Suez Crisis (1956–1957)

views updated May 08 2018

SUEZ CRISIS (19561957)

The British and French challenging of Egyptian President Nasser's nationalization of the Suez Canal, also involving Israel, and ending in the achievement of control of the Canal by Egypt.

On 26 July 1956, before 100,000 Egyptians in the main square of Alexandria, Egyptian President Gamal Abdul Nasser announced his decision to nationalize the Suez Canal Company. This came as a rebuff to the recent withdrawal of the United States and Great Britain from their pledge to finance the construction of a high dam across the Nile River near Aswan. The Suez Canal lay formally under Egyptian sovereignty, but the implementation of these sovereign rights was regulated by an international convention agreed upon by Egypt and several maritime powers in 1888 in Constantinople. The revenue and daily administration of navigation through the canal were handled by an international company based in Paris and owned mainly by British and French shareholders. There was nothing illegal in the act of nationalization, since Nasser promised to compensate the shareholders faithfully and ensure there was no disruption of navigation. But Great Britain and France saw in Nasser's act a defiant blow to their prestige and political standing in the Middle East and North Africa.

Within hours the British and French decided jointly to make every effort, including the use of military action if necessary, to regain control of the Canal. They ordered their chiefs of staff to plan an invasion of Egypt. Under the command of British general Sir Charles Keightley and French admiral Pierre Barjot, a large force assembled in several Mediterranean ports and operative plans were laid out for an operation code-named "Musketeer." The U.S. administration, while in agreement on the need to ensure the international nature of the Canal, made clear from the outset its strong objection to the use of force for this purpose. Also, considering the support Nasser was allegedly giving to Arab rebels in Algeria, French public opinion supported its government's hard-lined intention. Public opinion in Britain, even within the ruling Conservative Party, was, however, divided.

In order to overcome these difficulties and save the time needed for the preparation of the military operation, some preliminary diplomatic measures had to be taken. While British Prime Minister Sir Anthony Eden and French Prime Minister Guy Mollet interpreted these measures as preparation of the military operation, American Secretary of State John Foster Dulles took them as an opportunity to calm his allies and forestall any resort to force. As expected, the Soviet Union and several "neutral" states led by India unequivocally supported Egypt's position. A conference was held between 18 and 23 August in London, at the end of which a resolution signed by eighteen of the participating maritime states was presented to President Nasser by Australian Prime Minister Sir Robert Menzies. The resolution demanded that Egypt agree to the empowerment of a new international agency that represented the interests of the canal users and took over the administration of canal affairs.

The French and British, having almost completed their military preparations, were ready to take the next diplomatic step of bringing the issue before the United Nations (UN) Security Council. But Dulles feared that such a move would lead to an impasse and precipitate the use of force. He persuaded his allies and several other maritime states to convene once more on 19 September for a second conference in London. On 21 September the group announced the formation of a Suez Canal Users' Association (SCUA), which was supposed to deal with matters of finance and administration of the canal on a practical level and uphold the users' rights. But SCUA was stillborn, since in the meantime Nasser had replaced all the old company's navigators and arranged for uninterrupted operation of the canal under Egyptian management. Prudently, Nasser decided at this stage not to force the issue of payments for the passage in the canal, rendering SCUA nothing more than a paper declaration.

At the end of September Britain and France, becoming restless as their assembled invasion force began to exact a heavy burden, filed a formal complaint in the Security Council. Dag Hammarskjöld, the UN secretary-general, tried to mediate a compromise in private meetings with foreign secretaries Selwyn Lloyd (Great Britain), Christian Pineau (France), and Mahmud Fawzi (Egypt), and formulated a six-point draft proposal to be elaborated at a later stage. But France and Great Britain were not looking for a compromise in defeating Nasser. Despite the fact that the Security Council voted favorably on Hammarskjöld's "Six Points," Lloyd and Pineau insisted on another formal Security Council resolution that would condemn and nullify the nationalization act. This proposal was defeated by a Soviet veto and the council disbanded without a practical solution to the crisis.

From the British and French standpoint, by the middle of October 1956 all diplomatic measures were exhausted and the time was ripe for the "Musketeer" operation. But in view of the smooth operation of the canal, mounting opposition inside Britain, and repeated warnings of the American administration against the use of force, Eden procrastinated. It seemed that he had lost a clear and compelling casus belli.

From the beginning of the crisis the British, knowing of the warm relations developing between France and Israel over recent months, had insisted on a strict separation between their quarrel with Nasser and the ArabIsraeli conflict. Israel, Britain maintained, should be left outside the imbroglio. Despite having many grievances against Egypt and despite the disruption of the balance of power introduced in September 1955 by a huge Soviet-Egyptian arms deal, Israel preferred to concentrate all its energies on absorbing the large quantities of armaments acquired from France since the end of June. The French, on the other hand, whose part in "Musketeer" was to operate on the east bank the Canal, sought to examine the possibility of getting tactical assistance from Israeli forces, if they could press the Egyptians in the Sinai Peninsula from the east. By the end of September, recognizing Eden's hesitations, the French had begun to consider triggering the entire situation by inducing Israel to take the initiative and attack Nasser first.

Invited by the French, Golda Meir, Israel's minister of foreign affairs, together with General Moshe Dayan, the Israel Defense Force (IDF) chief of staff, and Shimon Peres, the director-general of the Ministry of Defense, arrived in Paris on 30 September for exploratory talks. The St. Germain Conference did not yield any definitive military plans, however, since the situation at the UN was not resolved and Britain's position remained unclear. Under the assumption that Israel might be invited at some point to participate in the war, further French armaments were rapidly shipped to Israel and a group of high-ranking French officers, headed by Major General Maurice Challe, proceeded to Tel Aviv to explore operations possibilities. Having become better acquainted with Israel's capabilities, Challe conceived a new plan: Israel would initiate an assault on the Sinai, and the French and British would issue an ultimatum to Israel and Egypt to withdraw so that French and British forces could occupy the canal and assure free and secure navigation. Assuming that Nasser would reject the demand, the road for "Musketeer" was open.

