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The Suez War of 1956

The Suez War of 1956 was such a conflict; it was short, but it was bittersweet. The confluence of forces inevitably focused on the Suez when it wasn’t exactly the issue- it was simply the key geographical element in the story. More serious matters were behind the Suez War; there was the growing and divisive Cold War, there was the Arab-Israeli conflict and there was the play of nationalism among countries who were just beginning to come into their own as nation-states.

All these were swirling in the mix of emerging alliances, growing tensions from ideological differences and economic interests. The Suez War of 1956 Introduction The nature of large-scale conflicts is that the cause is often attributed to numerous factors and varying elements. The confluence of these forces inevitably ends in either a peaceful (if not expectedly strained) resolution or confrontation, or a violent one. It all depends fundamentally on how the participants respond and the course of action they take on the issue.

The Suez War of 1956 was such a conflict; it was short, but it was bittersweet. The confluence of forces inevitably focused on the Suez when it wasn’t exactly the issue- it was simply the key geographical element in the story. More serious matters were behind the Suez War; there was the growing and divisive Cold War, there was the Arab-Israeli conflict and there was the play of nationalism among countries who were just beginning to come into their own as nation-states (HLS, 2007).

All these were swirling in the mix of emerging alliances, growing tensions from ideological differences and economic interests. Egypt, one of the key players and the instigator of the conflict was flexing its muscles and exploring its new role as a fully independent country. It stepped into a new global divide where one had to choose between being a friend of the Communist Bloc or the West. But choosing sides wasn’t simple. Economic interests, rather than ideology pandered to the desire of the Soviets or the Americans and the British to get allies on their sides in pursuit of strategic goals.

In this context, perception, rather than clear and concrete fact often determined the course of action. When Egypt was looking for foreign capital to fund the huge Aswan Dam project, perceptions and suppositions that it was being far too friendly with the Soviets, prompted the United States to cancel millions of dollars in funding that had already been promised for the project. Seizing the opportunity, the Soviets came to Egypt’s aid, further heightening the tensions. The situation with Israel wasn’t helping either.

Its successful defense of its borders during the Arab-Israeli conflict was far from over; the enmity was deep and the Arabs weren’t about to let Israel get away with it. They were simply biding time until the right moment came and the moment presented itself when the Suez Canal became the focal point, if not the catalyst that set everything into motion (Fraser, 2004). Importance of the Suez Canal. The point of contention was opened in 1869 with the help of the French. It is 171 km (106 miles) long and connects the Mediterranean at Port Said with the Red Sea.

It was strategically important to Britain because it was its link to the bulk of its overseas empire, but they knew that its importance lay far beyond their own interests and so they made the necessary steps to ensure that they would hold onto it as long as they called. Operated by an Egyptian-chartered company, the British under Disraeli bought out the company’s Egyptian shares and together with the French took partial control of the canal’s operations. But they weren’t satisfied with that- during their 1882 invasion of Egypt itself, they took total control of the canal.

This control, albeit balanced with a treaty allowing international ships to pass through it became an important leverage for the British as the world entered the 20th century. During the Russo-Japanese War, the British in agreement with the Japanese allowed them to launch a successful strategic attack against a Russian fleet using the canal. During World War I, the canal again was the ace up the British and French sleeves as they barred non-allied ships from passing through it. During WWII allied forces struggled to keep it from falling into the hands of the Axis powers as the war breached North Africa (Derek, 2003).

But the end of the war saw changing global currents. British hold over its colonies was waning and the significance of the canal was becoming increasingly focused on oil which was shared by numerous other European countries (Barry, 2007). To compound an already volatile situation, the withdrawal of the British from Palestine in 1948 precipitated the Arab-Israeli conflict in which a humiliated Egypt (its armies defeated in El Arish in the Sinai and with the possibility of even being offered aid by the British) retaliated by rejecting a peace manifesto brokered by the United Nations and prohibiting Israeli ships from using the canal.

Another significant factor was the changing political landscape in Egypt itself. Friendly to the British, King Farouk soon found himself deposed amidst a growing anti-European sentiment as Egypt was finding its own nationalist goals more in keeping with an emerging Arab identity in the region, galvanized in part because of a common enemy- Israel. The instigators of the shake-up, Mohammed Neguib and Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser eventually had a power play of their own and in November of 1954, Nasser became president of Egypt.

Almost immediately, the new president came under Western scrutiny not so much that he had made his position clear on the fact that he was in favor of taking back Palestine from the Jews, but that he had taken on a far different leadership tack, one that alarmed the British; quite ominously, he was vocal about reminding Britain that they no longer had the right to post soldiers at the Suez Canal, with the provision allowing that fact, having already expired.

He was also relentless against Israel and had Egyptian intelligence train the fedayeen to engage in hostile action on the border with Israel as well as making daring inland incursions for sabotage missions (Fraser, 2004).

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