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Suez Canal Crisis (1956)


Suez Canal

The Suez Canal is a man-made waterway in Egypt that connects the Mediterranean Sea with the Red Sea. It was completed in 1869 and took ten years to construct, with an initial length of approximately 164 kilometers (about 102 miles). After its completion, the Suez Canal was controlled by the Universal Suez Ship Canal Company. This private company, made up mainly of French investors, was granted rights to operate the canal for 99 years by the contemporary regional powers. In the following decades, the canal became a vital shipping route, providing a significant shortcut for ships sailing between Europe and Asia that would otherwise have to navigate around Africa’s Cape of Good Hope. 


Additional context:

  • The Suez Canal Crisis to the first armed deployment of a United Nations peacekeeping force (UNEF).[1]
  • The crisis was a diplomatic victory for Egypt and increased President Nasser's popularity both domestically and in the Arab world.
  • The Aswan Dam, central to the initial tensions, was later completed with Soviet support, strengthening Egypt's ties with the USSR.
  • The Eisenhower Doctrine, announced in 1957, was partly a response to the Suez Crisis, pledging U.S. support to Middle Eastern countries resisting communism.


Anglo-Egyptian Treaty of 1936

Despite Egypt’s unilateral declaration of independence in early 1922, Great Britain kept its troops and war material in the African country for another three decades. Nonetheless, one of the crucial milestones toward Egypt's actual independence was the Anglo-Egyptian Treaty, signed on 26th August 1936. This accord aimed to resolve the longstanding issue of the British military presence in Egypt, a matter of disagreement since the start of British occupation in 1882.


The Egyptian Revolution of 1952

The Egyptian Revolution of 1952 was a military coup carried out by the group called the “Free Officers Movement,” led by Muhammad Naguib and Gamal Abdel Nasser. It occurred on 23rd July 1952 and marked a pivotal moment in Egypt’s history. The revolution resulted in the monarchy's breakdown and King Farouk's dethroning. Subsequently, these events set the stage for the creation of the Republic of Egypt. Muhammad Naguib was proclaimed the first president of the country. However, due to political conflicts among higher ranks, Nasser removed Naguib from power and took rule over socialist Egypt in 1954. Consequently, the revolution helped to bolster a sense of Arab nationalism and sped up decolonization efforts in the region. 


Heads of Agreement

On 26th July 1954, the Republic of Egypt and Great Britain signed the Heads of Agreement, recognizing the Suez Canal’s economic, commercial, and strategic significance.[2] The document legally bound Great Britain to withdraw about 80,000 troops from the country within twenty months of the treaty's signing. In return, the Republic of Egypt promised to keep running the Suez Canal efficiently and allow the British to station their forces within Egypt during wartime. 


Arms deal of 1955

According to a declassified CIA document, the Egyptian government had sought to buy weapons and military equipment from the Soviet Union in 1951.[3] Nevertheless, negotiations brought little success at the start. It was only in late September 1955 that efforts finally produced results, and the Egyptian government announced the purchase of Czechoslovakian arms in exchange for goods such as rice and cotton. 


The crisis

Egypt’s decision to nationalize the Suez Canal on 26th July 1956 and impose a toll on passing ships to finance the development of the Aswan Dam quickly sparked a crisis in the region, prompting Great Britain, France, and Israel to secretly develop plans for an invasion of the Sinai Peninsula. On 29th October 1956, Israel launched a successful ground attack against Egypt, and just two days later, the British and French deployed their troops at Port Faud and Port Said. Allied nations advanced quickly, stopping only 16 kilometers (10 miles) away from the Suez Canal. The eruption of the conflict soured the relationship between Britain, France, and the United States, which was left uninformed about the plans for an attack. Furthermore, it raised tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union, which threatened to use nuclear weapons against Europe if attackers didn’t withdraw their forces. In response, Eisenhower's administration tried de-escalating the situation and threatened economic sanctions on the United Kingdom and France. Under these threats, the British and French withdrew their soldiers from Egypt by the end of December 1956. Israel completed its withdrawal by 8th March 1957, and the Suez Canal reopened that same month. 

  1. United Nations: UNEF I
  2. The United Kingdom Parliament: Heads of Agreement
  3. Central Intelligence Agency: CIA-RDP79T01049A001300060003-5
  4. The United States Office of the Historian: "The Suez Crisis, 1956"