Eden was persuaded to join in this collusion, under the strict condition that it not look as if Great Britain had invited Israel's attack, and that Great Britain appeared to be reacting to a new situation provoked by Israel. Prime Minister of Israel David Ben-Gurion considered the proposal humiliating; he also did not trust the British intention to fulfill their share of the "scenario." To unravel the complex situation, a highly confidential meeting took place between 20 and 23 October at a small private villa in Sèvres, outside Paris. A series of meetings involving Ben-Gurion, Moshe Dayan, and Shimon Peres from Israel; Guy Mollet, Christian Pineau, and Maurice Bourges-Maunoury, the French minister of defense, and briefly also involving Selwyn Lloyd of Great Britain, took place. After the group reached agreement on slight changes in the Challe scenario, and the French assured Israel of military reinforcement, the Sèvres Protocol was signed by Ben-Gurion, Pineau, and Patrick Dean, a senior British official.

On 29 October, an Israeli parachute battalion was dropped east of the Mitla Pass, about forty miles east of Port Suez, and Israeli armor and infantry began to push west into the heart of Sinai. In accordance with the Sèvres Protocol, the next day an appeal was made jointly by the French and British governments demanding that the belligerent parties clear the canal zone. Israel, not intending to reach the banks of the canal anyway, acceded to the request. Nasser, as expected, declined. Thirty-six hours later, on the evening of 31 October, the British and French launched heavy air attacks on Egyptian airports and other military and supply installations, operating from their bases in Cyprus and from aircraft carriers off the shore of Egypt, and started the six-day naval voyage of their invasion forces from Malta, Toulon, and Algiers.

The thinly disguised deception and the unwar-ranted attack on Egypt incensed President Eisenhower who started, in concert with the Soviet Union and almost the entire international community, to put pressure on the colluding parties. Because British and French vetoes would be used to stymie the Security Council, a special emergency session of the General Assembly convened under the "Uniting for Peace" formula (which had been used during the Korean crisis in 1950). On 5 November French and British paratroopers dropped near the towns of Port Said and Port Tawfiq at the northern edge of the canal, while Israel had by this point already completed the conquest of the entire Sinai Peninsula. The landing from the sea of further troops the next day completed the capture of Port Saʿid, but their advance was arrested about thirty miles to the south. The mounting pressure of the UN, threats of the Soviet Union, and heavy pressure of public opinion in Great Britain opposing the war, were all factors that moved Eden to order a cease-fire.

Following a proposal devised by Lester Pearson, the Canadian minister of foreign affairs, the UN established a special Emergency Force (UNEF) under the command of Canadian general E. L. M Burns. The invading parties now succumbed to international pressure and withdrew their forces from the Canal on 22 December, assuming that UNEF would take responsibility for the management of the areas they evacuated. But, acting on their sovereign prerogatives, the Egyptians immediately took over those territories and UNEF moved eastward into Sinai to shadow the gradually retreating Israeli forces. By the middle of February 1957, after the IDF completed the evacuation of almost the entire peninsula, a crisis developed because Israel had hoped to hold on to the Gaza Strip and to the entrance to the Gulf of Aqaba (Elat) at Sharm al-Shaykh. Heavy American pressure and the threat of UN sanctions moved Ben-Gurion to withdraw Israeli forces to the old armistice demarcation lines by 6 March 1957. The UN force was newly deployed along the Egyptian side of the Egyptian-Israeli frontier, but the Egyptians refrained from returning to the Sinai Peninsula and the Gaza Strip with more than token forces. Both these measures put an end, at least for the following ten years, to the many frictions that had inflamed relations along those frontiers before the war, and left the Straits of Tiran open to Israeli navigation.

The 1956 Suez War is commonly considered a major blunder in modern international relations and a watershed leading to the final demise of British and French colonialism. Within a few years both Great Britain and France lost their positions in the Middle East and North Africa, and their status as first-rate powers waned while dependence on U.S. power grew. The Eisenhower Doctrine of January 1957 gave a symbolic imprimatur to the evolving new situation in the Middle East. The main winner of the entire affair was President Nasser, who not only achieved nationalization of the Suez Company and expelled the last vestiges of British presence along the canal, but also emerged as the uncontested leader of the Arab people and became, along with India's Jawaharlal Nehru and Yugoslavia's Josef Broz Tito, one of the outstanding leaders of the neutralist bloc of nations.

see also arabisrael war (1956); london conference (1956); sÈvres protocol.


Bar-On, Mordechai. The Gates of Gaza: Israel's Road to Suez and Back, 19551957. New York: St. Martin's, 1994.

Burns, E. L. M. Between Arab and Israeli. London: G. G. Harrap, 1962.

Fawzi, Mahmoud. Suez 1956, an Egyptian Perspective. London: Shorouk International, 1986.

Golani, Motti. Israel in Search of a War: The Sinai Campaign, 19551956. Brighton and Portland, OR: Sussex Academic Press, 1998.

Kyle, Keith. Suez. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1991.

Love, Kennett. SuezThe Twice-Fought War: A History. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1969.

Lucas, W. Scott. Divided We Stand: Britain, the US, and the Suez Crisis. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1991.

Nutting, Anthony. No End of a Lesson: The Story of Suez. London: Constable, 1967.

