Suez Canal and Suez Crisis

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Suez Canal and Suez Crisis

The idea of constructing a canal connecting the Mediterranean and the Red Sea had been discussed by French engineers during Napoleon Bonaparte's (1769–1821) occupation of Egypt in 1798–1801, but miscalculations concerning water levels at the time saw the project dropped. Proved feasible soon after, it was not until 1854 that Sa'id Pasha (1822–1863), the Egyptian ruler, granted a concession to the Suez Canal Company (SCC) headed by Ferdinand-Marie de Lesseps (1805–1894), to construct and operate the canal for ninety-nine years. Excavation began in 1859 with labor being imported from Italy, Greece, and Syria to assist an estimated 1.5 million Egyptian workers.

For a time, British and Turkish opposition saw work suspended, but French support and Sa'id's purchase of 44 percent of company shares (later assumed by the Egyptian government) kept the project going. Stretching from Port Said to Suez, a distance of 170 kilometers (106 miles), the canal was officially inaugurated in grand style on November 17, 1869, by Khedive Ismail (1830–1895), who had invited a large number of European dignitaries, including the French Empress Eugénie (1826–1920), and commissioned Giuseppe Fortunino Francesco Verdi (1813–1901) to compose Aïda for the occasion.

In 1875, in severe financial straits, the Egyptian government sold its company shares to the British government, an important factor in the British decision to occupy Egypt in 1882. The Convention of Constantinople of 1888, signed by the major European powers, declared the canal neutral and granted its use to all during peace and wartime with Britain acting as guarantor. A vital waterway for British imperial communications, particularly the route to India and access to Middle Eastern oil, the canal also facilitated the colonization of East Africa by other European powers, particularly the Italian conquest of Ethiopia. Under the terms of the 1936 Anglo-Egyptian treaty Britain retained control of the canal zone, which proved a crucial advantage during World War II (1939–1945) and a significant military base in the early Cold War years.

In the postwar period the continuing British occupation of the canal attracted mounting Egyptian criticism. When the Free Officers took power in Egypt in July 1952, negotiations were reopened with the British who, in an accord reached in 1954, agreed to withdraw all of its troops from the country by June 1956. In July, when the Americans reneged on their offer to finance the Aswan High Dam, Gamal Abd al Nasir (1918–1970) responded by dramatically announcing the nationalization of the canal before a large crowd in Alexandria on July 26, asserting that the revenue from canal dues would help finance the dam. The right of the Egyptian government to nationalize the SCC, an Egyptian company, was a well-recognized principle in international law, but the British, French, and other Western governments called for the internationalization of the canal, an idea stoutly resisted by Nasir.

While the Egyptians, to the surprise of many, continued to operate the canal competently, the British Prime Minister Anthony Eden (1897–1977) entered into a secret agreement with the French and Israeli governments to attack Egypt. Under its terms, when Israeli forces invaded the Sinai on October 29, 1956 and met with Egyptian resistance, France and Britain would issue a joint ultimatum the next day calling for a halt to hostilities. When, as expected, Egypt rejected this, British and French planes bombed Egyptian airfields on October 31 and landed Anglo-French troops on November 5 to secure the canal, now rendered inoperative by ships sunk by the Egyptian government. A United Nations Security Council resolution condemning the Israeli aggression had been vetoed by the British and French, but with the threat of Soviet military intervention and American displeasure towards the British action, expressed by its withdrawal of support for the British pound, a cease-fire was accepted by all sides at midnight on November 6. A United Nations Emergency Force (UNEF) was constituted and supervised the withdrawal of British and French forces in December and of the Israelis in March the next year.

Despite being defeated in the field—Egypt suffered by far the greatest losses in the war—Suez was a substantial diplomatic victory for Nasir that greatly enhanced his international standing as an anti-imperialist leader. By contrast, Eden was discredited and resigned from office the following year. Suez witnessed an important break between two traditional allies, the United States and Britain, and more significantly, came to symbolize the decline of British imperial power. It also gave notice of Israeli military capabilities. Now run by the Egyptian Canal Authority, the canal was reopened in April 1957, and compensation paid to shareholders. United Nations forces remained in place until the lead-up to the six-day war of June 1967 when the canal was closed again.

see also Egypt; Empire, British; Empire, French; Nasir, Gamal Abd al.


Heikal, Mohamed. Cutting the Lion's Tail: Suez through Egyptian Eyes. New York: Arbor House, 1987.

Kyle, Keith. Suez: Britain's End of Empire in the Middle East. London: I.B. Tauris, 2003.

Louis, W. R. and Roger Owen, eds. Suez 1956: The Crisis and its Consequences. Oxford: Clarendon Press; New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.