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The Suez Crisis: 1956

Nasser's seizing of the Suez Canal, in July 1956, is made possible by the success of an agreement which he has negotiated two years earlier with Britain. This has provided for the withdrawal over twenty months of all British troops from the canal zone, thus removing the last cause of Egyptian resentment against British imperialism.

Any cause for resentment is now on the British side. The 99-year lease granted to the Suez Canal Company still has twelve years to run, and Nasser is not proposing to pay compensation. In the short term there is little that can be done about this by Britain or France (the other main shareholder in the company) except make forceful protests at the United Nations.

During the autumn of 1956 Britain and France build up their forces in the Mediterranean, but the tension escalates abruptly on October 29 when Israeli troops move into the Sinai peninsula, a province of Egypt. Their pretext is provocation from the Egyptians in successive border incidents. But the Suez Canal lies in the path of the invading Israelis, making the issue of immediate international urgency.

Britain and France issue an ultimatum to both Israel and Egypt, ordering each to withdraw ten miles from the canal. It is a somewhat one-sided demand. Israel as yet has hardly any troops near the canal, of which Egypt is in full possession. The Israelis accept the ultimatum. Egypt disregards it.

The British and the French, in defiance of the wishes of the UN security council and general assembly, begin bombing Egyptian airfields. On November 5 they land marines and paratroops near Port Said. Egyptian forces on the canal (now blocked with sunken vessels) are soon at a disadvantage. But the occupation is still incomplete when international outrage causes Britain and France, along with Israel and Egypt, to accept a ceasefire at midnight on November 6.

Within weeks UN forces arrive. The French and British withdraw after a disastrous fiasco. Israel gains nothing. Nasser has lost his air force (soon replaced by the USSR), but he has secured his ownership of the canal and has gained immeasurably in local prestige.

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