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Last Updated: Friday, 21 July 2006, 10:01 GMT 11:01 UK
Suez Crisis: Key players
The Suez Crisis began on 26 July 1956 when Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalised the Suez Canal.

The move was in response to a decision by the United States and Britain to withdraw finance for the Aswan High Dam - a massive project to bring water to the Nile valley and electricity to develop Egypt's industry - because of Egypt's political and military ties to the Soviet Union.


Gamal Abdel Nasser, a military man, was elected president of Egypt in 1956 after serving as Egypt's prime minister for two years.

Gamal Abdul Nasser
Nasser became a hero throughout the Arab world
Previously, he had been the leader of the Free Officers Organisation - a group of soldiers who seized power in Egypt by toppling the British-backed monarchy and turning the country into a republic.

It soon became clear that Colonel Nasser had broader goals than simple control in Egypt. He strove to put himself on top of the Arab nationalist movement that was gaining pace throughout the Arab world.

During his first years in office, he played Western and Soviet powers off against each other to gain concessions for his country.

In October 1955, Nasser signed a major arms deal with Czechoslovakia that threatened Israel's military superiority.

Soviet strategy changes

Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev had also agreed to provide Nasser with more arms, marking a shift in Soviet policy. Stalin had never been interested in providing nationalists who were not Communists with arms. In his memoirs, Khrushchev says that at first, Nasser came across as a bourgeois Latin-American style dictator.

The Czech arms deal angered the West and by way of punishment, Britain and the US withdrew an offer of financial aid to finance the building of the Aswan High Dam.

The Egyptian president retaliated by taking control of the Suez Canal zone - the crucial shipping lane linking the Mediterranean to the Red Sea - away from the British and French companies which owned it.

Apart from finding an alternative way to fund the dam project, Nasser was keen to assert Egyptian independence.

At the same time, as part of his ongoing struggle with Israel, Egyptian forces had blocked the Straits of Tiran, the narrow waterway that is Israel's only outlet to the Red Sea.

The Suez move was popular both at home and throughout the Arab world.

An electrifying speaker, Nasser was already admired by Arab nationalists. He had fought in the 1948 war with Israel and had demanded that the British leave bases and troops stationed in the Canal Zone. The Suez Crisis helped elevate him to hero status in the Arab world.

Although Nasser was not banning freedom of passage through the canal - except for Israeli ships or foreign ships bound for Israel - he knew his move would provoke a strong reaction from the West. He was undeterred.

Today, when many Arabs feel humiliated by Israel and the American superpower, there is a certain nostalgia for Nasserism.

But to his critics, Nasser led the Arabs down a cul-de-sac by aligning Egypt with the Soviet Union. After the Suez crisis, the Soviets eagerly rushed in to provide the aid for the Aswan Dam that Egypt needed.

Relying on Soviet aid, he built up a monolithic state-run economy - which his successors have ever since been struggling to demolish.


Between the two world wars, Anthony Eden was the golden boy of British politics. He was charming, suave and handsome.

Anthony Eden
Eden developed a personal animosity towards Nasser, comparing him with Mussolini and Hitler

He first entered Parliament in 1923. He became Foreign Secretary in 1935 but resigned three years later in protest at what he saw as Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain's policy of appeasement.

He returned to the cabinet under Churchill's war leadership. When the Conservatives were elected in 1951, he became Churchill's foreign secretary again. He succeeded Churchill in 1955 and was a popular prime minister at first.

A year later, he made what many consider a blunder, by embroiling Britain in a dangerous and costly adventure with France in the Suez Canal.

The short-lived war came to an end when Eden finally lost the support of his cabinet and caved in to US pressure to accept a ceasefire.

British military prestige in the Middle East was destroyed in a matter of weeks.

The crisis also took a huge toll on his reputation for statesmanship and ultimately led to a breakdown in his health.

He resigned in 1957, but remained popular on a personal level. He was made Earl of Avon in 1961.


A former English teacher and wartime resistance fighter, Guy Mollet rose within the ranks of the Socialist Party after World War II. He served in various governments in the late 1940s and early 1950s, becoming prime minister at the head of a left-of-centre, anti-communist coalition in January 1956.

He wanted to concentrate on domestic issues, but was soon confronted with a major foreign policy crisis.

The Algerian War - which was in full swing at the time - also played a key role in his determination to strike back
Nasser's nationalisation of the Suez canal provoked deep anger in France where it was regarded not just as a breach of international law, but also as a direct attack on the country's prestige and economic interests.

The "Compagnie de Suez" was French. It had built the canal in the 1860s and had acquired a 99-year concession to operate it. As Mollet saw it, nationalising the company was an act of warfare.

Mollet was the main driving force behind the Suez expedition - much more so than the British.

The Algerian War - which was in full swing at the time - also played a key role in his determination to strike back.

Mollet, like most left-wing leaders in France, had long opposed colonialism in Africa. However he insisted on a ceasefire as a precondition for any negotiations with Algerian nationalists.

Guy Mollet and Sir Anthony Eden, October 1956, Paris
The French and British prime ministers were very close
As prime minister, he became determined to crush the rebellion. This put him on a collision course with Nasser as a pan-Arab nationalist who actively supported Algeria's National Liberation Front.