Pineau, Christian. 1956 Suez. Paris: R. Laffont, 1976.

mordechai bar-on

Suez Canal

views updated Jun 11 2018

Suez Canal

The Isthmus of Suez, a 105-mile slip of land at the western extreme of the Sinai Peninsula, separates the Mediterranean Sea from the Red Sea. Ever since pharaonic times it has attracted merchants and empire builders because it offers the shortest route between these two important bodies of water. Approximately 4,000 years ago Egyptian pharaohs of the Twelfth Dynasty constructed a canal that joined the Red Sea with the Nile Delta, thereby facilitating Egypt's trade with the East. Although the canal fell into disuse, Ptolemy II reexcavated it around 250 b.c.e., restoring it to commercial importance. It again fell into disuse, and plans to revive a canal did not appear again until the French invaded Egypt in 1798.


The young Napoleon Bonaparte (1769–1821), who led 36,000 soldiers into Egypt in 1798, envisioned making Egypt a French colony. To this end, he took with him a number of scholars who were eager to transform Egypt through colonialism. Among them was an engineer, J. M. Lepére (1763–1841), who made the first modern survey of the isthmus, wrongly concluding that the Red Sea was more than 32 feet higher than the Mediterranean and that a canal would require an expensive series of locks. Lepére's miscalculation did not deter later groups, however, mostly French engineers, who continued to dream of a canal that would unite Asia and Europe. But the interested powers were not supportive. The modernizing ruler of Egypt, Muhammad Ali (1805–1848), feared that a canal would impinge on the autonomy of his country. So did the Ottoman sultan, who still had formal jurisdiction over Egypt. Britain supported the Ottoman state against Russian expansion toward the eastern Mediterranean, and so also opposed any canal project.

A French entrepreneur, engineer, and diplomat, Ferdinand de Lesseps (1805–1894) did not let these international pressures deter him. Exploiting the friendship that he had cultivated with Egypt's new ruler, Abbas Pasha (1854–1863), and the desire of many members of the Egyptian elite to be seen as part of the European community of nations, de Lesseps gained concessions in 1854 and 1856 that allowed him to establish a private, Egyptian-registered construction company, which would cut through the Isthmus of Suez and join the Mediterranean and the Red Sea. In 1858, with nearly 92 percent of the financial backing coming from small French investors and from the Egyptian government, de Lesseps announced the foundation of the Suez Canal Company.

Constructing the canal itself proved difficult, but eleven years later it opened to traffic amidst great fanfare. On November 17, 1869, following the excavation of 99.4 million cubic yards of earth and at a cost of £18.144 million (sterling), well in excess of the original estimate, the first ships made their way through a channel that was 98 miles long, 28 feet deep, and along most of the way able to accommodate traffic in only one direction. Ships wishing to traverse in the opposite direction had to wait in the fortuitously located lakes along the canal's route.

Despite British opposition to the canal, British shipping quickly dominated its traffic. The canal dramatically shortened the route to the East, which previously had gone around the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa. Still, it was some time before steam shipping through the canal was economically competitive with sailing around the South African Cape. Indeed, in the first year of the canal's existence the Suez Canal Company's results were deeply disappointing. The total tonnage that passed through the canal was a mere 22 percent of what the Canal Company had predicted, causing a financial loss of £383,570 (sterling).

Even so, the significance of the new canal was obvious to the European powers, which moved rapidly to gain fuller control of it. By 1875 the new Egyptian ruler, Khedive IsmaEil (1863–1879), on the verge of bankruptcy, placed the Egyptian government's 44 percent of the company's equity capital on the market. The British prime minister, Benjamin Disraeli (1804–1881), quickly acquired these shares for his government, making Great Britain the largest shareholder of an Egyptian-registered company that had its main administrative offices in Paris and was run mainly by French engineers and financial specialists. In 1888, at a conference in Constantinople, the major European powers signed a convention guaranteeing freedom of transit through the canal in times of war and peace for all ships, commercial and military. Although the concession of 1856 had promised freedom of passage, this had been abridged during the 1877 Russo-Turkish conflict and again in 1882 when British forces occupied the country militarily.

By 1880 the canal was the primary means of communication between Europe and the Orient. Cheaper, faster transit stimulated frozen meat exports from Australia and the export of tea, jute, rice, and other commodities from India and other parts of Asia. One major beneficiary was the city of Bombay, which became the primary port of call for European shipping to and from India, supplanting the old capital of British India, Calcutta. A new product appeared at the close of World War I that would dominate future canal traffic. Oil exports from countries east of Suez, notably Iraq, Iran, and Saudi Arabia, transited the canal and fueled Europe's industrial growth.

Oil exports, however, put new pressures on the Canal Company. As the tankers increased in size, the company had to deepen and widen the Suez channel in order to keep the biggest tankers from using the Cape route. Whereas the canal had originally been 200 feet wide at the surface and 72 feet wide at its maximum depth of 26 feet, by 1956 repeated and expensive efforts had made it 500 feet wide at water level and 196 feet wide at a depth of 35 feet. These improvements paid off amidst growing world trade. From fewer than 500 in 1870, annual transits reached more than 20,000 in 1966, with most of the traffic moving from the oil-exporting countries to Europe.


Abbas's original concession to the Suez Canal Company was to run for ninety-nine years from the opening of the canal, at which time (1968) the company would revert to the Egyptian government. Company efforts to extend the concession failed, and after World War II, with nationalist pressures mounting throughout the Middle East and the company accruing record profits, company officials and Western diplomats feared nationalization. This prospect became a reality on July 26, 1956 when the military regime, led by Gamal Abdel Nasser (1918–1970), announced to a stunned international community that Egypt would take over the canal, promising to compensate the company's shareholders at the current price of their shares. The Egyptian populace, for whom the canal had become the most glaring symbol of the exploitative nature of European imperialism, was gleeful. Not only had the existence of the canal provoked the British occupation of the country, but since IsmaEil's shares wound up in British hands in 1875, Egypt had received minimal returns on an undertaking for which they had supplied a huge quantity of labor and nearly half of the original financing.

