With relations between the West and East on a knife’s edge during the Cold War, Britain and France secretly colluded with Israel to stage a military attack on the Suez Canal in Egypt.
The aim of this ‘Tripartite Aggression’ was to bring the strategic waterway under their control.
Why was the Suez Canal so important?
The canal had been created in the 1860s by the French and Egyptian governments. By slicing through the slim stretch of land connecting Africa to Asia, the Red Sea and Mediterranean were joined, beckoning a new era of international trade and travel.
So crucial was this 120-mile passage that the British quickly bought up a third share. Then in 1882, they invaded Egypt and took control of everything. This is just one reason why, after the Egyptian revolution of 1952, the new President Nasser was virulently anti-British.
Who was Nasser?
Gamal Abdul Nasser was a postman’s son who saw how imperial powers such as Britain and France treated the Middle East as a trade-grabbing playground, and swore to force their troops out. But the construction of the Aswan Dam across the Nile, which Nasser saw as central to his country’s modernisation, required financial backing from the West.
At first, he was happy to play the US and the USSR against each other. His luck ran out, however, when he accepted Communist arms and the Americans pulled out of the Aswan Dam project.
In retaliation, he nationalised the Suez Canal in 1956, wresting control from the British- and French-controlled Suez Canal Company, with the intention of charging for its use. This, Britain and France quickly agreed, was totally unacceptable.
Was a British and French military response inevitable?
The two powers certainly agreed that the Suez Canal should be taken back, and Nasser deposed if possible, but outright military action was not viable. Not only would the United Nations never agree to it, but the British and French people were against anything that could risk war, which led to protests.
Therefore, they secretly lobbied Israel to stage an invasion and assume control, providing the pretext for them to step in as ‘peacemakers’. Operation Musketeer began in late October 1956 when ten Israeli brigades entered Egypt and overran the forces holding the Suez Canal. Yet Egypt refused to take the invasion lying down, and it wasn’t long before the bloodshed escalated.
Although militarily successful, few were deceived by the ruse, and the world’s superpowers soon flexed their muscles.
So were the Americans and Russians in agreement?
Not quite, but the US knew how to pick its battles. While the Russians threatened to get involved on Egypt’s side, so as to prevent what may have been an inevitable build up of aggression, the American President, Dwight Eisenhower, ordered Britain and France to withdraw.
The realisation that they had no option but to comply was a humiliating climb-down for the British and French, and a clear, painful sign that their days as world powers were truly over.
Did the backlash go beyond wounded national pride?
The Suez Crisis – which ended with thousands of casualties on both sides – was seen as a decisive blow for the British government, and Conservative PM Anthony Eden (an amphetamine addict overpowered by his hatred for Nasser) resigned in January 1957.
This was a triumph for the anti-establishment forces who protested against his government, and marked a shift in British society that would become more marked during the 1960s.
What was the lasting legacy of the Suez Crisis?
The post-imperial actions of Britain (and other Western powers) within the volatile Middle East – including the creation of Israel following World War II – lie at the roots of many major problems in the region today. At the time, even with the Empire winding down, British foreign policy still envisioned the nation as the world’s policemen.
The Suez Crisis was a rude wake-up call. The very word ‘Suez’ became a codeword for the British, warning of hubris and embarrassment.
And 60 years later, the Suez Crisis is remembered as a watershed moment in the decline of the British Empire, severely denting the culture of deference that had defined the country.
This article was first published in the April 2016 issue of History Revealed.