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The Suez crisis: An affair to remember

Jul 27th 2006
From The Economist print edition

The Suez crisis of 50 years ago marked the end of an era, and the start of another, for Europe, America and the Middle East


ON JULY 26th 1956 Gamal Abdul Nasser, president of Egypt, addressed a huge crowd in the city of Alexandria. Broad-shouldered, handsome and passionate, Nasser stunned even this gathering of enthusiastic supporters with the vehemence of his diatribe against British imperialism. Britain had ruled Egypt, one way or another, from 1882 to 1922, when the protectorate gained nominal independence, and continued to influence Egyptian affairs thereafter, maintaining troops there and propping up the decadent monarchy overthrown by Nasser in 1952.

In that speech in Alexandria, though, Nasser chose to delve back even further into history, in a long digression on the building of the Suez canal a century earlier. That gave him the chance to mention the name of the Frenchman who had built the canal, Ferdinand de Lesseps. This he did at least 13 times. “De Lesseps”, it turned out, was the codeword for the Egyptian army to start the seizure, and nationalisation, of the canal. It also launched the start of a new era in the politics of Europe, the Middle East and America.

The Suez crisis, as the events of the following months came to be called, marked the humiliating end of imperial influence for two European countries, Britain and France. It cost the British prime minister, Anthony Eden, his job and, by showing up the shortcomings of the Fourth Republic in France, hastened the arrival of the Fifth Republic under Charles de Gaulle. It made unambiguous, even to the most nostalgic blimps, America’s supremacy over its Western allies. It thereby strengthened the resolve of many Europeans to create what is now the European Union. It promoted pan-Arab nationalism and completed the transformation of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute into an Israeli-Arab one. And it provided a distraction that encouraged the Soviet Union to put down an uprising in Hungary in the same year.

It also divided families and friends, at least in Britain and France, with a degree of bitterness that would not be seen in a foreign-policy dispute until the invasion of Iraq in 2003. If that is difficult to understand, remember that the world was a different place then. Many European politicians still believed their countries had a right to run the affairs of others. Many were also scarred by memories of appeasement in the 1930s. Faced with a provocation, even an entirely legal one involving the nationalisation of a foreign-owned asset like the Suez canal, the instinct of such Europeans was to go to war. They and their Israeli partners-in-invasion were restrained, eventually, by the United States, led by a Republican president and war hero, Dwight Eisenhower. The venture involved intrigue, lies, nemesis—and no end of a lesson. How did it come about?

The road to collusion

In Egypt, the British had become so resented for their racist, arrogant ways that by the early 1950s even Winston Churchill, the grand old imperialist who had returned as prime minister in 1951, felt he could resist the tide of nationalism no more. After 1951 the British were confined to the Suez canal zone, harassed by Egyptian irregulars who wanted them out altogether. By June 1956 the last British soldiers had left even the canal zone.

Yet Anglo-Egyptian relations did not improve. Nasser was enraged by America’s withdrawal of its offer of loans to help pay for the building of a dam on the Nile at Aswan. This project was central to his ambitions to modernise Egypt. But John Foster Dulles, the American secretary of state, thought the dam would place too much strain on the resources of newly independent Egypt.

For their part, the British, mistrustful of Nasser and feeling the pinch, were also ready to withdraw their loan offer. So, thought Dulles, best to let the Russians take on the dam, as he knew they would if the West backed out. He did not, however, bargain for Nasser’s immediate response—the nationalisation of the Suez canal, whose revenues, Nasser argued, Egypt now needed to replace the loans promised by Britain and America for the dam.

The reaction in Britain was unanimous in condemning “Grabber Nasser”, as the Daily Mirror put it. Comparisons were immediately made to Hitler and Mussolini in the 1930s: if he got away with this, where would he—and other emboldened post-colonial leaders—stop? Eden, who had succeeded Churchill as prime minister the year before, argued that the canal was Britain’s “great imperial lifeline”, especially for oil. Nasser could not be allowed to have his hand “on our windpipe”.

The French reacted just as strongly, but for different reasons. First, they had a stake in the Paris-based company that ran the canal. Second, they were fighting an increasingly nasty little colonial war in Algeria. The new government of Guy Mollet was resolved to put down an Arab uprising there with all the force that the Fourth Republic could muster. By the summer of 1956 France had about 400,000 soldiers in Algiers. Nasser backed the Arab insurgents, so the French were as eager as the British to see the back of him. Accordingly, Britain and France started to co-ordinate plans for a military invasion of Egypt and a reoccupation of the canal zone.

But their bellicosity was matched by the scepticism of the Americans, and of Eisenhower in particular, who from the beginning was against the use of force by his two main allies. One concern for him was the presidential election due that November, which he intended to win as the incumbent “peace” president. He knew that the voters would not thank him for taking them into a foreign imbroglio in which America had no direct interest.

