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The Suez Crisis Leading Up To The War History Essay

The Suez Crisis of 1956 has claimed in its place in world history as being one of many events which has altered the Middle East and the evolvement of the nation of Egypt. The Egyptian population, under the guidance and leadership of Gamal Abdel Nasser, was thrust in to the international spotlight gaining much attention from the international community. The Suez Crisis of 1956 presented to the world that Egypt and its people was not the stereotypically labeled “backward Arab country” that some Western Countries had placed on certain countries. The aftermaths of World War I and II and the vehicles the “World Powers” created ideal situations to stimulate future tensions. These preceding events in history within the Middle Eastern region as well as the Western World greatly contributed to the successful takeover of the Suez Canal by Nasser and the birth of the crisis that followed soon thereafter.

The Suez Canal has had a long history of being a very important waterway linking the Red Sea and the Mediterranean Sea since its opening on February 22, 1866. [1] The earliest indication of the Suez Canal’s rightful owners can be traced back to an 1888 convention that was ratified nearly seventeen years later, which guaranteed key European maritime powers conditions for passage through the canal during times of peace and war. [2] 

World War I and its aftermath triggered many changes within the Middle East, initiating a number of events leading up to the Suez Crisis. With the defeat of Germany in the West and the Ottoman Empire in the Middle East, the allies were eager to claim newly conquered Ottoman territories. Before the Allied victory over the Ottomans was assured however, the existence of the Balfour Declaration and its intentions was made known. Historian William Cleveland claimed that, “The Balfour Declaration was another partition scheme.” [3] The Balfour Declaration was a partition plan devised by the British Cabinet to establish a national home for the Jewish people in Palestine and to provide the British government with another source of profit from the support of other Jewish populations around the world while establishing a firm British influence within the region. [4] Cleveland claims that the British motive for the declaration was to “attract a sympathetic response from the U.S. Jewry” in the event that Germans were to “make a declaration in support of Zionist aims.” [5] With the defeat of the Ottoman Empire, the San Remo Accords of 1920 gave the British the Mandate for Palestine with the goal of jump starting and establishing the Jewish home state and to administer the region. [6] However, British influence in the region due to the mandate only further escalated the tensions between Arab and Jewish populations within the region, each group specifically wanting their own state and interests.

The outbreak of World War II entangled the British with issues requiring their immediate attention, hindering their efforts to proceed with the Mandate for Palestine. The British intentionally did not devote the necessary time and effort to control the situation in Palestine, but the counter argument could be that Britain’s resources were consumed in the war with the Central Powers and the pursuit of other interests. The British soon realized the total loss of control in Palestine, and British Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin “referred the matter to the United Nations” in February of 1947 for a solution to the matter. [7] The U.N. consequently created the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP) to draw up a solution for Palestine. [8] The committee’s resolution became known as the UN Partition Plan of 1947 which called for a partition creating two states from the region under the Mandate for Palestine, one state would become an Arab state and the other would become a Jewish state. U.S. President Harry Truman strongly approved of the plan and the U.N. approved the partition on November 29, 1947. [9] The British immediately withdrew from the Palestine Mandate and the region on May 14, 1948, paving the way for the foundation of the state of Israel just a few hours after the last British withdrawal. The new state of Israel was immediately attacked by neighboring Arab nations just hours after declaring and being recognized by the United States and the U.N. for its independence. The Israelis were victorious over the Arab forces in Palestine and proved its military supremacy in the Arab world. [10] Egypt and other Arab nations were left with bitter memories of Israel’s establishment and quick rise to power. Gamal Abdel Nasser would inherit the bitterness of Israel’s military dominance when he came into power.

