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The Suez Canal Crisis, 50 Years Later

A radio interview with Scott Simon of NPR on the 50th anniversary of the Suez War, recorded on October 28, 2006.


Fifty years ago, while much of the world watched the nationalist uprising in Hungary, another crisis broke out in the Middle East, war over control of the Suez Canal,

President GAMAL ABDEL NASSER (Egypt): (Speaking foreign language)

SIMON: Egypt’s President Gamal Abdel Nasser had called the Suez Canal a symbol of oppression. When Western nations withdrew their offer to finance construction of the Awan Dam, Nasser decided to national the British and French company that operated the canal.

It made the new Egyptian leader a hero in much of the Arab world. Now, to Europeans, of course, the canal was a crucial link between the Mediterranean and the Red Sea. The British, French and Israelis hatched a secret plan to invade.

(Soundbite of news broadcast)

ANNOUNCER: The forces are massing for a landing in the Suez Canal zone. But meanwhile the air assault goes on. According to official communiqués today, this has now being switched to Egyptian tanks, and a concentration of them four miles southwest of the Giza Pyramid’s near Cairo have been attacked by rocket and canon-firing British Venoms and French Thunderstreaks.

SIMON: British, French and Israeli forces overwhelmed the Egyptian army. But the soon forced to withdraw under pressure from the United States and a U.N.-sponsored ceasefire. Weeks later, British Prime Minister Anthony Eton resigned.

Sir BRIAN URQUHART (Retired U.N. Diplomat): I think we were all conscious that we were in the presence of a number of historical turning points.

SIMON: Sir Brian Urquhart is a retired U.N. diplomat who was then working for the Undersecretary General for Political Affairs Ralph Bunche. He was at the United Nations during the Suez crisis.

Sir URQUHART: This was collaboration by France, Great Britain and Israel, all for different reasons. Although the one thing I think they all agreed on was the unspoken phrase regime change. They all wanted to see the last of Gamal Abdel Nasser as the president of Egypt; the French because they believed he was assisting the Algerian revolt just on the other side of the North of Africa in Algeria; the Israeli’s because they did have a legitimate grievance, which was that this was the beginning of terrorism from the Arab side of what were called the Fedayeen raids, which were quite small raids into Israel to do thing like burn school buses.

SIMON: Now, doesn’t President Nasser say that Israeli ship traffic couldn’t travel on the canal?

Mr. ELKURT: He had never allowed Israeli ship traffic on the canal, and never did.

SIMON: What was the British concern?

Mr. ELKURT: I think the real problem was internal politics. The year before they had given up control of the canal but not of the canal company. The extreme right wing bitterly criticized this feeling that the British Empire should last forever, and therefore this was a terrible thing to do.

Eden was anxious to show that he was prepared to be tough with the Egyptians. What they said they were going to do was to get to the canal and insist on the restoration of the canal company. And the Israelis would do it from the other side.

Out of all these mixed motives came this operation which incomprehensibly was never even mentioned to the United States. This, not unnaturally, created tremendous animus in Washington.

(Soundbite of news broadcast)

ANNOUNCER: From the White House, we present President Dwight D. Eisenhower.

President DWIGHT D. EISENHOWER: We believe these actions to have been taken in error. For we do not accept the use of force as a wise or proper instrument for the settlement of international disputes.

SIMON: Prime Minister Eden, as we noted, had to resign. Why was President Eisenhower upset and concerned?

Mr. ELKURT: Well, Eisenhower, I think, as a general must have thought it was a downfall military exercise in the first place and one bound to fail. He did not think that this was a good way to go after Middle East problems, and Eisenhower certainly didn’t think that an Israeli takeover in Sinai, which had been Egyptian for 4,000 years, was a good idea either.

And the idea of two permanent members of the security council invading a major Middle East country for rather sort of strange and weird reasons seemed to Eisenhower to be completely illegal and to be very dangerous.

SIMON: When Britain and France withdrew, it signaled the end of European dominance in the Middle East. Khaled Fahmy is a professor of modern Middle Eastern history at New York University. We reached him in Cairo, where he is on sabbatical this year.

Professor Fahmy says the Suez crisis was also a crucial event for Egypt and it’s president, Gamal Abdel Nasser.

Professor KAHLED FAHMY (New York University): Nasser in ’56 was 37 years old. So this is a young army officer, not very much known, who managed at this young age to stand up and defy two superpowers at that time, two old colonial powers, and this is, again, another dimension that is not very much remembered. Only five years earlier, in 1951, another Third World leader attempted to nationalize what he at that time considered a national asset, and I mean here Mossadegh of Iran, when he nationalized the Iranian oil industry. But the CIA interfered in Iran at that incident and reinstated the Shah of Iran and opposed Mossadegh. So for four or five years later, for another, younger leader, this time in Arab, not a Persian, but from the region, to do a similar tactic, which is to nationalize what he considered to be a national asset and to get away with it was something phenomenal, was something awe-inspiring for millions and millions of people throughout the region and beyond.

SIMON: To point out the obvious, he could not have gotten away with it, as you put it, or succeeded, as other people might put it, unless he didn’t have an accomplice in events of President Eisenhower of the United States. Now what significance is read into that?

Prof. FAHMY: Basically what ’56 was about – and this is why it was very much out of tune with the period – is that this is what would be termed in diplomatic history gunboat diplomacy, the blatant use of force to impose diplomatic realities and to change facts on the ground. This is something that was predominant in the 19th century, and this is something that in a sense the First World War ended. And I think Nasser, as young and inexperienced as he was, understood that these powers could not get away with it.

(Soundbite of news broadcast)

ANNOUNCER: In the last few minutes, Sir Anthony Eden has announced in Parliament, During the night we received from the Secretary General of the United Nations a communication in which he informed us that both Israel and Egypt had accepted an unconditional ceasefire. Sir Anthony then said that pending arrangements about clearing obstructions to the Suez Canal, the British government were ordering their forces to ceasefire at midnight tonight. This announcement was wildly cheered.

SIMON: Former U.N. diplomat Brian Urquhart says the Suez crisis enhanced the stature and influence of the United Nations.

Sir URQUHART: In fact it caused the invention of what is now called peacekeeping. This was the first we’d fielded a force of soldiers, not unarmed observers, in a conflict situation. And it worked extremely well, much better than anybody thought it would. It was a completely a novel experiment at that point. And incidentally, they allowed the French and Israelis to extricate themselves more or less with honor – simply saying that they were obeying a Security Council decision, which they felt obliged to obey. Eden even went further and said that he felt that he had created a remarkable historical step forward by causing the invention of U.N. peacekeeping.

SIMON: Former U.N. diplomat Sir Brian Urquhart. We also spoke with Professor Khaled Fahmy of New York University. Interesting postscript: the United Nations assembled the international peacekeeping force in just seven days. Now, U.N. officials had wanted to outfit them with pale blue berets, but they were told it would have taken six weeks to get enough of them.

Sir URQUHART: Then I think – I think it may have been me who had the idea of asking the United States to spray-paint the plastic helmet liners of American battle helmets, of which there was a huge supply in Europe – spray paint them blue and issue these until we could get the berets. And they did that. They did it in 24 hours. So everybody had a blue helmet when they landed in Ismailia on the canal.

SIMON: And to this day U.N. peacekeepers are often called blue helmets.

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