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Suez Canal Crisis

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Suez Canal Crisis

The Suez Canal Crisis, or simply the ‘Suez Crisis’, refers to the invasion of Egypt that took place from 29 October to 7 November 1956. It was a conflict between Egypt on the one hand and Israel, Britain, and France on the other. Egyptian President Gamal Nasser’s announcement of his plans to nationalise the Suez Canal triggered the conflict.

The Suez Canal Crisis was a vital aspect of the foreign policy of the Conservative government of Prime Minister Anthony Eden. The Suez Canal conflict had lasting impacts on the Conservative government and Britain’s relationship with the US. It marked the end of the British empire.

Suez Canal Crisis Aerial view of the Suez Canal StudySmarterThe Suez Canal in 2015, Wikimedia Commons

The creation of the Suez Canal

The Suez Canal is a man-made waterway in Egypt. It opened in 1869. At the time of its creation, it was 102 miles long. French diplomat Ferdinand de Lesseps oversaw its construction, which took ten years. The Suez Canal Company owned it, and the French, Austrian, and Russian investors backed it. The ruler of Egypt at the time, Isma’il Pasha, held a forty-four per cent share in the company.

The Suez Canal was created to facilitate journeys from Europe to Asia. It shortened the journey by 5,000 miles, as ships no longer had to sail around Africa. It was built through forced peasant labour. It has been estimated that approximately 100,000 of the one million Egyptians employed in its construction, or one in ten, died due to the dire working conditions.

Date of Suez Canal Crisis

The Suez Canal Crisis, or simply the ‘Suez Crisis’, refers to the invasion of Egypt that took place from 29 October to 7 November 1956. It was a conflict between Egypt on the one hand and Israel, Britain, and France on the other. Egyptian President Gamal Nasser’s announcement of his plans to nationalise the Suez Canal triggered the conflict.

The Suez Canal Crisis was a critical aspect of international affairs during the Anthony Eden government of 195557. Protecting British interests in the Suez Canal was a foreign affairs priority for the Eden ministry. The Suez Canal conflict had lasting impacts on the Conservative government and Britain’s relationship with the US. It marked the end of the British empire.

Britain and the Suez Canal

To understand why Britain invaded Egypt to protect its interests in the Suez Canal, we must first understand why the canal was so important to them.

The Suez Canal a vital link to Britain’s colonies

In 1875, Isma’il Pasha sold his forty-four per cent share in the Suez Canal Company to the British government to pay off debt. The British relied heavily on the Suez Canal. Eighty per cent of ships using the canal were British. It was a vital link to Britain’s eastern colonies, including India. Britain also relied on the Middle East for oil, carried through the canal.

Egypt becomes a protectorate of Britain

Protectorate is a state that another state controls and protects.

In 1882, Egyptian anger at European interference in the country resulted in a nationalist revolt. It was in the interest of the British to quell this revolt, as they relied on the Suez Canal. Therefore, they sent military forces to curb the revolt. Egypt effectively became a British protectorate for the next sixty years.

Egypt received its ‘formal independence’ from Britain in 1922. Since Britain still controlled much of the country’s affairs, they had troops in the country even after that date, having struck a deal with King Farouk.

Shared interests between the United States and Britain in the Suez Canal

During the Cold War, Britain shared the American desire to stop Soviet influence from spreading to Egypt, which would endanger their access to the Suez Canal. It was also crucial for Britain to maintain its special relationship with the US.

Suez Canal Crisis Cold War

From 1946 to 1989, during the Cold War, the United States and its capitalist allies were in a standoff with the communist Soviet Union and its allies. Both sides sought to limit the other’s influence by forming alliances with as many countries as possible, including the strategically important Middle East.

The importance of Nasser

Britain’s best interests concerning Egypt coincided with those of the US. The more allies the US made, the better.

  • Containment

US President Dwight D. Eisenhower feared Egypt would fall under Soviet influence. Britain was part of NATO, an alliance committed to the containment of the Soviets. If Egypt fell to the Communists, the Suez Canal would be compromised. Therefore, both Britain and the US had a mutual interest in controlling Egypt.

Suez Canal Crisis US President Dwight D. Eisenhower StudySmarterUS President Dwight D. Eisenhower, Pxfuel

  • Maintaining the special relationship

The special relationship refers to the close, mutually-beneficial relationship between the US and the UK, historical allies.