Egypt, Syria, Transjordan and Iraq initiated the First Arab-Israeli War on May 15, 1948 with the invasion of the new Jewish home state. [11] It could be argued that the Arab nations’ fate and the outcome of the war were already determined at the onset of war. Arab forces entered the war poorly equipped and ill-prepared without strong leadership. Cleveland states that, “Operating under the unified authority of the Arab League, each of the Arab states participating in the invasion in fact placed its own interests first. Thus, the invasion of Israel was hampered from the outset by inter-Arab political rivalries that led in turn to a lack of coordination on the battlefield.” [12] Not only were the Arab forces embarrassingly defeated by the Israelis, but the war effectively destroyed the U.N. plan for a partition of a Palestinian state in the region once Israelis claimed more lands from the defeated Arab nations. The Arabs and Egyptians in particular would not easily forget the Israeli victory and their humiliating defeat. The resulting animosity from the Arab-Israeli War of 1948 would set the stage for future tensions and another face-to-face conflict between Israel and Egypt.

The aftermath of World War II did not only bring about the creation of a new state in the Middle East, but it also changed the political structures and relations of other nations as well, particularly that of Egypt. As stated by Cleveland, “The end of the Second World War ushered in a period of renewed Anglo-Egyptian tension” arguably due to Egypt’s longing for independence from Britain. [13] The Egyptian population witnessed the British Imperial colony of India gain its independence and desired freedom from colonization. [14] However, Egypt’s repeated requests for independence were denied. Circumstances in Egypt grew unpleasant after Egyptian’s defeat during the First Arab-Israeli War of 1947 under the ill-guidance of King Faruq, and growing hatred for British colonial influence led to the eventual Coup of 1952 to overthrow the Egyptian monarchy. The Free Officers’ Club, a group of junior officers in the Egyptian Army led by Col. Gamal Abdel Nasser was the architects of the coup, feeling that the Israeli’s victory over Egypt was, “believed to have been caused by the corruption of King Faruq, the civilian politics and certain figures in the high command.” [15] King Faruq was ultimately exiled and the Egyptian monarchy was officially abolished on July 25, 1952. A new regime replaced the previous, beginning with the transformation of the Free Officers’ Club into the Revolutionary Command Council (RCC) which was also led by Gamal Abdel Nasser. [16] 

With the establishment of the RCC by Nasser and the junior officers, the RCC undertook reform measures to restore Egypt to its former glory. The RCC not only abolished the Egyptian monarch and crown, but also removed political parties to guarantee Nasser’s rise to political power. The old constitution was destroyed and replaced with a brand new constitution and introduced reforms such as the Agrarian Reform Law of 1952 to gain the support of the Egyptian population. [17] This land reform “became the hallmark of the Nasser era and was the subject of considerable favorable commentary…” [18] The Anglo-Egyptian Agreement of February 1954 could be argued as the most crucial element for Nasser’s ultimate decision for the eventual takeover of the Suez Canal. Cleveland states that “the most pressing foreign policy matter facing the RCC in 1952 was Egypt’s vexing relationship with Britain.” [19] The agreement allowed Sudan, an ally of the nation of Egypt, the right of “self-determination” with Egypt by giving up its claim for sovereignty. [20] The British only agreed with the RCC in order to secure their interests of the Suez Canal. Enoch Powell claimed that “the abandonment of the base meant the end of the Commonwealth as a military and political force in the world and ceased to join our activities.” [21] Julian Amery stated “We knew that, after the British withdrawal from India, Palestine and Malta, it was only the Suez Canal Zone base which could be enable British to exert influence westward in the Mediterranean…” One could argue that Nasser saw the importance of the Suez Canal to the British and used this as a means to create an opportunity to open possibilities for the full independence of Egypt, and would completely drive out the British later when Egypt decided to fully exercise its right to become sovereign. The most important aspect of the Anglo-Egyptian Agreement was the withdrawal of all British troops from the Canal Zone with the exception of being allowed to reoccupy in the event of an Arab League state power. [22] Israel saw the withdrawal of British troops from Egypt as a threat to their very existence. Pinhas Lavon felt that “the removal of the British troops would open the way for Egyptian military penetration of the Sinai Peninsula, thus creating a potential threat to Israel’s existence.” [23] 

