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The Suez Conflict: Political Objectives

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Politics
Wordcount: 4344 words Published: 21st Apr 2017

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The Suez conflict is characterised by deceit and collusion that, for Europe, ended in political failure, humiliation, diplomatic isolation and the severing of special relationships. [1] This essay will examine the political objectives of Egypt, Israel, Britain and France during the conflict. It will then consider the immediate outcomes of those principal participants against their political objectives. The essay will also consider the evidence of the decisive political roles played by the United States (US) and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) and the United Nations (UN). The causes of the conflict will not be addressed discretely, rather as implicit elements of the strategic and political analysis. The essay will conclude that Egypt emerged from the conflict as the political victor. The shared Anglo-Franco-Israeli political aim to remove the Egyptian President Nasser from power upturned and Nasser’s victory became the kindle to the Arab Nationalists fire; he became an icon in the Arab world. British and French Imperial aims to return the Suez Canal to Western control were botched. Egypt managed to keep control of the Canal as Britain and France were forced to withdraw by the UN. Conversely, Israel realised several gains from the conflict, most notably the new Jewish nation entered the global arena as a strategic actor in Middle East politics. Fundamentally, through ill-defined political aims and political misjudgement based on Imperial rhetoric and a crucial failure by Britain and France to understand their diminished status and power, the aftermath of the Suez conflict led to a new era of Superpower politics in the Middle East.

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Post WWII, the Suez Canal still had significant strategic military and economic value to Europe. Aside from the substantial revenue from tolls generated for British and French coffers, 70% of Middle East oil went to Britain and France. Most of that oil passed through the Suez Canal. [2] The Canal also gave Europe a crucial military movement corridor to East African military bases, Pacific Commonwealth partners and allies. It was the lifeline to the British and French Empire in the East and as such, keeping control of the Canal was essential. [3] Of note, since the establishment of Israel in 1948, Egypt had denied passage through the canal to any Israeli-flagged or Israel-bound ships.

The political strategy played by Egypt in the 1950s, whilst trying to establish a global position, centred on balancing the relationship between the United States and Britain (for economic support) and the Soviet Union (for military support). At the same time, Nasser pursued a policy of non-alignment. Crucially, in September 1955 Nasser purchased significant amounts of Soviet weaponry from Czechoslovakia. This arms deal was seen by the West as Egypt aligning its foreign policy with the Soviet Union. At the same time, Nasser secured promises from the United States and Britain to fund the Aswan High Dam project. This dichotomy of Egyptian policy generated distrust in Nasser and began to unhinge Egypt’s relationship with the West. This distrust was intensified by Nasser’s regular sermons on Cairo Radio of entrenched anti-colonial rhetoric inciting national zeal and Western hatred amongst the Egyptian people. Ultimately, Egypt’s failure to balance the relationship resulted in the Wests withdrawal of the funds to Egypt intended to finance the Aswan Dam project. This delivered a major blow to Egypt as the building of the Aswan Dam was the major economic strategic aim sought by Nasser. The Dam would bring electricity and industrialise Egypt and that would support Egypt’s desire to become a regional power and a leader in the Arab world. In a bold retaliatory move, Nasser achieved strategic surprise when on 26th July 1956 he nationalised the Suez Canal. He argued that Egypt now needed the revenues in order to replace the revoked finances for the Aswan Dam.

In short, the primary political objective for Egypt throughout the Suez conflict was economical; to secure funding for the Aswan Dam. A close second to this objective was Nasser’s agenda to rid the Arab world from colonial domination and to secure real independence from the Western powers. For Nasser, it was important that Egypt emerged as a leader in the Arab world.

British Prime Minister Anthony Eden saw the nationalisation of the Suez Canal by Nasser as a declaration of war and given the strategic importance of the Canal to Britain, a direct threat against Britain. Throughout, he pursued a duel political objective. The first was to reverse nationalisation of the Suez Canal and to guarantee its ‘international’ status. Freedom of the Suez Canal and access to the Middle East was critical to British security. The second, although not officially avowed was Regime change. After Nasser nationalised the Canal, Eden likened him to Hitler and Mussolini; a dictator that cannot be appeased and must be removed. Eden viewed a ‘do nothing’ policy in respect of the nationalisation of the Canal as tantamount to appeasement.