British, French, and Israeli troops invaded Egypt in October 1956, seeking to restore international control over the canal and to unseat Nasser. Lacking support from the United States, the invading powers were forced to withdraw. After a brief closure, Egypt's government-run Canal Authority ran the canal successfully, thereby proving wrong critics who had argued that the Egyptians would be unable to do so. The canal closed again as a consequence of the Arab-Israel War of June 1967, but was reopened in 1975 as part of improving relations between Egypt and Israel. The Egyptians have proven expert administrators of the canal, which continues to be a major artery of international communication and an important source of hard currency for the Egyptian government.

SEE ALSO Ali, Muhammad; Bonaparte, Napoleon; Canals; Containerization; Egypt; Empire, British; Empire, French; Empire, Ottoman; Imperialism;Mediterranean;Indian Ocean;Nationalism;Nationalization;Persian Gulf;Shipping Lanes;Ships and Shipping;Ship Types.


Bonin, Hubert. Suez, du canal à la finance (1858–1987) (Suez: From Canal Company to Financial Company 1858–1987). Paris: Economica, 1987.

Farnie, D. A. East and West of Suez: The Suez Canal in History, 1854–1956. Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press, 1969.

Georges-Picot, Jacques. The Real Suez Crisis: The End of a Great Nineteenth-Century Work, tr. W. G. Rogers. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1978.

Robert Tignor

Suez Canal

views updated May 17 2018


A nineteenth-century engineering wonder that realized age-old dreams and modern ambitions, the Suez Canal reinforced Egypt's position at the junction of international trade and hastened Europ's scramble for empire. Linking the Red Sea to the Mediterranean, the Canal runs for approximately 100 miles (160 meters), with an average width of 90 feet; unlike the Panama Canal, it requires no locks to compensate for differences in sea level along its course.

The Canal was the brainchild of Ferdinand de Lesseps (1805–1894), a French diplomat and consul general in Egypt from 1832 to 1838. There he befriended Muhammad Said, son of Mehmet Ali (r. 1805–1848), the Ottoman viceroy of Egypt, who had gained substantial autonomy and set out to modernize the country. His successor Abbas Hilmi I (r. 1848–1854) undid much of Mehmet Ali's agenda, but Said, who ruled from 1854 to 1863, reopened western-style academies, rebuilt the Delta Barrages (a system of dams on the Nile), and granted foreign concessions to establish a telegraph network and to link Suez to Alexandria by rail.

Lesseps, who had resigned from the foreign service, approached his old friend with an audacious proposal—deemed implausible by many—to cut a maritime channel through the Isthmus of Suez. The two signed a hastily written contract in 1856 that granted Lesseps's Suez Canal Company a ninety-nine-year concession to construct and operate the waterway. The company could import supplies duty free, had the right to mobilize unpaid peasant labor (the corvée), and would exercise extra-territorial rights on a freshwater canal to be cut through to the Nile. This included the right to cultivate and reap profits from newly arable land. In addition to the return on its shares, Egypt would accrue 15 percent profits from shipping transit. The concession signed, Lesseps floated 400,000 shares on the international market at 500 francs per share. Lesseps's venture was troubled from the start. He scrambled to gather capital commitments even as construction began and wound up fronting a large proportion of the initial cost outlay from personal funds. Lesseps faced bitter opposition from the British government, which feared exposing India and losing commercial revenues at Alexandria, and indifference from his own. Formal approval from the various governments involved came only after construction had commenced in 1859. The Ottomans agreed reluctantly. In 1860 Said, who had originally purchased 64,000 shares, found himself stuck with 114,000 unsold shares. To pay for these he first issued treasury bonds, then borrowed from foreign banks.

By the time the Canal neared completion in 1869, four years behind schedule, Said had died. The new viceroy, Ismail (r. 1863–1879), inherited a boom economy—the blockade of Southern shipping during the U.S. Civil War caused Egyptian cotton prices to skyrocket—but also a mounting foreign debt. Egypt's arrears for unpaid Canal shares had grown from fifteen million to fifty-four million francs by 1862. Ismail dreamed of furthering Said's modernizing agenda. Unfortunately, by late 1864 cotton prices had stabilized; the following year they plummeted. To make matters worse, French arbitration of a dispute between Egypt and the Canal Company resulted in a judgment of eighty-four million francs against Egypt.

In November 1869 Ismail presided over the gala opening of the Canal. His party drew an array of foreign dignitaries: the French empress Eugénie (Lesseps's cousin, who had helped persuade Napoleon III to back the project), Francis Joseph I of Austria, the writers Henrik Ibsen and Émile Zola, and Thomas Cook, the founder of modern tourism. A grand flotilla embarked south from Port Said on the Canal's Mediterranean mouth. At Ismailia the guests were treated to a banquet, at

which Lesseps and Ismail were toasted with allusions to Columbus and Moses.

The moment proved illusory. As Ismail's debts mounted his European creditors called in their loans. In 1875 he sold Egypt's 44 percent Canal Company shares to the British government headed by Benjamin Disraeli for nearly four million pounds (by 1908 they were worth twenty-five million pounds). Britain suddenly became the Canal Company's major shareholder. The following year, when Ismail suspended repayment of other outstanding loans, a European debt commission assumed control of Egypt's budget; under the system of Dual Control British and French cabinet ministers oversaw tax collection and expenditures. In April 1879, facing growing nationalist pressure, Ismail dismissed the Europeans. Two months later, at Europ's behest, the Ottoman sultan replaced Ismail as viceroy of Egypt, with his son, Tawfik (r. 1879–1892). Tawfik found his authority curbed by a nationalist government, but survived the British invasion of 1882, which initiated what would become a seventy-seven-year occupation.