Eisenhower was also motivated by an anti-imperialism rooted in the attitudes that had made Americans break free from the British empire. Intensifying his scepticism was a fear that, in the new cold war, any British and French bullying of Egypt would alienate Arabs, Asians and Africans and drive them towards the communist camp. To head off Anglo-French military action, Eisenhower and his secretary of state ensnared the Europeans in a fruitless round of talks and conferences.

Aware that they were on shaky legal ground for an invasion, the British and French reluctantly played along. But they were losing the momentum for military action, which was the American intention. The increasingly histrionic Eden, in particular, wanted not only the reversal of the canal’s nationalisation but also regime change: he wanted Nasser “destroyed”.

The Israelis provided a way out. On September 30th a delegation secretly presented the French with a fabricated casus belli: Israel would invade Egypt and race to the canal. The French and British could then invade, posing as peacekeepers to separate the two sides, and occupy the canal, ostensibly to guarantee the free passage of shipping. When this plan was presented to Eden, he jumped at it. Thus was collusion born. The details were agreed on at a secret meeting in Sèvres, outside Paris. Not for nothing is the Suez crisis known in Egypt as the “tripartite aggression”.

The British and French forces now had a pretext to invade. For the Israelis, it would punish Egypt for its escalating incursions into Israel from Gaza. It would also hitch the major European powers to the cause of Israel: up to that point, the French had tried to be even-handed between Israel and its neighbours; the British had leaned towards the Arab states.

A complete mess and botch

Only a handful of people were let in on the collusion. Most of them thought it was mad from the start, arguing, quite correctly, that the cover for the invasion was so flimsy it would soon be blown. To disguise what was going on, the British, in particular, were drawn ever deeper into a bog of lies and deception, particularly with the Americans. Parliament was also deceived. Both Eden and Selwyn Lloyd, his foreign secretary, told the House of Commons that, as Lloyd put it, “there was no prior agreement” with Israel.

On October 29th, Israeli paratroopers, led by a zealous officer called Ariel Sharon, were dropped into Sinai to fulfil their side of the bargain. Feigning surprise, the British and French issued an ultimatum to both sides to cease fire. When the Egyptians rejected this, British planes started bombing the Egyptian air force on the ground and on November 5th Anglo-French troops went ashore to begin the invasion of the canal zone and, it was hoped, topple Nasser.

Eisenhower, kept completely in the dark, felt utterly betrayed by his erstwhile allies. “I’ve just never seen great powers make such a complete mess and botch of things,” he told his aides. He determined to put a stop to the whole enterprise.

America struck at Britain’s fragile economy. It refused to allow the IMF to give emergency loans to Britain unless it called off the invasion. Faced by imminent financial collapse, as the British Treasury saw it, on November 7th Eden surrendered to American demands and stopped the operation, with his troops stranded half way down the canal. The French were furious, but obliged to agree; their troops were under British command.

America also proved adept at working through the UN. On November 2nd an American resolution demanding a ceasefire was passed by a majority of 64 to five, the Russians voting with the United States. And to sidestep Anglo-French vetoes at the Security Council, for the first time the General Assembly met in emergency session (where no country held a veto) and took up a Canadian suggestion to assemble an international emergency force to go to the canal and monitor the ceasefire. These were to be the first “blue hat” UN peacekeepers. The organisation was one of the clear winners of the crisis, gaining an enhanced role in the world. For the other participants in the drama, the consequences were more mixed.

The French drew the clearest lessons. Suez showed that they could never rely on perfide Albion. Britain, then Europe’s strongest power, would, it seemed, always put its “special” relationship with America above its European interests. And the Americans, to the French, were both unreliable and annoyingly superior.

So the French would have to look elsewhere for more durable allies—a search that was, by one account, short. The story goes that on the evening of November 6th, when Mollet got the call from Eden that he was aborting the invasion, he happened to be with the German chancellor, Konrad Adenauer. The French foreign minister, Christian Pineau, records Adenauer as saying that “France and England will never be powers comparable to the United States…Not Germany either. There remains to them only one way of playing a decisive role in the world: that is to unite Europe…We have no time to waste; Europe will be your revenge.”

Thus was born the six-country European common market, which has now become the 25-country European Union. The founding Treaty of Rome was signed the very next year, in 1957. And the French, particularly Charles de Gaulle in the 1960s, kept the British, America’s Trojan horse, out of it for as long as they could, until 1973. France had by then made itself truly independent of American military power (unlike the British) by building its own nuclear deterrent from scratch and, in 1966, leaving NATO’s integrated command structure.

It should have been no surprise, then, that in the months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, it was the French who played the American role of 1956, though Jacques Chirac could hardly deliver the coup de grâce, as Eisenhower had done in 1956. In reaction to Suez, France had constructed a new identity as the ostensible leader of Europe, upholding a set of universal values in competition with the Americans.