The Lavon Affair was the solution to resolve the fear of an Egyptian invasion. It was a plot to have spies place bombs at British and American embassies with the blame pointed at the Muslim Brotherhood in order for British troops to remain stationed in Egypt and to create the buffer that Israel felt was needed while also showing the incompetence and doubt of Nasser’s protection of the Western foreigners. [24] Israel launched a preemptive strike on the Gaza Strip on March 6, 1954 due to the capture of the conspirators which foiled their plot, having little motives to support their assault. [25] Egyptian and Israeli documents admit that “it is difficult to connect the Israeli raid with the activity of infiltration, because the Israeli action came precisely during a period of relative calm…” [26] Historian Chris Smith claims that “...the Gaza raid was a turning point for Nasser. It radically changed his stance toward Israel and inspired a determined effort to acquire arms, given the potent reminder provided by the Israelis of how inadequate his forces were.” [27] Smith also states that “The Gaza Raid jolted Egypt into a search for arms.” [28] Thus began the Nasser’s military arms race to strengthen Egypt. One could argue that Israel’s unjustified attack on the Gaza Strip helped to set off the culminating Suez Crisis prior to its maturity due to Israel’s unprovoked actions towards Egypt.

With the Gaza Raid destroying Egyptian forces, Nasser was determined on acquiring military arms to better equip his military forces. This was arguably the beginning stages which set the stage for the military confrontation over the Suez Canal takeover. Nasser sought to acquire an arms deal with the United States, only to have negotiations fall through when Nasser refused to allow oversight of the military equipment’s preparation and usage by American military personnel. When Nasser attempted to deal with the Soviet Union, the U.S. immediately became concerned with the possibility of communist influence within the region. On September 27, 1955, Nasser declared an arms deal with Czechoslovakia, a Soviet satellite. [29] Nasser’s quest for arms prompted the British and the French to agree with Israel that Nasser had to be attacked to prevent Egypt from obtaining arms. It is possible that their motive was to prevent the emergence of communist influence in the area, but it is equally plausible that another motive behind the alliance with Britain, France and Israel was to get put down Nasser as a military threat and to secure colonial interests in the region. In Israel’s case, it would secure its borders by expanding its territories into the Sinai Peninsula to eliminate the fear of an Egyptian attack on the state of Israel. According to British Minister of State Selwyn Lloyd, Nasser’s arms deal with Czechoslovakia, “…was enthusiastically received in other Arab countries. The Arabs attributed Egypt’s defeat by Israel in 1948 to the failure of Farouk’s corrupt regime to arm the Egyptian Army with modern weapons.” [30] One could argue that Nasser’s arms deal was a sign of great leadership on Nasser’s part in the eyes of the Arabs by doing what the former King Farouk could not do to Egypt, validating Nasser’s legitimacy to rule. Nonetheless, Nasser’s ability to arm Egypt created a boost for Nasser’s leadership among the Arabs and his arms deal “established the first major Soviet foothold in the Middle East.” [31] 

When Nasser was able to obtain a growing, substantial amount of arms from the Czechs, Israel saw this as a threat to their military supremacy in the region. Israel wanted to “…destroy the Egyptians’ military arsenal before they fully absorbed their new Russian equipment…which it saw as a potential threat.” [32] Even though Egypt was obtaining these vast amounts of military arms, Lloyd expressed how “Fortunately for the Israelis, the Arabs thought that possessing the weapons was all-important, learning how to use them was a different matter…” [33] In order to show the Egyptians their military might, Ben-Gurion ordered an Israeli attack on the nation of Syria on December of the same year. “It was one more lesson to be delivered to the Egyptians as well as the Syrians, intended to show them that they were no match for Israel…” [34] With the growing number of military arms being bought by Egypt and Israel, it was only inevitable that a conflict would break out in the region soon thereafter. Nasser’s announcement of the Aswan Dam Project in Egypt which would help fund the acquisition of military arms as well as provide economic support to the country was the catalyst for the military confrontation between Israel and Egypt.

