Table of Content
2. Sources and factors leading up to the Suez Crisis
3. Motives of the participating parties
4. Consequences of the Suez Crisis
The Suez Crisis has been studied from many different perspectives and has become a synonym for a watershed moment of post-war history. The ongoing turbulences in many parts of the Middle East are characterized by excessive violence, sectarian divides, ethnic cleansing and political instability. Many of those conflicts can be linked to the foundation of the State of Israel in 1948, as not all parties were provided with a satisfying solution. More over the Sykes Picot Agreement set the basis for an instable region and planted the seeds for many conflicts to come. In this timeline besides the Israeli War of Independence there are many milestones exhibiting different crises and wars such as the Six Day War or the Yom Kippur War. This long line of conflicts is not limited to Israeli-Arab wars but also includes for instance the reinstitution of the Shah or the most recent ongoing tragedy which is the Syrian Civil War. The 1956 Suez Crisis can be ranged along this long line of events however with the crucial difference that its significance and repercussions are not limited to the Middle East. In this seminar paper it will be attempted to explain how this turning point of history came about and to what extent it was necessary or evitable. The consequences of the Suez Crisis will be discussed from individual countries perspectives and also its significance on a systemic level.
In the first section the various factors leading up to the Suez Crisis will be analysed, followed by an assessment of the different motives of the participating countries. The third section will inquire how the Suez Crisis affected the British, French, Israeli and American course and how the overall significance of Suez played out.
2. Sources and factors leading up to the Suez Crisis
The sources and factors leading up to the Suez Crisis are manifold and will be put into different time perspectives such as eventual history, moyenne durée and the longue durée. This structuring approach has been coined by Francois Braudel who describes the long durée as long driving forces such as geography and long term population trends. The moyenne durée, i.e. the medium run includes long term economic developments such as industrialization, industry restructuring and adjustment. Mostly present in the general mind of the majority lies the histoire evenmentielle which is typically the historical depth covered by news media. In the further analysis on the causes leading to the Suez Crisis, i.e. the moment of nationalization of the Suez Canal Company as the very first part of a chain of events, this approach shall function as a categorization attempt.
Without a doubt the nationalization of the Suez Canal by Gamal Abdel Nasser is the quick spark which ignited the crisis, induced British-French-Israeli collusion and a military intervention. Thus it will be considered as a sequence of events in the sense of a “histoire evenmentielle”. However the Suez Crisis, with the benefit of hindsight, as such did not come about without any developments preparing the path. Although in July 1956 the British and French were took by surprise, as no intelligence indicated this bold move by Nasser was to be expected. The withdraw of US and British commitment to finance the Aswan Dam which itself was triggered by the Czech arms deal pushed Gamal Abdel Nasser into a situation where in his perspective gambling seemed sensible. Speculating on non-intervention proved wrong, as from a military point of view Egypt lost, although politically it was a victory. In a framework marked by two colliding world systems even before the Czech arms deal Nasser was trying to play out the two blocks in order to maximize Egypt’s gain. The economic situation in Egypt up to 1956 was characterized by economic tensions. The period from 1947 to 1952 was marked by high growth due to the recovery from the Second World War, but from 1952 onwards growth declined to a relatively low level of two percent. With cotton being one of Egypt’s major export goods the declining price trend due to overproduction and substitution towards synthetic fibres was creating economic hardship. This can be interpreted as a medium term development gradually exerting economic pressure on Egypt. From a long durée perspective the gradual population boom combined with arid climate is a long driving force and can be linked to the very topical issue of the Aswan Dam. The Aswan Dam project in 1956 was seen as an important step to significantly improve the water access and distribution. The gains to achieve were compelling and thus bargaining and gambling in a world divided by two camps in order to maximize interests was the modus operandi for Nasser.