World War II took a huge financial toll on Britain, and it relied on US financial aid through the Marshall Plan. It was important for Britain to maintain a close relationship with the US and only act to align with US interests. British Prime Minister Anthony Eden needed Eisenhower to win over Nasser.

Suez Canal Conflict

The Suez Canal Crisis conflict resulted from a series of events, notably the Egyptian revolution of 1952, Israel’s attack on Egyptian-controlled Gaza, Britain and France’s refusal to fund the Aswan Dam, and subsequently, Nasser’s nationalisation of the Suez Canal.

The Egyptian Revolution of 1952

Egyptians began to turn against King Farouk, blaming him for continued British interference in Egypt. Tensions rose in the canal zone, with British soldiers coming under attack from the increasingly hostile population. On 23 July 1952, there was a military coup by the Egyptian nationalist Free Officers Movement. King Farouk was overthrown, and the Egyptian Republic was established. Gamal Nasser assumed power. He was committed to freeing Egypt from foreign influence.

Suez Canal Crisis Egyptian President Gamal Nasser smiles StudySmarterGamal Abdel Nasser Hussein was the President of Egypt from 1954 until 1970, Wikimedia Commons

Operation Black Arrow

Tensions between Israel and its neighbours boiled over, resulting in the Israelis attacking Gaza on 28 February 1955. Egypt controlled Gaza at the time. The altercation resulted in the death of just over thirty Egyptian soldiers. This only fortified Nasser’s resolve to strengthen Egypt’s army.

The US refused to help the Egyptians, as Israel had many supporters in the US. This led Nasser to turn to the Soviets for help. A major deal was struck with communist Czechoslovakia to purchase modern tanks and aircraft.

President Eisenhower was failing to win over Nasser, and Egypt was on the brink of falling to Soviet influence.

The catalyst: Britain and the US withdraw their offer to fund the Aswan Dam

The construction of the Aswan Dam was part of Nasser’s plan to modernise Egypt. Britain and the US had offered to fund its construction to win Nasser over. But Nasser’s deal with the Soviets didn’t go down well with the US and Britain, who withdrew their offer to fund the dam. The withdrawal gave Nasser a motive to nationalise the Suez Canal.

Nasser announces the nationalisation of the Suez Canal

Nationalisation is when the state takes control and ownership of a private company.

Nasser bought out the Suez Canal Company, putting the canal directly under the ownership of the Egyptian state. He did this for two reasons.

  • To be able to pay for the construction of the Aswan Dam.

  • To correct a historic wrong. Egyptian labourers built it, yet Egypt had little to no control over it. Nasser said:

    We dug the Canal with our lives, our skulls, our bones, our blood. But instead of the Canal being dug for Egypt, Egypt became the property of the Canal!

The British Prime Minister Anthony Eden was furious. This was a major attack on Britain’s national interests. Eden saw this as a matter of life and death. He needed to get rid of Nasser.

Suez Canal Crisis Anthony Eden Prime Minister of the United Kingdom during the crisis StudySmarterUK Prime Minister Anthony Eden. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Britain and France unite against Egypt

Guy Mollet, the French leader, backed up Eden’s resolve to get rid of Nasser. France was fighting a war in its colony, Algeria, against nationalist rebels Nasser was training and funding. France and Britain began a secret strategic operation to take back control of the Suez Canal. They hoped to regain their status as major world powers in the process.

World power refers to a country with significant influence in foreign affairs.

The Suez Conference of 16 August 1956

The Suez Conference was Anthony Eden’s last effort at finding a peaceful resolution to the crisis. Out of the twenty-two nations attending the conference, eighteen supported Britain and France’s desire to return the canal to international ownership. However, tired of international interference, Nasser refused.

Crucially, the US maintained they would not support Britain and France if they chose to invade Egypt for the following reasons:

  • US Secretary of State John Foster Dulles argued that an invasion by the West would push Egypt into the zone of Soviet influence.

  • Eisenhower refused to deal with the Suez Crisis until after his re-election campaign was over.

  • Eisenhower wanted international attention to be directed towards Hungary, which the Soviets were invading.

But the French and the British had already decided to attack anyway.

The conspiracy between Britain, France, and Israel

French Premier Guy Mollet wanted an alliance with Israel, as they shared the common goal of wanting Nasser gone. Israel wanted to end Egypt’s blockade of the Straits of Tiran, which inhibited Israel’s ability to trade.