The idea of the Aswan Dam Project was in the mind of Nasser since late 1952 in order to provide Egypt with industrial and agricultural stability. [35] It was, as Nasser and many other Egyptians put it, “the key to their success” as a nation. [36] According to Cleveland, the Aswan Dam “…would be the kind of spectacular achievement that would enhance the new regime’s prestige among the Egyptian population…by increasing the amount of land that could be irrigated and by providing enough hydroelectric power to supply the needs of the entire country.” [37] However, the dam would cost an estimated $1 billion, an amount far beyond the financial capabilities of Egypt. [38] Nasser was forced to seek international support and funding for his great ambition. Initially, the Russians had offered Egypt to fund the dam project in 1955 and were quickly countered with an offer from the U.S. and Britain. [39] This was arguably done by the U.S. and Britain to counter further Soviet influence in the region and to reduce the fear of Egypt becoming a Soviet Satellite in the Middle East. Although the U.S. was quick in offering to supply the needed funds for the project, it laid out specific conditions that the Egyptian government would have to accept. The U.S. saw this as an opportunity for Egypt to be forced into peace negotiations with Israel, created in October of 1954, designated Project Alpha as an effort to establish a peace agreement with Israel and Arab countries. [40] In December of 1955, a tentative agreement was reached with Egypt, Britain and the U.S. In the agreement, the U.S., Britain and the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development would supply most of the funds needed to pursue the Aswan Dam Project. [41] In order for the U.S. to gain its agenda with the Aswan Dam funding and Project Alpha, Robert Anderson was designated to initiate peace talks between Israel and Egypt. However, the peace talks did not last very long. Due to the failure to negotiate peace terms, U.S., Britain and Egypt had yet to reach an accord with each other, while the International Bank had approved its end of the deal with partial funding of the dam.

Although the International Bank had approved its part of the deal with Nasser, the U.S. and Britain grew increasingly cautious of Nasser, especially after King Husayn of Jordan dismissed British General John Glubb from the royal court. [42] Glubb’s dismissal came at a time when Nasser was challenging the influence of British regional influence in Jordon via his radio broadcasted transmissions through Radio Cairo. Britain saw the dismissal as a huge victory for Nasser in eliminating one element of British influence in Jordan and was taken as a direct insult. Author Robert Bowie indicates that Nasser was credited for the shattering blow to the British standing, regardless if Nasser’s influence did or did not actually promote it. [43] British Prime Minister Anthony Eden and French Premier Guy Mollet grew increasingly hateful towards Nasser with Eden stating that “Nasser was the incarnation of all the evils of Arabia who would destroy British interests in the Middle East unless he himself was speedily destroyed.” [44] The U.S. also felt a growing sense of distrust with Nasser. The U.S. approval for the French to ship arms to Israel in late 1955 indicated U.S. fears regarding the Nasser’s influence to wield power in the region. [45] With Nasser’s refusal to accept the peace negotiations accompanied by the Aswan Dam funding, the U.S. grew inpatient. Nasser’s official recognition by the communist nation of China in May was also viewed as a great insult to the U.S. and their effort to stop the spread of communism throughout the World. This action could have prompted the decision for the U.S. to ultimately withdraw their funding offer for the Aswan Dam Project in July of 1956. Braddon offers another reason for the U.S. offer withdrawal, stating it, “…was withdrawn allegedly because Egypt had purchased arms from Russia but more probably because Russia’s suggestion of an arms embargo had provoked Nasser into recognizing Red China…” [46] One could see the action taken by the U.S. as a slap to the face for Nasser, warning him not to defy U.S. interests. The U.S. and Britain’s decisions to reject Nasser and his economic project that, “had been his dream – that was to have been seventeen times greater than the great pyramids and the economic salvation of Egypt” steered Nasser towards his ultimate plan to ensure his dream for Egypt and his people would come true. [47] 