The Suez Canal would remain a point of bitter contention between Britain, its European rivals, and Egyptian nationalists. Under the veiled protectorate of Sir Evelyn Baring, the Earl of Cromer, British agent and consul general from 1883 to 1907, Egyptian financial health was restored. In 1888 the major maritime powers signed the Convention of Constantinople, which guaranteed "free and open" passage through the waterway to all nations "in time of war as in time of peace." For Britain, however, the Canal came to represent the lifeline of empire and played a major role in the decision to prolong the Egyptian occupation indefinitely. By the mid-1880s some 3,500 ships passed through the Canal annually, the majority of them British.

In 1914, when the Ottoman Empire allied with the Central Powers, Britain declared a protectorate over Egypt. Its Suez bases became major staging grounds in two world wars. For Egyptians the Canal, once envisioned by Said as a passageway to independence, became a site of national humiliation, symbolic of foreign political and economic domination. Some twenty thousand peasants reportedly died building the Canal. The murder of Prime Minister Boutros Ghali in 1910 is attributable in part to his backing a proposal to extend the concession past 1969. When Gamal Abdel Nasser (1918–1970) nationalized the Canal Company in 1956 he invoked Lesseps as a symbol of foreign oppression. During the Suez War, Egypt mined the Canal and Egyptian partisans toppled the statue of Lesseps that stood by the customs house in Port Said. The pedestal remains empty to this day.

See alsoEgypt; Great Britain; Imperialism; Lesseps, Ferdinand-Marie de; Transportation and Communications.


Karabell, Zachary. Parting the Desert: The Creation of the Suez Canal. New York, 2003.

Landes, David. Bankers and Pashas: International Finance and Economic Imperialism in Egypt. Cambridge, Mass., 1979.

Owen, Roger. The Middle East in the World Economy: 1800–1914. London, 1981.

Sayyid-Marsot, Afaf Lutfi. Egypt and Cromer: A Study in Anglo-Egyptian Relations. London, 1968.

Joel Gordon

Suez Crisis

views updated Jun 11 2018

Suez Crisis


The Suez Crisis of October 1956, which involved a coordinated attack by British, French, and Israeli forces on Egyptian positions in the Sinai Peninsula and along the Suez Canal, was a pivotal moment not only for interstate relations within the region, but also for interactions between the superpowers within the larger context of the cold war. Triggered by numerous factors and settled by an uneasy cease-fire, the Suez Crisis left a great deal of unfinished business on the table between Israel and the Arab States. It also saw the first full engagement of the United States into the region.

The political environment in the region had been deteriorating for an extended period prior to the actual invasion. Among the elements that contributed to this situation were: (1) the 1955 establishment of the Baghdad Pact between Turkey and Iraq; (2) the completion of an extensive arms deal between Czechoslovakia and Egypt; (3) the prospect of the sale of modern weaponry to Iraq and possibly to other future Baghdad Pact members; (4) the nationalization of the Suez Canal by Egypt in June 1956, which included provisions that excluded Israeli shipping from passing through the canal and a blockade of the Gulf of Aqaba and Straits of Tiran (which cut off all shipping into Israels southern port city of Eilat); (5) increased incursions into Israel by Palestinian guerillas known as the fedayeen (whom Israel labeled as terrorists); and (6) the October 1956 expansion of the Syrian-Egyptian joint military command to include Jordan. As a result of these events, the Israelis believed that they were under siege and that action was needed.

For the Israelis, there were three main goals behind any action undertaken in late 1956: (1) the restoration of freedom of navigation through the Gulf of Aqaba and Straits of Tiran, (2) cessation of fedayeen raids, and (3) the elimination or reduction of the threat posed by the Egyptian army deployed in Sinai. The British and French were not happy with the situation either, but they were focused on the implications of Egypts nationalization of the Suez Canal and Nassers support for Algerian nationalists fighting against the French.

Although their motives were different, the three sides agreed that the situation was intolerable and action needed to be taken. In fact, the Israelis had considered taking unilateral preemptive action, but they were instead invited to participate in the action already being planned by the British and French. The timing of the operation was also influenced by perceptions that both the United States and the Soviet Union were distracted or involved with other things at the time, and that they would therefore not interfere with the operation. For the United States, 1956 was a presidential election year, and the British, French, and Israelis believed that the Americans would be wrapped up in their own electoral cycle, and that President Eisenhower would not risk his chances of winning re-election by getting involved in an international conflict. It was also believed that the Soviets had their hands full dealing with rising national sentiments in both Poland and Hungary.

The actual invasion of Egyptian territory by Israeli forces began on October 29, 1956. By November 7, a cease-fire was brokered. Part of the cease-fire agreement included the establishment of a peacekeeping force under the auspices of the United Nations. Known as the United Nations Emergency Force (UNEF), these troops were intended to serve as a buffer between Egypt and Israel. They were charged with ensuring that freedom of navigation throughout the Straits of Tiran was maintained, and that there would be no cross-border raids by guerrilla forces. These were two of the primary Israeli concerns that led to the outbreak of armed hostilities. UNEF also supervised the withdrawal of Israeli forces from Egyptian territory, a process that was completed by March 1957. UNEF remained deployed in the area until May 1967, when President Gamal Abdel Nasser expelled the force from Egyptian territory.

The Suez Crisis also had larger implications for the region and for the international system as a whole. For the first time, the United States was brought into the Arab-Israeli conflict, although the Americans tended to view the situation in terms of the larger cold war context. In early 1957, concerns about Nasser and Soviet influence in the region led the Eisenhower administration to formulate what would become known as the Eisenhower Doctrine. According to this policy, the United States would provide assistance, when requested, to any country in the Middle East threatened by international Communism. In this respect, the Eisenhower Doctrine set the stage for active U.S. involvement in the region.

