east, and provided the all important trade and communications route through the Suez Canal to the rest of Britain's empire.

Egypt became a base for Allied operations in north Africa.

The Monarchists

After World War II, however, the question of complete economic independence was important to all political groups in Egypt. There were three different approaches: the Saadist Institutional Party (SIP) which represented the liberal tradition of the monarchists was heavily discredited by their history of accommodation for foreign business interests and the support of an apparently decadent royal court.

The Muslim Brotherhood

Opposition to the liberals came from the Muslim Brotherhood who wished to create an Egyptian/Islamic state which would exclude Westernized interests. In 1948 they assassinated the SIP prime minister Mahmoud an-Nukrashi Pasha as a reaction to demands that they disband. His replacement, Ibrahim `Abd al-Hadi Pasha, sent thousands of Muslim Brotherhood members to detention camps, and the Brotherhood's leader Hassan el Banna, was assassinated.

The Free Officers

A third group emerged amongst young Egyptian army officers, recruited from the lower middle-classes in Egypt but educated in English and trained for the military by Britain. They rejected both the liberal tradition of privilege and inequality and the Muslim Brotherhood Islamic traditionalism for a nationalistic viewpoint of economic independence and prosperity. This would be achieved through the development of industry (especially textiles). For this they needed a strong national power supply and looked to damming the Nile for hydroelectricity.

Declaring a Republic

On 22-23 July 1952 a cabal of army officers, known as the 'free officers', led by Lieutenant Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser overthrew King Faruk in a coup d'état.

Following a brief experiment with civilian rule, the revolution continued with the declaration of a republic on 18 June 1953, and Nasser becoming Chairman of the Revolutionary Command Council.

Funding the Aswan High Dam

Nasser had grand plans – envisaging a pan-Arab revolution, led by Egypt, which would push the British out of the Middle East. Britain was particularly weary of Nasser's plans. Increasing nationalism in Egypt also had France worried – they were facing similar moves by Islamic nationalists in Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia. The third country to be perturbed by increasing Arabic nationalism was Israel.

Although they had 'won' the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, and were growing economically and militarily (primarily backed by arm sales from France), Nasser's plans could only lead to more conflict. The United States of America, under President Eisenhower, was desperately trying to play down Arab-Israeli tensions.

To see this dream come to fruition and for Egypt to become an industrial nation, Nasser needed to find funding for the Aswan High Dam project. Domestic funds were not available – during the previous decades Egyptian businessmen had moved funds out of the country, fearing a program of nationalization for both crown property and what limited industry existed. Nasser, however, found a willing source of funds with the US. The US wanted to ensure stability in the Middle East, so they could concentrate on the growing threat of communism elsewhere. They agreed to give Egypt $56 million directly, and another $200 million through the world bank

The US Reneges on the Aswan High Dam Funding Deal

Unfortunately, Nasser was also making overtures (selling cotton, buying arms) to the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia, and communist China – and on 19 July 1956 the US cancelled the funding deal citing Egypt's ties to USSR. Unable to find alternative funding, Nasser looked to the one thorn in his side – the control of the Suez Canal by Britain and France.

If the canal was under Egyptian authority it could rapidly create the funds needed for the Aswan High Dam project, conceivably in less than five years!

Nasser Nationalizes the Suez Canal

On 26 July 1956 Nasser announced plans to nationalize the Suez Canal, Britain responded by freezing Egyptian assets and then mobilizing its armed forces. Things escalated, with Egypt blocking the straits of Tiran, at the mouth of the Gulf of Aqaba, which was important to Israel. Britain, France and Israel conspired to end Nasser's domination of Arab politics and return the Suez Canal to European control. They thought that the US would back them – only three years before the CIA had backed a coup d'état in Iran. However, Eisenhower was furious – he was facing re-election and didn't want to risk the Jewish vote at home by publicly castigating Israel for warmongering.

Tripartite Invasion

On 13 October the USSR vetoed an Anglo-French proposal to take control of the Suez Canal (Soviet ship-pilots were already assisting Egypt run the canal). Israel had condemned the UN's failure to resolve the Suez Canal crisis and warned that they would have to take military action, and on 29 October they invaded the Sinai peninsular.

On 5 November British and French forces made an airborne landing at Port Said and Port Faud, and occupied the canal zone. (See also Tripartite Invasion of 1956.)

UN Pressure to Quit Suez Canal

International pressure mounted against the Tripartite powers, especially from both the US and Soviets. Eisenhower sponsored a UN resolution for a cease-fire on 1 November, and on 7 November the UN voted 65 to 1 that invading powers should quit Egyptian territory. The invasion officially ended on 29 November and all British and French troops were withdrawn by 24 December. Israel, however, refused to give up Gaza (it was put under UN administration on 7 March 1957).

Significance of the Suez Crisis for Africa and the World

The failure of the Tripartite Invasion, and the actions of both the USA and USSR, showed African nationalists throughout the continent that international power had moved from its colonial masters to the two new superpowers.

Britain and France lost considerable face and influence. In Britain Anthony Eden's government disintegrated and power passed to Harold Macmillan. Macmillan would be known as the 'decolonizer' of the British Empire, and would make his famous 'wind of change' speech in 1960. Having seen Nasser take on and win against Britain and France, nationalists throughout Africa set to with greater determination in the struggle for independence.

On the world stage, USSR took the opportunity of Eisenhower's preoccupation with the Suez Crisis to invade Budapest, further escalating the cold war. Europe, having seen the US side against Britain and France, was set on the path to the creation of the EEC.

But whilst Africa gained in its struggle for independence from colonialism, it also lost. The US and USSR discovered that it was a great place to fight the Cold War – troops and funding started to pour in as they vied for special relationships with Africa's future leaders, a new form of colonialism by the back door.