60-second history: The Suez Crisis

Inside the military debacle that the UK hoped to brush under the carpet.

60-second history: The Suez Crisis © Wikimedia Commons

What was it about? 

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The Suez Canal was created in the 1860s by French and Egyptian governments; by slicing through the slim isthmus connecting Africa to Asia, connecting the Red Sea and the Mediterranean, a new era of international trade and travel opened up. So strategically crucial was this passage, the UK government quickly bought up a third share, and then invaded Egypt in 1882, taking control of everything.

But in 1956, in order to raise funds for the Aswan Dam, Egypt wrested control of the Suez canal from the British, intending to charge for its use. With relations between the West and East on a knife’s edge, the UK and France secretly colluded with Israel to stage a military attack on the Suez Canal in Egypt, and bring it back under their control – hence why the event is known as ‘The Tripartite Aggression’.

What happened next?

Britain and France certainly agreed that the Suez Canal should be taken back, but outright military action was not an option; the UN would never agree to it, and the countries’ own people were also against any risk of more war. So the French and British secretly lobbied Israel to stage an invasion and take control – they could then step in as ‘peacemakers’, and decide how the problem got sorted out, as they so often had in the past. This was known as ‘Operation Musketeer’. But when Egypt refused to take the action lying down, the bloodshed began to escalate. Although militarily successful, few were deceived by the ruse, and the world’s superpowers soon flexed their muscles.

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The USSR threatened to get involved on Egypt’s side, so to prevent what may have been an inevitable build up of aggression, President Eisenhower intervened and ordered Britain and France to withdraw. The realisation that they had no option was a humiliating climb-down, and a clear sign their days as a world power were over.