The nationalisation of the Suez Canal Company on 26 July 1956 brought a nearly two-century long war to a close, during which virtually every weapon had been brought to bear, including money, trade, diplomacy and arms. In spite of shifts in the participants in this war over this time, the objective remained the same: control over this vital maritime passageway.
But the nationalisation of the Suez Canal also marked the beginning of another war that is still in progress today and that will probably remain so for some time. In this new war, the combatants are different and so are their immediate aims. Instead of control over the “gateway to India,” the aim is to dominate a major thoroughfare for oil, which, in turn, entails dominating Egypt, or at least isolating and marginalising it.
The nationalisation of the Suez Canal, together with its regional and international ramifications, drove a huge breach into the wall of colonialist hegemony over this region and the world. This breach transcended the geophysical dimension, for it ushered in one of the most important national-liberation movements since the Chinese revolution. This Arab national-liberation movement not only ushered in radical and sweeping changes in this region, it also inspired other national-liberation movements in South America, Africa and Asia.
Naturally, the new imperialist powers would seek to contain and suppress this nascent movement. One of the most vital keys to this end was to debilitate Egypt and isolate it from its Arab environment.
However, before proceeding further on this point, let us return to the beginning. The two- hundred year war over Suez began in the mid- 18th century, when the French sought to reopen their trade routes to the Far East (India and China) through the Middle East, instead of having to circumnavigate the Cape of Good Hope. They immediately set their sights on Suez. However, their efforts to this end almost invariably met with failure due to the objections of the Ottoman Sultan, which were generally inspired by British pressures, for the British had no intention of giving the French the strategic upper hand in the Eastern Mediterranean.
Although the French were the first to try to secure a trade route to the East through Egypt, the British were the first European power to succeed. In the late 18th century, they persuaded the Mameluke ruler of Egypt, Ali Bek Al-Kabir, who felt that the revenues he would receive from trade caravans passing through Egypt would help him in his drive to obtain greater autonomy from the Supreme Porte, to allow British merchant vessels to dock at Suez, from where cargo would be carried overland from Suez through Cairo to Alexandria.
Needless to say, the French were not about to let the British augment their influence in Egypt, especially now that Paris was under increasing pressure from the French merchant community in Egypt to occupy the country, with the aim of securing control over the overland route to Suez and Suez itself. This appeal, moreover, found a powerful echo in political and economic circles in France who believed that control over Egypt held the key to ending the British hold over India and, hence, settling the long and bitter rivalry between Britain and France. So, in 1798, Napoleon Bonaparte launched his famous expedition, leading to the French occupation of Egypt.
Although this occupation lasted only three years, ending in the ignominious withdrawal of French forces from Egypt, it nevertheless revived an idea that had first been conceived by the Ottoman sultan in 1685: the construction of a canal linking the Mediterranean with the Red Sea. In the 1830s, a delegation headed by the famous Saint Simonian apostle and spiritual father of de Lesseps, Barthélemy Prosper Enfantin, arrived in Egypt to meet with Muhammad Ali and win him over to the project. Before setting off on this mission, Enfantin had eloquently and succinctly summed up the aims France hoped to achieve:
“C’est à nous de faire entre l’antique Egypte et la vieille Judée, une des deux nouvelles routes d’Egypte vers l’Inde et la Chine. Nous poserons donc un pied sur le Nil et l’autre sur Jerusalem. Notre main droite s’étendra vers La Mecque, notre bras gauche couvrira Rome et s’appuiera encore sur Paris. Suez est le centre de notre vie de travail.”
Muhammad Ali rejected the French proposal, his finely honed political instincts telling him that to accede to it would drag Egypt into the colonial power rivalry, which would only weaken Egypt and jeopardize its autonomy.