Mollet saw Nasser as an "Arab Fuehrer", bent on a policy of ethnic supremacy and elimination of the Jews.

In March 1956, after reading Nasser's new book, Mollet told Eden that "Nasser's whole policy is contained in this book, in the same way that Hitler's was contained in Mein Kampf."

Allowing Nasser's action to go unpunished, he repeatedly argued in his discussions with Eden, would amount to repeating the fatal mistake made by democracies at the 1938 Munich conference.


Mollet also regarded Israel as a beacon of hope for the moderate left, a model of egalitarian, democratic socialism that stood in opposition to the USSR.

Mollet and Eden enjoyed a good relationship. The British Prime Minister said of Mollet afterwards: "I have never enjoyed more completely loyal understanding with any man".

In order to overcome British reservations, Mollet agreed to leave the overall command of military operations in Suez to the British. But the French PM grew impatient what he saw as London's foot-dragging and in October decided to involve Israel to speed things up.

Mollet expressed regret after the debacle, but mostly because of the pain and damage done to Eden.


Dwight Eisenhower was elected US president in 1952. All the early signs indicated a reversal of the friendly attitude to Israel that the administration of Harry Truman had fostered and an attempt to strengthen the US role in the Arab world.

Dwight Eisenhower
Eisenhower was horrified by the prospect of military action
Eisenhower was horrified by the prospect of military action sparked by the nationalisation of the Suez Canal.

Not only did he had an election to fight in the next few months, but he did not want the West to lose influence in the Middle East. The Soviet Union was already making inroads in Egypt and during the crisis, Nikita Khrushchev was calling for a peaceful solution and respect for international law.

Eisenhower also did not see Nasser as a major threat to oil supplies of ships in the canal.

He believed that France and Britain were wrong on a matter of principle and strategy - military action by one or two European nations without substantial world backing would not achieve a stable settlement, he argued.

Eisenhower also recognised that military action might rally support for Nasser across the Middle East, recognising that the seizure of the canal was not only popular with Egyptians but with other Arab peoples.

US wanted UN solution

Although Anthony Eden tried to persuade Eisenhower that lack of military action would be disastrous, Eisenhower wanted a peaceful solution. He thought it would be better to let the United Nations sort the problem out.

War is not acceptable just "to protect national or individual investors". There can be no question of the "legal rights of sovereign nations being ruthlessly flouted", Eisenhower wrote in a letter to Eden.

Eisenhower's Secretary of State John Foster Dulles was dispatched to defuse the crisis on terms acceptable to Britain and France through public statements, negotiations, conferences and deliberations with the UN.

Finally, Eisenhower used a variety of political and economic levers to compel France, Britain and Israel to desist.

After Suez, the United States became the major Western power in the Middle East. The Eisenhower Doctrine of 1957 declared that the United States would distribute economic and military aid and, if necessary, use military force to stop the spread of communism in the Middle East.


For the Israelis, the Suez Campaign enshrined General Moshe Dayan as a hero-tactician.

Moshe Dayan
The Sinai Campaign enshrined Dayan as a hero for Israelis
The war had been preceded by several difficult years of guerrilla attacks along Israel's border - to which Israel had, on some occasions, reacted with harsh retaliatory attacks in both the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, under Egyptian and Jordanian control respectively.

Dayan, chief-of-staff of the Israel Defence Forces, became a chief proponent of the policy of hard-hitting retaliation in response to infiltration across Israel's borders from the neighbouring Arab states. A reputation for ferocity, he believed, would act as a deterrent.

Like David Ben-Gurion, who assumed the premiership in 1955, General Dayan recognised that Israel's basic security was affected by the 1955 arms deal with Czechoslovakia. The number of Egyptian troops deployed in Sinai along the Israeli border increased in 1956, Egypt nationalised the Suez Canal and then closed the Straits of Tiran, at the southern tip of Sinai, to blockade Israeli shipping.

Dayan wanted a preventive war with Egypt and eventually managed to persuade Ben-Gurion that a military campaign in the Sinai peninsula was the answer.

Lure to Egypt

He did not advocate a pre-emptive strike, so that Israel would not appear as an aggressor. Rather, his strategy was to use massive military reprisals in order to provoke Egypt into a war that he believed it was not ready for.

He came up with a scheme by which a large-scale reprisal raid in the Sinai was launched, with the British and French following soon after.

Under his command, Israeli troops swept through Egyptian positions to occupy the Sinai Peninsula and the Gaza Strip within six days - an area three times the size of Israel. The Egyptian army was defeated.

IDF losses in the campaign were 171 dead, several hundred wounded, and four Israelis taken prisoner. Egyptian losses were estimated at several thousand dead and wounded, while 6,000 prisoners were taken.

A few months later, Israeli troops were forced under pressure from the UN and US to withdraw from the Sinai and the Gaza Strip after a few months.

Despite this, the campaign was seen as an enormous success as it enhanced Israel's standing as a military power. The presence of UN troops also afforded Israel a modicum of increased security - the decade after the war was the most tranquil period in the nation's history.

It also obtained guarantees from the US that the international waterways would remain open to Israeli shipping, and a UN force was stationed in the Sinai.


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