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10.08.2021 Author: Viktor Mikhin

Egypt: a Glorious Date in the History of the Suez Canal


July 26, 1956 is an important date in Egyptian history – it was the day President Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal. In his annual address to the nation from Manshia Square in Alexandria, he said that the famous canal would now become Egypt’s exclusive property and its people. Until then, the country had no control over it because a foreign firm ran it, and Cairo received only five percent of the canal’s revenues. He touched on both financial and historical aspects in his speech. Nasser stressed that nationalization is necessary to ensure the construction of the vital Aswan Dam from an economic point of view. Still, from a historical significance, it is a restoration of justice, a release from the traces of British colonialism, and a tribute to those 120,000 Egyptians who died during the canal’s construction in the 19th century. Nasser’s speech caused quite a stir in the Arab world. For the first time, the leader of a developing country went directly against the interests of the Western powers, successfully challenging them.

Although 65 years have passed since that day, people still question the undeniable fact of whether the proclamation of nationalization of Egyptian property was worth it. It triggered the Trilateral Aggression of France, Britain, and Israel in November of that year, causing considerable human and material damage to Egypt. But ironically, the invasion of former colonial powers, who had lost their bearings in time and international politics, only strengthened Egypt’s political power and confirmed its role as a leader in the post-colonial world. Egypt has become a model for third-world countries in Asia, Africa, and Latin America struggling for independence and control over their national resources. The famous Fidel Castro admitted that the nationalization of the Suez Canal inspired the Cuban revolution that took place a few years later. One of Fidel Castro’s first actions after the revolution succeeded was nationalizing all US oil refineries in the country such as Nasser did in Egypt.

Meanwhile, the Tripartite aggression against Egypt, as is well known, failed on the eve of the collapse of the old British and French colonial empires and their departure from the ranks of the Great Powers to the dustbin of history. The fighting in Egypt caused an immediate increase in international tensions. The Soviet Union was particularly active in this situation, warning Great Britain, France, and Israel of their possible military intervention, including nuclear strikes on their military facilities. The United States of America also demanded an end to the aggression and was highly irritated by the Anglo-French amateurism. The UN General Assembly decided to deploy a peacekeeping force in the conflict zone with the quick consent of the Egyptian leadership. As early as November 6, the opponents of the conflict succeeded in forcing Britain, France, and Israel to conclude a truce with Egypt. The conflict was extinguished, and by December 1956, Britain and France had withdrawn their troops from the seized beachheads in Egyptian territory. But the “Quick War” caused significant losses to Egypt; when about 3 thousand Egyptian soldiers and about 3 thousand Egyptian civilians were killed, half the Egyptian army’s armored vehicles were destroyed. At the same time, Egypt’s main issues in terms of troop management, troop training, and weaponry were identified, forcing Nasser to embark on large-scale modernization of their armed forces with the help of the Soviet Union, which became for a long time the main supplier of military equipment with instructors to the Egyptian army.

Critics of the canal’s nationalization still argue that the concession of the greedy foreign company expired anyway in 1968, after which ownership automatically reverted to Egypt. Hence, there was no need for nationalization or the ensuing war. This argument is a misleading oversimplification that demonstrates a poor understanding of realities, which indicates that the foreign powers associated with the company planned to maintain control of the canal even after the concession expired. The very fact that Britain and France went to war to seize control of the canal militarily already confirms that they never intended to let it out of their greedy hands. If they intended to hand over the canal after the concession expired, they would not have bothered to hold secretly planned meetings for the war against Egypt in the city of Sèvres, France, or incur such exorbitant economic, military, and political costs.

The so-called Protocol of Sèvres is a secret agreement reached between the governments of Israel, France, and Great Britain during discussions held between October 22 and 24, 1956. The protocol concerns their joint political and military conspiracy to overthrow the Egyptian leader Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser by invading and occupying the Suez Canal area in response to its nationalization. The planning and agreements contained in the protocol initiated the so-called Suez Crisis of October 29, 1956. Both this secret protocol and the subsequent nefarious conspiracy of the three powers are now well known and give a clear and distinct picture of the corrupt policies of the colonial powers of the period, which tried unsuccessfully to stop time.

It is well known that since 1909 the Universal Company of the Maritime Canal of Suez has been persistently trying to extend the concession for another 30 years. Shortly before nationalization, Jacques Georges-Picot, who served as the company’s French general-director in France before it was nationalized, said the company had sent a memorandum to France, Britain, the US, and Italy, warning them of problems that would arise when the concession expired and urging those governments to intervene to internationalize the canal. London and Washington rejected the request, fearing that it would open the way for the USSR to participate in the negotiations since Tsarist Russia was a party to the Convention of Constantinople of 1888 governing the use of the Suez Canal. As for the countries that were parties to the concession, they opted for expansion rather than internationalization.

The company assembled prominent British figures to launch an international campaign to keep the canal administration under foreign control. Their role was to raise “alarm” about the impending transfer of the canal to Egypt, which they said would lead to the departure of foreign supervisors and the resulting disruption of the waterway. In 1954, the Universal Company of the Maritime Canal of Suez also organized a massive media campaign in the United States to increase pressure on officials in Washington to support the idea of an international body based in Egypt to oversee the canal from abroad. It is only natural that this so-called international body should have acted only in the interests of the West.

Critics of the decision to nationalize the canal also argue that Egypt was forced to pay vast sums of money to compensate the company’s foreign shareholders. But what matters here is the opinion of a competent person, Jean-Paul Callon, honorary president of the Association du Souvenir de Ferdinand de Lesseps et du Canal de Suez, who represented France in the negotiations with Egypt on the amount of compensation. The Egyptian government voluntarily decided to pay this money to shareholders after nationalization. He repeatedly said that the French shareholders had received all the sums due to them on time and that the sum they received was used to establish the association of which he was honorary president. In addition to activities aimed at preserving the memory of de Lesseps, the association also organizes several cultural events related to the canal and its history.

Many critics and others in the West do not realize that the natural term of the concession and the transfer of the canal to the Egyptian administration would also have cost Egypt quite a bit. One of the terms of the concession contract stipulated that at the end of its term, Cairo would have to compensate the company for all the equipment, various machinery, and materials belonging to the company, regardless of whether the Egyptians needed them or not. It was stipulated explicitly that the price of these goods would be determined by mutual agreement, and if this was not possible, then by experts, quite naturally British and French. Without any doubt, this would leave the door open to controversy, interfering with the timely transmission of the channel. In addition, there would be a vicious campaign in the Western media to smear Egypt, its leadership, and the Egyptian people as a whole. Ultimately, his corrupt journalists know how to insult the people of former colonies, from which the West has sucked up all their wealth, delaying their development for many decades.

Gamal Abdel Nasser, a most remarkable Arab figure, took on the very sensible decision to nationalize the Suez Canal back in the day. He saved Egypt from all its problems and ensured the return of a highly profitable canal to its rightful owners, the descendants of those who built it and who now fully benefit from its revenues for all Egyptians.

Viktor Mikhin, corresponding member of RANS, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”. 

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