New Crisis, Old Lesson

There was secret collusion, a fraudulent attempt to use the United Nations as a fig leaf for war, a largely unsympathetic British public, journalists used as propagandists and our enemy—-an Arab dictator previously regarded as a friend of the West–compared to the worst criminals of the Second World War. Sound familiar? Well, it happened almost half a century ago, not over oil but over a narrow man–made canal linking the Mediterranean with the Red Sea.

The Suez crisis has haunted British governments ever since 1956–it hung over Margaret Thatcher during the 1982 Falklands War, and its ghost now moves between the Foreign Office and Downing Street, between Jack Straw and Tony Blair. For Suez destroyed a British prime minister–along, almost, with the Anglo–American alliance–and symbolised the end of the British empire.

It killed many civilians–all Egyptian, of course–and brought shame upon the allies when they turned out to have committed war crimes. It rested on a lie–that British and French troops should land in Egypt to “separate” the Egyptian and Israeli armies, even though the British and French had earlier connived at Israel’s invasion. Colonel Gamal Abdul Nasser was described by the British Prime Minister, Anthony Eden, as “the Mussolini of the Nile” even though, scarcely a year earlier, Eden had warmly shaken Nasser’s hand in an exchange of congratulations over a new Anglo–Egyptian treaty–shades of Donald Rumsfeld’s chummy meeting with the “Hitler of Baghdad” in 1983. In the end, British troops–poorly equipped and treating their Egyptian enemies with racial disdain–left in humiliation, digging up their dead comrades from their graves to freight back home lest the Egyptians defiled their bodies.

Suez was a complex crisis, but it revolved around Nasser’s decision–against international agreements–to nationalise the canal and take over the Suez Canal Company. British banks and business had long dominated investment in Egypt and held a 44 per cent stake in the company, originally negotiated by Benjamin Disraeli.

Nasser’s takeover was greeted with delirium by Egyptian crowds, who had been aghast at America’s earlier withdrawal from the Aswan High Dam project. The code word for the takeover was “de Lesseps”, who had built the canal when Egypt was part of the Ottoman Empire, and the moment he uttered the Frenchman’s name in a radio speech, Nasser’s armed collaborators were to storm the company’s offices. “I listened to the radio throughout his speech,” one of them told me many years later. “Nasser used the code word “de Lesseps” 13 times–we thought he was going to give us all away.”

In London, Eden summoned his chiefs of staff. He wanted to topple Nasser–“regime change” is a new version of the same idea–and free the canal. But the British military informed him it couldn’t be done. Troops were out of training, landing craft out of commission. “It was only when we eventually dropped outside Port Said,” a Parachute Regiment officer told me 30 years later, “that we suddenly realised how far our army’s readiness had declined since the Second World War. Our transport aircraft could only unload from the side, our jeeps broke down and they couldn’t even drop artillery to support us.”

So the days and weeks and months that followed Nasser’s seizure of the Suez Canal were taken up with prevarication, parliamentary lies, desperate attempts to form a coalition army and–most damaging of all–a secret meeting at S?vres, outside Paris, in which the Israelis, the British and the French agreed that the Israeli army should invade Egypt and that Britain and France would then intervene, instruct the Israeli and Egyptian armies to withdraw their forces either side of the canal, and then place an Anglo–French intervention force in the Canal Zone around Port Said. “Operation Musketeer”, it would be called, and the British people were duly summoned from their postwar lethargy by newspaper editorials that condemned those who questioned Eden’s right to use military force.

The Times led the way. “Of course, it [public opinion] wants to avoid the use of force,” the paper’s editorial–written personally by its editor, William Haley–thundered. “So does everyone and we hope no one does so more than the British Government. But that is a far cry from saying that because there seems little we can do about it, the best thing is to find excuses for, and forget, the whole business. Nations live by the vigorous defence of their interests… The people, in their silent way, know this better than the critics. They still want Britain great.” The Guardian claimed that The Times’s editorial was an attack on the right to speak out against government in times of crisis–it will be interesting to see if this debate restarts when an Iraqi war grows closer–and Eden’s press secretary, William Clark, played a role not unlike a certain spin doctor in Downing Street today.

“Clark worked in unison with The Times,” Tony Shaw recalled in his brilliant and sometimes outrageously funny history, Eden, Suez and the Mass Media: Propaganda and Persuasion During the Suez Crisis. Clark’s job–and here there is a deeply uncomfortable parallel with George Bush and the UN–was “to prepare the ground for the government’s brief referral of the dispute to the United Nations… This required a certain amount of ingenuity since Eden and the paper had hitherto dismissed the organisation as unwieldy and incapable of producing swift results”. Eden had told Haley that he wanted to use the UN as an instrument solely to prove Nasser’s guilt and justify force–which is pretty much what George Bush wants the UN arms inspectors to do in Iraq today.

And here is another 1956 Times editorial that could simply be reprinted today with the word “Iraq” substituted for “canal”: “The objection to the matter being simply referred to the UN and left there has all along been, and remains, that the UN is likely to be dilatory and certain to be ineffective as a means of freeing the canal. But whatever international control is eventually brought about by negotiation or otherwise should certainly be under the aegis of the UN and the sooner the UN is officially informed of what has happened the better.”

The Israelis duly attacked and on 5 November, the Anglo–French force landed around Port Said, many of them carried in a fleet of ageing warships from Cyprus. At Gamil airfield, 780 British paratroopers were dropped and 470 French paratroopers landed at two bridges on the canal at Raswa. The British stormed an Egyptian police station that held out under intense fire and killed almost all the policemen inside. The French were seen machine–gunning to death peasants who had jumped into the canal in fear.

