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The Suez War


The Suez War was one of the last military conflicts in the history of the colonial world. It is usually considered as the last intention of Britain to maintain the status of the empire. The specific interest in the conflict was caused by the fact that it took place during an even more significant political conflict known as the Cold War. As a result, almost all leading political powers in the world were attracted to the resolution of this issue. Each side had its own interests in Egypt, and the Suez War was considered as the only possible resolution to the contradictions since all the other tools did not demonstrate their effectiveness.

In this way, it is important to summarize the causes and sides of the conflict that took place in 1956 in order to help understand the Cold War period in the world history.

The Causes of the Suez War

The Suez Was crisis is a bright example of one of the last conflicts caused by the old colonial regime that existed in the world until the second part of the twentieth century. It was a conflict of the old British colonial government in Egypt and the nationalist movements inside the country that aimed to reach political and economic independence from the British governors. In fact, this conflict could have been avoided since the old colonial system of international relations should have been destroyed after the end of the Second World War. Nevertheless, the aim of the British government to maintain the control over the Suez Canal, the key economic and infrastructural object in North Africa, led to the neglect of the international political requirements and the occurrence of the conflict. In this situation, to define the main causes of the conflict, it is important to describe the interest of each side in this region.


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The Economic and Infrastructure Importance of the Suez Canal

The Suez Canal is the artificial sea-level waterway that connected the Mediterranean Sea to the Red Sea and provided the opportunities for the free movement of trade ships between the continents. The canal was built by the British Suez Canal Company in 1859-1869 and served as a key source of economic profit for the British colonial government in Egypt. The importance of this infrastructural object was defined by the opportunities it created for the international trade development (Trueman, 2017). In contrast to the earlier conditions of the sea trade development, when the European trade ships had to go across the African continent to reach Asia in search of new goods, the Suez Canal allowed to reduce the costs of goods transfer from Europe to Asia. The British colonial government was the main receiver of revenues from the fee for passage through the Suez Canal. The economic benefits connected with the operations of the Suez Canal forced the British government to maintain the presence in the region even after the actual proclamation of the Egypt’s independence. In that case, the British military contingent of about 80,000 troops was situated in the region of the Suez Canal (Trueman, 2017). The Egyptian authorities had no rights for this infrastructural object that significantly reduced their revenues. At the same time, the common citizens had no right to enter the Canal’s territory without the permission of the British administration. In fact, it was the occupation of the independent country’s territory by the foreign military contingent. The British administration did not present any desire for negotiations on the redistribution of revenues from the Suez Canal with the local government. As a result, such situation led to the escalation of the conflict.

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In addition to the exploitation of the economic revenues of the Egyptian state by the British government, the colonial authorities also used the political and financial power to guarantee the support of the Egyptian government in rivalry against the common society (Trueman, 2017). In this case, the Egyptian leader King Farouk was a loyal supporter of the British government and deaf to the needs of his own people. The absence of the legal tools for confronting the British occupation was one of the reasons for the further escalation of the conflict. As a conclusion, the first reason for the Suez War was the existence of the actual British occupation on the part of the Egyptian territory and the absence of the legal means for the conflict resolution. The absence of steps from both the Egyptian and British governments to distribute the profits from the Suez Canal led to the radical resolution of this issue.

The Social Inequality in Egypt

The colonial period was one of the worst pages in the Egyptian history. The colonial government used the natural resources and opportunities that were present in Egypt, without the equal distribution of profits between all the citizens of the state. This was also relevant to the situation that took place before the nationalization of the Suez Canal and the removal of the British contingent from Egypt. The British authorities in Egypt and the corrupt government of King Farouk were situated on one side of the social conflict, while the Egyptian society in general, led by Nasser and his ‘Free Officers’ organization, was on the other side (Milner, 2011). The absence of the equal social policy for the locals and the British contingent was one of the reasons that led to the removal of King Farouk from governing the state, the establishment of Nasser’s government, and all the other things that led to the escalation of the Suez War conflict. In that case, the British government acted insensibly when it refused to abandon the earlier existing standards of the political system organization on the colonial territories.

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This was the main difference between the colonial states in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In the 19th century, the British Empire was able to control the colonies in a rough way due to the absence of other strong players in the international politics that could provide support to the British opponents in such countries as Egypt. Nevertheless, the Cold War and the development of the Soviet Union as the main opponent of the democratic states in the challenge for world leadership created new ways of political struggle in the colonial countries. As a result, the neglect of the interests of the local Egyptians led to the further escalation of the conflict and the beginning of the Suez War crisis.