SEE ALSO Arabs; Eisenhower, Dwight D.; Nasser, Gamal Abdel; War


Kyle, Keith. 1991. Suez. New York: St. Martins Press.

Troen, Selwyn Ilan, and Moshe Shemesh, eds. 1990. The SuezSinai Crisis, 1956: Retrospective and Reappraisal . London: Frank Cass.

Rachel Bzostek

Suez Canal

views updated Jun 08 2018

Suez Canal

As the longest canal in the world without locks, the Suez Canal links the Mediterranean and Red seas across the Isthmus of Suez. Although Eygpt's ancient rulers devised a means of connecting the Nile River to the Red Sea, it was only in modern times that French engineer Ferdinand de Lesseps developed a workable design for the 101-mile (163-km) canal, which opened in 1869. In 1956, the canal became the site of an international crisis involving Britain, France, Egypt, and Israel. Today the canal remains a strategic point of movement of the world's oil supply.

Early history. From ancient times, trade flourished in the Mediterranean and Red Seas, and pharaohs recognized the advantage to be gained by connecting the two bodies. As early as 1500 b.c., pharaohs of Egypt's New Kingdom commissioned the building of a canal between the Nile and the Red Sea. This early canal was covered by sand, and though the late seventh century b.c. pharaoh Necho II attempted to build a new canal, the project would not be completed until the Persian invasion of Darius after 522 b.c. This canal eventually met the same fate as its predecessors, and successive rulersthe Greeks under Ptolemy I and Cleopatra, and later the Romans under Trajanattempted to restore it, but in each case the canal fell into disrepair.

Napoleon Bonaparte, when he conquered Egypt in 1798, revived the idea of a canal, this one to directly connect the two seas. The project did not begin for half a century, however, due to engineers' misconceptions regarding relative water levels. Finally, Lesseps, the former French consul to Egypt, received a 99-year concession on the canal from the khedive of Egypt. With a crew of some2.4 million Egyptian workers, he commenced the building project, which cost more than 125,000 lives over the course of a decade. The canal opened with much ceremony on November 17, 1869.

Crisis and concerns. Until the Suez Crisis of 1956, the Anglo-French Suez Canal Company controlled the canal. Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser had developed increasingly close ties with the Communist bloc, and therefore, when he requested assistance in building the Aswan High Dama project intended to tame the Nile and provide hydroelectric power to Egyptthe United States, Britain, and France refused. On July 26, Nasser retaliated by declaring martial law in the canal zone and seizing control of the canal.

Britain and France at first tried diplomacy, and when this failed, they sought Nasser's overthrow through an alliance with Israel. The three nations followed a classic "good cop/bad cop" strategy. On October 29, the Israelis invaded Egypt, whereupon Britain and France went into presented themselves as peacekeepers, and offered to occupy the canal zone on behalf of the United Nations (UN). Their actions raised such tensions among the two superpowers that both the United States and the Soviet Union very nearly intervened. The UN forced the evacuation of the French and British on December 22, and Israel pulled out in March 1957.

Aftermath of the Suez Crisis. The Suez Crisis raised the stature of Nasser immeasurably, and he has remained a powerful symbol to Arab nationalists such as Iraq's Saddam Hussein, the late Hafez al-Assad of Syria, and Libya's Muammar al-Qaddafi. The incident also marked the end of British and French influence in the Middle East, where they had held considerable sway for the better part of 150 years. From an intelligence standpoint, the Suez Crisis was significant for the role played by British interception of cipher transmissions, an operation known as Engulf.

Israel captured the Sinai Peninsula in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, and for the next six years, the canal served as a buffer between Egypt and Israel. It was closed during that time, and the Egyptians, who regained control in 1973, only reopened it in 1975. Since then, they have widened it twice, and have plans to widen it again by 2010 so as to accommodate larger oil-carrying vessels. The U.S. Department of Energy has identified the Suez Canal as one of several geographic "chokepoints"narrow passages that are both vital to the international oil trade and extremely susceptible to attacks or accidents.



Immermann, Richard H. John Foster Dulles and the Diplomacy of the Cold War. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1990.

Kelly, Saul, and Anthony Gorst. Whitehall and the Suez Crisis. Portland, OR: Frank Cass, 2000.

Kunz, Diane B. The Economic Diplomacy of the Suez Crisis. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991.

Kyle, Keith. Suez. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1991.


World Oil Transit Chokepoints. U.S. Department of Energy. <> (April 1, 2003).


Egypt, Intelligence and Security Engulf, Operation
Israel, Intelligence and Security
Middle East, Modern U.S. Security Policy and Interventions
United Kingdom, Intelligence and Security

Suez Canal

views updated May 18 2018


Channel built from 1856 to 1869 that links the Mediterranean Sea to the Red Sea.

Several early rulers of Egypt constructed canals for the passage of seagoing ships, usually linking the Nile River to the Gulf of Suez. The followers of Saint-Simon, the French utopian socialist (Claude Henri de Rouvray, Comte de Saint-Simon, 17601825), proposed building a canal linking the Mediterranean to the Red Sea in the early nineteenth century. The entrepreneur who actually carried out this scheme was Ferdinand de Lesseps, a former French diplomat who was on friendly terms with Muhammad Saʿid Pasha. As soon as Saʿid became Egypt's viceroy in 1854, de Lesseps described to him his plan for constructing and financing this waterway, which would be the largest public-works project in Egypt since the pyramids. Saʿid consented, but it took some time for de Lesseps to secure approval from the sultan of the Ottoman

Empire and the European powers (Britain was strongly opposed to a canal that might imperil its defense of India) and to raise the necessary capital.

