Egypt Attempts to Nationalize the Suez Canal

Colonial and Western attitudes reasserted themselves when the United Kingdom and France, in concert with Israel, invaded Egypt in the wake of Egypt’s announcement that it would nationalize the Suez Canal Company.

Summary of Event

On July 26, 1956, Gamal Abdel Nasser, president of Egypt, announced that Egypt was nationalizing the Suez Canal Company. His declaration that evening, during a speech in the port city of Alexandria, surprised the world. It also set in motion a train of events that soon led to a coordinated British, French, and Israeli attack on Egypt that some saw as the last of British and French colonialism Postcolonialism;Egypt . The repercussions were widespread, and many people were deprived of life, freedom, home, property, or country as events unfolded. Suez Canal crisis (1956)
Nationalization of land and industries;Egypt
Canals and waterways, artificial
[kw]Egypt Attempts to Nationalize the Suez Canal (July 26, 1956)
[kw]Suez Canal, Egypt Attempts to Nationalize the (July 26, 1956)
Suez Canal crisis (1956)
Nationalization of land and industries;Egypt
Canals and waterways, artificial
[g]Africa;July 26, 1956: Egypt Attempts to Nationalize the Suez Canal[05230]
[g]Middle East;July 26, 1956: Egypt Attempts to Nationalize the Suez Canal[05230]
[g]Egypt;July 26, 1956: Egypt Attempts to Nationalize the Suez Canal[05230]
[c]Transportation;July 26, 1956: Egypt Attempts to Nationalize the Suez Canal[05230]
[c]Government and politics;July 26, 1956: Egypt Attempts to Nationalize the Suez Canal[05230]
[c]Colonialism and occupation;July 26, 1956: Egypt Attempts to Nationalize the Suez Canal[05230]
[c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;July 26, 1956: Egypt Attempts to Nationalize the Suez Canal[05230]
Nasser, Gamal Abdel
[p]Nasser, Gamal Abdel;Suez Canal
Eden, Anthony
Eisenhower, Dwight D.
[p]Eisenhower, Dwight D.;and the Middle East[Middle East]
Ben-Gurion, David
Khrushchev, Nikita S.
[p]Khrushchev, Nikita S.;Suez crisis
Dulles, John Foster
[p]Dulles, John Foster;Suez Canal

The nationalization of the French, but substantially British-owned, Suez Canal Company twelve years before it became Egyptian property was not simply a quixotic act by a military dictator. There is evidence that a takeover had been discussed within the Egyptian government. Nevertheless, it is generally accepted that the move at that time had clearly defined antecedents. Egypt, whose main enemy was Israel, had been seeking arms in the face of a American-Anglo-French accord to limit the flow of arms into the Middle East. The turndown that Egypt received led Nasser to turn to the Soviet Union, although ostensibly his agreement was with Czechoslovakia. The opening up of the Middle East to Soviet arms upset the Western triumvirate and prompted the United States, followed by the British, to back away from financing the Aswan High Dam, the centerpiece of Egypt’s socioeconomic development program. Only a few days after that decision was announced, Nasser delivered his riposte, stating that the revenues from the Suez Canal would be used to finance the high dam project.

Major nationalizations of foreign holdings are not everyday events. They are not, however, uncommon, and normally are not considered cause to let blood. Why, then, in this case? Several rationales were offered by British and French officials, such as the protection of world maritime commerce. It is widely held, however, that the real reason was to punish Nasser. To the French, who initially were the most belligerent, Nasser was anathema because he was a major source of support for the Arab revolt in Algeria. The British seemed concerned that Nasser could interfere with their close relationships with the royal governments of Iraq and Jordan. Probably, also, there was British rancor that Egypt under Nasser no longer was amenable to British influence.

There is no denying that the Suez Canal at that time was a vital support system for Western Europe. Any interference with maritime traffic through the canal would create an economic crisis. The closure of the canal brought on by British, French, and Israeli actions demonstrated that. Taken literally, however, the nationalization of the canal did not change the world role or maritime characteristics of the canal. It merely moved the canal’s administration from a private French company to the Egyptian government. The Egyptians wanted the revenue from the canal, and so had a vital interest in keeping it open and operating it at maximum capacity.

Subsequent events also showed that the Egyptians could successfully run the canal. They did so in the face of efforts by the dispossessed company to scuttle canal operations by enticing the canal pilots to quit their jobs. Egypt, not the Suez Canal Company, had exercised sovereign control over the canal before it was nationalized, just as it did after nationalization. Egypt can be said substantially to have provided for freedom of transit in accordance with the Constantinople Convention Constantinople Convention (1888) of 1888, the treaty that established international rules for use of the canal. What changed was the political climate surrounding the canal, exacerbating an already extremely distrustful attitude toward Nasser. Accordingly, the events of the Suez Canal crisis were built around the psychologies of the leaders and their perceptions of circumstances, rather than around some objective reality inherent in what had happened. It is in these terms that the events following the nationalization need to be understood.