The French involvement in the Suez conflict was primarily due to the desire to expunge Egyptian support for the nationalist rebellion in Algeria. Nasser sympathised with the Algerian rebels and allowed them to establish headquarters in Cairo. [4] In addition, he supplied weapons to the Algerian Arab forces. [5] Furthermore, Nasser would broadcast anti-colonial violent rhetoric against France on Cairo Radio, encouraging the Algerian rebellion. Thus, for the French President, Guy Mollett, removing President Nasser from power had become a political necessity in order for France to achieve victory in Algeria.

Oil …

In the 1950s, the most important strategic aim for Israel was to secure its existence in the Middle East. A powerful Egypt presented a significant threat to Israel’s security. Following the September 1955 Arms deal with Czechoslovakia, Egypt became equipped with modern Russian arms, Stalin Tanks, MiGs and Illyussins. [6] Israel became worried that Egypt was preparing to attack especially given the direct emphasis that Egypt placed on the February raid on Gaza by the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) earlier that year as the main motivation for the deal. [7] By October 1956, the Egyptian threat to Israel had swollen. Fidaiyyun raids were soaring and were both increasingly frequent and violent. [8] 

Israel’s Prime Minister, Ben Gurion sought four political objectives from the Suez conflict. The first was to defeat Egypt by removing Nasser from power. Nasser inflamed nationalistic zeal amongst Egyptians which Israel saw as a threat. The second was to “gain control of the Gaza Strip”; occupied by Egypt since the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. [9] The third objective was to “break through the Straits of Tiran and thereby put an end to the Egyptian blockade of the Gulf of Aqaba”. [10] The fourth political objective sought was to remove the threat of the Egyptian Army in the Sinai and maintain a barrier “between Egypt proper and the Sinai Desert”. [11] One could argue that this final objective was preeminent in ensuring Israel’s continued existence.

Fundamentally, Egypt argued that nationalization of the Suez Canal Company was an entirely legitimate and legal act, albeit twelve years ahead of schedule. [12] Further, that the nationalization of the company would not interfere with the freedom of navigations of the Canal. [13] These two facts were a key influence on the conflict. Both Britain and France were aware that Egypt’s nationalisation of the Canal was insufficient to warrant military intervention and so attempted to discredit Nasser’s ability to ensure the free-flow of shipping. [14] Despite Anglo-French best efforts, Nasser kept the Canal open. Three frustrating months that followed the nationalisation of the Canal, saw fruitless diplomatic efforts between all parties including the US and the UN. President Eisenhower was not keen to back what he viewed as a colonial war, particularly in an election year and the UN saw no illegitimacy with Egypt’s move to nationalise the Canal hence, no legal grounds for military intervention. Now, more determined than ever, Britain and France sought a pretext to justify military intervention.

Consequently, Britain, France and Israel formed an alliance of self-interest, and secretly planned to invade Egypt and overthrow Nasser. [15] The Israeli invasion began on 29 October 1956. As previously agreed at the Protocol of Sevres, the British and French governments proclaimed to the world that military intervention was necessary in order to protect the Suez Canal and ensure that international shipping was unrestricted. Operation Musketeer was launched on 31st October. In retaliation, Egypt blocked the canal by intentionally sinking 40 ships. The Canal remained closed until March 1957. On 1st November, the UN Security Council scheduled a General Assembly (GA) emergency session with the aim of calling an immediate cease-fire. [16] Evidence of Britain and Frances’ diplomatic isolation came when the Council passed a majority 64:5 in favour of a ceasefire resolution. [17] 

On announcement of the UN Resolution 377 ceasefire, Britain and France did not respond immediately to the ultimatum. This allowed the Soviet Union to play a decisive role in the Suez conflict. [18] Conveniently for the Soviet Union, the Suez conflict provided a diversion during their invasion of Hungary. [19] On November 5th 1956, the Soviet Premier Bulganin sent notes of condemnation to Eden, Mollet and Ben-Gurion threatening to use action by the use of ‘every kind of modern destructive weapon’. [20] In accordance with the NATO alliance, any attack by the Soviet Union against Anglo-French forces would have compelled the United States to intervene. Eden sought assurance from the Unites States on this point, but President Eisenhower insisted Eden accept the cease-fire. Britain could not face a Soviet nuclear threat alone. This, together with the loss of support from the British public and the economic pressures that Britain faced, the risk of compromising the Commonwealth and isolating Britain further from the United States made Eden concede to the cease-fire on 6th November 1956. [21] Additionally an international emergency force was deployed to the Suez in order monitor the ceasefire. This was the first time that the “blue beret” UN peacekeepers were deployed, gaining an enhanced role in the world; a clear win for the UN.

