Timothy Benson, whose new book explores how the Suez Crisis was viewed in the world’s press and by cartoonists in particular, here tells the story of a tumultuous year.
Britain’s first occupation of Egypt, supposedly temporary, had begun in 1882 and lasted until June 1956. Thus Egypt became, in all but name, a British protectorate. The Canal became vital to British trade especially oil imports, as by 1956 nearly two-thirds of Britain’s oil came through the Canal.
In 1952, the coup by the Free Officers led by General Neguib forced the abdication of King Farouk. By June 1956, Neguib had been replaced by Nasser who became President in 1954. On April 6th, 1955, Anthony Eden became prime minister in Britain and quickly won a General Election. However, economic difficulties soon brought a great deal of criticism of Eden, incensing a notoriously thin-skinned man. Particularly irritating was a passage in a Daily Telegraph article entitled ‘The Firm Smack of Government’ which suggested that he was indecisive.
The Middle East dominated foreign affairs. Britain had sought to maintain a military balance in the Arab-Israeli dispute by supplying limited amounts of essentially obsolete weapons, but an arms deal with the Soviet bloc in September 1955 meant Egypt was now receiving Czechoslovakian tanks and modern aircraft. As a result, Eden began to think in terms of isolating Egypt from other Arab states but he did not wish to push Nasser further into the orbit of the Soviet bloc, so in November talks began in Washington on funding for the Aswan Dam project.
However, in July 1956 Eisenhower cancelled the promised grant of $56 million towards the dam. The furious Nasser decided to nationalize the Suez Canal so that the revenues from it would finance the Dam instead. The announcement was made on the anniversary of the abdication of King Farouk on July 26th, in Alexandria. The offices of the Suez Canal Company were occupied, but he stated that shareholders would be compensated at the prevailing market price and the operation of the canal would be administered by an independent body.