The Escalation of the Conflict

Among the causes of the Suez War, it is possible to highlight the events that did not have the actual role in the beginning of the war but served as a basis for the removal of the British contingent from Egypt and the establishment of the Nasser’s government in the state. These are the public protests and actions against the British military forces in Egypt. Since 1951, the active actions against the British forces took place in Egypt. The Egyptian police did not support the position of the government but acted as a supporter of the rebels against the British presence in the country. The “Operation Eagle” was the first initiative of the British forces oriented towards the force suppression of protests in the country (Trueman, 2017). It led to the killing of about 50 Egyptian policemen and the arrest of 800 police officers. The cruelty of the British actions, in that case, led to the mass protests and the increase of the rebels’ movement. The next day after the “Operation Eagle” attack, mass attacks on the British facilities throughout the country were performed by the rebels. The most significant of them was the attack on the Shepherd’s Hotel. About 35 British officers and other colonial officials were killed there.

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The main mistake of the British government was that it allowed the conflict to reach such level of escalation. The mistakes in the cooperation with the Egyptian society led to the final removal of British forces from Egypt and the further communication between Nasser and the Soviet Union. If the British forces had not led the situation to the conflict with the rebels, the conflict could have been avoided.

The Rapprochement with the Soviet Union

After the removal of the British forces from Egypt, the new Nasser’s government required military power to support the reforms and oppose the potential threat from the neighbors, mainly Israel. At first, Nasser asked the US and the United Kingdom (UK) for the support in the purchase of the weapons for the Egyptian army. The democratic states refused to help Nasser. This was a major mistake that forced the Egyptian government to follow the path of rapprochement with the Soviet Union (Voinea, 2011). For the Soviet Union, this was a perfect opportunity to increase the presence of the Soviet political block in the Middle East and Africa. Later, Egypt refused to enter the Baghdad Pact that was concentrated on the protection against the growth of the Soviet influence in the Middle East (Voinea, 2011). The increase of the USSR presence in Egypt was also considered as an important cause of the Suez War beginning. Since the proclamation of the Nasser’s government took place in the period of the highest level of conflicts in the Cold War, the Western countries could not allow the new Egyptian government to continue the policy of cooperation with Moscow.

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The British and the US governments aimed to guarantee their political power in Egypt through the financing of the Aswan dam project (Trueman, 2017). Due to the importance of this project for Egypt, it was supposed that Nasser would prefer it and abandon his cooperation with the USSR. However, Nasser decided to maintain the union with the USSR and take control over the Suez Canal to increase the profits to the Egyptian budget. Therefore, a deeper cooperation between Egypt and the USSR was considered as a key factor of the Suez War beginning.

The Nationalization of the Suez Canal

The nationalization of the Suez Canal was one of the briefest and most important decisions in the Nasser’s political career. Though it was required for the sustainable economic and social development of Egypt as an independent state, this decision was supposed to increase the confrontation with the British and French governments. These countries played a vital role in the construction of the Suez Canal and considered this fact to be the main argument in favor of accumulating the profits from the canal. In this way, the Nasser’s decision to nationalize the Suez Canal caused not only the political tensions between Egypt, on one side, and Britain and France on the other but also real economic losses for both European countries. Such situation was especially harmful to Britain that faced economic decline at that time (Milner, 2011). Because of this, the Europeans considered the maintenance of control over the Canal as one of the ways to resolve their economic problems.

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In that case, the nationalization of the Suez Canal, in addition to the deeper cooperation with the Soviet Union, was considered to be the main causes of the Suez crisis of 1956. The European countries did not manage to maintain control over the Canal or use the legal tools for the protection of their rights over this infrastructural object. In fact, the Nasser’s actions were considered by most political powers as legal decisions of the independent state. At the same time, it served as a formal argument for the Suez crisis. In that case, Britain and France formulated the statement that they should maintain control over the channel to guarantee the sustainable performance of this infrastructural object (Brown, 2001). Nevertheless, they did not manage to convince the international society of the adequacy of this argument.