Egypt emerged victorious from the Suez conflict and President Nasser as the triumphant political victor. Instead of eradicating Nasser, as the British, French and Israeli governments had intended, the Suez conflict confirmed his position as the leader of the Arab nationalism and Egypt’s influence within the Middle East was strengthened. [22] Nasser had retained control of the Suez Canal and had succeeded in removing Egypt’s former colonial masters. The Suez conflict acted as a catalyst to the spread of radicalism throughout the region, markedly in states with an unstable situation such as Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria. [23] Furthermore, it also reinvigorated the Palestinian nationalist movement, which had waned after the 1948 defeat. [24] However, whilst Nasser rejoiced in the humiliation of the British and the French, he failed to acknowledge that his victory was not the result of Egypt’s military or economic power. The uncomfortable truth for Nasser was that at the military level Egypt had been punctured, not only by the West, but also by the ‘hated Israelis’. [25] 

In the short term, Egypt suffered economically. Foreign currency assets from Britain, France and the United States were frozen after the nationalisation of the Canal. Egypt’s trade relations with the UK ended and the ones with France and the US failed as well. Additionally, the blocking of the Canal and the cost of mobilizing troops gravely affected the Egyptian economy. [26] However, this downturn was short lived. Egyptian-Soviet relations were improved and the Soviet Union stepped in to help finance the construction of the Aswan Dam. This together with the revenues from the administration of the Canal (one it reopened) ensured that the building of the Dam became a certainty. [27] Therefore, at the end of the crisis, Egypt firmly aligned itself with the Soviet Union.

Britain was hurt considerably by the Suez conflict. [28] Most notably, Britain’s global influence and power diminished considerably and its moral standing amongst allies plummeted. The Suez conflict was “a milestone in Great Britain’s slide from world pre-eminence into the ranks of middling countries.” [29] Eden failed to recognise the change in the balance of power. Quote The support for Nasser and the resolve of the Egyptian people was underestimated. Eden was convinced that Egypt and the Arab world would accept the firm rule of Britain with welcome arms. A core element in shifting the balance of power towards Egypt during the Suez conflict was the United States unwillingness to block the emerging Egyptian nationalism. [30] 

Through disregard and deceitful behaviour, Eden damaged the special relationship that Britain had enjoyed with the United States. “Eisenhower felt double-crossed because the British lied about their willingness to negotiate…” [31] Fundamentally, Eden totally misjudged the role of ‘peacemaker’ played by Eisenhower. He hoped that the United States would support Britain; either economically or militarily. However, whilst the United States supported Britain’s aim of removing Nasser, Eisenhower was not content to achieve it through conventional warfare. Thus, the biggest lesson of the Suez conflict for Britain was the realisation that the country would never again be able to act without the aid of the United States.

Britain showed critical vulnerability to the economic sanctions imposed by the US and UN. The British financial position weakened significantly and there was a run on sterling. This coupled with an Arab oil embargo, which included NATO countries refusing to sell Britain any oil imported from Arab countries resulted in Britain facing the very real prospect of being unable to import basic food and energy supplies needed to sustain the population. Britain turned to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for a loan, but Eisenhower was absolutely clear that the US would not help Britain until all forces had withdrawn from Egypt.