Blockade is the sealing off of an area to stop goods and people passing through.

Suez Canal Crisis French Prime Minister Guy Mollet StudySmarterFrench Premier Guy Mollet in 1958, Wikimedia Commons

The Sèvres Meeting

The three allies needed a good pretext to justify invading Egypt. On 22 October 1956, representatives from all three countries met in Sèvres, France, to plan their campaign.

  • 29 October: Israel would attack Egypt in the Sinai.

  • 30 October: Britain and France would give Israel and Egypt an ultimatum, which they knew the stubborn Nasser would refuse.

  • 31 October: The expected refusal of the ultimatum would, in turn, give Britain and France cause to invade under the pretext of needing to protect the Suez Canal.

The invasion

As planned, Israel invaded the Sinai on 29 October 1956. On 5 November 1956, Britain and France sent in paratroopers along the Suez Canal. The fighting was brutal, with hundreds of Egyptian soldiers and police being killed. Egypt was defeated by the end of the day.

The conclusion of the Suez Canal Crisis

The successful invasion was, however, a huge political disaster. World opinion turned decisively against Britain, France and Israel. It was clear that the three countries had been working together, though the full details of the conspiracy wouldn’t be uncovered for years.

Economic pressure from the US

Eisenhower was furious with the British, whom the US had advised against an invasion. He thought the invasion was unjustifiable, both morally and legally. Britain was threatened with sanctions by the US if they didn’t withdraw.

Britain had lost millions of pounds in the first days of the invasion, and the closing of the Suez Canal had restricted its oil supply.

It was in desperate need of a loan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF). However, Eisenhower blocked the loan until a ceasefire was called.

Britain had essentially flushed tens of millions of pounds down the drain by attacking Egypt.

The threat of a Soviet attack

Soviet Premier Nikita Krushchev threatened to bomb Paris and London unless the countries called a ceasefire.

Announcement of a ceasefire on 6 November 1956

Eden announced a ceasefire on 6 November 1956. The United Nations granted Egypt sovereignty over the Suez Canal once again. The Anglo-French Task Force had to completely withdraw by 22 December 1956, at which point the United Nations Emergency Force (UNEF) would replace them and help maintain the ceasefire.

What were the critical impacts of the Suez Canal Crisis on Britain?

Britain’s poorly-planned and illegal actions damaged its reputation and standing on the world stage.

The ruin of Anthony Eden’s reputation

Eden lied about his involvement in the conspiracy with France and Israel. But the damage had already been done. He resigned on 9 January 1957.

Economic impact

The invasion made a severe dent in Britain’s reserves. Chancellor of the Exchequer Harold Macmillan had to announce to Cabinet that Britain had a net loss of $279 million due to the invasion. The invasion also led to a run on the pound, which means the pound’s value dropped drastically compared to the US dollar.

Britain applied for a loan for the IMF, which was granted upon withdrawal. Britain received a loan of $561 million to replenish its reserves, which increased Britain’s debt, affecting the balance of payments.

The damaged special relationship

Harold Macmillan, Chancellor of the Exchequer, replaced Eden as Prime Minister. He was involved in the decision to invade Egypt. He would take up the task of repairing Britain’s international relations, particularly the special relationship with the US, throughout his premiership.

The ‘end of an empire’

The Suez Crisis marked the end of Britain’s empire years and decisively knocked it down from its high status as a world power. It was now clear that Britain couldn’t just intervene in international affairs and would have to run it by the rising world power, i.e., the US.

Suez Canal Crisis - Key takeaways

  • The Suez Canal is a man-made waterway in Egypt created to shorten journeys between Europe and Asia dramatically. Suez Canal Company initially owned it and was opened in 1869.

  • The Suez Canal was important to the British because it facilitated trade and was a vital link to its colonies, including India.

  • Britain and the US both wanted to curb the spread of Communism in Egypt, as this would put the security of the Canal at risk. However, Britain could only act to protect the Suez Canal so that the US would approve of or risk destroying the special relationship.

  • The Egyptian Revolution of 1952 saw Nasser elected. He was committed to freeing Egypt from foreign influence and would go on to nationalise the Suez Canal.

  • When Israel attacked Egyptian-controlled Gaza, the US refused to help the Egyptians. This pushed Egypt towards the Soviets.