Five days after the U.S. withdrawal of the Aswan Dam Project offer on July 26, 1956, Nasser officially nationalized the Suez Canal and the Suez Canal Company. [48] He declared nationalization on the 4th Anniversary of the overthrow and exile of King Farouk from Egypt. Nasser made a fierce speech to his people in the Liberation Square in Alexandria during which he made the official acknowledgement of Egyptian nationalization of the Suez Canal and initiated the physical activity of Egyptian officials overtaking the canal company. [49] Nasser saw the nationalization of the Suez Canal as the only other alternative to gain the necessary funds to finance this “dream” and used the idea of Egypt reclaiming the canal as a sign of Egypt’s triumph over imperialism. However, Robert Bowie gives another main argument for Nasser’s decision to nationalize the canal, stating “Nasser decided to nationalize the Canal Company, largely in retaliation for the refusal of the Aswan offer.” [50] Nasser indicated that total revenue from the nationalized canal could bring in over $100 million a year. [51] Nasser stated, “Today, oh citizens, with the income of the Suez Canal amounting to five hundred million dollars in five years, we shall not look for the seventy million dollars of American aid.” [52] Nasser’s speech attacked the imperialists, colonists and others who had dominated and exploited Egypt in the past, using the canal as an instrument of exploitation and domination. According to Nasser, the Suez Canal “had been built by Egyptians and belonged to Egypt.” [53] Robert Bowie stated that Nasser’s “defiance of the West and his bold assertion of independence appealed to strong Arab and Egyptian feelings.” [54] 

The quick and sudden nationalization caught the entire world off guard and Bowie states that “None of the Western states anticipated the nationalization on 26 July.” [55] Smith states that “The reaction in Western capitals was one of extreme hostility.” [56] Winthrop Aldrich described how “The shock to the British Government was very great, because it had received no warning from its Intelligence that seizure was imminent.” [57] British Prime Minister Anthony Eden saw the nationalization of the canal by Nasser as a “theft” and stated his plan of possible use of force to U.S. President Eisenhower by stating “My colleagues and I are convinced we must be ready, in the last resort, to use force to bring Nasser to his senses. For our part, we are prepared to do so.” [58] However, the U.S. wanted the support of the international community to help facilitate Nasser’s acceptance of arrangements. [59] It could be argued that the British was “fed up” with the U.S. solution to the situation, therefore joining the secret French-Israeli talks of an invasion of Egypt in September of 1956 to serve their own interests. [60] 

On October 29, 1956 the launching of Israel’s forces in a preemptive strike against Egyptian forces in the Sinai Peninsula was the climatic pivotal point in the Suez Crisis. [61] With the attack on the Sinai by Israel, the secret alliance between Israel, Britain and France was initiated, each country having their own agenda for the region while all three nations remained united under one common goal: to overthrow Nasser. [62] 

The aftermath of the attacks on Egypt ended with the stark criticism of the attacks from both the U.S. and the Soviet Union. With U.N. intervention, a tentative cease-fire agreement was made on November 6, 1956. The British and French withdrew their forces from Egypt in December 1956 and Israel withdrew their forces from the Sinai in March of 1957. [63] 

The Suez Crisis resulted from a combination of new and previously escalated tensions and conflicts throughout the Middle Eastern region. The accumulation of events stimulated an environment that would evolve into the Suez Crisis. Although many people in the West saw viewed the Suez Crisis as an the result of an act of aggression provoked by Nasser, in the end, the Suez Crisis demonstrated to the international community the potential political power and will of the Arabs. No longer were the Arabs, in particular the Egyptians held down by the authority of colonialism and imperialism from Western Powers. Gamal Abdel Nasser proved to the Western World that Egypt would no longer tolerate Western enslavement of its people. The Suez Crisis showed how Nasser could guide his people to freedom and victory in a world dominated by the interests and influence of powerful nations.


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