Headlines, Middle East & North Africa

MIDDLE EAST: Britain’s End Of Empire Shame At Suez

John Roberts

EDINBURGH, Nov 4 1996 (IPS) - Forty years ago on Nov. 6, one of world history’s most shameless secret international plots, the Anglo- French attempt to seize the Suez Canal, ended in disaster and humiliation for its European protagonists.

For Britain the day marks the moment when the Empire died, even though to all intents and purposes its days were literally numbered; India had been free for nine years and a timetable had already been set for the ‘Gold Coast’ to become the first British colony in Africa to gain independence.

And it was not the last colonial war which British troops would wage — and not the last which British troops would lose.

But while France was barely troubled by the shameless fiasco, and simply got on with its life, in Britain the episode struck a resonant blow. It brought home to ordinary Britons the reality of the end of empire and of the United Kingdom’s dependence on the United States for financial, as well as military support.

In the Middle East, it cost Britain its reputation, the price of its collusion with Israel in a military venture that was supposed to be about peacekeeping and the righting of commercial wrongs, but which served as a cloak for an Israeli assault on Egypt.

And it cemented Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser’s reputation and destroyed that of British prime minister Sir Anthony Eden, the archetypal English diplomat-politician, brought down when he sought to wage war against a man he characterised as another Mussolini.

In 1956, Britain still looked as if it possessed an empire; and it is against the background of such perceptions that the Suez Crisis was judged at the time. It was the physical ruler of territories on every continent and there was an assumption that this meant it could draw on the resources of all those territories.

In the Middle East, it was involved in an intricate network of alliances that involved extensive political and military support for a cluster of monarchies — in Iraq, Jordan and Libya — established or bolstered by British politicians and diplomats.

But in Nasser, Britain faced an altogether different kind of challenge.

When Nasser nationalised the Suez Canal on Jul. 26, 1956, Eden still viewed Britain as a world power, albeit one that had to operate on increasingly limited resources. He saw the Suez Canal as a vital link with Britain’s possessions in the Far East — notably Malaya, where Britain was fighting independence forces — and its oil generating protectorates in Arabia itself, from Yemen and Oman all the way up the Gulf to Kuwait.

Roughly a quarter of all British imports came through the canal, whilst one ship in three transitting the waterway was British.

But Nasser wanted to make Egypt the hub of the Arab world, and that required revitalisation of the Egyptian economy.

In July Britain and the U.S. had withdrawn support for the building of a dam at Aswan to control the Nile’s annual flood and denied permission to the World Bank to offer funds — the first time that western nations openly used aid as an instrument of policy.

This, in turn, was a massive affront to Nasser. Even in conception, the High Dam was the most potent symbol of the new Egypt, greater than the arms deal whereby Nasser secured Soviet weaponry via Czechoslovakia a year earlier.

To the West, the Czech arms deal had placed Nasser in the camp of the enemy, even though, together with India’s Jahawarhal Nehru and Indonesia’s Sukarno, he had led moves to find a neutral alternative to either the Western or Soviet military alliances.

Britain and France reacted angrily. But while London and Paris immediately began thinking in military terms, the U.S. counselled caution. Ignoring Washington, over the next several months, Britain and France built up their forces.

The French began holding serious talks with Israel about the possibility of coordinated military action. As the crisis deepened, Jordan, fearing an attack by Israel, looked to Iraq to help bolster its defences.

With hindsight, and in the context of imperial twilight, it is at possible to understand why Britain and France considered the military option. But it remains impossible to justify what actually happened.

On Oct. 22, Israeli prime minister David Ben Gurion, accompanied by his defence minister Moshe Dayan and then director-general of the Israeli defence ministry Shimon Peres, joined secret talks at a villa in the town of Sèvres with French foreign minister Christian Pineau and British Foreign Secretary Selwyn Lloyd.

There, Britain, France and Israel coordinated their plans. Israel was to attack Egypt and to move on the Suez Canal, which would then be seized by the Anglo-British forces on the pretence that they would be separating warring Israeli and Egyptian combatants.

Israel duly attacked on Oct. 29, its ground forces seizing the main border posts. Eden, in a formal ultimatum delivered to the Israeli and Egyptian governments, demanded the “withdrawal” of Israeli and Egyptian forces to positions 10 miles from the canal on either side of the waterway. As it turned out the Israelis steered well clear of the canal, never getting closer than the Mitla Pass, 30 miles away.

British and French airborne forces landed on Nov. 5 and ground forces followed up on Nov. 6, landing from the sea to begin an advance along the canal from Port Said at the Mediterranean end south to Suez.

But Eden had not counted on the furious wrath of U.S. president Dwight D. Eisenhower, at that precise moment fighting reelection.

By the end of Nov. 6, with the key objective of full control of the Canal still unsecured, Britain and France unexpectedly accepted U.N. demands for a ceasefire and agreed in principle to withdraw.

The pressure was graphic. From the moment Britain and France had first delivered their ultimatum to Israel and Egypt to ceasefire on Oct. 30, there had been heavy selling of sterling on the world money markets. The U.S. then effectively pulled the plug on Britain when it opposed its request to withdraw capital from the International Monetary Fund.

Eden, his Chancellor of the Exchequer Harold Macmillan and other senior ministers came to the conclusion that on financial grounds they had to stop the operation.

In sum, Britain was not the economically independent country its leaders had presumed it to be when the operation was launched. It was the price Britain paid for ignoring clear warnings that any military operations should be deferred until it suited Washington.

This was one lesson that no British government has ever forgotten.

Eden — propped up by amphetamines and utterly wrecked — was dispatched to Jamaica for a holiday at Ian Fleming’s villa Goldeneye. (He finally resigned as premier on Jan. 9, 1957, bringing in a new prime minister, Harold Macmillan, who saw a need for Britain to find a new role through partnership in Europe.)

On Nov. 7 the U.N. approved the creation and dispatch of its first modern peacekeeping force, to supervise withdrawal of British, French and Israeli forces, the first troops arriving within eight days.

In the few hours of real fighting seen in November Nasser’s soldiers were largely routed, but in political terms he was triumphant.

Thanks to Canadian diplomacy, a formula was reached for the evacuation, not only of the Anglo-French forces, but of Israeli occupation forces in Sinai.

The Canal was re-opened, and under Egyptian control to boot. The Russians proceeded to finance the Aswan Dam and, with Nasser triumphant, his vision of revolutionary socialism helped trigger the bloody coup in Iraq that overthrew the pro-British monarchy in 1958, and nearly toppled King Hussein from his throne in Jordan.

And the closing chapter on this immoral and impractical act of folly? On Mar. 29, 1956, Egypt reopened the canal and have efficiently managed it ever since, dismissing the British and French myth that only European pilots could navigate it.

And, although blocked by war from 1967 to 1974, it has since been widened and, in Egypt’s own hands and with Egyptian pilots, it continues to serve as a major artery for world trade.

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