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Throughout the Suez conflict, Eden’s health deteriorated and he increasingly came under sever opposition. He lost the confidence of his cabinet and was severely undermined through relentless questions in parliament over the collusion with France and Israel. Finally, although attributed to declining health, he resigned from office in January 1957. In short, Eden went to war on a lie and embarked on regime change. In Egypt he failed. It destroyed him. He did however succeed in securing Regime closer to home; his own decline as Prime Minister. [32] 

In his memoires, Eden declared that the Suez conflict was not without success for Great Britain, France and Israel. He maintains that the military intervention served decisively to check Nasser as Mussolini and Hitler had not been checked in the 1930s. [33] Whilst Selwyn Lloyd, in his account of the Suez conflict, recognises that Britain sustained a diplomatic and political defeat, he supports Eden’s claim that Nasser had been checked principally basing his argument on predictive outcomes if no military intervention had taken place. [34] “If the Middle East had seen him [Nasser] successfully defy the Western powers, his prestige would have been enormous.” [35] 

Similar to Britain, France gained nothing from Suez conflict, indeed there were heavy costs. The war in Algeria continued even though France committed some 400,000 men to the force, which should have dominated the ground. [36] Arab hostility towards France increased. The failed outcome of the Suez conflict encouraged Algeria to continue the liberation movement and fuelled other Middle Eastern states to openly support the rebellion. [37] Thus, a disastrous outcome for France that endured until they ultimately ceded control of Algeria in 1962.

In the short term, Guy Mollet remained in power and his position as Prime Minister was even strengthened. [38] However, domestic politics were aggravated. The failure in the Suez represented another defeat for the Fourth Republic and the budget deficit increased due to the increased cost of oil imports. Thus, the Fourth Republic collapsed and Charles De Gaulle returned to establish the Fifth Republic. This marked the end of Imperial France as the decolonisation programme was accelerated, with France increasing turning its attention to Europe. [39] France signed the Treaty of Rome in March 1957, from then France looked to the Bonn-Paris axis as the cornerstone of its foreign policy. [40] 

France believed that Britain had betrayed them over the ceasefire, thus the Anglo-Franco relationship became one of bitterness and mistrust. Furthermore, the Franco-American relationship was destroyed which immediately led France to withdraw from the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO). [41] France pursued an independent policy and affirmed its aspiration to become a nuclear power in order to secure itself and return as a global power. [42] 

Politically, Israel gained quite substantially from her involvement in the Suez conflict. [43] The conflict marked the point at which Israel’s existence and survival was no longer in question and she proved to the world that she would play a strategic role in Middle East politics. Ben Gurion’s government remained strong amongst the people. Israel’s forces led a “brilliant” militarily strong campaign. [44] Israel established itself as a highly professional and credible military power under leaders such as the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) Chief of Staff Moshe Dayan. [45] Egypt’s new Soviet weapons were destroyed and its military might was left languishing. Israel had removed Egypt from its boarders and as a result, Israel enjoyed an eleven year lull with Egypt. [46] Although Israel was not given freedom to use the Suez Canal, she did regain shipping rights in the Straits of Tiran. Furthermore, UN troops were sent to protect the borders of Israel and its trading ships in the Straits of Tiran. France remained an important supply of arms to Israel and notably of nuclear technology. Through Israel’s special relationship with France, Israel developed a nuclear arsenal.

In conclusion, the consequences of the Suez conflict were felt at regional and global levels.

The conflict marked a watershed in the history of British and French Imperialist power and the simultaneous advent of the Middle East as a significant player in world politics. Egypt emerged as the most notable political victor of the Suez conflict; at least in the short term. The Canal was internationally recognised as the sovereignty of Egypt and Soviet funding was secured to build the Aswan Dam. Having apparently eradicated Anglo-French colonial powers and simultaneously deterred an attack from Israel, Nasser presented himself as the leader of the Arab world promoting pan-Arab nationalism and anti-Western doctrine. Not only did Britain and France fail to achieve their political aims, they both succeeded in damaging their international reputation and domestic economies. Israel however, achieved substantial gains from the conflict. Perhaps most importantly, Israel entered the global arena as a strategic actor in Middle East politics. The conflicts between Israel and Egypt, however, were just beginning.

Stuff Cut Out

“Our quarrel is not with Egypt, it is less with the Arab world; it is with Colonel Nasser. With Dictators you always have to pay a higher price later on.”

Speech. At the heart of Edens message was the fact that Nasser was a dangerous fascist

Suez canal – main artery .. – a grasp on the windpipe..

Nasser was a nettle to be grasped. Akin to Hitler.

Eden was anxious to keep Britain behind him. On 8 Aug. Nationwide broadcast on


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