How significant was the Suez Crisis?

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tags: britain, Egypt, Eisenhower, Suez Canal Crisis, Gamal Abdel Nasser, Anthony Eden



This October marks the 60th anniversary of the infamous Suez Canal Crisis, which played out on the world stage over the latter months of 1956. An important moment in post-war British history, ‘Suez’ (as it has become known) still conjures up powerful images of national decline, ministerial incompetence and global humiliation six decades later. The crisis formally began on 29 October 1956, when Britain (in alliance with France and Israel) invaded its former colony Egypt.

The objectives of the intervention were clear: to seize back ownership of the Suez Canal – that vital strategic asset and great symbol of empire – after its abrupt nationalisation by Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser three months earlier. The expectation in taking back the canal was that the troublesome Nasser would be deposed as a result. Reclaiming ownership of the canal became something of an obsession for British prime minister Anthony Eden, spurred on by immense domestic pressure and media reports that likened the situation to the failed appeasement of Hitler at Munich in 1938.

The intervention was planned and executed with precision, as Britain and her allies quickly seized control of Suez, Gaza and parts of the Sinai with minimal losses. However, for as much as the operation was a success in military terms, it was a disaster politically. World opinion roundly condemned the three nations for their aggression and lack of respect for Egyptian sovereignty. Fury and outrage erupted across the Islamic world at Britain’s perceived neo-colonial behaviour. Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev even threatened to rain down nuclear missiles on Western Europe in retaliation. Crucially, the United States – who Eden and his chancellor Harold Macmillan had fatally miscalculated would permit the invasion – was also staunchly opposed, and President Eisenhower exerted significant financial pressure to force a withdrawal.




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