  • Egypt’s new deal with the Soviets led Britain and the US to withdraw their offer to fund the Aswan Dam. Since Nasser needed money to fund the Aswan Dam and wanted to get rid of foreign interference, he nationalised the Suez Canal.

  • At the Suez Conference, the US warned that it would not support Britain and France if they invaded Egypt. Because it was morally and legally unjustifiable to invade Egypt, a conspiracy was devised between Britain, France and Israel.

  • Israel would attack Egypt in the Sinai. Britain and France would then act as peacemakers and issue an ultimatum which they knew Nasser would refuse, giving Britain and France a reason to invade.

  • Israel invaded Egypt on 29 October 1956. The British and French arrived on 5 November and were in control of the Sinai peninsula by the end of the day.

  • The Suez Canal Crisis concluded with a ceasefire, brought about by financial pressure from the US and threats of war from the Soviets. The British and French had to withdraw from Egypt by 22 December 1956.

  • Prime Minister Anthony Eden’s reputation was ruined, and he resigned on 9 January 1957. This also marked the end of the empire for Britain and damaged its special relationship with the US.

Frequently Asked Questions about Suez Canal Crisis

Egyptian President Nasser’s announcement that he would nationalise the Suez Canal triggered the Suez Canal Crisis. The Egyptian government bought the Suez Canal from the Suez Canal Company, a private company, thereby bringing it under the ownership and control of the state.

The Suez Crisis was an invasion in Egypt by Israel, France and Britain, which took place from 29 October to 7 November 1956. It downgraded Britain’s status as an imperialist world power and elevated the status of the US. UK Prime Minister Anthony Eden resigned as a result of the conflict.

The Suez Canal Crisis ended with a ceasefire. The Anglo-French Task Force had to completely withdraw from the Sinai region of Egypt by 22 December 1956. Britain was forced to withdraw with the threat of sanctions from the US and UN. France and Israel followed suit.

The Suez Canal Crisis began with Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s decision to nationalise the Suez Canal. Britain, France, and Israel then invaded Egypt to recover control of the Suez Canal. Fighting ensued, and Egypt was defeated. However, it was an international disaster for the UK. The invasion lost Britain millions of pounds, and the US threatened them with sanctions if they didn’t withdraw.

Final Suez Canal Crisis Quiz

Question

When did the Suez Canal Crisis take place?

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Answer

From 29 October to 7 November 1956.

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Question

Why did Egypt become a protectorate of Britain?

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Answer

There was a nationalist revolt in Egypt in 1882. The British military was sent in to curb the revolt.

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When the Suez Canal Crisis happened, what conflict was taking place?

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Answer

The Cold War, which began in 1946 and ended in 1991.

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Who was President of Egypt from 1954 to 1970?

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Answer

Gamal Nasser.

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Why did Britain see Nasser as a threat?

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Answer

He nationalised the Suez Canal, limiting Britain’s access to its colonies and the region’s oil.

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Why were the Soviets a threat to the Suez Canal in the eyes of the British?

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If the Soviets won over Nasser, it would compromise the security of the Suez Canal, and Britain would lose access to it.

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Why did Nasser nationalise the Suez Canal?

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Answer

The US and Britain had withdrawn their offer to fund the Aswan Dam, once they learnt of Nasser’s deal with the Soviets.

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Which three countries were involved in a conspiracy against Egypt?

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Answer

France, Britain, and Israel.

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What was the secret meeting between Britain, France, and Egypt called?

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Answer

The Sèvres Meeting. It took place on 22 October 1956.

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How many Egyptian soldiers were killed in the Suez Crisis, and how many British?

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Answer

Six hundred Egyptian soldiers were killed, compared to just twenty-six British soldiers.

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Why didn’t Eisenhower want Britain and France to invade Egypt?

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Answer

He was facing re-election at the time. He also believed an invasion would push Egypt further towards Soviet influence. Plus, he wanted attention focused on Soviet-occupied Hungary.

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When did the UK announce a ceasefire?

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Answer

 6 November 1956.

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What were the consequences of the Suez Crisis for Britain?

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Answer

  • It lost millions of pounds in the first days of the invasion.
  • It ruined the special relationship with the US.
  • It severely diminished its status as a world power. Henceforth, it would be seen as subservient to the US.

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