The construction cost, estimated at more than 450 million French francs (worth about $100 million at that time), was borne mainly by Egyptian taxpayers and by thousands of unpaid or underpaid Egyptian peasants who were forced into corvée labor until the European powers and the Ottoman government enjoined the Universal Maritime Suez Canal Company to stop this practice.

When the 100-mile waterway was opened in 1869, it was 30 feet deep and 100 feet wide, adequate for most oceangoing vessels at the time. It soon became a main trade route for steam-driven passenger and cargo ships because it reduced travel time between Europe and East Africa, South Asia, China, Japan, and the East Indies. The canal was supposed to be open to ships of all nations in war or peace, but Britain made sure that it was closed to shipping for Germany and its allies in both world wars, and Egypt barred its use to Israel and to other countries' ships carrying goods for Israel until 1975. The canal was administered by the Canal Company until it was nationalized by Egypt under Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1956. Since then it has been administered

suez canal
 no. of transitsnet ship tonnage in thousands of tons
source: MEES 45:18, 6 May 2002.
table by ggs information services, the gale group.
other vessels11,57811,222333,725339,099

by the Suez Canal Authority. It was closed from 1956 to 1967 and from 1967 to 1975 because of the Arab-Israel conflict.

The canal was enlarged from 1960 to 1964 and from 1975 to 1980 to accommodate larger oil tankers, which have become its main users; in 1992, it was 590 feet wide at its narrowest point and had a maximum draught of 53 feet. Transit time is now 15 hours, and 80 ships can transit per day. The Suez Canal is a major route for transport of crude oil from the Persian Gulf. In 2000 the northbound tankers from the Gulf carried 28.2 million tons of crude oil (about 580,000 barrels per day) and in 2001 28.8 million tons (about 592,000 barrels per day).

The transit rates are established by the Suez Canal Authority. They are computed to keep the canal transit fees attractive to shippers. For example, in January 2002, the fee for the transport of crude oil for very large tankers was $1.21 per ton above the first 30,000 tons. Such a rate would amount to approximately $190,000 for a 150,000-ton oil tanker.

see also lesseps, ferdinand de; nasser, gamal abdel; saʿid pasha;suez crisis (19561957).


Beatty, Charles. De Lesseps of Suez. New York: Harper, 1956.

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

Marlowe, John. The Making of the Suez Canal. London: Cresset Press, 1964.

Schonfield, Hugh J. The Suez Canal in Peace and War. Coral Gables, FL: University of Miami Press, 1969.

arthur goldschmidt
updated by jean-franÇois seznec

Engulf, Operation

views updated May 23 2018

Engulf, Operation


Engulf was a series of operations whereby the British Security Service, MI5, intercepted Egyptian and French cipher transmissions during a period from the mid-1950s to the mid-1960s. The first major operation of Engulf took place during the Suez crisis of 1956, when a team led by British spymaster Peter Wright planted a bug in the cipher room of the Egyptian embassy in London.

The Suez crisis began in July 1956, when Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser seized the Suez Canal, formerly under the control of Britain and France. Britain and the United States, well aware of Nasser's increasingly close ties with the Soviet Union, had refused to fund Nasser's plans to build the Aswan High Dam. Therefore, Nasser took over the canal, not only as an act of retaliation, but as a means of raising money by collecting the tolls charged to ships passing through the canal. Britain and France, in a plan orchestrated with Israel, forced the evacuation of Egyptian troops, but were ultimately forced to themselves evacuate by the threat of United Nations or Soviet intervention.

In the months leading up to the crisis, MI5 undertook efforts to plant a listening device (bug) in the Egyptian embassy. The British postal service, which controlled telephone service, deliberately created problems with the embassy's phones, and an MI5 undercover team arrived under the guise of repairing the equipment. While there, they planted bugs that allowed them to hear the noises made by the setting of the machines. Skilled specialists were able to translate these noises into usable intelligence.

An unexpected conduit from Moscow to London. As Wright later recalled in his autobiography Spycatcher, intercepting the Egyptian cipher transmissions allowed MI5 to follow discussions between the Egyptians and Soviets in Moscow, the specifics of which were regularly passed on to the embassy in London. From these transmissions, the British learned that the Soviets were not simply bluffing when they threatened to intervene in Suez on the Egyptians' behalf.

Wright went on to recount that the Soviets helped their Egyptian allies by sweeping the London embassy for bugs, but when they discovered the device planted by MI5, they opted to leave it in place and not inform the Egyptians. By allowing MI5 to listen in to the Egyptian embassy, the Soviets were able to convey exactly where they stood on the Suez situation, and to do so in such a way that the British would know that they meant what they were saying.

Other phases. In later phases of Engulf, MI5 attempted to detect cipher noises in other contexts. In 1959, for instance, while the Soviet cruiser Ordzhonikidze was moored at Stockholm, Sweden, MI5 placed microphones in a nearby warehouse. This time, of course, there was no question of going aboard the ship under any pretext to plant a bug, and as it turned out, the warehouse was not close enough. Though MI5 did pick up what were apparently cipher machine noises, this did not lead to any usable intelligence.

From 1960 to 1963, in an operation known as Stockade, MI5 listened in to the French embassy in London. Unlike the Suez phase, however, reliable intelligence did not give the British any real diplomatic benefit. The United Kingdom was attempting to join the European Economic Community (EEC) or Common Market, which in 1993 would become the European Union. France was attempting to keep Great Britain out of the EEC, and the bugging simply revealed that the French were not going to budge, without revealing any likely means of inducing them to do so. Wright, who also led Stockade, later recalled that the operation "was a graphic illustration of the limitations of intelligence."



Aldrich, Richard J. The Hidden Hand: Britain, America, and Cold War Secret Intelligence. Woodstock, NY: Overlook Press, 2002.