Yet, ultimately the French did prevail, although not until several years after the death of Muhammad Ali. In 1854, Ferdinand de Lesseps obtained the approval of the Egyptian ruler, Muhammad Said Pasha, to found the International Suez Canal Company that would undertake the construction of a merchant shipping conduit linking the Mediterranean with the Red Sea. The agreement sparked the longest ever diplomatic battle between Cairo, London, Paris and Istanbul, and Britain was, by far, the fiercest contestant. From the British perspective, the canal project threatened one of the cornerstones of London’s military and foreign policy, which was to control the routes to India.
The British Navy already controlled the passages around the Cape of Good Hope, long the only route to India and the East. But a canal would give a strategic advantage to countries bordering the Mediterranean, and these would also have quicker access to the East. Britain thus perceived a threat to both its mastery of the seas and to its “jewel in the crown,” a fear which was expressed in a letter, dated 12 February 1858, from British prime minister Lord Palmerston to his foreign secretary. “The canal will be detrimental to Britain. In the event a dispute arises between Britain and France, France will be quicker to dispatch its warships to the Indian seas.” Little wonder, therefore, that Britain vehemently protested against the Suez Canal project.
However, not only was Britain set upon keeping any other European power out of Egypt, it was also determined to prevent the rise of another powerful regime in Egypt itself of the sort Muhammad Ali had built up during the first half of the 19th century. Again, it was Lord Palmerston who voiced this resolve.
In a letter to the British consul in Egypt in 1842, two years after the European powers had amassed their armadas in the eastern Mediterranean and compelled Muhammad Ali to sign the Treaty of London in 1840, leading to the dismantling of the military related industries the Egyptian ruler had established, the prime minister wrote that “we must prevent the re- emergence of a strong government, such as Muhammad Ali’s, in Egypt. To do so, we must separate the eastern portion of that nation (Syria and Palestine) from the western portion (Egypt) by means of the establishment of a European buffer state, preferably a Jewish one.”
If the British would ultimately pursue designs in this regard, they would nevertheless soon alter their position on the Suez Canal. Having recently emerged victorious from his battles with Austria over controlling Italy, the French emperor, Napoleon III, was in a better position to withstand British pressures and, ultimately, to win the British over to the canal project. From there, it was a simple matter to persuade the Ottoman Sultan, soon after which thousands of Egyptian workers were pressed into service on the construction operations, in accordance with the system of corvée labour that prevailed at the time.
But, if the Suez Canal was the product of Egyptian hands, the Suez Canal Company was soon transformed from a joint French-Egyptian venture, in which Egypt held the majority shares, to an Anglo-French company in which Egypt held not a single share and from which it earned not a single penny of profit. This remarkable transformation was engineered by Britain, which succeeded in pressuring Egypt into transferring its shares to London on the shaky pretext of Egypt’s outstanding debts to the Suez Canal Company!
But the British did not stop there, since securing the gateway to the East required their presence on the ground. So, in 1882, British forces invaded Egypt. And now, 80 years after having rid itself of the French occupation, Egypt fell into the clutches of British occupation, because the country straddled Britain’s vital road to India.
This historical background makes it possible to understand better the great significance of Abdel-Nasser’s decree of 1956 and the major political victory Egypt won from the Tripartite Aggression that followed. The nationalisation of the Suez Canal did not only represent the recovery of property and money that had been forcefully wrested from Egypt, and it was not only a slap in the face of the US for having reneged on financing the construction of the High Dam. Instead, it was, in every sense, an act of self- fulfillment. The nationalisation of the canal ushered in a process of regaining control over the economic and political keys to national self- determination, which had been gradually seized from Egypt’s hands since the end of Muhammad Ali’s reign.
Through the nationalisation, Egypt recovered its sovereignty over a portion of its land and it regained control of one of its primary sources of revenue. Then, following the Tripartite Aggression, Egypt nationalised all French and British-owned concerns in Egypt, thereby putting an end to more than a century of foreign control over the Egyptian economy. To better drive home the magnitude of this development, before it more than 52 per cent of the shares in all joint stock companies operating in Egypt had been controlled by France or Britain. French and British banks in Egypt dominated the banking sector. They also entirely funded the cotton industry, and the banks’ economic power was turned into a political weapon following the nationalisation decree of 1956 when they withheld the funds to finance the cotton harvest with the intent of toppling the new revolutionary regime.
