The Suez: The shortest war of the 20th century [Archives:2006/998/Opinion]

November 13 2006

Faisal Jallul
The Arabs along with the world remember the events when the Suez War broke out 50 years ago as one of the shortest wars in the 20th century.

Beginning in 1952 late President Gamal Abdul Nasser and his comrades, the Free Officers, were working to change the face of Egypt and the Arab world with a people's revolution that put an end to the Egyptian monarch inherited from the Ottoman period. By that point the monarchy had fulfilled all its purposes and it was no longer qualified to play a useful role for Egypt in a different era marked by the establishment of the state of Israel and escalating revolutions against colonization. Those revolutions were destined during the 1960s to topple the world order that was built by the British, French and other European empires.

The Egyptian Free Officers were, at that time, working to get the means to achieve their revolutionary pledges. One of those promises was the building of a huge dam on the Nile to protect Egypt against seasonal floods, help it overcome thirst and to reclaim more arable land as well as obtaining necessary hydroelectric power. That achievement would consequently provide job opportunities for thousands of Egyptians.

The Aswan Dam, in the vision of the free officers, was the most important constructional landmark since the building of the pyramids. It was designed to a historical characteristic of the July Revolution and to distinguish it from other movements of change in the third world and subsequently, make it a historic event in the eyes of the Egyptians.

The beginning was calm as the free officers received promises from the World Bank to finance the project. But those promises soon vanished because of the Egyptian support for liberation movements from colonization, especially the Algerian revolution that began in November 1954. The removal of financing for dam construction was punishment against the revolutionary regime and they understood it as a step forcing them to relinquish their foreign policy and if they insisted on their policies they were sacrificing their developmental project.

A traditional regime could have submitted to pressures and changed its policy, but a revolution does not possess this luxury and maybe it was in need of such challenges to prove its capacity and consolidate its existence and also to prove the seriousness of its slogans. So that's what happened. Gamal Abdul Nasser confronted the challenge with a bigger one, as if he was saying, “If you want to deprive us of funding the dam we are able to finance it our own ways.”

Thus Nasser took the initiative and nationalized the Suez Canal in his well-known speech and rendered it under the Egyptian sovereignty. That move produced a shock to the entire world. First of all it was the first initiative of its kind in a third world country following oil nationalization in Iran by the government of Mosadaq. The canal was then a semi-compulsory waterway for world oil supplies. War fleets of the empires were forced to pass through the canal in their movement between the colonies and Europe. The nationalization constituted an unprecedented challenge to the international law coined by those empires. Another reason is that the nationalization of the Suez Canal tightened the grip on Israel. The action would encourage liberationist revolutions against colonization and humiliate masters of the world who achieved triumph in World War II.

For all those reasons, and to punish the Egyptian revolution and topple it, France and Britain decided to invade Egypt and occupy the Suez Canal. They were in need of a justification and found it with a secret agreement with Israel. The plan was to have the Hebrew state take the initiative and occupy the Sinai desert and reach the banks of the canal under pretext Egypt was supporting the Palestinian Fedayeen in Gaza and preventing Israeli ships from crossing the canal and Tiran Straits on the Red sea. The plan was codenamed “musketeer” stipulated a French-British warning that the two sides pull 13 km away from the banks of the canal under military occupation in order to protect the international waterway. That was what happened.

The plan could have succeeded had it not been for the USSR and U.S. standing together, the Egyptian popular resistance and the large Arab people's rally behind the Egyptian president. The Soviets threatened to use nuclear missiles against Britain and France if they did not withdraw the occupying armies and America threatened Britain to destroy the Sterling Guinea if it did not withdraw its forces from Egypt. Moscow wanted to enter the Middle East while America wanted to end the French and British empirical system and be in a position to lead the world.

The invaders withdrawal from Egypt led to an Egyptian political victory for Nasser and historical and dangerous humiliation for Paris and London to the extent that it led to the fall of the fourth republic in France, loss of the political future of British Prime Minister Anthony Eden and Nasser became a hero in his country and the Arab world. Now Arab political literature ranks Nasser among the few world leaders marking the 20th century.

On the other hand, the war led to the appearance of the Soviet Union in the Middle East as a supporter of Arab peoples and the United States came to the forefront in leadership of the western system and world order unilaterally after the collapse of the Cold War marking an end to military experiments, projects of domination and foreign ambitions.

In remembrance of the 50th anniversary of the Suez War it is useless to yearn for the past and seek refuge with past eras or cry over ruins. History goes on with defeats and victories despite. We, who are still alive, have to decide whether we want to make history or just be on its trivial margins.

Faisal Jallul is a Lebanese writer and journalist.