July 26, 2006
The Lockless Monster: Suez Canal Crisis 50th Anniversary Note
On July 26, 1956, Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal Company, the operating company of the Suez Canal. Today's 50th anniversary of the lockless canal's main historical controversy may get lost due to all that noise currently going on over in the Levant. But the Suez Canal Crisis was pivotal for the modern Middle East/North African (MENA) region, climaxing in a war later that year that reoriented fundamental political perspectives and arrangements. By the Crisis's end, the old colonial powers were in full retreat, the superpowers of the US and USSR were the decisive big kids on the block, Israel and Egypt had lost any hope of near-term accomodation, and Nasser had become an area demigod by knowing how to lose on the ground but win in perception. And Ahmed Zaki later got an entire movie to play him, excellently made up as the Big Man by Lebanese makeup artist Marina.
Much can be said, and I hope some commenters seeking relief from the Israel- Lebanon splatter-fest, may say it.
I note some random trivialities in addition to the big picture, for MENA nerds of all ages.
1. The War which followed the Crisis later in the year can not be fully understood outside an appreciation of the suppression of the Hungarian Revolt by the USSR at the same time.
2. Nasser was probably within his rights, mostly -- the company was legally Egyptian, the territory of the Canal was also, compensation was promised and ultumately paid. Nationalization is normal and legal. The ships passed through normally after the takeover, the canal required less skilled piloting because it is lockless. (One can challenge the Egyptian blockage of the canal to Israeli ships, a likely international law violation, but that was done before the canal was nationalized.)
3. UK Prime Minister Anthony Eden was ill and on all kinds of medication. The firing of Glubb Pasha in Jordan, aided by Nasserist pressure, made him go a bit loony.
4. The USA played hardball with the European allies who attacked Egypt later on. Denied them emergency oil and allowed (if not deliberately caused) their currencies to go wobbly unless they evacuated Egypt.
5. US President Eisenhower did not view Nasser -- at that time -- as a fundamentally inimical or negative force, nor did he view Israeli motives as purely defensive.
6. In one discussion at the time in the State Department records, Eisenhower notes that he is surprised that the simultaenous Hungarian revolution did not cause more anti-Soviet feelings among the "neutral" nations allied with Nasser but then cites a statement by some unnamed Far Eastern leader who says that colonialism isn't colonialism unless it is white people doing something bad to colored people. That quote incidentally explains just about everything there is to know about anti-American, anti-Israeli obsessions and double standards in the thrid world. The rest is mere detail and raitonalization.
7. France and Israel were best buddies at the time; nothing surprising except to the usual idiots in the USA.
8. A proposal for a Suez Canal users association over the ensuing months to offset fears brought on by the nationalization had to have its name changed because its acronym CASCU meant "testicle" in Portugese.
9. A careful look at the 1946-1956 period suggeststhere was a subterranean UK v US conflict for control over the decisive say in MENA matters. The Suez Crisis was that conflict's bursting to the surface as well as the coming together of several others.
Posted by Matthew Hogan at July 26, 2006 01:31 AM
Filed Under: Political Development
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I am getting an increasingly favourable opinion of Eisenhower. Anyway:
France and Israel were best buddies at the time.
Can someone explain how and why this changed during the subsequent decades, maybe provide some links, and some sultry power politics analysis? I understand Chirac is better thought of in the Middle East than in France, wanker or not.
Posted by: Klaus at July 26, 2006 08:58 AM
"Can someone explain how and why this changed during the subsequent decades, maybe provide some links, and some sultry power politics analysis?"
France's departure from Algeria and de Gaul's subsequent policy of trying to kiss and make up with Arabs as a way of preserving France's influence lead to France's distancing itself from Israel. Immediately before the 67 war, Israel sent Abba Eban to Paris to ask for support, diplomatic or otherwise, in its pre-emptive attack on Egypt et. al. France refused and flatly told the Israelis not to attack.
France built Israel's nuclear reactor at Dimona which has enabled Israel to develop nuclear weapons, France conspired with Israel in the 56 gambit, and most of the weapons Israel used in 67 were French-made(especially fighters) or WWII surplus from the allies(especially tanks). After 67, however, the US became the major ally of Israel. It should be noted that before 67, the Americans weren't against Israel but neither were they explicitly for Israel, the region was viewed through lens of the broader Cold War in which the US was trying to court Arab countries into anti-Soviet stances such as the Baghdad Pact. Before the 67 war, Johnson told Eban much the same thing that de Gaul had said: don't attack, allow more time for diplomacy. After 67 and after it had become abundantly clear that the principle anti-Israeli Arab countries of Egypt, Syria, and Iraq were going to be firmly within the Soviet orbit, only then did the US throw its weight behind Israel. The US really saved Israel's ass in 73 by express shipping tons upon tons of desperately needed ammunition and other supplies to the IDF(for its now mostly American-made armaments). Without this resupply, the IDF would have had to conserve its ammo to such an extent that they might not have won.
I don't have any links on this really, I wrote this from memory from past research. Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East by Michael B. Oren is a good, readable, and extremely well researched book that deals with this issue. Some might argue it a tad biased towards Israel, Oren being Israeli and all(and having served as a paratrooper in the 82 war), but it should also be noted that he's routinely attacked by right-wing Israelis.
Posted by: Djuha at July 26, 2006 02:37 PM
I also found it very interesting that at the end of Nasser 56, it made absolutely no mention of American involvement on behalf of Egypt. If my memory serves me, it basically ends with people cheering Nasser after he decided to abandon the Sinai instead of losing his army there, then a freeze frame and a caption saying "And then the invaders were defeated and Nasser was victorious, The End."
Which needless to say is a bit of a non-sequitur. You only know how the invaders were defeated by knowing the actual history of it all. But really, such a slip is nothing compared to the twisting of history in American history-oriented films.
Highlighting this anniversary might have been a nice image boost for the US government were it not busy being retarded in Iraq and Lebanon that is.
Posted by: Djuha at July 26, 2006 02:54 PM
thanks, Djuha. It all makes sense now. Even the little girls with faces blown off.
Posted by: Klaus at July 26, 2006 06:57 PM
Can you elaborate on the following two points Matthew?
- The War which followed the Crisis later in the year can not be fully understood outside an appreciation of the suppression of the Hungarian Revolt by the USSR at the same time.
- One can challenge the Egyptian blockage of the canal to Israeli ships, a likely international law violation
Can you elaborate on the following two points Matthew?
"- The War which followed the Crisis later in the year can not be fully understood outside an appreciation of the suppression of the Hungarian Revolt by the USSR at the same time."
The suppression of the Hungarian revolution occurred on the same days as Suez. To a certain extent Eisenhower did not want pro-Soviet feeling, or anti-Western feeling, to abound when he felt one could focus on the evils of the Soviet Union. He felt that Britain and France were endangering the Western position and therefore more urgently wanted their intervention to stop.
" One can challenge the Egyptian blockage of the canal to Israeli ships, a likely international law violation"
Egypt did not allow Israeli ships to pass through the canal despite the original canal's convention guaranteeing its neutrality. (Of course, Britian, which had controlled the canal, more or less ignored that in World War II, I dont believe any German U-boats got to go through although before the way they did allow Mussolini to send ships to attack Ethiopia.) There was an incident where Israel tried to force the issue, called the Bat Galim incident around 1954.
But such violations may not mean one cannot nationalize the operating company, but insofar as there were legal principles of behavior involved, the denial of Israeli shipping probably would count against Egypt in some calculation of legal equities on their control of the canal.
Posted by: matthew hogan at July 27, 2006 09:29 PM