The Aims of the Sides in the Conflict

To summarize all the earlier mentioned causes of the Suez War conflict, it is important to present the set of reasons that eventually caused the conflict escalation between the Western states and Egypt. First of all, the Egypt’s political independence was not the result that satisfied the British government. At the same time, the nationalization of the Suez Canal was the factor that defined not just the political but also the economic interest of the Western countries in the renewal of control over the Egyptian territories.

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Also, the decision of the Egyptian leader Nasser (ADST, 2015) to form the political coalition with the Soviet Union was not the result that the Western states could afford in the conditions of the Cold War. The transfer of the Soviet weapons to Egypt was not acceptable for the Western leaders, thus the decision about the military campaign was accepted.

At the same time, it is important to highlight the indirect causes of the military crisis in Egypt. The neglect of the British government of the Egyptians’ rights led to the escalation of conflict and the removal of the British contingent from the state. Moreover, the aggressive response to the protests was a wrong decision and a cause of the Suez War. These factors can be considered as indirect causes of the war since without their effect, the conflict itself would be less probable. The Britain would have remained with its contingent in Egypt, and the loyal Egyptian government would have had more chances to maintain power in the country.

The Main Parties of the Conflict

The determination of all sides of the Suez conflict is important to define the factors that led to the occurrence and the end of the war. It is useful to highlight not only the direct participants of the conflict but also the indirect ones that actually led to the end of the war. Among the direct participants, the United Kingdom, France, Israel, and Egypt took part in the crisis (Al Jazeera, 2008). Among the indirect members of the conflict, there were the key political powers in the world of that time, namely the US and the Soviet Union.

The United Kingdom

For the United Kingdom, the Suez War was the last chance to prove the fact that Britain was still powerful enough to control all its colonies and maintain the status of empire (Proctor, 2016). In that case, the maintenance of high reputation in the international politics was the main reason for Britain to take part in the war. Also, there was a certain interest in the maintenance of control over the Suez Canal. Together with France, the British government was planning to use Israel to conquer the territory that included the Suez Canal and oblige Israel to return it to the British Administration.


For France, the main interest in the conflict was the maintenance of control over the profits from the Suez Canal. This country did not represent any political interests in Egypt. The economic factor was the only motivation for the French government.


For decades, the Middle East was the place of conflicts between the Israel and Arab states (The History Guy, 2017). Egypt, in particular, provided support to the Palestinian rebels that attacked Israel from its territory. Therefore, the Israel government considered Suez conflict as an opportunity to increase its power in the Middle East and overcome the negative effect of the Arab aggression. Though this motivation was considered to be one of the causes of the war, the previous analysis showed that Israel was a rather passive member of the union against Egypt, and it acted according to the instructions from Britain and France. For this reason, this factor cannot be considered as a cause of the conflict escalation. It was rather an occasion for bringing Israel into the war.

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The role of Egypt in the Suez conflict is clear. Egypt presented the defending side in the conflict and did everything to protect its own territories and interests in the Middle East and North Africa. For Egypt, the victory in this war was crucial as a factor of political independence and the maintenance of control over the Suez Canal.

The US and USSR

Though all the previous participants took place in the conflict, the real decisions about the future of the Egyptian territories were made by the leading political countries, namely the US and USSR. The Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev, promised to do everything possible to protect its allies and political interests of the USSR in the Middle East (The History Guy, 2017). He even promised to use the power directly against Britain if the conflict would not be abandoned. Facing the risk of actual conflict with the USSR, the US President Eisenhower made the British government to end the war. As a result, Egypt maintained control over the Suez Canal, and the USSR was convinced that there was no reason for further escalation.

As it can be seen from the analysis, though the time of Cold War was the negative period in the world history, the existence of two great powers brought a certain balance to the international politics. The existence of the USSR did not allow the great powers to begin a war, which would definitely lead to casualties and reduction of living standards in the Middle East. On the contrary, the modern world is characterized by a full monopoly of the US in international relations. As a result, the Middle East became a place of permanent conflicts, and the problem of terrorism became even bigger threat than the Soviet Union ever used to be.

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The analysis of the Suez War allowed to define the main participants and causes of the conflict. In general, Suez War became the actual ending of the British colonial governance in the world and the statement of the single-headed supremacy of the US in the Western world. At the same time, it served as a basis for the idea of the positive role of the bipolar world in the resolution of the international conflicts. Though the presence of two big forces causes permanent tensions in the international politics, it does not allow the smaller powers to begin wars without an agreement of the strongest players.



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