Thus, the nationalisation of the Suez Canal, and the repercussions from the French, British and Israeli aggression that followed, heralded the birth of a new power in Egypt, similar in spirit and resolve to that of Muhammad Ali. Egypt now was the master of its fate; it had full sovereignty over its own land, and it now had full control over its domestic market now that it held the keys to two vital sectors of the economy, the banking sector and the insurance companies. Britain, meanwhile, had just met with the first major defeat of its strategy to keep Egypt “weak and isolated from its Arab environment,” as Palmerston put it in 1842. Instead of debilitating Egypt and toppling its new government, the 1956 battle of Suez catapulted Egypt to the forefront of the Arab world and to the leadership of one of the most influential national-liberation movements in the world.
Egypt, in short, had just won a momentous victory. And all the more so because Suez was no longer just the road to India, but it was, more importantly, also the road to Middle Eastern oil. It should be recalled, too, that less than three years earlier, Iran’s prime minister Muhammad Musaddaq had failed in his drive to nationalise his country’s petroleum industry.
However, the nationalisation of the Suez Canal and the defeat of the tripartite aggression was not merely a victory for Egypt and the Arab world, but also for the Third World. One of the three powers to invade Egypt in 1956 — France — did not meet defeat in Port Said alone, but, ultimately and more importantly, in Algeria as well. When France went to war against Egypt that year, it was not so much interested in regaining control over the canal. It had a larger, and to it more important, objective in mind: to strike at the base of “the commander of the battle of Algiers,” as the French foreign minister put it at the time, referring to Abdel-Nasser and his material and moral support for the Algerian revolution. After Suez, the victory of the Algerian revolution was only a matter of time. The same applied to Britain, for, after Suez, British departure from the Gulf and from south Yemen and the final setting of the sun of the British Empire was also only a question of time.
Suez was a beacon to national independence leaders from Asia to the Americas. Fidel Castro asked, “If Abdel-Nasser can defeat France and England, why can we not defeat Patista?” His sentiments echoed throughout Africa, where many other national liberation movements were gaining impetus.
In addition, the battle of Suez heralded the beginning of a new balance between the major international powers of the time. Moscow’s strongly worded ultimatum to the three invading parties in 1956 marked the beginning of a new Soviet approach to expanding its international influence. Henceforward, it would champion the third world liberation movements as a friend and as an ally of independence movements in their battle against the colonial powers and of newly independent states in their fight to secure the bases of national sovereignty. However, these national independence movements still managed to retain their autonomy in the face of the two rival superpowers. Again, Egypt supplied the model.
The High Dam now stands as the monument to the achievements of that new alliance of non- aligned nations, which acquired untold impetus from the Suez victory and which enabled its members to enter the fray of international politics on an equal footing, rather than as puppets whose strings were pulled by the great powers as had been the case in the past.
Nevertheless, if the Suez Canal victory brought an end to the two-century long war against the colonialist powers, it also marked the beginnings of a new war. The aim of this war was, again, to weaken Egypt and to isolate it from its Arab environment, but not this time because it sat astride the gateway to India, but because it overlooked the world’s most strategic route to the Middle East oil resources. As was the case with the attack on Muhammad Ali’s empire, this war opened with a military assault (the 1967 war), and then was waged with the weapons of money and commerce (after 1974).
And just as the period between 1840 and 1914 brought the destruction of the independent edifice founded by Muhammad Ali, so too has the period since 1974 seen a gradual but inexorable drive to dismantle the national and Arab-national enterprise begun by Abdel-Nasser — or, more precisely, a drive to reverse the victory of Suez.
The writer is professor of law at Ain Shams University.