Today in history: Nasser nationalises the Suez Canal

Today in history: Nasser nationalises the Suez Canal
July 26, 1956: The Suez Crisis begins after Egypt's second president takes control of the canal, formerly under Anglo-French rule since 1856.
4 min read
26 Jul, 2016
Gamal Abdel Nasser is remembered as one of the most prominent exponents of Pan-Arabism [AFP]
Standing before a huge crowd in Egypt's coastal city of Alexandria, President Gamal Abdel Nasser announced to his country that the Suez Canal Company had been nationalised in order to fund the construction of the Aswan High Dam. 

"Today, fellow-countrymen, by our sweat, our tears, the souls of our martyrs and the skulls of those who died in 1856, a hundred years ago during the corveé, we are able to develop this country," Nasser declared, referring to the thousands of Egyptians who were forced into hard labour for the canal's construction.

The move came after the Egyptian president received no support from Britain or the US for his Aswan Dam project, which aimed to end the Nile's annual flooding of farm land. Following this cold-shoulder, the army colonel took matters into his own hands and continued a shift towards the Soviet Union - the US' bitter Cold War rivals.

Having controlled the canal since its construction in 1856, the British government and their French shareholder partners were thrust into a frenzy about what to do.

What would later transpire would be hailed as one of the biggest victories for Egypt's hero of Pan-Arabism, and a crushing defeat for Britain - a country whose declining power was exposed for all to see by the crisis.

Nasser became the villian of the British press as the newspapers churned out of London's Fleet Street chimed in tune with Prime Minister Anthony Eden's appetite for agression against Nasser - a man portrayed as an unruly troublemaker.

In late October of 1956, Britain and France would meet in secret in Paris to decide what to do with Nasser, joined by Israel. The fledgling Jewish state colluded with the European duo out of anger at Egyptian raids across their Sinai border. Israel also wanted to end the Arab blockade of the Gulf of Aqaba in order to secure a safe passage from the port of Eilat to Asia and Africa.

The trio agreed to action a plan, codenamed Operation Musketeer to capture the Suez Canal from Egypt.

Thus, on October 29 Israel invaded the Gaza Strip and the Sinai Peninsula and began its advance towards the canal zone. A day later, Britain and France bagan their aerial bombing campaign, to which Nasser responded by sinking dozens of ships in the canal, rendering the canal closed for business.

In early November, hundreds of British paratroopers and their French counterparts landed at the canal, defeating the Egyptian military and re-taking control of the key waterway.

French troops escort Egyptian workers to work during the Suez Crisis [AFP]

With this, the military objectives of the trio were met, however the canal had been sabotaged by Nasser and it became increasingly clear to the world that the trio had colluded in secret to invade.

Fearing that Nasser would be driven closer to the Soviet Union, the US under President Dwight Eisenhower swiftly intervened to pressure the allies to withdraw. A UN ceasefire was then enacted on November 7, followed by the complete withdrawal of British and French troops from Egypt by December 23.

Nasser emerged from the crisis a hero, while the UK was left red-faced by its most senior ally. By checking British ambition, the US had reinforced its dominance on the world stage, serving a painful reminder to Britain that its days of imperial glory were coming to an end.

It was also said that Eisenhower held his British counterpart Sir Anthony Eden with a level of disdain, as he saw Britain's empire as a relic from a bygone age.

Eden himself resigned just nine days into 1957, citing ill health as a reason for his departure from office. For many, however, it was clear that the British PM had suffered a huge personal defeat at Suez, bringing his country to its knees and to the mercy of the mighty US.

Eden was succeeed by Harold Macmillan - a prime minister who began Britain's re-appraisal of its role in the world, including a cost-benefit analysis of what remained of the British Empire.

For many historians, the Suez Crisis of 1956 marked a key turning point for Britain, causing the kingdom to rapidly re-align its position in the world.