The eventual exchange of cotton against guns made possible by the Soviet bloc did not only trigger the US and British reaction to rescind from promised assistance for the Aswan Dam, but it had great ramifications on a systemic level. The regional balance of power in the Middle East was upset and the adjustment mechanism manifested itself in the Suez Crisis. Especially in regard to driving Egypt and the Soviet Union together and thus making the Czech arms deal possible the Baghdad Pact plays a non-negligible role. The Baghdad Pact alienated the Soviet Union because it was advertised as an anti-Soviet regional security system. Egypt was disturbed by it due to the promotion of the leading role of Iraq within the region. In addition the problem from Nasser’s point of view was that the Baghdad Pact did not just bound Arab states to one of the two blocks, but it also constituted a threat to Arab unity as it linked Arab and non-Arab states. A bold move, such as the nationalization of the Suez Canal, surely reasserted Egypt’s leading role among non-aligned states which it initially demonstrated at the conference of Asian-African countries in Bandung in 1955. The Suez Crisis itself and the creation of the United Arab Republic are symbols of Arab nationalism but the Baghdad Pact triggered a series of political responses marking a new level of nationalism. In this respect the Baghdad Pact set the scene for the Suez Crisis not only from the Egyptian side but also it alienated the French and the Israeli and fostered their alignments which lead to collusion.
Pan-Arabism and nationalism as a late response to the Sykes Picot agreement turned increasingly hostile to outside influence especially towards Britain and France. Egypt was not affected by the lines drawn in the sand in 1917, but as the largest Arab nation it captured nationalism which was increasingly emerging after the Second World War in the Arab World. This meant that the foreign influence associated with the monarchy was challenged. The unilateral abrogation in 1951 of the Anglo-Egyptian Treaty of 1936, followed by anti-western protests after the British disarming police forces in 1952 and the overthrow of King Farouk demonstrated how Egypt tried to emancipate itself against the old imperial empires.
If the Israeli-Arab unresolved conflict is seen as a driving force for eventually leading to another war in the Middle East, then a successful completion of the project Alpha could have possibly prevented the Suez Crisis. The attempts of secret diplomacy conducted by the British and the Americans in order to solve the Palestinian refugee problem as well as adjustment of the Israeli border would have alleviated the Arab grievances and thus their aggression potential. Still the nationalization could have occurred despite project Alpha being a success, but it is highly questionable that Britain would have intervened without the Israeli veil. Even if France would have been determined to intervene unilaterally it would have obviously lacked the capacity to fight the resulting resistance, especially from the American side. To answer the question to what extent the Suez Crisis could have been avoided or which factor was so decisive that if addressed would have changed the outcome, is difficult. To the author of this work it appears that the path towards the crisis was a step by step way which randomly emerged in a bi-polar world, in a country stressed by scarcity of resources in relation to its ever growing population, combined with a strong quest for pan-Arab leadership, facing the declining regional powers of Britain and France, with the latter willing to commit more than the former.
This section of the paper has briefly analysed the factors and causes which set the stage for the Suez Crisis to run its course. Although the main implication is that the Suez Crisis is one result of long term trends combined with systemic pressures of the state system at the time, motives of individual countries have already been mentioned. The next section shall examine their motives and perspectives in more detail and thus will shed light on why the events following the nationalization of the Suez Canal Company happed in the way they did.
3. Motives of the participating parties
Britain’s aims after the nationalization of the Suez Canal have been clearly stated by Prime Minister Eden in a Cabinet Ministers meeting and they amounted ultimately to get the canal back under international control and to crush the government of Nasser. The geo-strategic importance of the Suez Canal for Great Britain cannot be overestimated. The oil passing through the canal represented two thirds of the demand of Western Europe. Furthermore one third of global shipments going through the Suez Canal were British.
Despite economic decline and the obviously diminished resources and capabilities in comparison to the United States, from 1954 on Great Britain was experiencing increasing confidence. Eden had demonstrated Britain’s superior diplomatic skills to those of the United States as has been shown in the cases of the Geneva conference on Indochina, the resolution of the German rearmament and the ending of the Trieste dispute between Italy and Yugoslavia. This increasing valuation of Britain’s capabilities led Eden to believe that his country “should not allow itself to be restricted overmuch by reluctance to act without full American concurrence and support. We should frame our own policy in the light of our interests and get the Americans to support it to the extent we could induce them to do so”. The idea that this British comeback coincided with a little east-west détente and a de-Stalinization process in Eastern Europe which gave hope to the rise of Europe as third independent power factor can help to understand how Britain and France thought they could circumvent the United States and reinvent themselves.
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- Suez Sykes Picot Suez Crisis 1956 Israeli-Arab Egypt Gamal Abdel Nasser