In normal circumstances the opening of a canal wouldn’t be that much of a news story. But in Egypt in 1957 the circumstances were anything but normal: the aftermath of a war had caused the canal in question to be blocked. The canal in question was, moreover, not just any old canal, but one of the world’s busiest and most important waterways: the Suez Canal, linking, since 1869, the Mediterranean and Red Seas, and thus reducing shipping time immeasurably, since hitherto boats and other vessels had had to go round the Cape of Good Hope in order to travel from Europe to Asia.
Egypt had just emerged (sort of) victorious from the 1956 Suez War, in which a transparently aggressive co-ordinated military attack from Israeli, British and French forces was brought to a halt by the combined diplomatic (and economic) pressure from the United States and the Soviet Union. It was a very clumsy, not to mention ill-advised, British and French way of getting back at Egypt’s dictator Gamal Abdel Nasser for nationalizing the Suez Canal – even though French and British workers still in the Canal Zone after nationalization had not been harmed or molested in any way, and the Egyptian government had on several occasions offered to compensate the Canal company’s previous shareholders.
The war that broke out in October 1956 started with an Israeli invasion of the Sinai peninsula, and then the landing of British and French paratroops and amphibious forces in the Canal Zone, ostensibly to keep the Egyptian and Israeli forces apart. It was a transparent fraud that few people around the world bought even for a minute, and the reckoning was almost immediate, with US President Eisenhower refusing to buy sterling – and thus guaranteeing a falling value in the pound – unless hostilities were halted. Meanwhile, although the Egyptians militarily had been defeated by the combined attacks, they did succeed in harming their assailants economically by blocking the Canal in the first week of November 1956.
As has already been mentioned in Harold Rex, the biggest political casualty of Suez was the British Prime Minister, Sir Anthony Eden. It was an international humiliation that you would have thought would bring most errant nations to their knees, but Eden’s replacement, Harold Macmillan, had been as gung-ho for war as Eden himself had been, and despite the need after the war to ration fuel the Conservative government as a whole didn’t suffer particularly politically from the disaster. What’s more, it was thought by many critics of the British Establishment that another considerable casualty of Suez was the myth of Britain’s international power and prestige, as the writer Stephen Haseler explains in his 2012 book The Grand Delusion:
British leaders seemed to learn lessons from the Suez humiliation. The country’s leadership continued to seek a “world role” through the junior partnership. But never again – in the half century since the invasion – has Britain taken a foreign-policy action in express opposition to Washington. Joe Garner, a permanent under-secretary at the Commonwealth Office, reflecting later on the Suez affair, spoke for many when he argued that ‘I think Suez, more than anything, punctured the Great Power illusion once and for all.’ Anthony Nutting, one of two Tory ministers who resigned over the crisis, entitled his book on the crisis “No End of a Lesson”.
Yet was it? Or was it to be, in the other meaning of Nutting’s clever double entendre, no lesson learnt? Had Britain’s political class still learnt nothing about its real place in the world?
It’s a fair question, and – in a time in which we’ve had to endure the Iraq War and the ongoing Brexit Debacle – an urgent one for so many of us.
Meanwhile, as the Suez Canal was being unblocked exactly sixty years ago, ordinary people in Egypt were the first to feel the effects of Nasser’s triumphalism. Taking full advantage of his country’s diplomatic triumph, Nasser ordered the suspension of all civil liberties, giving his police powers to arrest without charge, and giving the state the right to deny citizenship to anyone it chose – with Egypt’s Jewish population suffering most from this action. Around 1,000 Jews were arrested under the new laws, many Jewish bank accounts were seized, and some 25,000 Jews were forced to leave the country, being allowed to take with them only a fraction of their possessions. It’s yet more proof, if ever it were needed, that most of the suffering caused by Great Powers and aspiring world leaders playing war games is felt only by innocent people who never mean anyone any harm.