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Last Updated: Friday, 21 July 2006, 12:07 GMT 13:07 UK
The day Nasser nationalised the canal
Ezzat Adel credit Khaled Desouki AFP/Getty
Ezzat Adel rose to become head of the Suez Canal Authority
"It's a long story..." former head of the Suez Canal Authority Ezzat Adel pauses briefly to reflect on the day 50 years ago when Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser announced he was nationalising the waterway.

"Of course it is a very important date, not to us as ex-Suez Canal people, but to the whole of Egypt's population.

"It represents a very important idea which is that the Egyptians were not thought able to run this international waterway and we proved the contrary."

Trained as an engineer, Mr Adel, now 84, was one of just 30 men entrusted with the president's plans for taking control of the 192km (120 mile) trading route.

As deputy to the head of the petroleum authority he was attending the inauguration of a new oil pipeline with his then boss Colonel Mahmoud Younes and President Nasser.

It was, I think, one of the most critical periods in my life
Ezzat Adel
"We noticed that he (the president) whispered to Colonel Mahmoud Younes...and we noticed also that Colonel Younes disappeared from the office giving no reason for his disappearance and he returned absent minded.

"On the second day, the 24 July, he also disappeared once more without saying where he was going and what he was doing and he returned after almost one hour and he called me and one of my colleagues to his office and to our astonishment he locked the door."

When he first heard what the president had in store Mr Adel said his reaction was one of fear - not for his own safety - but the fear of not succeeding.

"We were told that President Nasser will declare the nationalisation during his speech in Alexandria on the 26 July, we are on the 24 July, almost 50 hours to plan. It was, I think, one of the most critical periods in my life."

He knew so little about the canal, he did not even know the whereabouts of the company headquarters or who was in charge, nor did he really understand what was meant by "nationalisation".

De Lesseps

Armed with just a pamphlet of information about the canal, he was instructed to go with a small group of men to Ismailia and take control of the headquarters of the Suez Canal company.

I was in Cairo at the time, a child of just 7 years old
Chris Hillman, Thropton, Northumberland

Two further groups were to go to other offices - all three were to wait until they heard the codeword "de Lesseps" in Nasser's speech. De Lesseps was the man who headed the French company which built the canal.

"I remember that we had the radio on ...and I remember that he (President Nasser) doubted that we heard this password so he repeated it two or three times.

"We entered the offices in Ismailia at around 7pm and there was no staff in the offices, except the nightshift. We called the senior staff, foreigners of course because there was no Egyptian in the decision-making level...and they were taken by surprise."

Experienced pilots

Even some government ministers had been kept in the dark. Keeping the mission such a closely guarded secret, was, he claims, the reason they succeeded.

"The first thing to do was to inform (the staff) that 'we guarantee your safety, your family's safety and we also guarantee all your salaries, premiums and everything and we moreover request you to continue working for the Suez Canal, nobody will be fired'.

"Everything went smoothly for a period of time, less than two weeks...until we noticed that some of the employees that were on summer holidays did not return. Some foreigners, also staff, are selling their cars, their furniture, so we anticipated that there is a move to leave the Egyptians alone to run the Suez Canal."

The Suez Canal connecting Port Said with the Gulf of Suez, circa 1956
Suez Canal opened to traffic in November 1869
It was built by Frenchman Ferdinand de Lesseps using Egyptian forced labour; an estimated 120,000 workers died during construction
It stretches 192km (120 miles) between the Mediterranean and the Red Sea
It is 300m (984ft) wide at its narrowest point
By 1955 approximately two-thirds of Europe's oil passed through the canal
The waterway closed 1967 due to the Six Day War, reopened 1975
About 7.5% of world sea trade is carried via the canal today
Receipts from the canal July 2005 to May 2006 totalled $3,246m
In 2005, 18,193 vessels passed through the canal

As newly-appointed Under-Secretary General of the Suez Canal Authority, Mr Adel had to move fast. If the canal was to remain open, he needed experienced pilots to guide the ships through the narrow shipping lanes.

"Any other speciality can be filled to a certain extent," Mr Adel said, "but this (finding new pilots) will be the most delicate part."

But new pilots were found and trained and ultimately the nationalisation of the canal proved a success.

Mr Adel rose through the ranks of the Suez Canal Company to become Chairman in the mid-80s.

He has never doubted that Nasser was right to nationalise the canal.

"Egypt lost 120,000 people digging the Suez Canal by shovels and carrying cases of sand under almost slavery conditions, very little health care, very few wages. Against this very high sacrifice Egypt did not get a fair share of the profits of the Suez Canal...

"Egypt paid all the head shareholders of the Suez Canal company the full value of their shares in the money market in Paris the day before nationalisation so I didn't really feel myself that we are taking something for nothing and this is the reason why I didn't blame myself.

"I feel that the salt water of the Suez Canal is running (in my veins) and if I go back to what I should have done, I am relieved to say that I didn't save any effort since the nationalisation of the Suez Canal."

So what does he say to those who regard him as a national hero?

"I'm a single Egyptian that tried his best."

map of sinai area
1. 29 October: Israeli paratroopers dropped east of town of Suez
2. 30 October: More paratroopers dropped to the east of Mitla Pass. Troops begin crossing the border at Qussaima.
3. 31 October: British bombs dropped on Cairo and Cairo international airport
4. 2 November: Israeli paratroopers land near Al Tor, west of Sinai
5. 5 November: British paratroopers land west of Port Said. French paratroopers land south of Port Said
6. 5 November: Israelis capture Sharm el-Sheikh to lift blockade of Gulf of Aqaba.
7. 6 November: Anglo-French invasion force bombardment and landings
8. 7 November: Anglo-French forces claim to have occupied most of the Suez Canal zone as far as Ismailia, when UN orders a halt to fighting
21 November: First UN troops land at Port Said
23 November: British and French forces begin withdrawal from Egypt
22 December: Withdrawal completed at midnight

Egyptian president protests against 'colonialism'

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