At Gamil airport, a young Egyptian guerrilla was seized by the British, who wanted to know the whereabouts of Egyptian arms stores. He later claimed that one of his eyes was cut out by a British interrogation officer after a paratroop doctor was wounded while dropping by parachute, and the other eye taken out later when he refused to broadcast propaganda for the allies. There is no independent testimony to this, although I have met the man, whose eyes have clearly been taken from their sockets. A paratroop doctor was wounded while dropping over the airfield, although he told me that he knew nothing of the Egyptian’s claims–ironically, many years later, the paratrooper saw the blind Egyptian in the Port Said military museum, but never spoke to him.

British military papers at the time–many others, like Eden’s records of the secret S?vres meeting, were deliberately destroyed in the months after Suez–also make no reference to the man’s allegation, although some I have seen contain disturbing references to the racism that still marked the former imperial army. The poorest area of Port Said, for example, was marked on British maps as “Wog–Town”. The reporter Alex Eftyvoulos was to see bodies still unburied in Port Said days later–the British were slow to bring journalists to the scene of the brief battle.

But it was the Americans who expressed the most anger. President Eisenhower was outraged by the evidence that Israel’s invasion had been set up by the allies–mainly by the French–and, contrary to the present incumbent of the White House, reserved America’s right to condemn the whole invasion. His famous remark to Foster Dulles–that his job was to go to London and tell Eden: “Whoa, boy”–showed just how close he was coming to cutting off all support for Britain. By 28 November, the British Foreign Secretary, Selwyn Lloyd, was telling the Cabinet that “if we withdrew the Anglo–French troops as rapidly as was practicable, we should regain the sympathy of the US government”.

Questioned by the 1922 Committee about the collusion of Israel, Britain and France, Eden said that “some [half–truths]–and if they existed at all, they were not serious or many in number–were necessary, and always are in this sort of operation which demands extreme secrecy”. On 20 December, he lied to the House of Commons. “I want to say this on the question of foreknowledge and to say it quite bluntly to the House, that there was not foreknowledge that Israel would attack Egypt–there was not. But there was something else. There was–we knew it perfectly well–a risk of it, and, in the event of the risk of it, certain discussions and conversations took place, as, I think, was absolutely right, and as, I think, anybody would do.”

Eden was a sick man–he suffered a botched operation–and began, as W Scott Lucas recalls in his account of the drama, Divided We Stand: Britain, the US and the Suez Crisis, to sound out colleagues about his future. On 9 January 1957, he told Harold Macmillan that his doctors had warned him his health was in danger if he stayed in office and that “there was no way out”. Macmillan was stunned. “I could hardly believe that this was to be the end of the public life of a man so comparatively young, and with so much still to give,” he wrote. “We sat for some little time together. We spoke a few words about the First War, in which we had both served and suffered… I can see him now on that sad winter afternoon, still looking so youthful, so gay, so debonair–the representation of all that was best of the youth that had served in the 1914–18 war.”

Eden’s resignation marked the end of the last attempt Britain would ever make to establish, as Scott Lucas writes, “that Britain did not require Washington’s endorsement to defend her interests”. Henceforth, Britain would be the servant of US policy. It would be American policy to act unilaterally to “defend” the Middle East. The 1957 Eisenhower doctrine led inexorably to the hegemony the US now exercises over the world. In Egypt, Nasser ruled to ever greater acclaim, even surviving his appalling defeat at Israel’s hands in the 1967 Arab–Israeli war, suppressing all domestic opposition with executions and torture.

Suez distracted the world’s attention as Russian troops stormed into Budapest and crushed its revolution. Some never forgave the Labour leader Hugh Gaitskell for his November broadcast in which he labelled British troops as aggressors–unlike today, there was at least a serious political opposition to the government in the House of Commons–while The Observer lost readers it never recovered for opposing the war.

The last word should go to Eden just after the British landed at Suez. “If we had allowed things to drift,” he said, “everything would have gone from bad to worse. Nasser would have become a kind of Muslim Mussolini, and our friends in Iraq, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and even Iran would gradually have been brought down. His efforts would have spread westwards, and Libya and North Africa would have been brought under his control.”

Now where have I heard that before?


13 June 1956: Britain gives up control of the Suez Canal.

23 June: General Nasser elected president of Egypt.

19 July: US withdraws financial aid for the Aswan Dam project–the official reason is Egypt’s increased ties to the USSR.

26 July: President Nasser announces his plan to nationalise the Suez Canal.

28 July: Britain freezes Egyptian assets. Anthony Eden (left) imposes arms embargo on Egypt and tells General Nasser he cannot have the Suez Canal.

1 August: Britain, France and the US hold talks. The next day Britain mobilises its armed forces.

21 August: Egypt says it will negotiate on Suez ownership if Britain pulls out of the Middle East. USSR says it will send troops if Egypt is attacked.

9 September: Five nation conference on the Suez Canal collapses as Nasser refuses international control of the canal.

12 September: US, Britain, and France announce their intention to impose a Canal Users Association on management.

14 September: Egypt now in full control of the canal.

7 October: Israeli foreign minister Golda Meir says the UN failure means Israel must take military action.

13 October: Anglo–French proposal for control of the canal vetoed by the USSR.

29 October: Israel invades Sinai peninsula.

31 October: Despite public protests, allies mount airstrikes on Egypt.

2 November: UN approves ceasefire. Fighting escalates: British and French forces mount airborne invasion of Egypt.

7 November: Britain and France agree to a ceasefire: UN Assembly votes 65 to one that invading powers should quit Egypt.

24 December: British and French troops depart Egypt.

27 December: 5,580 Egyptian PoWs exchanged for four Israelis. Operation to clear sunken ships in canal starts.

15 January 1957: British and French banks in Egypt are nationalised.

19 April: First British ship pays Egyptian toll for use of the Suez Canal.

Robert Fisk writes for the Independent, where this column originally appeared.