On July 30, 1956, a few days after nationalization was declared, Anthony Eden, British prime minister, declared that single-power control of the canal was totally unacceptable. On August 16, at a meeting in London, U.S. secretary of state John Foster Dulles advanced a proposal for a users’ organization to run the canal, clearly implying that control of the canal would be taken out of the hands of the Egyptians. A plan was adopted later for a Suez Canal Users Association Suez Canal Users Association (SCUA), with eighteen nations supporting this approach. The SCUA actually never did anything of consequence. Even so, its creation amounted to endorsement of the propositions that the canal was too important to be left in the hands of an apostate like Nasser and that the Egyptians were incompetent to manage the canal. Turning the canal over to the SCUA was not an acceptable option to Egypt. The whole plan simply exacerbated an already tense situation.

Even while the SCUA was prominent in the news, military preparations were under way. British reserves were called up. French troops arrived at a British military base on Cyprus. Despite repeated warnings by U.S. president Dwight D. Eisenhower that military force could not be countenanced by the United States, these moves did presage military action. When the attack came, it was evident that a combined operation had been agreed upon by Britain, France, and Israel.

Israeli Israel;Suez Canal crisis involvement is not directly attributable to nationalization of the Suez Canal Company. Israeli ships and cargoes were not allowed to transit the canal, but that had been true before nationalization. What worried Israeli prime minister David Ben-Gurion and his associates were Palestinian guerrilla raids that the Israelis regarded as supported by Egypt and that, from a point on Sinai, Egypt could and did interdict ships traveling to and from the Israeli southern port of Eilat.

On October 29, Israel launched an attack on the Sinai Peninsula of Egypt, to the east of the Suez Canal. The Israelis were supported by British and French air attacks on Egyptian airfields. The following day, the British and French issued an ultimatum to Israel and Egypt, which really was an ultimatum to Egypt only, that both countries remove their forces to 10 miles from the Suez Canal and that Anglo-French troops occupy the Canal Zone, including the three principal cities of Port Said, Ismailia, and Suez. On rejection of this ultimatum by Egypt, British and French military units attacked from the air and by sea. In the few days necessary to get troops ashore, Egypt sank a number of vessels related to canal operations in the canal. This contributed to blocking the canal for months after the military phase was terminated.

Shortly after landing, Anglo-French forces stopped their advance 23 miles down the length of the 101-mile canal. Accordingly, the European nations never attained their stated objective of occupying the Canal Zone. Soviet leader Nikita S. Khrushchev had made threats against the three aggressors, but informed observers tended to think that it was a combination of American moves that could have undermined a fragile British financial system and negative world opinion that caused the European powers to stop. What ensued was a complicated series of maneuvers that led to a United Nations peacekeeping force in the Sinai; the withdrawal of British, French, and Israeli troops; and ultimately the reopening of the canal near the end of March, 1957. For its part, Israel got essentially what it wanted—the end of Palestinian attacks from the Gaza strip and freedom of navigation to Eilat.

This was not a highly destructive war, but many were killed or wounded in action. Egypt was defeated in the Sinai and essentially decided not to defend Port Said. It did, however, give guns to civilians in that area. Those who used their weapons were, of course, no match for trained British and French soldiers. The British and French seaborne invaders took measures to minimize casualties of the landing operation, but many Egyptians living on the coast lost their homes. A number of foreigners living in Egypt lost what they possessed because their properties were seized and they were forced to leave. Some British and French were imprisoned.

Probably the main innocents to suffer were the Jews Jews;in Arab nations[Arab nations] and Greeks in Egypt. Essentially, Egyptians previously had distinguished between the Zionists who founded Israel and Jewish worshipers. There was no tradition of anti-Semitism in much of the Arab-Muslim world, such as there had been in Eastern and Western Europe. This affair, particularly the association of Israel with France, changed attitudes. Not only Egyptian Jews but also other Jews in the North African Arab countries bore the brunt of the anti-Jewish sentiment to which these events gave rise.

The surge of antiforeign sentiment also affected the Greeks. Egypt had harbored Greek populations for some time, but the Greeks never integrated into Egyptian society and tended to be better off than the Egyptians, leading to ill will against Greeks. Greece did what it could to be on the right side of this affair. When other pilots left at the instigation of the Suez Canal Company, Greece persuaded its nationals who were canal pilots to stay. These few people were an important element in making it possible for Egypt to keep the canal going until more pilots could be recruited. This did not save Egypt’s Greeks. Laws were passed that required Egyptian majority ownership of businesses in which foreigners were involved. Having seen wholesale nationalizations, Greeks began to take out of the country what property they could, and many eventually left Egypt themselves.


The circumstances recounted in this essay are the most direct outcomes of the events of the Suez Canal crisis. The Jews who left North Africa often had to go as unwilling immigrants to Israel. Under the concept of the return, all Jews are welcome to Israel. The saga of the absorption of the Sephardic or Oriental Jews by Israel, however, and the problems that such peoples have encountered in an Israel dominated by Jewish populations from Europe has not been one of the happier chapters in the short history of Israel.

