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1956: Britain, France and the Suez Canal crisis

Damaged tank and vehicles, Sinai War, 1956. Photo United States Army Heritage and Education Center (Public Domain).

As Britain and France attack Libya with no-fly zones and military interference, it is instructive to remember the disastrous consequences of an earlier attempt by these two countries to intervene in another Middle Eastern country...Egypt.

The Suez Crisis and ensuing war saw a fundamental change in both imperialist alignments and nationalist movements in the Middle East.

The Suez Canal had opened in 1869, immediately becoming strategically important, as it provided the shortest ocean link between the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean, eased commerce for trading nations and particularly helped European colonial powers to govern their colonies.


In 1875, the Egyptian ruler was forced by debt to sell his shares in the canal operating company to the British government, giving it a majority shareholding alongside mostly French private investors. With the 1882 occupation of Egypt, Britain took control of the country as well as the canal.

The importance of the canal as a strategic intersection was apparent during the First World War (when Britain and France closed the canal to their enemies’ shipping) and after the Second World War (as a conduit for the shipment of oil).

By 1955, petroleum accounted for half of the canal’s traffic with two thirds of Europe’s oil passing through it. The canal was described as the “jugular vein of the British Empire”.


The economic potential of the Middle East, with its vast oil reserves, as well as the Suez Canal’s geo-strategic importance, prompted British imperialism to consolidate its position throughout the region, including a vast garrison of 80,000 at Suez, one of the largest in the world. But this presence led to increasing hostility, particularly when the British army caused the death of 41 Egyptians in Ismailia, leading to anti-Western riots.

By July 1952 a military uprising by the “Association of Free Officers ”, led by the young Gamal Abdel Nasser, established an Egyptian republic, overthrowing the more compliant king.


Nasser’s Egypt grew concerned at Britain’s behaviour in the region. Its creation of the Baghdad Pact in 1955 (Britain, Iraq, Turkey, Iran, Pakistan) seemed to confirm Nasser’s fears that Britain was attempting to draw the eastern Arab world into a bloc against the likes of his republic. Egypt negotiated an arms deal with Warsaw Pact Czechoslovakia in September 1955, thereby ending its reliance on Western arms.

Britain looked towards the United States for support but found it was not forthcoming, as the US was keen to increase its own influence in the region and turf out the old colonial powers.

Nationalisation and war

On 26 July 1956, Nasser, now President of Egypt, nationalised the Suez Canal, following the withdrawal of a British-US offer to fund the building of the Aswan Dam, a long-cherished engineering project designed to construct a three-mile-wide dam, create a 300-mile lake, generate eight times as much electric power as before and increase fertile land by a third.

Egyptian forces seized control of the Suez Canal, and Eden decided on military intervention against Egypt to avoid the complete collapse of British colonial prestige in the region. (The Labour opposition under Hugh Gaitskell was just as bellicose.)

Secret pact

But as overt military intervention ran the risk of angering America and damaging Anglo-Arab relations, Britain made a secret military pact with France and Israel (the Sèvres Protocol) aimed at regaining control over the Suez Canal.

The parties to the pact agreed that Israel would invade the Sinai; Britain and France would then intervene, purportedly to separate the warring Israeli and Egyptian forces, instructing both to withdraw to a distance of 16 kilometres from either side of the canal; the British and French would then argue that Egypt's control of such an important route was too tenuous, and that it needed to be placed under Anglo-French management.

‘Britain and France wanted Nasser removed from power.’

Both Britain and France wanted Nasser removed from power, to stop his growing influence on colonies and protectorates. Both also were eager to ensure their oil supply route was kept open. Israel wanted to reopen the Straits of Tiran to its shipping and weaken an Egypt growing stronger through its procurement of Soviet weaponry.

Resistance sprang up at home with large numbers demonstrating on British streets against going to war. Even some reservists refused to be called up. Washington disagreed on the use of force.

Political disaster

On 29 October, Britain, France and Israel attacked Egypt. From a military point of view, the operation, aimed at taking control of the Suez Canal, Gaza, and parts of Sinai, was successful for the invaders, yet was a complete disaster politically, resulting in international criticism, ostracism and unyielding diplomatic and financial pressure. Also, Nasser’s Egypt actually blocked the canal by sinking 47 ships filled with concrete.

The United States put financial pressure on Britain to end the invasion. The USA would not agree to a British treasury request for an immediate standby credit from the International Monetary Fund until Britain adhered to a cease fire agreement, and was also preparing to sell part of the US's Sterling Bond holdings. Saudi Arabia, their prime ally in the region, started an oil embargo against Britain and France.

On 2 November, the UN General Assembly adopted a United States proposal for an immediate ceasefire, the withdrawal of all forces behind the armistice lines, an arms embargo and the reopening of the Suez Canal. Britain and France agreed to withdraw from Egypt; later Israel agreed too. Egypt’s sovereignty was protected.


The Suez War ended in humiliation for the British and French empires. Anthony Eden lost his job as prime minister, replaced by Harold Macmillan. By 24 April 1957 the canal was fully reopened to shipping. The imposed end to the crisis signalled the definitive weakening of Britain and France as colonial powers, the strengthening of US imperialism in the region and the increased standing of Nasser and other nationalists in the area.

The crisis also hastened the process of decolonisation, as many of the remaining colonies gained independence over the next years.