The British were hurt most by Suez. Eden resigned soon afterwards, his health wrecked, his reputation in tatters, his lies and evasions damaging the country’s always tendentious reputation for fair play. The crisis exploded Britain’s lingering imperial pretensions, and hastened the independence of its colonies.

Some talked of a “Suez syndrome”, where, in Margaret Thatcher’s words, Britain’s rulers “went from believing that Britain could do anything to an almost neurotic belief that Britain could do nothing”. Certainly, much of Mrs Thatcher’s prime ministership, particularly the retaking of the Falklands in 1982, was an essay in exorcising the demons of Suez. Tony Blair has not been afraid to take advantage of her success, by deploying British power in Sierra Leone, the Balkans and Iraq.

But never without the Americans’ support. The major lesson of Suez for the British was that the country would never be able to act independently of America again. Unlike the French, who have sought to lead Europe, most British politicians have been content to play second fiddle to America.

Eden recuperated from the crisis in Ian Fleming’s house, Goldeneye, in Jamaica. It was an appropriate choice, as it was Fleming who was to mythologise the new relationship in his James Bond novels. The first, “Casino Royale”, was published to little attention in 1953, but the series took off in the years after the Suez crisis, offering some sort of literary consolation to a country coming to terms with its new, humbler status. The partnership between Bond and Felix Leiter, a CIA agent, reflected the way the British now liked to see things, the one suave, smart and endlessly resourceful, the other with a lot of money and a slightly plodding manner.

Eisenhower won his election in America. The crisis affirmed the country’s new status as the global superpower, challenged only by the Soviet Union. Suez was also to be the last incident in which America was to take strong action against Israel. As Eisenhower had feared, the Russians moved into the Middle East to fill the gap left by the disorderly retreat of the British, so the Americans felt compelled to get in as well. Thus the cold war spread to north Africa and Egypt (the Russians duly stepped in to finance the Aswan dam, and much else), and Israel became ever more closely tied to the United States.

Before 1956, Israel had been militarily vulnerable, but, beyond the Arab world, morally and politically unassailable. The Israeli occupation of Sinai (and Gaza) in 1956 began the gradual inversion of this state of affairs, as it marked the first expansion of Israel beyond its original borders, with all the subsequent criticisms of its occupation of Arab or Palestinian land. In 1956 the Israelis were quickly forced to withdraw from Sinai by American (and Russian) pressure. Never again, however, would an American president face down Israel as Eisenhower had done at Suez.

The rise of Nasserism

The chief victor of Suez, in the short term, was Nasser. Before the crisis he had faced lingering opposition in Egypt, not only from the former ruling class but also from communists and the radical Islamists of the Muslim Brotherhood. “Pulling the Lion’s tail”, and getting away with it, proved wildly popular. As dissidents fled, fell silent or filled its jails, Nasser’s Egypt projected itself as the vanguard of Arab nationalism and a beacon to liberation movements across the third world.

Puffed up by his own success, Nasser launched misguided adventures such as a short-lived political union with Syria and disastrous nationalisations of Egyptian industry. And the Nasserist dream inspired a wave of pan-Arab nationalism that helped install lookalike leaderships, with similar flags, propaganda and secret police, across much of the Arab world. Saddam Hussein was one who drew inspiration. Nasser himself was largely discredited by Israel’s crushing victory in the 1967 war, but the institutions of Nasserism still lived on, in Egypt and elsewhere, as effective systems of political control.

AFP No end of lessons

Nasser’s 1956 triumph endured in Arab memory as a moment of cathartic liberation. It inspired, to some extent, Saddam’s dramatic moves, such as invading Iran and later Kuwait. A famous Egyptian film, “Nasser 56”, lingers nostalgically over the Egyptian leader. Amid rousing music, he is portrayed in black and white, shrouded in pensive solitude by a swirl of cigarette smoke, reaching his momentous decision to nationalise the canal. But the film jumps to the happy outcome, ignoring the fact that Nasser’s victory was not won by this new Arab superman, but delivered by superpower intervention.

A wider lesson lies in the interpretation of history. Eden, who had honourably resigned as foreign secretary in 1938 in disapproval of the appeasement of Hitler and, especially, Mussolini, was nonetheless haunted by Neville Chamberlain’s readiness to yield to tyrants. His impulses at Suez were surely complex. Eden was far from anti-American or indifferent to American concerns. He had resigned in 1938 partly because he thought his prime minister, Chamberlain, had treated Roosevelt shabbily. Yet he saw Nasser as a “Mussolini” and was plainly determined to avoid any charge of appeasement, even though the essential features of Munich and Suez were wholly different. Instead of saying that those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it, George Santayana might have better said that those who misinterpret the past are condemned to bungle the present.

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This entry was posted on 29 July, 2006 by in History, Middle East.

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