Europe, for its part, lost much of the oil coming through the canal by tanker and, when the military action started, a pipeline bringing oil to the Mediterranean was cut. It was a cold winter in Europe that year. Despite efforts by the United States and other countries to make up the shortfall, a number of Europeans working in industries fired by oil were unemployed during this time and people suffered from the cold.

The Suez Canal crisis may also have been one of the events that ultimately caused the end of the already dying colonialism and the attitudes represented thereby. The British government fell as an outcome of this affair. The French government did not, but ultimately France did reconcile itself to granting independence from control to Vietnam and Algeria. The United States, despite its role in the SCUA, was widely credited with halting the invasion and enjoyed a reception in Arab lands, for a while, that belied its close association with Israel. The United States soon dissipated this goodwill by trying to turn its popularity into a device for lining up Arab nations in the fight against the Soviet Union and communism. The Arab nations, by and large, did not see the threat in the same way as the United States did and most were reluctant to sign up on the U.S. team.

One of Nasser’s sins, in the eyes of the United States, was his role as a major leader in the so-called nonaligned movement, which United States leaders at that time regarded as misguided and even immoral. By the next U.S. administration, being a neutralist developing nation no longer was a cardinal sin.

In retrospect, it is possible to say that Suez should never have happened. To explain what seemed like a wild venture, some analysts have resorted to using the fact of British prime minister Eden’s ill health during this period. It is impossible to predict what would have occurred if events had been different, but the great fault of Suez seems to be that it happened at all. Some contend that Suez made the Soviet suppression of the Hungarian revolt more feasible. Whatever the merits of this argument, Suez certainly reduced the credibility of the West in its attempt to portray Hungary’s situation as a massive suppression of human rights reflective of the ways of an “evil empire.” Suez Canal crisis (1956)
Nationalization of land and industries;Egypt
Canals and waterways, artificial

Further Reading

  • Adams, Michael. Suez and After: Year of Crisis. Boston: Beacon Press, 1958. A British reporter’s account of this time in the Middle East, part of it reported from Egypt. While not systematic in coverage, it does address a number of issues that tend to be overlooked in more formal studies of these times. He is sympathetic to the Arab side.
  • “An Affair to Remember.” The Economist, July 27, 2006. Argues that Nasser’s speech announcing the seizure and nationalization of the Suez Canal forever altered politics in the Middle East, Europe, and the United States. Available at http://www.economist .com/world.
  • Calvocoressi, Peter. Suez Ten Years After. New York: Pantheon Books, 1966. Based on ten British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) programs that drew on the memories of participants in the Suez Canal crisis and on the expertise of persons who had studied the event, this book is one of the best sources of information on the major facets of the affair.
  • Karabell, Zachary. Parting the Desert: The Creation of the Suez Canal. New York: Knopf, 2003. A history of the Suez Canal for readers needing background on the canal, which opened in 1869, and its construction and operation.
  • Louis, William R., and Roger Owen, eds. Suez 1956: The Crisis and Its Consequences. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1989. A scholarly work resulting from a collaborative effort between the University of Oxford in England and the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, D.C., this book contains chapters on many aspects of the crisis. A good source for those who want to better understand the lessons of Suez.
  • Pearson, Jonathan. Sir Anthony Eden and the Suez Crisis: Reluctant Gamble. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003. Tells the story of how British prime minister Anthony Eden “gambled” in deciding to attack Egypt during the Suez Canal crisis in 1956.
  • Robertson, Terence. Crisis: The Inside Story of the Suez Conspiracy. New York: Atheneum, 1965. A detailed recounting of the Suez Canal crisis, this work includes sections on the tripartite conspiracy and the role of the United Nations in bringing this adventure to a conclusion.
  • Takeyh, Ray. The Origins of the Eisenhower Doctrine: The U.S., Britain, and Nasser’s Egypt, 1953-1957. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000. An updated study of the political climate surrounding the negotiations for and failure of the Aswan High Dam project for the United States and the United Kingdom.
  • Tal, David, ed. The 1956 War: Collusion and Rivalry in the Middle East. Portland, Oreg.: Frank Cass, 2001. A recommended study of the 1956 crisis over the Suez Canal and its political outfall.
  • Thomas, Hugh. Suez. New York: Harper & Row, 1967. A well-documented, opinionated, and detailed critical review of the Suez Canal crisis. A day-by-day recounting of the events that made up the Suez Canal story.
  • Troen, Selwin Ilan, and Moshe Shemesh, eds. The Suez-Sinai Crisis, 1956: Retrospective and Reappraisal. New York: Columbia University Press, 1990. This edited work on the Suez Canal crisis, while fundamentally academic in nature, includes chapters by authors who were practitioners at the time of the affair. Subjectively, rather than chronologically, organized. This is a basic source for reviewing certain facets of the crisis and its aftermath.

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