Epstein, Leon D. British Politics in the Suez Crisis. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1964.

Kelly, Saul, and Anthony Gorst. Whitehall and the Suez Crisis. Portland, OR: Frank Cass, 2000.

Louis, William Roger, and Roger Owen. Suez 1956: The Crisis and Its Consequences. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.

West, Nigel. The Circus: MI5 Operations 19451972. New York: Stein and Day, 1983.

Wright, Peter. Spycatcher: The Candid Autobiography of a Senior Intelligence Officer. New York: Viking, 1987.


Cipher Machines
Egypt, Intelligence and Security
MI5 (British Security Service)
Special Relationship: Technology Sharing Between the Intelligence Agencies of the United States and United Kingdom
United Kingdom, Intelligence and Security

Suez Crisis

views updated May 29 2018


SUEZ CRISIS. In the summer of 1956, British, French, and Israeli leaders deemed the conduct of Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser as provocative. The European powers were humiliated by his nationalization of their shares in the Universal Suez Canal Company. They were concerned about Nasser's increasing contacts with the Soviet bloc, his founding role in the nonaligned movement, and his opposition to European influence in the Arab world, especially to French colonial rule in Algeria. Israel, agitated over continuous cross-border infiltration from Egypt and the blockade of maritime routes in the Red Sea and the Suez Canal, found more cause for worry in Egypt's forthcoming arms supplies from the Soviet bloc. Thus, Britain, France, and Israel joined forces in a surprise attack on Egypt, triggering the Suez Crisis on 29 October 1956.

On that day, Israel invaded the Sinai peninsula and the Gaza Strip. Two days later the British and the French bombed major Egyptian cities, then conquered the Suez Canal area in early November.

The Americans and the Soviets collaborated to denounce and reverse what they viewed as a gross violation of Egyptian sovereignty by colonial powers. Using their military, economic, and political supremacy, they forced a cease-fire, then a full withdrawal of British, French, and Israeli troops. The United States gave assurances to Israel that it would enjoy safe passage in the Gulf of Aqaba, and UN peacekeepers were deployed as a buffer between Egypt and Israel.

The United States also was concerned about Soviet encroachments in the Arab world. President Dwight D. Eisenhower was personally incensed with the timing of the crisis, which occurred in the final days of his reelection campaign and during a crisis in Hungary, where the Soviets were crushing a regime that wanted to leave the Warsaw Pact. He felt betrayed by Britain and France and viewed the assault as a challenge to his authority, but he also wanted to preserve Western influence.

The proximity of interests between the United States and Egypt was temporary given Nasser's aspirations to lead the Arabs and to display "positive neutrality" in the Cold War. Already, on 5 January 1957, the Eisenhower Doctrine, approved by the U.S. Senate two months later, promised U.S. economic assistance, military support, and even armed intervention to sustain regimes opposed to "international communism" in the Middle East. Egypt, a recipient of Soviet aid, quickly became a U.S. antagonist over influence in Syria, Iraq, and Jordan.


Holland, Matthew. America and Egypt: From Roosevelt to Eisenhower. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 1996.

Sneh, Itai. "Viewpoint: The Antagonism between the United States and Egypt Arose from the American View of Gamal Abdel Nasser as a Soviet Puppet." In Benjamin Frankel, ed., History in Dispute: Political and Social Movements, Vol. 2: American Social and Political Movements, 1945–2000: Pursuit of Liberty. Detroit, Mich.: St. James Press, 2000.

Woodward, Peter. Nasser. London and New York: Longman, 1992.


See alsoArab Nations, Relations with ; Egypt, Relations with .

Suez Canal

views updated May 17 2018


Canal linking the Mediterranean Sea to the Red Sea. It extends 101 miles from Port Saʿid in the north to Suez in the south, and since 1870 has been one of the world's most heavily used shipping lanes. Built between 1856 and 1869, it was the result of a plan initiated by former French diplomat Ferdinand de Lesseps, who convinced Egyptian viceroy Muhammad Saʿid Pasha to grant the Suez Canal Company, incorporated as an Egyptian stock company with headquarters in Paris, the right to operate a maritime canal for ninety-nine years after completion of construction. Although shares were offered widely, 52 percent were bought by the French and nearly half the rest by Saʿid Pasha. Some of the early construction work was done by Egyptian peasants forced to dig with picks and baskets; later it was taken over by European laborers with dredgers and steam shovels.

The canal soon became a main route for steamships because it reduced travel and cargo transport time between Europe and East Africa, South Asia, China, Japan, and the East Indies, avoiding the long passage around the Cape of Good Hope. It was administered by the Suez Canal Company until nationalized by Egypt under Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1956. The canal was closed from 1956 to 1957 and from 1967 to 1975 because of the Arab-Israel conflict, and until 1975, Egypt prevented its use by Israel or ships supplying Israel. At present it is especially important for transport of crude oil from the Persian Gulf, although some of the newest tankers are too large to use it except when empty.

SEE ALSO Suez Crisis.

Suez Canal

views updated May 23 2018

Suez Canal Waterway in Egypt linking Port Said on the Mediterranean Sea with the Gulf of Suez and the Red Sea. The 169km (105mi) -long canal was planned and built (1859–69) by the Suez Canal Company under the supervision of French canal builder Ferdinand de Lesseps. In 1875, the British government became the major shareholder in the company. In 1955, more than 120 million tonnes of merchandise passed through the canal, much of it oil. In 1956, President Nasser of Egypt nationalized the canal. Israel, Britain, and France launched a disastrous attack on Egypt. The canal shut (1956–57) while repairs were carried out. It was again closed during the Six-Day War (1967). The canal reopened in 1975. In the intervening years, many new ships, especially oil tankers, had became too large to pass through the canal. Loss of revenue forced Egypt to clear and widen the waterway.